Sunday, July 30, 2017

Shahid Hussain: Hockey beyond the turf

If the recent past is anything to go by, we have a lot to catch up on when it comes to our national squads, whatever the sport. We know this is as true for cricket as it is for every other activity: a cycle of promise followed by defeat and then ignominy is what has characterised us for quite some time now. For what reason, we can’t really tell. All we can tell is that unless we do away with this curse of unpredictability which has besmirched our squads, we can’t move ahead. Not by a long shot.

There’s something I like to tell doomsday prophets when it comes to this issue, though. None of us take to cricket, rugby, or football as professionals. We either are inspired by seeing friends and elders graduate to the First XI, or take to it through our family. In Sri Lanka, despite the manifest lack of amenities for any sport (and this includes cricket and rugby), there’s a culture of professionalism which still exists in a particular segment. Our schools. Obviously, that has to do with the thrill of flaunting your talent in the name of that enchanting thing called “school colours.”

Shahid Hussain was born to a family of hockey players. His father, Kuthubdeen, played for Isipathana College and captained the National Team somewhere in the eighties. Even his extended family had taken to the sport. Given this it wasn’t much of a surprise that his own brother would start practicing from an early age, and that having seen his brother practise, Shahid himself would want to follow suit. To be honest, his story has more, much more, that could have unveiled and should unveil. But in that story, there’s something we can take out. So here goes.

Like I said, it was seeing his brother perform which had spurred him to follow. “I started playing when I was in Grade Three. At Royal College, my first coach was Ashok Peiris, who taught me for three years before passing the mantle to Rohan Dissanayake in 2006.” Apparently the two of them had differed when it came to their job: Ashok was more concerned about fitness and building up his players, while Rohan emphasised on practices. Shahid’s first match had been under the former: in 2004, when he was in Grade Four, the Royal College team had him in as a fullback (defensive) in a match against Mahanama College. “We won that day. Soon enough I graduated to playing as a right half-back and eventually as a midfielder.”

Obviously, that had not been his only significant match. There had been a great many others, the most memorable one of which (according to him) was the Lennie de Silva Trophy Match in 2010, played against Kingswood College at the Peradeniya University Grounds. “I was in Grade Nine at the time, shortly before my O Levels. What I remember about that tournament, which we won 4-3, was how people looked at me afterwards. They saw me in a different light, though for what reason I can’t say. In any case, it became my epiphany. From then on, every match I played, I put in more sincerity and enthusiasm.” These had not debarred him from other pursuits: “I was in our school’s Islamic Society, ending up as its Secretary in 2011, along with the Tamil Dramatic Society and Commerce Society.”

Not surprisingly, Shahid found his way to both school and national squads. In 2010 and 2011, he led the Royal College team to a series of victories, in particular with their Big Match against S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and the Under 18 National School Games, the latter of which saw them emerge as champions after five years and against the best school teams in the country with just one week of practices.

“I was facing my A Levels then. It was difficult, because hockey is an intensive sport, but I opted not to desert my team. I then wound up representing the country at the Under 16 Hockey Asia Cup in India at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, proceeding on to Singapore at the Under 18 Cup in 2011, to Malaysia at the Under 21 Cup in 2012, and after leaving school, to Bangladesh at the Under 21 Cup.”

So what are the matches he remembers the most from all these? “I would say the 2011 and 2012 Asia Cup Championships. Especially the latter, since we pulled it off against Japan pretty decently, though they won 3-1. Given that they were better than us in terms of training, fitness, and of course facilities, it was a relief to see how our team could reckon with them, regardless of the final score.” Not surprisingly, these encounters had emboldened him to look beyond regional and age-based tournaments.

Being chosen for the national squad for the Asian Games in 2015 was certainly a corollary to these triumphs, but unfortunately for Shahid an injury forced him out of what might have been. “I was asked to rest for six months. For a hockey player, particularly one who’s aiming for the top, that’s a long time. But it wasn’t just the doctors who discouraged me from playing. Even my parents scolded me whenever I said I wanted to go back to the turf. But when I reflected on what I had done, I was depressed. In a way, that has a lot to do with my personality. I don’t like to quit. I always tell myself, ‘Train harder, work harder, and get back to where you were before.’ In this case, sadly, I couldn’t do that. So I had to do what I had to do. Let go.”

He had by then “moved on” in other respects. Having returned to school for a year as a Prefect, he left to focus on his higher education in 2014. He began following a CIMA course at Achievers Business Campus, moving to BCAS for a degree in Mechanical Engineering and (this year) a degree in Business Management at IIHE. He also moved up his career, starting at Hatton National Bank in 2014 and leaving it for MAS three years later. It was his career, incidentally, which spurred him back to hockey, when, having recovered from his injuries, he started playing for HNB at the Mercantile Championships (A Division).

Playing for HNB had apparently opened his eyes to the world of hockey in Sri Lanka’s commercial sector. “There are about 50 companies which engage in the game. In the A Division we have Commercial Bank, Sampath Bank, and of course HNB. When I shifted to MAS earlier this year, I moved to the B Division, which got me playing against entities like Nations Trust. Forget the companies though. I was more impressed by the players I reckoned with, including Damith Bandara, who was the Coach in the squad that reached the finals of an international tournament, for the first time in our history, at the 5th Men’s AHF Cup in Hong Kong last year.”

These encounters, divergent as they are, could not have gone to him overnight. There were years spent nurturing his love for the game. Which shows, I should think, particularly since he’s aiming at a return. Having played as a defender and an attacker (“I can fit into every position on the turf, to be honest”), he has obviously realised how tricky a sport involving a stick to manoeuvre a ball to the opponent’s goalpost can be, wherever the player may be. “I believe I owe that to my coaches, particularly Mr Ashok and Mr Rohan. I owe it also to my parents and extended family, all of whom were avid enthusiasts of the game. Without them, I wouldn’t really have recovered from those injuries to return or even think of a return.”

For some odd reason though, I had to coax Shahid (even with all those achievements) to remember and to reflect. Perhaps that shows how confident he is about what he’s done, so confident, in fact, that it takes effort to rake up the past. And perhaps that explains why he’s particular about using his past as an index for his future. “Like I said before, I don’t like to give in. When I have nothing to do, I want to go back to the turf. It was tough to get to that, and I’d be a simpleton to contend otherwise, so I suppose that has given me a moral base, some light, to guide me. I am glad.”

Photos courtesy of ThePapare.com, TheScore.lk, and the Photographic Society of Royal College

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 30 2017

Friday, July 28, 2017

Against a culture of ambivalence

For obvious reasons, the government wants to convince us that its enemies and friends are also the people’s. Obvious, because in equalising the one with the other we are on firm ground. Obvious, because if my enemy is your enemy, the world is easier to simplify, and the decision by an official body is easier to rationalise. Obvious, because if you kill your enemy and he or she happens to be my enemy as well, everything becomes a whole lot easier to sweep under the carpet. That is how totalitarian dictatorships work. And to an extent, that is also how democracies work.

When a movement, an ideology, or an individual is hard to define, harder to oppose or support on the political plane, he or she or it is portrayed rather ambivalently by the government and the opposition. Much of the hype around the SAITM crisis (born of the previous regime), for instance, can be rooted in how we, the people, and those whom we have elected vilify or valorise the student movement. The government is suffering from a headache because of that movement. The Joint Opposition is having a field day. Lahiru Weerasekara is, on that count, a contemporary Rohana Wijeweera to both sides. He is a hero to the State University student population, a convenience to the JO, and a pain to the government.

If there’s anything that can aggravate a social ill beyond its limits, it’s ambivalence. Ambivalence in negotiation and agreement, in identification and resolution, in diagnosis and prognosis. It was ambivalence which prolonged a conflict which could have been easily done away with to a 30 year war. It was ambivalence which took away 100,000 lives within three years, far greater than the number killed in that civil war. And it was ambivalence which led us to this cul-de-sac between private and public education. Weerasekara is the perfect symbol of all that. He is despised by those who hate him and only mildly liked by those who hate his opponents.

Popular culture has worsened this cul-de-sac. But then that’s to be expected. Popular culture knows how to distort reality to achieve its arbitrary ends. This is not something particular to Sri Lanka only, after all even the United States of America suffers from it when it comes to its own president, depicted on the one hand as a harbinger against elitism by the same people who oppose him, and on the other as a populist demagogue who’s hiding that same elitism he rants against (in both instances, he sells). But we are a small country, small enough for even the smallest act of ambiguity to spell out drastic consequences. Which is why, when the ruckus over SAITM is spelt out in vague terms, we should be wary of those consequences.

