Grow Up Like a President

Muthu Padmakumara’s The Poor Child’s Friend – a translation of Denagama Siriwardena’s 2009 collection of stories – is, in my opinion, a recommended for all young adolescents. The stories collect the times and days of a young Mahinda Rajapakshe, with carefully mediated snapshots from his childhood in deep Southern Hambantota, to his later days as a brimming youth at Thurstan College. The stories amalgamate a series of heroic values and chivalrous accents which, in a mainstream view, can be “desired” in a growing up adolescent. From honesty, tolerance, empathy, practicality, unassuming generosity to “constructive” use of force, in the young Mahinda are characterized the retrospective clay which an ambitious writer would predictably identify with the head of state. But, that is yet another topic to ponder on.

The stories in The Poor Child’s Friend are collected in a simple, if unforced English, which is the chief reason which made me locate “adolescence” as the target reader group. If this is not the case I beg to be excused my judgment. However, the childhood story of the President is spotless in “fitting” with the story / values of his later years as a young politician – an identity which (most certainly in propaganda) has been centrally infused with the Buddhist-Sinhala cultural sheen, of him being a “non-elite”, commoner’s bosom etc. In many ways, The Poor Child’s Friend seeks to justify these later variables on which the Rajapakshe political dynasty was to expand.

There is much chicken soup in these friendly stories for the concerned soul and each chapter unveils yet another holy quality for benefit of the willing learner. The humility and humbleness of the Rajapakshe clan is inherited and is memorably recorded where D.A. Rajapakshe, the hero’s father, rejects the “popular demand” that he should contest for the by-election upon his brother’s death. When a concerned lawyer friend brings the nomination sheets for the candidate’s signature, Rajapakshe Senior is in the paddyfields with the rest of the villagers, whose unanimous and timourous cry makes him finally give in. the member-to-be is assured that he does not need to “work for” the election; that they (the people) will do the needful.

The young Mahinda is seen to be an extension of that same benevolent spirit. He is often seen in the open fields, rubbing his shoulders with the farmers’ and herders’ off spring, though much to the dismay of his Colombo relatives. In fact, the young boy prefers the common villager to his urban kindred. Later, while at a leading Colombo school he speaks on behalf of the needy and the under-privileged, snubbing mischief caused by the wealthy socialite schoolmates. He is seen to have a strong sense of good and evil, social injustice and awareness, which, to the dismay of non-patiortic germs, later become the chief laurels of his regime.

Some poor friends grow old faster

When there is a villager hospitalized in Colombo, the young Mahinda is seen to readily cut classes at school and visit the patient – a quality which is pedantically submitted to an altogether different generation of readers. With Mahinda missing from school, the parents are sent for; and the young would-be politician readily reveals his compassionate cause, winning parental praise. In another episode which highlights the growing greatness of the young Mahinda, the canteen-runner of the school has a problem where students steal food from his shop. When the fellow complains of this to the Principal, the latter directs the canteen owner to Mahinda who, by then, is a senior student. Mahinda duly intervenes and settles the issue while apprehending a group of “wealthy kids” as the culprits.

The overbearing influence of the Buddhist clergy in Rajapakshe affairs, too, is embossed. From the earliest days and in every important matter undertaken the clerical advices are duly observed. Reading The Poor Child’s Friend one is reminded of great nation-building epics such as The Aeneid by Virgil, where similar heroic qualities to those signified in this discussion can be located in relation to a “national destiny”. In Mahinda Rajapakshe, too, a nation is defined along with the qualities, connotaitons, sentiments and priorities which that nation, in turn, is expected to uphold.

The foreword to the book is written by the late Mendis Rohanadeera – a one time academic attached to the Vidyodaya / Sri Jayawardenepura University: where Mahinda Rajapakshe, too, is said to have briefly worked as a library assistant. A lifetime activist of the SLFP, Rohanadeera complements in his introduction the very “sense of life” the writer strives to attribute to the Rajapakshe clan. He nostalgically evokes the 1960s where, as a young activist, he used to visit the Rajapakshe walauva in Hambantota, even as Mahinda the kid used to run about at play.

The valuable lessons to be learnt from the Mahinda Rajapakshe childhood constitute a neat moral text which amply modulates how tradition and culture nurtures the young soul of greatness. As our past and present are inter-reflexive, a childhood inculcated with upright national values and generosity has resulted in the man of many visionary projects, whose paternal wings extend protection to an entire nation. Though retrospectively recorded, the childhood signs of Mahinda’s heroism-to-be have since come true in his tenure (though limitless) as a fearless defender of the nation, a humble follower of the clergy and a true friend of the poor child.

 [Written to the Nation. Can also be ironically read].

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