Thursday, June 14, 2018

On Professor Carlo Fonseka, for no reason at all

“With apologies for generalising, I would say that despite decades of free education Sri Lankans are still lazy thinkers; a most gullible lot. Astrologers abound and it is easy to spread a false story. Divine intervention is still widely believed and sought after and clever Kattadiyas make good money. Political leaders shamelessly dash coconuts asking for divine curses on enemies. Faith healing missionaries keep audiences spellbound. Schools do teach science but students are not encouraged to think scientifically. Subject content is studied for exams and the scientific thinking habit ends after uploading the textual content at exams. Science is divorced from lives.” (Shyamon Jayasinghe)

I still remember the first time I met him. It was somewhere in 2013. To keep a long story short, I had written a book and owing to my immaturity (I was 18 at the time, after all) I felt he was the best person to write the foreword to it. And why? Because the book, a novella (which I have since disowned, so horrendous it is!), delved into the perennial conflict between reason and mysticism and Professor Fonseka, a leading light in the Rationalist Movement in Sri Lanka, would have enjoyed reading on that. Or so I thought. What I knew, back then, during that first visit, was that he wanted to meet me. (I had provided him with a first draft beforehand.) So I went, rather pompously (I was 18 and I was immature, let us remember once more), to his residence, a large, sprawling, and yet somewhat unostentatious home tucked away in the corner of Pita Kotte, and rang the bell. He was not there, he was in the washroom, and he would meet me in five minutes, I was told. So I sat down and waited, eager and (again, I was immature) rather pompous.

I came to talk about the book, its contents, and what the professor could write by way of penning the foreword. Instead, after he came, the first thing (or one of the first things) he asked me was what I thought about Shakespeare. I was no Shakespeare fan by any stretch of the imagination – besides, I have a poor memory, so remembering those immortal lines of his has always been a tedious, impossible task – but I had seen some film adaptations of the Bard’s work, and I told him that the play which caught my attention the most was Julius Caesar, hastening to add that I was an ardent fan of the 1953 adaptation starring (of all people!) Marlon Brando. Professor Fonseka, whom I thought preferred the book to the film (which he did, as he implied later), was astounded, and went on relating his first experience seeing it at the Regal when he was a schoolboy at St Joseph’s, and how he would sacrifice the opportunity of seeing the Big Match to frequent the Regal and watch other movie adaptations of the Bard’s plays. “Shakespeare forged the first demagogue in the history of English literature, in Mark Antony,” he told me. The conversation trailed from one play to another, until it struck noon. We didn’t talk about the book.

Before I left, he brought a copy of The Island (it was a Sunday) and showed me an article he had written on the indomitable Richard Dawkins, and on rationalism. Back then I was not fully aware of the professor’s contribution to the field, barring a quick perusal of the translation of Abraham Kovoor’s Gods, Demons, and Spirits (the translation, Deviyo saha Bhoothayo, was by Dharmapala Senaratne, another firebrand from the Rationalist Movement). I didn’t think much about it but after I went home, and in the following days when I checked the archives of the Island and came across his encounters with the inimitable Nalin de Silva, I was fascinated. I could not decide on which side to take, or whether I was meant to take sides. Had I consulted Fonseka, I am sure he would have given the same answer. Like Nalin, he had been an eloquent speaker and moreover a member of the Sinhala Debating Society at his school (Nalin had been the Captain at Royal College). Despite this, they resorted to manifestly different styles and manifestly different tricks. I remember in particular an exchange towards the end of Doramadalawa where the professor, who never loses his cool, replied to his opponent with this aside:

“ඔබතුමා කියන දේවල් වල ඇත්තක් තියෙනවා අලුත් එව්වත් තියෙනවා. මට පේන්නේ ඇත්ත ඒවා අලුත් නැහැ, අලුත් ඒවා ඇත්ත නැහැ.”

Naturally enough, this enraged the opponent: “දැන් මොකක්ද ඒ කිව්වේ, මම බොරු කියන එක නේ!” He went on and on as the credits rolled. I couldn’t resist smiling. So I smiled. Not with all those intellectual salvos, not with all his credentials (and I have found much in those credentials to side with, to agree with) could he withstand that fatal, awe-inducing final remark. That was Carlo Fonseka. Cool. Witty. And resolute.

Over the months and years there have been so many other things about the man that I come across and have agreed and disagreed with, spanning the scientific, the cultural, the political, and the personal. His prose, at once self-explanatory and gradual, never seems to creep away and leave you in the dark. Perhaps it’s a legacy of his work as a medicine man, but when he writes, he writes so much at length that it seems he’s trying to get his point across as comprehensively as he can. It’s almost as though he’s afraid of leaving something behind, as though the careful reader (as opposed to the common reader) will chide him in his mind should he commit that unforgivable error. And heaven forbid any essay of his which does not include his thoughts on the link between evolutionary science and cultural, social, and political processes! Just take a gander at his pieces on Malini Fonseka, Rukmani Devi, Victor Ratnayake, and the late Amaradeva and Lester James Peries. He’s always bringing up biology, and while critics have taken him to task (some have even penned irate replies to what he has written) over this, I believe he is spot on.

Two years ago, he published a compendium of his writings, fittingly titling it Essays of a Lifetime. I have not read it. I could not. By the time I got around to buying it, it had been sold out. But I have read reviews of the collection by, among others, Laksiri Fernando (“I was delighted to know Professor Carlo Fonseka’s popular writings are now published in one volume”), Kumar David (“Carlo is an N. M. man; I am a Samasamajist”), and Shyamon Jayasinghe, whose article I have alluded to at the beginning of this tribute. Shyamon takes to task the contention that erudite as he was, a Fonseka would never have been born after the advent of Free Education and Sinhala Only, and though I only partly agree with this thesis (which has been demolished by many leading intellectuals and critics, top among them Regi Siriwardena, over the decades), I nevertheless am in accord with his stance that there is much in our education system which leaves no room for free thinkers, let alone rationalists and scientists and radicals.

Where I also agree with it is the fact that since he took the Rationalist Movement to what it became in the seventies and eighties, people are as gullible as ever. Is this an indictment on the professor’s own work, which has been criticised by the likes of Nalin de Silva as being blatantly Judeo-Christian as the Christianity and theism it seeks to encounter and flay? I am not in a position to say.

Ever since that day in 2013, I must have met him about five times, including once in 2016 and again in 2018, the latter about three weeks ago at the Memorial Service for Lester James Peries (where he delivered the eulogy). He has mellowed gracefully. His wit, his way of talking slowly, to the point, and never off the cuff, is still there. They say Lester Peries reminded one of a Bourbon Prince: short, unassuming, and never beset by the arrogance which visits lesser personalities. Well, if that were the case, you can say the same thing of the good professor: short, full of humility, and never even once arrogant. “I keep my pride locked up. It escapes only through my work,” Lester told me. Again, you can make the same case for Fonseka: his word is his work, and his work is his pride. But that was a different time. A time so different that we can’t escape into it. The past, as someone once wisely said, is another world altogether. One would have to be extremely fortunate to have born to it. Lester was. Carlo was. Many others were. We were not.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 14 2018