Monday, September 28, 2015

Reassessing S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike

Icons are loved and “loved”. They are also vilified. More commonly, history is coloured by those who insert political frill into it, and the line between statesmanship and power politics blurs. This means, naturally enough, that icons come with that proverbial pinch of salt, particularly from the political camp. 

Their lives are celebrated no matter what they are remembered for, and for good reason. Just as much as no politician’s imperfect, and just as much as we haven’t had anyone even remotely close to a statesman in this country, leaders who have come and gone are loved for what they did.

Whether what they did stand up to the test of history is another story. For now, this is what matters: they were not saints. Nor were the devils.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike is vilified by those who have a score to settle with what he ushered. He took in a nation filled with anxiety and fears and turned it (almost overnight) into a hub of divisive politics where, for the next few decades, rhetoric ruled reason. What those who lambast him (and not just for his “Sinhala Only” movement) fail to understand, however, is that inasmuch as a change of this sort cannot be effected overnight without negatively afflicting a nation, what he did went in a large way in addressing anomalies in our political system.

He was a reformist, yes, but that’s not what those who hate him want you to remember him for. Bandaranaike began wearing the satakaya, but those less prone to falling prey to appearances will tell you of how he chose not to wear the satakaya for anything other than his public life. They will also tell you (as James Manor has) of how he ate kiribath with a spoon. All pointless if one is to assess his merits as a leader of course, but then again detractors, however irrational they are, will have anything and everything to say about a man’s personal life to vilify his public face.

The point is that Bandaranaike was a contradiction. The point is that he was, like all men, flawed. The point is that, in trying to reverse the rational moderate policies of his predecessors, he effected a change so radical that there was no stopping it from deteriorating into a racist movement, led by those blind to what he really stood for. Which begs the question, naturally enough: what DID he stand for?

The late Tissa Abeysekara, perhaps one of the most insightful minds expressing itself in Sinhala and English here, had this to say about the dilemma which faced those who began contributing to our cultural landscape before and after independence:

“It is the problem of a segment of our society – the English-speaking upper middle-class, or perhaps also the landowning aristocracy – moving away from their roots. Hence when a creative spirit is born among them, he or she has to search frantically and deliberately for that anchorage in a social and cultural reality which alone could give his or her work life and vitality. Thus when Devar Surya Sena turned to Sinhala folk music, George Keyt settled in the Dumbara valley, Miriam de Saram risked the wrath of the gods by donning the headgear of the Kandyan dancer – an ornament exclusively preserved for the males – and Lester James Peries located his first film in a distant village, they were not accidents or idle exercises in aesthetics.”

Politics and art (especially here) are clean different. At some point though, they meet. What Abeysekara wrote of Lester James Peries and his Rekava can be applied to Bandaranaike and his satakaya. Like all those artists who attempted to wed their art with its roots while being cut off from the latter, Bandaranaike founded a nationalist movement while not only being cut off from his roots but also probably being aware that he was an outsider to the majority of his country, who happened to be Sinhala Buddhists.

Did he resolve this conflict within himself? He was, as pointed out earlier, a contradiction. He did not see the irony of standing for one ideology and contorting it for the sake of bowing down to popular pressure. He did not and could not see the tragedy of shaping and reshaping his personal life to suit that of a people who, in his time and after his murder, misinterpreted his actions.

And there the parallels between politics and art end: Miriam de Saram and Lester James Peries not just challenged the anglicised “upper crust” of Sri Lanka’s culture, but more importantly succeeded in this to such an extent that what proved divisive in politics after 1956 became inclusive in the arts. An irony, certainly, but inevitable in a way.

There’s more.

Leon Trotsky contended that the urbanised bourgeoisie of colonised countries could not fight and were not capable of fighting against imperialism. That this applied pretty much to the nouveau riche who were handed (in a silver platter) the mandate to win independence here is all too obvious. They were not just fundamentally tied to the economic interests that made them stand in solidarity with the British: they were also more content in passing British-led “reforms” while stalling the constitutional coup which was needed in 1948 to implement real independence.

Bandaranaike was not really from this nouveau riche: he was from the old aristocracy. As such it wasn’t a scion of capitalist enterprise that effected what transpired in 1956: it was a scion of the “Macaulayan aristocracy”, a “given” since he came from one of the oldest genteel families in the country. And considering that the Sinhala Buddhist movement which wanted 1956 went originally for Dudley Senanayake (who, not surprisingly, refused), it seems startling but veritable that 1956 needed Bandaranaike just as Bandaranaike needed 1956.

Few would bet, for instance, that his original vision (his idea for achieving parity for Sinhala and Tamil approximated to modern demands for devolution) was racist. Few would vilify him without vilifying the Buddhist clergy who squatted outside his residence and turned this into a country where leaders were regarded as instruments of expedience, to be contorted at the whims of the Buddha Sasana.

Not surprisingly then, 1956 was turned into a vehicle of political opportunism. Not by its leader, but by those who prostituted precept and confused nationalism with chauvinism.

That’s another story though.

History, Marx wrote, repeats itself. In the case of Bandaranaike however, one doubts whether it will. He remains the most unique leader we had, “unique” because of his background and of his ability to wield opposition against those who, for better or worse, continue to see him as the man who rebelled against class interests without realising that what the racist politics of post-1956 concealed, ironically, was the preservation of those same class interests in a subtle, more insidious form. Unbelievable? Not really.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Nandun Dissanayake opens his heart

He has been compared to Freddie Silva and Will Farrell by the same critic (Dilshan Boange gives praise with reason, so there’s no surprise there). He has been identified, rightly and among others of his calibre, as an answer to many of the institutional flaws facing the English theatre in Sri Lanka. More importantly, he has been noted for his candid, open attitude, and as he himself puts it, the line between art and real life has blurred in his case: a sign of his dedication and, more importantly, his love for theatre.

He knows acting. He knows how to blend in with whatever role he gets. He knows how to differentiate one character from the other, and has hence come to realise that inasmuch as actors tend to come with their own notions of how they should carry on with their trade, what matters is being eclectic. True, Nandun Dissanayake isn’t exactly in-your-face with his eclecticism. But he has realised he should cultivate it. Big time. That counts, after all.

