Sunday, July 31, 2016

On the Pada Yathra and Gunadasa Amarasekara’s point

Don't tell me not to fly, I simply got to
If someone takes a spill, it's me and not you
Who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade?

Barbra Streisand, from “Funny Girl”

Names matter. So do personalities. Peruse history, peruse all those revolutions, rebellions, and political changes which have in some form or the other shifted regimes and created precedent, and you will come across both. Revolutions are birthed, sustained, and in some instances continued by rhetoric. Rhetoric is the preserve of the politicians. And politicians, ladies and gentlemen, are not statesmen. Not by a long shot.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has a following. Those who support him inflate figures. Those who oppose him downplay them. Whatever both sides say by way of justifying their stance on the man, one thing is certain: he is not a statesman. If he was, he would have accepted defeat. The only reason why anyone can cut him some slack, hence, is that he is less concerned about returning to power than about sustaining an ideology that survives personalities and parties and ensures a consistent vote-base. The way things stand however, I’d say that this is unlikely. Highly unlikely.

His critics will say that he is possessed by a demon. A demon that goes by the name of “bala tanhava.” I wouldn’t disagree, but going by that logic none of his predecessors would have been possessed by that demon, something which (given constitutional realities after 1977) is highly unlikely. But there’s of course something else these critics will note: the fact that the man served two terms and the fact that he lost batting for a third. I would be less inclined to disagree there.

That still doesn’t stop Mahinda Rajapaksa from taking advantage of the other demons which seem to have besotted this government, i.e. the demons of self-contradiction, self-aggrandizement, self-righteousness, and self-centredness. One can’t blame him for speaking against the present government and pointing out flaws, never mind his motives and never mind the fact that when he was in power, he tolerated those same flaws. Naturally, those in power will point at relative merits and those kicked out will idealise the past. Been there, done that.

About two days ago the largely Rajapaksist “Joint Opposition” organised a walk (of protest) from Kandy to Colombo. This walk, a Pada Yathra, met with opposition, restraining orders, Court visits, and of course the usual rhetoric from the government ridiculing the entire exercise. Typical, I suppose, given political realities and given how the opposition of any regime, be it the UNP or SLFP, loves to dabble in amnesia and dissent. This article is not about the Pada Yathra, however.

This article is about Gunadasa Amarasekara. About a year ago I wrote on him to Colombo Telegraph (“Gunadasa Amarasekara’s Relevance”) and noted that he basically had provided absolution to Rajapaksa’s cabal even though many of those who were with the former president espoused values which he (Amarasekara) clearly opposed. I now realise that I was wrong. Amarasekara, unlike those who support personalities and like Professor Nalin de Silva, does not give blank cheques. For that reason, what he said about two months ago stands relevant, particularly in light of what the Joint Opposition is engaged in now.

Amarasekara said (if I remember correctly) that the JO was as concerned about political rhetoric as the SLFP and UNP, which in the long run would turn the people away from more pressing issues to do with devolution and constitutional reforms. I vaguely remember how diehard supporters of the JO reacted: they either were confused or muttered invective against him. Some even whispered that he was “turning” (like those ministers who’d sided with the government after expressing support to Rajapaksa). Ridiculous and absurd of course, but for those who indulge in black-and-white logic, nothing short of unconditional praise (for the JO) could endear the likes of Amarasekara to them.

The Pada Yathra was about colour. It was about displaying colour. It was deliberately made to reflect that other Pada Yathra from the 1980s, the one Rajapaksa organised against the then UNP regime’s excesses. That, however, had next to nothing featured in what was begun two days ago, for the simple reason that the JO needs attention and needs to attract it fast. Hot air, it would seem, is what they are resorting to.

And it’s not hard to see why. Tisaranee Gunasekara, in an illuminating article titled “Keeping the lunatic fringe in the fringe”, points out that this government has done all it can to be marginally superior to its predecessor. Well, marginal improvement is nothing to be proud about, but it’s still an improvement. Which is why, though I’m a supporter of neither regime, I still can’t fathom how and why members in the JO can spot out dictatorial tendencies in this government when the entire country (yes, even those who bayed for blood while supporting the previous regime unconditionally), knew what Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government indulged in during those last few months before January 8, 2015.

On that count, I agree with Ranjan Ramanayake, who came up with a classic the other day: “The Pada Yathra is just a vehicle parade.” The reference was to the fact that several politicians who participated at the walk were seen in vehicles, unlike the majority who preferred to walk. I have my reservations about Ramanayake, but the man speaks his mind and speaks it in such a way that even his bitterest critics are forced to concede ground to.

Which brings me back to Amarasekara. I don’t think he commented on the Pada Yathra per se. I do know, however, that what he said a few months ago remains relevant today, if at all because it was Amarasekara (together with Professor Nalin) who started a campaign that culminated on the political field, at least for the time being, with the Jathika Hela Urumaya. True, that campaign clearly doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the JHU today, but on one point at least they are in agreement: the fact that a nationalist program has less to do with personalities than a sustainable, consistent ideology.

The Joint Opposition isn’t doing much in this respect. Sadly. The movement (to call it a party would be erroneous) is housed by its share of veterans, respected ideologues, and idiots, not to mention populists and jokers. It’s also housed by devolutionists (not that I have anything against them) and in other ways affirm values which are at odds with Amarasekara’s brand of nationalism. For the sake of maintaining a counterthrust to the government, however, I believe he is willing to cut them some slack, but when it comes to other matters, i.e. political principles, he is less so.

And you know what? I wouldn’t blame him. Nationalism isn’t about rhetoric and shouldn’t be about rhetoric. It doesn’t start with demagoguery and shouldn’t end with show. As I’ve pointed out before, despite two terms as an all-powerful Executive President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unable to stifle federal-speak in his own party. The SLFP, after all, was and is the party of devolutionists and federalists, even more so than the UNP, which to its credit was less concerned about capitulating to Eelamism (during the ceasefire years) than cautiously tackling a deteriorating economy. That the JHU, even after joining the present government, still contends against federal-rhetoric speaks volumes about its sincerity and of course commitment to ideology.

The Joint Opposition, I think, should listen to Amarasekara. If the past is anything to go by, it may well deteriorate into a “one man one show” exercise, which to be honest isn’t what its supporters want. What they want or rather SHOULD want is a movement that survives personality, acts as a bulwark against the government (and even official opposition), and plans for the future. Mahinda Rajapaksa will feature in there as long as he stands by its core values. The moment he detours, the people will suffer him. In silence. In the end, he too will be out.

Let’s not forget, after all, that January 8, 2015 wouldn’t have happened if Mahinda Rajapaksa had a) listened to sense, b) listened to his party members instead of his immediate family, c) not called an election, d) given space to Maithripala Sirisena, the most senior (and deserving) candidate for the post of President or Prime Minister after him, and e) discouraged hosanna-singers. Let’s not forget that even Amarasekara voiced his qualms about Rajapaksa’s regime and his “sahodara samagama.” And while we’re at it, let’s not also forget that even after two years the Rajapaksa Resurgence clearly seems here to stay (proverbially speaking). That, ideally, should drive home the point that their movement should be about sustaining an ideology and not boosting that “sahodara samagama.”

Those who attended the Pada Yathra, I noticed, wore the same t-shirt. A t-shirt adorned by the smiling face of Mahinda Rajapaksa. A pity, I should think. No, not because I hate the man or for that matter his smile, but because all this rhetoric, all those words he and his supporters spout, could have been justified if he didn’t turn the walk into a parade.

Ranjan Ramanayake probably got it right when he spoke the other day. So much so that when I heard what he said, I tried my best not to smile. Or grin. Predictably, I failed.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Friday, July 29, 2016

Shanthi Lekha: On embracing the mother

There were three actresses who embodied the mother-image in our cinema. The first, Irangani Serasinghe; the second, Denawaka Hamine. What brought these two together was a certain sense of maturity, understanding, and daring which demarcated their characters well. The women that both depicted (in other words), while keeping with the passive, reactive nature of Sri Lankan mothers, had an agency of their own and more often than not took matters to their own hand as independent women. Nissanka’s mother in Delovak Athara (Serasinghe) and Gunadasa’s mother in Sath Samudura (Denawaka Hamine) are good examples of this.

The third was Shanthi Lekha. She was different. The moment you saw her enter a scene or sequence, she exuded a different kind of charm, fortitude, and patience, befitting a different mother. It was this mother that, for the better part of her career, she portrayed: who took in and endured whatever tragedy she and her family faced with a rare sort of equanimity. Her characters displayed the exact same kind of patient suffering Serasinghe and Denawaka Hamine got out of. In large part, it was that voice of hers: a voice which betrayed both equanimity and resolve. A rare combination, particularly in a mother, you have to admit.

She was born Rita Irene Quyn to a staunch Catholic family in Kalutara and was educated at a Convent. Having taken to dancing at an early age, young Rita was fascinated by the performing arts, in particular “bioscope”. Like all other actors and actresses initiated into the cinema, however, she first entered the stage, when she played the leading role in D. T. Fernando’s Shantha Prabha. That was in 1942. Five years later, Rukmani Devi and the Jayamanne brothers would direct Sri Lanka’s first feature film.