And it’s not just the SAITM crisis, of course. Just look at how we are handling our PR when it comes to the international community. On the one hand, we have a set of representatives who seem to be conceding to the process of capitulation we are giving into with respect to institutions skewed against us. On the other hand, you have another set of representatives, sometimes even from the same political party, lambasting (mildly or otherwise) those same institutions. Who’s saying what, and what should we believe? Isn’t this just like the war years, when capitulation was described horrendously as negotiation and when negotiation was robbed of its meaning via an unhelpfully vague series of discussions and peace talks?

The biggest thorn on the side of the government is its lack of clarity. The previous regime had a convenient tool at its disposal to make us forget this. Nationalism. Rabble-rousing, populist, irrational nationalism. The current regime does not have that privilege, especially since despite the many representatives who (claim they) are for a unitary state, freedom from external interference etc, we are led by a set of leaders who are more pragmatic than nationalist (whether or not it constitutes actual pragmatism being another debate). In effect, consequently, there’s nothing the government can resort to so as to hide their indefiniteness.

And to top it all, the regime is trying to please everyone without pleasing anyone. It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that when federalists, nationalists, and members of that self-labelled intelligentsia which operates in Colombo want a piece of the pie shouting “We voted you in, give us what we want!” there’s bound to be a lack of focus. In this process of trying to give everything to everyone, there are winners and there are losers. The winners are the rent-seekers. The losers are the people. And the moment compelling social problems are swept under the carpet, unresolved and etched in uncertain terms, they lose even more. This we ought to know.

Getting back to my earlier point, the student movement, like Donald Trump, sells whichever way and however positively or negatively you view them. They sell because, as heroes, they are pelted by what Marxists and other ideologues would call a “police state” and, as villains, they themselves pelt those they disagree with. In both cases, there’s publicity involved. Publicity, ladies and gentlemen. The kind that prolongs an issue because, for interested parties, there’s money and popularity to be milked. Clarity can be a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, we lack it in this case.

Our political culture has thrived on rhetoric for too long. We are awed by what our leaders say, and then get tired of finding out that what they say isn’t what they do. A pragmatic government wouldn’t have, for instance, dithered over the Office of Missing Persons with vague declarations. A pragmatic government would have marketed the OMP notwithstanding the hype for and against it. Like the Right to Information Act, the OMP Bill, even with the president’s signature, was born prematurely, disliked even by those who agree with its provisions because of the way it was brought through. When vagueness and confusion take over the process of crystallising Acts of Parliament, we can’t  blame those who lambast them.

Rhetoric is one thing, however. Lack of focus is another. When we put the two together, we get what Gunadasa Amarasekara once cogently described as a kavandaya (or headless corpse): borrowing a Sinhala phrase, “eheth naha, meheth naha” (neither here nor there). Making matters worse is the fact that this government is handling the sins of the past. With a serious communications problem, and despite the statements made condemning the preceding regime, we convenient lay that aside and instead condemn this regime. Despite your feelings about the matter, there’s no denying that the ruckus over SAITM, and those development projects and their environmental impact, was born from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. But what do we have today? An outfit headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa eating into the government’s popularity (what little of it there is left, anyway) over its handling of the same problems traceable to the time he was in power! Can it get any more absurd than that?

So what’s the solution? First and foremost, to do away this culture of ambivalence that has gripped us for so long. It’s not only the government that has compelled this culture, moreover. It’s also us. The people. Popular culture. The many industries that operate on making money out of social problems. The intellectuals who are cut off from the same people they are supposed to help out in the first place. And of course those outfits which are hell-bent against the government. Given all that, we have a clear choice between us. Either we continue with the vague, indefinite, and non-committal way of looking at social ills, or we identify a problem for what it really is, minus our personal feelings, and get our representatives to solve them (or in the least try solving them for ourselves). Feel-good protest campaigns and vigils won’t do much. Positive, committed action will. It all depends on what we choose. And the drastic consequences which follow our choices, both now and to the future.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 28 2017

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Getting (into) Sinhala movies

"In handling a camera I feel that I have no peer. But what De Sica can do, I can't do. I ran his Shoeshine again recently and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life..."

— Orson Welles

One Friday night not too long ago, I switched on the TV for no reason whatsoever. I went on pressing the remote until I came across a channel which telecast Sinhala movies every week. This time around, they were screening something that had been shown 15 years ago, which they (wrongly) thought was being shown for the first time on local television. I was 10 when I saw it last, but even at that age it left such an impression on me that I could remember almost every shot and how it would end.

They started screening it at 10.30. At about 11.30 I read a message from a young man inviting me to watch and review an event organised by a society at his school the following week at the Lionel Wendt. I was more interested in what was being screened, so I texted him excitedly, “Tune into XYZ TV, there’s a lovely Sinhala film on.” Feeling rather perturbed at my own haste (because who sends messages like that to young people anymore?), however, I added, “Count me in for next week’s show!” By then the story had entered its second half, emotionally the most difficult to wade through. I laid aside the phone for about five minutes, and then took it back.

This young man had messaged me. Expressing delight at the fact that I would come to and write on his Society’s event, he replied to my earlier missive: “I am not into Sinhala films. Don’t get them.” Numbed, I asked, “What about Sinhala novels?” He fired back: “Not really. I’m not that fluent in Sinhalese.”

The reply, and the conversation that preceded it, almost deadened me. I watched the remainder of the story, well past midnight, remembering what was to come and how it was to end. I had wept at it before. I wept at it again. As the credits rolled and as Amaradeva’s music soared so high that my spirits couldn’t keep up, I remembered that young man and his casual dismissal of our movies, and I wept harder. It seemed as though sorrow had kissed me that night: I cried all the way to my dreams, tears streaming on to my pillow, and woke up the following morning, still sobbing.

When people say they don’t “get” Sinhala movies, they aren’t thinking of how fluent or inarticulate they are in their mother tongue. Rather, they are thinking about their incapacity to digest a particular type of film in narrative terms. The young have given up on our cinema, because the best in our cinema escape them. They see the worst and think that the best are no different to the worst.

Our movie industry was birthed by a set of people who didn’t know how to make movies. They were storytellers and mythmakers at best, who had earlier lived off the theatre. From the theatrical thrust of the Jayamanne brothers to the idealism of Lester James Peries to the anti-idealism of Dharmasena Pathiraja to the independent cinema of Prasanna Vithanage, Asoka Handagama, and Vimukthi Jayasundera, consequently, the divide between what was arty and what was commercial remained. So much so that today, the likes of that young man only get to see the latter. Not the former. And even if they do see the former, they will see what they dislike there too.

The truth then is that our mainstream directors don’t know how to tell a story anymore. Even the kitschiest moviemakers from the past – Robin Tampoe, K. A. W. Perera, Neil Rupasinghe, Daya Wimalaweera, and Yasapalitha Nanayakkara– knew how to transform the unreality of the experience in their work to the emotions and gestures they got from their audiences. At one level this was class bound: the same middle class that cried at Janaka saha Manju when it was first released laugh at it now, while the lower classes continue to weep over its contrived plot.

A well read neighbour of mine shocked me the other day by swearing (as though it were the gospel truth) that Janaka saha Manju was the saddest love story he’d ever seen. That other young man, by contrast, was involved with his school’s English Literary Society, debates in English, and comes from a conservative upper middle class background. If we are to extract a metaphor from this, the prince disparages even the best of ours, while the pauper fawns on what’s taken by the prince as the worst.

I have unfortunately been writing about the best and the worst and the pedestrian without assigning any value to them. For me, and I daresay for most discerning youngsters today, the best movies are those that don’t compel analysis, that seem so well oiled that no interpretation is necessary. The middle-class youngsters of today, for instance, know that Michael Bay is not “great”, just as they know that Wes Anderson is “greater” in aesthetic terms. But they are pulled more by narrative power than by aesthetics, which explains the at times inexplicable box-office dividends reaped by Armageddon, Pearl Harbour, and the Transformers franchise.

