Friday, September 30, 2016

Reflections on poverty and the (political) periphery

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

Young was a visionary in that he saw what would happen when, decades later, the British Left squandered its statist approach to the economy in favour of the Oxbridge elite that dominated it after 1997 and the victory of Tony Blair. With the recent victory of Jeremy Corbyn over the party’s leadership, I suppose one can say that Blairism is on its way out. I suppose also that one can disagree and contend that, with or without Corbyn, the Blairites have already triumphed.

That’s another story though.

Merit and economic power have cohabited in ways too difficult to enumerate in a single article. Choosing people on the basis of their talent, as T. S. Eliot once wrote, would “disorganise society and debase education.” Consider that Eliot was an anti-Semite and an admirer of fascism (and that his poetry is riddled with less than flattering depictions of poverty, which can only be described as “snobbish”), and you will realise the magnitude of his tirade against meritocracy. One needs foresight to deplore this and Young, I suspect, understood it all too well.

In an article he wrote to “The Guardian” in 2001 revisiting his book, he made the following comment:

“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.”

He went on to trace this phenomenon to the elitism engendered by Britain’s education system, where (as with Sri Lanka until we became a Republic) the target was the country’s Civil Service. He observed then that the New Elite, who both were detached from the common people AND pretended to pander to them, reproduced itself to form a class of its own (as he noted, “without room in it for others”). This New Elitism was a replica of the aristocracy in which privilege was determined by birth and which paled in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Young couldn’t have been thinking of other countries. He needn’t have. What he wrote in that monumental book of his has become relevant not just for Britain but for postcolonial societies as well. He may not have realised it at the time, but when the postcolonial “moment” passed and the Global South began dismantling institutions and structures to accommodate independence, power continued to be held by those who were groomed by the imperialist. In some countries the transition from colonialism to post-colonialism was quick, in some it was slow, and in others the process of “nationalisation” was hindered by lengthy trysts with dictatorships supported by the “free world” (as with Ayub Khan in Pakistan and General Suharto in Indonesia).

Sri Lanka had its share of problems in this regard. One doesn’t need to peruse history to realise that, for all the rhetoric and grandeur, independence was given to the landed gentry and the comprador class, those who were opposed to change so much that they denied the aspirations of the majority. As Kumari Jayawardena has noted in her work (especially in Nobodies to Somebodies), the political tussle that led to the Ceylon National Congress had less to do with nationalism stricto sensu than with the caste-based, class-based tug-of-war between the “old Mudliyars” and the “new Misters.”

That was then, of course. Things are different now. Apparently.

Consider this, though. In the 60-plus years since 1956, the two main political parties in the country have fielded candidates from the Establishment, barring two exceptions condemned as quasi-dictators who rationalised authoritarianism in terms of their popularity. I don’t like to dabble in conspiracy theories, and this week’s column isn’t about the political elite only, but I will say this: a society’s progress can best be measured by the rift in it between the political centre and periphery. In Sri Lanka, as this article will attempt to show, that rift has remained virtually unbridgeable.

But first, a clarification. What is the centre and what is the periphery? The centre represents the institutions that in turn represent ultimate power in a society. We can call it the government but it’s a fallacy to assume that the government is the centre on its own accord. So to be clear, here’s my take on the matter: it is represented by those individuals, organisations, and other outfits (here and elsewhere) that decide on policy.

The periphery, on the other hand, represents everything that the centre is not. It is composed of people, not institutions: of facts and life, not statistics and policies. People have their representatives and so do those in the periphery, but for the most, they are recognised in a modern democracy when they are able to deliver what those representatives want: votes.

Yes, votes.

Let me be clearer here: politicians will pander to the periphery to get the poor to vote for them. After that, the poor remained as cursed and belittled as they were before.

How does this form a rift between the two? In Sri Lanka, the most obvious way is by what I referred to in last week’s column as the “insolence of office”, bureaucracy. However, it’s a mistake to say that that’s all that contributes to the rift. There are other factors, and among them I can point at the most malignant: the emergence of Young’s new social class, which remains detached from the periphery while believing (genuinely or otherwise) that what they do in the name of the greater good is what’s best for everyone.

The previous regime managed to politicise poverty in ways no one in the present government or preceding him has quite matched. That Mahinda Rajapaksa 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. I believed then as I believe now that the main dividing line between the then incumbent and opposition was not based on race or religion (as it is now), but on class.

Which makes sense at one level, given that the poor have traditionally voted for the party that has promised them heaven and earth without substance. The conventional discourse is that they are foolish, are wont to vote for demagogues, and are swayed by rhetoric so much that they fail to account for the long term (at least in politics). Regardless of that though, it’s taken for granted that to win elections, one must pander to poverty. That is why both sides of the mainstream political divide are guilty on that count and that is why politicians, regardless of their affiliations, resort to rhetoric to win what reason can’t.

All this is based on simplifications, of course. But I believe that the 2015 Election caused a dent in citizenry here that hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, been resolved satisfactorily. One can’t blame an institution or individual for that. On the other hand, I personally can’t subscribe to the myth that what we’re seeing now in this regard is “opa pathika” (without an origin). Institutions do have a say in the rift between the centre and the periphery. I will return to this shortly.

I used to think that the solution to demagoguery was an elite class that could hold sway over populists and rhetoricians. When I came across Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral in Shakespeare’s tragedy, I believed I had read all that I could about the dangers of rhetoric in governing a polity. I did not think, as I do now, that the aforementioned solution to it could, in the long term, lead to worse consequences for a society.

And not for no reason: the elite class could be an effective watchdog over demagoguery, but sooner or later that would be taken as a license to impose the worldview of that class over the rest of the society whether or not the majority subscribed to it. Which begs the question that is at the heart of modern democracy: quis custodiet ipsos custodies (who watch the watchmen)?

I mentioned before that we can’t consider the centre/periphery dichotomy as having no origin. It didn’t create and perpetuate itself. There were institutions at play and individuals at work. In his 2001 comment on his book, Michael Young differentiated between the Labour Ministers of his time and of the present: between the likes of Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin, who started as blue-collar workers, and the likes of Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Miliband, who all had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge and hence, were members of the meritocracy. The “Oxbridge Regency”, as I prefer to call it, had moulded the Conservative Party. By the late eighties, it had begun moulding the Labour Party as well.

I see this rift in our country, among our politicians. At a time when economic expansion assuaged fears of invasion (whether by other ethnicities or by a foreign power), the majority in this country were appeased by an administration housed by the landed gentry and propertied class. But the structures created by the British couldn’t appease that majority beyond a certain point. The pressures that resulted thereof led to two insurrections, more than four island-wide pogroms against the Tamil people, and brief but devastating trysts with authoritarianism. 1971 was more than an augur: it proved that over time, State power could be wielded against dissent resulting in large casualties but without any corresponding outcry against it.

The transformation this country underwent after 1971 was lopsided: it was economically liberal but politically authoritarian. In its frenzied attempt to emulate the Asian Tigers, the government of the day couldn’t keep up the self-contradictory nature of its reform program. Now’s not the time to explore all that in depth, but suffice it to say that implanting an economic climate that was amenable to the Confucian culture of East Asia here resulted in a society that was economically liberal, yet clamped down on the manufacturing sector uplifted by previous regimes; and politically authoritarian, yet couldn’t stop arguably the bloodiest anti-Tamil pogrom and insurrection this country saw after independence.

Obviously, a populist had to emerge. And he did. But not for long: upon his untimely assassination he left behind a void which, thanks to the LTTE, drained the then ruling party of promising leaders and opened the door to victory for the opposition, the SLFP.

The SLFP had several trysts with the Old Left in the late eighties: it consumed and subscribed to the gospel according to the devolutionists, and for the next 10 years privileged a minoritarian elite that supported separatism, federalism, and the 13th Amendment. That is, until the triumph of the Rajapaksa Factor.

Between 2005 and 2015, we saw a return to populist nationalism, which as I implied before politicised poverty rather overtly. Having justified authoritarianism in the name of economic development (that was more quantitative than qualitative), it then paved the way for an opposing force to emerge and become its successor.