Nandun admits he wasn’t always into the theatre. He loved chemistry. He wanted to be a physicist or physiologist. “I was drawn to science. I thought I had talent there. So I worked hard, shunning every other interest I had at that point, and honestly thought I was going to make out a career in that area.”

Everything changed after his O/Levels. He joined the Drama Circle in his school, Ananda College, in 2010. That same year, he acted as Lady Regan in a production of King Lear for a competition called “Lineup” (organised by Nalanda College). “That was when everything changed,” he remembers, “Not only did I move into the stage, but I also understood my potential in literature and language. Theatre’s like that, you know.”

Things moved fast thereafter. He took to Shakespeare. He got into contemporary theatre. He began reading. Began studying what he was involved in. From then on, his roles multiplied: he was equally at home with Marlowe’s Edward II and Michael Morpugo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, with both Shakespeare and Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Grease Yaka. “I have not considered acting as a career,” he admits, but with an afterthought: “Not yet.” He winks. Characteristically.

In his guide On Method Acting, Edward Dwight Easty shatters some myths about his trade. In one chapter he writes about James Dean and how, contrary to popular belief, he never really created a “style” of his own. He posits, correctly (given the evidence he lays out), that Dean’s acting capabilities were constrained by his adulation of Marlon Brando, and that towards his last few years he tried to evade this. He failed. As Easty explains, what emerged at the time of his death was an intermingling of two styles: his own (embryonic though it was) and Brando’s.

The point is that actors cannot and will not escape censure for pursuing what they believe to be individualist conceptions of their art. Nandun reflects on this: “Every actor has a limit. He or she has a breaking point. Somewhere. It’s natural therefore that we cannot embody reality. We can only imitate it. Speaking for myself, I privilege individualism, but unlike Dean I do not want to privilege it to the extent of losing my originality and essence.”

He elaborates. “Some like Method acting. Some like sticking to the script. Others like neither but instead opt for their own styles, which they never define. I won’t say I fall into this latter category, but I will say this: I am at home equally with the Method and the preconceived script. The same goes for improvisation, by the way.”

When asked about the rift between what’s played out onstage and what goes on in real life, he pauses a little. Life, he explains, is not art. Actors can never capture the essence of reality (at least, not the majority) and for this reason, hard research needs to be devoted into making sure that there’s at least a semblance of reality in what’s being performed in the theatre. “With plays you’re in live communion with the audience. You need to make sure both aural and visual aspects of your performance are covered.”

He also argues that what we consider to be the rift between reality and what’s performed in front of an audience is actually one between realism and naturalism. In this he is correct.

Yashoda Wimaladharma, an actor he fervently admires (“she is selective in her roles, and justifiably so”), once told me that in Samanala Sandhwaniya she was asked to move beyond naturalism and embrace the role as she would her own personality. “I don’t think I can achieve that right now, especially not with the theatre,” he candidly says, “Only the crème de la crème can. I have a long way to go, after all.”

Any favourites? “Of course!” he cackles, unrolling his list: Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, and Meryl Streep (“especially Streep,” he emphasises). What’s pertinent is that he hasn’t pigeonholed himself into one type of acting, which brings the conversation into another topic: the continuing relevance of English theatre in Sri Lanka.

Surprisingly, Nandun offers critique. “Our education system isn’t congruent with the needs of our theatre. We drill a visceral hatred of the performing arts into our kids’ minds, and in the end what happens is that our cultural landscape is turned into a cultural desert! That the English theatre is perceived to be elitist and even snobbish doesn’t help one bit. In its early years, given it catered to a particularly crowd, I conceded that yes, maybe it needed to be exclusivist. But that’s done and dusted. I don’t think such an attitude should continue in Lionel Wendt now. At all!”

He offers his two cents here: “We need state support. I am not calling for a sort of socialism in our arts, but I do concede that the government needs to step in and address the fundamental flaws which continue to afflict our theatre.” Nandun’s solution might approximate to the guild culture which aided Russian theatre during Stanislavski’s time and one which, if adopted in Sri Lanka, might help achieve solidarity for our playwrights and theatre practitioners.

The last word should be his, naturally. “People say I confuse life with art. The truth is I don’t know what my real self is. I project my roles into my social life. I compound many of them into one when interacting with people. Forgive me for it if you must, but that is how I have conducted myself as an actor during all these years. Will I progress beyond English theatre with this approach? That remains to be seen. But like I said earlier, I have a long way to go.”

Nandun’s eyes twinkle. He smiles. The conversation is over. His career is not.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rationalising the irrational

J. R. Jayewardene’s victory in 1977 signalled a change of face in the United National Party (UNP). It began a complete reversal of the policies which the defeated Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had embraced and introduced to the country in 1956 and went beyond just rejecting them. To say that the 1978 Constitution sought to facilitate this reversal would be putting things mildly. In all honesty, what Jayewardene envisioned was nothing less than the second biggest social, economic, and political revolution here after Bandaranaike.

He has been vilified, unduly sometimes, for having ruined the economy and leaving it in shambles. Those who contend with his policies with reason are rare; those who do so without knowing his original program are not. To be fair, this is also the case with those who criticise Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The point is that with Jayewardene we faced, for the first time, a complete shift to the Right. This has been discounted. Wrongly.

What was the bigger picture? If 1956 represented, as Denzil Peiris wrote, the “maturing of the long submerged Sinhalese intelligentsia”, which as Regi Siriwardena observed consisted of a “belated and weak embryonic bourgeoisie”, then 1977 represented not a repudiation of that class, but a substitution for its “retrogressive, narrow, and stunted ideology” of the UNP’s tilt towards capitalist rationality. In other words, 1977 sought to end divisive ethnic consciousness with an all-embracing cosmopolitanism, memorably distilled decades later by Professor H. L. Seneviratne in his jathika/arthika thesis (when differentiating between rhetoric and policy).

Jayewardene was both right and wrong in this. He emerged at a time when the United States was propping dictatorships around Latin America. His victory coincided with that of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. What these two figures, and the dictators their governments supported, indicated was a rift (a faulty one) between political centralisation and economic liberalisation: a rift which has visited successive governments since 1977, here and elsewhere.

