“Superman” and the Stagnation of Time and Space.

“ඊළගට විප්ලවවාදී අවකාශය තුල ජවිපෙ නොවන ජවිපෙ සමග තරගකාරීව කටයුතු කළ යම් යම් විප්ලවවාදී සංවිධාන මතු වීම තුළ දයා ඔවුන් සමග සංවාදයක් ඇති කරගෙන විකල්ප සංවිධානය හැටියට නම් දැරූ අපේ සංවිධානයත් එක්ක සබදතා පැවැත්වූවා. පසුකාලීනව මාක්ස්වාදී බුද්ධිමතුන් හැටියට නම් දරාපු දයාට වඩා ඒ පිලිබදව න්‍යා‍ය හදාරපු අය ස්විධීන ශිෂ්‍ය සංගමයෙන් මතු වුණා. තිසරණී, නිර්මාල්, සේරසුන්දර, ලෙනාඩ්, චන්ද්‍රප්‍රේම වගේ සුවිශේෂී චරිත සැලකිය හැකියි” — (අනෝමා ජනාදරී පුනරාගමනය, පි. 223).

*****

On the final day of Superman, a short play co-written by Praveen Tilakaratne and Piumi Wijesundara that ran for three nights last week at the University of Colombo, the Students’ Union of the Colombo Arts Faculty was sawing wood for a project of their own, at the Faculty entrance, using electronic saws. Since Superman was staged along the corridors of the second floor of the same building, the saws at work downstairs punctuated and super-imposed Superman on at least three instances within the hour of performance. Though involuntary, and utterly an absurd coincidence, the parallel between the Students’ Union’s sawing wood downstairs and the more monolingual upper middle class audience upstairs watching a (largely) English play was, in synchronization, a cathartic moment. More of that, later.

christopher reeves

Christopher Reeves as Superman

Praveen’s and Piumi’s play gathers momentum as the retrospection of a senile university lecturer, as he looks back on the late 1980s: the years of the Reign of Terror. The pragmatics of the play are simple enough – the said university don, Piyal Fernando, who (as we later learn) is accused of sexual assault and of exciting cultism within the university, transports us to his own youth, spent in the university cocooned in his own upper middle class “above-the-poverty line” assortment of booze, music and idealistic theorizing among his likeminded university ilk. While thus, around him/them, a far more ominous political situation is seen unfolding, as we learn (through snippets) of the Bheeshana Samaya unleashing fangs on the university as well. As his reminiscing happens with the lecturer (in present time) at one end of the theatrical space, Piyal’s ruminations of the past are dramatized on the other end. Through the fragmented, selective memory and deliberations, we patch up a “failed youth”, where the politically-savvy and idealistically rich Piyal is in discourse with a body that varies in temperament. Some of his close followers seem to have a serious disposition towards Piyal’s views, while others, like SK – his happy-go-lucky chum – seems to be more inclined in the depth of the “bottle” that often accompanies the “political discourses”, than in the depth of Piyal’s mind. The dramatization, however, is of a context where politics is an “excuse” and an idealism for word-lending.

The more ominous and compelling political threads of the time – militant and pragmatic forces that lacked the classed-couch which renders the Wordsworthian spirit to politics, as well as the class security which allows politics to be masturbation – are represented by Dayasiri who, as I understood that character, was representative of the JVP (though, ironically, the first we hear the word “Dayasiri”, some of us are more inclined to spontaneously think of Daya Pathirana of the ISU – more resonant of Piyal Fernando’s line than the late-80s JVP’s). In a later section, Dayasiri is reported to us as having being killed and his girlfriend shyamali as being left behind, pregnant. A reference to a “poet” – Richard de Zoysa incognito – is repeatedly made at the risk of it sounding a bit self-conscious; and his abduction and murder, too, are revealed through Natalie towards the latter stages. Earlier, de Zoysa’s “Talking of Michelangelo” is shared with the House by young Piyal: ironically, as an echo of his own ambivalence of being an agent trapped within the middle class netting, while being conscious of the limitations of his class and position; while, critiquing it, he is yet unable to surpass or supersede that matrix.

super1

Cast and support of ‘Superman’

Almost three decades later, Piyal Fernando still floats within the Academy and the middle and upper middle class orientation of the Academy as an institute. He confesses that his aim was to make his students see beyond the rut, but, much like the “poet” in de Zoysa’s poem, Piyal has only successed in becoming a fossil within the destructive logic of the institute defined by the very culture that he strives to lay bare and expose. Being written, produced and acted at the University of Colombo (for, the authors and actors were majorly from that university), Superman made me reflect on numerous academics at that university who, being ideologically honed and politically active as students and young lecturers, had survived 1988-90, to see generations of students (whom they would have wanted to share their ideals and beliefs with) drink deep into the very wine of evil which they, in spite of their classed, anemic, theoric application, rallied against, for a generation and a half. Among a pantheon of such men of letters and ideals, no postulation of a superman – an ideal by itself – was found; and the energy that would have fed the to-be-superman was, with time, invariably and unfailingly redirected to the middle class mainstream from which it emerged.

Let us now return to the parallel of the play and the electronic saw. English Departments, as a whole, are often chastised as the more “elite” student enclaves in the Arts, across the island. Even in the smaller universities, the staff and studentship of the English Departments, in my experience, are thus seen through a politically-nuanced lens, and more often than not the persons affiliated to these Departments often and give credence to that view, as well. Of all English Departments, Colombo is arguably the most elite and most elitist of such formations, where matters of class, pedigree and exclusiveness are concerned. The more critical minded and inclusive persons attached to English Departments (in Colombo and elsewhere) – students or staff – spend a great amount of time and energy indirectly/directly “apologizing” for being a member of that community with which she/he is identified. The electric saw downstairs, a part of a preparation for a “mass cause” by the general student body, is externally representative of Dayasiri’s role within the play. The play – in the same context – would then qualify as the bourgeois, middle class preoccupation of a small English speaking community which the play, by itself, holds to critique. The very disparity of classes which constitute political action (or inaction, vocalized as idealism, chatter-amidst-booze etc) is thus doubly dramatized, even though we already know that Dayasiri would ultimately die.

The postscript to my viewing Superman happened two days later at the Sri Jayewardenapura University. While walking across the university premises I came head on with five intimidating-looking men (possibly students of the university, probably not) giving “talk” to four freshers who were lined up before them in a manner which, from afar, seemed like “verbal ragging”. For some reason, I intervened and, with the permission of the intimidators, called the freshers aside and shared a few inconsequential words. It was a symbolic gesture that would only benefit my conscience, and no one else.

06Afterwards, the five men surrounded me and, in confrontation, asked me who I am etc. Clearly, at Jayawardenapura, there seems to be no tradition of ragging being interfered with because the five men, with me, seemed to be encountering a novel situation. They were, for one, tangibly defensive, and as if reading me the “riot act”, proceeded to tell me how there is a “subculture” in university and how they have a right to talk to freshers and so forth – all this, with me not even saying a syllable to the contrary. Their speech, in other words, was one rehearsed and tailored – their notion of “subculture” a sad remnant from pre-1987: a fossil and detritus of an age far bygone. But, these intellectual and ideological Liliputians of the Students’ Movement – agents I have often spoken for, in spite of my political misgivings of the IUSF – are the ones who have undertaken the challenge of steadying the ship of Education: the stand ins for the Dayasiris of yore, in a context where the Piyals of today cannot ever contribute in spirit or representation to the Struggle as it has evolved to be in the present time.

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