What we saw after January 2015 was therefore expected: a “premature” government that had aborted its predecessor without the flourish that usually symbolises the end of a regime in a modern democracy. Naturally, the government had to resort to its predecessor’s more populist aspects while showing that it was against the abuses of power committed in the past. It wanted to have the cake and eat it too. That is what it continues doing. To date.

And all this while, who did we get into our parliament? Rhetoricians, of course! They talked and talked all the way. They spoke extensively on how bridges would be built, wars would end, and the racial divide would be torn apart. They made us believe that they were idealists, which they were before the lure of power proved too much. They made us think that they were the shifters of policy when, in reality, they had implanted several policy-writers who were running the show. Not even the administration we had from 2005 to 2015 could escape this: while it preached the gospel of centrist, social welfare economics, its policymakers were busy institutionalising crony capitalism in the country.

Who won? The well to do. Who lost? The poor!

Let’s look at it in another way. What triumphed in the days and months following the 2015 Election was meritocracy over nationalism. What won in 2015 was a cosmopolitan variant of technocracy which the likes of (among others) 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 merits, we need to embrace a culture which rewards talent, not power (never mind what Eliot said).

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, and not just politicians), which lacks meritocrats. The discriminating minority who remain detached from the periphery are connected to the centre, which lacks popularity.

Sure, most of those young politicians (from both major parties) and are deemed “decent” are as unblemished as they can get, but I wonder whether the “Oxbridge Regency” that they have come from will be enough for us to move on.

These politicos, to be perfectly honest, are idealists. Visionaries. But as a friend of mine told me the other day, we need more than idealists and do-gooders. We need doers who are pragmatic, who are from the periphery, who do not conflate economic liberalism with political authoritarianism and hence, are comfortable with a centrist approach to both country and economy. We’ve been duped long enough and we’ve been cheated by rhetoricians. About time we realised that and clamoured for pragmatists, not idealists or con artists, as our representatives.

There’s so much that one article can cover. I must therefore conclude here.

In the United States we are seeing a rift between the centre and the periphery, with Donald Trump representing the fringe: alienated white voters, incensed against an administration they see as erasing their ethnocentric, traditional values. The fact that he is winning in conservative states and the fact that his rival, Hillary Clinton, is winning over him in more liberal states is proof that the centre/periphery dichotomy is based on the inability of the Establishment to read the political moment and stop alienating the majority.

As for us, we have our share of what Senator Rand Paul (again, from the USA) once claimed as liberal elites who “seek to impose their will upon us.” The good Senator got it right there: those who stand for values that are liberal and elite cannot and will not determine the fate of a society in which the majority are alienated or not listened to.

I believe we are seeing the effects of that with the Joint Opposition’s expedient but accurate reading of the political. If the government doesn’t realise this, it will commit quite possibly the biggest ideological blunder ever. Sure, they will (ostensibly) stand for decency and high office, but by conflating decency with merit (and merit with prestige and prestige with economic clout) they can only lose their footing and grip on the country.

And you know what? I wouldn’t want that to happen. Because the moment it does, as history has shown us, the inevitable follows: the rise to power of quasi-dictatorial populists. Has happened here, has happened elsewhere, is happening, and will continue to happen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Priest from Dankotuwa

I can understand the layman’s respect for the clergy. Particularly the Catholic clergy, given its historical import and how it’s spread the world over. Perhaps this is derived from my fascination with priests and the priesthood and how, at the end of the day, a faith congeals into a doctrine on suffering and the necessity of ending it. I used to believe then, for this reason perhaps, that the role of the clergy was to detach the institutions connected with it from the secular world, and by secular I included the culture of a country.

I realise now that I was wrong. Would the priesthood have suffered if it didn’t have its share of poets, philosophers, and artists? I doubt it. There is a dividing line between the secular and the mystical, but I have come to understand that it can get blurred at times (and thankfully so) when monks, priests, and imams take on the social, the political, and the artistic. I admire, for instance, the poetry of Mahinda Thero, that can by no stretch of the imagination be conflated with the anti-secular thrust of his faith, whereas I find constant solace and refuge in the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Films are a different kettle of fish, however. As the youngest of the arts (and, if we are to take Lenin’s word for it, the most powerful) it still hasn’t gone beyond the much derided “bioscope” status it acquired during its first few decades in our part of the world. That’s a given. Films are by nature personal and secular: you can’t bring out a religious theme successfully and if you do, you have to be careful to not be sectarian in your outlook. That is why the best directors weren’t propagandists or preachers, but humanists. By that token, my guess is that the clergy can’t be filmmakers.

This week’s star was a priest. He was involved with our cinema in more ways than one (though he never directed or scripted a film). He was also a poet, a scholar, and above all a man who appreciated that the Catholic ethos could be rooted in his country if it was made to relate to its rites and rituals. He was successful in all fields, though he had his share of detractors and was unjustly deprived of those positions of power that lesser men aspired for and got. There are probably a hundred or so stories that can be related about him. I wouldn’t really know them all.

His name? Father Marcelline Jayakody.

Father Marcelline was born in June at Dankotuwa, a Catholic heartland if there ever was one in Sri Lanka, located near Negombo. He was born a Catholic by virtue of his father, a native doctor who knew his trade well and achieved the unenviable task of balancing tradition and faith in his life. Young Marcelline learnt about Ayurveda from him, no doubt inculcating in himself a love for tradition and the past. His mother, on the other hand, was a Buddhist: that would have helped him in understanding a faith which, for the better part of his career, aided in what he did and what he achieved in the name of his culture.

He was educated firstly at Madampe Vidyalaya and later at St Joseph’s College, Maradana. This was before free education, so when his parents found it difficult to spend money on his education, he was taken out of the latter school and was groomed to enter the priesthood at the Borella Seminary. Young Marcelline was ordained as a priest in 1927. He was 25 at the time.

Before he entered the cinema or became a lyricist, he was a poet. He came from a tradition that took in the ornate and the colourful in venerating our way of life. Predictably therefore, he joined the Colombo School of Poetry, housed as it was then by the likes of Meemana Premathilake and P. B. Alwis Perera. He would have found solace in the metric verses that these poets went for, as opposed to the modernist revolution that would eventually find its way to Sri Lanka through the nisadhas movement pioneered by G. B. Senanayake. For Father Marcelline, the role of poetry was primarily to extol tradition. Which is why he was zealously committed to the stanzas and structures endemic to our poetry.

His first real achievement, however, was the Duwa Passion Play. Until he became the parish priest in Duwa in 1939, the play was performed with puppets, not actors. No one dared to use real people, for such a thing would have been too secular for a festival that reflected on faith, forgiveness, and divinity.

Father Marcelline broke with tradition: except for the characters of Christ and Mother Mary, he used real, live actors for his cast, revised the entire play, instilled certain indigenous elements to it, and staged it. It goes without saying that the Passion Play at Duwa remains the most colourful, it not most vibrant, of all such plays in Asia.

And in a way, that showed him at his best: respectful of culture and tradition, always aware that relating a faith that was, for better or worse, connected with the outside world to the people of his country was tough. He therefore moved on. He composed melodies and rewrote several hymns. In Sinhala. He did this so effortlessly that they remain a vital part of the Catholic ethos today.

Not that he wasn’t opposed. I remember Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, delivering the keynote address at some function at the BMICH in 2013, observing that when Lester James Peries (who initiated Father Marcelline to the cinema with Rekava) called Father Marcelline to write down the lyrics for his film Sandeshaya, he politely refused, afraid (allegedly) that the Church would interfere with his involvement in a film that depicted the Portuguese (who brought his faith to Sri Lanka) rather unflatteringly.

That’s nonsense. There’s no harm caricaturing the invader while being respectful of what they contributed to our way of life, but back then I believe the Catholic Church would have been more conservative and hence less tolerant about such forays into the Arts among its flock and clergy.

He was a remarkable man in other fields too. He wrote books. His songs became more and more pronounced in their extolling of traditional life. Listen to them today – in particular, “Kahawan Goyamata” and “Olu Nelum Neriya Rangala” – and you will realise how much against the grain they went in valorising our rites and rituals. The latter song, for instance, composed for Rekava, has a line that is as atypical as it could have been: “Kabaragoya uge surathali”, one which Professor Ariyaratne joked about in that aforementioned speech when he commented that no one in their right mind would have opted for the kabaragoya in a song about love.

