“Upanayaka Upatissa Gamanayake”: An Important Addition from the Expatriate Literary Desk.

upanayake-upathissa-gamanayake_frontOf the Sri Lankan Literature of diasporic and expatriate spaces, the work of Rohitha Munasinghe, to me, is of crucial significance. This is a fact that I have iterated frequently through this space and other arenas where I have had reason to evaluate the Lankan Literature of expatriation. For one, Rohitha, since his self-imposed exile in 1991 – and more particularly in the last decade or so – has been producing at a rate which, at its best, can be said to be enviable: in the past 3 years alone he has managed to make available through his Sri Lankan publisher 5 works of fiction and biography. Secondly, Rohitha’s contribution through literature is significant for many contemporary readers – specially, those born / raised in the post-1987 period – as they table, at varying degrees, “witness observations” of the brutal Reign of Terror (1987-1990), which saw the extra-judicial murder of at least 60,000 Sri Lankans in the South alone. Rohitha himself was a victim of the state violence of this period, from which he barely saved his life, and which became the immediate cause of his exile to France in 1991.

Among Munasinghe’s more noted biographical work are Eliyakandha Vadha Kandawura (translated into English by Bhadraji Mahinda Jayathilake as Eliyakandha Torture Camp),  Sisira Mudalali, Rangala Preme (a biography on the last days of J.V.P frontliner Ragama Somey), Adaraneeya Gabba and two volumes on the “less known facts” of the J.V.P; particularly following its extra-judicial expulsion by the state military and paramilitary. In more recent years, Rohitha has branched off into fiction: work that often anchor on the lives of ordinary and common folk in the South of Sri Lanka, in which he focuses on the day-to-day struggles of communities straitjacketed by culture and various clamps of social stratification. However, among these diverse growing interests, Munasinghe’s Upanayaka, Upatissa Gamanayake (2016) detains the reader’s imagination for two main reasons.

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Gamanayake and other J.V.P frontliners in a May Day rally prior proscription.

This biographical sketch is anchored on the life and death of the Secretary of the J.V.P from 1984 to 1989: the man often hailed as the “second in command” of the uprising of 1987. and the second in the “wanted” list by the government during that anarchic phase. Rohitha Munasinghe presents us through his biography an illustration of Gamanayake, tracing his life from his younger years to the time he was a diehard revolutionary, as has rarely been done in Literature in any of the Sri Lankan languages. Even in political science and sociological texts available in the mainstream, very little reference is made to Gamanayake, even though Rohana Wijeweera is abundantly represented (and, one may add, misrepresented). One reason could be the actual absence of detail regarding Gamanayake who, even if we go by Rohitha’s  own hint, has lived a relatively obscure life for the greater part of his activist years. In fact, when we read the biography, we are challenged by sections where we feel a dearth of detail and a frugality of record. But, then, again, Rohitha has tried to work around these loopholes and provide the lay-reader a side to the J.V.P top layer as not available in the mainstream.

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One of the few available iconic images of Gamanayake

One of Rohitha’s key analysis has to do with the nature in which both Wijeweera and Gamanayake were rounded up by the state military almost within a day of each other. While Wijeweera was apprehended while living in cognito at an estate in Ulapane, Gamanayake was “picked up” from Bandaragama, where he had been posing as a small time merchant, “Dias Mudalali”. The ever-vigilant Gamanayake, along with his onetime cadre spouse Karunawathie, have been moving from location to location at the merest suspicion of having “created a suspicion”, ever since the J.V.P’s proscription. By 1989, Karuna had set up  a prospering sewing business with several machines and workers employed at a domestic level. One observation Munasinghe makes is of this growing sense of “domestication” of the Gamanayake household which may have, at some level, come into friction with the “guerilla knack” of quick movement and vigilance. He extends the same hypothesis in his reference to Wijeweera, who, on the eve his capture had been warned to remove from Ulapane, but is said to have delayed his withdrawal on account of one of his children.

Literature that refers to the 1987-90 period has been shy and slow in entering the mainstream until very recent publications which gradually seem to open out that dark phase for wider consumption. In English, such literature is most minimal, with writers like A.C. Alles, C.A. Chandraprema and Rohan Gunarathna writing in the immediate aftermath of the crushing of the J.V.P; and with a vigour and slant to match the state’s battle cry and often even justifying the extreme means through which the counter-offensive was carried out. At least one of these writers is widely acknowledged to have had close links with the very paramilitary that was known for the running of torture and slaughter houses in the very heart of the metropolis. Whatever non-state narratives of the 1987-90 period exists in a slim body, as found in the writings of Prins Gunasekara, who writes A Lost Generation (1998) from exile.

In Sinhala, literature of a non-establishment line on 1987-90 is more promising, but is, again, of more recent growth. Of more recent authority, Dharman Wickramaratne’s Ja.Vi.Pe Dhevana Karella (“The Second Rebellion of the J.V.P” – supposedly the first of a two-part edition) has courted the popular reader as a revelation of many “inside aspects” of the uprising, its trajectory and its subsequent quelling. In fact, Wickramaratne makes reference in detail to the complex political web at the time, offering snippets as well as annotated commentary that help “fill the spaces” of a jigsaw puzzle which is otherwise under-represented in the mainstream. As such, Wickramaratne adds to the work of writers such as, among others, Prasanna Sanjeewa Tennakoon, Udeni Saman Kumara and Ruwan Jayathunga, whose efforts at permeating the mainstream with dislocated narratives of conflict I have acknowledged through this space in earlier instances as well.

