17 November 2017

And the best school of all is......

If you were a student at Royal before 1971 and returned to old haunts afterwards, you would have surely wondered why the college grounds looked smaller.  Sooner or later you would have noticed a long building that stretched from West to East, from near the hostel to the swimming pool.  

“A monstrosity!” you would surely tell yourself. 

If you entered Royal after 1971 and after leaving school came back and strolled towards the Tamarind trees you might wonder why the college grounds looked larger.  You would soon find out that most of that ‘monstrosity’ has been demolished.  “The monstrosity,” had been put up for a carnival.  What were ‘stalls’ for the carnival were later used as classrooms.   Monstrosity architecturally speaking though it was surely a set of preferred classrooms during the cricket season, although the view was of a lesser order than offered by classes above the Prefects’ Room.  

If you left before 1978, you would know of an institution called Royal Junior School and that its primary function was to ‘graduate’ 14-15 year old kids into Royal College.  If you joined after 1978, it might come as a surprise that a Royal Junior School actually existed.  Even if you did know the history of amalgamation, the chances are that you would not know of a school song which began in the following manner:……..  You would know of Hartley, Harward, Marsh, Boake and Reed, but if you were asked about Bradby, Perera, Reed and Sampson, you probably wouldn’t associate the names with Houses.  

If you were a scout in the seventies and eighties, you might remember that there was a small hole on the right column as you came up the stairs from the Scount Room.  You might remember ‘KCU’ carved under this hole.  You may not know that it stood for the man who made that little hole in the wall where scouts would leave messages for one another long after he left Royal.  KCU stood for Karl Cezanne Uduman.  

Even if you were a scout, you may have had no notion of this hole, the initials or the man.  You would have nevertheless good memories of the Scout Room.  However, if you wandered into school today and was persuaded by nostalgia to take a look at the Scout Room, you would find it gone.  If you asked any schoolboy what happened to the building he would no doubt tell you ‘there was never such a building here!’

Time passes, things change.  Old buildings are torn down, new ones come up. The Grade 1 building is gone.  Years ago, there was no ‘Skills Centre,’ but now there is.  No ‘MAS Arena’ or even MAS back in the day, but these are proper nouns that are familiar to present day students.  Where there was Race Course Avenue, now there’s Rajakeeya Mawatha.  Rugger is not played where cricket is played and the season doesn’t start in May but in April.  There’s a part of Royal College on the other side of Reid Avenue now.  

It’s a different era and a different school.  Today, you might lament the passing of the great teachers, the absence of ‘Kadalai’ or the fact that some parts of the school are unrecognizable.  So too will today’s students lament notable absences if they return to Royal 20-30 years from now. 

But the school of our fathers is the same school of our sons and their sons as the case may be.  And this is not because the Tamarind Trees are still there or because the Boake Gates still stand or because from Rajakeeya Mawatha the edifice looks unchanged, except that the parapet wall is taller than it used to be.  It’s not because the school song hasn’t changed.  The colors are still blue and gold.  We still have the same houses, Hartley, Harward, March and Boake, even though we really don’t have a strong house-system or house-culture.  Royal is still part of the Royal-Thomian and is in part defined by that encounter and by the opposing school.  It’s the same with respect to the Bradby Shield and Trinity College. 

There’s something that endures despite the passing of years and decades and it's not any of these things.  It’s something you really can’t put a finger on.  The ‘something’  that makes the school unique and unchanged at the core even though part of the outer covering is  unrecognizable to those left a long time ago.  

Take a walk around the ‘new’ school and you’ll still remember people and moments.  That’s nostalgia obtainable by transformations that left something familiar untouched.  Reminiscing makes things bigger and brighter than they really are.   There’s a child that lives in all of us that gets reborn in ‘childhood spaces’.  It can’t be too different for those from other schools when they revisit the theater where their childhood was played out. 

Royal however is Royal and in ways that it will never be St Thomas’ or Walala Central College.  Arguable St Thomas’ and Walala Central College  cannot be Royal and in fact may not even want to be like Royal.  

There is history and privilege that account for certain things.   Royal still sets the pace.  Royal still innovates.  Other schools still try to emulate Royal and perhaps Royal has missed a trick in not emulating other schools, less talked of but as or more innovative.  But that is not what makes Royal the school that it is.  

It’s like love — recognizable but impossible to define.  Define it and it will be open season for replication and the consequent obliteration of uniqueness.  Define it and it becomes less intangible and therefore open to purchase or destruction.  

Ask a Royalist what ‘Royal’ is all about and he will struggle to come up with a definitive one-liner.  Ask a non-Royalist and he or she would also struggle.  The one would end thinking ‘no, that’s not what it is,’ and the other might caricature.  

