Friday, June 30, 2017

Taming that lunatic fringe

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in his reply to my column last week points out certain ontological, ideological, and factual errors I made. In particular, he takes me to task over my categorising him as a nationalist and a moderate federalist, though I placed those terms in a certain context which, yes, can be mischievously reconfigured by someone against him. Point taken, point conceded. I apologise and I sincerely hope he wasn’t inconvenienced by those errors. This week’s column, however, is not about Dr Dayan, but about the responses he and his group got courtesy of my article.

I have come to believe that no constructive debate is possible without two fundamental premises: the ability to accommodate and the ability to constructively critique. The problem is that we don’t know how to accommodate and we don’t know what “constructive” means. So we pin the you’re-biased tag on those we cross swords with, forgetting that we are no better and are in certain respects worse than them.

I neither support nor oppose Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I believe that he did something during his tenure at the UDA, though what he did was badly tempered by what he failed to do and/or unfortunately let slip through his hands. I believe that despite his authoritarian streak, he got Colombo (and nearly every other suburb, this writer’s hometown being one of them) cleaned and adorned. But I also believe that he is, like every other political figure we hedge our bets on, flawed. Taken by itself, this means nothing: we are all flawed, and doting on the man’s "goodness" is no worse than doting on those who are virulently opposed to him.

Getting back to my earlier point, inasmuch as the likes of Dr Dayan will be pivotal in bringing together those aforementioned two camps by 2020, it is true also that Gotabaya himself will be instrumental in reconciling them to one another. It’s a circle that goes around both ways: the theoretician uniting two broadly similar movements via a figure who concurrently by his very presence brings them together.

Underlying that, incidentally, is another point. As important, as relevant.

I suggested a few weeks ago that the dividing line between those two camps is based on what each of them privileges. With respect to the Yuthukama Sanwada Kavaya and Jathika Chinathana camp, it’s an almost mythical idealisation of the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, which brings them closer to the likes of Anagarika Dharmapala and the failed (or stalled) project of finding a successor to him. With respect to Project Gotabaya, it’s a largely economistic, rationalistic, and cosmopolitan idealisation of the man at the centre of their movement. The only difference between the cosmopolitanism of this second camp and that of those opposed to them (i.e. supporters of the present regime) is that the latter are culturally apathetic.

And not for no reason. The truth is that many of those liberals (yahalapalanist or ex-yahapalanist) are blind to the need for a government, any government, to legitimise historical realities. Some of them (I should think many of them) seem to believe that the best way to shut out majoritarian dissent is by (what else?) shutting it out altogether. This is risky, if not dangerous: it erases away any democratic space for the majoritarian right to vent out its frustration.

To be sure, it’s difficult to think of a rational, cohesive, and “just” way of opposing the Bodu Bala Sena and those complicit in its political rise. The yahapalanist liberals continue to conflate it with majoritarianism. They are only partly correct: the truth is that the BBS scrounged up barely 0.2% of the votes at the 2015 General Election, compared to the 4.87% the JVP (which by the way was in a rather disadvantaged position owing to its vaguely articulated stances) got. The majoritarians were voting in large numbers for their preferred candidates: they didn’t care about the lunatic, racialist, neo-fascist fringe. But in what those liberals are correct, they are correct all the way, almost unconditionally: the BBS is opposed by everyone, and by everyone I include supporters of the Joint Opposition, the SLFP, and the UNP.

Going by comments I have obtained from hardcore anti-yahapalanist majoritarians, I can verify that their (mild) support for the BBS has not transformed into votes, or a sizeable electorate, to be reckoned with. It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that the more anti-Buddhist the “mainstream” parties are perceived to be, the more likely it is that such a dangerous situation will become a reality. And it doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out what the government must possess to prevent that risk from turning into a reality. Not irrational frenzy, but sober decisiveness.

Project Gotabaya believes in Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the epitome of sober decisiveness. The man’s occasional outbursts in the past, however, point at anything but sober decisiveness. But that is not my issue. My issue is that by idealising and depending on a single “role model” (for the lack of a better term), we are feeding into complacency. Complacency won’t get us anywhere. Only constructive debate will. The tragedy here is that the oppositional space needed for such a debate is being denied to the spokespersons of Project Gotabaya. It’s a tragedy because the Jathika Chinthanaya and Yuthukama Sanwada Kavaya, an extension of the Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera led coterie of nationalists, have congealed into a class and an oppositional space of their own, courtesy of their more reckonable history when it comes to combating their opponents, the “anti-nationalist” right and left.

Now you may agree or disagree with some of the key figureheads behind this movement: with Nalin de Silva, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Manohara de Silva, Gomin Dayasiri, and Gevindu Cumaratunga. I won’t say that I disagree (indeed I find myself agreeing with many of their contentions) but I will concede that they compel from those yahapalanist liberals the same sobriquet that Dr Dayan, in a series of debates conducted with their movement in the eighties, bestowed on them: intellectual protectionists. Yes, they are intellectual protectionists to most. But these intellectual protectionists have been fighting their intellectual skirmishes for over three decades. That’s something Project Gotabaya will take time to equal, though in equalling it I think there is a major role that they, in particular Dr Dayan, will get to play.

Which in a brief, pithy sense is as follows. In a context where most of the yahapalanist liberals are opposed to the Bodu Bala Sena because of their veiled anti-Buddhism and anti-intellectualism, we need a force that is at once sensitive to the collective being wooed by racialist outfits and also opposed to those outfits. The one doesn’t negate the other, I believe: the fact that one is sensitive to Sinhala Buddhists doesn’t mean that one is hell-bent against other collectives. To contend otherwise would be to say that all Sinhala Buddhists are complicit in the rise of the BBS. They are not.

On the contrary: until we sort out this contradiction, which is really an artificial and simplistic dichotomy, there won’t be any hope for any oppositional outfit to legitimately challenge the status quo, by which I am referring not to this regime, but rather to the anti-majoritarian elite who are denying any democratic outlet for the majority to resolve their grievances. If 1956 is anything to go by, folks, constricting such an outlet will do more harm than good. For everyone. And I think Project Gotabaya, at least to a certain extent, will be assessed by how well it drives home that point. Personally speaking, I don’t think it’s doing a bad job there. At least, not yet.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 30 2017

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dharmasena Pathiraja, enfant terrible

Some reflections on the movies of Dharmasena Pathiraja

There was always a self-important sense of literariness, of artifice, in some of the movies of those directors who were censured by the ideologues, movers, and shakers of the Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave. These ideologues projected their censure and feelings of hurt to the American counterparts of those directors: to Billy Wilder, to William Wyler, to everyone else who were so constrained by the big studios that all they could do was forget their own voice. In the eyes of the new critics, nothing could absolve their shameless acts of fawning to the studios: their movies were at best literary, not cinematic, and second rate.

Pauline Kael called these critics (many of whom took to directing later on) movie brutalists. The movies they had grown up on were dead, obsolete, and rooted in milieus which were no longer relevant to the new world the new wave was riding on. They rejected the craftsmanship of the old order: the carefully conceived, technically superior, but banal work of the old directors. The directors they admired – Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock – were ignored by the mainstream producers because they couldn’t be rationalised by the criteria those producers brought up when assessing, and going for, the Wilders and the Wylers. It was left to the brutalists to promote them, and in doing so to emulate them.

The greatest movie brutalist of them all was Jean-Luc Godard. And not for no reason: apart from the fact that he is the only surviving member of the Nouvelle Vague, he was also the most consistent. Nearly everyone else who followed him or were part of the revolution he wrought returned more or less to the same cinema they had repudiated: Truffaut, Rohmer, even Chabrol. But Godard was different. His influence spawned imitators the world over, some second hand, others first rate. That his stints at moviemaking followed and ran parallel with the New Wave in East Europe was no coincidence: it was an era of rejection, rejection of values which were superficially different (conservative versus liberal, capitalist versus communist) but actually thrived on conformity, more specifically artistic conformity.

That culture of rejection came to Sri Lanka towards the end of the sixties, with a movie that brought in nearly everyone who would be part of the transformation of our cinema in the seventies: Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa. Siri Gunasinghe had made Sath Samudura a few years earlier: it brought D. B. Nihalsinghe and Vasantha Obeyesekere together. Nihalsinghe would later make our only technically “American” movie: Welikathara. Obeyesekere would subvert the mainstream cinema by resorting to, and muddling up, the tropes it thrived on. But the brutalist who radicalised our cinema was to emerge from Yapa’s movie, one that was set in an integral locale of the revolution to come: the University.