One may, indeed, identify in Rohitha’s writing a persistent thread of nostalgia. This, in fact, is a palpable trait of his biographical work and intersects his writing exercise even in his non-political prose. The more complex political circumstances of the day do not get voiced with their nuances and ambiguities in his book on Gamanayake (much like the book on Ragama Somey written in 2002), and that absence of depth in capturing the political mire of the age is laid bare if Upanayake Upatissa Gamanayake is juxtaposed with Wickramaratne’s recent text. Yet, it is also to be understood that the ambitiousness of Wickramaratne’s project goes far beyond what Rohitha Munasinghe seems to aim at as a writer. And for Rohitha, his illustration of Gamanayake is one stop of an ongoing journey in providing missing slates to revisit and reread a phase of history disfigured with much blood, death, denial, erasure and imposed-amnesia.

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The Death of Anne Ranasinghe and the Life of Literature Studies in Sri Lanka.

05Anne Ranasinghe, poet and holocaust survivor, passed away last week and was buried three days later in Colombo, two continents away from her native Essen, where she relaunched her life as a poet and cultural icon, after a ruptured youth affected by Nazi rule in Germany in the 1930s, and world war II. Personally, Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry was never among my favourite, nor was her writing progressive in my eye; but, notwithstanding, Ranasinghe is arguably one of the two best known and most widely read Lankan poets of post-independence: the other being, Jean Arasanayagam. From syllabuses to anthologies, and from academic papers to newspaper articles, Anne Ranasinghe’s work is widely represented for the right and wrong reasons. Her death brings down the lid on another of the generation of Lankan writers who have steadily contributed to the national literature corpus from the 1970s, through the 80s and 1990s.

Upon close analysis, Ranasinghe’s literary corpus is, in a word, somewhat repetitive in theme and scope, while her range is limited. Her social consciousness is, again, restricted by her classed, elite location as a member of the upper end of Colombo 7’s Rosmead Place, while her empathy with and reception of the culture and pulse of the soil appears to be superficial at best, and minimal otherwise. Her poetry is a reflection of these rubrics that give shape to her voice and delivery, and have been placed in perspective by writers such as Dhanuka Bandara who, in 2015, wrote a provocative – if cheeky – essay on Ranasinghe’s work, range and her call to fame (See link here ) .

How, then does a writer, who is largely monotonous and repetitive, comparatively lacking in social and cultural insight, politically disconnected with Lanka and its social, economic and political fates, and who is not necessarily a progressive experimenter in structure, style or craft end her career at 91 or so, as one of the most widely read Lankan poets? Partly, this is an indirect outcome of the good work by education policy-makers and syllabus-setters of the Lankan school, diploma and university systems who, by perpetuating Ranasinghe within the corpuses read and studied at these levels, has inject to her work a fetish value, endorsing it as a selection undiscardable from the classroom. It is evident that the various literature syllabi have a key role in the value addition to some writers, and the doing away with of others, thereby setting the measurements of canonization and legitimization of “literature” from the “not-so-literary”. The role of the syllabus-setter and her aptitude as a designer of literary value and cultivator of literary taste has to be therefore briefly examined.

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Tarzie Vitachchi

If one is to consider the GCE Ordinary and Advance Level syllabuses for English Literature as (convenient) examples, the confusion and chaos in the syllabus design, as well as the directionlessness of the planning reveals to us the grim reality that faces literature studies at the national level. One of the prominent cogs of the GCE Ordinary Level syllabus-designer machine has had no substantial exposure to literature in a B.A classroom beyond the one fourth of a dozen texts offered in the heavily Language Studies-oriented Distance Learning first degree through which he has qualified into the Academy. To my knowledge, he is yet to complete his postgraduate requirements, but is since long being used as a vital resource in national syllabus design at the highest level by bodies such as the NIE. The GCE A/L syllabus is an even sadder tragedy of errors, where a strange mixture of incompetence, greed for recognition, lack of awareness of the ground conditions and lack of insight into the student sample have produced two farcical syllabuses (including the syllabus set to be introduced in 2017) in the past decade or so. The syllabus designers and (so-called) coursebook-writers at the GCE A/L  Literature include (at least more than) one person who often show(s) abysmal spoken and written competency, while the team also includes persons who have no in depth exposure to Literature in graduate environments. It is deductive that none of these syllabus-designers have any knowledge of the classroom conditions or of the student samples they are assigned to accommodate by the syllabus they are meant to design. The 2011-2017 teachers’ guide is a shocking document, cheap and erratic, while displaying an amateurish  and straight-laced approach to literature that is alarming and – to say the least – hazardous to the growth of scholarship. It is one of the most scandalous documents I have encountered in my life, and this is not entirely owing to its free and liberal use of Wikipedia and Spark Notes-type material.