What matters then is that it is felt, it is known and it is not translatable to the language of words. Let’s just call it a spectre or a spirit that stays with us but does not perish with our deaths.  And that feeling, let us acknowledge, is not the same that students of other schools experience; it is not greater and neither is is lesser.  

The true meaning of Disce Aut Discede

[This article, originally titled 'The Spectre of Royal' was written for a newsletter published by the Old Royalists' Association in the UK.  I have edited it a bit]

16 November 2017

If the nation is to be re-honored...

I do not come to bury Yahapalanaya or to herald the blossoming of the pohottuwa.  The Yahapalanists are burying Yahapalanaya and that’s not cause for celebration but lament.  As for the fortunes of the pohottuwa, again it appears that the Yahapalanists are doing the honors and this too is not a cause for celebration.  

Let’s not talk of burial and resurrection or their relative merits.  Let us, contrary to all logic, assume that we are ruled by or sought to be ruled by honorable men and women.  Let us seek some answers, in the name of honor, from them.

Let us begin from the top.  President Maithripala Sirisena who, according to that honorable lady Chandrika Kumaratunga was the only honorable man in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet.  Let him tell us why he has undertaken a crusade against one particular brand of flavored milk and not the rest?  He will, I am sure, also tell us why his campaign against the pure, white and deadly substance called sugar hasn’t included all sweetened fruit drinks and fizzy soft drinks.  The honorable president will also in due course take with him a convoy of containers loaded with all unhealthy and unethical products in the market, educating the public about their ills.   He will tell us why he accommodated via the ‘national list’ those who had been rejected by the voter. He will tell us because he’s an honorable man.  

The Prime Minister.  Honorable.  He will tell us what part he played in the Central Bank heist, for he is an honorable man.  He will reveal all the deals ministers of his party made so that loyalists, friends and family could prosper, including certain budget decisions scripted by Ravi Karunanayake (another honorable man).  He will tell us what’s with that honorable man Sagala Ratnayake who in turn will reveal to us the underside of ‘Law and Order’.  

The Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has implied that the Attorney General misled him into signing a declaration that circumvented a Supreme Court declaration regarding the postponement of elections.  When will this honorable man tell the full story, explain why he hopes the Supreme Court will overturn his decision and resign forthwith on account of losing confidence in the Government, his party and the party leader?  

Dr Harsha De Silva has claimed that there’s corruption everywhere.  His resgination on account of not wanting to be associated with corruption may have been delayed due to personal reasons, but he will very soon do so for he is an honorable man.  

Honorable Mangala Samaraweera will admit that ‘nothing is cast in stone’ contradicts the assertion ‘non-negotiable’. Samaraweera will acknowledge that he forgot to consult the line minister Mahinda Samarasinghe when proposing measures that would destroy the local shipping industry.  He will moreover admit that the basis of free enterprise and liberalization are in fact negotiable as they have always been. 

He will go on to state that he deliberately scuttled the nation’s sovereignty by co-sponsoring a UNHRC resolution with the USA and honorably exit for backing constitutional reform that are scrappy and are marked by pernicious designs to cheat both Sinhalese and Tamils while making for inter-religious tensions through favoring all religious communities at the cost of Buddhists.  He will resign, along with every single MP who articulated endorsement.  They will all recover their honor.  

Rajitha Senaratne, honorable to the core, will tell us why the Cadmimum factor has been studiously left out of the CKDu debate.  

He, like other honorable academics and health officials will tell us why the investigation of possible causes has been shoved aside and why the focus is on purchasing filters and dialysis machines.  Duminda Dissanayake will weep copious tears for forcing the Treasury to pocket out 21 million rupees every month since April 2016 for a building that will not be occupied.

Fellow ministers Ravindra Samaraweera and Thalatha Athukorale, both honorable individuals, will likewise resign over the former implicating the latter and himself in a tender scam in a telephone conversation caught on tape.  Eran Wickramaratne will protect his honor by tendering his resignation in disgust.  Others in the cabinet will admit to corruption or incompetence or both and thereby protect their hard-earned honor.  

Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero who has the singular honor of being the first to break ranks with the Rajapaksa regime and thereby set things in motion for its defeat, will no doubt speak his mind without issuing neither-here-nor-there statements.  He will do the honorable thing and voice his disappointment and disgust at the way yahapalanaya was scuttled by yahapalanists.  

There are other honorable ladies and gentlemen.  They are members of the TNA, JVP, JHU and the SLMC.  There are honorable officials.  They will admit to their crimes of omission and commission.  In fact the entire legislature, executive and judiary will all gather at Galle Face next week hang their heads down in shame and say ‘Nagananda Kodituwakku was correct, we are all complicit in divesting the citizen of his/her sovereignty through multiple means.’  They will because they are all honorable people and their erring is but the product of human frailty.  