He was like that. Wrote what he felt. From his heart. With no frills.

The Catholic Church has clearly gone a long way since his time. I suppose it would be an extrapolation to suggest that all that’s owing to him, as there were other names (not least of which, Ernest Poruthota and Tissa Balasuriya) that rebelled against institutions and triumphed.

The thing with Father Marcelline, however, was that he created a precedent. He encouraged others to take after him, to question authority while being mindful that the faith adhered to and that authority weren’t necessarily the same.

And along the way, he gave us something to remember him by. We called him “pansale piyathuma.” Rightly. He would have shrugged off the title, being the modest man he was. But he needn’t have. He took that title the moment he entered the priesthood, and the moment he rebelled against authority.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, September 28 2016

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The insolence of office and the PET Scanner

Some stories make it to the news, others don’t. Some milestones are covered, others not. And some needs are prioritised, others not. Like the Cancer Hospital at Maharagama, one can add.

You know the story: no PET Scanner, the only alternative being provided at a high price at private hospitals. You know what happened: someone came, started a project, and earned about 200 million rupees through a Foundation he’d started to order and install the Scanner at Maharagama. It’s been three months now, and given the amount of money he raised it’s only natural to ask two questions: where’s the Scanner, and what else is needed. The second is easy to answer, the first (sadly) not.

This week’s column is about what Shakespeare once referred to as the “insolence of office”, bureaucracy, and how it’s impeded on all these efforts. The man who campaigned for better diagnostic equipment at Maharagama remains what he has always been: a hero. It’s only fitting, therefore, that the movement he began doesn’t sizzle off for want of support by the government (or any other organisation, for that matter).

But first, a caveat: I will not mention names. The objective of this article isn’t to offend but to point out the need of the hour, with no malice. As you will see, what we’ve achieved so far is but a drop in the ocean, a speck of sand in a vast, interminable desert, when it comes to improving the lives of cancer patients in the country.

The background

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. The son 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 Hospital in Maharagama.

The Hospital 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 NCH 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 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.

Other equipment, other needs

I first met Mohomed about two months ago. The Kadijah Foundation (named after his mother) was meeting for the 100th time and consequently, there were new suggestions tabled. Mohomed told me then that the PET Scanner wasn’t the be-all and end-all for cancer patients at Maharagama: there were other equipment needed and to campaign for them, the PET Scanner would have to be taken in and installed. In other words, to agitate for them (not an easy task, given the slow response of the government), they’d have to first complete what was started.

That was then. The response from the Ministry since has been positive. They held more meetings. They met up with officials, including the Secretary to the Health Minister. They were told (from what I’ve heard) that the Scanner wasn’t impossible to get, but they must first get through the legal procedure laid down for ordering it. While that would take time and time, particularly for the poor who had and continue to have no proper diagnostic tool to detect cancer, wasn’t a luxury, it was natural to surmise that the process would be expedited by the relevant authorities.

To get an idea about why the Cancer Hospital needs a proverbial facelift though, you need to be aware of some numbers. Sri Lanka has about 100,000 cancer patients. Every year about 20,000 more are diagnosed. Half of them die. At any given point, there are 300 doctors tending to them, laid down on more than 1,100 beds. Not only that: in 2015, out of the nearly 20,000 annual cases of detected cancer, 13,000 were from the Cancer Hospital. That’s about 65 per cent of the total, a hefty amount given that those who visit the hospital are, for the most, unable to afford private treatment.

And no, it’s not only the PET Scanner. The Hospital, Mohomed told me the other day, needs a MRI Scanner, a CT Scanner, a Genetic Lab, an Endoscope, a Colonoscope, a Bronchoscope, an Ultrasound Scanner, at least two other ambulances, and last but not least, hearses for the dead. The Cancer Hospital lacks most of these and what it has are either (as with the CT and Ultrasound Scanners) almost 15 years old or (as with the Endoscope) discernibly malfunctioning. As for the cost, Mohomed gives me a figure: more than 800 million rupees. Not an amount to joke about or play with, one can argue.

But it’s an investment nevertheless, an investment that can be rationalised not by whether it will pay back but by how it accounts for that 65 per cent who have no option when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. I mentioned the cost of a PET scan (150,000 rupees) before. Suffice it to say that the costs for the other equipment at private institutions aren’t any better: as Mohomed himself mentioned, for a MRI Scan you need to spend about 35,000 rupees. And that’s only for one test. When you need (as most cancer patients do) to get admitted to a hospital every year for a series of tests, naturally enough, cash becomes less of a luxury and more of a vital, desperate necessity.

I suppose that’s why those who contributed to getting the PET Scanner wanted it done and dusted promptly. I also suppose that’s why many of them were encouraged by what the authorities were saying: that the Scanner would be installed sooner or later, in keeping with the wishes of those who contributed their own time and money to a cause they considered worthwhile.

As things stand however, that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. Not by a long shot.

On procedures and red tape.

First and foremost, the process itself. Ordering a PET Scanner isn’t as easy as ordering a car. There’s work to be done and time to spend. You can’t go in your private capacity as a citizen either: you must order it through the Ministry of Health. Mohomed was kind enough to furnish me with the details, so here they are.

First and foremost, a Tender Committee needs to be appointed. Once the tender is called, you have to wait 42 days (a statutory requirement) before you close it. Then the tender has to be approved by the Tender Board, which can take anywhere between two weeks and two months. The Minister’s final approval takes up to another two months, after which the Scanner finally gets ordered.

But that’s not all. Ordering a Scanner isn’t as easy as it sounds. You first need to open a Letter of Credit. You then need to tell the manufacturer who scraped through the tender process to assemble if as per the requirements of our hospital. That takes about two months. Shipping it takes another two to three weeks, fixing it in the hospital takes another six, while radiologists at the Cancer Hospital need to be trained to handle it. In the meantime, you need to import fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a chemical used in the machine, from India.

And then there’s the hospital itself. You can’t move the machine into it as you would another machine. You need to move it into another building and what’s more, you need approval from the Atomic Energy Board, after which you can finally get the machine down. And that after more than 50 weeks, 12 months, or one year.

Now waiting for one year, logically enough, means waiting for death to take over about 13,000 other people (in keeping with the statistics quoted above). Which also means that the Ministry should have done the needful and, all in all, quickened the process.

Has it, though? I hoped for the best. So did those who contributed to the Kadijah Foundation. As Mohomed himself tells me, however, all that has been done in the three months since he stopped getting funds for the PET Scanner is... the appointment of a Tender Committee!

Yes, a Committee. A Committee consisting of a group of people who could have easily been appointed based on merit. A Committee that took three months at a time when the entire procedure takes more than a year. A Committee, ladies and gentlemen, that only has to look at the tendering process.

Someone could have whispered, “Really?” And a hundred or so voices would have answered, “You bet!”

Mohomed clearly has a case against the Health Ministry, but the truth of the matter is that he is not a protester. He is not wont to slinging mud at institutions, so he wants to resolve the matter as peaceably as he can. I believe he should be quoted in full here: “How many patients can afford to spend on their health? If they can’t visit a private institution, they are referred to the Karapitiya Hospital. They need to wait for two months to get admitted. How can they wait that long? How can they spend their lives until then? And why can’t our officials understand this?”

Concluding remarks

I promised you I wouldn’t reveal names. I won’t. Not because I can’t, but because that’s beside the point I’m trying to drive home here.

At the same time though, let’s not forget that the Kadijah Foundation was started to fill a need that the government clearly didn’t comprehend. Instead we had officials who promised the sun and moon over the PET Scanner. We had representatives of the government claiming that the Scanner would be bought over in a matter of months (which, needless to say, didn’t happen). We had officials who, instead of toeing the need of the hour, lambasted the media over what was felt to be UNNECESSARY COVERAGE given to the issue. And yes, we had people on the other side too, those who weren’t driven by a need for popularity but who were decent enough to understand that if we can’t improve on what we already have (the Cancer Hospital, after all, isn’t sorely lacking in facilities, which is what compelled praise from Mohomed in the first place).