What happened then was what has made and broken political equations over and over again: the tendency of parties to win by landslides when tilting to political extremes. Bandaranaike’s SLFP won on this count, as did her daughter and her successor, Rajapaksa. In Jayewardene’s case though, what came out was, at the outset, a party which was supposedly open to reform.

Was it though? Not really. Despite its pledge on delivering the goods with regard to the Tamil people and reforming political structures, the UNP instead conferred the government with near-dictatorial powers and robbed itself of any legitimacy by holding a referendum which prolonged the party’s five-sixth hold on parliament by a simple majority. True, it saw through the 13th and 16th Amendments, but that had less to do with political will than with an imposed will, especially with how India asserted itself then.

As 1977 clearly showed therefore, embracing capitalist rationality was not an end but a means to an end when it came to political reform. Enforcing this same rationality through economic liberalisation on one hand and political centralisation to facilitate such liberalisation on the other hand, therefore, couldn’t last. Not for long. Few would have bet, naturally, that the euphoria which greeted Jayewardene in 1977 remained when he left in 1988, when the UNP changed its outlook on the economy from neo-liberalism to populist conservatism under Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The irony is that not even Premadasa could undo the political autocracy / economic democracy dichotomy his predecessor left to him. Indeed, during his presidency he not only sanctioned a culture of political vengeance, which by all accounts dwarfed the abuses of Rajapaksa’s regime, but even tried to hide that same culture by sustaining a populist image. It was Premadasa, not Bandaranaike (S. W. R. D. and Sirimavo) who epitomised the populist dictator image here. His successor in this sense was Rajapaksa, who like Premadasa became alienated from his own party before being ousted.

In a context where the political Right didn’t operate on ideology, what did Ranil Wickremesinghe’s foray into the UNP symbolise? Firstly, he privileged and pushed forward Jayewardene’s agenda and did away with Premadasa’s. Secondly, he ensured that inasmuch as his archrival Chandrika Kumaratunga was using her popular image to grab votes while “doing” a Tony Blair on her traditionally left-oriented party, he didn’t give way to her by doing the same thing. He thus remained a staunch policy-driven technocrat from the Right.

In other words, Wickremesinghe became a fiscal hawk, a war dove, a capitalist ideologue in the truest sense of the term, and a political autocrat, more so than his uncle, to a point where his enforcement of “rational” policy itself became irrational and conceited. Watch his pre-election interview on Derana, for instance, and you will see that for all his clever manoeuvres and wit, his insistence on arguing with hostility borders on arrogance.

With him as prime minister today, how will the political / economic rift be handled in the interests of good governance? Firstly, it is absurd to expect miracles in this regard from any administration run by him. He is not his uncle in that he refuses to bend before the wind, and when he does so, he commits U-turns so dramatically that it takes time to adjust, as seen in the Paul Harris affair and the Millennium City fiasco.

Secondly, his continuing dominance in his party (as seen in those he handed out ministerial portfolios to and those he purposely marginalised) means that good governance for the most will have to come from his first-in-command, Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena, by all accounts, might represent what Mahinda Rajapaksa could have been but failed: a reformist leader who never confused equity or growth for the attainment of them through political coercion. The UNP has more to learn from him, not surprisingly.

Here’s the bottom line, hence. Ever since 1977, we have been facing an essential dichotomy, a huge gap, between economic policies on the one hand and political principles on the other. This is not and will never be endemic to Sri Lanka alone. Both the Latin American and East Asian experiences testify to that. No reason to abandon hope, however.

As such, attaining congruence between political and economic freedom (one which Rajapaksa could have realised but didn’t try to reach for) rests more with Maithripala Sirisena than with his prime minister. A bitter truth certainly. Can’t help. Wickremesinghe has his past, after all.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, September 19 2015

Monday, September 21, 2015

Rehan Mudannayake's dreams

Filmmakers are neither demagogues nor ivory towers. Well, some of them like to pander to appeal and others love to confuse the audience and this in a way which deters mass appeal. But not always. In Sri Lanka and pretty much everywhere else in Asia, this is as true as it's going to get.

As such it's only natural that most of those who enter the cinema begin their careers as ivory towers. Only later do they realise that for all what they're spouting, the need to establish a link with the audience must be privileged. As such those who try to avoid both paths and move away from the beaten track are to be applauded. They are rare.

Keats was 25 when he died. He wrote up some of the most over-quoted lines in English poetry, limited though their outlook and experience were. But he offered a lesson. Age, no matter how congruent it may be with wisdom, is never a setback for budding artists. Including filmmakers, one may add.

Rehan Mudannayake, who prefers to be neither a demagogue nor an ivory tower in what he’s doing, would agree. He has directed ​several​ fictional​ shorts​, a documentary, and a video installation ​thus far, and in ​all he's tried to achieve a middle path. Whether he’s really done it is another story altogether. For now, what’s important is this: he has tried.

Style, Sidney Lumet once wrote, is the most misunderstood word since love. True. Filmmakers all too often are moved by technique and polish, words which themselves are glossed over to market intellectual appeal to audiences. That doesn't work all the time, of course, which probably differentiates the master from the amateur. Perhaps this is what Rehan echoes when he puts it: "Cinema is not for a minority."

He was educated at Elizabeth Moir in Colombo and later at Worth Abbey School in England. In both schools, he had derived a love for art and cinema that would, for the better part of his life till now, stay. Predictably, it stayed with him even when he entered the University of Kent, to study film for three years, and the University of Amsterdam, to study not just film, but literature, drama, and musicology. "Jazz," he interjects with a smile, "was an area I had to study and love. I did both."

He studied abroad, yes, but he never really felt the need to keep what he had learnt there. So he returned to Sri Lanka in 2012. When asked as to why he did so, he replies, "Purely and simply, the desire to make movies in my own country." He qualifies this: "Besides, I grew up on a diet of films here. So this is where I really began my career.”

And here he admits regret: "England doesn't have a vibrant film culture anymore." As reason for lament, he points out that while the likes of Ken Loach breathed new life into the British cinema, there's hardly anyone to take up their legacy and continue it. "In other words, there's hardly any continuity in the cinema there, quite opposite to what's happening across the Atlantic." What's missing, he adds, is state support.

