“Holding Out”: Pulsara Liyanage’s Memoir of a Privileged Political Prisoner.

Pulsara Liyanage’s Holding Out (2017) is subtitled as the “Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in Sri Lanka 1986-1988”. The introduction to the book is by Dayan Jayatilleka, while Asoka Handagama has provided it a “Prologue” of sorts. We are already in a curious mix of a diverse company: Jayetilleka, a proven man of many forms where the wind blows – one-time EPRLF hardcore, Premadasa-loyalist of the late 80s, Rajapakshist and a vanguard in the defense of that regime in the post-war years and so on -, and Handagama, who has always been identified with the Left Wing of politics, ideology and art, as well as as a sympathizer of the JVP of the late 1980s, appearing in the same page no doubt arouses much reader interest.

HOLDING-OUT-Pulsara’s subtitle – loaded as it is with much marketability – however, falls short of its promise by a long way. For, as a “memoir” of a “political prisoner in Sri Lanka” during the run up to the abominable Reign of Terror (1987-90), her narrative is a story of a privileged upper middle class, well connected girl whose incarceration, if taken as an indicator, severally undermines the extent and brutality of the violence practiced by the state and its legal and illegal milita during the years with which the narrative is concerned. Hers is a “memoir” of a “Privileged Political Prisoner”, kept in detention under the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act at the Slave Island Police. Yet, unlike a countless thousands of common cases, hers is relatively not a humiliating or a disgraceful detention. She is housed in a relative degree of comfort, her family being knowledgeable of her whereabouts, her family being able to visit and speak to her during her detention period, and with her being able to be in contact with political figures of eminence, such as Vivienne Goonewardena and Chandrika Kumaratunga, of whom the former is said to have visited her at her cell quite regularly.

The memoirs do little to question or to cast in a critical light the overwhelming grip of state terrorism, and its resultant structured violence of which ordinary men and women who do not have the “means” or the “ways” are more cruelly the victims. Routine harassment and violence within the Police premises are glossed over, without critical or reasonable assessment. Pulsara’s book is less about the victimization of political activists, but more about her triumph of being a privileged detainee, and how she manages to keep herself in tact through a two year period. She manages to be rational in a world that seems to crumble around her, and be of benevolent help to women like Sivamalar and Sarath: men and women in other custodian cells beside her, but who are seen helpless and hopeless than she is. She even writes a letter to Chandrika Kumaranatuna at the time of her husband Vijaya’s assassination, upholding her ideal in consoling another victimized woman at time of crisis, even while being behind bars herself.

meena_colombo1Interestingly, for a writer who seems to be quite aware of and sensitive to the subjection of the person in custody – specially, in questionable circumstances under which many men and women have been detained under the PTA – and, then again, the treatment of the female prisoner in Police or military custody, Pulsara Liyanage’s narrative doesn’t reach beyond her singular experience. Perhaps, she was lucky, or else, her background and class served as immunity, but narratives exist that document and suggest deplorable conditions in which women suspects were held; and of the harrowing experiences they have had to go through as a result of such captivity. For me, the most compelling narrative comes from Rohitha Munasinghe, who relates to sexual slavery to which women in military captivity were subjected to, as witnessed by him as an inmate of the infamous Eliyakandha torture camp, in Brown’s Hill (Eliyakandha), in Matara. In his Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura Munasinghe outlines how women are herded into a part of the encampment and are exclusively kept for the sexual urges of the soldiers. After a time, fresh batches are brought in; the used ones either being bumped off, bearing “traitor” labels, or, in rare cases, being set free. Munasinghe bases the same experience in the composition of a short story titled “Kanyaaviya” (The Virgin) in his collection Raaga Sutra (Discourses on Passion). In this latter, a university girl is randomly abducted and taken to a torture camp and forced into sexual play, while being kept among a group of other women, detained for similar purposes. However, owing to shock and terror the girl gives no response, except to defecate under duress. After repeated attempts, she is finally taken to a bridge and shot to death, and then discarded.