Hanthane Kathawa is one of the few Sinhala movies that seem as fresh now as the day they were first released. It breathes naturally, in the open, despite the underlying tensions which move into an inexorable climax. Much of its texture, its raw feel of life in the University, came out from the fact that many of its cast and crew members were real-life students at Peradeniya. Two in particular had come from the same school and were studying for the same degree. One of them turned out to be an actor. Daya Tennakoon. The other turned out to be that aforementioned radical. Dharmasena Pathiraja. Last week Pathiraja the director and artiste “turned” 50. This is a brief outline of the man and what I believe his cinema has stood for.

Dharmasena Pathiraja’s characters, like the characters in Godard’s movies, entranced an entire generation. They entranced us because the world they inhabited was too chaotic, too turbulent, to make them plan for the day after tomorrow. They don’t conceive of what’s to come, they live for today. Because of this, his plots can’t be rationalised or boiled down. They are like sentences that never end, that lead backwards at times and take us to climaxes we never get to in others. Probably that’s why one of the books written on him was titled “An Incomplete Sentence.”

But Pathiraja is probably the only director here who has never made a technically inferior movie. (With other directors then and now you get movies which are great, good, not so good, mediocre, and terrible.) From his first real film Ahas Gawwa – I have unfortunately not seen Sathuro, which he made five years earlier, in 1969 – he said everything, and I mean everything, that he would elaborate on, though only obliquely, in his subsequent work. The only movie of his that made some concession to the box office, Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, was, I daresay, not that bad in comparison. But I remember what Regi Siriwardena wrote: “When one has praised Malini Fonseka’s performance in it, one has virtually exhausted its virtues.”

In Ahas Gawwa the characters had some semblance of a family to fall back on. In Eya Dan Loku Lamayek the conflict is rooted in a love triangle between Malini and two men who don’t seem to have any family at all (Vijaya Kumaratunga and Wimal Kumar da Costa). It’s in Bambaru Avith that we come across a perfectly uprooted protagonist, with Victor (“Baby Mahaththaya”), played by Kumaratunga as the son of an ailing mudalali we never even hear about. But Bambaru Avith, like its music, was very operatic and stylised despite the salty dialogues and Donald Karunaratne’s cinematography. Pathiraja needed another movie to open up and do away with those operatic, epic overtones. He got to that with Para Dige.

Para Dige is the movie that best sums up that sense of obliqueness which comes through his characters. There are sequences that seem so random and out of key that the only reason they could be there was Pathiraja himself. Why do Chandare (Vijaya) and his sister (Sunethra Sarachchandra) go to the birthday party of those triplets? Why are they the only ones there when they cut their birthday cake? Why do they break into a small dance that’s at once mesmerising and confusing? And why do they never talk? I don’t think these are meant to be answered, but they are there, painfully obvious, never even asked. It’s not just that the director randomly inserts them: it’s also that he himself doesn’t make us WANT to question WHY he inserts them in the first place. That’s where he triumphs: with other directors, such randomness would at most be considered jerky. These sequences are arbitrary, but because of their arbitrariness they are woven into the narrative even though they exist outside it.

When Godard titled a section of Masculine Feminin with the famous line “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola”, he was thinking about how the world was dangling between two worlds, shell shocked and confused. The youth were revolutionaries, but they were also allured by popular culture: they were pop revolutionaries, neither here nor there, never seriously committed to anything. Para Dige epitomised them: desensitised but not incapable of love, impersonalised but not incapable of affection, synthetic but not incapable of honesty. They were in a class of their own, free of familial constraints.

Bambaru Avith, despite its operatic overtones, had Brechtian undertones: you never felt for its characters the way you did for those in Para Dige. Those undertones came from Pathiraja’s trysts with the theatre, in particular his Koraya saha Andaya, which was Beckettian. He returned to Beckett with Soldadu Unnahe, which more than anything that preceded it forced audiences to radically evaluate the cinema.

To an outsider, Soldadu Unnahe is shoddy, even untidy. It doesn’t quite contain the technical mastery of Pathiraja’s previous work. There are long, overdrawn sequences and sequences that end so abruptly that they confound judgment. It was destined to alienate audiences because it was formally meant to.

The late Ajith Samaranayake in a review contended that its climax (where the soldier, played by Joe Abeywickrama, comprehends the true meaning of sovereignty) was incongruent with the Gorkian poignancy of everything that led to it. Valid though his point was, it was a little misplaced. As Regi Siriwardena pointed out in a reply to Samaranayake, Soldadu Unnahe wasn’t Gorkian or realistic: it defied realism in a way that could only be described as Beckettian. Pathiraja had, in other words, reinvented our cinema: he had made the first real existential film we could claim.

The great tragedy of Pathiraja is that, like Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, his movies were never properly evaluated by the press. With Bandaranayake I think the problem was that the generation of Gamini Haththotuwegama and Ajith Samaranayake and A. J. Gunawardena was soon to pass away. With Pathiraja, on the other hand, the problem was the man himself. He trumped his critics with his refusal to enter the completely political. They were upset because he hadn’t conformed to their standards of propriety: for them, a movie like Bambaru Avith could work only if Victor was labelled as an evil capitalist and Helen (Malini Fonseka) was labelled as corrupted peasant virgin. They were upset, in other words, because he refused to turn our cinema into what Bandaranayake and his contemporaries had turned our theatre: politically fragmented, thriving on symbols, metaphors, protests, and stark dichotomies.

But in trumping those critics, Pathiraja has sealed his legacy. And I think it’s just as well: the intrusion of the theatre into our cinema has given me enough reason to lament, not celebrate. That no critic, apart from someone like Siriwardena, took him seriously remains the best tribute we can make to him. Not because he defied those critics, or criticism in general, but because he was able to make inroads to audiences despite the alienation those critics felt from his work. To date, I have not come across another director (in the serious cinema) who has touched the pulse of his or her audience so sharply while overturning those preconceptions of the medium that writers and commentators revere so highly. As always, he remains in a class and category of his own. Rightly. And justifiably.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 29 2017

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Irangani Serasinghe, the mother of all our mothers

Irangani Serasinghe, the mother of all mothers in our cinema, turned 90 last week. What better time to examine how those performances of hers have had an impact on our movies and us?

Irangani Serasinghe is the only actress I can think of from here who has never tapdanced, cha-chaed, or freestyled to a song in a commercial movie. Nearly everyone else, from Malini Fonseka to Swarna Mallawarachchi, has done so. Swarna in particular, with Anjana, proved to the public that even the most serious actor has to endure the mainstream, formulaic cinema, a truism which is valid for any film industry, anywhere. Once in a while you do come across a Dhritiman Chatterjee who, by extraordinary resolve, excludes himself or herself from commercial movies and becomes, for the lack of a better way of putting it, a selective player. But being the exception, they are generally hard to find, harder to fit in.

With Irangani you come across a different actor, a different player. Born to privilege, she rebelled against it but never quite abandoned it. She flirted with Marxism in the forties via Professor Ludowyke and moved away when (as she informs us in Kumar de Silva’s light-hearted book on her, by her) she felt that Marxism would take her away from the only person she knew well: herself. That sweet, almost naïve course of self-discovery (how many Marxists do you know who can give the same reason for their later recantations?) is what makes up nearly every later performance of hers.

Like Marxists, mothers come in different shades. They are the products of the myths and fairy-tales we grow up on, and to a considerable extent they are aware of, but pretend to ignore, the futility of clinging on to their sons and daughters. The tragedy of societies like ours is that we are confused when it comes to this issue: we want to move on with the rest of the world but the past always haunts us, stunting our instincts while leaving you with the odd impression that, for all their superficial lack of understanding, our mothers probably know more about the past and the present, and the future, than we ever can. And yet we rebel, being the prodigals we are.

Irangani Roxana Serasinghe, who is a mother and a grandmother and has known the poignancy of being both, has played more matriarchal figures than any other actor here. We first saw her in Lester James Peries’ Rekava, where for all we cared she didn’t have a husband and a father to her son. When that brute of a man who is her husband brings home some of those jewels and purses that he’s robbed, she throws them away with disgust. Rekava was the only production that had her in that milieu, that setting, so she could afford to be disgusted in the coarsest, most vulgar way possible. But the director seemed to have misunderstood that milieu: the fact is that the only thing “local” about Rekava was Irangani, the first Sri Lankan mother to be featured in a movie. Lester had cast her. And she had redeemed him.