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Vihanga Perera

The composition of the recent GCE syllabus-setter was used here to illustrate the creative and imaginative inadequacy of the steering force in literature education in as seen in recent years. The GCE A/L syllabuses from 1974 to the present will most certainly keep the doctor away (but the mental health inspector at close quarters), with its repetitive recycling and rehashing of a series of texts and writers, set within a rigid, firmly-set rubric. The syllabus policy, I am told, is for a syllabus to be exhausted after an eight year run. As such, we have between 1986 and 2017 three syllabuses, each one having a set structure that has gone unchanged and unaltered for 30 years. The same goes for the bulk of the syllabuses’ core content and selections. Of the three syllabuses of the defined frame, perhaps, the syllabus in use from 1997 to 2010 is the better and more progressive one. The syllabus currently in use, as well as the proposed syllabus set to be initiated in 2017 are both the work of a collective Frankenstein.

The cult status of Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry is partly the by product of imbecility at work. Perhaps, at one point, in a given moment, at particular juncture of Lankan literature’s evolutionary growth, Anne Ranasinghe may have produced a certain meaningfully locatable body of verse. But, clearly, the Academy has failed to receive her work critically, or to place her comparatively in the pantheon of our rhyming bards. One example is the increasingly diminished position a writer like Lakdas Wikkramasinha receives in university as well as GCE classrooms. Wikkramasinha, even in our time and age, is a unique and powerful voice, though he died as far back as 1978. Arguably, Peradeniya is the only university that still teaches a palpable corpus of Wikkramasinha’s writing; and that, too, might change with senior scholars such as Nihal Fernando and Arjuna Parakrama being led away from chalk and Chaucer by their ultimate retirements. Sri Jayewardenepura has its own full course of Sri Lankan Literature that enables a more detailed and focused study, but in heavily gendered English departments and with some deplorably theory-laden teachers, Lakdas Wikkramasinha has shrunk to an under-represented, innoucuously read fossil, referred to in a line or two which does no justice to his nuance and often multi-faceted and vibrant delivery. The disfigurement of Lakdas is so acute that even his name has, over the years, changed in its vowels: from Lakdas, to Lakdasa (refer to his Luster Poems for Wikkramasinha’s preferred spelling of his name).

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The result of having the wrong people in the wrong places

I also suggest that a second – if at all a more forceful – factor that dictates Ranasinghe’s regal presence as an icon of Lankan English poetry is her non-Lankan origin. In his scathing poem Talking of Michelangelo Richard de Zoysa scoffs at the English literary hood of Lanka (himself included) as a double-faced, hypocritical entity that has its windows tight against social reality. The English literary sphere is often equally the bearer of colonial hang ups, and one that assigns fetish price tags to Caucasian expatriates. The adoration of average white-skinned B.A (General degree) holders by upper middle class, new capitalist parents in choice international schools in Greater Colombo often collapses the compartments of time, stringing in one extending chain of events the coffee and tea-cultivating Brit, the long migrated writer whom we still like to call “ours”, and the white-skinned educator we  hunger after to make the Principal of our otherwise half brown-skinned school. Ranasinghe’s work, I suggest, has been more readily accepted owing to her “past” and the survivor tale with which she arrives. While Ranasinghe has been a readily included choice across syllabuses, it is intriguing how writers such as Gamini Seneviratne, Rienzie Cruze, Asoka Weerasinghe, Regi Siriwardena (from the 70s and 80s), or (for instance) a more versatile, perceptive and hard-hitting expressionist such as Tarzie Vitachchi have been grossly under-represented or never featured in the national curricula.

Anne Ranasinghe, to her merit, is evocative of powerful graphics and vivid images. Often, her writing transports us to a realm deeply resonant and “alive” with the confusion, chaos, blood and cold-blooded violence she frequently illustrates through her work. But, that alone is no arsenal for greatness, or for progressive representation. Anne Ranasinghe has now crossed the proverbial river. Who, now, will take her place?

“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,
Broken,
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.

“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.

 

 

 

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.

Trinity_College_Kandy_Chapel1

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unawareness and Misinformation: the Case of the Banner Waving Cyber-Zealot

What stole the thunder from the 68th Independence Celebrations in Sri Lanka, I believe, was the cyber cacophony that ran parallel to the event, regarding a political statement made by the Lankan government in making allowance for the Tamil version of the national anthem to be sung at the event. During my lifetime and my inconsistent following of February 4th festivities, this is the first time I saw such an inclusion: by all means a symbolically rich, positive step in the direction of national reconciliation.

In fact, the government itself seemed to be just dipping its toes, as what we saw was by no means a provision of “equal status” to the Tamil version of the anthem with its Sinhala counterpart; as the festivities commenced with the singing of the Sinhala version alone. The Tamil version was sung, subsequently, as a mark of summing up the agenda — chronologically, and hierarchically, a second up, nonetheless. But, that should not be a bother at the present time, as the allowance for the Tamil version in itself is a progressive mini step in a context where there was none.

Bandaranaike-–-Chelvanayagam

Pressure groups led by Buddhist monks reprimanding PM Bandaranaike against enacting the resolutions of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact in 1957. One fossilized moment of the failed democratic measures of mainstream Tamil leaders to safeguard their people’s rights and prestige.