"I remember David Cameron once publicly stating that all directors in the UK must strive to make more films like Harry PotterHe was probably offering justification for his government's decision to abolish the UK Film Council. That's absurd though, and quite harrowingly so. Forget the fact that not everyone can make or afford to make a Harry Potter. Where's the youth going to be in the British film industry? I think not addressing this question, especially in the long term, will do more damage than anyone can imagine."

For his part, Rehan has stuck to principle. He is also eclectic. That is how he can talk about his fascination with Eisenstein and the Russians, Godard and the French, and Spielberg and the Americans. "Point is, we can't really inflate ourselves and think that what we love as film-styles are the best. We need to learn as many of them as we can," he says, "Which brings me to my second point: if cinema is NOT to remain as a minority art, we need to go beyond a crowd mentality."

As an example, he points at Wes Anderson. "I believe he has conformed the least among American directors today. You can't really talk about the American film scene without factoring in its studio system. Anderson has kept away from all that. That is why, when you see films like Moonrise Kingdom, you tend to think, 'Ah, this must have been done by some recluse!' In a way, that's true, because the man has really become an outsider to his country's studio-oriented film culture. He is to be applauded for this, no doubt."

At the same time though, Rehan cautions against making this an excuse for intellectualising the cinema. "The cinema is never static. It's always trying to question and liberate itself. It's always on the go. In large part, this has to do with the fact that it's the youngest of the arts. So I guess it's natural that we haven't really unearthed half of the potential which films are capable of reaching. As a summing up, he lays out one point: "The world needs its Andersons. But without the Spielbergs and Lucases, it would be quite dull."

Coming back to Sri Lanka, Rehan admits that ours is a film culture which encourages free inquiry. The problem however is that various institutions have impeded on a truly national film industry, which explains how the likes of Prasanna Vithanage can emerge and at the same time be opposed by what Lionel Wendt once caustically referred to as the "Decency Brigade." Parochialism, in whatever form and context, does little for the cinema. Even with all this, Rehan agrees with one point. "We still persevere. In a very big way, that explains why we've progressed after all this time."

His own work is minimal in comparison, but it bears out his views. ​One of his first attempt​s​ was a short called Insecxtual, made a couple of years back and nominated for the top prize at the Mosaic Film Festival in Toronto. His ​most recent work,​ Elephant​ (an adaptation of an Ashok Ferrey short story),​ is not really a follow-up in that it encounters and explores new themes. Rehan elaborates.

Elephant is a harrowing drama about the Colombo elite in Sri Lanka. It deals with the challenges of living in a bubble where it is near-impossible to lead one’s life without others prying into it. It follows an upper class family in the city, negatively affected by the scrutiny surrounding a dark secret of theirs.​ I'm so excited to preview it at the Goethe Institute this December."​

Time is short and Rehan tries his best to meditate on all what he's put across so far. He offers a final point to sum them: "We need to stop the cinema from being institutionalised. For this, we must seek cooperation from critics who know what they're writing about and audiences who appreciate films for what they are. My proposal, which might be seen as radical by some, would be to encourage filmmakers to go for crowd-funding. We need truly independent directors and this is one way of breeding them. But will we ever get them? That is my question to you."

Nicely put, one admits. Whether we heed it is what matters though. Hopefully, we will. Someday.

Note: I was unfortunate enough to misinterpret the story-line of Elephant, given that I have personally not seen it (because it hasn't been released here yet). With all apologies to Rehan, I have edited the version which went into publication and tried to recant error. Highlighted in red is what I have edited. The damage wasn't too much, I hope.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The government's moves

Processes are rarely perfect. They have their champions. They have their critics. Very rarely do mechanisms and structures created to address reconciliation achieve everything and anything they want to achieve. Those who commend one mechanism over another, then, are either myopic or silent to this truth. This is the case whatever the context and the aims of such structures are.

The Sri Lankan government had a mandate on reconciliation two years ago. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), some of its critics pointed out, went beyond that mandate. Reconciliation was however not an end-all but a means to that end, and no amount of pilfering with it could hide one salient fact: that if we did not want outside agency to demand for accountability, we had to deliver and deliver fast. Didn’t happen.

Mangala Samaraweera knows his words. He is not a yes-man as his predecessor was and for this reason he is capable to achieving what the LLRC could have achieved but didn’t. Read his speech at Geneva, for instance, and you will realise that for all his flowery commendation of the current government’s stance on inter-ethnic amity he subtly hints at what the previous administration used to rant and rave about: that domestic mechanisms to address grievances from a 30 year-old war cannot and will not survive with outside intrusion.

Words however are easy. Action is not. So when Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein (who seems to have a gripe with Sri Lanka just as his predecessor Navinathan Pillay did) demands for a hybrid court, structured on the Nuremberg trials and hence focused on retributive justice, the reply from the government was less than satisfying. Gone was Samaraweera’s subtle chiding of international community; the letter was more concerned with commending the Prince’s remarks and reassuring him to “wait, wait, and wait for more.”

First of all, if the government wants to achieve reconciliation through a National Plan and mechanism, the Nuremberg trials (achieved through hybrid courts) is the last benchmark it must base itself on. Mahinda Rajapaksa made it eminently clear through his moves (particularly in bringing Cyril Ramaphosa here, though his critics unduly lambasted him for this) that he too was interested in a domestic mechanism based on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (in South Africa), which would go beyond the rhetoric-frilled LLRC and yet stay away from “war crimes.”

Secondly, as pointed out earlier, these processes are not perfect. The rift between retributive and restorative justice, reflected in the gap between Nuremberg and South Africa, is not so great when factoring in what failed in both instances. Studies have ascertained that in South Africa’s case, a subtle attempt at achieving racial equality by bringing in all communities together echoed, inter alia, affirmative action. It did not stop at the traditionally vilified community, the Blacks, and for this reason it went on to achieve success.