The best works of Lester James Peries – Gamperaliya, Golu Hadawatha, and Akkara Paha – told a story aimed at enthralling a common denominator. These were movies that breathed naturally, without the aid of technique. Lester’s most intellectual work Delovak Athara, on the other hand, was made for academic study, while Nidhanaya occupied a twilight world between Edgar Allan Poe and Freud’s couch (as I implied in last week’s article). By contrast, Golu Hadawatha and Akkara Paha – the first and second in a trilogy that Lester made for Ceylon Theatres – are so vividly realised that all they do is fascinate us. Like what De Sica’s Shoeshine was to Orson Welles, in them the camera and the screen disappear: what comes out is life itself.

That movie I watched after 15 years, which got me to understand the existential dread felt by our young men towards our cinema, ranks alongside the best on that count. Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuva Oba Sanda remains the true masterpiece of Lester’s wife, Sumitra. It also remains an almost perfectly conceived movie, a point which escaped that young man because he equated every movie made here with the comedies of Roy de Silva (which even I don’t get). Sumitra’s movie suggests the beauty and poignancy of living, in a world far removed from ours (it’s set in the North Central Province, near the Wanni). It points out that a work of art, allowed to breathe naturally, can become timeless. How can one not get it?

The young men of this country aren’t put off by Sinhala movies because they aren’t conversant in Sinhala. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this, because my fluency in the mother tongue is pedestrian at best, definitely more pedestrian than that of the young man I talked with. No. They’re put off because they can’t digest the possibility that our cinema can breed good stories, the same kind of stories they get from Lucas, Spielberg, and Bay. And because they can’t digest, they refuse to watch.

I don’t think they are to blame, frankly. The fact is that we were once moved by stories. Stories in the cinema. When our movies lost their narrative touch, when directors began to hanker after awards and agencies and everything else paraded in the name of Art, they lost touch with you and me, the common cinemagoer. When that happens, inevitably, we lose our interest in our industry. And when we, the common cinemagoers, lose interest, the best our industry can do is to survive on those same awards and agencies and High Artiness that we repudiated. In effect, getting into Sinhala movies has become hard, difficult, at times even impossible.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 27 2017

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sumitra Peries: The agony of being more than a woman

In Vaishnavee, Yashoda Wimaladharma does what Gamini Fonseka did more than 20 years ago in Loku Duwa: divert the story to an entirely different mood and terrain. Fonseka did it rather effortlessly, since a man who was depicted as THE hero (and OUR hero) for over 30 years couldn’t just be depicted as a beastly womaniser without jolting the audience. What could hence have been a weakness on the director’s and the editor’s part, therefore, proved to be the best point about the movie. Fonseka’s intrusion into the story isn’t forced, or compelled artificially. As the father of the protagonist’s friend, he was expected. He is as hilarious as he is dislikeable, though not quite empathetic: a near-perfect culmination to a near-perfect career.

What Fonseka achieved in Loku Duwa, Yashoda tried to achieve in Vaishnavee. But the director, Sumitra Peries, intended something different. The first half of Vaishnavee is about the innocence of its locale and characters. The second half turns the tables on everyone, including our protagonist, Osanda, and his cousin, Ruchira, when Yashoda’s unnamed puppet-come-alive starts “terrorising” them. As I noted in my review, Yashoda is by default an actress who can convey both empathy and coldness, sometimes at once. But one senses an incongruity in Sumitra’s movie, partly owing to her. We never properly understand her intentions, and her passing remark right before the story closes (that love can’t be taken for granted) is at best vague.

Some of the best movies are born from moral simplification. The morality of Vaishnavee is rooted in Osanda’s feelings of hurt at being rejected by his betrothed, who elopes with another man. What complexity we are given, as viewers, we get through his impulse to carve what he liked about his betrothed into a puppet: in effect, he is using the puppet to visualise what he could not get from the woman he was to marry. So when that puppet does come alive, she is as confused as we are as to why Osanda does not take to her. And so she does the inevitable. She taunts him. It’s the kind of moral simplification that the most discerning artists go for in their later careers. With Vaishnavee, Sumitra has hence joined Ray, Kurosawa, and John Ford.

Elegantly composed, indulgently shot, the movies of Sumitra Peries have never been reviewed with the frame of reference they deserve. Critics have pigeonholed her, either as a feminist filmmaker or as her husband’s wife. Even the writers of that otherwise ambitious book, Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, end up condemning her on the basis of feminist ambitions she probably wasn’t even aware of. By categorising her as a woman’s director, they rationalise her artistic failures as failures of intention and ambition. The fact that her best work, Sagara Jalaya, was unnoticed when it was first released speaks a lot about who is being selective and unfair by her.

I think Sumitra’s greatest achievement has been her ability to transform popular fiction into serious cinema. By serious I am not pigeonholing her: I am merely suggesting that when compared to the emotional hysterics of Leticia Boteju, Edward Mallawarachchi, and (to a lesser extent) Karunasena Jayalath, her movies are more composed. There are sequences of astonishing power which are held back so poignantly that they can only belong to the cinema: Vasanthi Chathurani bemoaning her cruel destiny at the end of Gehenu Lamayi, Ravindra Randeniya murdering his lover (Geetha Kumarasinghe) and her daughter in Maya, and Geetha discovering her lover’s duplicity in Loku Duwa. Watching these makes one realise that her foray into the movies was informed, not by the romanticism of Renoir (as with her husband), but by the austerity of Bresson and Dreyer, particularly the latter.

Sometimes however, she gives into what can only be described as a tendency to overindulge. One sees it in Gehenu Lamayi (the last half-hour), Ganga Addara (Nirmala’s wedding), Yahalu Yeheli (Mudithalatha grappling with her cousin), and Loku Duwa (towards the end). One does not see it in Sagara Jalaya, because it’s her least imperfect movie: consequently, even in sequences which might have been overindulgent by the standards she set for her other work (like the final confrontation between Heen Kella and her sister), we are subtly made to forget how overwrought they are. In that sense Loku Duwa was a sequel of sorts to Sagara Jalaya, since both are about women as hard-done-by fighters (unlike Mudithalatha from Yahalu Yeheli, who could only be empowered by manipulating the narrative).

Critics have pinned her down as a woman’s artist, forgetting that her movies aren’t about women, rather about women trying to be more than who they are. To be sure, they are sometimes subservient to a largely patriarchal world, but even then they aspire for more than they have. In that sense, Kusum in Gehenu Lamayi is more rebellious than her sister Soma (Jenita Samaraweera), who dreams of life in the movies. She falls in love with a man she is cautioned against marrying (owing to her social standing), and in the subsequent clash between her desire and insecurity, we come across our cinema’s first real tragic female figure, overshadowing even her sister’s tragedy, which we anyway expected given her hubris.

Sumitra Peries came to the movies as a director in the eighties, when a veritable onslaught of directors and actresses and scriptwriters ensured that women would be depicted as the fighters they had been told not to be all their lives. These actresses came in a particular order: Nadeeka Gunasekara, Swarna Mallawarachchi, Anoja Weerasinghe. But there was a contradiction in some of the movies which featured them. Fearless, daring, and frequently aggressive, they were represented as harbingers of intense, sometimes forced eroticism, which repelled us from them. (A case in point was Tissa Abeysekara’s Mahagedara, where Geetha Kumarasinghe, who was supposed to awaken our moral conscience, actually nauseated us, thereby making hypocrites of us all.) Even in otherwise landmark and frank productions like Hansa Vilak and Thunweni Yamaya, the eroticism was intellectualised, not felt.

None of Sumitra’s movies depict sex, but what eroticism there is, she doesn’t nauseate us to the point of titillation. After the unforgiving violence of Duwata Mawaka Misa, she returned to form with Sakman Maluwa, where love is no longer expressive, complicated, repelling. On the contrary, her later work, right until Vaishnavee, is morally both simple and profound, simple because her craftsmanship comes through effortlessly, and profound because even her most banal sequences enchant us. Given that it’s her most recent movie, Vaishnavee indicates the latter point well: its characters, like Osanda’s father and grandmother, are defined in clear-cut, empathetic terms. They are not overwrought simply because she doesn’t need them to be. She has reached that place where a director can go on shooting a character talking, talking, and talking in a static, square frame while retaining the audience’s interest.