So yes, there’s room for improvement. The officials at the Ministry, to put it simply, need to understand their priorities. They need to understand that for the vast majority of cancer patients in this country, seeking refuge in private establishments is as plausible as building castles in the air. They need to realise that the more they wait and delay the tender process, the more patients get admitted to the Cancer Hospital. And not only because the PET Scanner hasn’t been installed, but because the Scanner is a proverbial stepping stones to higher things: equipment that go beyond detection and diagnosis and aid in treatment and recovery.

The Ministry of Health has soured. Time it realised that it had. And time it realised that the more they wait, the more we suffer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

For Clarence Wijewardena, who never left

He was a vocalist and a composer. He sang and he scored. He also wrote. His melodies survive reassessments when it comes to applauding him. The man, not surprisingly therefore, wielded different sensibilities and abilities. And in the end, music lovers in this country understood, despite the few who called him out for all the wrong, slanderous reasons, that what he gave went beyond just being revolutionary. His songs became landmarks, true. But none of them were ever uprooted and detached from the land of his birth.

How can one assess him, though? Epitaphs for the dead are written by those who knew them intimately, after all. Consequently, the best answer to that I can give is that his contribution to our music industry made him known to both the young and the old, both those who were born during his time and those who came to be after he’d long gone by. His work, in other words, were beloved by all and detested by a few, and consequently, he is as alive to us as he was in his day.

I remember Annesley Malawana, in a television interview, referring to himself as a “jack of all trades and master of none.” He was being modest there. The truth is, those who entered the music industry in his day were, in more ways than one, masters in nearly every discipline. They knew how to write, how to score, and how to voice both. Annesley was a master in that sense. The same can be said of this week’s star, who worked with him: Clarence Wijewardena.

Clarence didn’t stop at the conventional three-minute song. He went for melodies and compositions that didn’t only draw attention to their words, but made us aware of the rich, vibrant work and research that had gone into them. They were simple (and thankfully so), but that didn’t stop us from noticing how effortlessly they’d been conceived.

No wonder that those songs stayed with us long after we’d first listened to them. In terms of orchestration and melody, they were as simple as they could have been. Clarence, one can hence conjecture, wasn’t satisfied with turning his work into academic treatises. He wanted a crowd and he desired an audience. That audience hasn’t died down. Not even today and not by a long shot.

He was born in 1943 in Haputale. His family later moved to Ratnapura. His father was an estate medical practitioner: perhaps allured by the field he was in, he would doubtless have encouraged his son to pursue a career in the estate industry. The lure of music however would have been too strong to resist, and while in his 20s he gave it up and began carving himself as a composer.

Clarence wasn’t alone in his quest. He formed his first band in 1965, getting together with Annesley (who became the lead singer) and Sunil Malawana (who took up the bass guitar). Sri Sangabo Corea, their manager, baptised them as “The Moonstones.”

In later years Corea would say this of the band: “it was just two people coming together with a common objective.” That objective wasn’t just to break into the local music industry (that could have been achieved without much difficulty, given that the sky was the proverbial limit for newcomers back then) but to create a precedent. A precedent which could only have been created, not (only) by a singer but by a bold composer. That composer had to be Clarence.

And so it was.

This was in the early sixties. By 1970 "The Moonstones" was over: with its fusion-oriented approach to music (Clarence emulated the Beatles by taking a sitar for a band that predominantly worked on Western chords and orchestration), it had instilled enough popularity in its members for them to strike out on their own. Fittingly, that same year Clarence held a concert titled “Breakaway From Moonstones” in Moratuwa, after which he became his own man for some time. That didn’t mean it was a complete breakaway, of course: the team got together again, took in some newcomers, and found an able and proficient manager in Sri Lanka’s record label pioneer, Gerald Wickremasooriya. They renamed their band: "Golden Chimes."

The man wasn’t destined to be a standalone composer forever, though. The seventies was clearly a prodigious period for the cinema and in particular parallel cinema: which made use of both avant-garde and commercial aspects to the medium, and which managed to churned out directors who would achieve the impossible: wed the box-office with the critic. The foremost exponent of parallel cinema here, therefore, wasn’t long in coming.

That foremost exponent had a name: H. D. Premaratne.

I believe Premaratne was the ideal director for Clarence. And not for nothing. While the cinema had changed, certain critical mentalities hadn’t. For those who wrote from ivory towers and couldn’t see anything below, the likes of Premaratne and Clarence were nothing more than quirks, to be cleaned away. They were no more than populists who pandered to the common denominator, who (apparently) couldn’t contribute works of art that could withstand time. Clarence especially felt the brunt of this misconceived attitude: he could have found an able director even before Premaratne, but (based what I have been told) those directors were discouraged by the ivory tower Brahmins to take someone of his calibre. The reason? Because he was “ruining our music.”

“Ruining” is a strong word. So strong that it compels justification. The truth of the matter was that Clarence experimented. He gave his most dazzling work in the sixties and seventies. Listen to them today – “Malata Bambareku Se” (which won praise from no less a figure than Amaradeva), “Wana Dewu Liya” (the first Brazilian-styled “bassa nova” song composed here), “Mage Palpatha”, and “Renin Piyabanna Akasaye” – and you will understand why they are loved even today: with their enviable fusion of West and East, and their almost iconoclastic, bold chords, they were meant to be grasped at once. In other words, the main reason why they became popular wasn’t their lyrics, but their orchestration.

That was why, tragically enough, he was accused (by commission or omission) of ruining and contorting our music. A ridiculous complaint, because he brought the West to our country without forsaking his roots. He went for (among others) the bera padaya and proved that with effort and research, you could redefine tradition to suit what was contemporary. There’s a polite term for that: fusion. But that hardly captures the versatility behind what Clarence did.

Which is why he needed to enter the film industry. H. D. Premaratne may have seen the kind of rebel he wanted in the man. And so, for his debut Sikuruliya, Clarence was taken. I believe Sikuruliya became more popular, and hence acclaim-worthy, because of its score: filled as it is by melodies that interweave the popular and the traditional (“Wasanthaye Mal Kekulai”, to give one example, wasn’t the conventional village damsel song resorted to by filmmakers before, but had a refreshing, pop quality to it), it ensured box-office dividends for Premaratne.

And when those dividends came, Clarence was again taken in, for his next film Apeksha. He became bolder and simpler there. They say Premaratne had the magic touch: he never lost money in whatever film he directed. Well, I suppose composers are as magical in that sense as directors, which probably explains that other musician who scored it well with the cinema around the same time, Premasiri Khemadasa. (Premaratne coincidentally would move on to Khemadasa with Parithyagaya and Deveni Gamana.)

Clarence continued to score our films and sing in them. Khemadasa used his voice for K. A. W. Perera’s Janaka saha Manju, while Amaradeva (in an act which proved that, despite what some “bamunu critics” said, the young and the old could cooperate) agreed to sing his “Sasara Gewa.”

Spurred on by his experiments, and given that our country was entering a more open, free economy, several companies and public corporations used him for all those catchy melodies that adorned their brands: Bata, Edna, Keells, and the National Development Lotteries Board. In the meantime, he dissembled Super Golden Chimes (in 1979) and got together with new faces (including Rookantha Goonetilake and Raju Bandara) to form a new band, “Madhara” (in 1985).

Clarence met his end in 1996, at the age of 53. That was 20 years ago. He would have been 73 today. Had he lived.

What if he had? He would have gone on composing, writing, and singing. He would have, I’d like to think, guided the “New Wave” that swept our music industry in the early 2000s and ensured that it didn’t get uprooted. He wouldn’t have been able to stop the commercialisation of our medium but he would have articulated strong views against it. He would have been the best authority to call a spade a spade on that count, for he himself had tread cautiously on the thin line between business and art and knew, being the shrewd artiste he always was, how to keep his footing.

My friend Muzar Lye spoke of him the other day: “He didn’t ruin our music. When you listen to some of his songs, you feel that his music was more ‘national’ than that of his contemporaries, even though he brought in the electric guitar and Western orchestration. And while his career as a composer outpaced his career as a vocalist, he had a voice capable of opening up to almost every genre, from classical to baila. Not many singers can claim that ability.”

Muzar isn’t alone with what he said. Others continue to make similar assessments and draw conclusions about this remarkable musician. As they should, one can add.

