Chamali Kariyawasam’s “Sylphlike Ether”: Poetry on Motion.

32ba1fdIn Chamali Kariyawasam’s collection Sylphlike Ether (2009) there are several deeply intriguing poems, like “Duende”, “Eternity”, “September in the Sun”, “Journey”, “The Guises of Parvati”, and “Indian Evenings in June”. In a 64-page anthology of poetry, the above poems demand our close engagement, as they leave a strong imprint and an echo of originality. The tone set by poems of the above definition, however, is often neutralized by entries that fail to make the mark, thereby, injecting Sylphlike Ether an inconsistency of sorts.

One overwhelming motif in Chamali’s poetry is movement – be it dance, walk, movement between spaces, migration, or displacement. This is the common thread that permeates her work, as its veracity is tried out in different ways, at different levels. Dance and music, in particular, are recurrently seen, indicating a close link between the twin creative forms and Chamali as a person. This, perhaps, is one reason why her poems generally betray an easy, fluid rhythm, from line to line and between stanzas.

Travel and movement are at the heart (and in the mind) of the personas in poems like “September in the Sun” and “Journey”. The ceaselessness of movement and the absence of settlement not only encapsulates the changeling within the human spirit, but also the longer, indefinite route we take in life, lacking guarantee or assurance even in our most comfortable moments. Lines from “September in the Sun” grow on you the more you read and reread them:

“You and I watching –
A constant drone in your mind that
I am leaving;
Understanding edged by certain petulance;

Yet, this traveling across the seas,
These hideous dregs that litters the journeys,
I am yet to come to terms with…
… The concept of home ceases to be a place,
But a feeling;
I am but a speck of dust,
In the wayward wind”

The journeys often continue without end, and parallel to the journey the larger metaphorical movements in life, such as intimacy and relationship, evolves. In “Journey”, the tiring, ceaseless travelling of two companions of sorts is seen to them in a rustic backwater, far away, as suggested, from the concrete of civilization:

“This road cannot end;
We shall travel without the faintest notion as to
Where all this leads,
Who we shall meet and at what expense we journey;
We have found no other answers than to continue
Despite our weariness…

… There is that withering star again, I point out;
Over those rooftops lies lovers’ paradise;
You still charm me;
All this way and I have still not tired
Of your face”.

Passion, in Chamali’s poetry, is multifaceted: it is, in an instant tranquilized, sedate and dormant, while in poems such as “Indian Evenings in June” the palpability of desire is located with earnest evocations:

“When your body touches mine –
So much like the rain;
My breath rises like the scorched earth
Come to life;
So much like the lightning, my body glows in your arms;
Your loving gives me the rages of the skies,
The incessant laughter
Of rain crazed wind
And then peace of living seeds slumbering beneath”.

9789553016218-usThe imagery of the all receiving earth and the rain-like transmission of desire, alike the strategic use of pathetic fallacy, however, are a touch clichéd. These are motifs that have been flogged by a two thousand year corpus of literature set in India from the key epics to the minor strains of Bollywood. The significance, however, is in the juxtaposition of these expressive, extrovert tensions with the bottlings in of emotion and desire seen in some other passages, including the sections cited earlier.

The following lines come later on in “Indian Evenings in June”, again, brimful of spoken and reciprocated desire, and an afterword to the intimacy hinted at in the above-quoted:

“At the end of all our wet, wild, conscious and unconscious loving –
So much like the silence before and the silence after the storm,
There is a ‘mixed peace’ in our soft words and laughter;
So much like evenings caught in unyielding monsoons,
I tremor, I awake, I live – awash in
Your love, your touch, your words”

Perhaps, my most favourite poem of the collection is “Eternity”, which, in comparison to the rest of the line up, disarms us with its deromanticization of human interplay. The poem presents to us a marriage (if not a domestic relationship) cemented by vows and rings and all, taken to a violent and abusive end. Domesticity itself is an effort; coexistence, a task:


“You wound me with your words
And otherwise;
Language fails to make connections;
Suddenly, a smile becomes an achievement;
Your sweat, your breath and your eyes alight in distaste;
Your force, your pretexts and unwelcome
Exploitation of my being;
All these wreck me;
What holiness remains then in this union?”

Set in sequence with some of Chamali’s dreamy, wishful, romantic expectations, “Eternity” is swift in undressing euphemism and in annihilating the very essence of mutuality and intimacy the bulwark gradually builds up. But, in the collection, “Eternity” is one of the early poems, placed before some of the other pieces that celebrate interlocked intimations.

Chamali’s sense of imagery and the set pieces she formulates around them often betray a repetitiveness and a lack of originality. This is not a drawback, per se, but a hurdle that restricts Chamali from pushing back the boundaries of her craft. However, her capacity to explore and hold to scrutiny diverse patterns and nuances of close human relationships is well demonstrated in Sylphlike Ether. This, in fact, can be said to be Chamali’s chief strength and, perhaps, her main focal point in the anthology. She is a writer, she makes us feel, for whom rhythm matters much in life as much as it does in her writing, and one for whom the brevity and ceaselessness that tamper our lives are an anchor and a fascination.



“A Long Watch”: Ajith Boyagoda on a Decade in LTTE Captivity.

Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, the events Boyagoda recounts of that decisive exchange – a symbolic moment of amelioration that, in reality, didn’t transform into a meaningful drift – where the government officials, the military officers and LTTE frontliners all assemble in one pseudo-hopeful / pseudo-anxious conference leaves the reader with a deep sigh for an initiative lost and a possible path not taken that may have written the history of our times in a different way. The most significant contribution of Boyagoda’s story is that it feeds and nourishes a growing discourse of post-war literature, and for its tangibly humanist approach, reflection, and definition of the parties locked in battle.

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka, bracketed by HarperCollins as “memoir”, is the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s eight years spent as a prisoner of war, held by the LTTE from 1994 to 2002. This story is documented, as “told to” Sunila Galappatti, a metropolitan individual with trans-continental credentials and coverage, who in this instance works as the medium between Boyagoda and the world, in “telling” what she is “told” by the former Navy heavyweight. A Long Watch, at many levels, provides interesting if not intriguing reading, and chief among them is Commodore Boyagoda’s extremely liberal and facilitating response to the Eelam cause of the LTTE: the extension of which he himself battled against for over a decade as a ranked officer of the Lankan navy. Of many “stories” told by service personnel of the Civil War, Boyagoda’s is perhaps the first I have in my limited experience come across that hails the call for Eelam as justifiable; if not as reasonable.

downloadAn interesting point to ponder on is as to when Boyagoda exactly began to see the substance of the basis and ideological foundation of the LTTE struggle: did he already see it as early as the late 1970s, when he was a fresh recruit in whites? Or did he enlighten himself upon reflection, experiencing what he did as an active combatant in the 1980s? Or, was this a dawning upon his own turn of fortunes and his incarceration in the 1990s? Or, alternatively, are Boyagoda’s convictions of the Eelam struggle to be just a more recent assessment, upon retrospection of all that had happened in his life? This, however, is not very clearly locatable in the story “told to” Galappatti almost two decades since the actual events. The only tangibility is that the thesis Boyagoda is seen to channel is one of amelioration and amity – one that looks at the LTTE through a rare humanitarian lens – when compared to narratives of war written by other servicemen such as, for example, Boniface Perera (who wrote a novel in 2012, as an officer of a victorious army titled අවි බිමක හද ගැස්ම). The only cause for caution here, however, is that Boyagoda’s narrative is channeled through a medium. Boyagoda doesn’t speak for himself, but is spoken for by an agent with cross-continental, cosmopolitan, urbane credentials. The only cause for caution would be that the said medium’s voice may/could intermingle with Boyagoda’s own, purifying the story and straining it through a liberal strainer of sorts; but, this cause for caution does not bother me at the present moment.