Naturally, the cyber-domain, the modern day equivalent to the Market Square of Roman times, was flooded with sentiment. A more broadminded, reasonable, knowledgeable and reflective body seemed to uphold the move by the current government, notwithstanding their political or ideological biases. Then, again, a substantial number — presumably, deficient in some of the values I have cited above; or, perhaps, misted by their own racial and political prejudices — appeared to be both upset and betrayed, while they channeled their frustration in vocal posts and comments.

The allowance for the singing of the Tamil version of the anthem — a translation, really — was condemned mainly by statements that bordered on the racist, and the ignorant. Very often these two variables were seen to go hand in hand, breeding artificial fear and doubt in the minds of the masses without opinion. But, as I noticed, the convictions and conclusions that were being paraded en masse were often either misinformed, or maliciously construed.  A lack of historical awareness and the absence of a mind to contextualize the government move in the present time were more than apparent. Some of the statements that were designed to arouse the naive and vulnerable Sinhala insecurities includes the following:

  1. (A photo of President Sirisena with the caption) “What Prabhaharan couldn’t do in 30 years, I did in one”.
  2. “In another few years, the anthem will be sung in Arabic and Veddha languages, too”.
  3. An erratic chart listing out a host of multi-linguistic countries like China, South Africa, USA, Singapore, India etc, insisting they have only ONE national anthem (unlike Sri Lanka, as suggested, which now has TWO).
  4. The transmission of the falsehood that TWO anthems were now allowed (as opposed to the fact that what was used was a ‘translation’ of one singular song).

Misinformation and maliciousness are two words I used above. For instance, the chart circulated, referred to in bullet 3 in the above list, made very intriguing reading. In it, South Africa was given as a multi-linguistic country which has three “main languages” and a national anthem that is sung in one. In fact, post-apartheid South Africa (to my knowledge) has five “official languages” and a national anthem that is trilingual. The origins of that anthem is another story altogether, with the appropriation of an indigenous gospel to suit the political and social aspirations of the modern South Africa.

The national anthem of Singapore is available in the four national languages of that country, but is generally sung in one language — Malay: which, the misinforming miscreants failed to note, was the language of a “numerical minority” in Singapore. The usage of the Malay version is a homemade method of safeguarding and elevating the prestige of that numerical minority: an act equal to making the Tamil version of the Lankan national anthem the default song at public events.

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JR Jayewardene’s  decade at the top chair (1977-1988) with an extremely problematic attitude towards the North-East issue, is one of the darkest periods in the modern history of Tamil speaking regions.

Lack of awareness and misinformation also has deluded most of the upset souls that there is no constitutional breach in singing the twin-version of the national anthem at a public event. It was shocking than sad to observe that some banner waving zealots of the moment were even unaware that there was a Tamil version of the anthem in existence. It only goes to show how narrow and limited their worlds are. What have they been thinking has been sung in Tamil speaking areas all this time? Have they been naive enough to believe that in all-Tamil speaking schools, offices, functions and so forth they have been singing the Sinhala anthem for the past 65 years?

What was most disillusioning for me was the blatant lack of awareness or knowledge — even in the remotest form — in some regarding the historical precedents to crisis, which makes this newly devised inclusion nothing more than compensation coming the way of the Tamil community five decades too late. It is also a form of realization dawning on some of the Southern leaders, and a step which, had it been taken fifty years ago, could have averted the worst human tragedy of our time. The lack of awareness or knowledge regarding the historical path that led to crisis, what the missed opportunities were, who the villains of the tragedy etc are not known or understood by most of these sons and daughters of the post-1988 period who are, yet, quick to curl their tails against the Tamil version of the national anthem.

As a social collective we have failed in meaningfully passing down / absorbing the fairies and demons of history to our generation. Our immediate elders have failed in it and so have we. Our solace has been in monolithic fantasies and myths of “unified nations”, “unified peoples” (like in a Bob Marley song), and in “uninterrupted grandeur” of one, undisputed line of Lion-flag waving kings. Complexity, contradiction and multiplicity has been essentially ironed out in the Lady-Bird like capsules of history which are pushed down the throats of our children. Very little is shared or transmitted of more contemporary history: knowledge that gives the shivers to the mainstream state is easily erased and censored from being handed down; and with that erasure goes the immense suffering of the Tamil nation and its people for the past half a century, at the least.

DixitonWhyRajivsenttheIPKF

Intriguing cover from a “Lanka Guardian” from 1990, edited by veteran journalist Mervyn de Silva.

Ironically, the last few weeks, I have been reading a book by the late Tamil journalist and activist, S. Sivanayagam, titled Sri Lanka: A Witness to History. Sivanayagam, with great detail, but in an easy and lucid style, traces the socio-political history of the North and the East — broadly contextualizing them within the larger developments of the nation — from the 1920s to the 2000s: the kind of “handbook”, I was telling myself, that can serve anyone, specially from the Sinhala South, in getting to know a raw picture of what has been happening in the Tamil speaking areas of the country for the past century. But, then again, Sivanayagam’s book is 680 pages and LKR 3000. But, the intimate accounts of what has been happening in Jaffna and peninsular regions at the hands of successive governments from Bandaranaike-Senanayake-Jayewardene times to the 2000s will only help people to be more receptive to the human need in singing two versions of the one song.