Not surprisingly, the contradiction that makes up even the most sincere woman’s director doesn’t come through in her movies. I was taken aback by Vijaya Kumaratunga’s impulsive rape of Swarna Mallawarachchi in Kadapathaka Chaya, for instance, but while I was intrigued by how crudely and carelessly it was edited, I wasn’t exactly moved. It was manifestly better in Dadayama, particularly the first seduction scene by Ravindra Randeniya in the hotel, and horrendously out of pitch in Maruthaya, Vasantha Obeyesekere’s worst movie. Our feminist filmmakers, for me at least, have sustained that aforementioned contradiction in nearly all their movies, which can be taken as a sign of their irrationality or indiscipline depending on how you look at them. (Which is why Obeyesekere’s Palagetiyo remains the only film of his that honestly depicted the problem of eroticism versus class discrepancies.)

It’s a truism that can be sustained anywhere that directors, unlike novelists, painters, and composers, tend to become more frenzied as the years pass by. This is especially true of continental directors: Tarkovsky, Bresson, Resnais, Antonioni. They hold on to their cinematic style, often adamantly (because after all they think that’s the only style that matters). Sometimes this works, often it does not, which is why the later Bresson is not as great as the early Bresson and why the later Resnais is more bearable, and in some respects better, than the early Resnais. Sumitra belongs to the former category. By making her world so profoundly uncomplicated, she justifies her act of hanging on to a composed style of filmmaking grossly out of place in an industry where careless, disjointed editing has run riot. And she succeeds.

Within 20 years Sumitra Peries became our most accomplished editor. In the movie industry there is almost always a discrepancy between craftsmanship and imagination. Sumitra didn’t fall into that discrepancy. When I talked with her not too long ago, she compared the act of editing, and even directing, to writing (what I do): “There are enough and more words one can pen down, but to make them cohere well is something only a stylist can achieve.” Being that stylist was never a problem for her: her challenge was to combine it with imagination. If the past 30 years are anything to go by, and considering the way she has been pigeonholed, she has stood up to that challenge in a way no other technician-turned-artiste here has.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 25 2017

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Ashi Jayatilake: Wading into the wild

Susan Sontag, scholar, cultural critic, feminist, and many other things besides, once wrote on photography. She contended or rather implied that the willingness or lack thereof of someone to have himself/herself committed to a film reel indicated the nature of the society he/she lived in. The West had, on that count, progressed and become more transparent. The East, by comparison, was lagging behind, because of that superstition about the ills and evils which befall those whose profiles can be seen by everyone (“As Waha Kata Waha”). Going by its proliferation in our country, however, I would say that we are (thankfully) moving on.

Photography is a dismal art. It takes patience, coincidence, luck, and more often than not sheer recklessness and daring to get the perfect shot, which, by the way, is a myth. We dream of that perfect shot. We thrive on it, hoping that we will get it as we go on clicking at whatever we want to commit to posterity. Personally speaking, I have been chastened by, irritated, and sometimes moved to frustration by my inability to capture anything that does justice to what has been captured. I believe that it’s worse, and by default more strenuous, when it comes to wildlife photography.

And not for no reason. One can control human beings. Even infants. Animals, however, are a different kettle of fish altogether. In her book Sontag contends that photography prevents the photographer from intervening in his/her subject-matter. Put simply, the person who “intervenes” can’t be a proper photographer. This is truer of wildlife photography, where the more you manipulate what you are trying to capture, the more discernibly that act of manipulation will be reflected in the final product. Ashi Jayatilake, whom I met two weeks back, would agree.

Because of the misconception that there’s a ready market for it, most young people I know take to profile and event photography from their schooldays. I noted in my article on Pilibimbu that our children are taking to the camera because of a horde of reckonable societies in their schools. But all that is, in the end, distorted by what we think sells. Pictures of smiling faces sell. Pictures of babies sell. Pictures of birthday parties, pretty flowers, weddings, and AGMs of top-notch companies sell. We have conditioned ourselves to accept this, for all time. Dismal, I should think, which is why I am happy when I find that Ashi, and people like her, beg to differ.

Ashvini Jayatilake was born to a family of photographers. She belongs to the third generation, after her grandfather Ashoka and her father Chitral. Obviously, she couldn’t have escaped their influence as a girl, so I am not in the least surprised when she tells me that she used to fiddle around with her father’s camera equipment from an early age. Serious photography, however, would dawn on her later, when after turning eight she accompanied her father to her grandmother’s house and he began taking snapshots of a nest in a tree. After a few minutes he had left for a breather, leaving the earnest daughter to (what else?) fiddle around with the camera.

“I ended up capturing a squirrel eating a nut,” she remembers, “One thing led to another, and we entered it into a competition organised by John Keells. I won two prizes there: second place in the Junior Category and a special award as a young competitor.” Given her age, this spurred her to enter into other competitions, including one organised at Visakha Vidyalaya. But winning contests wouldn’t have been enough, so when her father was compiling a collection of wildlife snapshots (“Moments of Truth in the Wilderness”) in 2009, some of her photographs were included. “A dream come true,” she describes it for me.

Her next encounter with serious photography would be in the wild. In 2009/10 she had accompanied her father and a friend of his, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, to Yala. Near the Uraniya tank, they had spotted an otherwise ordinary scene: the carcass of a calf being doted on by its mother, with a leopard and her cub lurking nearby. What transpired soon afterwards, however, had enflamed young Ashi.

“The leopard began leading the cub to the carcass after the mother cow left, perhaps to teach it, only to be chased away by a set of ferocious and hungry wild boars. It was rather extraordinary. I remember clicking away with my 500mm lens, a disadvantage given that I couldn’t zoom in enough. My father snapped away with his considerably easier and more flexible 800mm lens. I must say, I was quite happy with the shots I took. They taught me to keep an eye out for the extraordinary thereafter.”

The “thereafter” is, of course, rather copious and merits a separate article to itself. Suffice it to say that several visits to Yala and other parts of Sri Lanka later, and before one first-time visit to Africa (in August 2015) which obviously had entranced her (“You can’t escape its appeal when you’re there”), she and a friend of hers called Dimitri Goonewardena had compiled a collection of wildlife snapshots, “Growing in the Wild”, which had been published in 2013. I came across a review of it by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne the other day, where he noted the following:

"The last few years have seen a number of books published in the portfolio genre on Sri Lankan wildlife. My first impression is that this is one of the best."

Having perused one or two photographs, I can contend that Ashi has stood by her truism, gleaning the essence of the outdoors while eschewing the clichéd, the ordinary. Her latest venture, in Trincomalee to witness sperm whales (last April), saw her swim to an entirely different world 40 miles down under. “There is activity in the wilderness,” she observes, “Underwater, there’s hardly any movement. It takes a great deal of patience to get a perfect shot, because the whales and every other form of marine life go about their way with ease, regardless of visitors.”

Taking pictures wasn’t her only pastime, of course. At her school, Museaus College, she had indulged in rowing. Elsewhere she had learnt to dance, under the formidable Kanthi Ranchigoda, though because of rowing she had been compelled to abandon it two years ago. Of these two, rowing interests her considerably. Apparently it had taught her the values that would prove important as she found herself being dragged to photography. I think she puts it best: “In rowing there are no seniors and subordinates. You blend into everyone. That’s needed. And important.”

In the end, their efforts bore fruit. For four years, Museaus College had been encountered defeat at their annual Regatta with Ladies College. Everything changed last year, however, when Ashi was inducted as Vice Captain. “Earlier we had lost by two or three points, hardly a consolation. But in 2016, we prevailed. That was our first victory in a long time. No one expected it. No one bargained for it. And it wasn’t luck, mind you. It was how we operated together, as one. That is why I can say I learnt about patience with it.”

It was that streak of patience which helped her out in her photographic pursuits, by the way. A testament to how she’s progressed, no doubt, but it interests me less for how the world views her than how she has nurtured her art to suit her temperament. I sense a patient, easygoing individual beneath her, suave, simple, optimistic, and not a little ambitious. Having completed her A Levels last year, she has now enrolled herself in the City School of Architecture, where (and I am not in the least surprised) that whole visual sense of being in the wild has helped her.

I fervently rebel against the school of thought which believes in art as an inherited gift. The truth is that photography, like every other art-form, has languished for want of young, idealistic artists. Ashi has forged something for herself. And to be sure, she has been nurtured by her family, particularly her father. But then she’s encountered enough hurdles, in the wild and on the water, to encourage her to inculcate her art to suit her temperament. Perhaps that shows in her work, perhaps it doesn’t. I wouldn’t know. In any case, going back to Sontag, if she was one of those brash, assertive artists hell-bent on merely creating names for themselves, her act of intervening in what she’d captured would have shown. It has not. Tellingly, I should think, especially with respect to how disciplined she has been in her passion.