She was his first choice for the role of Matara Hamine in Gamperaliya, but because she was pregnant he opted for Shanthi Lekha, a temperamentally different performer. Again, the actress redeemed him, this time through accident: even back then, Irangani would have been too assertive to depict her character, as quietly but rigidly traditionalist as she was, the way Lekha did. “None of my mothers are ever the same,” Irangani told me two years ago. That’s true, but she was telling only half the story: those different mothers were variations of the matriarch who was adamant in deciding the destinies of her sons and daughters until she discovered that they were more adamant than her. Matara Hamine wasn't that really that kind of figure.

Right after Gamperaliya Lester made Delovak Athara, with his producer and friend Anton Wickremasinghe shooting down the idea of filming Kaliyugaya and Yuganthaya. (It was one of those rare instances where a Sri Lankan producer’s instinct for serious cinema proved to be right.) Delovak Athara was different, to say the least: it belonged to Raoul Coutard and the New Wave and the intellectual cinema of the sixties that would dissolve into the political cinema of the seventies. In it he cast Irangani, again as the mother, moving her to a milieu she was comfortable in. When she found her footing there, naturally, she let herself out and became more expressive.

Because of that, she is a treat to watch in Lester’s movie. Not only is she constrained by her social status, she also has only one child, a son, so since she’s afraid of losing him, she obsesses over his every move. There’s a sequence where that son (Nissanka, played by Tony Ranasinghe) reveals his role in an accident to his betrothed (Shirani, played by the gracefully rotund Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya) while the latter is to perform at a concert. She breaks down, predictably, and Nissanka’s mother, enraged, confronts the son at home later that night. The father (played J. B. L. Gunasekera) knows about the accident. She does not. Nissanka slowly reveals the truth to her.

She sits at once, aghast, and looks down. The son goes on about how difficult it has been for him to live with his conscience and to keep it a secret from everyone around him. He gets up and starts leaving the room, looking at the mother, now numb, now speechless. You’d think she’d be numb and speechless for that entire sequence, but no: just as he’s about to leave, she exclaims, not over the dilemma he’s in, but over an entirely different matter: “You didn’t trust me enough to tell me what you’d got yourself into, did you?” Nissanka has enough on his plate already. Nissanka’s mother, on the other hand, is only bothered by the fact that she wasn’t told, which she takes as a sign that he doesn’t trust her. This interplay of domination and distrust is what drives much of the plot, and the conflicts in that plot, in Delovak Athara.

In the sixties and seventies Irangani got to portray that kind of mother. We knew she was wrong, and that as long as she was wrong her children could never resolve their conflicts. But although she wasn’t in the right, she didn’t flaunt it. She rarely raised her voice, for instance, because if she did she wouldn’t have been any different to the other actors cast as mothers elsewhere. She always kept you expecting an argument, an explosion of some sort, but never delivered it in fortissimos. (Part of the reason for that was, I think, her slowness when speaking in Sinhala.) Not even in Ran Salu, where she had to endure a daughter who, entranced by a Buddhist nun, takes after a less materialistic, more frugal lifestyle. All she can do is mutter under her breath, since after all it is a Buddhist nun, and they are at least nominally Buddhist.

In the eighties and nineties she changed. Sometimes she never gets our sympathy, as in Deveni Gamana, where she and Denawaka Hamine unleash the irrational fury of their village at a daughter-in-law who can’t prove her virginity. “Who told her to engage in those things?” she angrily asks her son as he tries to stand up for his wife with the excuse that she used to play basketball and that can explain why she didn’t bleed in their first night together. She refuses to see the light: she thinks she knows what is correct, even though we know she may not be correct.

This wasn’t too far away from her roles in the sixties. But then she was undergoing a transformation. She was mellowing, becoming more empathetic, more correct. By the nineties that transformation was complete. In Doo Daruwo (along with every other Nalan Mendis production), Awaragira, and Loku Duwa, she has become the obverse of what she was: the most she can do now is to bemoan the disobedient son, the wayward prodigal, who in the latter two happened to be played by the wildly unconstrained Kamal Addararachchi.

When Punna in Loku Duwa (Geetha Kumarasinghe) tentatively says that, to cut down on expenses, she is willing to marry her fiancé (Jackson Anthony) without the obligatory poruwa ceremony, Irangani looks down: “Either we do something properly, or we don’t do it at all.” But there isn’t that same sharply delivered bitterness we get from Nissanka’s or Sujatha’s mother: she says it not because she’s embittered, but because she truly, deeply cares about her child without worrying about their social and economic standing. She never got an only son or daughter in these movies, moreover: there is always more than one, sometimes more than two, and in her oscillating attitudes to them we sense a wider range and virtuosity.

At the heart of those mothers she has depicted is a paradox. Caught between two worlds, of conformity and of individuality, they have grasped the paradox at the heart of all our mothers: that of standing up for one’s offspring while placating an impersonal world. From Rekava to Deveni Gamana, from Deveni Gamana to Loku Duwa and beyond, she has reconciled these two opposites the same way Chaplin did (through Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight) when it came to the funnily good and the starkly evil that coexisted in his world: by ageing gracefully. And elegantly.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 27 2017

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Chamara Dabare: The evolution of a Tusker

Photographs are usually a good way of keeping track of the past. They highlight what was to make it easier for us to ascertain what will be. They induce nostalgia, particularly when they’re hard to find. They also induce humility, a sense of proportion which, if nurtured properly, improves as the years pass. Important, especially with respect to the career, the range of interests, and the hobbies captured in those photographs. Because I found it difficult to obtain some decent shots of Chamara Dabare, I believe I have come to appreciate that point about him.

Chamara is not a photographer, far from it. He’s a rugby player. A Tusker. He played for his school, left the game for a year, and returned to represent his country. His name hasn’t gone by unnoticed. Thankfully, I should think. A friend of his (also of mine) pointed him out to me, which is how I got to talk with him.

His story doesn’t begin with rugby. It begins many, many years before, when he started playing cricket as an Under 11 batsman and wicketkeeper for his school, Royal College. As is usually the case, he had joined the squad because his classmates had. But then, as the years passed, something happened. Some of those classmates abandoned cricket. They abandoned it for another game. Rugby. Unlike cricket, there was something rather cosmetic about it which enflamed Chamara. The jersey.

It had to do with his school. More pertinently, his school colours. To wear the jersey, to represent those colours on the field, was an honour bestowed on a few. “Only those who were in the squad were allowed that honour,” he remembers for me, “That is why those who donned it were considered as heroes, to look up to and to emulate. That is also why I wanted to play, to join the College squad, to give back. So when a friend of mine, Mushin Faleel, asked me to take part at some House Matches, I was only too thrilled. I would have been 14 or 15 at the time, back in 2006.”

He didn’t abandon cricket straight away after that, though. Instead, he continued with it alongside rugby, giving it up eventually as an Under 17 player. And not for nothing: for every schoolboy in the rugby squad at Royal, the biggest opportunity to flaunt his colours was the Bradby Shield. Chamara got his turn in 2009, when as a left-winger (his usual position, barring a short stint as a full-back) he contended for his team and managed to clinch the Shield from their rival, Trinity College. He played the following year as well, when they retained it.

There’s something about playing for your school that’s hard to emulate, harder to improve on elsewhere. It’s never easy to get that down in one sketch, but I try my luck by asking Chamara to describe what those years meant to him.

“It was thanks to my school that rugby became an overriding passion. I remember my cricket coach, Nalliah Devarajan, excusing me whenever I needed to practice at rugby. He was an avid enthusiast of the game, so he would have known I’d eventually join the squad. In 2009, my first real year in the squad, we became the Singer League Champions. Coupled with our scores at Bradby, I can’t think of a more exhilarating time in my life. Royal College meant so much because it gave me so much. The best way, in fact the only way, I could give back was through the squad. That I did give back enlivens me. It’s not easy to put all that in words, to be honest.”

Given how passionate he was about it, moreover, he didn’t do anything else at school. He wound up as a coloursman in 2010, when he was awarded the most prestigious accolade a Royalist can get, the Royal Crown. “That same year I left or rather tried to leave rugby because I had to focus on my studies. I offered Commerce for my A Levels. Try as I could, though, I couldn’t simply ‘exit’ it: in August, I had to tour Hong Kong in the Under 20 National Squad. We defeated South Korea for, I believe, the first time in the squad’s history. That was my first time overseas, moreover.”

