Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections on the South

I was born in Colombo but am reluctant to call it home. What is home, anyway? Is it necessarily predicated on where you grew up with your family? Perhaps, but not quite. I’ve come to believe that “home” is as multifaceted as everything else in this wide universe of ours, and while one cannot and should not claim that one is rooted to one particular place, it’s certainly true that, to twist and contort an oft-quoted phrase, home is where the heart should be. For me then, Colombo is not home. There are reasons for this (and I will get down to them later), all of which congeal to one basic point: my heart was and always will be in the South.

Yes, the South. That much loved region. Much abused too, because in arguably the biggest tragedy we as a community continue to encounter, we are wont to trash the outsider, the bumpkin, the outstation resident. We shouldn’t rejoice at it, but that is a reality we must acknowledge.

I confess I don’t know half the things that make up the South as those who live there do, but that shouldn’t stop one from assessing its historical import. It is in the South that this country sought refuge in, that continues to boost the numbers of those entering the Armed Forces, and that cradles our civilization.

There are many reasons to like a place and many reasons to hate it. There are a great many reasons to claim pride as a resident of the South. Starting with its people.

From Ambalangoda to Matara, from Matara to Hambanthota, you come across the most hospitable citizens in this country. Yes, you come across emotionally invested people as well, those who choose to express their hopes, aspirations, and fears in ways derided as too unbecoming by those who wear lounge suits and drink coffee in luxury suites. But I prefer the brutally honest to the painfully pretentious. Those from that region voice their aspirations frankly and honesty. I like being frank and I like being honest. Therefore, I like the Southerner.

I know of people who are ashamed to trace their ancestry there. Why, though? What is there to be ashamed about? Their way of engaging with other people? Why are we so obsessed with hiding behind a façade of sophistication, pretending to things we can’t really claim? It’s a virtual rat-race in the city, and in the South, no matter how urbanised you may be, you just don’t let go of those values that demarcate the hospitality for which we as a country have become famous. Is that cause for shame? Certainly not.

Sure, Galle is no Cinnamon Gardens and I know that we are, from an early age, groomed to inhabit the most elegant and cosmopolitan places this country has to offer. It’s a tragedy that we are never taught to keep our feet in both worlds, that is, to both be rooted and be accommodative of the rest of the world. The South is derided, rather unfairly, as a repository for frogs in the well. In this rush to rid ourselves of frogs, we forget one key thing: that the real wells are the ones we inhabit, as we force ourselves to be classier and more pretentious than we are now. If by sophistication you mean being uprooted and culturally castrated hence, then I’d rather be a frog. And I’d rather die a frog.

I am yet to come across another part of this country where people are as ready to serve their guests with so much food. Whether you announce your arrival in advance or not, whether they know that you are coming or not, they are ready. They may be busy, but they are still able to fill you up. I have gone to other places, I have announced my arrival weeks in advance, but I have unfortunately come across people who, while being apologetic, try to prevail on me to wait hours before they cook up their dinner. Secretly they are glad to see me go, so that they don’t have to spend bucks on me. They don’t even serve tea.

The Southerner is not like that. Never was, never will be.

It’s not just the people of course. It’s the culture and the history. I confess I am a dud at both these fields, but it doesn’t take much to realise that there is a sense of belonging and rootedness in the Southerner which is virtually unparalleled. They can be quite vocal about it as well, and this has, through the years, attracted censure. That however tends to marginalise the moderate, a species of human beings that is not rare in the region. Yes, there are those who contend for coexistence, who are genuinely suspicious of demagogues, and who prefer living with other communities. It’s just that the cosmopolite, in his or her quest to unearth everything wrong in the country, attributes the discordant voice of the communalist to the South. A sign of bankruptcy, no doubt.

And as for beauty: from the mask makers of Ambalangoda to the seafood from Dodanduwa and beyond, there isn’t much in this area that can move one to boredom. Instead there is always colour. Everywhere. No, it’s not just the beaches: even a residential street will fill a visitor with enthusiasm. The temples and shrines too: the shrines of Seenigama for instance, bottled as they are with a sense of the holy that can’t really be put in words, will move the religiously inclined and the secular cosmopolitan in equal measure.

The beauty of a place can’t be gleaned through random, unplanned visits, but even the sketchiest tourist will not fail to be entranced by these sites. That is the magic of the South.

Not every individual portrayed today as a hero emerged from here, but a great many such persons did. From the arty to the popular, from those who enriched our intellect to those who enriched our popular consciousness, the South bred them all, gave them a sense of identity, and encouraged them to step beyond the confines of home to conquer the country and if possible, the world. Not through rhetoric, not through arrogance and self-inflation, but through action.

Sketches do scant justice to a person or an area. I don’t really hail from the South but nor am I an outsider: for that reason, trapped as I am between two worlds, I cannot describe either in detail. Suffice it to say that I am not entranced by surface-allure only, but also by the cultural and political significance of an area.

The truth is that the South contains the histories that bind us together, as a nation and as a people. It is insular only for the insular, chauvinistic only for the chauvinist, and bigoted only for those who have an axe to grind with the community that make up the majority of the region. It is a strange place, certainly, but strangeness, or amuthu kama, should not be equated with adbutha kama, or otherworldliness.

That is why it is deplorable that we pick on the South on the basis of the dialect of its inhabitants. That is why it is deplorable that we poke fun at how they spell and articulate words. What is the harm of having your own dialect, after all? Those in Colombo have their own speaking patterns, those in Jaffna, Kandy, and Polonnaruwa have their own speaking patterns, and those in the Americas have their own speaking patterns. Are we to deride them on that count? Or are we, as civilized human beings, to be respectful of and enthralled by the melting pot and variety that this entails? I believe we should opt for the latter.

Malinda Seneviratne, in the only properly written English language tribute to Ranbanda Seneviratne, observes that the latter was not ashamed of being (called) a bumpkin. He could have elongated his name, to sharpen it and appear more respectful to the world outside, by calling himself Bandara. “Today, no one wants to be called Banda, they would go instead for Bandara, the former having been bestowed with all kinds of derogatory meanings over the years” was what Malinda wrote. He was correct. We are more content with naming ourselves after the elite. We are ashamed to say that we are rooted. We have hence become ashamed to acknowledge ourselves for who we are. No country can progress with such a mindset, this much must be noted.

The country belongs to the Kolombians (a term that Malinda in his wit and wisdom coined), some say. Its destiny can only be shaped by those who emerge from Cinnamon Gardens (physically and metaphorically), others blurt out. Not true. A country cannot be led by those who have no sense of culture and history. The elite of Cinnamon Gardens don’t even know what culture and history are.

Those who reside (again, physically or metaphorically) outside Colombo will continue to make the waves in this country. These places will continue to breed those who are rooted in and not cut off from the past. And the South, leading them all perhaps, will continue with what it always has done: produce and nourish the roots of a society still reeling from the post-colonial moment.

We can hate it. We can ignore it. We can embrace it. I choose to embrace it.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The curse of the (Old) Left

It’s easy to get caught in rhetoric. Easy to make others believe that rhetoric represents the truth. Ideologues can sometimes get swayed by the lure of the moment and convince everyone, and by that I mean everyone, of the veracity of their arguments. The truth tends to get distorted, contorted, and eventually coated with enough sugar to appeal to both sides of the political divide. Sure, along the way words are made up and tossed around for the sake of attaining solidity in rhetoric, but all in all, it’s nothing more and nothing less than marketing.

I suppose capitalism doesn’t need rhetoric to win anyone over. It’s been marketed enough for what it is not that people don’t need argumentative skills to convince us to their side. All they need is a conveniently structured myth, paraded as dogma. As Fernand Braudel noted, after all, capitalism was never based on free market economics as its supporters claim it was: governments and policymakers distorted the market and monopolised it for the sake of (quick) profit. In the United States the unemployed are referred to as bums and rent-seekers, but if we go by Braudel’s theory, the real rent-seekers are those distorting the market while parading themselves as champions of Milton Friedman and Adam Smith: namely, fat-cat managers and executives.