That’s just one part of the story though. Among the TRC’s failures was its gross mishandling of outcome, that is the granting of amnesty to many key figures considered to have committed and sanctioned acts of hatred against the Black community. Steve Biko’s family went as far as to call it a “vehicle of political expedience”, which lends credence to the view that inasmuch as Commissions are good and needed, they cannot and will not establish reconciliation magically. Perhaps the misconception held by some of its champions that it was an end rather than a means contributed to its failures. We may never know.

The point is that we have been playing around with our version(s) of what TRCs should really represent. Let’s not forget, after all, that inasmuch as the likes of Navi Pillay and Darusman were genuflecting before pro-Eelam mythmakers (silently of course), the government of the day refused to listen to them and challenge their myths, thus leading to a no-win, Cold War-like situation where irrational nationalism rather than rational internationalism was privileged. Nationalism is fine, but without confronting issues that affect the country internationally it remains, as Samuel Johnson would have written, “the last refuge of the procrastinator.”

So what’s the road ahead? It is clear (starkly so) that no TRC is going to make everyone and anyone happy. Self-styled intellectuals who trash Sinhala Buddhism will have to be included in it as well, but don’t expect fairness to come from their side. As regrettable will be the tendency of anti-devolutionists and anti-13A howlers to inject rhetoric rather than reason to their submissions. Neither side gets off the hook here.

Now golden rules cannot be applied to suit every context. In the case of our to-be TRC, what needs to be pointed out is this. Firstly, getting rid of the “victor’s justice syndrome” which visits and revisits Commissions like this CANNOT duplicate privileging the “other side”. Equality has as much to do with affirmative action as the UNP’s brand of capitalism has with that of the Republican Party in the US. The one does not mean, or lead to, the other. This will not make some people, particularly those Buddha-bashing “moderates”, happy. Can’t help.

Secondly, the process should be open and transparent enough to convince people like Hussein to lower his demands. There was a time when he and his ilk wanted an international probe. If with US support (for us), he still wants a hybrid court, then achieving his targets with a domestic approach (that is, justice without amnesty, albeit this should NOT license the finding of “war crimes”), then (who knows?) he may lower his demands even more, crushing the fantasies of the pro-LTTE Diaspora and shutting them up for good.

Processes need miracles to be perfect. They don’t make everyone happy but then again they don’t have to. Perfection on this count will be judged on how far the local mechanism to handle reconciliation achieves its outcome(s). If this is what matters, then both local and foreign players may find that miracles are not long in coming. At all.

Written for: The Nation, September 19 2015

Monday, September 14, 2015

On and off the road with Irangani Serasinghe

Thomas Gray and Shakespeare probably knew more about the human condition than (m)any of their counterparts back in the day. They attacked the larger than life and championed the essence of humanity, bringing it down to that much sought after but hard to find quality, solitude. Gray thus exemplified in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” what Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, that “in peace there's nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility”.

Now solitude and stillness aren’t hard to find in celebrities, but thanks to crass materialism they don’t overflow with them either. Irangani Serasinghe, mother, daughter, thespian, film and television actress, conservationist, and subject of a much awaited biography, is the exception. Happily.

Last Saturday, there was a gathering. A group of icons, their sons and daughters, representatives of the media, and writers convened at Expographic Bookstore in Pelawatta. Kumar de Silva was host and Irangani Serasinghe his guest. Irangani, as told to Kumar de Silva, published two years ago, had been translated by playwright, commentator, and satirist Udayasiri Wickramaratne. It was launched at the gathering, but that wasn’t all what it was about.

There were people who came and spoke. Sumitra Peries, long-time collaborator and friend to Irangani, waxed eloquent about her involvement with the cinema, her performances in E. F. C. Ludowyk's Antigone and Chitrasena’s Rama, Ravana, and Sita, and the famous Ivan Peries portrait done of her, hung at the Petit Palais in Paris and a personal “highlight” for Sumitra during her student-days there.

Lester was missing, but Sumitra had brought a message from him as compensation: “I put her on the road”. The audience laughed. Predictably. It was one of his “Lesterisms”, after all, a pun and twist considering that her first performance for him was as an errant driver in a documentary (Be Safe or Be Sorry).

Next came Dharmasiri Bandaranayake. Having identified his generation of artists and playwrights as the “children of ‘56” and thereby differentiating it from Irangani’s, he went on to heap praise upon her. He spoke in particular about his first performance onscreen, that of the naive and 17-year old Premadasa from Dayananda Gunawardena’s Bakmaha Deege.

“I didn’t know the implications of that character then,” he admitted, “I do now though, particularly when I hear laughter every Avurudhu when Bakmaha Deege is shown on TV. ‘They’re laughing at me,’ I realise. Seeing myself in it today, I can imagine why.” He chortled. So did his listeners.

He sobered then. “I am thankful to Gunawardena. He introduced me to Mrs Serasinghe. Through her, I met her husband Winston. I had him in my Thunveni Yamaya. He was the dragon in Makarakshaya and I was his adversary Lancelot.” There he related an interesting anecdote, one which had escaped publicity but which he came out with, “since our days aren’t that long.”

It happened somewhere in the ‘80s. Winston was facing a crucial standoff with Lancelot in the play. He had to read a line: “තමුසෙ දන්නවද මේ ජනපතියා පිස්සෙක් වගේ හැසිරෙන්නේ ඇයි කියල?” For some reason or the other though, he had got it wrong: “තමුසෙ දන්නවද මේ ජනාධිපතියා පිස්සෙක් විදියට හැසිරෙන්නේ මොකද කියල?” Now for purposes of translation there’s hardly any difference between the two, but in terms of nuance and subtlety they were miles apart. Naturally enough, especially during a politically volatile period, Serasinghe’s mistake could have irked authorities. But that’s not what happened.

What happened was that Serasinghe resigned, vowing never to act again. A distraught Bandaranayake, urging him to offer his reasons and trying to discourage him, got this reply: “Laurence Olivier was my guru. He told me the day that I get a single line wrong is the day I should get out. That day has come.”

Reflecting on this, Bandaranayake concluded: “He was a shining example, Mrs Serasinghe. Always was. The likes of him cannot be found today, and for good reason. Back when the arts were left alone, when theatre wasn’t prostituted for the sake of politicking, he was not uncommon. He is now. As are you.” There was silence all around. Everyone clapped.