As a story, Boyagoda’s narrative is an eyeopener for anyone who juggles oranges in the “humanitarian debate” in the context of the Lankan Civil War. For the average Sinhala Southerner, tempered (if not stuffed) by state narratives of pro-military “truths”, Boyagoda offers a humanized and de-demonized profile of the Liberation Tigers, at a time where they were trying to capture the world’s imagination as a capable and responsible de facto State of their own. Boyagoda, through Galappatti, submits the minutiae of his imprisonment along with his fellow Navy cadre Vijitha and 22 other army personnel over a period of 8 years. From Commodore, Boyagoda is overnight shrunk to the rank of Prisoner and the story is also one of endurance and resilience, adjusting to climates and being courageous in the long wait in the face of a hopeless future.

Boyagoda’s captivity is naturally a life-changing, decisive chapter. It makes him rethink life and transform into a “different person” altogether. However, there are two further additional forces that shape Boyagoda’s thinking and outlook, against which he speaks out in the narrative. One is the perceived mistreatment he feels he had to undergo at the hands of his employer, the government of Sri Lanka who, among other things, is the least in alacrity to effect Boyagoda’s release. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Ministry of Defence are frontally charged by Boyagoda on this point. Secondly, the military / navy is scorned for holding a trial against him in his absence and for condemning him for negligence of duty. In a very intriguing passage, Boyagoda gives accounts of how he was put before an LTTE inquest, and was acquitted of any criminal charges based on the evidence presented and examined through a reasonable process.

download (1)

Boyagoda, upon release after 8 years of incarceration.

Are Boyagoda’s views and outlook of the LTTE and the Civil War, then, also influenced by his own disgruntlement and apathy towards the government and the Lankan militia? This is a reasonable question, as prior to captivity we see Boyagoda as a righteous solider, but not one who necessarily went the extra mile to question the misdeeds of his own party. For instance, Boyagoda speaks of military killings of its political enemies carried out in times prior to his captivity. Though he personally distances himself from such misconduct, he does not openly lobby against these crimes either. He remains a passive loyalist of the regime he is employed by, though in the narrative (“as told to” Galappatti twenty years later) he chooses to pin them down as acts of will by the state military: “I think at that time the forces handled the LTTE and the JVP in the same way — they did some killings, then came back and said ‘job done, everything under control'”. He speaks extensively of military looting of Tamil homes in Karainagar, and of the efforts he made to try and discourage such plundering. A calculated naivety at times takes over the narrative when referring to murder of civilians carried out by the military, as seen in the following passage:

“Sometimes, trying to stop refugees fleeing to India naval boats would open fire on the vessels in which they were travelling. I believe these were killings that began as misjudgments not as murders. But then sometimes, afterwards, not knowing what to do with the evidence, they would pour petrol on to the boats and burn them, with the people in them… I would ask one of my crew over the radio if something was happening and the reply would come… ‘No sir, it’s a barbecue'”. As and when and as it happens, Boyagoda indirectly is complicit of the crime in making no issue of it, though two decades later these accounts are spoken of with implicit disapproval.

An organization that is stripped by Boyagoda’s narrative is the Lankan government, whose arrogance and selfishness in policy, and its indifference to its own employees detained by a political enemy is well documented. The years of his captivity coincide with the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, with Anuruddha Ratwatte as Deputy Minister of Defence. Boyagoda, as a prisoner, feels that the government does very little to secure his release or sustain his welfare (and that of the other 22 detained along with him). The ICRC and the families of war prisoners are given the credit for maintaining the prisoners’ morale, whereas the government is seen not to care for soldiers taken as prisoner, as the government bureaucracy considered them no different to “soldiers that are dead” in battle.

Says Boyagoda of the Lankan government: “through thirty years of conflict the government prioritized what the Southern people wanted”, which is not entirely a flattering assessment of the country’s ruling elite, though he hits the nail dead on its head in a general way. “If Tamil people were not safe in the South and were safe in the North, then that was their homeland — the government had conceded that”, he argues. Even more disarming and focal of government corruption is where, fresh in captivity, the LTTE navy chief Soosai points out weapons and military vehicles to Boyagoda, adding: “gifts from Premadasa” Allegations of the government providing the LTTE with arms and infrastructure to fight the IPKF – one of the most controversial open secrets / allegations – is given a rounder shape thus. Are these liberal and accommodative sentiments of the Tamil plight ones which Boyagoda always had, from his formative days as a soldier? Or, are these prison-hardened feelings, of a Commodore who felt abandoned by the system? Are these among the revisions he would have made in adjusting his outlook in the course of a tested life of detention?



Subsequently, Boyagoda’s release is secured by an “exchange” of prisoners, as the government — after what is hinted to be several false starts — agrees to release LTTE Black Tiger “Kennedy”, who had been in government custody, being trapped during the attack on Palali air force base. Contrary to Boyagoda’s experiences with the LTTE, Kennedy is reported in the Asian Tribune of 2002-09-30 as having said to have been “tortured…and treated with contempt” by the Lankan military. The swapping of Kennedy with Boyagoda and the release of other prisoners – from both sides – were “news-making” headlines in a time where a stalemated peace process was nearing its inevitable end. Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, the events Boyagoda recounts of that decisive exchange – a symbolic moment of amelioration that, in reality, didn’t transform into a meaningful drift – where the government officials, the military officers and LTTE frontliners all assemble in one pseudo-hopeful / pseudo-anxious conference leaves the reader with a deep sigh for an initiative lost and a possible path not taken that may have written the history of our times in a different way.

The most significant contribution of Boyagoda’s story is that it feeds and nourishes a growing discourse of post-war literature, and for its tangibly humanist approach, reflection, and definition of the parties locked in battle. Boyagoda cedes how the Sinhala army/navy prisoners – who were being moved from place to place depending on the security situation – and their jailors of the LTTE gradually form a dynamic and an easy-relationship dictated by circumstances. He showcases the maturity, discipline and application as well as the humanist outlook of cadres like Selvaratnam, Mudalvannan and Newton. Though fighting on opposite sides, the LTTE cadre and the Lankan military support the same Cricket team and exhaust each other playing Cricket and badminton in the camp. Upon their ultimate release, both parties – the jailers and the prisoners – bid difficult farewells to each other. As Boyagoda tells us, this is not everyone’s story, but his story alone. But, it is a story that urges us to see the complex and unobvious moments and transactions – ones that fall outside the absolute narratives we are dealt with by uncompromising nationalist agendas and so forth – and the ultimate human aspect configured into the context which we for convenience call the Civil War. It also moves us to reassess the unnecessary and meaningless excess of the carnage, of the lack of remorse and compromise with which the final touches were put to the Civil War in May 2009, where a mature and civilized approach could have redeemed much for a post-war future and posterity.