It’s a different story when it comes to the Left. In this interminable, interconnected world we are supposed to consider as globalised, there’s no place “left” for the champions of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and all those other hoorah-boys of Marx. They have no marketers and like all impoverished ideologues, they need money. Even if it meant that they join up with the ruling class they were supposed to shun, they abandoned principles. In the end, they failed.

Why though? Because they rubbished tradition and culture, and rubbished them to the extent of forgetting their relevance when appealing to the voter.

For a while in Sri Lanka, this worked. Then came the SLFP, which to my mind represented the biggest blow to the Left in this country, simply because it shed the cosmopolitan face of socialism while being parading around as a socialist movement, which it was not (as Regi Siriwardena pointed out, it appealed to the infantile village bourgeoisie, which unlike their urban counterpart were chauvinistic and anti-Tamil). With no other option in sight, the (Old) Left became content in planning out their Revolution from the sidelines. As Denzil Peiris observed, 1956 was not a vote for the Left. It was a vote for Bandaranaike. The two were not the same.

That’s when things went downhill. The Left had agitated for equal rights, parity of status, and language privileges for all, not just the (ethnic) majority. The government was in no mood to entertain such idealistic policies and it certainly did not need Marxists for its sustenance. For the next two decades therefore, except for the likes of Philip Gunawardena and N. M. Perera, who managed to drive their policies through the government of the day, the Left floundered. The birth of the New Left in the form of the JVP was inevitable, as inevitable as the later substitution of race for class by the Old Left.

I’ve pointed out elsewhere that with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Old Left was preyed on by forces not even remotely sympathetic to the principles of Marxism. They became, as we all know, the biggest funders of key representatives of the Left, who not only legitimised through silence the witch-hunt against the JVP (which stood against the Indo-Lanka Accord), but also made use of the JVP’s absence to crystallise into a policy elite that, regardless of the aspirations of the majority of the country, called the shots in the government of the day.

I’ve always wondered whether we need the Old Left anymore. It’s a spent force, for starters. Sure, we had the most promising Trotskyite party in the world, but that was before Trotsky was assassinated and before people began realising the inherent deficiencies of an ideology that subsisted, regardless of Philip Gunawardena’s attempts at making it more palatable to the village peasantry, on cosmopolitanism.

To be fair by the likes of Gunawardena though, the stalwarts of the LSSP then were no blue-eyed idealists flirting with federal-speak and Eelamism: unlike their descendants, they knew the aspirations of the majority enough to counter chauvinist demands from (self-appointed) representatives of the minority. They were, in short, principled, so principled that their kith and kin didn’t merely side with their cause but went on to create their own ideology which privileged the country before Marxist utopias (yes, I am talking of Dinesh Gunawardena here).

Just the other day I was talking with a playwright, a nationalist and a deeply secular one at that. He had a habit of calling a spade a spade. We were talking about the ethnic conflict and how ideology had tried to address grievances in a way politics could not. He was adamant that the conflict had been ballooned beyond proportion. He contended that the Sinhalese, despite their less than favourable history, had little to no rights in parts of the country where certain minorities held sway, and argued quite cogently that even in a secular society (which he was in favour of), numerical realities must be taken into account.

That’s when he brought up the Left. He quoted Colvin R. de Silva’s forever-quoted quote on the minority question, “One language, two nations; two languages, one nation.” Colvin’s proposition was to equalise Tamil with Sinhala, which to this playwright seemed a mild version of G. G. Ponnanbalam’s infamous 50-50 thesis. I couldn’t resist telling him then and there, “The Left has played around with words so much that even today, federalists and devolutionists draw from their rhetoric when defending calls for separatism.” He agreed.

I then said, “The Left has become a curse to this country.” He replied, “It always was.”

Now this playwright isn’t someone you could call a chauvinist. He was, for one thing, a firm believer in a secular constitution, with the obvious caveat that secularism is meaningless without first accounting for numerical and ethnic realities. He was no fan of the Left, obviously. His stance on Colvin’s careless and crass position on language rights was summed up by what he said next: “That was an irrational and mischievous thing to say. It privileges language as the only differentiating factor in a society when clearly there are other more dangerous such factors.” The Left, he implied correctly, had abandoned these other factors in its quest for appearing holier-than-thou on the ethnic question, to the separatists and their side of the debate of course.

I am less ruffled by this, however, than by the hypocrisy of the Left in terms of how it views its own principles. You come across self-proclaimed leftists praising the United National Party (I kid you not) for handling the economy well, and inserting caveats that it should do better if it is to achieve social equity. Mind you, these are the same pundits who berated the previous regime for its lumpen, anti-proletarian economic policies (policies that, inter alia, rescued the Transport Board and several other state institutions from the mess they were thrown into by the regime that preceded it, a regime these pundits supported unconditionally because of its commitment to federalism).

They were out on the streets shouting “Down with the State!” but surprisingly hear and see no evil when it comes to the present regime. They claim “Better than the last one we got!” but that is not adequate. Given the mess the government has got itself into thanks to a President who can’t say one thing without contradicting it days later, I can only conclude that the only if not main reason for their support for the present regime is the (perceived) affirmation of devolution, federalism, and 13-plus by key spokespersons in it.

In itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. A world where only nationalism reigned supreme would be quite dull indeed. Hypocrisy, however, is another kettle of fish altogether. So is dishing out federal-speak in the name of ameliorating interethnic disparities.

These pundits forget if not marginalise the nauseating measures taken by the government against the majority (regardless of ethnicity) and concentrate on achieving their self-proclaimed Utopias. They’ve idealised the ethnic and the religious and think they can do away with the social, forgetting that the former are but constituents of the latter.

No one is saying that ethnic minorities haven’t been targeted. They have been. For centuries and for decades, they have been on the receiving end of a State that used them, again and again, for the sake of expedience. Their rights have been downed legally and illegally. The machinery of the State has been used to whip up hatred against them. Despite that, however, I believe we’re concentrating on the wrong priorities.

We’re confused about what we want for them. We’ve caved in to ideologues who preach the gospel of multiculturalism without accounting for numerical, social, and ethnic realities. We’ve forgotten the simple but stark fact that it’s misconceived to create a cosmopolitan society if we have to wave good-bye to cosmopolitanism in the North and East. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not tenable by any stretch of the imagination.

In short, we’re so entranced with achieving a pluralistic society that we say, “I don’t care what the f*** your ethnicity is, I’m Sri Lankan”, forgetting that extremists from the North are more concerned with ethnic purity than coexistence. “What is wrong with telling about who we are?” queries Chief Minister Wigneswaran, even as politicians from the South campaign on the premise that coexistence can only operate if the Sinhalese stop affirming their identity and even as the good CM refuses to see the irony in his statement. The Left, through mischievous errors of commission and omission, has conveniently erased reality from rhetoric.

The Old Left, going by that, continues to be a curse to this country. Always were, always have been. Time we told them to stop fudging around with history, hence. Time we told them to concentrate on the social and economic. And time we told them to shut up and move on.

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

G. R. Perera: Man of many faces

I love meeting old people, particularly old artistes who began their careers in the late fifties and early sixties. They weren’t just artistes back then, they were revolutionaries, breeding change in their respective fields of activity and in the process, helping us claim an identity of our own. I never grow tired of talking with them and I never grow weary of sketching out their lives. As writers, I believe we have a duty to let them talk, to take down what they have to say, and to preserve and archive. Sadly though, they are not talking enough. They should be.

G. R. Perera is a name we encountered a long, long time ago. He was and is an actor but like all such actors from that time, his career can’t be easily compartmentalised. I remember seeing him in practically every TV series I laid my eyes on here, and I remember some film credits here and there which I never really bothered to check out. He had other lives, however, lives which owing to changing times have evaded the biographer. I tried to capture this and more, as I sat down to talk with the man some weeks back. He was, in keeping with most of those characters he’s played onscreen, self-effacing to a fault.

He begins at the beginning. He was born in Kirulapone in 1939 and was initially educated at Rattanapitiya Ananda Vidyalaya. Rattanapitiya is close to Boralesgamuwa, which is made up of 13 villages. One of these is Egodawatte, where his family moved to shortly afterwards.