In 1953 Dommie Jayawardena requested her to take part in Sujatha, a landmark for its time here and by all accounts a film which wooed audiences. Sujatha had more than 10 songs, I believe, and among them was “Pem Rella Nagi”, to which young Rita danced. By that time, she’d adopted a stage name after her husband, Shanthi Viraj: Shanthi Lekha.

It wasn’t easy, though. Her family, opposed to the idea of their daughter taking to films (by then considered a puerile business rather than an art), attempted to discourage her. Her parish priest had even told her parents that the cinema had taken her to the devil. But all these attempts, sharp as they were, amounted to nothing. Young Rita had been entranced by acting. There was little anyone could do to take her back.

And from then on, her career (for the lack of a better word) bloomed. This wasn’t just because she signed up for role after role, but also because the cinema itself (in Sri Lanka) was changing. She was in Lester James Peries’ second film Sandeshaya, where she was a mother. In Lester’s next, groundbreaking work Gamperaliya, she was chosen to play Matara Hamine when Irangani Serasinghe became unavailable. Serasinghe would play the same role in Bertram Nihal’s TV adaptation, but by all accounts, that was a performance meant for Lekha.

Why? Because Matara Hamine (from what I can recollect) as a mother, wife, and village matriarch was more reactive than proactive. There was a sense of fatalism in her, though she could be adamant at times. When she protested against her daughters, she wasn’t assertive, just weak and insistent (symbolising an old fading order). The Matara Hamine in Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel needed an actress who could epitomise all these qualities well and what’s more, was nuanced in her performance. With a voice that registered suffering, endurance, and equanimity, I believe Lekha was the ideal actress.

I remember Irangani Serasinghe telling me once that despite the fact that she’s known for playing the mother, no two mothers she played were the same. That’s true, but I wonder whether that was applicable to Lekha. Take any of her performances in this respect – in Parasathu Mal, Thun Man Handiya, Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, and Sikuruliya – and you eventually realise that for all her attempts at being assertive, in the end she gets more and more timid, to the point where she silently breaks down and relents. She played out variations of this whenever she was the mother.

In Parasathu Mal (opposite Punya Heendeniya), for instance, she opposes her daughter’s relationship with Tony Ranasinghe’s character and wants her to associate with Bonnie Mahattaya (Gamini Fonseka). Despite her harsh exchanges though, she is defeated towards the end. The same could be said of the mother (to Anula Karunathilake) in Ran Salu: conservative and traditionalist and opposed to her daughter’s affair with an engaged man as she is, she pales in front of her arguments and in the end, gives up on her. And in my favourite performance of hers, in Akkara Paha, she is the perfect Sri Lankan mother: not once does she criticise or berate her son, the well-meaning but wayward Sena, but on the contrary berates her husband when HE takes him to task for abandoning his studies. At that moment, she’s more concerned about his health and welfare than the fact that he’s squandered the money and effort his parents expended on him at the cost of their own livelihood. Like any mother would be, I suppose.

Shanthi Lekha acted in more than 500 films, about 300 of which had her as a mother. That’s a record. I’m not sure whether it’s unparalleled, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that she acted so much that, at the end of the day, she became indistinguishable from the characters she symbolised. In particular, Matara Hamine.

She died in 2009. She was 79 at the time. Had she lived, she would have been 85. A pity she did not. She certainly mothered the sons and daughters she doted on in her career, a truism which could have been said of any other actress (here and elsewhere) who played matriarchal roles. With Lekha, however, there was something different. She was the perfect mother, not because she was matriarchal but because, like all mothers from this little part of the world, she wanted her way over her children but, owing to their stubbornness and “murandu kama”, eventually relented. That’s how she won us, as consumers of cinema and as Sri Lankans, I’d like to think: by striking a chord with the mother and the child in all of us.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, July 27 2016

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Reflections on Sri Lanka's construction industry

Industries grow and have their peak-points. They face problems and aren't immune from slumps. They are all subject to decay, resurrection, and institutional flaws in equal measure. The trick isn't just identifying these, but making sure they don't resurface. In education, healthcare, and pretty much every other sector which the State holds a significant interest in, however, identification must precede solution.

This begs a lot of questions, naturally. Starting with the following: in the construction sector, who's responsible for what?

ICTAD, CIDA, and the Construction Industry Development Act

In the public sphere, the industry is (supposed to be) handled by the Construction Industry Development Authority (CIDA), which was preceded by the Institute of Construction Training and Development (ICTAD). The shift from the one to the other wasn't just to do with the name of the organisation: it was facilitated by a statute (the Construction Industry Development Act of 2014), the aim of which was to create a central body to look after the industry. At least theoretically.

The preamble of the Act invites scrutiny. According to that, CIDA’s main role is to "regulate, register, formalise, and standardise the activities of the construction industry." Logically, that means there was a discernible lack of standardisation before. And it gets more interesting further on: the Act creates an Authority, an Advisory Council, and a Fund. Again, this means these did not exist before. Do they now?

To ask that is to ask what the problems facing the industry are in the first place.

So what are they? I spoke with a veteran in the field some weeks back. He said he knew the answer. His name: Jayasiri Samaratunga.

Introducing Jayasiri Samaratunga

Samaratunga is a veteran. His father was S. D. Stephen, the formidable contractor. His involvement with the private sector speaks for itself: as Managing Director of his father's firm, S. D. Stephen and Co. Ltd. and later another firm, Idikarana (Pvt) Ltd. It's his involvement with the public sector, however, that one should look at.

He was involved with the formation of the National Construction Association of Sri Lanka (NCASL). He was Chairman there and now serves as an Advisor to the Chairman. The Institute of Construction Training and Development (ICTAD) is another organisation he can claim credit for, having served as a Director there until it morphed into CIDA in 2014.

He is also a Council Member of the Sri Lanka National Arbitration Centre, the oldest organisation dedicated to resolving commercial and administrative disputes. He represented Sri Lanka at the 26th International Federation of Asian and Western Pacific Contractors' Associations (IFAWPCA) Convention, held in Tokyo in 1993, and was on the scene again when Sri Lanka got the chance to host it in 1999.

Problems and flaws

I first ask him to identify the most immediate problems facing the industry. He is quick and firm: there's a labour shortage. I ask him to elaborate and he obliges. "There aren't enough workers in this sector anymore," he says, "We can point at two reasons. Firstly, this isn't a lucrative profession. Those who enter it do so to earn a living for and educate their children, who are consequently driven off to other professions. Their parents hence flock by the dozen to the city." He observes that because the profession is physically demanding, "it's impossible to think of a career after you turn 50." Which brings him to the second reason: the sector doesn't offer enough job security.

He contends that people shy away from jobs on account of this stark fact. Not that he blames them: "To date, we haven't implemented EPF and ETF provisions for workers. To make matters worse, construction jobs are unstable, hardly the 9 to 5 job some make it out to be. If you're a builder, in other words, you can't expect to be in one place. Your work may take you to every corner of the country. We also have peak and off-peak seasons. During the monsoon period, for instance, construction jobs are few and far in-between. The solution? We need to not just attract but retain workers in a way which accrues benefits to them."

The best way to forecast flaws and shortfalls in any industry is to take a census. The problem with the construction sector is that there's no census-taking body. I ask Samaratunga about whether the 2014 Act ameliorated this problem. He says that it has not. "We still don’t know how many craftsmen we have," he says, "Numbers are important because they help us foresee the deficits which may face the industry: if we knew how many builders we have, for instance, we could adjust for these oscillations which ail us even today."

Workforce issues

Samaratunga reckons that only about 2% in the industry get some form of perk in addition to their pay, and that these make up the permanent workforce. What of the remaining 98%? Who are responsible for them? Or more to the point, who should be?

Two parties are involved in any construction project: the contractor and the investor. The investor puts the money in, the contractor delivers. If the former funds the latter then, doesn’t it make sense for the contractor to list out the perks and other benefits accruing to the worker in his the amount he bills? Samaratunga thinks so, but adds a caveat: most labourers are treated as "freelancers", which together with the mad rush to cut down on costs means that they are at the mercy of both parties.

One solution would be to stipulate those perks under the project's Bill of Quantities. Samaratunga elaborates: "The Bill of Quantities (BOQ) basically lists down every cost arising out of that particular contract, be it raw material, labour, or overheads. Every item is quantified to make it easier for contractor and investor to see how much they have to spend. I argued in 2014 that the BOQ should include EPF and ETF provisions.

"I thought this to be a practical solution because it doesn't burden the contractor: it's already stipulated as an obligation to be met by the other party. More to the point, I suggested that insurance and pension benefits accruing to the workers be categorised as 'Preliminary Items', which basically include the start-up, sunk, and various other costs related to a job. The contractor needn’t worry because these are accounted for at the outset. It's more or less a legal obligation on the other party."

Perspectives on the Act

Acts of Parliament are more often than not adhered to in spirit than in letter. Has CIDA suffered the same fate? I ask Samaratunga to list out the provisions which weren't implemented. "Forget provisions which weren’t unimplemented, there were problems even in the way the Act was discussed!" is his reply.