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 23 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

The problem of the fifth precept

It’s not easy to come across a politician you have mixed feelings about who says something you at least partly agree with. And yet, three weeks ago, that’s exactly what happened with Mangala Samaraweera, the Foreign Minister turned Finance Minister who has maintained a colourful profile for the last three decades.

What he said had nothing to do with his office, although it did touch on the country’s finances. Mr Samaraweera, who is not prone to the kind of Puritanism most of us are, suggested that we rethink our policy on selling liquor on Poya Days. Because of the backlash this would provoke, he inserted a caveat: “This is my personal opinion.” He was stating the obvious: opinions are nothing but personal.

Now we don’t have a record to be proud about when it comes to alcohol consumption. The statistics aren’t pretty. We have one of the highest incidences of cirrhosis in the world. That’s roughly 55 for every 100,000 people, in a list topped by Moldova, which, by the way, is a nation of vodka drinkers. More than 60 people die each day from alcoholism, amounting to more than 20,000 every year. These deaths weren’t due to the liver only, since alcohol is linked to heart disease, epilepsy, and stomach ulcers. Above everything else, most of those who take to it tend to consume either hard or illicit brew. Which is why Mr Samaraweera’s suggestion makes sense.

His proposal is twofold, actually. Firstly, it would help divert drinkers from hard brew to softer, less harmful beverages, which in turn would be supplemented by the relaxation of the issue of licences to taverns and bars. Secondly, it would relax the onslaught of drinkers on the day before Poya, which is a blessing in disguise: the incentive for them now is to rally around the taverns knowing they would be shut the following day. With this proposal in action, the drinkers will continue to drink, yes, but not with such ferocity. It’s not quite the same argument that exists for marijuana (since certain commentators are drawing parallels between the two): the issue there is about preventing illicit consumption of a completely illegal substance, while the issue here is curtailing the consumption of harmful and black-market variants of a legal substance, essentially whiskey versus kasippu.

We are not the most virtuous nation in the world. It’s difficult to define virtuous, since it’s a rather fluid term, but if the way it’s tossed around these days is anything to go by, we are not virtuous by any stretch of the imagination. We talk of Ape Kama (Our Way) without realising that it can’t be rooted in or framed by that simplistic good/bad dichotomy our society has been forced to run on. So no, we are not a nation of angels, or for that matter devils. We are a nation of people, and people are, as we ought to know, imperfect. So when we react hostilely towards Mr Samaraweera and his argument, we are merely displaying our feelings of anxiety and inferiority.

When we raise hell over issues labelled and condemned as taboo, we aren’t being culturally sensitive. We are merely substituting one defence mechanism for another. If we are against drinking, we react against it with so much anger that we leave no space for debate, or even discussion. I don’t think that constitutes virtue, rather duplicity. The reason’s obvious enough: when we react against proposals to relax drinking laws, we salivate over what we feel to be their culturally insensitive character without realising that they are trying to solve the very problem(s) bemoaned by us.

As a Sri Lankan and one who is ideologically opposed to the politics that Mr Samaraweera and his party stand for, I nevertheless support his position on this matter, because it makes sense. And not just economically. That problem is real, substantive, material. It’s not conditioned by ideology or theology, it exists and is very much alive everywhere. Which is why, I should think, we ought to reflect on the Utopias we try to build in our society. Starting with this: the campaign against liquor and tobacco, when rooted in cultural dynamics, loses its character and sizzles away. This is true today and will be true tomorrow.

Censorship, even in its mildest form, does the exact opposite of what it intends to do. When Handagama’s Aksharaya was (unduly) banned, for instance, those who hadn’t even heard of it read of the themes it explored. Whether or not it was a great work of art (it was “art” alright, etched in black and white rather theatrically) is beside the point. The fact is that by forcibly repressing something arbitrarily deemed as obscene, the authorities succeeded in disseminating it even further. The same could be said of every other act of censorship throughout history, including Lawrence’s Chatterley and Pasternak’s Zhivago. Both were, to be sure, overrated works of art (in particular, Zhivago). But it wouldn’t have taken a ban to get us to realise that. What those bans ended up doing was the complete opposite of what the censors intended. The argument against prohibition isn’t just moral, therefore: it’s also logical.

Logic would dictate that when a reservoir is full, the sluice gates should be opened. Logic would dictate that when a work of art is subverting the so-called cultural mores of a given society, banning it would spur more interest among the general population of that society. Logic would dictate that when our people are dying from cirrhosis, stomach ulcers, and other diseases provoked by alcohol, the solution (given that alcoholics, like horses, can be only temporarily forced away from a habit) would be to cut down on its consumption by encouraging them to opt for less harmful beverages.

Logic, ladies and gentlemen. Not necessarily cast in stone or in black-and-white, but firm and unyielding all the same. The debate over tobacco and alcoholism, going by that, has been watered down to a simplistic dichotomy between Our Way and Their Way, simplistic because even those without as much as an inkling of what Our Way is confuse between the two and think they are veritable guardians of culture. They are not, because in repressing or promoting the repression of habits they consider as alien, they manage to ignore the real, substantive aspect to this issue.

I don’t think Mangala Samaraweera’s proposal, even if it sees the light of day after those necessary amendments, debates, and enactments, and assuming our people pierce through the cultural garb that clouds our judgment with respect to it, will be the be-all and end-all solution. I don’t know for certain whether it will. All I know, and all anyone can ever know, is that Mr Samaraweera’s statement, notwithstanding the invective it will attracts, merits further discussion.

So let’s go through those numbers again. 55 for every 100,000 people, 60 deaths a day, 20,000 deaths a year, and that while regulation after restriction, enacted in the name of cultural correctness, diverts the heaviest drinker from arrack to the more dangerous kasippu. By ignoring the elephant in the room, we are ignoring what can be the biggest menace this country has encountered. Conceding to that cultural garb, in the form of what we think to be the Fifth Precept (if one is a Buddhist, that is), would hence mean conceding to the continuation of that problem. That’s not my opinion. That’s the opinion of those who value reason over rhetoric.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Asking for keeps: 'Gamperaliya' and 'Nidhanaya'

The second in a series of sketches on the movies of Lester James Peries.

The loveliest scene in Nidhanaya is the only hopeful, life-affirming sequence from that entire movie: Willie Abeynayake, the tortured aristocrat, dancing with the woman he married to kill as a sacrifice. It builds up slowly (to a waltz composed by Premasiri Khemadasa) and then flourishes in quiet, contained ecstasy. The best part about it is that it’s all imagined. Willie isn’t actually dancing with his wife, Irene: he’s dreaming that he is. Technically it stands out, not just from the movie but also from the director’s oeuvre, because it’s fascinating: in how the eyes of this couple interlock, how the waltz teeters between hope and distrust, and how the man is awoken from his fantasy. It’s also poignant, because these two never consummate their love.

Nidhanaya was the third of three movies made by Lester James Peries for the only producer that stayed with him for more than two, Ceylon Theatres. It proved that with the right blend of capital and artistic freedom, he could churn out a technically and artistically fulfilling film. Like much of his other work, though, it was barely a box-office hit, nevertheless compensated by its wins abroad (in London and in Venice). When in 1997 the government compiled a list of the 10 best movies from the preceding 50 years, it was unanimously accepted as the greatest. It may have been the first Sinhala movie that was made to be conscious of its own power.

G. B. Senanayake’s short story, one of several compiled in an anthology, Paliganima, came about before blindness had struck him. There’s a streak of schizophrenia in much of his subsequent work. Some of his novels, like Awaragira and Ekata Eka, while not optimistic, opened out in a wider milieu, which compensated for that. With Nidhanaya, however, he constricted it, forcing us to ponder on its own workings without daring to venture out. In Willie Abeynayake he channelled the unnamed narrator from Allan Poe’s The Raven, which is why Lester’s movie feels rather expressionistic, so expressionistic, in fact, that we see cobwebs and stuffed birds in his protagonist’s mansion even when there aren’t any. Like Lewin’s film of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it was deeply, maddeningly claustrophobic.