He remembers an uneventful and ordinary childhood, but then with a twinkle in his eye contends that what was uneventful then would hardly appear uneventful for a child now. “I loved climbing trees. After school was over, my friends and I would climb the kadju trees that adorned our village. My mother, always the caring, gentle woman, feared for me, but I assuaged her fears quickly enough. In any case, I got a reputation for being a quick climber: that helped when the villagers would organise a gammaduwa, because they needed someone who could tie two kadju trees.”

When he completed his fifth year, G. R. had stopped going to Ananda. “This was in 1950. The previous year, my father had won about 98,000 rupees at the races, a hefty amount for that time. Someone told him to bet some more, because for him the gods were generous with luck when you won a big amount in one sitting. Well, my father went on betting, and along the way built a new house.” Fortune isn’t always consistent, however: by the early sixties, the family was in debt.

In the three or four months young G. R. was at home away from school, his mother would send him to a nearby kiosk every morning with “kadeappan” (pittu and indi aappa). On one such morning, he had been walking along when he came across a sight he never had before: a boy his age, in pyjamas. “It was strange because we didn’t wear pyjamas,” G. R. chortles at me, “This was right after the War. Egodawatte was chock-a-block with Burgher people. Sure, there were Sinhala lads we referred to as ‘kalu lansi’, but there was something about this fellow that caught my attention.”

Predictably, the boy had beckoned to him. “He asked me where I was going. I told him. He then asked me what I was carrying. ‘Kadeappan,’ I shortly told him. ‘Kadeappan?’ he asked me: that word would have been outside his experience. So I opened up what I was carrying. He then asked me whether he could have some string hoppers. I defiantly got up and said that he’d do well to buy it at the kiosk. That was the first time I encountered this lad. I later got to know that he was born the same year that I had been, and that I was younger than him by about six months. It didn’t take long for us to get to know each other, and to become friends.”

That boy, who among other things would later introduce G. R. and his friends to the RAF soldiers stationed in the area (along with their women), was Tissa Abeysekara.

G. R. opens up about the man here. “Tissa’s father lost his money after the stock market collapsed at the end of the War. They had lived at Havelock Town but later moved to Egodawatte. Because of his upbringing, his command of English was excellent.” Apparently the two of them, together with their friends in the neighbourhood, would swim in a pond adjoining G. R.’s house every day. “As for the RAF officers, I suppose Tissa made such a good impression on them that on nearly every occasion he talked with them, they made it a point to give us something, anything, more often than not some chocolates.”

The two met for the first time on January 4. On May 17, G. R. was admitted to Kumara Vidyalaya in Kotahena. “My mother tried hard to find me a school in the neighbourhood. She could not. Kumara Vidyalaya was near Modera, where an uncle of mine lived. Soon enough, I moved into his house and from there, I’d travel to Kotahena every day.”

Things had been different at Ananda, and while Kumara hadn’t been endowed with every facility a school could have had, nevertheless the students there used what little was available. In fact it was there that G. D. L. Perera (no relative), the playwright and filmmaker who was G. R.’s senior by two years, had staged his play Sama.

A year later however, he had a tussle with that uncle. He soon returned home and once more, was without a school. “Tissa heard about this. One day, he asked me to meet him at about 05.30 in the morning. I was surprised, but Tissa being Tissa I agreed. So I woke up and met him.” The two of them walked through a cemetery, reached the station, took a train to Colombo, and got down at Maradana. “I didn’t know what was going on in his mind. From Maradana we took a tramcar to Galpotha. From Galpotha we walked to Kumara Vidyalaya. He kept on taking his father’s pocket-watch out and looking at the time. I was clueless.”

Having stopped in front of the school, Tissa then turned around and faced G. R. “He told me point-blank that it was a pity I’d stopped going there. He asked me to return. I protested and told him that it was impossible to trudge every morning from Egodawatte to Kotahena. He pooh-poohed that and said that if I caught the 06.05 train, I’d be at school by 07.30. It was then that I realised that he had been looking at his pocket-watch to record the exact time it would take for me to travel from Egodawatte to Kotahena, certainly not a route I’d normally take!” He had however heeded his friend’s advice, and hence from that day resumed his education at Kumara Vidyalaya. “I studied right until my HSC, after which he tried but failed to get me into Dharmapala.”

Their friendship continued unabated. Tissa would get G. R. to come to the Sahithya Sangam meetings at his school, where they would debate on the (de)merits of the writers and novels in vogue at the time. “By default, we took to Russian authors, in part because of how they related to our way of life. It was Tissa who took us from Gogol and Dostoyevsky to Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck. That was, of course, a leap which took time to get used to, but he ensured that we read and studied the best from the West. All in all, in terms of literary sensibilities, our childhoods were enriched.” Which is more than what one can say of today’s children, he could have added.

From here he moves on to his career. G. R. was there with Sugathapala de Silva, Premaranjith Tilakaratne, and a horde of other playwrights, after which he moved into the cinema through D. B. Nihalsinghe. Before that though, he chooses to explain how he was initiated into these fields.

As I suspect, it was through Tissa. “After we left school, we spent time frolicking, walking, travelling, basically spending or rather killing time on the arts. I remember one trip in particular, which we made in 1957 to Kandy.” That trip had taken the two of them and some other friends to Puttalam, from where they biked to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa before going to Kandy. “That was the first time I ever travelled on a push bicycle,” he wryly tells me here, adding rather wistfully, “I haven't ridden one since.”

Having visited the Dalada Maligawa, they had gone for a drink at the Botanical Gardens, where Tissa had suggested watching Rekava at the Wembley. The others, however, had rejected the idea, opting instead to take a nap at a friend’s place in Theldeniya. Only G. R. had agreed, and having ascertained that the last bus to Theldeniya came at 09.30, they went and watched the evening show. “Rekava was a short film, it was over by nine, so Tissa and I returned to our friend’s place quickly,” G. R. remembers.

What happened next would irk and amuse him. Tissa didn’t sleep that night: he kept on waking his friend up to talk about the film.

“It was simply annoying,” he laughs, “He was taken in by Rekava. He talked about certain sequences and how well they’d been shot. I must have silently cursed him. Eventually though, I decided to ignore his ramblings and get some sleep. Not that I was successful at it: at five the next morning he woke me up again.” The two of them went out and had some tea at a nearby kiosk, while Tissa bought some foolscap paper from a newspaper stand. When they returned, while G. R. went back to sleep, his friend went on writing something in those foolscap papers (“Three sides, to be specific”).

Not surprisingly, Tissa woke him up yet again. “By this time, I had given up on getting any rest. He wanted me to look at what he’d written, so with sleep-deprived eyes I went through it all. Essentially, it was an appreciation of the film. Tissa could write well, I didn’t see what I had to correct, but nevertheless we edited it. I then asked him to whom he was sending this letter. He didn’t reply. He instead went with me to the Post Office and addressed it thus: ‘Lester James Peries, Galle Road, Adjoining Good Shepherd Convent, Dehiwela.’ Now of course that’s not the way you address a letter to someone, but back then Dr Peries was quite well known in Colombo. Tissa hoped what he wrote would reach him.”

A little more than a week later, when they were back in Egodawatte, he came rushing at G. R. with a postcard. Peries had replied, and more pertinently, had given him a date to come and visit him. “Tissa asked me to accompany him. Since I had time on my hands, I did just that.” And so, for an entire day, the two of them visited and conversed with Lester James Peries, with much of that conversation flowing between him and Tissa. “I was almost an outsider that day. We went to his Dehiwela residence at about 10 in the morning. We left at about five in the evening. You can imagine the amount of talk those two engaged in!”

It was here, as he correctly surmises, that his own career began. As I mentioned above, it was the theatre that first entranced him, particularly through Sugathapala de Silva. Apparently Sugathapala had wanted a name for his troupe of actors, and to this end had downed 13 arrack bottles over 12 days under the Nuga tree at Victoria Park. “Not an easy thing,” G. R. comments, adding that it was he who saved the troupe from what would have been a series of unseemly hangovers: “On the 12th day, I happened to remark, ‘Balahan Sugath, arakku bothal daha thunak oni ne ape kattiyata namak hoyaganna!’ ‘Stop right there, you got it!’ was Sugathapala’s reply. I was bewildered. He repeated what I said, then noted, ‘Ape Kattiya we shall be!’”