There’s no sense creating an Authority without ascertaining how it will be financed. Section 19 created a Construction Industry Development Fund, supposedly to look after the labourer's interests. In part, the Fund would collect a set amount from each and every project (through the Construction Industry Development levy) and more than 50% of the collected amount would be reserved for craftsmen and small-scale contractors. As of today though, it remains unimplemented.

Moreover, the Act created a census-taking entity. This was theoretically accounted for in Section 55, which established or was supposed to establish an Authority to maintain a National Construction Database. Again, unimplemented.

Samaratunga then moves on the problems faced when the Act itself was being discussed. "One of the biggest complaints we hear from those in high positions today is that there’s an influx of foreign consultants who pass off as locals and rob jobs from our people. The fear is justifiable, the paranoia excusable, but those who make these claims forget how much we tried to insert clauses to protect this industry from such threats."

I prompt him to explain. "I don’t want to get into the niceties of the obstacles we had to contend against, but I will say this: those who howl against the threat posed by foreign consultants forget that we were at the forefront of the campaign they champion now, when we struggled to insert provisions which would subject such consultants to various criteria. These howlers were curiously silent and inert back then. Even when our attempts became futile thanks to political pressure. The reason? You tell me."

Alternative perspectives and statistics

Samaratunga's involvement, to be fair, has been mostly with the public sector. What of the private sector? In 2015 the industry growth rate fell down to 6.6% from an average of 7%, while in 2016 it actually contracted by 0.9%. On the other hand (according to the Department of Census and Statistics), the contribution to the GDP by the industry was Rs 89 million in the third quarter of 2015, while in the fourth quarter it was Rs 95 million: a 6.8% increase. Hardly reason for lament, some may argue.

It’s not all rosy, however. Contractors have moved away from the housing sector, in part because of the megaprojects initiated by the previous government. Until 2013, for instance, infrastructure and housing construction grew by about 18% annually, while in 2014 that rate fell down to 15%. It was around then that the Port City project was initiated (among others). Given that they were temporarily halted thanks to the political storm they ran into and given the aforementioned dip in the housing sector, this means that whatever growth the industry is enjoying now can be traced back to those megaprojects its top players are (still) engaged with.

Should there be a paradigm shift then? Not really. Consider the costs borne by these same top players: in 2015, according to Sandeep Holey of UltraTech Cement Lanka, the per capita consumption of cement was 220 kg as opposed to a world average of 440. There clearly is a scope for growth in the industry. But does that mean the issues highlighted by these same top players are nondescript and hollow? Maybe. Samaratunga's assertions about their tirade against foreign consultants merit a second glance hence, not least because of his own attempt at inserting provisions to that end when the CID Bill was being debated.

Meanwhile, there are other issues. Last year, at a seminar themed "Construction Industry and the Way Forward" and organised by the National Chamber of Commerce, Surath Wickramasinghe (Chairman of the Chamber of Construction Industry or CCI) pointed these out. Among them, the red tape encountered in getting projects approved, the absence of indemnity insurance for professionals, and an overall lack of industrial policy were problems he took apart and censured. He urged CIDA to be more proactive with the Ministers involved, and if possible to get another Act passed and enacted to ameliorate these.

Is there a need for another Act, though? Samaratunga says he doesn't think so. "Most of what are paraded as issues which require remedy are, in fact, addressed in the CIDA. But as I mentioned earlier, there were problems we encountered. There was political pressure. Interference. We had to bear up with all that, not least because the government was confused about which minister and parliamentarian was in charge of the industry. As was predicted, then, we got a skewed version of the Act we originally wanted. This is why we don't need a new document: if we can fix what we already have, there's enough and more we can do."

Concluding remarks

No one can seriously contend that the industry is in dire straits. In 2000, for instance, there was zero growth due to a war we aren't facing now. Sri Lanka is a middle income country now, and the middle class is largely consumerist. The housing sector hasn't slumped by a wide margin for this reason, and as for projects initiated by the former government, they are being recommenced. In terms of the private, professional sector then, there's really no cause for serious complaint.

On the other hand, Jayasiri Samaratunga's assertions are worth revisiting. As I pointed out, in any industry where the government holds an interest, identification must precede solution. We already have an Act (scuttled though it is) which pretty much identifies the issue and offers the relevant solution. Yes, it's been passed, not enacted. But that in itself vindicates Samaratunga's point: it it's broke, fix it! New statutes, new ministries, and new restructuring mechanisms: these appear superfluous at best and what's more, unnecessary.

We've had perspectives and reflections being articulated all this while. The problems have been identified, clearly. Time to get on with the solution. That's the next step. The necessary next step.

This is a longer version of the inaugural article of a column in "Ceylon Today" titled "Problems, Perspectives, and Solutions" which I will be writing to. Starting this week, I will be delving into various industries and socioeconomic issues ailing the country and assessing possible remedies for them that we can come up with.

Written for: Ceylon Today, July 26 2016

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In the name of sanity and reason

Malinda Seneviratne has an eye for comment. He knows the political. He can debate and win and what’s more, without resorting to emotion and rhetoric. That’s rare. Consequently it’s difficult to imagine him playing second fiddle to anyone, politician or ideologue. He has his views and I don’t agree with many of them, but the fact of the matter is that he's no “lapdog”. And why? Because of the one weapon he has at his disposal whenever someone has an issue with what he’s written: reason.

A few days ago, Ranil Wickremesinghe lambasted certain journalists. He noted they’d been in the pay of the previous regime and threatened to reveal their names. This is of course not the first time and certainly not the last time he’s done such a thing. This article, however, is not about Mr Wickremesinghe or his gripe with journalists. It’s about something else.

Malinda wrote on the Prime Minister’s rant. Again, not the first time. If you peruse the articles he wrote to “The Island”, the now defunct Sunday “Lakbima”, the “Daily News”, and “The Nation”, you’ll come across so many instances where he has criticised the Prime Minister and understand why: because he knows Wickremesinghe’s CV and disagrees with his stances on issues Malinda clearly is a nationalist on. That’s not to say Mr Wickremesinghe is not a nationalist (he is), but then again there are degrees of nationalism and Malinda is ahead of most politicians (the populists of the previous regime included) on that count. This article, therefore, is about Malinda Seneviratne.

I started reading Malinda in “The Nation”. No, not when he was Editor. He was, I remember, a contributor to a weekly political column. The first thing that struck me was his nationalist thrust, something I hadn’t come across in those who wrote to English newspapers (not that there weren’t others of course). He writes with a kind of clarity his opponents can’t match. I suppose clarity tends to attract rubbish paraded as counterargument, which explains why, over the years, he’s been at the receiving end of vitriol and third-rate, below the belt comments by those who have no clue about his stances.

He has been called a Mahinda loyalist, stooge, sycophant, and shill. He has been vilified, lambasted, defamed, and debased. A lesser writer would have given up. He has not. Speaks volumes about the man, as it does about those who choose to slander and in other ways abuse him with words.

Let me come out with it. For years, he pointed out flaws in Constitutional provisions, guarantees, and amendments. For years, he argued for reform. For years, he supported the nation, not Mahinda Rajapaksa. For years, he objected to intimidation and dissected dissent. For years, he made it clear that the end of war was not the beginning of peace. For years, all this was ignored and he got a lovely title: chauvinist.

As such it’s predictable that when he calls a spade a spade with respect to the Prime Minister’s tirades, those who have an axe to grind with him will howl “Hypocrite!” The hypocrite-tag is, however, both unwarranted and uncalled for, not (only) because Malinda doesn’t deserve it, but also because using that on the dissident tends to concede power and ego to the powers that be. I’m sure everyone knows this.

No, I don’t agree with him on everything (as I pointed out before). I have issues with some of his positions. We don’t see eye to eye on certain matters. But I know one thing: he is less politically coloured than I am. More to the point, he is less politically coloured than any of us. Hardly reason for censure, wouldn’t you agree?

Moving on.

We were promised change in 2015. Change, they say, comes in different shades. Some would say point at relative merits. Others would push for perfection. I think it’s safe to say, as Tisaranee Gunasekara has, that this regime has done everything it can to be marginally superior in terms of corruption, nepotism, and venality to the Rajapaksa Regime. Telling.

Forget all this, though. Ask yourself: does the revolution end with the changing of the guard or does it live forever? “Revolution is Dissent!” Warren Beatty (acting as John Reed, the American journalist who covered the 1917 upheaval in Russia) exclaims in his film Reds. True. That’s why dissent is predicated on critique. Healthy, necessary critique. The sort that survives regime-change.

Now some will of course argue that there’s a line between critique and sycophancy. Who decides that line, though? The government? The Editor’s Guild? Malinda Seneviratne? Your neighbour? Then there’s another argument: freedom must go with responsibility. Again, who decides the parameters of that responsibility? Didn’t the Rajapaksa Regime try to do that? Didn’t they fail? And didn’t those who bring up these arguments now use to howl (by their keyboards and computer screens) whenever Rajapaksa “blanked” the media?

2015 did more than change a regime, folks. It undressed a lot of people. Those who clamoured for revolution and bayed for blood in their rush to “get” good governance became silent. Their rebellion used to be for ABSOLUTE change. Right now though, I am willing to bet, they’ll probably be content with RELATIVE merits. A totally different destination, ladies and gentleman.