He got the break he’d clamoured for the following year, the same year he wound up as a Prefect. But then, as with his previous attempt, that break wouldn’t last. Before the year was up, he would be called to join the CR & FC. “I played, but since I was out of school, I needed a job. So I started working at John Keells. I found it difficult to continue with the game thereafter. Eventually I shifted to the Carlton Super Sevens, where I came to be noticed by Asanga Seneviratne. He invited me to join Havelocks. By August that year, I made up my mind. I took up his offer.”

Chamara’s first match for Havelock was against the Police Club. They won it 47 to 12. He subsequently got around defeating CR & FC, before “graduating” to the Asian Five Nations Tournament. This was in 2013, when Sri Lanka hosted the Division I tournament and won the Championship. “What I remember the most about it was that I was there with so many players I’d looked up to while at school, including the inimitable Fazil Marija.” They hadn’t emulated their winning streak the following year, however, a fact that speaks volumes about the consistency or lack thereof of rugby in Sri Lanka. But that’s for another article.

Meanwhile, his professional life changed. He left John Keells and went to Dialog, where he was hired to play on a contract basis. “Once you represent a company, you can join it in whatever capacity, whether as an accountant or as a sales representative, and continue with your career on the field. The problem for me was that I was practising every morning and every evening. I couldn’t work in between. Naturally, I had to play with everything I had. I had to devote every minute I was awake to it. I suppose I got to learn about it, more than I had elsewhere, owing to that.”

That probably explains how he ended up playing at both the Sri Lanka 7’s and the First XV. “The First XV is more strenuous, since it involves a greater number of players across the field. I played for the 7’s only once, in 2012. I didn’t get a chance to play again thereafter. I suppose that has in some strange way been for the better, since the First XV taught me a lot about speed, concentration, and retaining form, points which a winger needs to imbibe if he is to perform well.” The fact that he realised the importance of those points, he highlights for me, as a great deal to do with his trainers, starting with his College coach, Bilal Yusuf, right down to Tavita Tugalese, or Laga to most, at Havelock. “They helped open my eyes, to be honest.”

One never gets the full sketch of a player, whether in one profile or a series. Chamara has seen the light of day. His ascent hasn’t been free from those slights which jolt such players, but despite them all, he hasn’t forgotten his base, his background. That is where I end my little piece.

“There’s a sense of professionalism you must capture within yourself when you represent your country. I personally believe there are bigger and better opportunities for aspiring rugby players once they pass out from school. They are paid more, they get better coaches, and the organisations they are affiliated to help them. I know I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for my school, my friends, and my coaches. They believed in me. So much so that every time I look back, think of those days we spent playing for College, I can only say that I learnt to give my best and work for whatever organisation I got to represent later on.”

It wasn’t easy, searching for Chamara’s old photographs. They evaded me and made my task more difficult, in other words. So difficult, in fact, that I could only imagine his evolution as a Tusker. An evolution which leaves me awed, intrigued, and by all accounts, impressed. Because I don’t have anything more to write, I will stop here.

Written for: The Island YOUth, June 25 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

The legacy of Dayan Jayatilleka

In politics there are degrees of expedience, of imperative, of loyalty, of friendships that sour and enmities that are forgotten. Nothing is cast in stone, which is why no one can be counted on as a permanent ally or foe. Picking on parties and individuals has naturally become a political necessity. Not just a necessity, but a necessary frill.

The truth is that Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, whose critique of Gotabaya Rajapaksa while the latter was in power years ago has resurfaced on social media, has changed. The truth is that he's not the only commentator bearing similar credentials and beliefs who has changed. The Joint Opposition is chock-a-bloc with those who affirm Sinhala Buddhist monoliths, multicultural monoliths, federalism, and chauvinism.

These faces were different while the man they support was in power. They were different then because when the man you support is in power, you tend to push for your beliefs and diverge from his. Now that he is not in power, they have skewed those beliefs, or set them aside, until directly or through a proxy he does return to power.

My point is that both the government and the Joint Opposition are operating on flawed premises. The government has made itself out as an anti-racist, anti-majoritarian coalition. The Joint Opposition has made itself out as the obverse of it. The tragedy here is that these stances (some laudable, others not) are being denied by their own representatives. So you have a policy of anti-racism by the government being subverted by the alleged racism of some of those who head that same government.

No less a figure than our president, let's not forget, was touted as the panacea for the primitive traditionalism of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. That this was only make-believe transpired much later. It transpired when the president condemned the organisers of a concert with the threat of a rather archaic punishment. It transpired when he openly condemned those who were investigating members of the armed forces. And it transpired when those who headed the many outfits formed prior and consequent to his election (to mention just one of them, Sarath Wijesuriya) began clashing with the same majoritarianism they had combated in the previous regime.

Dayan Jayatilleka is the ideological counterpoint to the majoritarianism echoed by the Joint Opposition. He is to it what the likes of Sarath Wijesuriya are to the government, with a caveat: the government is essentially two-faced, maintaining one in front of the people (reminding them that the armed forces will not be witch-hunted) and another in front of the international community (reminding them that certain elements in those forces will be tried in court). The Joint Opposition, on the other hand, is chauvinist, by which I am not condemning them: after all there are degrees of chauvinism, and when compared to certain individuals who condemn them, those who house the JO are saints. Which, incidentally, is what makes Dayan's dilemma even more poignant.

The ideological founders of the movement that birthed Mahinda Rajapaksa were, if I may put it, Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera. They were combating Tamil chauvinism in the seventies and eighties when the likes of Dayan were condemning Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. They were behind the Jathika Chinthanaya, which tried to find a figure to continue Anagarika Dharmapala's national revivalist program. Dharmapala had been succeeded, rather paradoxically and incompletely, by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. The Jathika Chinthanaya's attempts to legitimise a more cohesive successor in that respect culminated, I believe, in 2005, when Chandrika Kumaratunga was ousted and Mahinda Rajapaksa became president.

But I’m digressing here.

Chandrika Kumaratunga in a speech on S. J. V. Chelvanayakam argued that Dayan's current position(s) on power sharing couldn't be squared with his appointment as a minister in the Vadarajah Perumal North-East Provincial Council. That is true. (Not that she was any better at sticking to rhetoric, of course.) But this is only half the story: the other half, I believe, can be gleaned from perusing his background.

Dayan Jayatilleka was born to a largely cosmopolitan society and intelligentsia. His father, one of the finest prose stylists of his time, had attended what the son later pointed out as the three most powerful ideological apparatuses of modern Sri Lanka: Royal College, Peradeniya University, and Lake House. One of Dayan's most enduring qualities is his penchant for types as opposed to absolutes, a legacy of his education in political science, which led him to describe his upbringing as follows:

My parents read Grimm’s Fairy Tales out to me at bedtime, but my maternal grandmother from Moratuwa told me stories in Sinhala and was the only one to do so. She related Martin Wickramasinghe’s story “Rohini” to me. It is a romantic martial tale set within the Dutugemunu saga. She couldn’t have been a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist. She was a Catholic, originally from Nuwara Eliya, married to a highly literate Buddhist from Panadura.

At a time when lesser intellectuals were making the waves lambasting Sinhala Buddhism and affirming Tamil separatism, he stood out by opposing both. He made his political presence known to us most vividly in the eighties, and, for better or worse, his subsequent political stints have been measured against what he did back then. He was active at a time when Gorbachev was preaching the gospel of glasnost, when Castro was moving away from the Soviet Union, and when Communism was collapsing everywhere. It was a period of change. Change at all costs.

His most virulent critic, who happens to be a mentor of sorts to me, was at one point Malinda Seneviratne. Like Dayan's father, Malinda was nurtured in those aforementioned three institutions. Like Dayan's father, Malinda rejected the right-wing, elitist ethos of those institutions. Unlike Dayan's father, he became a nationalist. But there's never just one kind of nationalism: there are nationalisms, so soon enough we saw Dayan and Malinda fighting via newspaper columns despite the fact that both were opposed to the government over its handling of the war. Consequently, no one batted or bowled for them: the "intellectuals" were opposed to both since they were "nationalists", so they enjoyed the fires they were igniting against each other.

Today Malinda and Dayan are on the same plane, though only barely. But I think it's a mistake to vilify the latter with the same criterion the "intellectuals" use to vilify the former. Malinda never batted for anyone. People despised him because he had the guts to call out those opposed to Rajapaksa without supporting him explicitly, something he does even today. Dayan, on the other hand, is despised because he believes in the lesser of the two evils, an argument Malinda does not subscribe to at all, and because, for him, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is that lesser evil today.