And in a way, the tragedy that befalls Abeynayake is reminiscent of the tragedies that befall Poe’s as well. The latter are always self-absorbed, rarely open to the world outside. They are driven by their obsessions, even at the cost of another’s life, but when they face the fact that all those were for nothing, they end their own. They are carried away by their madness, but they retain the welter of self-sacrifice and honour and dignity that dawn on them only when they realise their follies.

It’s a self-contained world, cast away, obsolete, largely irrelevant, that we come across in Nidhanaya. It’s not the world of the Kaisaruvattas, because the Kaisaruvattas didn’t fall, they deteriorated. Perhaps that’s why Gamperaliya is so elegiac, while Nidhanaya is almost a preannounced funeral and memorial service from beginning to end.

When Lester was filming Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel, he was viewed with suspicion by the big producers (among them Ceylon Theatres), which in hindsight was justifiable: his cameraman Willie Blake was eschewing the studio for the sun when it came to lighting. It’s not easy to make a Gamperaliya now, because that sense of harmony between its cast and crew members isn’t easy to obtain.

But it isn’t just the cast and crew, or the camerawork. It’s also the timing. Speaking for myself, I haven’t come across a Sinhala film that had everything right, correct, to the dot, and yet appeared so spontaneous with respect to its characters’ reactions. When Piyal suggests that Nanda come to his house after they stop hearing from Jinadasa, for instance, the camera cuts to Nanda slowly, excruciatingly, highlighting her feelings of insecurity. When she finally cracks, however, it doesn’t flow out like a wound: it’s quickly done away with, so quickly that Piyal is as shocked as we are at his callousness. That opening scene at the mansion, with the upstart teaching the lady English (the educated aren’t rich, yet) and Nanda’s mother tending to her needlework behind, has become something of an epiphany for our cinema, “both in what he (Lester) tried to express in all his films as well as in the simple, elegant, and unostentatious way he said it” as Tissa Abeysekara put it later.

In Nidhanaya Lester broke away from that simple, elegant, and unostentatious way of saying things. He was too emboldened, too empowered, to continue with that Renoirean simplicity which characterised all his movies until then. Partly this was because he was now under a contract which was, for the second time (after Cinemas Entertainment for Sandeshaya), stipulated by a major production company. He had upset his benefactors with Golu Hadawatha (which, were it not for Bernard Soysa’s timely intervention, would have been released without Dammi’s version of the story) and had scored a mild success with Akkara Paha. Both would be featured at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) courtesy of Donald Richie, through which Lester was introduced more properly to the world he had been inspired by.

Consequently, Lester’s ninth film was also his first self-conscious work. “It reeks of noirishness. Worse, it reeks of intellectualised noirishness,” Pauline Kael wrote of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, and the same could have been said of Nidhanaya, with the caveat that it doesn’t reek, it overwhelms. Everything in this unquiet masterpiece constricts, from Willie Abeynayake’s search for a virgin with four birthmarks (consisting of a series of close-ups, almost suffocating) to the moment he catches his sight of Irene (initially as a long shot, then zooming in to an extreme close-up) and to Irene’s futile attempts to get him to love her (in one of the movie’s most disturbing sequences, she wanders off from their first night in bed and gazes sorrowfully at the portrait of his mother: the whole scene is punctured by a musical variation on the Buddhist stanza venerating the mother, adding irony).

But all this meant that Lester had abandoned his humanist streak, a little of which was retained in the movie’s most heartfelt section (where Willie and Irene are reconciled to each other). In abandoning it, he had abandoned what had characterised his work before. Death, decay, and self-destruction: none of these had obtruded on his world. Even in Akkara Paha, which is his first film about the downfall of the village peasantry, tragedy is briefly superseded by a sense of bittersweet poignancy, particularly towards the end. In Nidhanaya there’s no poignancy, only complete annihilation (because Willie is the last male heir to his lineage) that’s quickened by an unyielding destiny. It was a quirk in that respect: after it was done, Lester would return to that same humanism he had repudiated through Desa Nisa.

For all its exquisite attention to detail, and its constricting interiors, it became a masterpiece despite its deep-rooted cynicism. If Gamperaliya had been the work of an ambitious idealist, Nidhanaya was the work of an empowered idealist. Because of its outlook perhaps, however, it was shunned by some of our critics, and compelled Regi Siriwardena (in a perceptive essay titled “Sinhala Cinema, Class and Personal Relations”) to take to task those among them who had taken Lester’s attention to the individual as a sign of the social irrelevance of his work.

He was right, I should think: whether or not you identify the abnormal, stunted psychology of its characters, Nidhanaya is a rich work of art, rich in its depiction of a milieu that Lester would not (barring Awaragira) feature with such unforgiving ferocity. “Nowhere else has ensemble playing been so perfect in my films,” he said of Gamperaliya, adding the caveat: “Except in Nidhanaya.” The comparison shows, I believe, notwithstanding the thematic differences between the two.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 20 2017

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

'Royal Bookland': Getting us over a new leaf

Organised by the Library Readers' Association of Royal College, Royal Bookland will be unveiled on July 31 and August 1 at the school premises.

Mrs Marini Fernando, who taught us in Grade Eight, was the best English teacher I ever had. She had that ability to inspire passion in us, particularly those of us who took to her period less for her lessons than the intricate ways in which she got us to love them. She was particular about dictionaries, I remember, so whether or not we could guess as to what the meaning of a particular word was, she’d get us to peruse the Big Book. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have it open. It was all part of her ramrod, but gentle-hearted nature. She could get us to do what she wanted, the way she wanted, without chastising us too much.

Looking back, I believe she was responsible for my subsequent passion for reading and writing, not least because she was behind various schemes in our school to improve our reading habit. She opened a class library, appointed library leaders, and lent us books from her personal collection. Because this was outside the syllabus, she didn’t emphasise on the dictionary: “Just read through them carefully” was what she told us. Added to that was her weekly book report session, where she would get us to write capsule reviews of the books we had borrowed from the main library.

Years later when I discovered my love for writing, during that difficult period in our youth when we don’t know what to do after we leave school and start looking for jobs, I credited her for having inspired me. I had always been an avid reader, having progressed through those inevitable stages we readers encounter, from Aesop and the Grimm Brothers to Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton and to the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, and (as of now) everyone else. Reading helped me become a better writer. Writing helped me become a better reader. It worked both ways. I suppose that’s the greatest lesson Mrs Marini taught me.

Now it doesn’t take much to read, but it takes a lot to love to read. Because of the effort entailed in it, we become lazy. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that we hang on to our textbooks so much that we don’t care about the world(s) outside them: we think that everything we need to know is contained therein, a misconception as far as retaining and applying knowledge is concerned. We don’t visit our libraries enough, simply put. We should. Not because it’s a miracle cure, but because libraries are a good index of the way we think, as a nation and a people.

The Library Readers' Association of Royal College is the oldest club in that school (established in 1846) and probably the only club of its kind in any school in the country. Age, however, hasn’t diminished its vitality, which is why it’s set to organise a series of events highlighting reading (and writing). Of these their flagship project will be held on July 31 and August 1. Because these are no ordinary feel-good campaigns, I am interested. This piece is hence about that project, Royal Bookland.

True to its title, Bookland will feature an exhibition involving bookshops from across the country, but the LRA has been handling such exhibitions for the last few years. What’s special about it this time are two other events that are to be held alongside it: a quiz and a short story competition, the latter of which will be categorised according to language and age. Much of the history behind those two and the club can be rooted in a rather determined committee headed by two boys: Rajitha Abeysinghe (Chairman of the Organising Committee of Bookland) and Sanura Kulanaka (Chairman of the Association). I talked with both.

I first spoke with Rajitha, rather he spoke to me. The decision to go beyond an exhibition this year, he explained, was based on the mission of the LRA: to transform the Royal College Library into the leading institution of its kind in Sri Lanka, not just for its students but also for their community. “Whatever funds we raise, we plough back to refurbish and modernise it. However, we felt that it was not enough. That is why we began organising a series of seminars attended by leading contemporary writers.”

Apparently the short story competition had been the result of one such seminar, held about three weeks ago during school hours. That seminar had been headed by Malinda Seneviratne and mooted by the Chairman of the LRA, Sanura Kulanaka, whom I spoke with as well. “We organised it within three days. The important thing is that we didn’t force anyone to come. We just announced that students were welcome to attend it. In the end it had a turnout of 138 students, all of whom were entranced by what Mr Malinda said.” Naturally, one thing led to another, and soon the Association was organising a competition based on the seminar. “So far, we have received 20 submissions, of which 17 are in Sinhala and three in English.”