All this had been for what would mark G. R.’s debut, in Dharmasiri Wickramaratne’s Ran Thodu. “That play created such a sensation that people joined us, including Wickrema Bogoda and another friend of Tissa from Dharmapala, Premaranjith Tilakaratne. Premaranjith broke away from Sugathapala not too long afterwards, and persuaded me to act in his debut, Waguru Bima, in 1963.”

One play led to another, and soon enough he was cast in his first film, D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara, which also marked Tissa’s debut as a scriptwriter. “I was Tarzan Kumara, a protégé of the antagonist of the story, Goring Mudalali, played by Joe Abeywickrama. I was there only for one sequence, at a police station which actually was the office of G. D. L. Perera’s theatre group Kala Pela, in Nawinne.”

Debuts are always memorable for more reasons than one. This particular sequence, as those who have seen the film will remember, has the antihero and of-sorts protagonist Wickrema Randeniya (Gamini Fonseka) interrogate and grill Tarzan Kumara for about five minutes before breaking into a rage. Randeniya then, according to the script, is supposed to tear at the man’s ears to force a confession out of him. “I suppose Gamini, who was known to ‘get into’ moods in such sequences, got into his character there. How? By breaking into such a rage that that he ended up tearing nearly every hair and even some skin off my ear. Needless to say, I bled.” He laughs at this: “Gamini was terrified at the sight of blood. I remember him closing his eyes and face with his hands and telling the director, ‘I say Nihal, let’s call it a day.’”

Since then, the man has been busy. 54 local and six foreign films (three Indian, two American, and one German) over the course of three decades may hardly seem prodigious for a man of his stature, but it is with those TV series that he’s become a familiar figure. 650 appearances, one must concede, is no easy task for one person. All of those, moreover, have been as supporting characters, a point reinforced some years ago when, at the Raigam Awards, he was bestowed with a statuette for the most number of such appearances by an individual actor.

So what does this gentle giant, now in his 77th year, think of the strides and deterioration we have encountered in our television industry? “First and foremost, we need people who understand the medium. We are seeing a deficit when it comes to such people. I don’t remember who it was, but someone once said that under a qualified director, a cameraman is only a technician. That pretty much applies to every technician involved in this industry and the cinema: if the director is bad, that trickles down to every other crew and cast member.”

I put to him that in the rush to commercialise everything, we have foregone on creativity, and he agrees: “To give you just one example, in my day we never had long takes for something as mundane as a character walking from a gate to a house. Today, however, because of this obsession over prolonging episodes for the sake of getting more advertising revenue, we have many such pointless long takes.” He adds here that an episode barely gets a lakh from the broadcaster, a painfully low amount which has the unintended consequence of keeping good scriptwriters away.

What of the theatre? “The biggest problem is also the most discernible. We lack good halls. We don’t have Lionel Wendt, Lumbini, and Navarangahala everywhere.” I put to him that we need more theatres, and if so, to propose such an idea would be difficult if the government is to get involved. To which, with some irritation, the man replies, “Why MUST we get the government involved? We’ve had actors who became presidential advisors. Who among them got the president to open at least a kudaarama for our playwrights? Not one! That is why I always believe that for artistes to rise, we must acknowledge that we are better than politicians.”

I then ask him as to whether he has a plan to salvage our theatre. He does. “It’s simple: build new theatres in areas in and out of the metropolis. Each theatre will be dedicated to a playwright from abroad and will be built according to the architecture of the country of that playwright. For instance, the theatre dedicated to Ibsen will be built the way they build such complexes in Norway. More importantly, these theatre complexes will not only have the obligatory stage, but a separate stage for rehearsals, a library, and rest-rooms for actors and crew members who come from afar.”

What of funding, a problem given his discernible distrust of politicians? “I remember talking with the former Ambassador of Norway, at his official residence here, about this matter once. He asked me whether I’d be sending the proposal for it to my government. I told him a story. Whenever I visited Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, I made it a point to visit the dagabas. When I came across them, tears would come to my eyes. Why?

“Because as I worshipped them, I remembered and wept for the people, my own ancestors, who contributed bricks and other material. The king was a patron, no more. So I told the Ambassador that we could finance this project quite simply: by getting each and every citizen of his country to contribute one unit of their currency. How would it differ from the conventional process of getting my government involved? Simple: when you get the people involved, you get everyone dedicated involved.” Not surprisingly, the Ambassador had taken to his suggestion: “He embraced me and asked me as to where I got such an idea. I told him that I was born with that idea.”

Life is short, art is not. That probably is a credo that this man of many faces has taken to heart. I don’t know when his project will end, or for that matter who will be there with him as he takes it forward. I do know, however, that with 650 appearances on TV, 60 on film, and a horde of others onstage, G. R. Perera has earned himself a place here. Such a place, no one else can claim.

As for his life, suffice it to say that those who grew up in the nineties saw it unfold on TV. I am of course talking about Pitagamkarayo, that landmark series directed by (who else?) Tissa Abeysekara. I suggest we all watch it, once again, to ascertain the worth of the man. Even if we can't, we ought to acknowledge his life. And we ought to lend him a helping hand. Our hand.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, December 21 and 28 2016

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On committing (political) errors

For an entire decade after 1994, we were led by a government that caved into minoritarianism, all in the name of reconciliation and multiculturalism of course, and a bunch of self-serving politicos who have caused more harm to this country’s polity than anyone or anything else (barring the LTTE) could. I am talking here about those MPs and civil society representatives (isn’t it funny that the latter, without as much as one percent of the people’s vote, were allowed to script state policy?) who went fiddling around the streets, entrancing us with promises of a better future with devolution, federalism, and a distorted variant of that misread and overstated 13th Amendment.

There was a time when being a nationalist, or aligning yourself with that misconstrued abstraction called nationalism, meant attracting abuse. You couldn’t walk on the streets even if the majority of the country were with you: on TV, on radio, and in print, you were called out, abused, and in other ways ridiculed for opposing the myths and lies of Prabhakaran and his mouthpiece, Anton Balasingham. The government was being distorted by a civil society that remained cut off from the people while thinking that the people could be substituted for by the polity (when the two were actually one and the same).

Times have changed but leopards, as I mentioned in my last column, do not change their spots. After the fall of the UNP government (which was hanging on a slender thread anyway) in 2004, we saw the emergence of the biggest wave of nationalism and anti-federalism this country has ever seen, at least since 1977. It is not that the leaders had until then been unable to call a spade a spade and deal with pernicious myths being paraded as history, but that these same leaders, because they were more concerned with pleasing “policymakers” from within and outside the country, just didn’t seem to bother.

Despite the afterword that the period from 2005 to 2015 compelled, therefore, these leopards (the “policymakers”) continued to slink. They are still slinking.

These people were comfortable fighting for the right to self-determination of one collective while denying that same right to another (usually the majority). They thought they were superior to the rest of the country. They thought they could play with democracy and get away with it. They thought they could get the blind to see. They could not. The voice of the people prevailed. At least in the period from November 17, 2005 to May 18, 2009.

Fast-forward to 2014. What did we get? A government led by a populist who tended to rationalise his authoritarian streak in terms of his popularity. This populist knew how to talk and what to say and he knew when to open his mouth. He spoke his mind (something many of his predecessors couldn’t do, at least not with sincerity) and won over half the country. He thought, however, that he could hold on to his power forever, and to this end committed arguably the biggest error he could. He took in people he shouldn’t have, the most damaging of whom had held important posts in his predecessor’s government.

When 2014 was nearing its end therefore, we knew where we were heading: with a political family which was doing next to nothing against the closest this country came to a July 1983 in the recent past (I am talking about the Aluthgama riots), these political bigwigs began disagreeing with the government on principle without losing their footing in it. Being the astute strategists they were, they planned their exit and planned it so well that, no matter how strong Mahinda Rajapaksa would have seemed, his days in office got numbered at once.