The values those who hedge their bets on Gotabaya stand for are patently Dayan's as well. Dayan is against any intrusions made by external players on our country's sovereignty. He is also a moderate federalist, one who believes in the ideals, but not the substance, of the arguments of those who bat for the 13th Amendment. To hardcore nationalists, particularly to those responsible for Mahinda Rajapaksa's political ascent, he is an outsider. Despite this, however, I believe their idealisation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not too different to Dayan's: both see in him an administrator who can save us. At the end of the day, the success or failure of Project Gotabaya will depend on how these two camps come together by 2020. And I think much of the task to convince the two of Gotabaya's political veracity has been left to Dayan.

It's no surprise that in his support for Rajapaksa, Dayan attracts more flak than Malinda, Nalin de Silva, and Gunadasa Amarasekera. That's to be expected: all these people have been attracting flak ever since they went active, even from Dayan. The latter's support of a political figure that is incongruent with his wider political beliefs, however, is recent. In politics the recent always sells, more than the old. So Dayan, who I daresay has become the most significant political commentator of our time in Sri Lanka (something none of those intellectuals who rail against him can equal), will be at the receiving end of even more flak, even more anger, even more vitriol, as the days and months progress.

He therefore remains a lone wolf. But then, we all are. Perhaps that is enough to cut him some slack. I wouldn’t know. All I know, and all that everyone who rails against him knows, is that the man can prevail. “Dayan wins battles but loses wars” was how someone summed him up. Maybe the battle hasn’t ended. Maybe the war is yet to come. Again, I wouldn’t know. And I wouldn’t want to know. At least, not yet.

NOTE 1: In a comment on the article in Colombo Telegraph, Dr Dayan takes issue with me categorising him as a nationalist. I believe I may have erred mildly there, so I quote him in full: "I am not ontologically a nationalist. My support for nationalism is neither unconditional nor unqualified. I am, however, a patriot who is also an internationalist and a universalist."

NOTE 2: He also takes issue with me categorising him as a moderate federalist. Again, I shall quote him: "I have never been a federalist, moderate or otherwise. I have always been for equal rights as well as for devolution/regional autonomy. As the Chinese Constitution makes clear, it is perfectly possible and is often the case that those (especially those from a Leftist political culture) who are for regional autonomy are also staunch supporters of a unitary state... with regional autonomy/devolution."

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 23 2017

Thursday, June 22, 2017

With or without Olympus: A reading of 'Trojan Kanthawo'

I have not read Sartre’s version of The Trojan Women. I have seen Michael Cacoyannis’ movie adaptation, but that was not Sartre. I have also seen Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s Trojan Kanthawo, but that wasn’t Sartre either. When the latter was first staged at Colombo two decades ago, it was greeted with the kind of acclaim and popularity that no other political play, except Bandaranayake’s previous work, had enjoyed. So much so, in fact, that with a cast numbering more than 40, a ravishing score by Rookantha Goonethilaka, and choreography by Jerome de Silva, it seemed to belong more to the Wendt than to the Lumbini Theatre.

What differentiated Trojan Kanthawo from Eka Adipathi and Makarashaya was that there was nothing satirical about it. Both Eka Adipathi and Makarakshaya were about power and the struggle to retain power through deception. They were also very contemporary, by which I mean they were set in the 20th century, when plays that delved into the abuse of power were laced with humour, with scorn, with derision. The antagonists, who were always the rulers, were subjected to ridicule. They were meant to make you laugh a little, to make you ridicule the system they were in control of. Bandaranayake’s great achievement, going by that, was his ability to bring together humour and anger when critiquing that system.

Perhaps it was this that led Piyaseeli Wijegunasingha to criticise those two and praise Trojan Kanthawo. However, the criterion she used to negatively review The Dragon –that it wasn’t re-contextualised enough – she discarded to praise Bandaranayake’s transposition of Euripides. Her argument was that a play reflecting a certain context needed to be revisited and, if necessary, revised if it were to be made relevant to a contemporary audience. A friend of mine, having seen these plays, remarked to me that they tried to root a foreign experience here without any success. But that’s not the real problem. The real problem has to do with whether they were adapted cohesively.

Piyaseeli might have seen in Makaraskshaya everything that was wrong with the Sinhala political theatre of her time. It thrived on symbols, metaphors, and stark, clearly defined dichotomies which never yielded. For a political play to thrive on such symbols, however, there must be victory and there must be defeat. No one would have been enthralled by those symbols if they didn’t assume their own opposites. The Dragon in Makarakshaya, for instance, is there because of Lancelot. It doesn’t have any meaning outside itself without him. The context as such flows from this dichotomy. Such a dichotomy is missing in Trojan Kanthawo.

Euripides staged The Trojan Women in 415 BC as a response to the Athenian enslavement of the women and children of a small island in the Aegean. It was profoundly radical, so radical, in fact, that when he staged it for his time, he staged it for all time. He said what he wanted to say and said it in the simplest way he could. There were no villains and no innocents to compare them with. It was, and it remains, the most poignant lament for the loss of freedom authored by a Greek playwright.

Moreover, his message was so aligned with his time because of his victims and the horrible destinies they helplessly await: Cassandra expects Agamemnon, who will make her his concubine, Andromache struggles to raise her only son while doubting his fate, Helen contemplates her own follies that led to her city’s destruction, while Hecuba, the mother figure, looks on wearily at the remains of her motherland. The slaughter of women and children across the Aegean by Euripides’ own rulers: this brought out the parallel he might have looked for with the Trojan War.

And in the end, it became both profound and simple. And simplified. In The Dragon, there was room for a conflict that would end in some resolution. But in Trojan Women, the conflict as such could only lead to complete annihilation. So when Dharmasiri Bandaranayake adapted it in the late nineties as a response to the Civil War here, he went for probably the most relevant play he could have gone for, doing away with those dichotomies that had characterised his earlier work. What was so easy about Euripides, however, eventually became what was so difficult about it.

The Trojan Women is so matter-of-factly that re-contextualisation is possible only with explicit add-ons. This is not something to be met with in The Dragon, or even Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, both of which were adapted here and were in turn adaptations of popular folklore. The symbols in them are already there, derived from the myths that inspired them. Euripides’ play, on the other hand, was conceived with a point of reference that was relevant to his time. The only way an adaptation could work, not surprisingly, was by explicit symbols which showed how the playwright had brought its message closer to home.

To a considerable extent at least, this explains why in Trojan Kanthawo, Bandaranayake brought on stage the modern war tank and the Sinhalese soldier. There was always a sense of political explicitness in his production, as such, that one did not come across in Makarakshaya, by which I am not paying it a compliment: the truth is both Eka Adipathi and Makarakshaya were aware of their relevance, while Trojan Kanthawo could not have projected such a relevance without resorting to symbols.

But this wasn’t all. Inasmuch as these symbols were add-ons, they or rather the political undertones beneath them were undone by something that Bandaranayake should have removed, but did not remove: divine intervention. In bringing on stage the army tank and the Sinhalese soldiers, with those laser sound effects that were unfortunately at odds with the seriousness they tried to evoke (which is why I have reservations about Rookantha’s score), he was secularising a war that was rooted in a struggle between the gods, as seen in the beginning with an argument between Poseidon and Athena. By refusing to do away with those gods, however, he confounded us. Again, I am not paying a compliment: without a proper justification for this incongruity, Trojan Kanthawo eventually becomes a hazy political comment.

There was nothing divine about the Civil War we endured for three decades. There was nothing that could explain it, rationalise it, except the follies of human beings. That latter point was what Trojan Kanthawo brought out, however roughly and explicitly, with the intrusion of the Sinhalese soldiers. But when I see Poseidon arguing with Athena about how to punish the Greek army, when we know for certain that this same Greek/Sinhala army are enjoying their spoils and captives, I wonder where Bandaranayake was more inconsistent: his choice of allegorising Euripides as a comment on our time, or his choice of retaining the gods as a comment on their time. What was Trojan about our war, and what was Sinhalese and Tamil about their war? The one was divine, the other secular. Can they really subsist?

Perhaps a comparison with The Dragon might help. The titular dragon in there was a metaphor, and a very malleable one at that. It was possible to reconfigure, to re-contextualise, without losing the mythical overtones of the original. To be sure, it was a myth turned inside-out, but we knew it was a myth all along, even when Lancelot remarked, “We’ll have to kill the dragon in all of them” when he discovered that the Burgomaster had taken over. It was a classic case of the mythical not trumping the secular. There was no question about its relevance, consequently: it resorted to popular folklore to reflect on the present.