The Opposition.  The honorable people that make the Opposition will confess to all their crimes while in power and admit that they are cheering the imminent burial of the yahapalanists as well as yahapalanaya because they benefit from the former and are accessories after the fact of the latter.  

The corporate sector will admit to being the bribe-giving half of bribery and that for all their fat CSR files they are only about profit and assurance of love and caring are nothing more than brand-positioning exercises.  

We are an honorable people.  We are all human beings and therefore frail.  We err. We forget.  We forgive ourselves more than we forgive those who do us wrong.  We shall join the honorable ladies and gentemen mentioned above at Galle Face (or at any street corner or kadamandiya) and hang our hands in shame along with them. We will confess to our servility.  We will say the following:

‘we will forgive but will not forget; you are history but can be present and future by shedding dishonor as we do now, rejecting political parties and politicians and taking notice of individuals like Nagananda Kodituwakku and Rohan Pallewatte.  We do not come to bury Yahapalanaya or to herald the blossoming of the pohottuwa, but to resurrect the former and rescue the latter from Yahapalanists and Pohottuvists.’

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  malindasenevi@gmail.com.  www.malindawords.blogspot.com

15 November 2017

The soft wind over paddy fields gathers ancient songs...

Everyone has a folder full of images that are labelled ‘Sacred’. Each has his or her preferred colours, preferred blend of form and space, precious mountains and trees, heart shaped leaves and breath-taking transparencies. In my Sacred Folder is a special locket: paddy fields.

Like most people in this country I have seen their full wardrobe of seasonality, from the dry, cracked and thinly grassed pre-season, through the rich brown of preparation, blue-green promise into light green and gold. I have seen the full moon move from liyadda to liyadda on certain nights from the window of a speeding bus. 

These images are not un-peopled. Say ‘rice’ and I see ‘labour,’ I see ‘buffaloes,’ ploughing, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, threshing and also the skewed exchanges at all phases of production which leaves the tiller impoverished and the entrepreneur fat. 

This is not all I see. I see a temple, a way of life, certain reverences, a sense of being, dignity, identity, history and civilisation. Rice, to me at least, is all this. Not because I ever worked in a paddy field, but perhaps because my father has, as has many of my ancestors and more than this because certain things are in the blood of one’s sensibilities, subdued and forgotten but nevertheless present. Forget me, just peruse a random selection of our rich tradition of folk poetry. Think of dance and other forms of art. It is about rice if it is about anything. 

We are what we eat, someone said. Rice, then, is arguably who we are. It makes us as it made our ancestors. As it is transformed so too do we change and if it were to die, then we die too. 

For these reasons ‘paddy fields’ is not a locket that sits above and safe from the political. My locket persuades me to be alert when ‘rice’ is mentioned, when ‘high yielding varieties’ are mentioned, and when someone talks about ‘irrigation management’ or celebrates ‘high value crops.’ I look closely at such things because I heard two things many years ago that I will never forget. 

A World Bank ‘expert’ once said ‘Your food security lies in the wheat fields of North America’ and before that, in the heady days of the Green Revolution, an FAO ‘expert’ intimated that his project will end only when the last buffalo in the country ends up in the Dehiwala Zoo. 
Rice is not a landscape beautifying, wholesome grain, but is ingrained in the cultural history of this country and inextricably tied to politics in general. This is why an attack on rice should be seen as a far more serious proposition than a terrorist threat, because it is an attack on the collective heart of our peoples. 

And attacks there have always been, although never more concerted than in the process that began towards the end of the ‘80s when the subversion took the form of structural adjustment ‘imperatives.’ The research infrastructure was to be decentralised into oblivion, the Paddy Marketing Board dismantled, agricultural extension virtually handed over to regional outlets selling chemical inputs, attempts at gene piracy and water resources privatised in the name of ‘participatory irrigation management.’ There was more. Policy guidelines were introduced to push the farmer out of rice and out of the land in favour of multinational agricultural enterprises and commercial crops such as gherkin, baby corn and tobacco, none of which are staples which we can consume should markets that are always prone to failure fail. 

This is not the place for an analysis of all this. The relevant data and analysis is available at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (formerly ARTI), the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform, the Movement for the Protection of Indigenous Seeds, the Green Movement of Sri Lanka and other organisations and individuals who work on such issues. Forget it all. Just go ask an ordinary farmer about what rice is to him or her and what goes in and goes out in a season and rest assured the relevant political economy will emerge in the simplest language.