True, these are still early days. We don’t really know this government’s position on the media. We can cut them some slack. At the same time though, we can guess. And we can have the likes of Malinda help us guess.

As for the Prime Minister’s tirades, they remind me of what the late S. L. Gunasekara once said. He was speaking at a seminar on the media. The year was 1997. The speaker before him was Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe had waxed eloquent on media freedom. The UNP was in the Opposition then. And two plus two equals four.

Here’s what S. L. said: "I think the press are somewhat paranoid when they think that all politicians hate them and want to destroy them. I disagree entirely. When the SLFP was in opposition, it loved the media in the same manner as UNP loves it now, with the enduring passion of a Romeo for his Juliet."

That was S. L. Spoke his mind. Didn’t suffer mediocrity. To the point. Brash. And politically colourless. Like Malinda.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Freelancers aren't free!

Not everyone has time on their hands. Not everyone has the luxury of patience in this vast, interminable world. Not everyone’s plate is full. Not everyone has or rather can afford to reserve time for others, and even if they could they end up giving up what they could have done for themselves. That’s blunt, but the truth is nothing but blunt. As such it’s remarkable, monstrous, and even astounding, to see how those who get impatient at the slightest jolt in their schedules expect others to have hours and days of freedom on their hands.

Let’s get this straight. Freelancers aren’t free. They can write for hours and hours on some vague, confused topic and make it clear for the benefit of the reader, but they expect (as they should) some form of compensation. There are reasons why newspapers are missing out on good writers nowadays, after all, and one reason clearly is the way creative writers are being underwritten. Now “underwritten” is a strong word, but it takes a strong word to drive home an unpleasant point, so I will restate what I said: those who write and take away from their schedule even two hours of their time must be paid or in some way compensated.

Because compensation isn’t a privilege, it’s a birthright. By dedicating hours to a computer to type up an article you had to research for, you’re doing the publisher or editor a favour. The “exposure argument", which the above cartoon so brilliantly debunks, can get you only so far. Exposure isn’t going to pay through your rent, taxes, food, and married life. The argument will be given by those who sit on comfortable chairs and have everything at their beck and call. They get big bucks, we don’t. If that isn’t exploitation or deception, I don’t know what is.

In the West the freelancers are unionising. We are behind them because these freelancers, as an article in the New Republic points out, are contributors to digital media. We are behind them because forget our digital media, even our print media doesn’t pay us at times! Max Rivlin-Nadler, who wrote that article and is himself a freelancer, admits: “freelancers were never really meant to live entirely off of their earnings.” True. That makes our situation even more pathetic when considering how even print-media publishers and editors here refuse to pay us.

Birthrights shouldn’t be demanded for. They should be affirmed and accepted by the other party, by default. We don’t want to say “Pay us”! We want those to whom we write to bring up the subject of payments, to recognise that we have time on our hands but insofar as we are compensated for spending money, research, and brainpower on them. “Sri Lanka is a cultural desert,” Sir Ivor Jennings once observed, and notwithstanding my anti-imperialist sympathies I am with him there because we keep on rubbishing creativity and rewarding mediocrity. Even now.

In my experience so far, the best writers have emerged from outside the newspaper industry. And why? Because the best writers are fed up. Their salvation, as freelancers at least, lies in the magazine world or those various unpaid, volunteer sites which get them more exposure than the printed word. Yes, there was a time when writers dazzled us with their prose in newspapers – Regi Siriwardena, Ajith Samaranayake, Rajpal Abeynayake, Malinda Seneviratne, the list goes on but ends somewhere – but now the best prose stylists either have blogs or write to magazines. Dhanuka Bandara writes excellently, and he wrote to “The Nation” and “Ceylon Today”. But “The Nation” closed down and “Ceylon Today”, for some obscure reason, allowed him to go away. Why?

So to wrap up: don’t write for free. Don’t expect exposure to salvage you forever. The “exposure argument”, as I mentioned before, will be given by those who have the luxury of time and money on their hands, who get paid for the littlest thing they do and who get compensated for the extra mile they walk. We walk that extra mile too. About time we got recognised.

No, I’m not saying we should get unionised. But we should assert. That’s a first step. A necessary first step.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer pen for hire. He can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reflections on Premakeerthi de Alwis

There are certain things we look out for in a song. For better or worse however, the melody and the voice tend to predominate. Few would, I'm willing to bet, look for the lyricist. Not that he or she is marginalised and in other ways skewed of course, but when a song's worth is being assessed, it's what pleases the ears (more than just words) that crop up at once. Consequently then, identity is ascribed to that which wins immediate attention, a truism which applies to any work of art and not just music. I can think of a few good reasons why this happens. Now's not the time, though.

Lyricists display their worth in ways which scholarship can't really do much justice to at times. Some would argue that this is especially true when it comes to lyricists who wrote simply and to the point. I would agree. Such writers tend to know the simplest mode of expression. Among them, Premakeerthi de Alwis, who would have been 69 this year and 70 the next. Had he lived.

Premakeerthi had a way with words. He wrote cogently. He wrote prodigiously. So prodigiously that no one can contend he didn't write enough. He wasn't selective in the themes he chose to write on, moreover: some of his best songs were in fact rooted in personal experience. His triumph was that this didn't make them (too) personalised. Not surprisingly, they touched us. Almost as though they'd been written for us.

On the other hand, it wasn't just experience he turned to words. He could be didactic. He turned the world we lived in, looked at our collective hypocrisy, and called a spade a spade, giving his words to the one person who could and did retain satire in them all, Freddie Silva.

Here, for instance, are the opening lines to "Handa Mama"

හඳ මාමා උඩින් යතේ
අපෙ මාමා බිමින් යතේ...

In the course of that song, Freddie and Premakeerthi talk of accomplishment and failure, of those who strive and those who choose to idle.

දියුණු වන්න වේලාවක් නැති විය
අපෙ මාමා තව පහළ ගියා
රාජකාරි හරි අකුරට ඉටුකළ 
හඳ මාමා තව ඉහළ ගියා...

And yet, there's humour. Enough and more to make us laugh at ourselves, a feat both singer and lyricist achieve in their other work. Even in "Boru Kakul Karaya", which begins with a conversation between a son and father over some men on stilts and then meanders to social discourse, that can be seen:

බොරු අහංකාරකම්
කෙනෙකුගෙ නැතිවුණොත් හිතේ
එයා උඩින් නොවෙයි බිමින්
ගියත් වැරැද්දක් නැතේ
බොරුකකුල් මෙයා වාගෙ
බැඳල නැති නමුත් පුතේ...
ඔය වාගෙ උඩින් යන ඈයෝ
හුඟක් ලොව ඇතේ...

He was not political. Just didactic. That's how we got his message.

What else did he do? In these songs (as with his later work), Premakeerthi toyed around with metaphor and imagery and brought the two together. He was never one to abandon the one for the other, never one to favour abstraction over simplicity. In the phase that followed, he cultivated and honed in on this ability of his so much that he matured. Which was why, in the two songs most associated with Mervyn Perera today ("Obe Dedunna Akasaye" and "Mey Nagaraye"), the imagery seemed to flow off the words and voice almost effortlessly:

සුළඟේ නළවා
පෙර සේ එනවා
ඔබ මා කළඹා
කිමදෝ යන්නෙ නොරැඳී ගලා...

I'm no poet and my knowledge of Sinhala is at best limited, but when I listen to these lyrics today I can only conclude that the man visualised and imagined (and not just penned) what he wrote. How else, one can legitimately wonder, could he adapt the vocal texture of his language to another in "Kundumani", where Freddie Silva triumphed with Premakeerthi (and also Victor Ratnayake, the composer) and did as a singer what Gamini Fonseka did as an actor (in the film “Sarungale”): articulate Sinhala as a Tamil would so starkly that it was hard to spot the difference?

But if all this was true, why was this man forgotten? Why was he haunted by anonymity? And why do we still "discover" his work?

Because he wrote for the vocalist, some will reply. Because he wrote for the image and that image dissolved into melody, others will conjecture. Either way, no one can concede (as they can with other lyricists, even those celebrated today) that he didn't write enough. If they can, it goes to show that he shouldn't have been robbed from us, that he should have survived and continued to live with us. He was overwhelmed with so many requests to write by those who doted on him. They would have continued pestering and requesting him to write more had he lived, I'm sure.

On July 31, 1989, he was gunned down. He'd announced (for he had a voice and he could speak) at a Gam Udawa ceremony a few days earlier. That was a crime for his assailants in terms of political preferences and rhetoric, a crime punishable only by death. A strange line of thinking, but then again politics (and ideology) does strange things to human beings. Sure, people have been killed for lesser crimes. But with Premakeerthi that wasn't just murder. That was theft. A theft so serious that upon his erasure, we lost not just a lyricist but a resident of this country we would have been proud to call "One of us!"

That is why we celebrate his life today. We celebrate it not merely because he wrote so well but because he wrote for us and in turn ABOUT us. For we were those who walk on stilts, who idle and celebrate idleness even as they admonish other idlers, and who feel the pain of love as intimately as he might have. He derived authenticity from us. In the end, we gave him as much as we took (and learnt) from him. The best tribute to such an artiste, I'm sure, would be remembrance. Not frill. And certainly not anonymity.