“Fifteen”: Where Ameena Hussein Must Return.

fifteenOf Ameena Hussein’s work, I had earlier read Zillij (2005) and Moon in the Water (2007) which are later publications of a career as a writer that is said to have started in 1992. My encounter with her volatile and extremely engaging collection of short stories Fifteen (1999) happens after my reading of her later work, which left me with one pertinent question: what – what – happened to the spirit of Ameena Hussein who wrote Fifteen? What became of the raw, insistent, unabashed, unaffected, frontal voice that is so unaware/unconcerned/unheeding of an audience out there, tolerating no obstacle between herself and her delivery? Fifteen, I would say, is the best of Ameena Hussein to date. For people who may think Moon in the Water is her ultimate – as it has been more internationally read etc etc – well, Fifteen is more like the almighty water in the moon.

So, what became of Ameena Hussein? The voice of the penetrating upsetter of norm, and of narrowminded, inhibiting patriarchy? I think, what happened to that voice is that in subsequent publications – and with the inevitable awareness and consciousness of an audience afoot that accompanies recognition – it got tamed and domiciled: that the voice got domesticated and lost echo of its own self amidst the suffocating parameters of “good-book, good-storytelling”. The dynamo of Fifteen is Hussein’s personality and her inner spirit – in each observation that is made in that book, in every criticism that is leveled and every snarl made, what we hear is a personally concerned, personality-wielding voice that can be closely linked to the writer. In Moon in the Water and – maybe, to a lesser extent – in Zillij this possessiveness (a word I borrow from thovil, and not from love) between the writer and the writing is untraceable. The text is rendered bland and impersonal. The most vital ingredient that makes Hussein’s writing work is drained, and is substituted by a chemical that makes books go “international”. For a writer who can write as true and as honestly as Hussein does in Fifteen, this is an anti-climax: a sad one, at that.

unnamed-2A writer’s ultimate success and/or failure is not necessarily decided by the quality or the relevance of their prose or poetry. I would even say that the recognition of their work is least assessed by the quality of the produce, but by other negligible accessory factors. This is relevant to both Lankan and non-Lankan writers. There are committed, serious, dynamic men and women who write among us who are spoilt by premature adulation and laurels given dime-a-dozen, as much as they are automatically placed in the canon owing to the circles and triangles to which they belong. One such writer who has been corrupt by the people and fans around him is Ashok Ferrey – a fellow who takes his writing seriously, but who has been/was garlanded by undue glitz and glamour too early and too soon. All his books, since late, being published by Random House India is not necessarily a reflection of Ferrey’s genius, but of something randomly gone wrong in the publisher’s estimate of Lankan writing. The same fate is, to an extent, shared by Vivimarie VanderPoorten, who is, arguably, the most lyrical poet composing in English (published in Lanka) over the last decade (2006-2016), who became a “celebrity” on magazine covers and sundry after a single volume: Nothing Prepares You. VanderPoorten’s subsequent anthology was, in comparison, quite anti-climactic, and she has since undergone a poetic silence of sorts. A more honest and critical accolade would have helped VamderPoorten to grow and expand her craft.

Hussein is often located in the heart (if not the periphery) of the kind of mechanism that often is responsible for “overnight” literary icons, for whom Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, is the central vein of Lankan English creativity. In fact, Fifteen itself is published by ICES (where, I believe, Hussein was employed at one point), a Neelan Thiruchelvam initiative, but an icon for a closed non-governmental sector set up whose studies in ethnicity and related politics is a yard ahead of its occupation with literature. Hussein is equally identified with Galle Literary festival-like projects (periodically) and with other Colombo-English-speaking NGO activism. What I am striving to point out here is that over the years, the virility and energy of Hussein’s voice – as we encounter it in Fifteen –  has been drained or stunted, and that her being tamed and domesticated within the NGO-run literary spaces of the metro has not helped her in building up on the platform she lays out for herself with projects like Fifteen. This is not to say that Hussein has an alternative. This is merely a theorized observation.

Perhaps, Ameena Hussein should go back to Fifteen. At times, the voice we hear there is repetitive and reveals crevices of the amateur. But, this is not a problem, as only a “desirable book” should have a formula that sells: the kind of book that heeds no repetitiveness or an amateurish streak of the person, even at the expense of it scything off what is honest and true in the expression. Soul-searching and time-travelling is essential for any writer who desires to find his/her stride or beat, and Hussein can prosper by where she ceremonially buried her ashes: in Fifteen. If the phoenix is to rise, those ashes may be of crucial significance.

“An Almond Moon and the White Owl”: Madri Kalugala’s “must-read” Debut.

pawanMadri Kalugala’s recent collection, An Almond Moon and the White Owl is without a doubt the most powerful volume of poetry to emerge out of the Lankan English literary circuit in recent years. For a slim volume of 78 pages, Madri’s work is a roller-coaster of emotions, moods, anxieties, antipathies and so forth, chipping away at the writer’s own surface flesh, carving for us the melancholy and agony of a person/persona in a passionate and earnest struggle to come to terms with herself: a sentence dipped in dramatic words there, but each word true to the vibrant journey Madri invites us to take along a memorable channel of powerful verse.

Earlier, I had said (almost offhanded) that with the arrival of An Almond Moon and the White Owl “all charlatans, fake and delusional poets can now finally start thinking of a suitable retirement scheme”. By this I meant to identify the positive challenge Madri throws at the fellow rhyme-vendors of our time (myself included), pushing back the boundaries and creative horizons of verse composition, almost declaring a poetic war on substance and quality of what people initiate as “poetry”. One decisive factor Madri has to her advantage seems to be that she has delicately studied and taken under her wing poetry as a craft and expression, and her writing hints at an in depth reading of poetry as a “tradition”. Her erudition as a “studied writer”, someone who has internalized the range of forms and style, is among the first observations a reader would make: which quality, unfortunately, is not the strength of all good poets among us at the present time.

Madri’s work are often introvert and excavations of the soul. Her sensibility and anxiety are often channeled through a Romantic modality: a poetic consciousness that seems to have deeply influenced Madri. Madri’s work have the distinct echo of a Keats and a Shelley, while at strategic moments, they are reminiscent of pastoral landscapes evoked by writers such as the younger Tenneyson, in poems such as In Memoriam. Her gift in economically sketching out deep, complex sentiments – which she does through a casual (sounding) phrase, or an artlessly thrown half a line – and her rich choice and careful, meditative use of words are to her advantage.

An Almond Moon and the White Owl is a canister of surging passion that is seen either in motion or in suppression. Powerful, overwhelming emotions are often seen suppressed and held back, while occasionally – in poems like A Tree Speaks to the Rain – there is a masochistic outlet of tumultuous energy:

Lay me bare. Strip me of my leaves, green innocence
As I struggle to grow, to breathe in this pain,
Eat at my heart! My disease. My pestilence.

Wet hard bones, brown and cold – do I not tempt you again?
Naked, glistening, arms outstretched to an unseeing sky.
You whore. Cleanse me, then! Your insanity keeps me sane

Through your strange sadistic pleasures I do not cry
Beat me livid, till I’m numb, whiplashes on my face
My veins turn black but I do not bleed.

The painful, pathetic symbiosis between the raging power / force of the “rain” and the equally surging resistant-submission of the “tree” (the inverted commas come naturally) ends with

But I grow from you.
I grow from you.
And beaten,
Ravished by your hate,
I break into flower
With flourish.