Which leads me to my final question: has Trojan Kanthawo, which was staged again two weeks ago at the Wendt, outlasted its relevance in a way that Bandaranayake’s other work has not? I wouldn’t like to say that it has, but then that’s the only answer I can think of. Forget the point that the war is over: war is everywhere, even in times of peace, and it would be futile to think otherwise. Reflect instead on the central conflict I highlighted before. Wasn’t Bandaranayake’s aim to critique what he conceived as a war fought against our own people? If so, why did he secularise it without doing away with those gods? Particularly when wars are fought with or without Olympus? These are questions, yes, but they make me unhappy, not because they can’t be answered, but because we choose not to answer them.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 22 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'The Songs We Love': Hitting the rewind button

“The Songs We Love” organised by the Senior Choir of Visakha Vidyalaya was unveiled at the Jeremiah Dias Hall on Friday, June 2 at 07.30 pm

I like to eavesdrop at concerts. I like to hear what people are saying to each other, how it reflects what they are attending, and how it reflects their milieu. It was a desultory Friday evening when I got down from my friend’s car and walked, wearily but with a sense of optimism, towards Vajira Road. The concert I was attending that day had nothing that could make it stand out, in my mind, from the dozen or so other concerts that throb Colombo every week. To be sure, this one was organised by a school, but could that alone make it stand out? Because I was optimistic, yet had no one to talk with about this issue, I hoped for the best, walked around, and eavesdropped.

The fathers, mothers, siblings, cousins, and friends of those who were involved with the concert were not talking about the concert. They were talking about the school and its history. They were talking about the scope of the event as opposed to the event itself. There would have been a dozen other topics they rushed through, but I didn’t hear them. In any case, conversation in Colombo, like in Texas, is seldom continuous. But then 100 years is a long time. It gives reason for disparate conversation. It gives reason for pride. I saw and heard both. Everywhere.

The Songs We Love, organised by the Senior Choir of Visakha Vidyalaya in commemoration of their centenary, was a largely anglophile affair except for the last 15 minutes. There were songs that I had heard before but did not cherish. There were songs that I had not heard before but cherished. They took me back to that time when I first heard some of them around the piano by my music teacher. To be sure, the Jeremiah Dias Hall doesn’t yield anything epic: it’s small, limited, and austere. But there was nothing austere about The Songs We Love. Nothing small, nothing limited.

It’s only fit that I talk about the songs before the event. I heard the usual tunes: from Disney, from Rodgers and Hammerstein, from the eighties. I got to love Cindy Lauper through my mother. I got to adore The Sound of Music through my music teacher. I heard both. While I didn’t cherish some of them, I didn’t particularly dislike any of them, because how can one dislike music? And unlike most other school concerts I attend, there was nothing frilled up about it: you came, heard, and enjoyed. This has as much to do with the restraint of the Choir as with the smallness of the Hall, but regardless of the reason, I took to everything that Choir dished to us.

And it wasn’t just about a bunch of songs we could have heard anywhere. It was an attempt to bridge one generation with another within 90 minutes. Past principals, teachers, and even students had gathered and were interacting with their successors. They were all seated at the front, some of them old and mellowed, the others not quite so, and they were visibly moved. How could they not be, when The Sound of Music moved in to Frozen and when Tangled moved back to The King and I?

There’s something about these tunes that strikes at us. We live in a society which dotes on Jane Austen, Barbara Cartland, and Danielle Steel. In music we are very much American and nostalgic, even if the songs we listen to are derived from Europe. No concert or party would be complete without I Could Have Danced All Night, Shall We Dance, and My Favourite Things. That’s the way it has been and the way it will be, for some time at least. For this reason, whenever we hear these songs, we are taken back immediately. We hit the rewind button when they open up and by the time they are over, we are so happy that we are oblivious to the world around us.

And because that world around us is so austere, so musically disinclined, we have become incurable romantics who rebel against austerity even though we have next to nothing to help us rebel. Our school halls are small, our auditoriums a little bigger, and our concerts a sordid, beaten down affair. We like to dream with what we sing, to adorn every mundane tune with colourful sets. So it was with The Songs We Love, which kept its performers changing from one costume to another, from one backdrop to another. That these were all played for us on a Friday evening helped tremendously, moreover: it helped us escape the banality of tomorrow.

Incidentally, there was no real order that could help us decipher a pattern. But in a concert like this order can only be imposed artificially. It tends to keep us awaiting an end, which was what The Songs We Love didn’t do. I couldn’t fathom an end and I don’t suppose the rest of the audience fathomed one either. We measured the minutes that passed by with the music. There would have been a schedule, but I needn’t have bothered looking through it. The discipline and the restraint of the organisers was enough to convince me to wait, patiently, until the loose ends were tied up.

One can’t eavesdrop while a concert is in session. One can’t hear, one can’t listen, so one has to see. Glancing around, I saw the two Guests of The Songs We Love, both musically prodigies: Kishani Jayasinghe and Menaka de Fonseka Sahabandu. Kishani was visibly excited (who wouldn’t be?) and as the songs were played out, saw her reciting them silently. She might have been leading the Choir, so mesmerised was she by the schoolgirls. She might also have overlooked the visuals, which were only add-ons. Because those visuals were secondary to the performers, perhaps, Kishani did not drop her smile. That smile, and the occasional beam of delight, kept the girls going. It kept us going too.

I don’t know why the organisers opted for Sinhala songs towards the end, but I suppose that helped tie up those loose ends I alluded to before. So we heard the usual tunes: Nim Him Sewwa, Ran Tikiri Sina, and that obligatory baila session that seems to bring the curtain down on every other school concert. They were special and overwhelming: Ran Tikiri Sina, for instance, kept me wondering where that other past Visakhian, Sumitra Peries, was, while Nim Him Sewwa, played on a rather bloated, epic scale not to be seen or heard with any of the English tunes before it, was a tribute to both composer (Nimal Mendis) and performer (Amaradeva). As for the baila medley: well, as I mentioned before, it was there because it was obligatory.

The Jeremiah Dias Hall isn’t really epic. With a fertile enough imagination, however, even the most mundane hall can be transformed. It rained rather heavily that Friday evening: the drizzle could be seen and heard and the wind kept bothering the pianist. But that drizzle, and the raindrops that swept into the Hall, added something natural. They were playing selections from Frozen around that time, incidentally: rather aptly, I should think. To do with what one has, to turn it into something bigger, was what the organisers achieved at the end. Probably that’s why there was very little compering (by the vibrant Kumar de Silva) needed, if at all.

100 years is a long time. The Songs We Love was just one among many concerts, plays, and other events organised to celebrate those 100 years. What we got there weren’t just the songs we love, but also the songs we remember. And not just remember, but remember with so much delight that they take us back to that time when we all stood around our music teachers and her piano and recite “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti” blindly, without knowing the theory behind it. I was, I admit, numbed, only because they kept me alive. For me, as it would have been for Kishani and Menaka, the visuals came second. What mattered was what the show promised us. The schoolgirls kept that promise. Consequently, they kept me content.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 20 2017

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Samitha Abeyrathne’s return to form

Samitha Abeyrathne first took to table tennis when he was in Grade Two. He played, he tried, he lost, but he didn’t despair. He had a set of parents who empowered him and a coach they could all look up to. And did.

The predictable unfolded thereafter: he improved, became a champion at both school and national levels, and retained top form wherever he was and in whatever tournament he contended. He waded through the ranks, hard as it was and always will be, and topped the list.

But then, just like that, he quit. This disconcerts me somewhat, which is why I was heartened to get an interview with him on a cloudy Friday evening.

Samitha didn’t graduate to table tennis. It was the first activity he dabbled in at his school, Royal College, partly since he wore spectacles. “I would have found it difficult to play rugby or cricket. That is why my parents encouraged me to choose a ‘lighter’ sport. Moreover, because of a series of selections we had to undergo at that time, we were initiated into various activities. I ended up ‘getting’ table tennis.”

As I mentioned before, his debut matches didn’t end in triumph. All he did in his first two years was play for a couple of hours (at either S. Thomas’ College or the Sugathadasa Stadium) and come back home. His coach, Y. C. Thilakaratne, inferred some potential in him, which is why he took young Samitha for his private classes at Carey College. “I’d practice under him twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays if I remember correctly. He never overly pushed us. He made us understand how important the fundamentals of the game were when playing our way to the top. In other words, he was the role model I’d been after.”

