A Game of Lies — On Vihanga Perera’s “The Fear of Gambling”.

Vihanga has always been a predictable person and I told him that much way back in 2002. His surface “my shoes don’t match” attitude is a mask. At its worst, it is a flimsy barrier he uses to keep people off his back. It has been many years since our brief friendship was, and one loses count of the numbers of it, though memories of moments linger. I get an e.mail inquiring after my current address – and this, too, by a man who claims in The Fear of Gambling to have “walked away from the past” – and it is followed by the book which comes to me by post. The past is something you can’t walk away from and which you reinterpret for hard cash. Vihanga does just that.

You can disguise characters, you can manipulate moments as you reinterpret them, but predictably, the masking – like Vihanga’s mask – is not done properly. Maybe, the whole idea is to leave the butt side out, cuz the whole writing exercise of the book is a kind of a game with the past – that is how I understood the Fear of Gambling. I am referred to in the book as “Dylan” the guitarist and much of what is connected with me is factually wrong. As an example, I have never recorded with the artist Ranidu Lankage (“Ramindu”, as Vihanga loosely disguises him) and I haven’t had depression over my studio being broken into. Again, it is MY studio that was burgled and not the studio belonging to “Vivek”, as Vihanga puts it down.

Vihanga also predicts my future yet to be – as I understand, the first chapter where Vihanga’s hero VK (another loose disguise) meets “Dylan” that action is seen to be in the future. In that Star Trek setting “Dylan” is indifferent to Vihanga and he sits in a luxury couch in a VIP suite. A woman – given to be a hooker (maybe not) – is seated on “Dylan’s” side. There’s a half emptied drinks cabinet. Why is Vihanga so imaginative in drawing up these caricatures? What past is he running away from, even as he states that it is mere recollection? If my fortunes are to change to that degree, surely, the Fear of Gamblingis my book. But, in that book what I see is the writer’s own anxious self – the tension of what he couldn’t become, though he had the potential.

The Pinocchio act

Back as late teens we had our own dreams and ambitions. The one to “pretend” not to have an ambition was Vihanga Perera. The Chapter 4 episode where “Dylan”, “Shenali”, “Nethra” and “VK” (I use inverted commas cuz these are all manipulations) are sitting singing “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles is a crafty reassemble of several scenes. I remember meeting Vihanga and Shamil Dias (now in Swinburn, Australia) several times, checking out lyrics and singing 60s and 70s songs. Vihanga was a fanatic of the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. In fact, this is one reason the relationship bloomed to the level it did. He hung out with another guy from his own college, but was generally known to be detached – like us. It is this reason and the common list of genius that first drew us together.

However, the song “Dylan” sings in the book – “Panuweku Lesin” – (p.45) is a cartoon representation of the kind of jingles Shamil used to try out on my guitar. Then, again, the place where “Norwegian Wood” is sung it was me, Vihanga and Shamil who would have actually been present. However, in the book you find two female friends who simply cannot have been in my room – it is more like an adaptation from an Alliance Francaise around-the-table chat. Of course, I am aware that writers can use their imagination and make different images out of their memories and the past. Michael Ondaatje, the famous Canadian writer, does this with effect in his book Running In the Family. But, Vihanga Perera’s issue is that he takes a holier stance and attempts to snub the rest of all – drawing caricatures and cartoon images.

Captured in 2008

The scene in the “future”, set 6 years from today, is a deliberate negative portrayal of “Dylan”. In this portrayal – the only such scene set in the future – “Dylan” is snubbed for forgetting the past and the people he used to “gig with”. This comes from a man who is comfortably nested in the home climate, engaged in a regular comfortable job, who has time for writing – but, one who has forgotten or left out all friends that “hung out” back then. On the other hand, some of us have migrated (temporarily) and live rough deals to make life running. The occasional e.mail or FB line from old friends from Kandy is a solace. Some of those friends keep regular touch and needs not to write separately to ask for a “current address”; because, the address remains current in their personal pads. The writer, therefore, paints “Dylan” as a snobbish, coarse materialist – but, the snobbary is an anxiety that has stayed back with Vihanga.

One theme that touched me, however, is the “political theme” which Vihanga carries through the book. In bringing out the narrator’s response to the closing stages of the North-East War, Vihanga cashes on the desperation and loss of hope many of us felt. Being in Melbourne at the time, the uncertainty and fear felt by hundreds of our Tamil friends who I meet habitually was a horror movie sequence only a human can feel. At St. Anthony’s, we had a Tamil brotherhood, whom we naturally embraced from a young age. When I spoke against the JVP and their ethnic politics in 2001/02 (during the Norwegian intervention) Vihanga’s stance was as dubious as the man himself. He never acknowledged he sympathized with the JVP, but he had an anxiety of being unable to sympathize with them. But, it is good to see that some of his views have changed over the years. But, what is his political stance? His solution to the gross privatization and militarization of the country?

Vihanga is disturbed by the current UPFA regime, but he does not attack or deal bluntly with it. Either he hides behind a rugby match, or satirizes the government’s billboard culture etc etc. But, is satire enough for the issues faced by Sri Lanka? He more openly questions the feeble Opposition. He questions Mr. Hakeem for crossing over after receiving the narrator’s vote (one might say that Hakeem, by his crossing, is now not Opposition anymore – but, I hope my point is made). He makes a jibe at Ranil Wickramasinghe’s weak leadership. So, appearing as a hero who questions autocracy he actually sides with such despotism by being a writer without a proper politics. He has sentiment and emotion alright. But, that is hardly what we need at this moment. Our country (and the diaspora) is overcharged by them right now.

tomahawk_69 (person dressed as “Dylan” in the book)

NOTE:

My promise to the writer was that I will run the views he present as they would be submitted to me; and here I keep the word. I also thank the self-appointed “Dylan in the book” (since I have made no such admissions anywhere) for being so kind in writing to me in spite of my weakness of being a weak “keeping in toucher” . Perhaps, other priorities in life have parted once close friends / acquaintances. Hence, this generous gesture is much appreciated.

– Vihanga Perera.

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