The synthesis of opposing energies – the conflict and consummation of dialectical beauties – dictate many memorable passages of the collection, and is among the factors that detained my attention:

When I pressed my lips
Did you hear the hiss
Like steam, escaping
From a shut lid –
Between our souls
Snake-like, something passed
In secret,

And I knew you knew
For your head jerked upwards, wild
Startled bird,
And in your eyes
Was all the fire of raging hell and
Electrifying heaven
Your teeth were sharp like flint
Your hair, loose black river
Something compressed
Broke free –

357acb0fa990ddc9d2c09a02b06974d1This is a mere hint of a thread in the poetry that appealed to me, and is not to by any means define and limit the scope and range of Madri’s expression. Her experimentation also enmeshes forms such as the couplet (as seen in poems like Seven Couplets for a Yellow Dusk), the Sonnet (Shall I Compare thee to a Moonbeam) and a poetic rendition of the elaborate toccata form (A Toccata of Galuppi’s (II)). Memorable intertexts include Dostoevsky’s Raskalnikoff (in Rodion) and Tennyson (in To My Lord).

Madri’s is a resigned, recluse world far away from the day-to-day and the mundane. It is a self-absorbed and self-centered universe, wound by Gothic and Romantic energies. The one exception – a rare moment that bridges Madri’s enclosed space with real time and space – is the poem Seya, of which the title is self-evident:

… Did he hurt you, my shadow
Did those black eyes shimmer in dark
Deep as still water,
Wide pools of pain.
Did you gasp with the hurt

Of not knowing
What you’d done
And that baby’s mouth open
In shock,
While the stars dimmed out one by one.

Did you smell milk, my baby,
A memory of milk the warmth of the womb
The smell of your mother’s hair
New-washed and spread in the sun
Did you taste grass instead
And the stale stench of fear
As those eyes closed, little one?

Madri Kalugala’s poetry will be best appreciated by a student of that subject – by one for whom form, craft and temperament of an artiste adds to the superficial reading we do of words and impressions. Though it might most likely go unnoticed, her offer to the sphere of Lankan Literature is of promise, and as to what seat she will occupy of this largely under-studied domain has to be seen with time and further critical engagement.

Professor Ashley Halpe: An Appreciation

downloadRough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date
(Shakespeare: Sonnet 18)

My last meeting with Professor Ashley Halpe was while he was out on a walk, assisted by a helper, along Riverdale Road, quite close to his residence, sometime early this year. It must have been late January, or even early February. I was driving that way, and at the bend just after his house, I spotted him, cosily clad and walking, though assisted, quite steady. I stopped and spoke to him and he quipped that he was out to get “some air” as it were. Professor Halpe’s health had been a concern for some time, for those who knew him up close, and I was myself happy to see him up and about.

The demise of Professor Halpe last week had prompted numerous accolades and appreciations from the pan-English academy, the membership of which was known to him at multiple capacities, which includes his students of over three generations, a phalanx of colleagues and so on. The national media had been generous enough to facilitate these eulogies and words of kindness to a teacher, a lover of the arts, a drama enthusiast and a gentle person whose direction and generosity – as highlighted in most such appreciations – testifies to an indelible mark he had left in the academy.

My first meeting with Professor Halpe dates back to my Advance Level years at Kingswood College, as I happened to enroll in a tuition class for A/L Literature that he conducted, which – for reasons outside the scope of this essay – I had to after a while discontinue. It is in these classes that I for the first time came across Professor Halpe reciting poetry, as he had that memorable style of reciting the work with the full toolkit of the dramatist – how, I would say, poetry has to be taught to begin with – which I would later encounter at the University of Peradeniya, too, where he taught me Chaucer, Shakespeare and Sinhala Literature in Translation. Of the three, the latter course, in particular, left a deep impact in me at that point, in which Professor Halpe shared with class his views on a range of topics from Classical Sinhala Literature to modern writers such as GB Senanayake, Martin Wickramasinghe, Nissanka Wijemanna, Ajit Tilakasena, Buddhadasa Galappatti and so forth.

Professor, from the earliest I knew him, was encouraging of my endeavours in Literature and the arts: an encouragement that was given in an almost unseen, subtle manner, but which – in retrospect – has meant a lot to me. Still in high school, I won the Best Actor in the inter-school Shakespeare Drama contest organized by the YMCA in 2001 for my stint as Henry in Kingswood’s production of Henry the Fifth. Though I didn’t know it at that point, Professor Halpe had been a judge that year, and his recognition of my performance remains very special to me. In fact, it was sometime during the Third Year in university that I knew of his judging that competition a few years earlier, when he suggested that I take the university stage for DRAMSOC events. I told him that I “retired young”, and he genially reprimanded me that “laziness” and “retirement” are not necessarily the same thing.

My first literary venture solo was a collection of short fiction when I was in the Second Year at university, which also courted some luck in being shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 2006. Professor Halpe and Professor Carmen Wickramagamage were among the gathering at the small scale “launch” of sorts a few of us organized for that book. He would also periodically invite me for readings he organized at his residence, to which I have been on three or four occasions. He also unhesitatingly recommended my candidature to several universities I sought admission to for postgraduate studies in 2009: a mission I had to abort half way, for personal reasons. These recommendations meant a lot to me at that point, and I am ever grateful to him for his kind words about me.

In a broad definition, there are three kinds of academics we often come across. The first type are those who are more focused on their research and reading, digging trenches into new areas of scholarship. The second type includes those who are more honed as teachers, disseminating knowledge and excelling at instruction and guidance (The third type, of course, are those who fall into neither category). In my estimate, Professor Halpe can be more easily located in the second category, and he is remembered – at least in the classroom of my generation – for an insight he channeled in the class on Hamlet or Lear, than for the rigour of his papers and essays.

In an appreciation written for Professor Halpe, Tissa Jayatilaka, in his grief-sharing words, had made the observation that the only post the Professor may not have held in the University is perhaps the post of warden in a residence hall. This amply illustrates the commitment and investment Professor Halpe had made at Peradeniya – a commitment that at times have moved people to make his name interchangeable with that of the English academy. He was also one of the most unassuming and gentle persons in and off the classroom, attempting to unlearn privilege when and where he could. Some of his writing, specially, stimulated by campus culture and the Sinhalization of socio-cultural spaces from the 1960s on, testify to this effect. As Halpe himself once explained to a class, though from a “postcolonial age”, his background cast him more “colonial than post”; and that his journey in life was a conscious effort to neutralize the disparity he felt between whom he was and the larger society and currents around him.

In his farewell speech given to the University of Colombo a few days back, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda had quipped, urging his younger colleagues that the struggle in education should not end in the University car park, or the entrances to the nurseries of Royal and Visakha Colleges. Uyangoda’s “bouncer”, I believe, is partly influenced by the pop-fication of the academic culture we see, with material and superficial aspects taking over from the academic concerns and commitments of the scholar. In such a context, where we see some rock n roll scholars changing their automobiles at a greater frequency than one borrows and returns library books, Professor Halpe will be remembered for a lifestyle and academic practice of an altogether different pace, if one may visualize him driving his old wagon, as wise as he was in years, down the road to Peradeniya. In fact, as a student, I had once the chance to hitch a ride in that vehicle which, as he told me, was purchased in 1971: a car that runs on three gears.