There was more.

Kumar had planned a surprise for his guest. Well, a get-together to be exact. Nilmini Tennakoon, Deepani Silva, Veena Jayakody, Kelum Wijesuriya, and Chandani Senevirathne, along with Yashoda Wimaladharma (who acted as interlocutor to Kumar as announcer), read excerpts from Udayasiri’s translation, got on the stage, sat on a couch, and “embraced” Irangani. For those from and even after their generation, the get-together was symbolic.

They had all been her children, grandchildren, and neighbours. They had all been with her on board Nalan Mendis’ Doo Daruwo, considered by many to be Sri Lanka’s first real soap opera, running into hundreds of episodes and (in Irangani’s own words) one which “was so well received.” She was crying, not surprisingly. So were some of those who had gathered. They were all moved, even more so considering those who had been absented (the late Henry Jayasena in particular as “Sudu Seeya” was missed, as was Neil Alles who was ill and others who had more crucial engagements elsewhere).

The last to speak was Nalan Mendis himself, as voluminous and full of detail as his soap operas. He praised Irangani, commended her as an actress, and stated that working with her has yielded fruit in the truest sense of that term.

Irangani is humility embodied, those who know her will tell you. She was and will always be ever ready to offer anecdote, colour it with nostalgia, and yet not lose grip with the present. Rare, yes, but perhaps not for her generation, a point she reflects on throughout Kumar’s book. She’s too humble to offer herself as an example there though, something else she highlights in her introduction to it.

Events like this have to end, but how? There were people who had torn themselves from their schedules, to spare some time on a desultory Saturday evening and that outside Colombo. But Expographic Bookstore is not your typical bookstore and Ranjith Samaranayake, its proprietor and publisher of the biography, knows his trade well and passionately so. Fittingly then, Kumar began with a bang and ended with a whimper.

Irangani will be treasured. Kumar credits François Truffaut’s landmark book on Hitchcock as his inspiration for this and Lester by Lester. Maybe, but none of Truffaut’s prognostications featured in THAT book (which even Satyajit Ray noted and criticised) is there in Irangani. It is neither coffee table nor dissertation and hence hovers in-between. Tantalisingly. I have not completely read Udayasiri's translation so far but I am sure it's the same story there.

The last word should belong to the host. Here’s Kumar on his effort: “I had three icons in my life. I wanted to write on them, and I have done with two so far, Lester and Irangani. There’s one more remaining. Mrs Sumitra Peries, I promise I will finish my book on you next year, June to be exact.”

Irangani, as told to Kumar de Silva is done. We can only thank Kumar and Udayasiri and wait till next June. With baited breath. Clichéd, yes. But there’s no other way of putting it.

‘Politinkering’ with the Constitution

Ideological orientation can divide those who preach the same thing. It is hence astounding how those who favour end bicker over process. It is also unbelievable that those who privilege certain (political) outcomes can debate with (and against) both colleague and foe. Federalists, hence, have a gripe with nationalists, but this does not preclude them from arguing with other federalists.

Jayampathy Wickramaratne authored the much praised and little understood 19th Amendment, along with two other experts. He claimed, rightly, that it would dilute the Executive Presidency, but not absolutely. So he offered a solution: “Revamp the 1978 Constitution!” Puzzling, because if “revamp” was what the doctor prescribed, then why on earth did he offer a “painkiller” for the “malady” through an amendment?

Among those who noted this was Dayan Jayatilleka. In a context where the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara are together, never mind how strange that combination sounds, it is not surprising to see that both he and Wickramaratne are against one other here. Both are for the 13th Amendment. Both are for devolution. Logically therefore, that the one’s take on the 19th Amendment differs from the other must be owing more to disagreement over process than to differences over ideological bent.

Seven months before the Sirisena defection, Jayatilleka had this to say about Wickramaratne’s abolitionist-stance on the Executive Presidency:

“Contrary to Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne’s prognostication, President Rajapaksa will not abolish the Presidency in order to take the wind out of the sails of either a single issue common candidate or a rebellion in the UPFA ranks which has as its rallying cry the abolition of the Presidency. All he needs to do is to call a referendum on the issue, pitch it as a danger to the Sinhalese in the face of external and irredentist pressures, and he will win a crushing victory over the dissidents. He can then go into the presidential and parliamentary elections with an even stronger hand than he otherwise would.”

For Jayatilleka, the viability of a common candidate could be judged on whether or not that candidate pledged to do away with the Executive Presidency, a pledge Jayatilleka no doubt likened to political hara-kiri when he observed that no rational voter would support a candidate who promised to undo himself by un-strapping the presidency.

That was then though. Times have changed. The 19th Amendment was passed and it deliberately skewed clarity (as has been noted by political commentators), particularly to market appeal for a National Government (a perusal of Article 46, for instance, will leave one wondering why it limited a Cabinet to 30 or 40 when a coalition could double or triple that amount as per the parliament’s prerogative). It didn’t do away with the Executive Presidency, true. But that’s just one step away.

Wickramaratne is an ideologue. So is Jayatilleka. What differentiates the one from the other, when it comes to the Constitution that is, is the way each accounts for exogenous variables without which neither federalists nor nationalists can sustain ideology for long. That is why the latter, for the most, has been (more) able to critique not just federal-speak but also attempts to dilute the Executive Presidency, even when that critique is at odds with his larger political stances, which are largely supportive of the 13th Amendment.

Nationalism. That’s another thing. Jayatilleka has shown again and again that, for all Wickramaratne’s political idealism, a get-your-pants-off approach to the J. R. Jayawardene Constitution cannot and will not work as long as it legitimises fears of the majority (social and ethnic), that is a stripping down of the security apparatus to a point where nationalist fears of outside intervention are realised.

The point is that without taking note of outside fears and addressing grievances, tinkering with the Constitution can yield fruit only at the cost of what Mahinda Rajapaksa implicitly instructed Maithripala Sirisena to improve on: a country rid of terrorism but not of the terrorist menace, one that is being manipulated by civil society in the name of plurality to affirm minoritarianism (which in no way justifies the Rajapaksa regime’s perceived majoritarianism, by the way).