And all in all, I think the history of his party had a say in his downfall. The SLFP was, from its inception, tainted with devolutionists and those who distorted history. The Marxists had a ball with it after S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s murder and they deftly created much of the political ideology that Bandaranaike’s daughter institutionalised after 1994. When an alternative politico was put out in 2004, these bigwigs initially backed down and then, after thinking it over, supported him. They thought they could contort him. When they realised that they could not, they backed down again, and did either of two things: remain with his government while championing communal myths, or join an Opposition more amenable to their worldview.

Given this, it’s no wonder that 2014 ended or rather had to end with a bang. The moment people we thought would never leave Rajapaksa left him, we knew he was doomed. The man’s family didn’t help one bit, of course, and Maithripala Sirisena, who contrary to popular opinion had the upper hand in the race (even factoring in the advantage the incumbent has in an election), took everything easily. He had a name and he had a reputation. He appeared simple and well, to a considerable extent he was. He knew words but didn’t need to speak. His opponent did all the talking for him. How could he not win?

Fact is, even those who’d supported Rajapaksa, including the various columnists and intellectuals who shaped his ideology (such as Gunadasa Amarasekera), expressed qualms over how his government was being run, which pushed the undecided nationalist (predominantly from the urban, young, and professional class) to Sirisena. January 8, 2015 was sealed long before the date was (unwisely) decided on, even as it marked the sixth anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s assassination and even as, only a few hours before election results began to flow in, we heard the news of S. L. Gunasekara’s death.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s most distinct political error (putting aside all those allegations of theft and abuse which are yet to be verified beyond a shadow of a doubt against him) was to take in people who were determined to be hooked on to whoever was in power. I needn’t mention names here simply because there are too many.

As expected, the SLFP broke into two. The UNP, led by a man who (never mind what people will say of him) knows how to calculate and take risks, let his opponents be led by Rajapaksa at that year’s parliamentary elections so as to solidify his victory upon the former’s defeat. That election, which was less a race to get the SLFP back to power than it was a race to strengthen the grip of the Mahinda Faction, had it both ways: it kept the Mahinda Loyalists happy and it kept those who like to “bleed green” happy. The devolutionists, federalists, and minoritarians, who couldn’t shout because the Rajapaksa Factor had done what earlier leaders couldn’t (institutionalise nationalism in the state), had a field day. They too were happy.

That’s all history, though. What’s pertinent is what we can learn from it, starting with this: whatever the government here, and however nationalistic it seems, key representatives from it tend to be led by those who weren’t elected to govern the people. I am talking about the ladies and gentlemen in the Civil Society Club, who think they know better than the 20 million people of this country. They won’t talk about federalism and self-determination now (because if they do, the nationalists will be ready), but they will fudge the truth anyway. They are as enamoured of the present government as they were of its predecessor: as long as it caves into their demands, they will be content. If not, they will clamour for regime change. That’s the truth. We must deal with it.

Consequently, there is a need for balance. Readjustment. While I cannot condone a Rajapaksa Restoration (since to do so would be to invite the threat of another decade of indifference and, I daresay, intolerance), I do believe that what he purported to stand for, at least until 2012 when he enacted the 18th Amendment, should be continued: a nationalist project that stands for the rights of the majority without trampling on the rights of others. In a context where there’s a mismatch between nationalism and individual rights, the best alternative would be an all-encompassing national identity that does not, cannot, and will not confuse multiculturalism with rootless cosmopolitanism.

I am thinking of some names here, though I do not endorse them unconditionally. Names like Gevindu Cumaratunga.

Gevindu has a way with words. He knows how to undress. He continues to be there, on TV and elsewhere, shredding away the intellectual fallacies of Eelamists and separatists and (less discernibly but as significantly) of those who continue to support the present regime solely by virtue of their opposition to Mahinda Rajapaksa (among them, Upul Shantha Sannasgala and Asoka Abeygunawardana, both of whose claims he debunked live and/or in front of them). He is no chauvinist. Few, if at all, can or will begrudge him politically. He should therefore move ahead.

The point I am trying to get at here is that the likes of him should be promoted. In the political field, after all, you can commit an error only twice. The error that Rajapaksa committed, which I pointed out above, cannot be repeated. If it is, what we’ll see isn’t the unfolding of a nationalist project. Only an aberration. An aberration so huge that another 10 years, even with as strict, ramrod, and nationalist a figure as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, will be wasted building up a political ideology that gets contorted and then destroyed from within. Happened once, will happen again. For that reason, as we near the second anniversary of Maithripala Sirisena’s election, we should be mindful. If we are not, we’ve already lost the race.

Written for: Ceylon Today, December 27 2016

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Anne Ranasinghe and the torment of forgetting

Somewhere in my youth, I started reading Keats. I took to him and his poetry, his way of looking at life and his way of treating its vicissitudes with equanimity. There was something about his odes, his sonnets, and his paeans of love, anguish, and torment that enthralled the morbid adolescent in me, and so (for better or worse) I appreciated his poetry.

My praise, however, was not unqualified: just as much as I liked his use of imagery, I spurned what I felt to be at times his refusal to engage with the political, the social. Not that I could blame Keats himself, of course: he was 25 when he died, and like all young poets, he thought he knew everything when he did not.

I wonder, though, whether we prefer keeping out of the social as a means of avoiding the realm of reality. I wonder also whether poets, or at least the vast majority of them, are tormented by memory so much that in what they write, and what they say, they consciously (or otherwise) shy away from the pain of memory. They are not alone in this, because after all that’s what a great many of us, frail as we are, like to do. Still.

Anne Ranasinghe, who died last Saturday, wrote poetry. She wrote it with a sense of anguish which convinced us that she knew, intimately and painfully, what she was writing about. Some write about remembering and the pain of remembering. Anne wrote about forgetting. In her best poetry, as she herself informed us, she tries to forget, to get away. She could only tell us to live, even as those around us died. We didn’t always agree, but we didn’t have to. She was a poet. She had lived. We were the readers. We had not.

And to a large extent, that had to do with her life. Born Anneliese Katz in the town of Essen in Germany, she witnessed the horrors of war at an early age. She saw the rise of Nazism, saw her town’s synagogue being burnt, and more than anything else, saw the night of broken glass in November 1938. Her parents, naturally frightened, sent her to an aunt in England, where English became her adopted tongue and where, until much later, she wouldn’t hear of their deaths and the deaths of every other relative back in Germany. She was not quite 15 at the time.

After passing out as a nursing sister and meeting a medical student (whom she married), D. A. Ranasinghe, she moved to Sri Lanka where, in 1956, she became a citizen. Her husband began teaching at the Colombo Medical College and this encouraged her to obtain a Diploma in Journalism from the Colombo Technical College. Of what she learnt, she recounted much later: “News reporting. The law of defamation. Novel writing. Practical journalism. Short story writing. The Polytechnic journalism section had a nice logo on their stationery: a hand holding a pen inside a heart! With the slogan ‘with heart and hand’.”

That’s all biography, of course. They reveal, however, the artiste in the woman. Anne, who made Colombo her permanent home in the sixties, saw from afar the trials and tribulations of a world (in particular, Europe) trying to shed its past. Sri Lanka, as she (rather) correctly inferred, was not burdened with those tribulations, so in whatever form of chauvinism or extremism she encountered in Sri Lanka, she encountered in gushes and torrents and then turned into poetry. We were not, after all, aware of the horrors of the War, at least not to a great extent, to make us forget.

For that reason, she will be reflected on more than anything else for the theme she resorted to the most: the thin, fragile line between the past and present, between forgetting and remembering. In her most potent poetry – derided by some, read by all – she drew parallels between the Sri Lanka she was in and the Germany she had been in.

Take, for example, this passage from “July 1983”

Forty years later
once more there is burning
the night sky bloodied, violent and abused

and I - though related
only by marriage -
feel myself both victim and accused

The last line in particular makes us aware of her painful, self-contradictory character: by marriage, she was bonded to a culture of privilege, yet she was already bonded to a past where she had been a victim. Did she ever resolve this tension within herself? Perhaps.