Even with ailing health, Professor Halpe honoured us by participating in two reading sessions some of us in literature had organized in 2014 and 2015. One of these forums, in which Aslam Marikar, Dhanuka Bandara, Pawan Madri Kalugala and I read, the Professor read for almost half an hour, exhausting a corpus of his writing that was a delegate of his mind at work from the 70s to the present. The second of such readings was organized by Aslam Marikar and Sri Theater, which pooled in a larger number, in which the Professor also participated.

I am sure, depending on the scale each one of us hold for measurement, the significance of Halpe and his estimate as a don may vary and differ. But, as a teacher who walked the corridors of Sri Lanka’s premier academy – and its English Department – I feel that he leaves behind a memory and a legacy that would metamorphose into legend at some point down the line. Whatever he shared with us as good and progress should be preserved and passed down the line of scholarship, as the promise of one generation to another. May his memory and his gift be appreciated and retained!

“Oru Koorvaalin Nizhali” (“තියුණු අසිපතක සෙවණ යට”): the Gaps Thamalini Leaves.

thamilini book2The supposed autobiography of the former LTTE frontliner – the later, “rehabilitated” and “re-socialized” – Thamalini alias Sivasubramaniyam Sivakaami, in the end analysis, has said very little; leaving much unsaid. In a broad sense, the text can be loosely divided into two segments – the period from 1990 to 2006, with many close reflections on and references to the formative years of the author’s battle-hardened life, comprising a section of carefully meditated prose; and the latter, the post-2006 period, through the “final stand” of the LTTE at Mullavaikkal, and other post-2009 reality Thamalini underwent as a detainee under government custody. This latter section of the book is haphazard, hurried, passive and glossed over. In many instance, it came across as an act of “forced labour”.

Juxtaposed with the opening chapters of the novel, the concluding sections show much disparity that leaves the reader confounded and in doubt. Clearly, the opening chapters demonstrate a nostalgic revisit to the early years of Thamalini’s career as a cadre, perceptive of the historic and political circumstances that made militarism feasible in the North-Eastern fabric, the rise of the LTTE, its core ideology and its social mechanism etc. Thamalini, in these early chapters, illustrate a reverence of the LTTE leadership and its political engine, in spite of certain scepticisms that are aired. There is very little evidence in the section leading up to the time the Norway-brokered peace talks fell through (2006) that Thamalini has antithetical reservations of the LTTE, or Prabhaharan.

29slide3Then, the chapters dealing with the post-2006 period gradually foreground the sense of uncertainty and ambivalence within the writer, though we don’t see any strong feeling she has towards the failed peace of 2002-2006 either. But, with the resumption of war, she tables a covert resentment, which, from a post-2009 standpoint, looks the “desired” view to have; specially, if one is to assess the situation from a Southern Sinhala gaze. The disparity is that this sudden “shift” in Thamalini is not supported by the convictions she seem to harbour on the run up to Mawilaru, 2006. Thamalini’s vocal criticism of the LTTE leadership is forthcoming only in the sections that relate to the “final phases” of battle, commencing from about October 2008. Even here, Thamalini (the writer) projects her (supposed) disenchantment and anxiety mostly through the words and sentiments of other colleagues – in this respect, she repeatedly quotes the senior female frontliner Vithusha. In relating to her detention, the treatment she receives at the hands of the Lankan military, her subsequent “rehabilitation” and release to civil society, Thamalini’s narrative drastically “de-selects” the (kind of) criminal status that has been attributed to the Lankan military by agents such as Gorden Weiss, Frances Harrison, Channel 4 et al. Thamalini’s references to the run up to May 18th 2009 makes very little note of the shells that were said to have been indiscriminately aired into the “No Fire Zone”, or of the summary executions carried out, that are to this day the catalysts of intense debate. If at all, Thamalini reflects on how the LTTE vanguard had ordered people to be shot, where they attempted to flee the NFZ.

In all, Thamalini’s supposed autobiography – on the surface – comes across as the quintessential “desired” narrative by/for the Southern Sinhala mass, authored by a “fully rehabilitated” LTTE activist. Thamalini (or whoever “authorized” the book) has done a good job at finishing a text that demonstrates a triumph for “rehabilitation”, and a hurrah for the state programme of the post-2009 universe. Thamalini, in the book, even undergoes disillusionment, catharsis and retribution and survives the final onslaught, to qualify her as a classical Greek hero(ine), who survives the tragedy to “learn”. But, Thamalini the Activist we knew was definitely not this Oedipus walking into the sunset with self-inflicted injuries. What, then happened to Thamalini alias Sivakaami during this metamorphosis from militant to pen-pusher? From activist in pre-Mullavaikkal North, to rehabilitated “re-socialized” wife to Mr. Jeyakumaran in post-2009 times? I would even be as audacious as to suggest that this book is not written by Thamalini the activist; but, by a Thamalini, who is passivist – or, inducted into that passive abyss of shattered hopes and darkness.

In the dark depths of the “correction center” Room 101, Winston Smith (in George Orwell’s 1984) meets O’Brien who invests much energy (which, also, saps much energy from the detained) in “re-socializing” Smith-types, so as to be doctored, corrected and enlightened beings under the dictate of the state’s mainstream. O’Brien puts 2&2 together and demands an answer – and until he manages to internalize the 2+2 = 5 formula in the detained, the subject is run through various physical and mental duress. The successfully “rehabilitated” candidate would come out and agree that 2+2 = 5, or write an autobiography that justifies one’s survival through mass slaughter.

dfhThamalini’s position in the “final onslaught” itself is curious. Of the LTTE vanguard (the Daya and George Master types aside) she alone survives the annihilation of a determined body that held against the state artillery for over two decades. Whatever the reasons are for Thamalini’s survival, the frontline of the LTTE top command were not made to share that fate. Is Thamalini feeling guilty for her surviving the assault? Or, differently worded, is she made to feel guilty, given her fate, which effected that miraculous re-entry to society. I am certain it takes unimaginable mental courage and fortitude to come to terms with one’s self and the society around her, when you find yourself as the lone survivor of an administration that once challenged the very guts of a system of which you, subsequently, become prisoner. And from within the imploded hollow of the world you once believed in, what kind of “autobiography” can you write? From such an angst-ridden, meaningless abyss is it a sin or a crime to second the military’s gentlemanly goodness?

One should not expect the fallen Thamalini to write us a saga and be objective about it, too. Rather, we should look for signs she would have left – deliberately or not – which may allow us to see the hiatuses and gaps in the narrative that would leave an epiphany or two, which would urge us not to believe her own story. In what is not told lies the history and the conviction of the defeated soldier.  One such palpable instance is the quite obvious lack of resonance in tone and sentiment between the opening 5-6 chapters (dealing with the years 1990-2004), and the later chapters dealing with 2007-2009 and the post-2009 context. Had Thamalini undergone a “change of faith” (as is hinted from the last sections) regarding the LTTE and Prabhaharan, it is by no means demonstrated through her retrospective assessment of the organization, which she locates with much feeling and affinity through her combative years.

Secondly, the first part of the text is rich with detail, sentiment and – one might even say – literary merit. Reflections on nature, sunrises, landscapes, birds’ calls etc are an integral part of this section, with signs of a consciously developed story line. The later incongruous chapters, in contrast, become hurriedly noted, glossed over chunks of detail and passively recorded halfhearted confessions – almost, like words spoken while being under the blade of a sharp sword.