Portrait by: Gamini Abeykoon

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, July 24 2016

Friday, July 15, 2016

On people, poverty, parties, and the periphery

About two years ago, someone pointed out to me that the SLFP housed racists and the UNP housed those who were against racism. I believed him, but pointed out that it’s always a fallacy to associate a political party with a set political ideology, especially in as small and unpredictable country as ours. I also noted that people don’t always pick party-colour on the basis of personal beliefs. This was of course before the 2015 Presidential Election.

Since then events have borne out what I said. The 2015 Election (for better or worse) erased the distinction between the two parties in terms of their congruence with personal belief. The SLFP, at least under Mahinda Rajapaksa, was associated with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The UNP was not. But the racists were there voting for both, not because they were confused but because (especially in the case of the UNP) they took it for granted that their personal beliefs were already fixed and framed by constitutional guarantees, laws, and rhetoric. They didn’t need a vote to ensure all that. The floating voter, let’s not forget, was shifted to the Common Opposition by the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party hardly known for its cosmopolitanism.

Soon after the election I pointed out that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s moves towards creating an ideology that would eventually give rise to a Third Force (the Joint Opposition) made use of the race-card. He claimed (quite erroneously) that he lost because of the North and East. He did not accept defeat. He did not twiddle thumbs. Instead, being the astute strategist he is, he made use of the kind of voter the SLFP was normally associated with (the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist) and, upon his rejection from that party by those hardly considered to be sympathisers of Sinhala Buddhist interests, entranced that voter to his side. The rest, they say, is history.

The lesson 2015 taught us was this: political ideologies aren’t necessarily shaped by personal beliefs. I hence observed in an article submitted to the Colombo Telegraph (“On Straight Lines that Curve and Don’t Exist”) that inasmuch as the SLFP was from its inception associated with the kind of nationalist extremism that the UNP tries hard to avoid, the truth was that when it came to winning elections and mandates both parties were guilty, in some form or the other, of pandering to racism. I should have also observed, as I did not, that both are guilty of pandering to poverty.

The Joint Opposition, which loves to paint things in black and white (not that the government doesn’t), frequently claims or implies that the country is “being sold”. It was sold the moment national policy was subjected to the whims and fancies of the IMF, the World Bank, and other dubious agencies with even more dubious track records, and this process continued essentially unhindered during the time of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Pandering to poverty, did I say? Well yes, but only in times of elections. After the elections, the poor remain as screwed as they were before them.

The only difference with Rajapaksa was, however, that he managed to politicise poverty in ways no one in the present government or preceding him (with the exception of Ranasinghe Premadasa) has quite matched (the way he “handled” Samurdhi speaks for itself, I should think). That he succeeded in this can be gleaned from the results of the January Election in 2015: while the cosmopolitan urbanised areas (regardless of the faith adhered to by the majority community therein) voted for Maithripala Sirisena, polling divisions like Anamaduwa (considered to be the poorest in the country) voted overwhelmingly for the incumbent.

Why? The most common reason those who voted for the winning side will tell you: “Because they’re uneducated and gullible!” When I pointed this out to a friend, he gave a clearer answer: “Because they’ve been drugged to believe Mahinda’s gospel.” In the days following the election, Rajapaksa’s rhetoric about the North and East dumping him (which he shouldn’t have mouthed) led commentators to conclude that those who voted for the man weren’t just extremists, but poor and stupid. How? Because the poor (as the demographics show) voted in large numbers for the incumbent. “Stupid is as stupid does,” some will say.

But I disagree. The comments made by Akila Viraj Kariyawasam (while still in the opposition) which gave rise to the baiya-toiya dichotomy, buttressed by what the inimitable Sarath de Alwis called Ranil Wickremesinghe’s “Royalist Regency”, did little to nothing to heal the fissures in citizenry that Maithripala Sirisena’s victory gave birth to. If at all, thanks to both the Joint Opposition and the government, those fissures remain as divisive as ever.

Look at it this way. What triumphed in the days and months following the election was meritocracy over nationalism. True, those who support the former president conflate meritocracy with minoritarianism (while supporters of the incumbent regime conflate it with pragmatism), but even despite that, we can conclude that what won in 2015 was a cosmopolitan variant of technocracy which the likes of Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne had valiantly developed.

Now I have nothing against meritocracies. In a country like ours, which has sustained and institutionalised corruption so much that the government’s supporters now defend it on the basis of relative (and not absolute) merits, we need to embrace a culture which rewards talent, not power.

But there’s a problem. The masses who remain detached from the centre are connected to the periphery (i.e. those who reach out to them, not just politicians), which lacks meritocrats. The discriminating minority who remain detached from the periphery are connected to the centre, which lacks popularity.

Sure, the likes of Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne are among the most decent politicians we’ll get, but I wonder whether the “Royalist Regency” alluded to by Sarath de Alwis will be enough to salvage an essentially corrupt system. Put simply, those who have merit are associated with the kind of prestige (based essentially on the kind of institutions they come from) that the masses aren’t impressed with. Merit is good, but when linked with prestige that can have serious consequences for the kind of voter the Joint Opposition (which has its lion’s share of politicians who have both merit and popularity, notwithstanding the idiots who garland it in public) woos and continues to woo. I don’t like to pick on schools or institutions, but I will say this: just because you’re prestigious and have merit, doesn’t mean the people will be moved by you.

There’s more.

In his now classic satire on class differentiation, “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, Michael Young argues that the creation of a class of technocrats detached from the pulse of the common man was inevitable in a society (and education system) which linked intelligence with economic power.

In 2001 Young revisited his book in an article written to The Guardian (“Down with meritocracy”) where he pointed out the differences between the Labour governments of Clement Attlee and Tony Blair: the former housed by ministers who had working class backgrounds (like Ernest Bevin), the latter housed by ministers who’d spent their teenage years at Cambridge and Oxford (like David Miliband). Taking a cue from Sarath de Alwis, I’d have called this the “Oxbridge Regency”. I suspect I wouldn’t be wrong if I did and I believe it holds true. Even now.

Here’s what Young wrote in that article: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” I’m not arguing that those with merit always congeal into a social class that seeks to be differentiated from the rest by its economic clout, but I am saying that the risk of such a thing happening in a society which affirms class stratification isn’t small. Even in as welfarist a society as ours.

And you know what? Neither the government nor the Joint Opposition is helping. The irony is that the sort of economic power-based values each purports to affirm is at variance with what they do in reality. For instance, it was (if I remember correctly) Akila Viraj Kariyawasam who first made a snide remark against the baiyas and it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who ended his Budget Speech in 2014 by declaring his pride at being a baiya, but just the other day those who support the Rajapaksa cabal (and hence the baiyas) were openly mocking Kariyawasam when a video of the latter awkwardly speaking in English at an official function emerged. Where’s the logic in that, one can legitimately ask.

Despite this manifest hypocrisy of the Joint Opposition (which isn’t to say that sections of the government don’t indulge in hypocrisy – the fact is that we all do), however, I believe its message is correct, unintended though it would have been. Merit is good. Confusing merit with prestige, on the other hand, isn’t.

And you know the irony of all this? Despite their best intentions, those who contend for a better and more prosperous Sri Lanka work from the centre. The masses, on the other hand, live in the periphery. The centre and the periphery, clearly, haven’t met. When I think of that, I am reminded of what Rand Paul, the American senator who despite his hardcore stance on social issues wins my respect, said in his response to Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address:

Before I ran for office, I practiced medicine for nearly 20 years in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Liberal elites fly over my small town, but they don’t understand us. They simply seek to impose their will upon us – from what insurance we can buy, to what light bulbs we can use, to how we generate electricity.

Most of us in flyover country, and I suspect many who live in our big cities, think those in government take us for granted. Those of us who are actively pursuing the American Dream simply want government to get out of our way.

For those of us who feel separated and distant from the American Dream, we don’t want be perpetually talked down to, forgotten, and left in perpetual poverty. Many are discouraged that the “gifts” offered by liberals have not generated wealth, but rather perpetuated poverty.

There are those who mock Donald Trump (and by the same token, Rand Paul) on account of what they feel to be his crass attempts at pandering to the lowest social denominator. There are those who commend Hillary Clinton for raising her platform to the highest social denominator. Both commentators are wrong. Dead wrong.

So let me be as simple as I can. The “liberal elites”, or in the case of this country the meritocrats, remain uprooted. They continue to come from the city and they continue to stand for urban, secular values which don’t strike a chord with either the South or North. They stand for decency and high office, but by their actions (conflating decency with merit and merit with prestige and prestige with economic clout) they become no better than the vulgar bumpkins they see in the Joint Opposition.

The truth, then, is that no politician in this country panders to poverty except when elections are around the corner. That’s bad enough. Having a government which Michael Young would have based another satirical book on (had he lived today) is worse.