About 10 years ago, I walked into a village called Kelegama a few miles from Galgamuwa. This was a village I had worked in earlier and therefore I knew most of the villagers. I met several villagers on the road and after the initial exchange of greetings they all said without exception ‘aarthikaya nam binduwai’ (the economy of course is zero). 

Inquiries at the village boutique revealed that people enjoyed considerable purchasing power. They had other sources of income. Many men were in the armed forces, the young girls in garment factories, some worked as agricultural labour in Rajangane, some made and sold pots. I found later that ‘binduwai’ (zero) meant just one thing: they were not eating rice they themselves had grown. I found also that they would prefer to cultivate rice over any other crop. And finally my conversations confirmed the findings of a study conducted by the ARTI: rice is a crop that suffered disincentives. 

Is all lost? Not at all. There is resilience. Those who know rice, know who they are and they have time and again demonstrated that they will not be counted out. My wife’s grandfather, she says, used to admonish her if she left any rice on her plate: ‘each grain has 100 beads of my sweat.’ This was a long time ago. Today there are young men and women who have returned to traditional varieties in the full knowledge that our forefathers knew something which although didn’t earn (not by accident) the label ‘science’ was no less scientific. 

Take rice out of the equation and we will not only compromise our food security but national security as well. Erase rice from our sensibilities and we will have erased who we are as a people. Kavantissa didn’t fight Elara. He built tanks, he opened fields for cultivation. His son reaped the fruits of his father’s labour and vision. 

A couple of years ago we had excess stocks of rice, prompting the relevant ministry to commission an advertising campaign encouraging people to consume more rice. ‘Back to Rice’ was the line. Rice, however, is too precious to be limited to a cute pay-off line in a one-off advertising campaign. If governments and officials who are so good at promising but are terrible when it comes to delivery do the needful, things would be easy. If they don’t, do we perish? Not necessarily.

Not necessarily because I am not the only one whose favourite heart folder has something to do with rice. Many others have similar lockets which they don’t wear around their necks and are far more grounded in the elements that nurture than mine are. If you don’t believe me, take a walk. Or a bus. You don’t have to go to Thambuttegama or Hambantota. A few miles out of the city and you are already in the ‘rural.’ You will find a paddy field. You will find people who are clothed in rice and who hold the sacred grain in the palm of their hearts. They will have stories to tell and all you have to do is to listen. They will not talk till the cows come home, for there is work to be done. Both in the field and outside it.

[First published in 'The Nation,' June 26, 2016]

14 November 2017

Kitty Ritig: A life laid out on canvas

Former World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov once wrote a book titled Chess if my life.  Viktor Korchnoi who challenged him twice and lost (in Baguio City, ] 1978 and in Meran, 1981) also wrote a biography with the same title.  Most top chess players if asked what their life is all about may very well say “chess”.  

That’s the way with professionals.  Their lives are made of what they do.  It consumes them, it gives life-breath, it empowers, generates meaning and reason to live.  One can ask about childhood, adolescence, youth, middle-age and old age.  One can ask about family, neighborhood and country. One can ask other things.  

All things considered, one would probably conclude that such things are incidental.  Good for the historian and perhaps a sociologist or anthropologist who wants to read the particular times and landscapes through the individual, but for the person concerned, if he/she is willing to talk, its just about the work.  

When I saw Kitty Ritig at work I didn’t know if art was her life.  All I knew was that she had meticulously conjured a perahera in the heart of one of Colombos older residential areas, Thimbirigasyaya; to be precise at a quaint restaurant on Skelton Road called Sooriya Village that is officially dedicated to art and artists of all kinds.  

I saw her diligently working on a panel skirting the central part of the restaurant, interrupted by only the ornate doors of wood and glass.  The panel, around five feet above the floor and maybe eight inches wide, was not there a year ago.  The panel, made of wood recycled from a garage which was turned into a studio, had been put up with the idea of depicting icons in the music industry and their greatest hits.  Sanchitha Wickramasooriya, the proprietor, had later decided that they should go for something more creative, something that draws from tradition but is more contemporary following the general theme of connecting past to future.  And so they found a connector.  Kitty Ritig.      

Kitty Ritig is not high on life history.  She is high on art.  So lets pass on history irrelevant to art.  This, then, is her Art Story.  

It begins with her grandmother who was and is headstrong and independent.  She was a watercolor artist in 1950s.  Kitty speaks glowingly of her.  

“My grandmother was an amazing teacher.  She used recycling and upcycling to spark creativity in me. She taught me to paint, collage and sculpt.  She had a massive collection of fairytales, folk tales and mythical legends.  She painted a vibrant and fantastic world in my head from these stories.   I think as a result of all this I saw a different world even in ordinary life.”