I would even go as far as to say that if you are Sinhala, as a member who identifies with that collective definition, stop on your tracks for a moment before you let go of that huzzah of “pride”, and revert to a more critical exploration of what policy and political practice the members you have chosen as your representatives and leaders have greeted the Tamil aspirations with. Explore and be aware of the unpardonable discrimination and lack of consideration with which they have thwarted that community over and over. If after such a level-headed assignment there is a reasonable approach you may have for an issue as negligible as singing the national anthem in two languages, perhaps, your “pride” can earn a better footing for a meaningful stance.

 

National Anthem in Tamil; and the Need to Go Beyond

On the eve of the 68th Independence Day, Sri Lankan society is still far from breathing easy on linguistic and cultural plurality, as it was clearly shown by the diverse views expressed on as to how the national anthem should be sung at the official celebrations. From a government standpoint, an agenda was prepared where better “inclusiveness” was made apparent, which was tangibly seen in the singing of the national anthem in Tamil: the very “numerical minority” within the Lankan matrix that has been at the receiving end of governmental policy since (at least) 1956. The state maneuver to include the “Tamil nation” and its cultural and linguistic expression in the official agenda of the Independence Day programme has crucial “symbolic value”; as long as that value is not stopped short at being a showcasing alone, and is, in time, translated into meaningful policy and practice.

sri-lankaIn contrast to the governmental agenda, a segment of the previous regime (notably, those who have aligned themselves as the so-called, self-styled “Joint Opposition”) have condemned the inclusion of the Tamil anthem, while professing a boycott of the Independence Day celebrations altogether. The former President, Mahinda Rajapaksha, in particular was reported on news as scoffing at the singing of a Tamil version of the anthem, suggesting that in most ethno-culturally pluralistic countries there is one standard version that is used in common. From a man who often seemed to believe in “home-made” solutions and measures in which international communities did not necessarily feature, the above statement by Rajapaksha is bewildering. But, then again, the former President never had the welfare of a united, reconciled Sri Lanka in mind. He was a seasoned mafia-style politician who manipulated the military crushing of the LTTE with expertise to build a shallow empire on sand, in which he effectively called the shots for a decade with simple “divide and rule”. It was during his time that policy was being prepared to cancel out the Tamil version of the national anthem altogether as recently as 2013-14. His Minister of Housing and Parrotary was the linchpin behind this single-minded, grossly unacceptable dictate.

The present Sirisena government’s response to the “apparent” inclusion of Tamil should, as yet, be viewed with caution. On the pro-side of things, this is a very positive incentive, specially in a context where racist germs are purposefully in active search for a breeding ground even in the immediate run up to February 4th. The proponents of Nazi-style fascist nationalisms such as Sinha-le Organization and Bodhu Bala Sena made several uncanny headlines, nonetheless drawing the public imagination to them, during the whole of January 2016. The government’s response to the extravagance of these fanatic mobs, in my opinion, was more than considerate, given the lessons learned from 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, 1983, 2012 and so on. Sinha-le had its vehicle parade from Colombo to Kandy with a very significant (but not altogether accidental) little “clash with forces” in Mawanella: a stronghold for the Muslim community, where the Sinha-le wanted some crackers lit, and speeches made. The ensuing confrontations got out of hand, with the Police reacting in uncharacteristic mildness.

colvin

LSSP’s Colvin R De Silva, contributing to the “language debate” memorably stated how “one language” will result in “two nations”; whereas “two languages” will safeguard “one nation”. 60 years later, we encounter on social-media forums people who are (obviously) computer literate, but not politically literate to read the missed opportunities in history.

Former President Rajapaksha’s claim that “most countries” have their national anthem sung in one standard language is both misleading and ignorant. Most countries, whatever there lapses have been in the past, have, by the present, learnt from history and expanded their national structures to accommodate cultural, linguistic and religious plurality. Presidents like Rajapaksha — shrewd and cunning mob leaders — have quite often “feigned” education: they have “pretended” to have learnt lessons, but have actually let those lessons go for inner-cartel advantage. Since President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe are the current brand of engine oil with which the state-structure is being run, I would, at present, be cautious and careful in airing my hurrahs at the one-off appearance of the Tamil national anthem. I have faith for a better accommodation of cultural and ethnic pluralism in the hands of the present government, but I would let them deliver the goods before I put my hands together.

On the day of the 68th Independence Celebration, I would, again, reiterate an issue on which I have debated extensively in different capacities. This is to do with the premier “national symbols” such as the national flag and the national anthem which, in my view, should be revised to meet the spirit and sentiment of a broadly-defined inclusive Sri Lanka. The current national flag is an insult and disgrace to the spirit of democracy with mathematically-sensitive oblongs of various colours being allocated to the different core ethnic definitions found within the island. The categories are bizarre and undermining of numerically slim compositions, while erasing (or, disregarding) communities such as the Malays, Javanese, Veddhas, Kaffirs and so on, who, though a numerical minority, are legit citizens of the country. The current national flag, as it is, is one that makes one self-conscious of one’s “majoritarian” or “minority” status. In pure semiotic terms, there is very little inclusiveness in the sword-wielding “lion flag”: even that popular appellation of “lion flag” has already marginalized and contorted all other ethnic-cultural definitions, but one.