Had he lived, he would have moved on. We don’t know. What we know, of course, is what he gave us. That survives death. And remains with us. For now, and forever.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, September 21 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the theatre of the child

Theatre isn’t about acting and awards only, this I’ve learnt. It is fashionable to rationalise the performing arts in terms of examinations, certificates, and adult-praise, but the truth is that it eventually becomes its own virtue. There are other factors at work therefore, not least of which the ecstasy and excitement of working together. Tension, energy, and emotion: all these come out, in snatches if not gushes, and adorn the final performance. And it’s not just the cast: everyone else, from the prop designer to the scriptwriter, gets involved. No ownership or bragging rights possible there.

I am no thespian and I suppose not being one makes it difficult to assess the performance arts. Not being a child, too. Small wonder. When we’re young we think we know everything and we want to impress our elders. When we grow older, as Irangani Serasinghe (no stranger to the theatre) once told me, you grow more self-conscious and you become shy, if not disturbed, about performing in front of an audience.

Children are different. They love to perform. They love to flaunt. They love to do what they do with passion. They don’t pretend and if they do, it’s not to get tokens paraded as awards.

This is a story about a group of children, 375 to be exact. On Wednesday, September 21 at the Bishops College Auditorium, they will perform and act out 13 items. The show (titled Tales Through Time) will feature conventional plays, folk tales, and allegories and myths, crisscrossing different cultures and relayed to unearth what the children possess. Some of them will get awards, others will not, while a few will act as part of an exam organised by Trinity College, London. All in all, a veritable assortment.

It all began several years ago. Ken Pickering, then Chief Examiner for Drama and Speech at Trinity, was in Sri Lanka. He met a person. That person was Odile Melder, teacher in charge of the subject at Lyceum International School, Nugegoda. He was taken around that school by her and, at the end of the tour, was given an idea to work on: since Speech and Drama were taught as examinable subjects to middle school, why not bring it down to lower grades and let students from primary classes perform and be assessed by Trinity?

Others had heard this idea being mooted and they had listened. But Pickering was ready to do more. So he set to work. He went back to England. On Melder’s suggestion, he initiated an exam for lower grades. There was by then a category titled “Young Performers”, but it was a hotchpotch. Pickering broke it down to three other categories: Bronze, Silver, and Gold, corresponding in that order to each level in primary school: Pre-Grade, Grade One, and Grade Two.

These were then implemented throughout the world and that eventually helped create a platform for young, creative children to come up and perform. All because of one teacher, one school, and one country. “That’s something I take pride in to date,” Melder remembers, with a twinkle in her eye.

Lyceum performs every other year. This year they’ve chosen several items, spanning more than 350 children and more than one teacher. I talked with both Melder and her daughter Andrea, and waited patiently as they reflected on what they had done.

But first, some numbers. There are 13 items altogether, performed by 13 groups. Three are from Grade One, three from Grade Two, two from Grade Four, one from Grade Five, one from Grade Six, one from Grade Seven, and two from Grade Eight. While Melder’s daughter Andrea is in charge of Grades One, Two, and Six, Melder herself is in charge of the rest.

The items themselves provoke comment. Andrea is organising five: Thoppi Velenda (from here), The Kangaroo and the Wombat (from Australia), and The Armadillo (from Latin America) for Grade One; The Ant and the Grasshopper for Grade Two; and that much beloved and contorted classic, The Little Mermaid (“Which has a twist at the end,” she highlights for me) for Grade Six. They are all taken from the folk tradition and were chosen to acquaint the children, young as they are, with the past.

Andrea says it best: “These stories were selected to make our children feel a country and way of life, to make them understand the rhythms of a culture and of a people. Naturally, we’ve accounted for everything: the music, the words, the movements.” She adds that each item has been peppered and flavoured (there’s really no other way of putting it) according to cultural temperament, so that, for instance, The Armadillo is sourced to an ancient fable about how the “charango”, an instrument made from the Armadillo’s shell, came to be.

Andrea, however, prefers to keep things short. No frills, no adjectives. Her mother on the other hand likes to explain and likes to splash some colour. I turn to her next.

For Grade Four, Melder has taken in two classics: one, the Nalapana Jathaka, a meditation on the virtue of resourcefulness and one which (in her own words) made ample use of the children’s inborn desire to be “the devils that they are” (as she remarks with a chortle); and the other, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Both items were devised, which is to say that the students were told a story and asked to respond to it. “Devised drama doesn’t begin with a preconceived script, but with the ideas submitted by the cast it congeals into one,” she contends, adding that in preparing her students for both items, she allowed them to multitask. Doesn’t make the other items less interesting, but she regards the Grade Four performances and, in particular, the Nalapana Jathaka with unmistakable nostalgia: “We made use of children exceptionally talented at Kandyan dancing. One can’t expect perfection from every child, but I am gratified by how able they are in this regard.”

The rest of the items are as interesting and as promising. There’s a take on Brother Bear (coordinated by Amanda Raymond Lee, “the most versatile member in our team,” as Melder says) for Grade Five (with a cast of more than 50), Medusa in Grade Seven (with a cast of 44), and Cinderella and Pandora’s Box in Grade Eight. Incidentally, these haven’t been selected for their aesthetic merit only. “I have a soft spot for Greek theatre, especially Euripides. Pandora and Medusa reflect that. I took in both for their message: the former on how evil came to the world, a theme explored by every religion, and the latter on how punishment can be a form of release.” Characteristically, she quips here: “When a student is punished wrongly, he or she can reflect on Medusa.” She then smiles. Again, characteristically.

What comes out most strikingly in this whole show, I believe, is how its organisers have tailor-made each item to suit the student. Medusa, for instance, will feature a girl with long hair, while The Sorcerer’s Apprentice will feature a boy (“A sweet and well-meaning one”) who possesses a near-perfect combination of voice and looks from among the cast.

And not for nothing have the organisers opted for this method. As Melder herself remarks, “If you select the play according to the temperament of the child, you are appreciating him or her. You cut down on the tendency of the cast to bicker and promote a sense of collaboration among them. So yes, this is THE method to go for when organising a wide array of items with children.”

Any final words? Andrea: “The more enthusiastic the students are, the easier it is to work with them. If you don’t forget your roots and if you flavour these items with their cultural backdrop, you will get variety.” Melder: “Forcing and pigeonholing the child won’t encourage him to collaborate. You need to be actively engaged and you need to be mindful of their strengths. Some may know to dance, others may know to sing, a few may know both, but if all you do is push them into how YOU want them to behave, I doubt you’ll get what you will this Wednesday. So yes, I encourage everyone to come. What you’ll see is what you’ll expect. Simple as that.”

Simple indeed. I suspect we can take her word for it. And I suspect we can all go and watch what she has done. This Wednesday.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY

Thursday, September 15, 2016

On calling a spade a spade

I hadn’t met him when I wrote on what he did. Hadn’t talked to him, hadn’t shared a conversation or for that matter even texted to him. I wrote on him because someone I know told me to, and also because having comprehended what he had done, I felt he deserved an article. So at a time when rapists, criminals, and pilferers parading as politicians got free airtime whenever they wrecked havoc, I read on what he did, understood the rationale behind it, and wrote.

Since then I’ve talked with the man. I’ve met him, kept myself updated on what he’s doing, and prayed that there’ll be an end to all his efforts. And not for nothing. For M. S. H. Mohomed, whom I wrote on to Colombo Telegraph a few months back, remains a hero we can call our own: a citizen of the world and of this country. He did what others could only have dreamt of a year back. He raised money for a much needed machine at the Maharagama Cancer Hospital: a PET Scanner. And he raised the amount that was needed within three months.

Three months, ladies and gentlemen. Lesser things have been committed within that period. Things you and I wouldn’t normally talk about but would, for the sake of propriety, sweep under the proverbial carpet. And as for the amount raised, it’s not a matter of a million or even 10: we’re talking about 300 million rupees, collected to give a chance to the poor of this country, a chance to speed up the detection and diagnosis of cancer. I suppose it takes the kind of push Mohomed was able to bring about to collect that amount of money, because after all we’re not merely talking about a couple of generous donors but the entire country, including people from all walks of life, ethnicities, and faiths, giving their share with no strings attached.

Going by this, one can be forgiven for thinking that all that’s done and dusted. One can be forgiven for believing (like me) that the PET Scanner is finally in Maharagama, that the poor of this country will get the opportunity they deserve, and that the machine won’t be open to the privileged only.