What interests me here is how the Association has strived to keep the entire project (the culmination of their annual Library Week) as out-there as possible. The quiz competition, on that count, will involve outside parties, all of whom will get a chance to patronise the Exhibition. “It was actually an afterthought of ours. We entered into an agreement with the General Knowledge Club and invited more than 50 schools.” Underlying all these has been the LRA’s efforts to uplift the habit of reading among Royalists, efforts which will spill over at Bookland.

“We came up with class libraries and organised several reading camps. We got our students to do more than just skim through a book. We asked readers from lower grades to pour out their feelings about them through drawings, while readers from upper grades were asked to write short reviews. It was, I daresay, a success, not least because small children love to draw and children in general love to stand out from the others in what they write.” It has also aided in maintaining discipline: ever since those camps and class libraries began, students have been shouting less in their classrooms. Rajitha interjects here: “We stand by the principle that if we don’t read, we can’t write, and if we don’t write, there won’t be any readers.” Apt.

These haven’t been their only projects, of course. Nena Pahana, a joint effort by the LRA and Edex, donates books to rural schools every year. Supplementing it has been several reading sessions which give students the chance to meet contemporary writers. “Last year we featured Dileepa Abeysekara over his translation of Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman. This year we featured Dr Susith Ruwan over his Ravana Meheyuma cycle of novels. We give our students time to read their books, because it’s not about meeting the authors, it’s about asking questions relating to craft, creativity, and even certain flaws which crop up in their work.” A field trip this year to the National Library (“Kiyawanna Purudu Wenna! Pothak”) and several joint projects with the General Knowledge Club have further enriched their activities.

Aiding these efforts, moreover, have been the teachers behind the Association. “We’ve been helped by our teacher in charge, Mrs Yugantha Liyanage, also the Assistant Principal at our school. Our librarians have always been a source of strength for us, particularly their head, Mrs Hemanthi Wijesundera. And in one sense we have to be grateful for our mothers and fathers too.”

There was more, much more, that I gained from these two boys when I was talking with them, particularly Sanura. I sense a writer’s streak in him, though I will withhold comment. Except, perhaps, for one point: he is quite outspoken about what he is doing and has done, the kind of outspokenness which can win both friends and foes. To this end I asked him as to where he wants to take the Association to, and he replies, “I want to take them to the Public Library, to the British Council Library if time permits, and to organise short story competitions and also enter into competitions organised by other institutions. In fact with the 20 or so stories we have so far, we can come up with a collection which can be published, even submitted.

So what will we see on those two days? The quiz, consisting of five rounds of 10 questions each, will be held from 3 to 6 pm on July 31 at Royal College Union Skills Centre, during which the awards ceremony for the short story competition (open to any student from any government or international school, and judged by a panel consisting of teachers and “experts in the field”) will be unveiled. The exhibition will continue on to the following day, from 8 am to 12 pm. What comes out, we can’t tell. Frankly, I don’t think we were meant to. All I know is that I’ve been looking forward to an event of this sort ever since I left Grade Eight and the best English teacher I got. That explains my enthusiasm, naturally.

Photos courtesy of: The Photographic Society of Royal College

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 18 2017

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sahan Peiris reflects on takeoffs and landings

There was a little boy once. He loved to perform cartwheels. So he wound up doing them everywhere, at his house and even outside. This boy, incidentally, had a sister who did athletics. She had practices. Their mother drove her. Because they couldn’t leave him behind, they took him along as well. While the sister practised, consequently, he did what he always used to do. Cartwheels. He would have been about four at the time. I don’t remember the year. In any case, it doesn’t matter.

At one of those practices, someone noticed this boy. He noticed him performing those cartwheels. He was impressed, so impressed that the next time he saw them, he asked the boy’s father to put him into gymnastics. Eventually, that’s what happened. He took to that game so well that not only did he wind up winning one tournament and meet after the other, he became a national champion. He won his first medal in 2005, became the All Island Champion six times in a row, and captained our team at certain regional tournaments (where he clinched the Number 16 rank in Asia).

But then time passed. That little boy grew up. He saw his friends, at school and elsewhere, taking to another sport. Diving. We don’t know what entranced him to it. Maybe it was the dive. Maybe it was the takeoff. Maybe it was that moment the body hit the water, the landing. Whatever it would have been, we do know that when he was in Grade Three, he joined his school’s diving squad. He has a longer, more extensive story there. And I’ve been asked to sketch that story.

The problem, however, is that I can’t swim. Never tried to, never bothered to. I do know about the immense strain divers put themselves to, the pain they endure, and the glory they achieve when they hit the water. But I doubt that’ll be enough for me to do justice to that boy’s story. I can try, of course. So here’s what Sahan Peiris, diver, gymnast, and a whole load of other things, had to tell me three weeks ago.

By his own confession, Sahan has always had a mischievous streak (not that he needs to tell me that, though: I sense that streak the moment we sit down and talk). That explains his childhood fondness for cartwheels, which he did to the consternation of his mother and despite his age. “I was in nursery when Dr Sarath Galagoda noticed me and advised my father to put me into gymnastics,” he remembers, “From then on, while it certainly wasn’t easy-peasy, I took to it spontaneously. I must have been blessed with a set of genes that made it more amenable to me, which is how I rose as the years progressed.” I ask him to list down his accolades, and he hands me a piece of paper on which he had recorded them all.

Needless to say, I am impressed. After winning his first medal and several interschool and island-wide championships, he ended up as a two-time National Runner Up and a two-time Junior National Champion. He captained the Under 19 national team at the 13th Junior Asian Championships (where he got that Number 16 rank), two years after which he did his O Levels (in 2013) and balanced studies, gymnastics, and diving. “I had about a year to decide. I couldn’t continue with both. So I let go of gymnastics. It was tough, particularly because I was the Number Two gymnast in the country, but I had to do it.”

And in any case, he has achieved considerably at diving. Before getting to those achievements, though, I ask him whether those childhood cartwheels helped. “Yes, but it was inbred. I can’t explain where I got that ability from. In any case, those cartwheels helped me ‘flex’ my body. That was needed in gymnastics. That was needed in diving too, especially after the takeoff: you are assessed on how well you maintain grace and balance before you hit the water. It must have been some strange destiny at work, but those cartwheels aided me there.”

2014 in that sense was a landmark year for him. At the National Championships that year, he had to perform a forward 3½ somersault pike dive (from 10 meters) on the third day. He had performed well at the practices, but for some reason he missed it at the finals. Having taken off rather clumsily, he missed the dive altogether and hit headfirst into the water. Predictably, Sahan had suffered a concussion and gone out. Having been taken out of the pool, he was admitted to Asiri Hospital.

What happened next? “I blacked out for 10 or 12 minutes. I spent about a couple of minutes at Asiri. The doctor gave me some pills after a small operation. My father, also a doctor, asked me to choose between staying there and going back. It was risky, with my mother imploring me to stay behind, but I wanted to return. I knew what I was trying to do. That emboldened me more, though it was probably the most dangerous thing a diver could attempt in my situation. In any case, I prevailed, not only because I completed that pike dive, but also because I won the tournament. Had I not gone back, I would have let my fears take over me. That would have been enough to discourage me from diving ever again.”

That incident had no doubt been a kind of culmination to all those years of trial and triumph before. Sahan’s achievements, incidentally, merit mention here. Having joined the school squad in Grade Three, he won his first medal in 2006 with five dives at that year’s Interschool Championship. From then on, naturally, the list gets bigger: as a nine-time Interschool Champion, a three-time National Diving Champion (2013, 2014, and 2015), and a one-time Junior National Champion (2010).

Internationally too he has won, having represented the country at the 7th AASF in Jakarta, Indonesia (2011) and the 18th Asian Swimming Championships in Dubai (2012), as well as having captained the national team at the 8th AASF in Bangkok, Thailand (2015). His most recent triumph was at the first ever South Asian Aquatic Championship (SAAC), organised last year by Sri Lanka, where he came third and clinched the Bronze Medal.