Later there had been other influences.  Osho, for example.  She had begun reading Osho while still in school. The lifestyle and paintings of the hermit painter Rajhu was another big influence at this stage of her life.

“Then there was a time of uncertainty whether to select painting as a career or to settle for something far more secure by way of assured income. Yet the fantastic world that my grandmother had laid foundation within me would not let me settle, but always led me to art adventures.” 

In this artistic journey, one of the turning points was the period she worked as a gallery assistant at Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea, London. Exposure to contemporary art and artists from all around the world had rejuvenated the artist within her.

“Even though I practiced as an artist all my life, my art education was informal until this time. So when I came to Sri Lanka I pursued other career paths. However, at some point I came to identify that my ikigai or ‘reason for being’ was art.   And so I decided to withdraw from the world and inhabit my ikigai. My husband and my religious beliefs were my biggest influences during this period.”

Her first formal art education was at the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts where she studied drawing and painting and started reading art history. At the same time she completed her degree at Sri Jayawardanapura University, reading English, English Literature and Methodology as writing had also been one of her earlier passions.  

“I did not settle for a certain medium but experimented with many traditional such as charcoal, oils, watercolors, collage, acrylic and ink as well as with digital applications such as Photoshop and Illustrator.” 

Thereafter she came out, so to speak. She came back to the 'world' in the form of art. It began with Open Brain, a biweekly event organized  by Stagelessarts.com.  This, she says, was her first informal exhibition. Since then she has been working as a freelance artist on various collaborative projects and commissioned works.  Later she joined AMDT (Academy of Multimedia Design and Technology) Colombo as a lecturer in drawing and illustration and presently, she is studying Art History for her Masters Degree in Fine Arts at University of Kelaniya.

Kitty spoke about her work at Sooriya Village.  “It was Sanchitha’s idea.  He wanted Sri Lankan traditional art styles to be the main inspiration.  I did my research before planning the painting. The transition from Central Kandyan School to the Southern School fascinated me. Today commercial artworks are critiqued through the lenses of European Academic Art Styles. But in the past we had these art schools which celebrated freedom and beauty while borrowing, merging and rising against stagnation."

“As an artist in Sri Lanka I find it is interesting to hybrid long- 'taken for granted' Sri Lankan concepts/legends/ideas with nowadays popular art genres/mediums. This is a long road. I have only just started walking and I hope to keep walking in the years to come.” 

Kitty Ritig hasn’t exhibited her work.  Yet.  She has her masks and her camouflages, but her work is out there for anyone to see, admire, critique and be inspired by.   She’s on instagram as @kittyritig and her Facebook page as Kitty Ritig.    

She is currently based in Colombo where she lives with her husband. She believes in God and continues the sustainable lifestyle introduced by her grandmother.

“I am blessed to have good friends and not one but two families who embrace my artistic weirdness; my own family and my husband’s."

She has created an identity that makes it hard for anyone to categorize or put her in a box.  Kitty, after all, is pretty nondescriptive and Ritig could place her all over the world map, everywhere and nowhere in particular.

No matter. Paintings speak for themselves and that’s what counts, she would probably say.  The discipline that is necessary is apparent in the work itself.  Even someone who is not really a student of this art form would immediately note the skill of the artist and her ability to express herself.  

The blend is not just of colors and/or medium, but of metaphor.  It tells many stories, and theres something you can take with you after a gaze-brush on the canvas.  If this is just a beginning, relatively speaking, one can hope for more delight, more insight and a richer gaze-experience in the coming years.

12 November 2017

There are footprints surrendered to dust

Footprints fascinate me. They speak of journeys and personalities. They speak of histories, made and obliterated. 

A few days ago, on the hot sands just beyond the Muhudu Maha Viharaya where legend has it that the princess Vihara Maha Devi disembarked after being put out to sea and probable death by her father, King Kelanitissa, on account of having committed the cardinal sin of murdering a bikkhu and consequently invoking the anger of the gods who unleashed mayhem upon his kingdom. That story has many interpretations which we need not discuss here. In any event the vessel carrying the princess is supposed to have come ashore at this place, now believed to be the ‘Kirinde’ of the Mahawamsa.

I did not see any footprints. Just the sand dunes that protected the historical site from the tsunami. Soft lines mimicking the waves, drawn intricately by movement of wind. Hot sands that burnt. 

I wanted to write about the footprints that time has erased, those of the princess, about the tiny feet of a child who must have been traumatized. The tiny feet that grew with time and the paths they walked later, as Queen and Queen Mother. As wife of Kavantissa, among most accomplished political strategists, and as mother of Dutugemunu, the errant but eventually victorious benefactor of Kavantissa’s foresight. As heroine in her own right. 