Handy_Perinpanayagam

Perinbanayagam

In 1947, on the lead up to Ceylonese independence, Handy Perinbanayagam, the famous Jaffna-based political activist, teacher and person of letters suggested that the symbolism on the Lankan flag should be able to represent the cultures and aspirations of all communities alike. Regards the symbolism, Perinbanayagam’s suggestion was to use Sri Paadha / Adam’s Peak. In addition to its multi-cultural relevance, Perinbanayagam also highlighted that the symbol of a mountain also represents connotations of purity, spirituality etc. Of course, given how Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism has taken root on Lankan soil, and as to how the SLFP and UNP have, alternately but surely, entered a symbiotic existence with ultra-nationalisms since 1956, it would be a mammoth uphill task to push for reform in an area like this. But, for reconciliation to be meaningfully stabilized, one cannot stop by singing the national anthem in Tamil on one single day of the calendar year. It has to be entrenched within a larger, imaginative project that has to redefine the petty, narrow-ended categories within which the nation has been made to operate for the past five decades.

Galle Lit Fest Kandy — NO Kandy Writers.

The editor of the newspaper Mahanuwara had, in this week’s edition, drawn the public attention to an intriguing fact: that the Fairway Galle Literary Festival (GLF) was all set to commence its “comeback” with two parallel satellites in Kandy and Jaffna, but that the Kandy Event did not feature a single Sri Lankan – leave alone Kandy resident – creative artist writing in English. The editor had drawn special attention to the deselection by the forum organizers of Jean Arasanayagam, in spite of her being a winner (in the Drama category) at the State Literary Awards, 2015.

Interestingly, the Kandy Leg of the resurrected GLF has only one forum for Lankan writing: which, even more interestingly, is on Sinhala poetry, moderated by Liyanage Amarakeerthi. The panel is set to feature three young poets of a growing popularity these days, including Timran Keerthi and Isuru Chamara. No doubt — this is a good initiative to have on board these talented Sinhala poets.

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Jean A.

But, where are any of the other writers / artists of Sri Lanka, leave aside Kandy? Isn’t it logical and important to pool in the writers and creative people of Kandy, specially since GLF is breaking ground here? Specially, as the GLF is otherwise interested in “outreach” of other sorts? The programme for Galle, to be fair, has a few “good names” — a few who have made the headlines in recent years, like Jeet Thayil for one — but, again, the Lankan Literary discourse is most unforgivably under-represented. Kandy, however, seems to have suffered badly in the organizers’ featuring of both “international” and “Lankan” writers, as the line up of events for the 2.25 days at Kandy is a waste of good time, for a group of mediocre overseas writers.

For Kandy, there are four overseas writers mapped out, of whom only Sebastian Faulks rings a bell. But that, too, is a bell tied to an anklet and not a dinner gong, as Faulks is an average writer casually known as a writer of historical stories. Faulks, according to the Event Map, will be featured in two items, which includes a lunch. Others featured in Kandy are Shani Mootoo and Ovida Yu: the former, a little known (in Kandy) Irish-Trinidadian writer, and Yu, a recently launched brand virtually unknown here. On the 10th of January, there’s a session featuring Hugh Thomson, titled “The Green Road into the Trees: a Walk Through England”, which I have a strong feeling, will be quite helpful.

Sebastian Faulks photographed in London

Sebastian Faulks, c/o ‘The Guardian’

Kandy, incidentally, is a rich pasture in literature, and is the home of over 20 writers – major and minor – who practice the craft with consistency: writers who make the shelves and headlines around the year, over the years. Kandy is also the home ground for a bulwark of post-independence creative work. “Big names” like Carl Muller, Jean Arasanayagam can, on any day, be more relevant and contextual than a sprinkling of C-grade overseas writers who knows not the ‘A’ from the ‘B’ of their audience here, and vice versa. The organizers could have also meaningfully used the Peradeniya University, which is hardly 6 KM from Kandy, to optimize their programme. Peradeniya houses what is arguably the best English Department in Sri Lanka and a faculty that can quite easily fit into one of those “lunch-time” events. The Sinhala poetry panel aside, Channa Daswatte is the only other Lankan (name) we find in the Kandy line up. Then, again, Daswatte is not a writer.

The Galle Event (the Main Event) is a fair(er) attempt, and Jaffna, too, has a panel or two worth checking out. Specially, the panels featuring Rohini Mohan and Samanth Subramaniam promises interesting following — depends, of course, on what will transpire. Their recent work on the Sri Lankan Civil War — Season of Trouble (Mohan) and This Divided Island (Subramaniam) –, specially that of Mohan’s, I felt, were powerful interventions in recent years.

queen-s-hotel

Queen’s Hotel – where the bulk of the Event will be held

On the morning of writing this entry, I accidentally met Thiagarajah Arasanayagam — Jean’s husband, a dramatist, writer and a painter — and he asked me whether I am going to the GLF. In spite of the fact that a yeoman figure such as Jean has been overlooked for an event that is held 20 minutes from their house, Thiaga Arasanayagam was in the best spirits and quite optimistic of events such as the GLF. His view was that “more and more” programmes of this mold should come up. Had I not met Mr. Arasanayagam today, it is likely that I may have not written this entry. During that brief interview, my resolve broke, and the need to share these few words — words on behalf of a line of writers unjustly overlooked when the Event is, already, struggling for good authorship — became imperative.