Everything changed in 2003 (he was in Grade Six at the time) when he became the Under 11 All Island Champion, picking up the Number Three rank along the way. Samitha followed it up with a veritable set of achievements, some astounding and others predictable. He was the Under 13, Under 15, Under 18, and Under 21 National Champion, though this interests me less for its certificate-value than the anecdotes it contains. I therefore prod him on what led to what thereafter and how he ended up topping everyone else in the field. He readily obliges.

“I believe 2007 was a landmark year for me. I became the Under 15 Champion and the Number One player in that category. I also took part in both Under 18 and Open Men’s Doubles matches. I became one of the top eight Under 18 National players through them, tiring though they were, and graduated to the top four when I turned 16. In 2009 I became the Under 18 National Champion and the Number Two player. By April the following year, I had topped both Under 18 and Under 21 divisions.”

It was at that particular point that Samitha decided to quit. “I had to focus on my studies. Before I quit, however, I had one more encounter to paddle through. The Inter-School Table Tennis Tournament, slated for October, was shifted to April, less than four months away from my exams. Basically, we had just two weeks to prepare ourselves! It was certainly challenging. Not just challenging, but discouraging.”

That match (which deserves a footnote to itself) figures in Samitha’s memory as his most memorable, so much so that it’s best recounted in his own words. So here goes.

“We went to it famished and depressed. We didn’t feel as though we’d prepped ourselves enough. That’s probably why we lost our first match. But then, when subsequent matches came, we picked up. We went on winning until the finals, where we were pitted against Maliyadeva. We lost to them in the first two singles and won over them in the third. The last two singles, the most decisive ones, were played from our side by me and Kulanaka Hendahewa. It was tense and even excruciating, but we won both, acing Maliyadeva 3-2 and clinching the Under 19 A Division All Island Inter-School Team Championship. That was the first time I won a 19 A match, moreover. In any case, we had proven ourselves. We had prevailed.”

After the celebrations and accolades that victory necessitated sobered down, Samitha resumed his studies, sitting for his A Levels (he offered Maths) and later entering the Kotelawala Defence University for a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, along with Achievers Business Campus for CIMA. Done with both last year, he now aims for a career in Management, though that part of his life is yet to unfold and can’t be charted. Given that he left table tennis six years ago and that he’s done with his higher education for now, is a return imminent?

“It’s not easy to regain form once you’ve left it for a long, long time,” Samitha replies seriously, “I gave playing at tournaments for six years and didn’t touch a racket for two years. Mind you, no matter how much of a top contender you would have been before, you’re useless if you don’t practice. I didn’t. Now I’ve started playing for fun, but whether or not I’ll resume it professionally remains to be seen. What I can ponder on right now, apart from my career to come, is what I’ve learnt from the game.”

I ask him here to elaborate on what exactly he has learnt. “When I started playing, I didn’t know what I’d take to in table tennis. Eventually I realised that you need concentration more than stamina to ace at it. The latter is more or less a quality every sportsman has, but concentration, or your ability to focus and keep up with time, is more vital. That is what my coaches – Mr Thilakaratne, Mr N. H. Perera, Mr Nuwan Sampath, Mr Indika Prasad, and Mrs Deepika Rodrigo – taught me. It helped me in my other pursuits.”

What were those other pursuits exactly? Samitha was involved in various Clubs and Societies at his school, including the Philatelic Club. He had also been a Junior Steward and subsequently a Prefect. At KDU he had been involved in the Rotaract Club. Among the many accolades he got courtesy of these activities, one stands out: the Royal Crown, the most prestigious award a student can clinch at Royal College, bestowed on him in 2011 on account of (what else?) his stints at table tennis.

And in a way, his school career precipitated some impressive victories abroad. As a final summing up, therefore, I ask him to recount the most memorable match he played overseas and what he’d like to say to aspiring players.

Regarding the first point, Samitha remembers the Taiyuan International Open Junior Table Tennis Championship, held in 2004. “We clinched the Silver Medal in the Under 12 category. It was a difficult tournament to get through, because one of my two partners, Chameera Ginige, was down with a fever. I won the first single, Chameera lost the second, my other partner Hasintha Sashiranga closed the third at 10-12, and I was left with the task of winning the last singles AND the country’s honour. If I lost, we wouldn't get even a Bronze Medal. To complicate matters even further, I had to contend against the Number One player from Qatar. That I got to ace him 10-4 despite this was a miracle.”

Regarding the second point, he tells me that the best he can say to those who pursue table tennis is to keep on trying. “I faced a number of losses in my first few years. I could have given up. I did not. My parents knew what I was in for more than I ever did. So did my coaches. They kept on pushing me. I appreciate that. I would hence like to offer this piece of advice: never forget your fundamentals. Even with the most ‘sophisticated’ tournaments, they can help you. Big time.”

Racket games in general intrigue me. Not because they are qualitatively different to other more vigorous sports, but because they teeter between proximity and distance in a way which pits one player against the other while compelling him or her to empathise, to understand. Regrettably, though, I don’t have the kind of patience such activities require. Samitha, going by that, has exceeded everything he’s taken part in. To the dot. His return to form will therefore be awaited. By us. Right until the end.

Written for: The Island YOUth, June 18 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

On capitulating to headless cadavers

Populists, like elites, centrists, liberals, and conservatives, come in different shades. Some are honest and sincere, others are not. Some like to mince rhetoric with action, others do not. It doesn’t take a political thinker to figure out that over the past 50 years, no politician worth his or her salt has got into power without resorting to rhetoric. What differentiates them from one another, consequently, is their ability to transform that into affirmative political action.

The problem with our meritocrats is that they are disconnected from the pulse of their own people. Whether they intend it or not, they promote a variant of populism that thrives on lies, propaganda, and unconvincing rhetoric. Once elected to power, they often always go back on those lies and envelope the democratic process with an equally lamentable variant of anti-populism. The 1994 election opened out like that: it had as much to do with the wild promises dished out by the People’s Alliance as it had with the complacency of the UNP. What transpired after 1994 until 2005, with the PA’s equally wild flirtations with privatisation, deregulation, and shady deals, says a lot about the sincerity of those who made those promises in the first place.

This rather schizophrenic cycle of popular rhetoric and unpopular action has governed our country for over 50 years. Most commentators attribute it to 1956. That is not so. The fact is that even those hailed as the fathers and mothers of our independence weren’t untainted in that regard. Entire collectives were disenfranchised, political platforms were premised on the Aryan origins of the Sinhalese, and the great game of being more-racialist-than-thou was played by our leaders long before 1956.

I believe it was Gunadasa Amarasekara who once described the SLFP as a headless cadaver. In Amarasekara’s book, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was the political successor to Anagarika Dharmapala, despite how incongruous the former’s personal life was with his public. But considering that latter point, I would wish to contend that Bandaranaike’s great achievement lay elsewhere: apart from opening the government to the people (thereby earning the epithet “ape anduwa”), he bequeathed to our country a generation of leaders who, like populists elsewhere, were able to cloak their anti-populist streak with rhetoric, centring more often than not on issues of race, faith, and the vulnerability of our sovereignty.

Historically, in other countries populism was the inevitable consequence of authoritarianism. The highly Confucianist societies of East Asia, much of continental Europe, and even the United Kingdom: the flurry of rights-based movements there was the result of the culture of dissent guaranteed by a strong, sometimes ruthless centre. In other words, the dissent of the periphery was ensured by the grip of the centre. England could not have experienced the shift to a more democratic parliament without Cromwell. The United States could not have emerged from a slave society without the Civil War and Lincoln.

For a political structure to ferment dissent, therefore, it must be seen to its maturing, and not stalled midway. Such a truism is hard to sustain in certain other societies, though. Before I come to Sri Lanka, it’s apt that I consider the Middle-East.

The shift from Nasser to Sadat, from the Shah to the Ayatollah, and from Bhutto to Zia-ul-Haq, signified a shift from secular dictatorships to theocratic autocracies. With the exception of the Shah, who was a political maverick, every other leader in that region in his time governed State-led economies. Despite their religious backgrounds and nationalist sympathies, they were able to transform their polities to fairer, more equal societies free of both fundamentalism and liberalism. Egypt’s transition to Sadat signalled the end of both equality and secularism: notwithstanding the rationality of his free market policies, his government could not contain the pressures of a fundamentalist sect that was venting out its frustration.

If Nasser’s Egypt was modernist, Sadat’s was anti-modernist. The same could be said of Bhutto and ul-Haq, and elsewhere, of Allende and Pinochet. Economically they were rational, but in other respects they were irrational and submissive to the worst elements of the past. Ul-Haq brought back fundamentalism, while Pinochet flirted with fascism. The return to primitiveness in these societies was more than a departure, incidentally: it was the result of the incongruities which were being shielded by those in power.