In Victor Gunathilake’s 71, 89 Mathakayan (Memories of 71, 89) reference is made to a killing of two young school girls – hinted to be taken into custody by the Mahagama Police – on top of the Kalawellawa bridge. The bridge had been known to be a spot where the military would bring young men and women (some, suspects of being JVP-ers, others not) to be shot. An eerie reference is made to a pack of pariah dogs who were said to idle by the bridge, who were heftier and bigger than the rest, who feed on the remains of the shot. They are said to come running at the bridge at the sound of gun fire – Ivan Pavlov all over again. What follows is my rough translation of Gunathilake, as he relates to the witnessing of the killings of the two young girls mentioned earlier:

“We could hear the ordinary sobbing of a few female voices. Just then, continuous rounds of gun fire came out, like crackers being lit. Then, all we heard was the sound of something being tipped over into the river… With the break of dawn everything became gradually clear. Two bodies were stuck among some cut bamboo which had earlier been stuck in a part of the river… The bodies were of two girls, possibly aged seventeen to nineteen. They were both clad in uniforms of some school. They weren’t in brassier or panties, and in one girl, the frock had been wrapped around her body, while she was stripped topless. The eyes were not blindfolded. As they were shot on the chest, there was a large wound in their backs… The second girl had been shot on the head and a prominent part of her face was disfigured. She wore no brassier or panties either. It was clear that they had been arrested from some other area, had been kept in the camp for a while, and had now been finally shot and dumped in the river” (Gunathilake, 147-148).

The time period covered by Victor Gunathilake’s narrative is the same as the years Pulsara is concerned with; and Victor’s is a chosen excerpt from among many documented such instances, in order to develop the current discussion.

North and South_book

North and South: title of a Gaskell novel

Pulsara’s focus is also heavily set on a number of female detainees, and as such, several key chapters deal with a range of women who are in the Police premises at varying capacities. The suspected LTTE activist Sivamalar, the girl whom Pulsara meets at the Sri Jayewardenapura Hospital who is recovering from an attempted suicide – Kanchana –, the unnamed “girl from Negombo”, the prostitutes of Slave Island etc are among the various females Pulsara factors in to the narrative. The three matrons of the Police Prison – Carolinahamy, Sallynona and Annamma – too receive a chapter of their own. But, Pulsara fails to go beyond the anecdote and establish the complexity of these different players, locating them in the overall corrupt and violent system. Partly, her superiority implied through her classed, educated and connected background makes her role play the “liberal-minded benefactor” to even these other women who have been cast to play the thoroughfare rabble to milady. The narrative of the girl from Negombo and the prostitutes – pathetically euphemized as “the twilight ladies” – are anecdotal and anecdotal alone. They, at one level, provide Pulsara the exhibition a caged animal or an alien species would, though Pulsara herself is caged: a lesser cage, if at all. The questionable way these other women are perceived and localized by the Police in the process of “meting justice”, or the legal and structural restrictions that undermine their condition as humans do not come within Pulsara the anecdote-teller’s range.

The Epilogue of the book makes several bold statements – some of them not original, but confrontational none the less. There are several references to the smashing up of suspects and of them being humiliated and reduced by the Police while being taken into custody under abusive emergency regulations. There are also accusations leveled at the JVP/DJV for attacks on moderate and alternative commentators and activists. In a selective tabulation of human rights violations, Pulsara quotes from the report later submitted by the commission appointed by President Kumaratunga to inquire into state violence during 1987-90, where Pulsara highlights the involvement of Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe in overseeing a Housing Scheme in Batalanda that was used as a torture encampment. Written in 2017, this timely re-reminder of Wickramasinghe’s alleged involvement in incarceration and murder is less obvious, but what is intriguing is her de-selection of other similar Princes of the State – among them, kingmakers and regime-changers of later times – whose hands are soaked with the blood of extra-judicial murder. The names of individuals such as Rajitha Senaratne, Gamini Lokuge, the late Ossie Abeygunasekara – some of them loyal to UNP stalwarts like Premadasa with whom Pulsara’s own friends such as Dayan Jayatilleke have broken bread with – are often heard in alternative lobbies as being directly or indirectly connected with the supervision of state-sponsored murder (one such detailed entry, for example, is found in Rajan Hoole’s The Arrogance of Power). However, for Pulsara, Ranil Wickramasinghe’s name is the one name that is politically significant to earn a mention in his memoir.


Dilantha, Jayathissa and Vivimarie: a Few Observations and Marginal Notes Related to Their Recent Work.

This is written as a silence-breaker, as I have in a while not contributed to this space I have been maintaining. These are a few observations on three collections of poetry I have had the opportunity of reading in the past few months: Dilantha Gunawardana’s Kite Dreams (2016), Vivimarie Vanderpoorten’s Borrowed Dust (2017) and Jayatissa K. Liyanage’s Shadows (2017).

z_p35-kitingDilantha Gunawardana’s collection of about 50 poems, Kite Dreams, represents less than the tip of the iceberg Dilantha is as a person and as a tireless writer. Of his wider corpus, what he publishes in his poetry blog testifies to a rigorous poetic mind at work, with a turn out rate which, to be put mildly, is feverish. In fact, Dilantha’s better work are found in the blog; and that may purely be a case of selection, as the act of anthologizing does not necessarily let you shortlist the best. He writes with flair and energy, and he seems to be in love with the very idea of lyrical richness and the aesthetic of the articulated word. Kite Dreams has its chief weakness in its selection; and this is best gauged when you compare the line up with some of the poems that come in Dilantha’s blogs. This, too, is a shortage that can be fixed when he publishes again. In any case, the best strength of Sarasavi, Dilantha’s publisher, is not its imagination.