As things have turned out however, the Scanner hasn’t come here. Not by a long shot.

But before all that, here are some facts. Some hard, inscrutable facts. Ordering a PET Scanner isn’t as easy as ordering a car. There’s work to be done and time to spend. You can’t go in your private capacity as a citizen either: you must order it through the Ministry of Health. And to order it through the Ministry, you need to go through their inevitable (yet deplorable) “procedure” (doublespeak for “red tape”). Mohomed was kind enough to furnish me with the details, so here they are.

First and foremost, a Tender Committee needs to be appointed for the tender process. Once the tender is called, you have to wait 42 days (a statutory requirement) before you close it. Then the tender has to be approved by the Tender Board, which can take anywhere between two weeks and two months. The Minister’s final approval takes another two to four months, after which the Scanner finally gets ordered.

But that’s not all. Ordering a Scanner isn’t as easy as it sounds. You first need to open a Letter of Credit. You then need to tell the manufacturer who scraped through the tender process to assemble if as per the requirements of our hospital. That takes about two months. Shipping it takes another two to three weeks, fixing it in the hospital takes another six, while radiologists at the Cancer Hospital need to be trained to handle it. In the meantime, you need to import fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a chemical used in the machine, from India.

And then there’s the hospital itself. You can’t move the machine into it as you would another machine. You need to move it into another building and what’s more, you need approval from the Atomic Energy Board, after which you can finally get the machine down. And that after more than 50 weeks, 12 months, or one year.

It took three months for Mohomed to raise 300 million rupees. It’s been three months since he did. So what’s been achieved by the Ministry until now? I believe Mohomed should be quoted here: “Only the appointment of a Tender Committee.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Only the appointment of a Tender Committee. A Committee with a bunch of people who only have to oversee the tender process. A bunch of people who could have been easily appointed based on their merit.

Let me put that into perspective for you: it takes about a year to complete the installation of the PET Scanner, and three months of that period have been spent appointing a blessed Committee.

The Miracle of Asia, ladies and gentlemen. The Miracle of Asia.

And that’s not all. Consider this: Sri Lanka has about 100,000 cancer patients. Every year about 20,000 more are diagnosed. Half of them die. At any given point, there are 300 hundred doctors tending to them, laid down on more than 1,100 beds. Couple that with other stark realities, like the fact that most of the machines at the Cancer Hospital are malfunctioning, or the fact that it lacks major and vital diagnostic equipment, and you get the whole picture.

Yes, you do. And all this time, our officials, those who pride themselves as the “rajya sevakayo” and “deshi hithayishi” mandarins, are busy making mountains out of molehills and appointing officials. They are more concerned about who gets appointed to the Committee than the 20,000 people who are diagnosed and the 10,000 people who die.

I suppose it’s unbecoming of me to say this, but say it I will: the Ministry of Health has blood splattered on its hands and on the hands of its officials for every minute they delay the process to get in the PET Scanner. They are insulting the intelligence of the common man. They are also insulting that of those who gave their time and money to a cause. Was it worthwhile? Of course, but if the Ministry doesn’t take stock of that, who will?

And who to blame? Certainly not the Minister, who’ll clean his hands of the matter and say, “Not my responsibility!” Not the Ministry, which will probably amble along at its own measured pace and give the proverbial finger to those who are dying and are unable to get themselves treated. And not the officials of those little, little Committees, who should (I strongly believe) be made to undergo the same punishment those they condemn to death by omission and delay are, through no fault of their own, going through.

No, this isn’t an attempt at Zola’s “J’Accuse!” I accuse no one. Know why? Because I don’t care. I’ve cared and so have my countrymen. Enough is enough. We should call a spade a spade and get this country going. And if that means lambasting officials who are less concerned about people than about Committees, count me in. I’ll be more than happy to join the cause. And do the needful.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Khemadasa touch

Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa probably has the most poignant love song featured in any Sinhala film. “Sara Sonduru”, a duet between Victor Ratnayake and Nanda Malini (the lyrics to which were written by Yapa and Mahagama Sekara), reflects on the beauty of falling in love and the sorrow of losing it.

It’s incorporated in a sequence of the protagonists (played by Tony Ranasinghe and Swarna Mallawarachchi) walking along the grounds of Peradeniya University, and moves on to the two of them by a small lake, the one looking into the other’s eyes, ending with these ominous lines:

කුණාටු මැද බොල් අහසේ
එබී බලන හඳ පලුවයි
පුරා හඳට ඉඩ සලසන
අනාගතය ඔබ පමණයි
සැලේ ම හද සැලේ සැලේ...

And yet, it’s not just the lyrics. There’s something about that song, which goes beyond the written word and which echoes the theme of fragile love. It’s not the conventional plaint or dirge but something else: the entire composition, to the best of my imperfect understanding of music, reverberates with the poignancy of love. When I listen to it today, I am reminded of the poetry of Thomas Hardy, and not just because of the words.

“Sara Sonduru” was composed by Premasiri Khemadasa. Khemadasa made us listen to music. He also helped us understand that it wasn’t merely about songs but could be something more, as he proved in his long, prodigious career. He ventured into uncharted territory, broke some norms, and yet never strayed from the land of his birth. He made us enjoy what he did. More importantly, he taught us a lesson: that to break out from tradition, you must be rooted in tradition.

And how rooted he was! He took in everything he heard – the sound of birds chirping and the waves of the sea and everything else that nature offered in this country – and transformed them into melodies we could listen to. His greatest contribution, for me, was in the realm of film music, for the simple reason that at a time when composers thought that the cinema and music could interact through the conventional three-minute song, he dared to think of an alternative. Sure, we had films that had themes of their own (variations of which were used to evoke emotion in whatever sequence), but it is Khemadasa who made us realise how music could be used to explain the many moods, gestures, nuances of feeling, and philosophical dimensions embedded in a work of art.

The cinema, Lenin is reported to have said, is the most important of the arts. Music, however, is the most universal. Khemadasa understood that. In his best work (from his first phase) – for the films of K. A. W. Perera and Lester James Peries – he employed it to lend meaning to a scene or sequence. He did not go for standalone songs for the simple reason that he would have found nothing useful in them: for him, a medium of art could be weaved into another only IF both related to each other.

That is why, when you listen such classics like M. S. Fernando’s "Ron Rasa Berena" (in Rana Giraw) or "Eran Kanda Pem Handa" (in Nedeyo) you get the feeling that while the hero and heroine are crooning at each other, what they’re singing contributes meaningfully to the larger narrative. That is also why he was more successful when he went beyond composing songs.

He first entered the cinema with Ariyadasa Peiris’ Sobana Sitha (in 1964), which was followed by a film which introduced him more properly to the industry, K. A. W. Perera’s Senasuma Kothanada (in 1966). He followed it up with T. Bhawanandan’s Manamalayo three years later, itself followed by two seminal milestones, one minor and the other a watershed.

Tissa Liyanasuriya’s Narilatha, arguably the first attempt by a filmmaker here to thematise adultery, was the first. It begins with a rarely heard classic: "Lassana Thaleta", performed by Victor Ratnayake and synchronised with the rhythm of a moving train (Khemadasa’s ability to hone in on the context of a scene or sequence like this eventually became his signature).

Lester James Peries’ Golu Hadawatha was the second. The other day a TV channel screened it. As the credits rolled and as they announced, “Music by Premasiri Khemadasa,” the channel thought it fit to add its own two cents through a subtitle: “the most famous score from a Sinhala film.” That’s an extrapolation I agree, but it makes sense: Golu Hadawatha goes down as the first Sinhala film which based its entire narrative on a single musical theme, one that employed a flute to convey the idea of unrequited love.

But it’s not just that theme. There’s a sequence in the film where the protagonist (Sugath, played by Wickrema Bogoda) meets his former lover (Dammi, played by Anula Karunatilake) at a school carnival. You get the feeling Sugath goes there to meet her, and you get the feeling that he will. He goes and watches a moving carousel. As expected, he comes across her: laughing with her new found lover, oblivious to everyone around her.