Sri Lanka continues to witness violent shifts to authoritarianism after mild trysts with populism because of those same incongruities. The centre was always vulnerable. It was disconnected from the people because it assumed and affirmed what it thought were their aspirations. The tendency of our rulers to compare the present with a supposedly less enlightened past is, not surprisingly, a symptom of their political bankruptcy: they have nowhere else to turn to, so they end up critiquing what went by and has long gone by. I believe Dayan Jayatilleka characterised this sorry trend in our political sphere well a few months ago:

It is necessary to avoid the cycle of international success followed by ignominy and establish a stable posture of prestige and assertive success in the world.

Dr Jayatilleka was talking about our place in the modern world, but the same can be said of our internal politics too. A cycle of promise followed by idiocy: this has been its state for so long. Logic has been defied, even trumped, in the pursuit of what the State assumes to be the best interests of the people. But without a clear blueprint for the future, be it from the left, right, or centre, no country can move forward. Not the South, not the North. And most certainly not the East.

In Sri Lanka, the political right has operated without a clear program. The left has operated without a clear action plan. Consequently, the right has almost always been undone by its own contradictions, which explains the downfall of both the UNP of Premadasa and the SLFP of Chandrika Kumaratunga. The left, in comparison, has been felled not for the want of a program, but for the want of the impetus needed to transform that program into cohesive strategies. Because no left movement in this country can govern alone, it has always cohabited with the right. A disaster, because that has led to the empowerment of the right at the exorbitant cost of those freedoms which our Constitution guarantees for us.

To conclude, then: in terms of policy we, or rather our leaders, have always been inconsistent. 1956 was only one of many instances in which our elite, asserting a populist line, caved into authoritarianism later on. This seemingly never-ending cycle of popular rhetoric followed by unpopular action has never really taken root in the West or in East Asia: Donald Trump has lost his lustre, while Merkel and Macron have triumphed considerably. The former won, but backed down on his own promises. The latter promised little, but what little they promised, they aim to deliver.

And perhaps that’s what we need. But there’s very little we can hope for with what we have. The talkers will continue to do what they have always done. Talk shop. The doers, either in the opposition or elbowed out of the government, will be limited to do what they have never done. Talk shop.

We will survive, and by all accounts we may even emerge unscathed, but until then, it will be futile to hedge our bets on an individual without accounting for the fact that political rationality has always been secondary to populist irrationality here. To break away from this circle requires considerable courage on our part and on the part of our elected representatives. Are we brave enough, though? Only time can tell.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 16 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Lester James Peries: The underlying underside

My first real encounter with the cinema was through a VHS tape that was bought when I turned 16. I had heard and read of T. E. Lawrence, I knew what he had done, and I was entranced by his exploits, but I hadn’t seen David Lean’s film. Lawrence of Arabia, then, was the first film I watched with any serious intent (not that I hadn’t tried before). By the end of the second hour, it ceased being a work of art. It instead became a miracle: “What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make it, or even think that it could be made” was how the late Roger Ebert reviewed it.

There’s a sequence in Lawrence of Arabia I go to again and again. Gasim, a member of a contingent led by Colonel Lawrence to launch a surprise attack on a city, succumbs to fatigue and falls down from his camel one night. This is in the Nefud Desert, so rescuing him is out of the question. Lawrence, however, goes back, to the consternation of his de facto deputy and rival, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). With the expedition halted, one of the man’s aides, a boy called Daud, awaits him on a camel in the heat and sun. What unfolded next convinced me that some things could only be depicted in the cinema.

Daud looks on, Maurice Jarre’s music slowly picks up, and a barely visible dot crops up in the distance. Daud trudges on nervously, sees that dot growing to a figure, and sees that it’s (who else?) Lawrence. Jarre’s music rises to a crescendo, Daud starts shouting in joy, and we see our hero with the man he went back to rescue. The camera cuts to a long shot of the man and the boy riding towards each other, and converging. I watched this on TV: I am praying for the day I’ll see it on the big screen (which is what its Super Panavision 70 setup was born for, come to think of it).

But I’m digressing here.

I met Lester James Peries for the first time four years ago. He was 94 at the time. I can’t remember the exact day and month. I remember waiting for him in his veranda, though. I also remember a small figure, clad in a sarong and a shirt (signifying the synthesis of East and West in him, perhaps) beckoning to me to the sitting room. We sat, he smiled, and conversation ensued. After a few preliminary introductions, we swerved off to the movies. Halfway through that conversation, he asked me the inevitable question: “What kind of cinema do you like?” “David Lean,” I blurted out at once, half-expecting him to assent to my choice.

Lester smiled. We sat in silence, awkward because I badly needed a comment from him on the man who’d taught him and his crew how to replicate rain in the final sequence of Rekava. Because no answer was forthcoming, I asked him as to what he thought of Lawrence of Arabia. His reply? “Those were big budget epics, not my kind of cinema.” Being an idealist who’d grown up on T. E. Lawrence, I was rather flabbergasted. I therefore asked as to what his favourite film was. “I can’t pick on one,” he smiled, “But if I were forced to, I’d take a risk with Citizen Kane.”

That was the first day. The weeks flew by, I went on with my life, and at the end of the month, I returned. For the next three years, I made it a point to visit him, to talk with him, to get from him those little anecdotes that made up the man. Predictable though his cinema was, I learnt soon enough that his perspectives on his field were (for the lack of a better way of putting it) quirky. Here then is the first of a series of sketches on him and his conception of the medium he worked in.

Lester James Peries’ fascination with the American cinema has gone unnoticed by the critic. For the most. This omission can be attributed to several factors, not least of which is his relationship with the French cinema: more than any other country, let’s not forget, it was the country of Cocteau, Renoir, and Bresson that pushed him to the movies. That painterly outlook reminiscent of the best of Renoir’s films (like La Règle du jeu and Boudu Saved from Drowning) shows quite discernibly in Lester’s work. The Italians helped. So did the British. But those were not his only influences.

If the French are akin to painters (as with Cocteau and Renoir), the Americans are akin to technicians (as with Ford: "Directing is not a mystery, it's not an art"). For the former, the creative process could best be birthed instinctively. For the latter, that process was secondary to the studio system. The director of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, was an enfant terrible in that respect: he was considered a “prestige failure”, the same unlovely sobriquet Lester earned in much of his career.

Welles’ influence on Lester comes out most strikingly in one respect: his eye for witty, nimble cutting. The final argument between mother and son in Delovak Athara, the arguments between mother, father, and daughter in Ran Salu, and the bedside feud between brother and sister in Nidhanaya: here the camera is a dexterous participant, revealing the characters’ insecurities in gushes and torrents. They sometimes touch on comedy (think of the farcical argument between the protagonist’s and his fiancée’s families over a tea-tray in Delovak Athara) and then suddenly culminate on a different, unresolved note.

In this respect, Lester was closer to Welles than to Hollywood. When in 2012 Vertigo bested Citizen Kane in Sight & Sound’s annual list of the 10 greatest movies of all time, I was stumped, not so much because Vertigo was inferior (it wasn’t) but because it seemed to reflect my generation’s discontent with letting Welles’ first and greatest work remain at the top. About a year later, talking with Lester, I asked him as to what he thought. Here’s what he said:

“Some films are specific to their time. They age. Others are not. They are timeless. For me, Hitchcock’s films are for the most seasonal, framed as they are to the period they were made in. His discoveries were in the realm of editing, for he was primarily an entertainer: those discoveries therefore belong to the technician’s workshop. Welles, on the other hand, innovated on so many other fronts: cinematography, editing, even acting, to name a few. That is why, despite what your generation may think, Kane remains for me the true landmark. Not even Vertigo can dispute that.”

To my mind, therefore, his two greatest influences came from two utterly different industries: continental Europe and the United States (of Orson Welles). His films, at that level, can be assessed on how much of a balance he kept between these two, which is how one can differentiate between Gamperaliya and Nidhanaya. The former was the inevitable consequence of Rekava and the more mainstream Sandeshaya, while the latter was the culmination of the creative freedom he was granted by the only producer that stayed with him for more than two films, Ceylon Theatres.

In my next piece on the man, I’ll try to make a contrast between these two, not to show what the superior objet d’art is, but rather to show how two seemingly similar films, adapted from a largely realist and modernist literature, can explain the balance Lester kept between the painterly thrust of continental Europe and the chiaroscuro boldness of the Americans. For the time being, though, I am done.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 15 2017