My two favourite poems of hers, “At What Dark Point” and “Plead Mercy”, however, tell a different story. In the latter, her daughter encounters a "bullock yoked to a cart" and asks whether life, for him at least, is preferable to death. Those who refuse to hope, who know the world for what it is, would say “No!” Anne, however, can’t give up on hope even though she herself is no optimist:

I tell her what I know
Is not true, that life
Is always better than death

In "At What Dark Point", on account of which critics took her to task over what was perceived to be her indifference, she witnesses a peasant on the road in front of her house, twists and turns fibre into rope. The peasant evokes in her memories of Kristallnacht. He compels her to ask us, “Who knows if the past can come back to us?” We look at the peasant, perhaps make a snide remark or two, and refuse to answer. We were the readers, after all. We hadn’t seen what she had.

And to a considerable extent, that explains why some critics disliked her. They contended, and not without reason, that she was refusing to answer questions that she herself had raised. To that the only sensible response would be that artistes aren’t born to equip us with answers. We read what is written, filmed, or sung. We read what is performed. We make the questions. Not up to them to answer. That is why (with much reservation though) I can forgive the later Wordsworth, who sought refuge in inertia to atone for the revolutionary streak he had indulged in his youth, and that is why I still enjoy Keats.

Personally, I prefer Lakdhas Wikkrama Sinha to anyone else. A pity he isn’t read or taught (for reasons that warrant another article), but then Anne wasn’t too bad either. As someone who grew up reading (into) her, as someone who believed that the role of the poet was to help us see, not want for more, I can only quote what this late, maligned, and much lamented lady had to say of her uprooted identity, translating Rose Ausländer’s harrowing account of the Holocaust:

My fatherland is dead.
They have buried it
in fire

I live
in my motherland
of words.

Anne Ranasinghe, who was 91 last Saturday, left behind her poetry and taught us, even at death, that forgetting was more tormenting than remembering. For that alone, we should be grateful.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, December 25 2016

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Left: the god that (we) failed

In his essay “The Ex-Communist’s Conscience”, Isaac Deutscher lambasted those he felt to have abandoned their youthful inclinations for extreme Marxism in favour of a rightwing economic and social philosophy that was as bad, if not worse. He argued, cogently I believe, that with the betrayal of the stateless society (for which the Russians had fought in 1917) by Joseph Stalin, the ex-Communist, or the Communist who became a renegade, sought solace in a variant of rightwing politics that was, at the end of the day, no better than the totalitarian excesses of Stalin.

Deutscher’s essay, incidentally, was a review of The God That Failed, a book brought out by a group of ex-Communists (Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright), all of whom (in particular, Koestler) had been idealists who’d looked up to the Russian Revolution and what it stood for even as Stalin forced out Trotsky in the power struggle that ensued after Lenin’s death. I hardly need to add that, never mind the withering of the state that socialism was supposed to bring about, not even Stalin could prevent the institutionalisation of bureaucracy that Marx had cautioned against in his writings.

As for those six ex-Communists, they weren’t the only renegades who’d later made a mark in what I termed in my column last week as a “dark decade” in American history (the fifties), but they were the most vocal back then. Among the others who would joined them were John dos Passos (whose poetry, despite his being a renegade, stands out remarkably fresh even today), Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, and Max Eastman (a close associate of John Reed, one of three Americans buried at the Kremlin). Because of what they felt to have been a betrayal of their ideals, they all made a circuit from the Left to the extreme Right.

Deutscher did not condemn their anger against Communism. What he condemned was the refuge they sought in their attempt to ward off their inclinations for the Left. He succinctly tracked down their route: having broken away from the Communist Party, they’d declare loyalty to their own sect and creed of the doctrines which they felt the Party should stand for, before breaking away from Communism altogether. I think Deutscher put it best: “He (the ex-Communist) no longer throws out the dirty water of the Russian revolution to protect the baby; he discovers that the baby is a monster which must be strangled. The heretic becomes a renegade.”

The world is littered with renegades who pass themselves off as heretics. Party politics, personalities, ideologies: these congeal in the end to mere rhetoric. It’s all about power and clinging to power. If at all, the history of the Left, marred as it is by ideological shifts and divisions, is a good indicator of how far we have ventured out and come back. We are all heretics who become renegades, and for that reason, no Left movement in today’s world has been immune to breakages and slip-ups.

Last Sunday (December 18) marked the 81st anniversary of the oldest political force in the country, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). “Force” is a strong word, so strong that it can’t be used to refer to a party that, in the opinion of some, has outlasted its glories, but for the moment let’s forget that. Whether or not one agrees with its principles, one can’t disagree with its past. There were, as is typical of such parties, shifts and breakages, but these were resolved (until relatively recently) in favour of an all-encompassing ideology that made up the most powerful Trotskyite party in the world. This week’s column is not about the LSSP but about the Left in Sri Lanka: not the (lowercase) god that failed us, but the god that we failed.

Historians, in their attempt to compare Sri Lanka with other colonial countries, frequently and falsely contend that the period from 1815 to 1948 was one in which capitalism bloomed. This is not a tirade against every historian: there have been some who’ve identified this period for what it was: one in which schools, Universities, and every other institution considered today as a public service catered to a stunted, hybrid bourgeoisie. No less a person than Professor Kumari Jayawardena, with her landmark research on the colonial bourgeoisie, argues that even in a supposedly capitalist society as the one we were supposed to have had, caste considerations did not erode away. In Nobodies to Somebodies, she refers the caste rifts rather wittily as symbolising a transition from the “Old Mudliyars to the New Misters.”

The colonial bourgeoisie tried their hand at tolls and rents, monopolising the paalam paruwa in an attempt to curry favour with the coloniser. Needless to say, they were paid for their loyalty. As the British solidified their stranglehold, the aspiring bourgeoisie rose, graduating from the plantation sector to mining, arrack rents, and eventually the post of the Mudliyar. Practically every school financed and built during this time, at least those considered as “elite” today, were there for one purpose: to help the “native” landowner and rentier obtain a Westernised education for his children. The irony of this, if you can spot it out, is that 12 years were spent in these schools and another four or five in University (preferably Oxford or Cambridge) for the purpose of getting employed as translators, clerks, and civil servants in a menial government office.

The truth then is that this burgeoning capitalist class was not capitalist at all. All they did was mine, extract, and sell. They were not businessmen. They were extractors. They were not interested in making profits. They were more interested in making a quick buck. In other words, the colonial bourgeoisie were never the productive commercialists they’re touted as today. What they earned they got easily, if not because of a monopoly over natural resources then because of cheap labour and colonial patronage.

In the rush to rake up profits that naturally resulted from this, not everyone made it big: as Nobodies to Somebodies makes it clear, families such as the Telge Peiris ancestry from Panadura were afflicted by the vagaries of demand and supply which were part of the primary sector they were operating in. The few that did make it big, however, literally gave birth to an anomaly: their offspring became social, political, and economic agitators. Their sons became prodigal, their daughters took to the feminist movement, and all in all, a largely Western education supplied them the very tools of social change the parents had held back.

Leopards, however, don’t change spots and these offspring, even after the religions riots of 1883 and the racial riots of 1915, congealed into the elite their parents had been: aristocratic to a fault, yet mindful about superstition and tradition and wary of modernity.

This latter contradiction, a reflection of their hybrid (confused) identity, spilt over to 1948 and our post-independence history, when key political figures from the colonial bourgeoisie became both elitists and demagogues: ignorant of the aspirations of the majority, yet pandering to their chauvinist, self-destructive demands as and when it was expedient to do so. As I observed in my article on poverty and the (political) periphery in September, no class has done more harm to this country than the meritocrats, i.e. those who conflate economic power with intelligence.

It was in this context that the LSSP was formed, in 1935. Long before the UNP was formed and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike brought about swabasha, the stalwarts of the Left – Philip, N. M., and Colvin – were agitating for complete independence. It was Philip Gunawardena, not those touted as national heroes today, who asked for an independence that went beyond Dominion status. While I personally feel that the transition from colony to Dominion helped ward off much of the ethnic unrest that heralded India’s independence in 1947, I also feel that by artificially concealing a political structure that catered to the British under a veneer of populism, our leaders managed to bottle up the hopes, fears, and ideals of the majority, all of which broke out so violently later on that we are still paying the price for the short-sightedness of our leaders.