I wanted to write about Ven. Katharagama Sirirathana, the Chief (and sole) incumbent of the Magul Maha Vihara, resisting encroachment by Muslim residents and neglected so thoroughly by a nation and a community that he could say with a wry smile ‘On April 14th, a day when kiribath is cooked in all corners of the country, I could only eat bread’. I wanted to write about his footprints and his soles. About the textural signature of invading feet. About the solitude of a solitary and unarmed warrior. 

I wanted to write about the footprints of those who did not arrive and those who never left. I even wanted to write about the sands, the shifting, enveloping, erasing sands, harsh, burning sands at noon, about the cool water-brushed, sunset-laden sands at twilight. I am sure I could have come up with a decent enough piece about these things, but I cannot.

I cannot because a few hours ago I saw a picture of a father carrying a child. A dead child. A murdered child. And I want to write about that child, unnamed as yet, an anonymous entity to all except family and neighbour, anonymous in life but so articulate in death. A child whose photograph I do not have the heart to illustrate this article with.

I do not know the name of that child and the fact makes me cry. I cry because I don’t know where he has left his footprint. I don’t know the name of the universe his imagination would have let him explore. I don’t know what unthinking sands erased the tiny footprints of his exploration. I don’t know where he may have walked and what other footprints may have been companion to his as he went from child to youth to middle-aged, old and child again. 

If it were possible, I would take the sands he walked on, real and imagined, literary and metaphorical, and I would put it all in a vial made of dream and sunset, laughter and pain, birdsong and butterfly wings, wind and pollen, and I would call it ‘hope’. Or maybe ‘love.’
It is not possible. 

A footprint has been erased and time had nothing to do with it. And I think I will have trouble walking home. I will not be able to look at my two little girls. There is no blood on my hands. There is sand.

[Published in 'The Nation,' June 18, 2006]

11 November 2017

An anthem for Private Sirisena

No, this is not about President Maithripala Sirisena's private life.   This was the editorial I wrote for 'The Nation' (June 11, 2006).

Standing ground in the rain during Independence Day Celebrations is easy....they weathered much more over many years

There is nothing more unhappy for a nation and its front line defender, the soldier, than a war. Both nation and soldier would rather not fight but that, unhappily, is not a choice for a people who are not willing to surrender to invasion.  

It is said, and not without cause, that no one loves war less than a soldier. This is why the likes of Wilfred Owen wrote about the pathos and futility of war. ‘What passing bells for those who die as cattle?’ they ask. And answer: ‘only the monstrous anger of the guns, only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle can patter out their hasty orisons’. 

War is not a happy thing and no one knows its unhappiness more than the warrior. This is something that the civilian understands only marginally even if he or she is a direct recipient of war-related loss. But even those who are fortunate to be distant to these horrors do understand something and this is why we celebrate the soldier on the seventh day of June, National War Heroes’ Day.  

On such commemorative days we may pause to reflect on the ethic of sacrifice, notions of patriotism, the valour and commitment of the young men and women out there on the outskirts of the earthly hell that is made of landmines, snipers, suicide bombers, RPGs and other terrible instruments of death. And then, more likely than not, we push it all into a little room at the back of our minds reserved for uncomfortable, disconcerting things. 

The true test of appreciation is not what we do on June the Seventh. It is how we think about the soldier and how we respond to the realities that erupt in the war zone, which as we know is not limited to the North and East, not just on this day but every day of the year as we live our relatively happier and more comfortable lives.

Are we capable of or even prepared to put ourselves in the shoes of the unknown soldier, whether he or she is in a bunker (facing sudden attack), in thick jungle (a possible victim of anti-personnel mines and sniper fire), in a patrolling vehicle (target of a claymore mine) or providing security to a VIP (and so the inevitable target of a suicide bomber)?

When a soldier stops us at a security check point, do we curse under our breath for the inconvenience or do we thank the man for doing his best to ensure our security and that of the country? Do we, at such moments, even while conceding that there is no such thing as a comprehensive, all-holes-barred security net (think 9/11 or 7/7), acknowledge that if these men and women were not there the chances of terrorist infiltration and the magnitude of the subsequent attack would be a hundred times greater? Do we murmur a prayer for their safety? Do we feel a pang of shame for not having the guts to do what they do, day in and day out or for having the privilege not to have to do so?

Jayatillake Bandara of ‘sadhu jana rava’  fame is fond of relating a story about a soldier who was loading the bodies of some LTTE cadres killed in a confrontation with the army. Upon seeing one body, that of a girl clearly in her early teens, he had said ‘ane pau.’  There was sympathy there, there was humanity. Wilfred Owen, we must not forget, wrote the poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ for the enemy soldier, but edited it with the help of his friend Siegfried Sassoon to make it universal. 