Here’s why.

No rational political democrat, unless s/he was Cartesian in outlook, would prefer democracy to security (or vice-versa, for that matter). This is where people like Wickramaratne have got it wrong. It must be said that even the likes of Jayatilleka and other likeminded liberals and moderates entertained this illusion. But that was long ago. They have since learnt their lesson and for this reason they have embraced pragmatism.

The likes of Wickramaratne hence, especially when tinkering with the Constitution, must note one point. Dayan Jayatilleka summed this up best: “I stand for a nationalism that is compatible with internationalism. This is smart patriotism. Smart patriotism is perfectly compatible with cultural cosmopolitanism, though the latter is not a condition of the former.” What he meant by cultural cosmopolitanism is for another article.

For now, here’s what counts. Reform, particularly with a National Government which robs legitimate opposition (barring the Tamil National Alliance) for the sake of consensual politicking, cannot privilege itself at the expense of weakening the centre and frilling the periphery.

This is not only because of nationalist concerns. This is also because, if intellectuals like Jayampathy Wickramaratne are to get it right in one go, they MUST be aware of larger realities (geopolitical and otherwise) which determine the constitutional framework they are setting for this country. Otherwise, to be quite frank, they’ll be building castles in the air. Not a very good start for a reformist era, you must admit.

Written for: The Nation, September 12 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Champika Ranawaka’s moves

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream in the dark recesses of the night awake in the day to find all was vanity. But the dreamers of day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, and make it possible."

“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, T. E. Lawrence

In his review of James Manor’s Expedient Utopian, Regi Siriwardena highlights S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s attitude towards authority and how this shaped him while in power. He infers that Bandaranaike’s clash with the UNP was symptomatic of a long line of personal clashes, alternating between rebellion and submission, which ended up with him courting authority and at the same time being indecisive enough to bend to popular pressure as and when it was expedient to do so (hence Manor’s title for his book).

He then conclude on a pithy note: “Perhaps Bandaranaike saw no inconsistency between the two (i.e. expedience and idealism) because his brand of populism was dependent on the assumption that whenever supposedly popular forces asserted themselves, authority should bend before them.”

This is the truth, and not just for Bandaranaike. Politicians seek the opportune from whatever moment. They are rarely if at all fired by idealism, and if they are it’s to again grab at what’s opportune. Rhetoric and frill are good for talk. Statesmanship, however, is as far away from our politicians as it was back in 1956 (or for that matter 1948). That is why or rather how most national heroes venerated today not only kowtowed to the imperialists but condoned the stunting of dissent against them by Marxist parties. Sad, yes. But true.

Writing before the parliamentary election last month, this writer commented on the Jathika Hela Urumaya and Champika Ranawaka (“Reflections on the ‘Sihala Urumaya’ that was”) and his (largely perceived) opportunism. Ranawaka (or anyone else in that party for that matter) is not an opportunist in any sense (yet). He has however demonstrated an ability to enter and wreck equations in whatever party or movement he’s in. That doesn’t indicate opportunism. That indicates an ability to enforce his vision on those movements, enough for his opponents to lose legitimacy immediately, if not afterwards.

Ranawaka was with Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2014. Well, he was with him before that too, but the point is that during that time he badmouthed the then opposition United National Party (UNP) enough to make one remark “Strange bedfellows!” at his and his party’s alliance with that same party. As such his moves, political or otherwise, must be judged on how well he handles this alliance, especially in light of what it stands for and how far he is able to subsume his vision for its sake (a no-no situation as far as he’s concerned, not impossible though).

The Jathika Hela Urumaya doesn’t exist anymore, not on paper and not in spirit. He did maintain its identity during the presidential election, but immediately after that all he not only substituted another party (the diamond-shaped good governance alliance) for it but went as far as to dilute it in favour of the UNP.

On one level this indicates two possibilities: that the Hela Urumaya lost its base (in a manner of speaking) upon its rejection of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and that Ranawaka is willing to let go of his original positions (on race and nationality in particular) if that will get him closer to the likes of Lakshman Kiriella (“any gona can conduct a war”) and Ravi Karunanayake (“Alimankada and Pamankada”) and consolidate gains within the UNP. While one can doubt the latter point, it’s an inevitable outcome should the former point be true.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya emerged when both the UNP and the SLFP (and its People’s Alliance) were dallying with the LTTE and its mythmakers. Getting nine members into parliament barely three years after only 0.5 percent of the country voted for you isn’t just a coincidence, after all. Perhaps this was best illustrated by how the Sihala Urumaya (under S. L. Gunasekera) viewed the political relationship between the LTTE and the two major parties: “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. A middle way was what it aimed for. That’s what it got.

The point is that 2004 wasn’t 2014. Mahinda Rajapaksa was no Chandrika Kumaratunga and for this reason, rejecting him meant a partial rejection of race-driven nationalism. Ranawaka, let’s not forget, did not conduct himself well during the Aluthgama riots, even going as far as to call Muslims “outsiders”, never mind that this statement was criticised by Mujibur Rahman, who under the UNP contested with Ranawaka himself last month – and in Colombo too!

Professor Nalin de Silva was frank when he said that Ranawaka’s political philosophy was nothing but “power and power” (a reference to his book Balaya saha Balaya). He was wrong. Champika Ranawaka’s track record bears testimony to what politicians do, yes. But this has in no way demonstrated opportunism on his part, not because he is an angel but because each time he has jumped he has taken use of a particular social ill which he has, to the best of his ability, eradicated.

Naturally enough, this puts him at odds and in a favourable light when compared with the likes of Rajitha Senaratne, S. B. Nawinne, and pretty much everyone else who jumped from the UPFA to the UNP during both general and presidential elections this year.

There’s another reason for this. Every time he jumps, those who oppose him lose legitimacy. That is what happened in 2000, when he hijacked the Sihala Urumaya and crippled the likes of S. L. Gunasekera (who, let’s not forget, went as far as to call him a “Taliban”).