Thamalini also leave faint traces for the perceptive reader to pick up. For instance, an almost negligible passing reference assures the readers that Isai Priya (whose rape and murder – as alleged – by the Lankan militia was unveiled by Channel 4 in 2013) was alive and mobile on the 16th of May: two days before the military victory. This is in a context where the Ministry of Defense claimed Isai Priya to have perished in combat.

Oru Koorvaalin Nizhali may have also been hurried towards the end, in the light of Thamalini’s failing health. But, clearly, the question would remain as to how “unforced” and “unaffected” the narrative is, specially (as hinted) Thamalini’s post-war status is much more complex and complicated than what at first meets the eye. The deep interest her publisher and trustee seem to have taken in the publication and circulation of this book – in spite of the failing health of the writer – is only one of those complexes.




“Music. Death.” and the Strategic Romantic Echo.

By Indika Fernando

[Indika Fernando had his education at the Universities of Kelaniya and St. Andrew’s. He has worked in advertising, travel journalism and PR.]

Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, composed in 1798, commences with the following lines:

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Music. Death, by Vihanga Perera, is a novel set in the years adjacent to 1998, which opens with two self-consciously pastoral descriptions, not too dissimilar to Wordsworth’s note, two hundred years earlier. The first is one of the valley below Primrose Hill, said to consist of “clean skies, murmuring breezes” and a “river nuzzling by, among the crags down the slope”. In a connecting chapter, the scene moves to the Eastern boundary of Primrose Hill, where a group of young boys and girls seem to pay a musical tribute to a dead peer: a scene set in the semi-wilderness of a remote mountain hideout, almost pagan in its orientation: a wasteland that is “a haven for walkers, a retreat for young lovers; and a stirrer of the romantic’s soul”; a “small, uncharted plot of nowhere land: a strip that had been aborted from the tape when two…chunks of undeveloped property were plotted out for house construction”.



The view from Nelum Mw, Primrose Hill

This echoing of the Romantic vibe of the English poetic tradition – both in description and sensation – seems to be strategic and premeditated, as landscape scenes of the aforementioned nature cut into the text at carefully measured intervals. Two further instances that comes to mind is the retreat they young group of musicians make to a hillock close to Kadugannawa, to the heart of “countless, uncharted acres of God’s gifted wild”. Here, the musicians play, write poetry and discuss philosophy – the reference to one of the boys discussing non-Christian (pagan) Aristotle and Plato, again, is of note. In another chapter, the cutting down of a sentimental tree (owned by?) a boy called Bevis is referred to with much embellishment, closely reminiscent of the emergence of a post-industrial psyche, which overrides the values and codes of morality in a Romantic universe. Bevis is shown to struggle against the superior bureaucracy to save his tree, but is finally defeated in the struggle, resulting in a “contemporary replay of that age-old trajectory, where ‘progress’ buys over ‘nature’; and where ‘big business’ steamrolls the aesthetic impulses of life”.


Kandy Muslim Hotel – “Music. Death” swears by the food sold here.

In this way, Music. Death. becomes a retrospection of the ending of a familiar way of life – one which is framed with familiar (even clichéd) images and motifs of the Romantic Psyche – in an inevitable surrender to industry and modernity. Music. Death. is an embellished replay of an outdated technology, an outmoded sense of the world, and a value and moral system which, merely fifteen years from the time in which the narrative is based, is both alien and incongruous to the contemporary reader. With carefully selected references to isolated events in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and in placing them par with more recent years, the writer/persona seems to seek an implosion of his own life, the “essence” of which (not too unlike what one often finds in pastoral poems in the Romantic tradition) is suspended in a happy past. Ralston, the record studio owner who once introduces to CK, the narrator, all the progressive music of his youth, urges CK to “marry and settle down”, as they meet a decade or so later. All the young musicians and their myriad bands of yore, are, years later, defunct and disbanded. Aurelia, who stirs romantic feelings in young CK, with a personality that easily reminds one of the 60s Joan Baezes and the Janis Joplins, has, by the narrative present de/evolved to be a corporate CEO with a “near seven digit salary”.

111The text’s dual preoccupation with “music” and “death”, too, provide an unmistakable Romantic vibration. Specially, the morbid flatness with which death is, at times, referred to gives the vibe of it being accepted and internalized as a fact of life, which is too immediate to disengage from. The text opens with a reference to a murder of a mother and a child, and concludes with CK’s elegy for the same. Deaths of schoolmates and friends are referenced with a sardonic, detachment where, at a alumni association party a minute of silence is observed in the name of friends “lost to causes natural and man-made; causes inevitable, and ones caused by a moment’s negligence and sheer idiocy. From friends run over by school vans, trains and their own moments of weakness, to friends taken by fever, water and bullets and knives”.

An alumni association member is earlier seen taking down the names of all the dead fellows, copying the names lest he accidentally leaves out a name: “the last thing you needed was a long dead school mate for an unfriendly Casper”. The closing quarter of the novel shocks the reader with the deaths of CK’s friends Silva, Nana and Nandha. All three persons are shown to have something essentially innocent and unaffected at their core – but, in complement with the Romantic vibration, they are the ones to be overtaken by gloomy death. The idea of death is also seen through the pulling down of familiar spaces with sentimental attachment and memory. The Alliance Francaise building (in which place a chain store is set up) is a repeated motif, which is demolished by the passive industrial drive. The tongue-in-cheek poem dedicated to the school toilet – which is pulled down and is replaced by a flower nursery – is a more light-veined illustration of the same.

Music. Death. does not achieve much as a commentary or a revisionist intervention. Vihanga Perera merely occupies himself with nostalgia and embellishment – but, both are directed at achieving an aestehtically pleasing function. In the few instances where a strong critique does take over – such as in the setion to do with Bevis’ tree – very little is said or done to transform that moment into a valid political statement. On the contrary, the inherent detached/suspended air of the narative (which, again, is more focused on the lost past than the present) dulls whatever political incentive the text offers.         

Trinity’s Senior: the Misunderstood “Foster Son”.

Writes RS de Saram in 1959, of Walter Stanley Senior: “… a man who lived in Ceylon for twenty years and regarded them as the best years of his life. He loved Ceylon with all his heart. ‘Foster-mother’ he calls her and himself, humbly, ‘child of an alien isle’… Walter Stanley Senior was no alien. He had that quality of greatness which transcends both race and place”. Notwithstanding, however, the WS Senior that is often introduced to contemporary classrooms on early twentieth century writing (as a much deliberated footnote, too) hardly carries the same recommendation which de Saram so generally bestows on this one time Trinity College master from Yorkshire.

WSSeniorFor one, in the contemporary classroom, WS Senior is largely no more than a curiosity – a relic of the pre-independance period whose musings and wandering imagination is often seen as a replication of the romantic gaze of the colonial psyche. His “The Call of Lanka”, in particular, is often used as an icon for the kind of poetry that is shown to be patronizing in spirit, which seems to frequently irk the postcolonial reader. However, DCRA Goonetilleke’s reading of Senior in his Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003, I feel, is worth sharing:

“Senior does not share [Leonard] Woolf’s liberal ideas but he is a colonial in a well-meaning way. He sees British Imperialism as ‘tutelage’ and although he thinks Ceylon’s progress is slow, he looks ahead to Independece and a Commonwealth of Nations, an ideal one no doubt, and senses change in Ceylonese society during his own stay… Perhaps, his poetry is best summarized by the phrase George Orwell used with special reference to Rudyard Kipling – ‘good bad poetry’” (197).