About time we understood this. And about time we realised that Regencies (whether Royalist or Oxbridge) can’t salvage societies by themselves. We need people. People who’re connected with the periphery.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Reflections on a cosmopolite

Douglas Ranasinghe once told me a story. He had indulged in the cinema, the theatre, radio, and television, and had wanted to direct a film. For that though, he needed a scriptwriter. Not just a good scriptwriter but someone who was sensitive to the nuances of language. Inevitably, having considered several names, he picked one. The man he wanted was reputed not just for his scripts but for a great many other things besides, ranging from literary criticism to poetry. Ranasinghe knew him well, so he approached him.

He smiled. He talked. There was conversation which effortlessly flowed. Soon enough, Ranasinghe broached his offer. I don't know whether he expected assent immediately, but I do know he was taken aback by the reply.

For the response the man gave was quick, to the point, and summed up everything he stood for: "I'm done writing scripts, Douglas. I'm pursuing other things now." He explained further: he was writing his own scripts, not for films but for his own plays. Ever the pliable, pleasant man, Ranasinghe accepted his refusal.

Relating this story to me several years later, he offered his two cents on the man. "He was, all things considered, a 'cosmopolite'. He knew what he did. He was no charlatan. Every interest and hobby he pursued turned into a passion. When he refused my request that day, he didn't offer the kind of excuse people his age normally would. He really meant what he said. He truly was done with the cinema. He really did want to go beyond."

That man had a name. Regi Siriwardena.

Siriwardena is known more than anything else for what he wrote. He wrote on everything: on politics, culture, the cinema, and the theatre. He was never ostentatious for the simple reason that he was so familiar with whatever topic or subject he chose to dissect. The true genius of the man, as someone who knew and associated with him closely over the years told me, was that he could compartmentalise and yet appreciate the link between art-forms. That is why, when he wrote on Maname and Rekava 25 years after they were staged and screened, you could see how he brought out the commonalities and social context which bound the one to the other.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Regi Siriwardena was born on May 15, 1922 to a middle class family in Ratmalana. His father was a government clerk who spoke English and read Macaulay. His mother, on the other hand, spoke in Sinhala. It was from her that young Siriwardena learnt his mother tongue, although in later years he would admit his deficiencies in that language. His father had gathered some debts throughout his career and upon his death leave his family in dire financial straits. But young Regi had something which money couldn't ward off: an ability to wield English, something he improved on so much that in later years (he would admit) it compensated for the economic problems his family would face.

He was educated at S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia and later Ananda, finding a place he could call his second home in the latter. In both he was the eclectic, the student who found solace in poetry and literature. He would later be awarded a scholarship to University College, the precursor to the University of Colombo and back then housed by the likes of E. F. C. Ludowyk and Doric de Souza. As he progressed intellectually, Ludowyk and Souza initiated young Siriwardena to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), in which he was an active member during the Second World War before signing off.

He was later hired by Esmond Wickremesinghe, a former leftist who had (perhaps owing to Cold War realities and his upbringing) turned to the Right, to write for the Ceylon Daily News. I'm sure he found the art or politics (I can never tell which) of editorialising rather disillusioning. He would hence leave the Daily News in the early 1960s. Having authored several well written out if not sketchy articles on the cinema, the theatre, and painting by that time, he'd befriended several artistes involved in uplifting the local cultural scene. Among them, Lester James Peries.

He thus turned to writing scripts. He scripted Gamperaliya. In later years he scripted Delovak Athara and Golu Hadawatha, both landmarks for their time and both directed by Lester. I remember Sumitra Peries once telling me that the man was so prodigious and efficient that he ended up typing the entire script of Golu Hadawatha in one night. "Of course it wasn't that hard, since the dialogues were already there in the novel," she added, "But you must understand that script-writing isn't just about dialogues. Regi understood this better than anyone else in his day."

For better or worse, we are told to specialise in whatever field we're good in today. We can't specialise in everything, not because we're unable to but because in this globalised, cohesive world of ours it makes sense to do what you're best at and use that to obtain something you aren’t good at from someone else. True, we do come across eclectic people, those who superficially have engaged in one field but whose output extends to other interests and activities. But they are rare.

Regi Siriwardena didn't really "specialise". He pursued both the political and artistic to his dying day, going so far as to publish novels, anthologies, and even a couple or so plays to his name. I admit I haven't read them all, but what little I have - like his novel, "Among My Souvenirs" - have made me realise the immense worth of this unique man, who turned everything he tread on into a passion.

No, he wasn't really a star. But his involvement in the cinema deserves more than a footnote. He didn't just write scripts, after all, but went as far as to dissect our film industry for what it was, warts and all. Read his reviews of films which emerged in later years - like Dharmasiri Bandaranayake's Hansa Vilak or Vasantha Obeyesekere's Palagetiyo and Dadayama - and you will understand how clinical he could be as a critic. He called Hansa Vilak a “permanent landmark” and Dadayama a “great leap”, but in both he understood the limitations within which the director had to work. Unlike critics today, he accounted for them before giving his take on them.

The gap between the image and the word is pertinent especially for a country like ours, small as its film industry (still) is. When Lester James Peries filmed Rekava and transcended the narrow outlook embedded in that film with Gamperaliya, he went for an adaptation of an existing text. The challenge wasn't just to transform the written word into visuals, but to emancipate the adaptation from the confines of the novel. This Siriwardena did, and in the end what we got was a form of cinema which turned popular audiences (in part at least) away from melodrama to an art-form which centered more on characters and personal relations than on plot. Delovak Athara, which followed Gamperaliya, proved that this was true even of films based on original stories. In both instances, Regi was scriptwriter. That would have helped. Immensely.

Today, I'm willing to bet, we need a Regi Siriwardena more than ever. Not only because he could write well, but because he showed us all, for one moment at least, that you could wield the pen and contribute to the country's cultural discourse. I'm not sure why he felt he had gone beyond writing scripts, but all guesses are that he'd done enough and more in that field by the time Douglas Ranasinghe decided to pay him a visit.

And so I conclude: if this man who preferred simplicity to his last, who didn't come from an established background, could tower over our cultural firmament, why should we who are blessed with opportunity complain? To me this remains the greatest lesson Regi Siriwardena taught us, in his own special way. 12 years after his death, I feel, this lesson remains relevant, both for us and for generations that will follow.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, July 13 2016

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Madura Kulatunga reflects

The first thing that strikes you about Madura Kulatunga is that he’s open and friendly.  That almost puts you off, and it takes some time to realise that the person you’re talking to made quite an important contribution to our “techno-scape” in his day.

But then you realise, as you go on talking with him, that he doesn’t underestimate his achievements, hasn’t marginalised them, and has come to realise how much more he could do for others with them.

Madura was born on March 23, 1980 in Matara. He was educated at Royal College, where he developed an interest in computing. “The problem was that we were from a generation which wasn’t conversant in IT. Yes, Royal had a Computer Society, but for the most those who became members came from affluent backgrounds and knew reasonably well how to use a computer.” On the other hand, he and his friends would jaunt off to Union Place almost every day: “There was an internet café there and, being the eager little boy I was, I revelled in surfing the web.”

Those who think he envisioned a career in IT or Science at school might be a little surprised, though. “I didn’t even choose Science for my A/Levels, but opted for Commerce!” he laughs. Having passed out in 1999, he began his journey in computing only after he’d left Royal.

A few years later he pursued a Diploma in Computing at the National Youth Centre in Maharagama. It was there that he came to terms with his biggest problem. “My teachers taught us in English. I found that hard. On the other hand, they taught us so well that I took in everything they said. None of them came and taught with the intention to earn. We could see they loved what they did.”

Soon after completing his course at the Youth Centre, he got himself enrolled in Abacus Computers. “I didn’t come from a very affluent background. My parents were civil servants. But they knew how much I’d grown to love the subject, and for that reason, hard as it was on their pockets, they bought me a computer. I remember the specifications of it even now: a Pentium III 733 MHz PC, which may seem like a dinosaur by today’s standards but which cost 55,000 rupees and was certainly worth its weight in gold back then!”

At Abacus Computers, Madura studied for a Special Diploma in Information Technology, which (by his own confession) wasn’t as well recognised as the qualification he’d obtained before. But if the previous course had inculcated an interest in software in young Madura, the Abacus course inculcated it even more. It was also there that he realised how much of a problem his deficiency in English was, particularly since he began reading on an area he felt his course wasn’t teaching in full: Visual Basic.

“I remember going to Sarasavi and buying a book on VB. Back then we were recommended ‘Sam’s Teach Yourself’ tutorial books. In fact that is what I tried to get that day. But my eyes fell on another book, which name I don’t remember now, and for some reason, after quickly going through it, I found it much more interesting. Yes, it was in English. But based on all those illustrations and on what I was learning at class then, I found it interesting. That is why I bought it.”

Apparently Madura hadn’t found it easy to read the entire book. Nevertheless, he’d been determined to read it, and read it from page one he did. “The book, even in the first few chapters, went through the logic behind programming and coding. We weren’t really taught that at class. There were also those grey areas our teachers didn’t look into that much. The book explained those as well.”

Because of his language-deficiency, however, he’d been forced to resort to the Malalasekera English-Sinhala Dictionary, which would aid him in his lectures. It had apparently been at Abacus when he’d realised the full value of the book, a point reinforced by the fact that he came from a generation still unused to the internet: “Frankly, not all of us could afford to have our own connection, since in our day we had to use Dial-Up and that was pretty expensive. Naturally, therefore, we didn’t have the luxury of quick reference guides people today use online.”