Those who opposed his decision to support Maithripala Sirisena from his own party, with the exception of Ellawala Medhananda Thera, were no different. They too lost legitimacy, not only because they supported the real underdog in the election (Sirisena was the top dog, by the way) but because the rift between rationality (on the part of Sirisena) and rhetoric (on the part of Rajapaksa) was reflected in the rift between Ranawaka’s JHU and Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya.

Here lies Ranawaka’s biggest strength: his ability to wield opposition when those he opposes have lost legitimacy. No politician here has matched this achievement. Speaks a lot about the man.

Patali Champika Ranawaka is thus a dangerous man. Not because he seeks the opportune, but because at a time when seeking the opportune has undone movements and politicians, he has waded through thick and thin and emerged as victor. Always. He is a T. E. Lawrence in the making. For our time.

These are still early days though. Whether he can withstand the lure of “power and power” while manoeuvring politically will depend on how well he handles his transition from the largely chauvinist UPFA to the cosmopolitan UNP, bearing in mind of course that not all chauvinists vote for the UPFA and not all lotus eaters vote for the UNP. Politics is never that simple. Ranawaka, one suspects, understands this better than anyone else.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Some goodbyes are not meant for time

Schools are like offices. People come and go. They are hired and fired. They are subject to decay and hence grow used to and wary of where they are. As such some go quicker than others. Well yes, some stay and live the better part of their lives in them, but they too (have to) leave sooner or later. Naturally enough, those who stay back for long figure in memory more than others.

Teachers are no different. They come. They have their moments. They leave. That’s life, after all. Brief.

Bandula Galappaththi taught for 50 years. That’s half a century. He saw what many of his students (and in one way his children) didn’t. He waved goodbye to wherever he was very rarely, three times to be exact. Others like him left earlier. Pretty much everyone who met him got to know about the man. All bets are what they knew was a drop in the ocean.

Few teachers are like that. Very few. He was fortunate.

He started at Ananda, the school he studied at for 18 years and the school he taught at for another 25. He would be the first to say that it wasn’t easy. Teaching was tough and children grew up with those who taught them books and life itself. Schools operated differently back then. So did teachers. Not surprisingly, they changed with time.

Galappaththi didn’t change. He can count in very few peers in this respect. That’s why he has stories to recount from memory and how he lives and relives them every time he lays them bare. For us.

Few won’t know, for instance, that he was teacher to Sarath Fonseka, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and Wasantha Karannagoda. Those who knew him will tell you of the risks he took, to protect not just students but school-name too. They will tell you of the leadership he symbolised, the Big Matches he helped with, the interaction between student and outside world (especially one as turbulent as Maradana) he "eased up" regularly, and the transition from teacher to Deputy Principal which “coloured” his stint there.

There are other stories. Other anecdotes. His comments on how things worked back then will entertain many. His reflections on the way children interacted with teachers will hold appeal. His outlook on the then and now of teaching will startle some. All this was of course after 1956, after L. H. Mettananda (who was principal when he was a student) and the nationalisation-thrusts which figured in the first half of the following decade. He endured them all.

Laurels do scant justice though. They tend to erase or marginalise what’s most opposed to them, humility. He himself would be the first to agree, and in a way this bears testimony to what Shakespeare wrote: “In peace there's nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility”. Well, if that IS the truth he has, through thick and thin, seen peace and stillness. Humility was never a stranger to him. He embraced it long ago.

He didn’t stay at Ananda. He left. In 1998 he "joined" another school, Lyceum (Nugegoda). He taught there and became, according to those who fell under his spell, more than a mentor. Mentoring for him wasn't about enforcing discipline. It was about winning empathy. And respect. Tough task, yes. But he did it.

Students there will tell you of the encounters they’ve had with him. Some have run into him more than once. They will add colour when offering anecdote. All of them will have “moments” to relate. Even those who didn’t turn him into disciplinarian and consistently (for good measure) refrained from ruffling feathers (a rare breed though, and naturally so).

He didn’t spend 25 years at Lyceum. He spent 17. He was a class teacher like at Ananda, but that’s not how Lyceumers will remember him. He will be remembered first and foremost as giver of advice, advice kept to heart upon departure from school. Almost every student will have pearls of wisdom gained from him, and pretty soon there’ll be those who’ll try to collect them all, to bind and put together, and hold and love.

Peace comes with solitude, some think. With Galappaththi that wasn’t the case. He gave into peace long before it gave into him and that had nothing to do with solitude. He got that peace through his career and more importantly through those he disciplined. For their part, students knew him enough to appreciate that for all his gruff exterior and admonishments, he was and always will remain a gentle soul to everyone he offered advice to. No wonder. He didn't use the cane. He used words.

All that is gone though. Done and dusted. He retired last Friday, not only from Lyceum but from a career he sustained for 50 years. Well, it would be wrong to say he retired, more correct to say retirement visited him. Neither Lyceumers nor Anandians would have wanted him to pass. But that’s life, again. Brief.

There probably are a hundred or so stories Anandians will relate to you about him, and probably a hundred more Lyceumers will too. They’ll all try to capture the man. At his best. A rare privilege, especially for a teacher and for a man who carried so much bag and baggage with what he carved for himself.

He would be the first to deflect excessive praise. He is correct. What he’s done speaks more about the man than what words and verses can conjure up. He’s given more than his share (the proverbial lion's share) to those who’ve profited or gained from him. We can celebrate his life in more ways than one, not only with praise.

Retirement is not an end but a beginning, some will offer. True. It’s not the beginning of a new life but a beginning of what visits teachers over and over again. Posterity. Teachers do not unburden themselves of the life they chose for themselves, after all. They give it to those they tutor. Gratitude, therefore, is hardly enough to repay debt. Still, the most we can do is to offer thanks. And smile.

Bandula Galappaththi, student, teacher, deputy principal, disciplinarian, and resident of this small world, has retired. He is not the first to have done so. He will not be the last. But in what he’s done and how he achieved them, there’s a giving away of sorts. A handover, if you will. He’s gone beyond time and embraced posterity, hence. No doubt Anandians and Lyceumers will be celebrating this. Rightly.

Thank you Mr Galappaththi. You can take a bow.

Photo courtesy of Dimuthu Amarasiri