Regi Siriwardena, in a series of essays, tried to answer a perplexing question: why, even after taking the front in our independence struggle, couldn’t the LSSP muster broad support? Siriwardena’s answer was that the LSSP was a Trotskyite party and Trotskyism, at its base, repudiated nationalism.

To that my answer, presumptuous as it may seem, is that the people simply couldn’t have cared whether Leon Trotsky rubbished nationalism or not. Secular though their outlook may have been, the stalwarts of the Left were no “mul sidagath aragal karayo” (uprooted revolutionaries): they were connected with the people and this at a time when even independent candidates (including Kumari Jayawardena’s father, A. P. de Zoysa) could hope to enter the Legislature. They were popular, they did muster support (the Bracegirdle affair is evidence for this), and they could and did get elected to represent the people.

The answer, I feel therefore, is more complex than what Siriwardena came up with. My belief is that the political elite of the day could and did contest with no opposition, while the candidates from the Left had to contend with the many instances of malpractice, abuse, and the advantage of the upper hand the elite were endowed with. The latter point was clearly discernible in the State Council election of 1936. While quite a number of leftists, Philip Gunawardena included, entered with comfortable victories, in constituencies home to the political establishment (such as Veyangoda and Kelaniya) the candidate was elected unopposed. This is of course not the only reason why the Left couldn’t fare well, and why, in later years, it had to be happy kowtowing to a breakaway faction of the UNP. But it is a reason nevertheless.

Given this, what did 1956, 1964, and 1970 breed? The Old Left, even by then a pale replica of what it had once been (after all, no movement can be expected to sustain its base after years of detention and internal rifts), facilitated the “maturing of the long submerged Sinhalese intelligentsia.” This intelligentsia, which Siriwardena saw as a "belated and embryonic bourgeoisie", consisted of the kade mudalali and the game iskole mahaththaya. Ideologically they reflected the rightwing outlook of the very same forces the nationalists championed: the pancha maha balavegaya.

The irony here, incidentally, is that no more than three decades later, the same Old Left that championed swabasha and “Sinhala Only” would be distorted by the NGO mafia to pander to minoritarianism and federal-speak. It was left to the New Left, the radical movement from the South (as opposed to the pipe-smoking, armchair socialism that had adorned the independence struggle against the Establishment), to rake up problems and force the government to see them.

This of course led to two uprisings resulting in atrocities that account for the massive deficit of professionals, artistes, and thinkers we are facing today, subject to the caveat that sections of the Old Left, by omission or commission, aided and abetted the ideology of the same government they were supposed to be against. Given this context, it’s no cause for wonderment that the radicals from the South could do what even the army couldn’t: bring the entire country to a standstill for three years.

“Whither the Left now?” is a question on everyone’s lips, though not everyone can or will answer it. It is the basis for a tragedy and a farce, a reflection on opportunities missed and never reclaimed. The Old Left today, all in all, have consistently shown that they are behind the political bourgeoisie, that they are unable to stand up on their own, that they lack the courage of their own convictions.

How bad is this? On the one hand, we have a section of the LSSP supporting the former president on account of what is felt to be his opposition to the West. On the other hand, we have another section (ironically baptised as the “Majority Group”) proclaiming that their aim is to solidify the gains made on January 8 last year. The latter, by the way, is careful to weed out the fact that they are part of a government led by their historical foe, the UNP: in every press release and feel-good statement they make, they hence proclaim support for the president, not the government. Which side is better, which side is more despicable? Again, not a question everyone can answer.

Where do we go from here? Do we look back at vanished glories, or do we glorify the turncoats who’ve absconded ideals for expedience? It’s a pity Sri Lanka couldn’t throw up a Deutscher to answer this.

In A Passage to India, Ronny Heaslop asks the more liberal and tolerant colonial Englishman, Cyril Fielding, as to where one can find the real India. "Try seeing Indians," Fielding replies. “Where can one find the real Left?” we can ask, at which Fielding, I believe, would have vanished away without an answer. Not because there aren’t any real Leftists, but because thanks to this accursed reality called power politics, no leftist worth his salt would stay for long, hen-cooped in his vision of the country and the world, without capitulating.

Written for: Ceylon Today, December 20 2016

Sunday, December 18, 2016

'Mi Casa Es Tu Casa': Tonic for insomniacs

Because art depends so much on the written word, it was an oversight on my part to not have read the text that went with “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa” (“My Home is Your Home”), Anoma Wijewardene’s exhibit at this year’s Colombo Biennale. I was chided and rightly so by her, to the extent whereby she had to refer me to her preface (of sorts) to her exhibit, a preface I certainly recommend everyone to see and read before making judgments. Anoma’s piece, by the way, is in display at the J. D. A. Perera Gallery and will be until the 20th of this month.

She is of course is no stranger to these things. With more than 35 exhibitions and more than 20 solo exhibitions (in Sri Lanka and around the world), she’s come to symbolise the very themes she opts for in them: namely, the dichotomies between reason and passion and between time and beauty, the complexity of human feelings and the need for perforations in an era of borders, the kind of themes that have, over the years, made her art more discernible to the public. “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa” was and will be, going by that, no different. This therefore is not a review of what she’s come up with. This is a comment.

Starting off, how was it? First and foremost, I loved the setup. It was basically a painting on fabric (symbolising fragility) with four distinct backgrounds, featuring four maps of the country. Each background was supposed to depict something earthy, close to nature. Simple, yet effective. Moreover, Anoma’s preface tells us that the perforations on the canvas represent how fictional borders are in an age where information can be and is shared between platforms in a matter of seconds. Again, simple.

At the centre of the whole piece was a golden bowl, filled with water and positioned directly below a spiralling crystal ball (or orb). The bowl was supposed to represent the energy that flows from this world: call it loving kindness, maithreeya, charity, whatever. The orb, on the other hand, tried to visualise how out-of-control the world is (which, coupled with the fact that orbs are used to predict the future, in turn indicated the faulty, shaky destiny we’ve subjected ourselves to).

The viewer is invited to walk behind the piece, observing life through the many perforations that adorn it and in the process, take in the painter’s worldview of such perennial themes as borders, identities, hybridism, purity, and of course the interplay between chaos and order that seemed to make up much of the world this year.

Added to all this was a voice-over: Arundhati Roy, with excerpts from her landmark “Come September” speech, delivered a year after 9/11 and touching on the (mis)uses of cultural nationalism and rhetoric in the face of uncertainty. All in all, an in-your-face adjunct to an already edgy exhibit.

Did all this need a caption? For me, yes. It was hard not to misread. It tended, after a point, to overwhelm. So I went back to Anoma’s preface, which reflected on her concern and “growing disbelief” over the events of this year that left one in a state of despair. What these events are, we know, so I was more interested in how Anoma figured out a way to deal with them, through her art. Naturally therefore, I was surprised when she told me point-blank that she wasn’t interested in making statements. In other words, she steers clear of value judgments.

But is it possible, I asked myself. Can artistes choose not to engage with the social? After all, there is something called the political in every sphere, not just the arts, something which can elude only the most happy-go-lucky of people. Because her exhibit was adorned not just by that aforementioned preface but two separate boards, one featuring an essay by Radhika Coomaraswamy and another featuring quotes by religious and secular leaders (from then and now), I was not a little sceptical of her claim, so I attempted to grill her. What I got from her, as answers, were a little wide off what I was aiming at. Not that I was disappointed, of course.

To start things off I pointed at Radhika’s essay and Arundhati’s speech and argued, to the best of my ability, that the fact of their inclusion indicated that the artiste in her was engaging with the political. Anoma flatly denied it and retorted that her role was to present things as they were and empower the viewer to draw inferences.

True, but doesn’t that presuppose some political inclination on her part? To that her response was: not really. If that is indeed the case, I tried to contend, what is the use of art? She didn’t really give a reply, but I gleaned it nevertheless: there is no “use” as such in art.