And yet, Private Sirisena is not invincible. Neither is he a saint. He slips, he errs, and on occasion he succumbs to the dictates of the lowest regions of his sensibilities. He forgets that he has to protect all citizens irrespective of difference. He forgets that he has to exercise a kind of patience that would challenge even the stoutest heart. And we forget too. 

We forget that had we been in his shoes on such occasions, we may be persuaded to do the same, to make the same mistakes, to be less of a human being.  War is an unhappy thing where men and women carry out orders that inevitably result in death and destruction. It is unfair to expect that they come out of it without scars, physical and otherwise.  It is only fair that we empathise. This does not amount to giving him a blank cheque. We trust and honour him, but we expect him to act with civility and responsibility in carrying out his duties. 

This afternoon, you may encounter Private Sirisena on your way to the market or as you return from a party. Private Sirisena may make you a tad late for an important meeting. He may cause you much discomfort as he frisks you when entering a government office. But will you take umbrage if we ask you to tell yourself, ‘Private Sirisena may not be here tomorrow but it is more than likely that I will pass this way again, and in some small way, the reason I am here, the reason my children have me or I have my lover is because he is prepared to go and I am not’? 

10 November 2017

We lost a prince 11 years ago

He was the uncrowned king of our profession. For breadth of knowledge on a myriad of subjects, keenness of perception, genius in articulation, versatility (he wrote with equal skill in both Sinhala and English), self-effacing demeanor, soft ways even in hard expression, fidelity to principles and an overall life practice that eschewed personal gain, Ajith Samaranayake was unmatched.

Ajith has been profiled elsewhere in The Nation and so we shall skip the biographical details save to mention that he was not one to roll out his curriculum vitae at every opportunity. Much of what he has been and done will no doubt be revealed now, as is often the case with such people. 

He once remarked that those who read newspapers are apt to believe that journalists are the best people on earth, pure at heart and utterly selfless. He pointed out that those who work in newspapers know that this is a scandalous lie. 

Ajith was an exception. In a profession where petty-mindedness, propensity to sell oneself cheap, sycophancy and other things no one can be proud of abound, Ajith was in many ways an anomaly. 

He was in fact, an adornment that served to hide a lot of ugliness. There would naturally be those who disagreed with him ideologically, but no one will dispute the fact that Ajith Samaranayake single-handedly redeemed our profession, true to his one time alias, Aravinda, a lotus rooted in mediocre-mud but blooms resplendent about the water.

He acquainted himself with the key figures of our time, the ideologues, the artistes, the professionals and didn’t treat with less respect the ordinary men and women he would meet. He was ‘left’ ideologically and the humanitarian roots of the Marxist school were very apparent in his approach to subject; personality, event and metaphor. Some would argue no doubt, so too the theoretical flaws and general unease of theory with reality. To his credit he had the patience to suffer those of different ideological persuasion and articulate his position with clarity, logic and a creativity that was rare among his contemporaries. 

He stood, sometimes, with people on the basis of agreement with stated ideological position, even when position was more dependent on benefits that accrue rather than conviction. This was Ajith’s innocence. He, on the other hand, never profited and never sought to either. 

As was pointed out by Charitha Herath, consultant to the Media Ministry, recently, Ajith, in character, persuasion and other things, belongs to a tragic group of exceptionally talented people, among whom were the likes of Simon Navagaththegama, Newton Gunasinghe and Gunadasa Kapuge. They chose to live life in a particular way and exercised choice in the manner of death as well. They may or may not have known their true worth but were not seekers of accolade or material benefit. Perhaps we were collectively not worthy to benefit from Ajith’s genius. 

His pen was less prolific in his last years but he was still very present in the relevant fora. No one ever stopped him, regardless of ideological difference. Simply, he spoke his views and was never a purchased mouthpiece for anyone. 

Ajith Samaranayake enriched us. He leaves us impoverished. And even naked, one might add. That perhaps might not be a bad thing, all factors considered. 

Yesterday the journalist fraternity bade goodnight to its prince, to the person most eminently qualified to carry the title ‘uncommonly common man’. He would not want lament but perhaps would be agreeable to raising a toast to a time that has passed and a time those who are yet to arrive might have reason to celebrate. 

Cheers Ajith!