On Isai Priya and Memorialization, In the Month of November.

isaipriya1

Shobha alias Isai Priya

For the first time in, maybe, 26 years, a relatively tension-free, bloodless November 26th has passed. This day, the traditional “Maarveer Day” held much for debate and speculation even after the death of its author, the slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhaharan, as the state militia had, up to last year, its eyes and rifles cocked up in vigilance of potential November 26th activity. In fact, a year ago, in 2014, there was much intimidation and conflict in the Jaffna University, where a student faction had organized a candle-lit vigil, in spite of a strict prohibition of any form of commemorative function by the militia/law enforcement.

The relaxtion of tension should not be mistaken or be translated as “forgetting” or as “forgiving”; for, an acceptable solution and mechanism as to how we “reclaim” the memory of those lost in battle  — specially in the Northern and Eastern territories — is yet to be satisfactorily proposed. We, as a nation, are still at the rudimentary debate as to whether “war crimes” have been committed, and as to with what measurement that definition has to be examined. The more sensitive and nuanced interaction with memory and memorialization, as yet, has not even remotely entered the top agenda of negotiators.

Over the past year, among other post-war developments, the banning of a South Indian film — K. Ganeshan’s Porkalathil Oru Poo — caught my attention, as it was stalled by the Indian Censor Board. The film is based on the life of slain LTTE journalist-artiste Shobha, alias Isai Priya, whose mutilated and (possibly) sexually assaulted corpse made shocking headlines, when leaked through Channel 4 footage three years ago. Isai Priya is said to have worked for the LTTE broadcasting division and had also worked as a singer and dancer. Evidence of her being in Vavuniya as a refugee is confirmed by several sources. Tamilnet had earlier claimed that   Isai Priya was taken away from the refugee camp in Vavuniya by the Sri Lankan military on or about the 23rd May, 2009. The Ministry of Defence website had, in 2009, posted an update citing Isai Priya to have died in battle in the last phase of the war.

Porkalathil Oru Poo Movie Stills

Porkalathil Oru Poo Movie Stills

Isai Priya became an icon for the sexually violated and brutally murdered female cadre, though she is just a hint of brutality’s gross proportions at the hands of a leash-less militia. Hers is one specific case that came to global light, as her harrowing death happened at a specific historical point, where all spots were on Sri Lanka in the post-war aftermath. Hers can only be a shudder which represents a thousand other women, men and children brutalized and extra-judicially executed by the legit militia of the country. The trick will be as to how all these lives lost in the most unfortunate and unforgivable manners can be meaningfully remembered in ceremonial spirit? Or, should the likes of Isai Priya simply be condemned to a sequence of brutalized photographs in the memory of the world wide web?

In 2012, at the wake of the Channel 4 photographs of Isai Priya being publicized, I was deeply disturbed, as her tragedy, in many ways, summed up the gruesome heights to which mob violance can escalate, at a floodgate like May 2009. The banning of Porkalathil Oru Poo brought back to me my own words written in homage of Isai Priya, of violent truths that a censor’s signature cannot deny:

“Your body comes to us in pictures,
No censorship can withold the flow
Of thought that there was in you that thought
Fro weeks, perhaps, before you were caught,
For weeks you may have known that it was a matter of time.

Yes — in pictures sold by the very rapist:
Your undignified mangled nude, neck wriggled awry,
Black rectangles for tits and genitals, in a
Bid to make news a wee bit ethical”.

A wikipedia entry on Isai Priya states that she was 27 at the time of her murder. Her infant child had died on or around the 15th of May, 2009, as a victim of ariel bombing. Her husband, an LTTE activist, too, had died during the last stages of the war. Isai Priya — or, Shobha — had been born in 1982 and been a resident of Delft Island. Her family had been displaced in 1995, at the height of Operation Riviresa. She had studied at Vembadi Girls’ School, and had been a news anchor and announcer. Her other aspirations and dreams in life, like in the case of thouands of others similarly cut short, are not known. But, to do their lives justice and to account for their deaths in some meaningful form is a collective obligation which we all should accept.

The Strategies Behind the Visibility and Invisibility of Statues.

Set up in the memory of 257 commonwealth soldiers (enlisted from ceylon) who were killed during WW I.

Set up in the memory of 257 commonwealth soldiers (enlisted from ceylon) who were killed during WW I.

For a small and compact township, Kandy has four visibly prominant memorial monuments at the town center. Three of these are situated in the George E De Silva Park (formerly, Torrington Park), and are set up almost in a straight line at a few yards’ interval. The oldest of these, as can be guessed, is a monument of a simple design, set up in difference to 257 commonwealth soldiers killed during the First World War. Among these 257, it can be assumed, could have been citizens of Kandy and its neighbourhoods, but the memorial seems to speak on behalf of a larger Ceylonese contingent, whose names are tabulated in alphebetical order.