All these speak for themselves, yes. But they hardly go by way of summing up the boy behind those triumphs. So I ask him those other questions that delve into his life as a diver and how they’ve shaped his life in other fields. I begin with that forever clichéd question: “What has diving taught you?” Without any hesitation Sahan replies, “The need to face your fears, to build up confidence, courage, and perfection.”

I then ask him about his coaches, and he lists them out: “Mahinda Liyanage, Esiri Kankanige, and Chanaka Wickramasinghe. All three are from my school, Royal College, and all of them have triumphed in their field. They have helped me in different ways: Mahinda sir taught me the fundamentals, Esiri helped me execute hard dives, and Chanaka sir has been a mentor to me at school and as my national coach. That’s needed in this game, because when you are await the countdown, you need the confidence of your coach to push yourself and achieve that final, perfect takeoff and landing. In that respect, I believe I have been fortunate.”

Sahan has led other lives. He was the Secretary of his school’s Green Circle and was a member of the Entrepreneurs Society (he did Commerce for his A Levels last year), and is now the Senior Deputy Head Prefect. His also clinched the prestigious Royal Crown in 2015, becoming the first ever Royalist to win it for two sports (diving and gymnastics) in the same year. “I can’t really predict my future, but I hope to represent my country at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. I aim to give my best. Always.”

That little boy who performed cartwheels has grown up, in one sense. In another sense, though, he has not. Just as well, I should suppose: we all owe our childhoods for what we become, and take to, when we mature. Sahan has clearly grown up. But that process of growing up, of indulging in those two activities which have shaped him significantly, wouldn’t have been possible without those cartwheels he did, in another time, in another world. I’m sure he knows this. And I’m sure we all do.

Photos courtesy of ThePapare.com

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 15 2017

Friday, July 14, 2017

Let us get (ourselves) closer to our country


Modernity is not opposed to nationalism. This we should know. The confusion or rather dichotomy between the two has come about because many of us are clueless about what they represent. This too we should know. Fact is, there can’t be modernity without anchoring oneself in the past. Fact is, there can’t be nationalism (and there are many nationalisms) without preparing oneself for the future. The two are coterminous: the one can’t thrive and flourish without the other. This is not a political statement, rather a truism which cuts across the political and the social.

There was a time, not too long ago and in my generation, when those who purported to speak on behalf of Sinhala Buddhists were silenced. To speak of that collective was tantamount to being a racist, which was rather duplicitous given the carte blanche which the articulators and propagandists of Eelamism were given. There seemed to be a manifest lack of understanding about historical realities, or about the difference between speaking on behalf of one collective and speaking on behalf of that collective AGAINST another. The latter was incendiary, hardly condonable. The former, however, was not. Those who tried to prevent it, needless to say, ended up constricting any space for the representatives of Sinhala Buddhists.

At one level, this confusion is more than mischievous, anti-historical, and ontological. What is nationalism and where does it end? How is it different to racism, and how is racism (which is negative and depends on the repudiation of the legitimacy of “the Other”) different to racialism (which falls somewhere in-between)? What is positive, if at all, and what is not? A single writer can’t set the record straight. It takes a general sammuthiya to agree on which is what and what is not, in this respect.

It’s not easy being a nationalist. It’s easier being a racist. The reason is obvious. Racism drives on self-labelled superiority and on what is perceived as inferiority on the part of the Other. It doesn’t take much to spout hatred: burn a few shops belonging to one community, vandalise a temple, kovil, church, or mosque, and you’ll be soon hailed by extremists as their hero. That is why chauvinists from both sides have won and prevailed for so long, and why someone like Gnanasara Thera is (regardless of his credentials as a monk) deified despite the fact that no one voted for his party. “He has something important to say,” is the commonest excuse given by his supporters.

It’s tougher being a nationalist. This is elementary. It takes rhetoric to hate. It takes heartfelt sincerity to love. Racism thrives on rhetoric. Nationalism, at least to a certain extent, thrives on sincerity. Emotion bests reason in more ways than one, which is why the former tends to best the latter as far as debate is concerned. That is sad.

Take the subject of independence. How many of us, never mind the flag and the usual chest-thumping words about freedom, appreciate what it stands for? Perhaps decades of cynicism has conditioned us to be cynical with everything. Perhaps those decades have taught that we haven’t really clinched independence. Either way, the mere fact that we are not subject to another foreign power is in the least worthy of contemplation. But we toss it aside with the remark, “It is just a word.”

We don’t produce nationalists like we used to, come to think of it. Taken in itself, there’s nothing to bemoan in this: the fact is that the deficiencies of one epoch are compensated by the promises of the next, which means that sooner or later, the voice of the people, of true, genuine patriotism, will prevail. But this is just scratching the surface. The real problem, which goes deeper, is that far from not being able to produce nationalists, our country will be taken over by an entire generation whose love for their country is at best conditioned if not tempered by a rootless variant of cosmopolitanism: the kind of uprooted cosmopolitanism that runs riot in Colombo. Which in itself is bad enough, since much of our self-labelled intelligentsia hail from this part of the country, and they continue to exert influence everywhere.

Long, long ago, this wasn’t a problem. Our schools and curricula built in love for one’s country and people from an early age. We woke up every day to deshabimana gee or patriotic songs on radio, none of which encouraged us to hate other collectives. By deshabimana gee I am of course thinking of Amaradeva, Mahagama Sekara, and Chandrarathna Manawasinghe, among others. These were not racists. They couldn’t have been. The fact is that they were rooted in their societies, so what they wrote, composed, and sang, they felt. And they made us feel what they wrote.

We read the poems of Tibet S. Mahinda Thera and P. B. Alwis Perera without feeling any antipathy towards other races or faiths. We sang them in gushes and torrents, with gusto, because we intensely felt what they were trying to say. “Me Rata Mage Rata Ma Ipadunu Rata,” Miranda Hemalatha wrote, and as we recited those words from memory, the poetry hit us. That kind of literature, at once rhythmic and rousing, is hard to come by today. No wonder most of our children go through even our public schools without the slightest smattering of love for their land of birth. No wonder they end up being biased against history, even culturally insensitive.

The culture of prudery that has seeped into our people, from god knows where, has aggravated this issue. We don’t teach our children to understand their faith: we force them to attend Sunday school. We don’t teach them our history: we force them to read and unconditionally accept it. Our government textbooks aren’t helpful in this respect either: just the other day, for instance, I came across a chapter detailing the biographies of some of our foremost artistes, which had erroneously interchanged the details of Lester James Peries and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. I know for a fact that we are force-fed to accept these texts. How do we progress with that?

The truth is that love for one’s country (of the genuine sort) is predicated on what one picks up from childhood. If that childhood is warped, if it isn’t surrounded by an environment which makes it amenable for someone to understand where one is and how came to be there, the outcome is obvious: an entire generation of distorted, culturally uprooted citizens. Without the strength or the resolve to stand up for one’s land of birth, without the ability to assess history, no one can progress. Martin Wickramasinghe wrote on this. When history dies, so does the conscience of a nation.

So what are the preconditions for a healthier citizenry? First and foremost, the ability to take in and absorb the best of the rest of the world. This is elementary, again, but then we have confused between absorbing and imitating. We are constantly told to move on, to do away with patriotism, to consider ourselves as citizens of the world. The problem with globalisation of that sort, however, is that those who force us to accept ourselves as citizens of the world (à la Diogenes) are themselves representatives of countries and polities which vehemently (and rightly) rebel against that line of thinking. Like the United States.

Secondly, we need to revaluate the way we teach our children our history. History is not about dates. That is obvious. It’s about aligning the one with the other, about inferring parallels and understanding how communities progress and flourish. Speaking from experience, my best history teacher (in Eighth Grade) taught us more than what happened when and what led to what else. She taught us how to connect the dots, to infer the causes behind an incident or event. As I grew up, and as I read into history, I realised how, even in a mild form, she was emulating the incomparable Fernand Braudel, that historian who taught us that his subject was best taught not through memorising bundles of data, but by making the connections necessary to glean cause from effect, and effect from cause.

We’re barking up the wrong tree, I believe. Until and unless we nurture our children, and make them more sensitive to their surroundings, without discouraging them from learning about them owing to that culture of prudery which runs riot in this country, we’ll be fermenting a generation that’s cut off from their environment. That is bad. Not because nationalism is cast in stone and is a must, but because no country in this godforsaken, globalised world of ours has progressed without anchoring itself in its past, its way of life. Without history, without heritage, put simply, we are nothing.