In the same paragraph Goonetilleke proposes that Senior’s poetic craftsmanship is derived from writers of the Tennysonian line – the writing of a ‘minor’ Tennyson, if at all. Though he doesn’t state it explicitly, the Goonetilleke’s implication suggests that perhaps Senior’s sense of romantic scenery and his visualizations that border on what we from our postcolonial vantage point see as “exotic ruminations” are inevitable derivations from the Tennysonian mode. Though my views are inconclusive on this point, what R.S de Saram suggests of Senior – that he is one who, with time, develops a genuine and empathetic bond with the island – is well illustrated through his writing, which demands us to re-read Senior’s poetry with better commitment.

Of Senior’s corpus, the poem that most appeals to me – and indeed, the poem that unequivocally testifies to Senior’s bond with Lanka – is the memorable piece titled “Goodbye (?)”, which is written towards his last days. The poem is in two parts – the opening, outlining a pending departure from Lanka: a Ceylon that is fast changing and is growing hostile to foreign presences, with a “new race rising with never a use for” people like Senior. A homeward journey, back to “the haunts and hearths of the homeland” is thus seen as compelling. However, in the second stanza, the predicament of departure from the homely Lankan climes to which Senior had, over the years, grown mellow to the dark and damp Northern English settings is strongly captured:

Yet, O my soul, remember: when you’ve sailed the seas away,
And the English climate’s chilly, and the English clouds are gray;
When the birds are sad and silent, and the sun is seldom seen,
And life is miles of houses with miles of mud between,
You will see in a sudden vision, you will see with a sudden sigh
The scarlet-splashed flamboyant awash in the azure sky;
You will see Anuradhapura and the old kings’ bathing-pool,
And the shadowy blue kingfisher on the carven granite cool;
And the Pass of Haputala, and the Lowland flat and far,
And through Granvillea feathers, the rosy evening star;
And the moon-besilvered jungle; the dipping magic Cross
’mid steady balm in-blowing from the silver foam and floss;
And better than places – faces, the Aryan Face (your own)
With its brown and olive beauty, the youths and maids you’ve known;
And the tender pearl of India in the black and brilliant eye –
My soul, you will break with longing – it can never be goodbye.


The unique architecture of the Trinity chapel is said to have been much influenced by Fraser’s outlook.

This stanza, in which the (perceived) exotic and nostalgic imagery make perfect contextual sense, is one of the most powerful passages of Senior’s writing, synthesizing the strong fellow feeling he had for the Ceylonese, as well as the cultural and geographic beauty of the island. The persona in Senior’s poetry, perhaps, is best mirrored in a character like Mr. Fielding in E.M Forster’s A Passage to India; or, let us say, in the persona Forster molds based on his Indian encounter.

In studying who Walter Stanley Senior may have been, one must also take into close consideration the possible mentoring influence he may have had from Trinity’s famous Principal, Rev. A.G Fraser, who was the very man who first summoned Senior to Ceylon, while the latter was a fresh graduate from Oxford. In W.S Senior. Call of Lanka: Ceylon in Prose and Verse, an anthology of Senior’s writing published by Trinity College, Kandy in 1960, the following reference to Senior’s being summoned to Lanka is made by Mrs. Emily Senior:

“About the middle of 1905 Stanley received a letter from [Rev Fraser] saying, ‘come to Ceylon and be our Vice-Principal here’… He offered to CMS and was accepted, and to Ceylon he came. There he spent what he always felt were the best twenty years of his life. ‘It was the land of my life work. In Ceylon I met my wife. Here our four children were born. In Ceylon I made dearest friends’. It was ever for him ‘the land of beauty, and glamour and kindness’” (6).

Rev. Fraser (1873-1962) was the Principal of Trinity College from 1904-1924, and is considered to have assisted in Trinity’s expansion in quality and standards. The note by Mrs. Senior, above, makes reference to Fraser as having found Trinity a “school of brick” and, much alike Augustus Caesar did with Rome, to have left it “a school of marble”. Similarly, Ali Foad Toulba — an Egyptian Prince who studied at Kingswood, Kandy in the 1890s, and who returns to Ceylon in 1921 — in his Ceylon: the Land of Eternal Charm (1926) dedicates a chapter to the Trinity he saw, under Fraser’s Principalship. To him, Fraser is “none of the stiff, priggish, pedantic, scowling type of headmaster” with “a total absence of self-consciousness and self-assertiveness…” and one with “no colour question, no shibboleths of race or creed” (162-163). Fraser is also known to be an experimenter in education who introduced to Trinity many aspects of Lankan culture, including the study of Sanskrit, at a time of rigid colonial oversee.

It can be surmised that young Senior’s personality was to an extent influenced by his close association with Fraser, whom Ali Foad Toulba acknowledges as follows: “to such a worthy gentleman I therefore most respectfully raise my cap, and long may Trinity be blessed with so distinguished a Headmaster” (163). Our reading of Walter Stanley Senior’s poetry can thus benefit from an “absent biography” and a historical footnote or two which we, for convenience or out of negligence, fail to take with us to class or to the reading room. A writer who, I feel, is a cornerstone and icon in Ceylonese writing of the pre-independance period is therefore relegated to a nook in which his importance is undermined and cast out of alignment. A dedicated reading of Senior’s poetry may even locate some of his writing as indeed being from a “foster son” to a land he held in reverie and esteem.







“Music. Death.”: A Personal Note.

Kandy City and the suburbs in 2001 – if the blurb is to give you a lead, Music. Death. is a story of several interfused threads that are anchored on that year, almost a decade and a half from the present time: a time not too far away from where we are, but a time which belongs to a world running on the last cogwheels of the expiring “analog age”. What can one say of Kandy – the Hill so-called Capital – at a time where the first pirated CDs were still fresh on the shops of record bars, and Kandy’s first (better than) Majestic City type shopping mall was ten years from coming? Music. partly an effort to retrieve an ambiance and impulse of a late 90s and early 00s, through the movements of a group of adolescents, all ready to take the world.

bookWhen I first started writing the book, it was simply meant to be a retrieval act of innocence and vulnerability: a way of narrativizing a culture, a way of life and an atmosphere which wouldn’t have known the next decade to be; both, for me and for those around me. The story is delivered through the perspective of a mid teen school boy with poetic and musical preoccupations, and deals with his close and not-that-close milieu with whom he moves from one millennium to another. Part of the story is about music – the kind of cultish occupations of the above cliques, for music is what binds them and energizes their interaction. References are made to the seriousness with which some of these persons took their music and the time and energy they put into it, improvising and rehearsing.

In the year 2001, the present Arpico Super Mulgampola was a decade from its origins. Alliance Francaise de Kandy was at 412, Peradeniya Road, couched between the Excise Office and Hameedia’s. Mobile phones were still quite 1G, reality was more tangible, and dreams were all the more real. Sri Lankan Rugby heartthrob Fazil Marija was sitting for his O-Levels, Romesh Sugathapala was already a musical genius while still in his A-Level class, Mirshad of Paranoid Earthling was at the threshold of that decade-and a half-long musical journey and Nalaka Weerakkodi was kicking goals from his left foot and his right: all within the Kandt city limits. The people referred to in the novel have, by now, grown steadily and surely out of shape from what roles they were playing in that different planet, and those that have taken their places on Mother Earth would hardly ever be that tender to play the same roles of 2001: Music. Death. is about a diverse music and a varied death across layers and levels, in a self-consciously slim novel capturing that escape-unworthy past.