In hindsight, I think I was looking the wrong way up at the issue and I think she was correct. That she featured an exhibit which in turn featured a speech cautioning the world against cultural nationalism doesn’t presuppose that she shares that view to the dot. In fact, if I were to go a step further, I’d say that the artiste’s take on borders and nationalism isn’t value-imbibed at all. It ascertains value, yes, but what that value is depends on our interpretation, which as Nietzsche once implied correctly is more discernible than truth. The responsibility of the artiste, going by that, is to provide the audience with some cushion, ideological or otherwise, on which they can make assertions, arguments, and if necessary, counterarguments.

Does that leave me satisfied, though? I’m not too sure.

To this end I sought and found some solace in a comment by Gananath Obeyesekere on one of Anoma’s previous exhibitions, "Quest". Here’s the comment: “It is necessary for poets, painters, dreamers, scholars, religious re-thinkers and visionaries to raise their collective voices and jolt the public conscience, showing us the futility of the terrifying discriminations we have invented and hopefully persuading us to resurrect the gentleness – our feminine nature, one might even say – that many of us have suppressed. Then perhaps we can go to sleep.”

“Perhaps we can go to sleep” – that line stayed with me as I reflected on Anoma. It compelled me to ask her some off the cuff questions, all of which centred on her conception of art.

I tried to fire some salvos, starting with this: if she’s so preoccupied with removing commentary from her exhibit, doesn’t she think the artiste has a role to play? Not really, she replied, adding as an afterthought that no artiste, here or elsewhere, is born to this world to play out some role. In other words, not only is the artiste not required to convey a message to the audience, s/he isn’t required to do anything with an exhibit or objet d’art apart from, of course, presenting it.

Now someone can reflect on this and think that Anoma is championing a conception of art that is cut off from the social, an idealisation of a field of human activity at once futile and impossible.

But I beg to differ. After all, no less a figure than Engels wrote (of writers), “the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter the future historical resolution of the social conflicts... he describes.” On that basis, one can applaud Brecht and Ai Weiwei and still hold some ground for Ruskin, Wilde, and all those other artistes and critics who championed that credo, “Art for Art’s Sake.” It’s all to do with choices, as Anoma tells me. The way she sees it, the choices that Brecht made, out of necessity perhaps, required him to undergo torment and anguish. Not an easy route for an artiste, but there you have it: it’s all to do with the artiste’s individuality.

So what of Obeyesekere’s line? I don’t think Anoma could desist from passing some message in her exhibit on that count. As the day ended, she asked me as to what I thought of it. “We are insomniacs,” I replied. She smiled. I asked her what she thought. “I’m not sure,” she replied.

Nor are we, I reflected as I packed my belongings and departed. Was “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa” supposed to leave us with that, though? I don’t think so. Free of frill as it was, I think there was a message, though I can’t say whether it’s the only one. Should we be unhappy? Certainly not. There is always room for interpretation, after all. One should then interpret.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, December 18 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Nandani Gallage’s shelter of pity

In this rational, globalised world of ours, pity has become a commodity, to be marketed and in other ways exhibited for everyone to see. Sure, we have our share of social campaigners and activists, but more often than not that accursed reality known as “hype” sets in to inflate such people beyond reasonable proportions. The media is to blame, both for what it does promote and for what it does not. This, I must add, includes not just activists but also those who lend a helping hand to our less privileged friends, among them dogs.

There is a woman I know who looks after some dogs. I am no fan of orphanages, and for me personally this woman doesn’t exactly run something that could be classed under that tag. The last time I checked (a long, long time ago), she was handling about 10 dogs. The last time I called her (not too long ago), that number had risen to 17. Hardly something someone her age could handle, given her story and the various pitfalls life has greeted her with, but as I think back and reflect, I can’t help but smile. She hasn’t exactly had reason to be chummy with optimism, but despite all that, and despite a manifest lack of finance, she’s still scraping through.

Nandani Gallage doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t carrying, bathing, or fondling a dog. She lives in Wewala, a quiet if not inconsequential suburb near Piliyandala, where the nearest vet lives 20 minutes away and where street dogs are the norm and not the exception. Her story begins many, many years ago, when she came across four such dogs near her house. “It all started with them, to be honest,” she tells me, “Soon enough word got around that an old woman was looking after abandoned pups. I guess people thought I could take care of their pets more than they could, so not long after that I began getting more of them.” The numbers, she remembers, kept on rising.

Like all such women who don’t look out for funds, Nandani wasn’t a practical person. Initially, she had thought of borrowing funds from her neighbours, who weren’t unwilling to part with their savings for her. “I remember getting as much as 4,000 rupees from them at one point. But eventually you feel bad asking for more. I am sure they would have kept on funding me without asking me to pay back, but I was rather disheartened at having to live on charity. So I decided not to ask anymore.” Today she has a daughter who’s rather well off and sends her money often, but even that is inadequate for what she’s doing now.

For she doesn’t just look after dogs in her decrepit house. She goes around the suburbs and feeds others like them. Think of the cost involved: not just the working capital she needs to maintain those she has sheltered in her own home, but the extra money spent on food for those she hasn’t! Fortunately for her, a local trishaw driver, who realised the gravity of her plight, drives her everywhere at no cost. “People aren’t the demons we think they are,” she tells me, “Others have been as kind. But their kindness isn’t enough. I am in a position where I need more.”

She arrived at that position after months and years of hardship. Nandani comes from a fairly well off background: she was educated at Piliyandala Central College and later went to Buddhist Ladies College in Colombo. She married a comfortably wealthy if not generous man, who died about three years ago. “He was quite kind. He understood and would have understood my plight, no matter where I would have been. Unfortunately, people made use of him. They tricked him.” And by way of explaining this, she tells me that while he was alive, a young and seemingly decent chap from his office had managed to borrow two million rupees (not a trivial amount) to go to Naples, Italy.

After her husband’s death, Nandani had naturally badgered the chap to return the money owed to her, but he had refused. Eventually, he had agreed to pay about 7,000 rupees a month. “He hasn’t paid a cent even now,” she sighs. Not having being in such a precarious situation I wouldn’t know the pain she’s going through, but I can guess and I will comment: we tend to forget the kindness of others. Nandani, thankfully, has not let it peel away her faith in humanity. “I have not been forgotten, but at a time when I need to maintain so many dogs, I honestly need more help.”

Charity, however, is not what she is looking for. Not being a fan of that term and its non-applicability to situations such as this, I agree with her wholeheartedly. That doesn’t marginalise her dilemma, though: either she needs a self-sustaining model through which she can finance her work or she needs to part with her pooches so that they can be given to a more wholesome, kindlier shelter. She vehemently (as I predict) rejects the second option: “I have grown so close to these fellows that I simply can’t let them go.” The tears in her eyes, I must admit, jolts the sentimentalist in me, and not for no reason: any rational minded person would realise the futility of her situation, but for Nandani, it is emotion, not reason, that should be privileged.

For that reason, I think we should reach out. It’s not a question of charity. It never was. I am not a big fan of domesticating animals and even if I were, I wouldn’t consider Nandani’s shelter as anything but that: a shelter. In any case, I believe she has opened our eyes to a persistent problem. One of the commonest reasons for the stray dog problem in this country is that people are thoughtless in their habit of throwing away unneeded puppies.

People like Nandani are not hard to come by, and what they do is more than enough to make up for the inhumanity of others, but all too often they attract the attention of dog-dumpers so much that they end up perpetuating an already bad problem. That is why, even though she deplores it and I detest it, she will have to live on charity, and at least now refrain from sheltering more of those dumped on the streets.

I saw Nandani Gallage a few months back. She has aged. She has grown more tired. She should be. She is shouldering a burden others half her age wouldn’t dare shoulder, and despite the best efforts of her daughter, her family, and those who know her intimately (including, it must be said, my mother), she is desperate for more. At a time when we lavish attention on pedigree pets and cast aside others to the streets, she rekindles our faith in humanity. And for that, we must be grateful. We must give back.

Nandani Gallage can be contacted at 0725235416

Photo by Dushani Pushpika

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, December 11 2016