Dilantha seems to write partly as an exercise in the light of sublimation: a necessary transformation of force and energy. In this way, his writing seems to connect intimately with his day-to-day volition, and this is easily perceived through his corpus which, in its diversity, range and scope, is akin to a mini log of Dilantha, the person. His updated work can be found here, and I share this link as I encourage the reader to juxtapose this with his published work before forming any judgment: Dilantha’s Poetry Blog


Dilantha G.

Interestingly, Dilantha comes with a training as a Botanist; and for him, poetry is an adventure on which he embarked much later is life. As hinted earlier, partly, for him the poetic exercise is a therapy, while it is also a means of creatively transforming energy through meaningful communication. His is not an ambitious or contrived effort to make political statements or politically correct measurements that will eventually win you a seat in a panel discussing gender or violence in prudish, pretentious tones; but, an expression for the sake of articulation.

In that way, Jayathissa Liyanage’s Shadows – a collection Jayathissa has put together, collecting from his work over the past twelve years or so – forms a close link with Dilantha’s work. Jayathissa himself ventured into composition in English later in his life, and by admission, “not even dreamed of composing in English” until he had stumbled on it by chance. Jayathissa – again – comes from a Science / agriculture studies background; and writes in his retirement as a means of seeking contentment. He is also a prolific composer in Sinhala, and recently launched a series of work which he claims will be of benefit “for [his] grand children” if they so wonder about the feats of their grand father, as a child and youth. Jayathissa’s writing has the unmistakable stamp of biography, and is often marked by a psychological investigation of one’s self and one’s past from the vantage point of a mature present.

Taking up poetry late, perhaps, has left what may be called “certain restrictions” in Jayathissa’s style and craft. For example, his over-dependence on conventional, classical structure, and the frequenting of heavy phraseology at times makes his poetry stiff in sections. Yet, his ambitionlessness, and the lack of pretense as a writer – teamed with the joy and happiness he (claims to) seek(s) through composition – are refreshing and rewarding in an age where writers often write with awards and cash prizes in mind.

sdrVivimarie Vanderpoorten’s Borrowed Dust is the third of the collections I wish to draw briefly on; and, too, with the mind that that collection should be spoken of at length in a separate essay. If her three collections since 2007 – nothing prepares you, Stitch your Eyelids Shut and Borrowed Dust – are an indicator, Vivimarie is one of those writers who begins with a climax and slides down, earth-bound. nothing prepares you, to date, remains her best achievement; and in many ways, Borrowed Dust constitutes a distant echo of the same. The style and temperament Vivimarie showcased with her debut are palpable in sudden revelations in some of the poems cast in this, her “return” to the literary mainstream. However, the back blurb, with various lines of praise of Vivimarie based on her past work, is in bad taste for a writer of her stature. Once again, her publisher – Sarasavi – the same as Dilantha’s ought to rethink these citations, as they, at some level, reflect on the writer’s temperament.

After certain criticisms that were meted out at her Stitch Your Eyelids Shut (2012), Vivimarie is said to have taken time off to “rework” her style, and the intermittent five years, at a glance, have brought her closer to her nothing prepares you days. Disconnection and dislocation in experience heavily feature in the corpus, with memorable passages from family violence to scars from school life. The poem she wrote in the height of the FUTA strike in 2012, dedicated to the memory of two student leaders whose deaths are wrapped with the suspicion of having been carried out by the state militia, too, is featured in this collection. In thematic terms, this singular poem stands apart from the rest, and somewhat naked too. However, from the perspective of Sri Lankan poetry, a third volume by a student of the craft is a welcome moment. More of these, in another substantive entry.

Niromi de Soyza’s “Tamil Tigress”: a Few Marginal Additions to the “Fake v. Fact” Debate.

The more skeptical camp of Niromi de Soyza’s supposed-autobiography in general agree that it is possible that Subothini Anandaraja had a peripheral involvement with the Tamil Tigers, but that the book is an embellishment of that involvement, and that, as such, the “autobiography” is in large a weave based on fiction, other available sources and hearsay. One such external source that is cited by de Soyza’s dissenters is that of M.R Narayana Swami’s writings on the LTTE. In other spaces, mainly the Australian media and literary platforms, the book has gone unquestioned and thereby, considered a work of integrity and authenticity. Youtube footage of Niromi de Soyza at the Adelaide Film Festival of that year, among other platforms where she had been emotionally distressed while speaking of the book, were all experiences that post-date my initial essay on Tamil Tigress which was written soon after my first reading of the supposed-autobiography in 2012. Parallel to my first reading, I had already had a rudimentary glance at the already growing criticism aimed at the work’s authenticity and – more so – of its sincerity.