That’s where Khemadasa and the editor, Sumitra Peiries, applied their magic. We see close-ups of Dhammi intercut with a slow zoom on Sugath’s pained yet expressionless face. We see Dhammi laughing, indifferent and blissfully so, contrasted with Sugath’s feeling of hurt and the carousel music, bringing out the counterpoint the one has to the other and, in the end, conveying tension and repressed emotion. When Sugath and Dhammi (with her lover) meet and when the latter leaves, the carousel music quickens: Sugath looks on, asks his friend to leave him, and wanders away.

Khemadasa could convey ideas like that. He did the same thing in Peries’ third and final film for Ceylon Theatres, Nidhanaya. He went as far as to compose his own waltz for it, used in the sequence of the two protagonists (Gamini Fonseka and Malini Fonseka) dancing with each other after being reconciled. The waltz conveys an almost otherworldly passion between them, because Gamini isn’t really dancing with Malini: he’s merely imagining it all.

These were certainly bold exercises in music, but the Khemadasa of the sixties and early seventies would soon give way to his next phase: one marked by films that were more direct and more political.

Those films were mostly directed by the foremost exponent of political cinema here, Dharmasena Pathiraja. Emboldened by their subject matter, Khemadasa went on experimenting. He went for opera and used it, extensively at times, in them: in Bambaru Avith, in Para Dige, and later in Pathiraja’s teledramas (especially Ella Laga Walawwa), he became more daring. He contextualised his work to suit the film: in Dharmasiri Bandaranaike’s Hansa Vilak, for instance, his score brings up the narrative’s interplay between fantasy and reality, blurring the line between the two until, in that confusing and unresolved ending, there’s no music at all: because the score made it so evident that it needn’t have been featured there.

In Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama, on the other hand, he refrained from featuring an extensive score: as Regi Siriwardena noted in his review, there probably were no more than 10 minutes of music in the entire film, because the only time it’s used we are deceptively made to think of the narrative in terms of the popular cinema. When the music ends however, we beg to differ: the interplay between imagination and reality tempts us into believing that the story we are watching can be rationalised by the myths and fantasies of popular fiction, when in fact the protagonist gets entrapped, gets confused by her blind devotion to her tormentor, and finally realises that the only way out is to destroy him and herself. Music would have jarred, and this the director and the composer understood all too well.

There were other contributions and films. We remember them all. In Janaka saha Manju, he made us fall in love with the protagonists with “Loke Jeevath Wannata”. In Nedeyo, he made us think of life’s many blessings when Vijaya Nandasiri’s blind protagonist “sings” T. M. Jayaratne’s “Jeevithe Amadhara”. In Lester James Peries’ Kaliyugaya, he made us aware of the protagonist Alan, as he grows up and as he battles his family’s eroding moral conscience by detaching himself from his parents (Nanda and Piyal), through a simple yet powerful motif (played out in snatches from beginning to end). In Parakrama Niriella’s Siri Medura, he used Amarasiri Peiris to sing of the raging, unrefined passion in Anoja Weerasinghe’s character with “Minisa Marana Thunak.”

And in the teledramas and films of Jayantha Chandrasiri – in particular, Guerrilla Marketing – he transformed our jana shruti and jana gee into what can only be called exercises in fusion. He juggled East and West. He compromised. For some, that was an unforgivable aberration. For me and for the vast majority of music lovers in this country though, that was a meaningful contribution. In Chandrasiri’s films – idiosyncratic as they are and fuelled by an almost zealous desire to unearth the political – he achieved his zenith. It is in here, more than anywhere else, that he experimented and triumphed.

He would have been 79 this January and 80 the next. He died in 2008. He was 71 at the time. An age, I’d like to believe, at which he would have been able to look back and concede ground to his achievements, triumphs, and moments of glory.

For he gave us a cinema (yes, he did!) which achieved much more with the revolution he wrought in our music. He taught us, in his own special way, that deviations from the norm made sense only if you were rooted in tradition. He showed us, as Godard and Picasso did in their respective fields, that if you did away with convention altogether, what you achieved wasn’t a deviation but a twisted, meaningless contortion of reality.

Here’s what I think about what he did, hence. There's something about a Khemadasa composition which stands out. It betrays, for a split second even, the idiosyncrasies of a man who went beyond the ragadhari tradition and embraced a more universal (yet no less "national") form. Legend has it that the man could direct a scene or sequence of a film in line with his score. Legend has it also that he was, like Bernstein, erratic. Like all pioneers, one can add.

I suppose that’s the biggest legacy he can claim to. And I suppose we as a nation and as a people have profited by it. Big time.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, September 14 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The pitfalls of teaching 'English Our Way'

William Blake once wrote, “One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.” He made a point about equality: if it’s accorded to all while hiding qualities that differentiate the one from the other, it eventually becomes a tool against itself.

If we take Aristotle’s dictum about equality, then we can’t compare unlike with unlike without depriving the less well off, whether in terms of ethnicity, class, or any other criteria that separate the many from the few. Violating this dictum is self-defeating, and if not at least unearths those aforementioned qualities that distinguish one social group from another so much that, while all appear to be equal, some are privileged or unprivileged by degrees.

This week’s column is about one of those qualities: proficiency in English. It’s an attempt at unearthing the flaws we’ve institutionalised when teaching them to our children, how those flaws tend to solidify class structures, and how, if we are to have the proverbial cake and eat it too in terms of progress, we must overhaul and alter existing structures.

The variants of language

English is a lingua franca. It’s not the most used language in the world but it certainly is used everywhere. It has a past and it has some colonial(ist) accretions, which is probably why extreme nationalists question as to whether we need it. Patriotic fervour can be good, but disagreeing on principle with the need to learn a lingua franca will cripple a population that has grown to interact with the world outside.

Put simply, it’s not a question of “Either/Or” or a matter of “Learn it or don’t!” but “Struggle with it or suffer without it!” That’s a stark way of putting it, but when it comes to assessing a language like English that is, all in all, the reality.

On the other hand, “English as She Should Be Spoken” needn’t be our priority. My experience with elocution and all those other exercises aimed at getting your pronunciation correct has been that they are laudable inasmuch as they are looked at in aesthetic terms: if you look at them in terms of the separation between those who wield the language and those who stumble with it, you’ll not only be falsely elevating yourself but also concede ground to social stratifications that can only further divide an already fragmented society.

Moreover, there’s no correct English. Indians speak it differently. So do Sri Lankans. The Caribbean people have developed their own version. Canada and the United States have openly violated certain norms of the language. London has become a multicultural hub, to an extent where you don’t come across the Queen’s English as much as you used to. Besides, as a renowned anthropologist once observed, the further East you go from the Suez, the more you become assimilated to the our part of the world, particularly (we can assume) when it comes to articulating and pronouncing words.

The lesson to be drawn here, obviously, is that globalisation works both ways: there’s no correct, prescribed method of using a language, here or there. The debate between localising English and keeping it intact, on the other hand, is different to the debate between localising English and localising it to such an extent that those who script how it’s taught manage to hide the inequity of equalising language-use between those who can handle English well and those who can’t. That begs an obvious question: how should be resolve the latter? More importantly, why should we?

The mistakes of the teaching the medium

It takes two to tango and two to clap. You can’t conceive of a method of teaching without factoring in those exogenous factors that have a say in what we learn and how we learn. English is not that different. Artificially equalising students who can’t speak the lingo with those who can wield it well has, as I see it, done more harm than good, even if what’s promoted is a variant of English that’s supposedly suited for our way.

And it’s not hard to see why. Ever since 1956 we have been trying to get at “English Our Way.” We’ve set curricula and syllabuses to suit the common denominator without realising that a language is much more than a tool for communication: in the hands of a select few, it can become a weapon of privilege. There’s nothing wrong in promoting a language according to how it’s used in the country, but if in the end we separate the few who know more English than “Our Way” from those who get down to memorise other, more socially privileged variants thereof, what’s the use of learning it?

There’s more.

Sri Lanka’s education sector develops vertically, not horizontally. Administrators are more concerned with infrastructure and inputs. Makes sense. Quantity is easy to measure. Quality is not. The former is short-termist, the latter long-termist.