After teaching himself the untaught aspects to Visual Basic, Madura then decided to design his own program. Having groped around with various ideas, he decided to give back with what he’d used: the dictionary. And so he set about designing a dictionary as a computer program. “I admit I had to resort to Malalasekera almost all the time, but at the end of the day the idea was mine and mine alone. In later years I felt guilty for having used Malalasekera so much, and I’ve come to realise how important copyrights are.”

Not surprisingly it took time for him to develop his program. “I tested it on several of my friends’ computers for about a month. After the trial period was over, I called my friends up and asked them as to what they thought of it. They loved it. That’s when I decided to release it.”

He launched his (virtual) dictionary on November 23, 2002. He has quite a knack for remembering numbers, which I realise as he explains to me the cost-and-price structure for his product. “For printing the CD cover at Seya Colour and later packaging it, I had to spend about 75 rupees. I sold the program for 200 rupees to a retailer who’d then sell it for 300. Overall I got a profit of 125 rupees, but that wasn’t all: I had to also spend on capital equipment, including a CD writer which cost 10,000 rupees.” Was his product successful in its initial run? “Yes, it was,” Madura sighs.

He didn’t abandon his higher education, however, and something I’ve noticed at this point is that no matter how much he’s achieved, he wants to keep his avenues as open as possible. He passed out as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer in 2005. He obtained an MSc in Information Technology from Sikkim Manipal University (through ICBT Campus) five years later.

During this time took his next big step: in 2008, by which time more and more Sri Lankans were taking to the internet, he made a website out of his program (maduraonline.com) and unveiled it to the entire world. It continues to gobble up users even now: as of June 27 it’s the 29,566th most visited website in the world and the 59th in Sri Lanka on alexa.com, which as Madura explains takes into account websites visited, not created, in a country: “So when it ranks websites in Sri Lanka it includes users who visit Facebook, Google, YouTube, and the like.”

When his product began soaring in popularity, he was recognised by the University of Moratuwa when he was invited to address a Symposium in 2009. He was invited by Professor Gihan Dias, who was instrumental in founding Sri Lanka’s first email system and later the Information and Technology Agency (ICTA).

“Professor Dias told me to come and present my website. But I wanted to do more. Instead of merely unveiling it, I made a presentation and explained to the audience the entire backdrop to my program. In other words I talked about the nuts and bolts of my program, from scratch. It was hard, but I’m a person who wants to go through everything.”

He adds moreover that several deals came to him from companies which wanted to buy his program away from him. His idealism shows here: “I know people think I should have given the program up and earned big bucks, but that’s not my way. This is my program, even if I don’t earn that much from it, and as long as what’s in it is mine, it remains mine. No one can change that.”

Madura isn’t exactly young, but he bristles with a kind of optimism I haven’t come across people his age. He’s achieved more than those who’re older than him by a decade or two have, and I’m not just talking about qualifications. Part of the reason for his success must be his openness, which makes him a firm believer in individual effort.

He has one thing to say to all this: “I have no regrets for what I did. Not yesterday, not today, and certainly not tomorrow.”

Written for: Scribe Project, July 10 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

Bandula Nanayakkarawasam speaks

Lyricists are fascinated by the word. Some are selective in what they write, others aren’t. They grow to appreciate that there’s more to a song than verses. There was a time, though, when I thought they didn’t, when I thought they’d grown so accustomed to words that they were hindered by them. I believed then, as I don’t now, that a work of art was best assessed in terms of its moral content. In a song, for better or worse, this moral content was based on the message its lyrics drove home. The closer that message was to my sympathies (political or otherwise), the more likely I'd rate the song highly.

That was then. Since that time I’ve wondered whether a song really is a series of lines etched by the poet or something else, and I’ve come to realise than even the worst songwriters pay deference to more than just words. Especially when it comes to the Sinhala lyric. Bandula Nanayakkarawasam, I'm willing to bet, would no doubt agree.

He’s considered as a lyricist, among the best we have right now, but that’s not all. He doesn’t just pen words or lyrics. He has a voice, he has indulged in script-writing, he has sung, and he knows life. This is his story, coloured as it is by anecdotes which probably do more justice to him than a simple biographical sketch.

Bandula was born in Galle, about two or three kilometres from town. His childhood was, in his own words, quite fortunate in terms of the aesthetic education he received. His first encounter with music had been a large Mullard radio brought by his uncle, a connoisseur of the arts who apparently had been a collector of rare items and instruments. “I was about three when he died,” Bandula remembers, “and since we lived at a time when not even the richest families in our neighbourhood owned a radio, the Mullard was a big deal for a child my age.”

The contraption had entranced young Bandula in more ways than one. "Back then we had only two local services run by one station, Radio Ceylon. It was on this radio that I first received my education in music. I was also the youngest in my family by a wide margin, my podi akka being eight years older than me. Naturally, I was a bit of a loner in my house, and in my free time, which I never lacked even when I was at school, I used to place my ears on its speakers and listen to every song with unabated interest." He jokingly tells me here that he once believed that the singers and announcers who sang and spoke were hidden in the device: "So when I listened to it during a thunderstorm and my loku akka warned me that if lightning struck it would break apart, I honestly thought people would come out. Obviously they didn't. I was about five at the time."

I ask him here whether he looked for the lyrics in a song then. "Not really. We first hear a tune, then a voice, then a name," he explains, "You must understand that it was in my time that people like Victor Ratnayake and Sanath Nandasiri emerged. Amaradeva was before them. But as a child, I went for Victor aiya's songs because of his voice." I put to him that the likes of Victor emerged as a result of the efforts Amaradeva made, and he agrees. "To be honest, it was after listening to Victor aiya that we realised how complex and poetic Amaradeva's lyrics were. Poetry didn't figure very highly in me then."

His interest in the arts developed beyond music as the years went by. His father (a firm leftist and an avid reader) and would usually give him as much as 100 rupees to buy books. "I used to go to a store owned by a man called Lionel and buy a lot, because back then a book cost about four or five rupees." He would get hooked on to literature, above everything Russian literature, which as he says made him see the world in a different light even through translations. "We also had novels, short story collections, and poetry published by Progress Publishers. Naturally, I indulged in them all."

Young Bandula was sent to Richmond College, where his teachers inculcated in him a wider appreciation of what he'd already grown to love. "One of my English teachers was a man called W. S. Bandara. He introduced me to the English translations of Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. It was then and there that I realised how woefully inadequate our translators were. Of course there were exceptions like K. G. Karunathilaka, but apart from them the others didn't really feel the text they were working on." Musically too he prospered, with various stints at singing in concerts and even some inter-school competitions to his credit.

Apparently the radio figured so much in his life at this point that he couldn't really do without it even when studying. "A man called Jinasena lent me some flexible wires, which I then used on an American speaker which belonged to my uncle. Our house oversaw a wel yaya. When I listened to the radio in my room while studying Arithmetic, that wel yaya was always in my sight. That was the kind of childhood and education I had." As he grew up though, it wasn't just songs that he listened to but other programs as well, among them E. W. Adikaram's "Vidya Dahanaya", Mahinda Ranaweera's "Sithijaya", Lucien Bulathsinghala's "Sandella", H. M. Gunasekera's "Irida Sangrahaya", and Tissa Abeysekara's "Art Magazine". To this date, he says he finds it easy to concentrate on something while listening to a song or radio program.

Curious as to what his musical tastes are, I then ask whether he differentiated between "low" and "high" art in his day. He says he doesn't think so. "That came later. But back then we read and we exchanged newspapers with our neighbours. So we weren't completely ignorant of the divide between high and low art. For instance, I would come across Jayawilal Wilegoda's articles on the cinema. Wilegoda lambasted Sinhala films which imitated Bollywood. The same went for music. People like him were always asking questions like how a popular verse like 'jeevithaye kanthare / thurunu wiyali walle / uthura gala yayi adare' made sense, when they didn't. By the time we'd grown up as schoolboys, we knew about this divide. Not that it deterred us from indulging in everything that came our way, of course."

Bandula's reference to films isn't arbitrary: apparently even the cinema had entranced him. "I fell in love with movies at an early age. Back then I was regularly taken to the theatre by my sisters. They considered me a nuisance because of how I'd emotionally react to what they watched. I still remember, for instance, how I cried at Dommie Jayawardena 'singing' Milton Perera's 'Umba Kiya Kiya' in Hathara Maha Nidhanaya. When I saw those scenes of cattle awaiting their death at the hands of butchers, I inadvertently remembered the cattle that roamed near our home. I even had names for them, so when I saw a cow that bore some resemblance to one of them I broke into tears. My sisters weren't in the least happy," he remembers with a smile.

In his later years, as the Sinhala cinema matured and as film halls became receptive to better selections from world cinema, Bandula would expand his horizons. "The first film I saw was Suhada Sohoyuro, back when I was in Grade Four or Five, although the only thing about it which struck me at once was the scene of Asoka Ponnamperuma crying alone in an ambalama. Considering how I'd been thinking that grownup men didn't cry, this was an unprecendented sight for me," he laughs. Apparently he had also patronised the Russian Cultural Centre and the British Council, visits to which broadened his mind and opened him to the rest of the world. He watched and studied the French New Wave, the Eastern European renaissance, and the American counter-cultural revolt.