R7A8348-150x150Among the early respondents to the book are my good friends Lakshan Bandara – who calls it an “ambitious project to relive lost innocence” – and Nipuni Ranaweera, who is generous in calling the text “tender” in its retrieval of a “nostalgic” past. The avatars of their adolescent selves have been inspirational in casting some of the characters and in creating some of the situations. The Mulgampola suburb, Primrose Hill, Anniewatte and Katukele sidewalks, hotels, eating joints and hang out spaces of the city center, music stars, rugby legends, Kumar Sangakkaras, and teenage tempers: these threads were, at one point, a bit too convoluted for my own liking that, for the management and aesthetic cohesion of the narrative, four chapters had to be removed – to be thrown into the “deleted scenes” bin. But, for readers who like to read what I write as autobiographical confessions and such, Music. Death. (I dare to presume) could be the missing limb.

(Music. Death. will not be in bookshops since I have, for the time being, given up dealing with such people. But, the book will be delivered upon request. It is after all not 2001, but the zenith of communicational genuis. To let us know is all it takes)

Social Justice Amidst Ignorance: HIV Positive

16-014-e1361641358540The latest on the extremely unacceptable and disheartening affair to do with young Rahal – or, as media idiocy has since re-baptized him: the “boy from Kuliyapitiya” – is a photo of Trinity College administration led by their Principal AJ Fowler-Watt, signing an MOU with Minister of Education, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, confirming the interest Trinity had earlier shown in admitting the young child to their illustrious institute.

If this young child enters Trinity, Kandy, it is surely an admission into a big old tie school, owing to the ignorance, idiocy and intolerance of his Kuliyapitiya Sambodhi Primary School’s PTA – and thereby, one might even argue, a blessing in disguise of sorts – but, this in no way addresses the more serious issue of justice the young Rahal faced when his right to education in the school of his choice was blocked at that tender age of six; that too, entirely owing to external forces such as social prejudice. While Trinity has thrown a lifeline to give this child a home, the issue that the authorities have grossly mishandled is Rahal’s right to education in the legit school of his choice.

3f574526178cf27e0034cfb3dbd66947_lFrom beginning to end, the young boy’s case was highlighted for the wrong reasons and was made a topic in public forums leaving enough space for a backward society’s perverse interest in the “uncanny” and “uncouth” to emerge. When the media first brought the issue to light, the emphasis was on the young boy’s deceased father, a victim of HIV. What was being excited was the curiosity and abhor of HIV/AIDS , of which Lankan society has scant education of; but, which they are culturally-tuned to reject, as abominable. HIV, to the average Sri Lanka, also has connotations of immorality and sexual inappropriateness. The media thrived on these variables, playing mindgames with its ignorant and idiotic audience.

However, as the immediate practical issue, the boy’s education came to the fore, and footage was shared of angry parents protesting against the child’s admission to Sambodhi Primary school. One of their moves was to boycott school by holding their children back, from attending session. Officers and authorities that came to explain the nitty-gritty of HIV were told to back down by the same PTA agents. In fact, this is where – as reported – Zahira, Kurunegala and Trinity, Kandy, came with their offers to absorb the school-less boy. To liberal-minded cyber travelers, this was a benevolent move which put the extinguisher on their collective outrage. But, very soon, we saw for some alumni (and fans) of the would-be-foster school, the offer made by their college became a chest-thumping extravaganza: a small spotlight of sorts to brag and huzzah after their own, while the act of compassion now became a Facebook-act of comparison.

ranjan_ramanayakaAmidst the growing hype and popular interest, Deputy Minister Ranjan Ramanayake, visits the boy at his home and even gets the mother of the child to speak to the President – on speakerphone and with a camera crew making a close documentation of it. A Facebook post – as these posts often do – then drew out the religious belly of the whole issue: that there were a “Muslim” and “Catholic” (Anglican, really) school vying for adoption, but that the FB-poster was saddened that there was no “Sinhala Buddhist” school making the same offer. Almost around the same time, a second post was circulated that “Catholic” Trinity should be “banned” as it was trying to bring HIV to the “pure city of the Buddhists” – Kandy. Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe entered the already muddied bull ring relatively late, expressing that the young Rahal should be facilitated at either Ananda, Colombo, or Kingswood, Kandy. His was a cameo later entrant’s line, in a farce that had already seen too much spectacle.

So, most likely, Rahal will enter Trinity College and resume his education in the coming days. He, born to the Kurunegala district, who gained rightful legit admission to a school of his choice, will be thus relocated to a school – a bigger, hypothetically better school nonetheless – in a different district, four hours away. From an ignorant standpoint, what more can a village boy ask for, where all for him seems to have ended well? Had Lanka been a more educated, considerate and reasonable society, the first act of discretion would have been to manage better the way the incident was transmitted through media. It takes no rocket scientist to highlight the sensitivity of this young child’s issue. At a pure personal level, being dragged in the uncanny limelight as being an “HIV threat”, or your father being condemned (as implied) as being immoral or questionable can irrevocably break the spirit of a six year old. Even if not, there are basic ethics and protocols that should make good journalism a responsible trade. In Lanka, today, none of these exist for the paparazzi type gossip mongering that is given the thin cover of “journalism”.

bf02142b75a6411469557e285a700ee5_XLSecondly, what Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and the other relevant authorities have done is treat the foot by injecting the shoulder: they have failed in addressing the root issue of the crisis. Rahal being admitted to Trinity, for the impoverished masses who can only curse the kid’s luck and who know very well that they cannot in a lifetime have their own child at Trinity, is “divine justice” in a narrow Greek-tragedy sense. Pragmatically, the superstition and stubbornness of a parent body carried the day by successfully barring the schooling of a child, whose right to education is the purview of the ministry and minister concerned. Their policy and practical implementations, on the other hand, cannot look back over the shoulder to see whether there’s a Trinity or a Zahira ready to dispatch a rescue crew. Their policy should safeguard the basic premise and dignity of all children of all schools, against all external and internal pressure. The education ministry and minister, in other words, cannot hail demagoguery and thug culture of parental mobs.

When the next actress who “leaks” her half nude photos hit Facebook and Youtube next week, and when the next monk who finds an elephant in his temple’s backyard is produced before a magistrate, the cyber-monger will most likely move on in her/his social media interests; and Rahal, most likely, will be relegated off the spotlight and the issue the young boy faced, as far as the hawkish spirits of the media/society is concerned, will thus “cease to exist”. But, cases like Rahal’s is enough to make one wonder as to where we, in 2016, are heading as a society, and as to where our civil participation is as a responsible and sensible corps. More importantly, it is a bitter eyeopener as to how narrow and ignorant we are in our knee-deep churning of superstition and idiocy, starting from Kuliyapitiya parent to minister of education. Enough to make one do an abhinishkramanaya, for clearly, a “Rahula” has been born in our society’s inability to be open and inclusive in an age of technology and advance. Rather, the very technology and instruments that make accessibility more regular seem to have narrowed us further and further into a widening abyss.