Marie Perera, in a research paper titled “Student heterogeneity in the English Language Classrooms” (written in 2010 for the National Education Commission), points out the gap between resources allocated to develop language methodologies and their outcomes, and draws a conclusion we know all too well: most Sri Lankan students aren’t proficient enough in English to secure stable and secure jobs. She argues, correctly I believe, that outside Colombo and Kandy schools don’t teach the subject properly and even if they do, the teachers allocated to it are constrained by the curricula and by what she could have noted down as the manifest shortcomings of textbooks.

Those who write textbooks, I believe, are to be blamed. We needn’t drive Chapman’s English or Heinemann’s English into our children’s heads, but that isn’t a license to abandon quality altogether. As Perera notes in her study, there’s a link between quantity/inputs and the ability of a student to understand the subject, provided that those inputs are simplified and put across in a more comprehensive way.

There’s no point trying to make Grade Three students memorise the names of animals and plants, for instance, if they weren’t taught how to connect letters to form words in Grades One and Two. Some schools don’t properly teach English at those levels, owing to a lack of teachers. Some schools, particularly the private and international ones, either have their own textbooks or import them from India and Europe. Small wonder we’re lagging behind and small wonder that we’re parading inequity as an artificial equality in our classrooms.

The truth then is that a language is more than grammar and syntax. It’s more than memorising and dictation. It’s not about reciting answers. It develops and isn’t constrained by what administrators consider as the “standard form.” Take a typical textbook, preferably from the lower and elementary classes, and you will see how misconceived we are about that: riddled from beginning to end with standardised texts and activities that have no real reference point outside themselves, they cater to students who take what they’re taught as the only correct answers.

But even the most pedestrian text can become a Bible in the hands of an able teacher. The problem here isn’t really the textbook, but those who teach it. I’ve come across students who’re relegated to the back of their class if they can’t understand the subject. I’ve come across students who’re bright enough but are ignored by callous teachers who, for some reason, focus on those who wield the language properly. And this isn’t just because of the divide between Colombo, Kandy, and other parts of the country, or for that matter the divide between social groups and classes: I’ve come across students from what many would consider to be “outstation schools” (the term smacks of contempt and snobbery) who are quicker at the language than their considerably more privileged counterpart in the typical popular school.

So no, it’s not a question of whether we need more resources. It’s a question of where existing resources are allocated to. There’s no point spending millions on a teacher training program, after all, if the teacher discriminates between those who are exceptionally talented at a subject and those who aren’t. There’s no point spending the same amount of money on District A and District B if District A has schools where students come from English-speaking backgrounds and District B has schools where the students are, for the most, impoverished.

Acknowledging all that can help us understand why equalising our students through textbooks does more harm than good. The solution, as always, is to improve. But how?

The perils of distant reading

There are more ways than one of skinning a cat. There are, however, only two broad ways of learning a language.

One, you commit to memory massive amounts of data, a method practised in Sri Lanka and in other countries where memorising has become the norm. This is referred to as “distant reading”, where you don’t zoom in on a particular text but aggregate the rules of grammar, construction, and punctuation so much that you generalise what you take in. The advantage with this is that it’s easier to standardise. The disadvantage, however, is that it tricks the student into believing that language construction is as stark as “two plus two equals four.”

Two, you pick out bits and pieces of information from a particular text. You study a poem like Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” and dwell on rhetorical devices, metaphors, and the philosophical dimensions embedded therein. You don’t learn much by way of generalised punctuation or grammar rules, but you do eventually. And why? Because the student’s appreciation of the text grows so gradually (and not, as it’s wont to today, mechanically through rote learning) that he or she absorbs the sentences, the words, the letters, and how they are constructed. This, being the opposite of the other method, is obviously referred to as “close reading.”

Being a student from a fee-levying, private school, I studied the latter method. I believe it helped. Not because it was prescribed by outsiders, but because it’s self-evidently useful. There’s little to no point, after all, in writing sentences in the present tense and converting them to, say, the past perfect if all what students are taught is the formation of a sentence in the latter tense.

I don’t remember being asked to memorise grammar rigidly, obviously because I wasn’t. In the end, that helped when I was studying poetry. I believe that this holds true for other students in the country and that students, whatever their background (which shouldn’t be a factor in this matter anyway), should be encouraged to respond to Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth intelligently and individually.

No, I’m not suggesting that we import “English as She Should Be Spoken.” But I suspect we have confused not importing the lingo for not adapting methods used by outsiders. Close reading, let’s not forget, has been known to work, and by adapting accordingly we can do more, much more, than what we’ve achieved so far. True, distant reading isn’t without its champions (who tend to argue that literature and language are the result of centuries of evolution, which means that learning particular texts is unhelpful), but it’s almost dangerous when taken as a license to make the student memorise.

And you know what? Those who are conditioned to distant reading take time to get used to reading a text cohesively. They may memorise grammar and they may be bright at remembering, but when it comes to dealing with those exceptions to conventional rules of construction and syntax in English, they are at a loss.

A few years ago I tried a little experiment with the son of a friend. The topic was the present perfect continuous tense. I gave the boy (in Grade Eight at the time) four or five rules of construction, including the use of the auxiliary “have / has been” and how the auxiliary should be used with the relevant subject (“have been” for I, You, and We, and “has been” for everything else). I asked him to memorise these rules. He had a memory he underestimated, so to his own surprise he was quite able to do what I asked him. We went through certain sentences and I asked him to check whether the auxiliary corresponded with the subject. Going by what I suggested, he inserted them correctly when it came to a definite subject (I, you, they, we, he, she, it).

A little later on we came to sentences that had indefinite subjects and pronouns. He was lost. Having struggled with them for some time, he opted for the wrong auxiliary: “has been” for “Jack and Jill” and “have been” for “Each of the children.” He grinned sheepishly at me and admitted that he thought he’d made a mistake. I smiled and corrected him. We’ve remained friends ever since.

The lesson that boy learnt is that not even Mr Chapman and Mr Heinemann can help us if all we do is memorising. There has to be intelligent, individualised responses to particular texts, because in a world which focuses on specifics and not generalisations, it’s best to adapt and adopt a language based on its actual use by writers. I suspect this holds true even for writers deviated errantly from accepted norms of grammar, such as Shakespeare’s “most unkindest cut” and Joyce’s hazy sentences which would have horrified those rigid on punctuation.

Concluding remarks

Some months back I read an account of a lecturer and academic who’d passed out of school in the early eighties. He had as far as I could ascertain studied in the Sinhala medium, but his take on how his O/Level teacher taught his class a textbook passage aptly debunks the myth that one needs to study IN English to KNOW or LEARN English:

First he gave us some matter-of-fact questions about the passage (reading comprehension); then he did a spelling test (memorising); this was followed by a fill-in-the-blanks exercise (more memorising); next came a lengthy discussion of the use of phrasal verbs and the subjunctive mood in the passage (grammar); and only then did the teacher tackle the aesthetic and philosophical dimensions of the passage, by which time even I, an average kid, could recite it from memory. I have been taught English and other languages before and since, but not quite like that.

No one, not even Mr Chapman, can quite match this kind of teaching. But that was a different time: when teachers owned a vehicle, didn’t indulge in as much tuition as they do now, and above all, were individualists. Academe in Sri Lanka has gone away and with it the student’s ability to individualise and adapt a text to his own reading of it. Nietzsche’s dictum that there are “no facts, only interpretations” could have held true for how we once taught our students English, a long time ago.

And so we have a choice: either we continue to equalise English to hide the inequity which exists in our classrooms, or we emancipate our children by teaching them, not English as She Should Be Spoken, but an English superior to that used by the authors of education policy, who in their myopia think that the solution is to churn out textbooks which teach the most essential, generalised, and hence useless rules of grammar and syntax to the less well off. Whether they like it or not, these policymakers are playing into the hands of the enemy: snobs from the city, who continue to see the world in black and white and wish (whether consciously or unconsciously) to draw a line between themselves and their less privileged brethren.

Going by all that, I don’t think the choice is difficult to make. We’ve already taken the wrong option. We’ve suffered. If we don’t take stock of that, we’ll do what those policy-authors have done: violating Aristotle’s dictum about equality, equalising unlike with unlike, and along the way creating one law or structure for the Lion and for the Ox.

If you want (cultural) oppression, ladies and gentlemen, that is the way to go. If you don’t, there’s another option. It’s not too late to choose.

Written for: Ceylon Today, September 13 2016