He also entertained the idea of being a scriptwriter at one point, even getting into the Sri Lanka Television Training Institute (SLTTI) along with the likes of Sumitra Rahubadda, K. B. Herath, and Douglas Siriwardena. "I was taught by Tissa Abeysekara," he remembers. I urge him on.

Abeysekara had been more than just a guru, and as Bandula confesses he would become almost a hero to him. "The way he took us through the history of the cinema, from Eisenstein and his Odessa steps to the American blockbuster, was incomparable. In later years we associated with each other very closely. Once when he had to leave the country while leaving a documentary of his unfinished, he insisted that the only person who could narrate it other from himself was me. I'm glad I knew him." Notwithstanding his stints at the SLTTI, though, he didn't get to become a full-time scriptwriter, apart from a television adaptation of T. B. Ilangaratne's 'Vilambita' directed by Lakshman Wijesekara and broadcast on Swarnavahini, and various other one-episode teledramas.

Getting back to his musical career, I ask him whether he has taken a side in the divide between the aesthetic (saundarya) and the political in lyrics. There's a name that obviously crops up here, and needless to say it does crop up.

"Sunil Ariyaratne wrote 'Sakura Mal Pipila' when I was in Grade Four. That was what first made me realise how abstract music was. In later years, as he and Nanda Malini went on to endeavours like 'Sathyaye Geethaya' and 'Pavana', I matured. Even now, when you listen to 'Perahera Enawa', you feel nothing but admiration for a man who rebelled against tradition and order in what he wrote. The two of them felt injustice and spoke against it. They taught me about the potential of a song or for that matter any work of art. I can't really write about the things they explored with such vigour, but that doesn't take away my admiration for them." He adds that his encounters with Russian novelists left a deep impression in this regard. "To this date, I prefer the poetry of Pushkin to that of Wordsworth. That's not to say that Wordsworth doesn't have merit, but the Russians were incomparable in how they observed life and reality."

What about the present? Bandula is noticeably glum here. According to him, the Sinhala lyric is progressively deteriorating in quality. I ask him whether this is because our generation isn't as receptive to the abstract in art as his had been, and he says he doesn't think so. "We've commercialised art, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but then we're confused about what a popular song is. Forget songs, we don't even know how to rate radio programs! That's something I realised when I was doing 'Rae Ira Pana.' It won awards and was popular but didn't show up as popular as per surveys conducted by ratings agencies. The way these agencies conduct such surveys is quite questionable. And this applies to the kind of songs we have conditioned ourselves to listen to today. I mean, think of it this way: when was the last time you heard a proper, meaningful song when you were travelling by bus?"

I suggest here that things would certainly have been better in his time, but he agrees only half-halfheartedly. "You implied earlier that we've de-sensitised ourselves so much that we can't appreciate the abstract in art. This isn't something new. In my day, to give you an example, there was a singer called Piyasiri Wijeratne. He isn't remembered today because his output wasn't prodigious. But what little he sang, we sing and celebrate, songs like 'Bedda Pura' and 'Ratak Vatina'. The problem was that we had a habit of putting down talent even then, an unfortunate trait in us which persists to this date. In later years, Tissa Abeysekara would publicly observe that Piyasiri had among the best voices in this country. But did we recognise him then?" I see his point at once: blaming some imaginary malaise for the "cultural desert" we seem to find everywhere today, to an extent at least, blinds us to the fact that in each and every epoch our music "industry" as such has faced a huge deficit.

Yes, these are reflections. Opinions. Time has proved them. That shouldn't really bother us though, at least not those among us who've grown to love the kind of music that Bandula has. Speaking superficially about his lyrics, I can say this much as a final note: whether he's writing about injustice ("Rae Wada Muraya") or love ("Ahasai Oba Mata") or childhood ("Mal Pipeyi"), he has realised how simplicity can inject relevance to an otherwise overused message. Which brings me to my first point: no matter how potent that message is, a lyricist isn't or rather shouldn't be entranced by words alone. Bandula Nanayakkarawasam no doubt can testify to this. Amply.

Written for: Night Owls, July 11 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

M. S. H. Mohomed is our hero

It all began two years ago. A man called M. S. H. Mohomed wanted his son, diagnosed with a cancerous condition called osteosarcoma, cured. He took his son, Humaid, to a hospital in Chennai. The hospital had facilities and the latest technical expertise, but cost a lot. And so the father spent. Throughout 2014, he sold three of his properties, dug into his pockets, and tried a cure. Nothing worked.

He thus brought his son back to Sri Lanka. He was admitted to a private hospital for six months. Again, the bills kept on mounting and nothing happened, despite two surgeries on his lungs. Desperate and against all odds, his father then admitted him to the National Cancer Institute in Maharagama.

The Institute wasn't privately owned. For someone like M. S. H. Mohomed, it was a last resort you'd run to when you'd run out of options. In other words, a place associated with squalor and lack of quality. The same horror stories associated with every other institution owned by the state, one can add. For Mohomed, though, a few days and weeks were enough to open his eyes. "The doctors were kind, the service was excellent, and the nurses were courteous," he remembers. The same amenities they'd experienced before, minus the cost.

Because of this, he wanted to give back. He wanted to appreciate and let others know. He picked on a key item which the NCI lacked: a PET (Positron Emission Topography) Scanner, used to differentiate between malignant and normal tissue when detecting cancer (something the machines that the Institute had couldn't do). The scanner was available at private hospitals, but for better or worse (I prefer not to take sides) they were and continue to be run at a profit. For this reason, tests were expensive. At the very least, getting a scan at one of those hospitals cost about 150,000 rupees, clearly outside the reach of a great many people.

So Mohomed got to work. He had contacts. He had money. He used both. For the next few months, he drove a campaign which was unparalleled in that it didn't receive the kind of recognition it should have from the government. People responded. Citizens, be they Sinhala, Muslim, or Tamil, got together. Where the government failed, the people delivered. They needed to raise 200 million. Hefty, but not impossible.

Along the way, they got more support. An anonymous donor gave 35 million rupees. A prominent TV station gave airtime and was behind the campaign, proving that the media wasn't as unethical as the government and certain people who support it claimed. At a time when ministers were quibbling over vehicle permits, when the worst bout of floods for decades had come without as much as a proper salvage operation by the government, the people came out. An organisation founded by Mohomed, the Kadijah Foundation, was used to collect funds.

On June 13 the campaign was over. They'd reached 200 million.

Roughly a month later, on Sunday July 10 at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo, the Foundation will hold a seminar on how to take the campaign beyond the PET Scanner. Among those who'll be participating are Dr Palitha Mahipala, Director General of Health Services, and Dr M. Y. K. Wilfraad, Consultant Medical Director at the Cancer Institute. It's more a consciousness-raiser than seminar, and for this reason the discussion won't be limited to what has already been done.

In the meantime, we can reflect.
It's a shame that PET scans hadn't (until now) been available at the one place where the poor could have afforded them, but now's not the time to delve into that. What's important is what M. S. H. Mohomed taught us. What's important is the afterword it compels. And how we can be part of that afterword. The Foundation didn't end with the PET Scanner, let's not forget, and there's no reason to think that it will.

There are tons of things wrong with this country. Lots of things. Starting with ourselves. We laugh at and condition ourselves to ignore tragedy. What doesn't affect us doesn't move us. Politicians are no better, not even when they're directly elected. But at a time of need, when we ought to set aside differences and come out, we almost always do. Not because we're driven by a need for popularity, but because the movement catches on so well that it makes us forget ourselves even for a minute.

In the meantime, our government pretends not to know what's going on. Typical. We have officials, after all, who complain about aching spines to sugarcoat their demands for luxury vehicles, who lambast the media and then self-righteously say that the government already has ordered PET Scanners (without as much as substantiating that claim). Ministers don't feel the people, not because they can't but because when they are in need of something (be it healthcare or education), they have the best and get the best.

On the other hand, the best they get needn't be the best we should get. As M. S. Mohomed has testified, the Cancer Institute is as good a hospital as you can get anywhere else. That you can get every service free of charge doesn't mean there's lack of quality. The role of citizenry should be to improve on what we already have. Not build something we can't.

I think the man who spearheaded this campaign says it best: "We should upgrade the Institute. We should get together and improve this place so that others can come here and get a better service. Why waste millions of rupees on private institutions when you can get the same standard for free, after all?" Sri Lankans, I feel, are woefully shortsighted in their appreciation of what they have, but as time goes by I'm sure they'll understand. After all, we have about 15,000 to 25,000 people diagnosed with cancer every year. About 13,000 were diagnosed at the Cancer Institute alone in 2015. I'm sure some of them would prefer to go to private institutions, but for the rest (the vast majority) that's not an option. We clearly need a solution. And we are on our way to finding one.

Which is why M. S. H. Mohomed is a hero. Our hero. A citizen of the world and Sri Lanka, someone who chose to do something for his people. He taught us many things and along the way made it clear that there's much more we need to do. On that count, he wins my respect. As he should yours.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com