A few yards to the left of this war memorial is a statue of the late George E De Silva, a member of the state assembly representing Kandy, and Independent Ceylon’s first minister of Industries and fisheries. De Silva, as records testify, comes to Kandy as a young lawyer in his twenties and establishes himself with much courage and difficulty amidst a Kandy community infested with the prejudices and clique-mentality of the “Kandyan” elite of pre-Independence Ceylon. Later, he tries his hand at politics and seems to have courted considerable popularity, specially among the marginalized and impoverished in Kandy’s suburbs. He, among these quarters, was even fondly referred to as “Ape George” (Our George).  When Kapila Kumara Kalinga wrote his recent novel “Kandhe Veediya” (කන්දේ වීදිය) many felt that his protagonist strongly echoes the life and career of George E De Silva.

George E De Silva and his crooked forefinger

George E De Silva and his crooked forefinger

The George E De Silva statue comes up with the Torrington Square and its adjoining park area (maintained by the municipality) being renamed in order to honour this late politician, two decades or so ago. Even today, the park area — now converted into a leisure grounds of sorts — is still referred in common parlance as “Torrington”; and the shopping complex underneath the park grounds, as “Torrington complex”. In the conceptualizing of the statue, George E De Silva is made to stand with one foot slightly in front of the other, with his hand cast out, and his crooked forefinger turned towards the ground, in a humility-evoking motion (from the passerby).

A visibility-seeking Ratwatte, turned towards the busiest hub of the town center

A visibility-seeking Ratwatte, turned towards the busiest hub of the town center

The third memorial – again, a statue – was put up 3 years ago, in 2012, and it is further left to De Silva’s statue but with its back to De Silva; as it startegically faces the congested main bus stand and clock tower area, right at the center of the town. This statue is easily the bigger and bulgier of the sequence, and imitates a gregarious, larger-than-life presence of the former Deputy Minister of Defence during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s term, the late Anuruddha Ratwatte. Ratwatte had earlier had a short career as a Colonel, but was more prominantly involved in Politics during President Kumaratunga’s stint between 1994 and 2004. He was a trusted inner cartel member of the Kumaratunga ring and a off shoot of a politically active regional Ratwatte branch. The erection of the statue also conincided with the late Ratwatte’s son Mahendra being elected Mayor of Kandy three years ago.

Denzil Kobbekaduwa

Denzil Kobbekaduwa

The fourth memorial – again, a larger than life (but smaller than the Ratwatte) statue – is the most recent addition to this expanding assortment, put up in August 2015: a memorial for General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who was Army commander in 1992, and was blown up while returning from an inspection tour in Keyts, along with a dozen other military top brass. Kobbekaduwa’s death gave birth to numerous speculations, even though the official charges were levelled against the LTTE. Among others, the former head of state the late Ranasinghe Premadasa’s name is among those alleged to have had some kind of interest in Kobbekaduwa’s fate. Kobbekaduwa is also a “favourite son” of Kandy, and is considered to have been a popular officer among the rank of the army. Speculations were also quite rife that Kobbekaduwa may have had political ambitions, upon retirement.

The war memorial on behalf of 257 World War I soldiers, the George E De Silva statue, the Anuruddha Ratwatte statue and the statue for Denzil Kobbekaduwa: out of these four, three memorials bear a military insignia and the fourth – that of De Silva – a political motive. Of the four, the memorial obelisk in the name of the World War soldiers is the most solemn and the least assuming, with no elaboration or gaudy decoration. Of the four, the Ratwatte-Kobbekaduwa statues comes across as demanding instant attention and of high visibility in their gregarious stature. Even here, the Ratwatte statue is strategically placed and poised to be a source of immediate attraction. The Kobbekaduwa statue — greenish in coating — is camouflaged among the greenery of the area called “Byrd Park”, right in front of the Kandy clock tower: a small pseudo-leisure ground which are frequented more by pigeons and crows than pedestrians. The Kobbekaduwa statue, again, is at the mouth of the Byrd Park, on the blind side of a one-way road: had Kobbekaduwa done it himself, he wouldn’t have been able to get the kind of screening the officials who have designed his statue’s destiny has given him.

With Kandy’s landscape and town plan changing, how many more statues of politically motivated design would be parachuted into the town center is yet to be known. But, the larger-than-life Ratwatte statue and the Kobbekaduwa statue (a size smaller) quite exaggeratedly represent the presence of two men who, purely by physical definition, were short. Of the two, at least one had a nepotistic office of a high portfolio, criminal charges, and a fall from grace at the tail-end of the career: none of which are inscribed (if only out of humility) at the base pedestal on which the statue is propped.

David Paynter, born in India, spent a lifetime in Ceylon/Sri Lanka nourishing its art and culture. The name of Paynter is deeply carved into the modern age painting tradition of the country. George Keyt is another painter/poet who was born and raised in Kandy. Keyt is possibly the first leading painter from the country to have made an international name. Muttiah Muralitharan is a Cricketer hailing from the Kandyan suburb of Pandiwatte, Kundasale. He captured 800 Test wickets in a career of 133 Test matches, establishing a range of records which would possibly stand for decades, by the standard of the modern game. Muralitharan is a role model for any youngster or citizen where courage, fortitude and accomplishment are concerned. These are the names of just three smart people who have the tag “Kandy” attached to their profiles. The work they have achieved is more than what any monument can ever justify to represent. But, then again — memorialization is an ethic. And in ethics, perhaps, our priorities can be better sorted out.