[This was 'The Nation' editorial of November 26, 2006}

09 November 2017

FUELING DISCONTENT: Yahapalana-muddling rises above shortage-distractions

The term ‘devolution’ has an interesting Sinhala translation that makes for word play: 
බලය බෙදීම (balaya-bedeema, literally ‘dividing power’).  Now bedeema in Sinhala can refer to division as well as distribution.  Hence the caustic observation on the current crisis pertaining to fuel distribution, “බලය බෙදන්න ඉස්සෙල්ල තෙල් ටික බෙදන්න (before you distribute/devolve power, distribute fuel!”  There’s a more cynical version of this: “ තෙල් බෙදන්න බැරි අය බලය බෙදන්න කතා කරන එක විහිළුවක් (It is funny when those who cannot distribute fuel talk of distributing/devolving power).”

Jokes and wordplay aside, we should not make mountains out of molehills nor reduce mountains to molehills either for that matter.   Fuel shortages are not uncommon.  What’s strange however is the fact that a government that is supposedly corporate-friendly and is, as were previous governments since 1977, thick-as-thieves with the corporate sector (not just on account of the Bond Scam) appears ignorant of basic capitalist notions such as risk-aversion, buffer stocks and insurance.  

There’s a communications deficit as well.  The truth was not revealed.  The nature of the problem was not communicated.  Measures to arrest the artificial spike in demand due to rumours (again fed by official silence) came late and, again, weren’t communicated effectively.  There’s navel gazing and passing the blame buck around.  Adds up to gross incompetence and irresponsibility.

Still, it’s not the end of the world and hardly something big enough to bring down a regime.  If things stabilize, it would be little more than a hiccup in the overall flow of the political process.  At the end it might prove to be what it truly is — another one of those ‘crises’ typical of capitalism, manageable, forgettable and forgotten until the next one comes along. 

In other words, nothing more and nothing less than a distraction.  Distraction from what, though?  

There’s the budget, due to be read this week.  No one’s talking about it.  There’s constitutional reform, talked of as the crucial exercise that would, according to its backers, deliver reconciliation, slay all the ghosts of the past and finally enable the country to move forward.  No one’s talking about it.  There’s also the Central Bank Bond Scam, the investigations and the all-important testimony of the Prime Minister.  No one’s talking about it.

The petrol scarcity cannot be called a deliberate construct of a government desperate to distract the public from the important issues mentioned above.  It helps, though.  

The government is muddling along with constitutional reform, this is clear.  The government is muddling along with the Central Bank Bond Scam, this is clear.  Whether or not Mangala Samaraweera will muddle through with his ‘Mangala Budget’ we are yet to see.  The term ‘muddling through’ might indicate ‘with difficulty’ and that would be a positive.  

On the other hand, considering all factors, ‘muddling through’ may be the best option for the regime.  This happens when people promise what they cannot or do not want to deliver and therefore have to ‘make a show’ of delivery so that at some point, after much huffing and puffing, something small can result and celebrated as a massive victory for the people, for democracy.  To be fair, the Right to Information Act was not a small victory, it is big.  Put that in bold type and upper case.  

How about electoral reform then?  How about the Attorney General misleading the Speaker, who later all but acknowledged he was hoodwinked and expressed hope that the Supreme Court would rectify matters?  In April 2015, Maithripala Sirisena thundered from an SLFP platform that the 20th Amendment would be tabled, debated and passed.  The Maithripala-Ranil regime has muddled along on this electoral reform track with nothing to show so far.  The Elections Commissioner himself has expressed grave concerns about the postponement of local government elections.  A government that is scared to test the pulse of the voter through an election at the grassroots does not have the moral authority to talk about protecting/enhancing democracy.  

Muddling is also evident in constitutional reform pertaining to reconciliation.  It began with a steering committee made of federalists engaged in an exercise designed to deliver a predetermined outcome rather than a dispassionate assessment of points of view producing a debate-wrought result.  Naturally, the ‘interim report’ is federalist in substance.  The state media is promoting this report and is conspicuously silent on the other 8 reports submitted by way of comment by interested parties including the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Joint Opposition.  One cannot help but wonder if this trashable-document was submitted just so it would be trashed as deserved so that certain communities can blame the outcome on the intransigence of the majority community instead of naming the true culprit: a pernicious regime lacking political will of any kind on any subject except political survival. 

And then there’s the Bond Scam.  As has been pointed out, an old woman who ‘robbed’ 3 magoes from a fruit-laden tree was fined and imprisoned whereas those who abused office, cost the Treasury and made billions, are being treated with kids’ gloves.  

The petrol crisis will pass, no doubt.  Perhaps another crisis will be manufactured or else will pop up as is inevitable.  They may distract.  The bond scam issue will not go away.  Constitutional-tinkering by federalists, with federalists and for fedaralists will not go unnoticed.  

The duplicity, incompetence, arrogance and anti-people character of this regime will not be hidden.  It’s too sore a thumb.  It’s sticking out.  It is unmistakable.  It can and will be named.  It may even be shamed.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com.  www.malindawords.blogspot.com