In a more exhaustive reading of Niromi de Soyza, I would more strongly reaffirm my earlier feelings that the book is most likely a carefully crafted semi-fiction: the kind of book that we anchor on facts to give a supportive historical vibe, but one that still leaves a hollowness and lack of credibility, owing to the many disagreements between fact and representation, the incongruity of detail, and the mistakes and misdirections that, at one level, are inevitable when you are writing out of second-hand knowledge. With a view not to repeat or overlap what many readers / critics (including myself) have earlier pointed out, in this essay, I wish to highlight a few further instances that render Tamil Tigress as suspect.

For a writer who often keeps close track of time and duration while making frequent notes of dates, months and the time lapse between incidents, minor, almost negligible details that are unconvincingly presented often push the narrative towards incredibility and towards credulity. For Niromi, in 1979, the Yal Devi offers A/C carriages, and the burning of the Jaffna Library – generally accepted to have been carried out on the night of June 1st 1981 – happens in a morning. In the Third Chapter, set in 1983, Niromi claims to be a child of 12, though earlier, it is tabled that she was born in 1969 (she is 8 years old when, in 1977, she is relocated to Jaffna), which would make her 13+ in that year of the 83 Pogrom. The train journey from Norton Bridge to Jaffna, which Niromi undertakes with her father, takes 18 hours.

Speaking of the Sinhala Only Act (1956) and the Standardization of University entrance (1972), the writer refers to both these implements in the space of the same paragraph, as if they are in consequence of each other. In reality, the two enactments are a decade and a half apart from each other, while many other developments which the writer leaves out of the narrative (such as, for example, the failed pacts between Chelvanayakam and two successive regimes) had widened the ethnic gulf in the interim. She makes a passing reference to anti-Tamil agitations of 1956 and 1977, though there is no reference made to 1958, 1979 or 1981. These de-selections are intriguing; specially, in the case of the violence of 1981, when the writer is said to have lived in close quarters to the town.

The writer refers to a Tamil call for a Sovereign state in 1978. Assuming that this is a reference to the Vaddukottai Resolution, the year of that confederation is generally agreed on as being in 1976. Yet, for a sheltered, convent-educated girl of conventional surroundings, Niromi is, nonetheless, very political. At 14, she is already anxious of a possible state-engineered Tamil genocide. At 16, and having had lived the last 8 years of her formative years in Jaffna, she is perceptive enough to ponder on how politicians create polarization among the people in the South and the North for their own petty gains. There is a schizophrenic disparity in personality between this “perceptive Niromi”, and the “uncritical, single-minded Niromi” who gets drawn to militarism in spite of faint misgivings of the LTTE. She is either blind or insensitive to instances of LTTE ruthlessness, in spite of several incidents that stir doubt within her. The killing of an EPRLF carder, “Benjamin”, by the LTTE, the killing of Principal C.E Anandarajah, the brutal killing of Vellai – a fellow carder – and the story of an LTTEr being ordered to kill his own father suspected of espionage are instances that waver Niromi; but, she, in spite of her otherwise critical-minded energy, always reasons in favour of the Movement. This leaves a palpable inconsistency of character.

From the beginning, Niromi’s home is defined as a conventional, strict household that monitors the children’s movements and pastimes. Even though one may overlook shampoo, a rare and luxurious item in 1985, being routinely used by her upper-middle class family, the casual, offhand references to pickets and demonstrations in which Niromi is said to have taken part in her pre-LTTE days come across as being incongruous with the iron hand of her parentage. These pickets are casually referred to as an aside, while describing something else: more like “fillers”, or “additional” information. How did Niromi participate in these pickets? When did she do so? Where were those pickets held? Why weren’t they referred to in the order of sequence as they happened? How did she go unnoticed in these demonstrations?

In April 1986, due to the rise of militancy in the North, the G.C.E O/L exam is said to be already postponed indefinitely. Why would anyone call off an exam set for December as early as April? The EPRLF ideologue Benjamin is said to have had a Tamil accent of Indian origin, and not one of the Hill Country. What this means, only the writer can elaborate.

On July 1st 1987, Niromi and her fellow female combatants begin military training. However, there is very little detail regarding the specificities of the training. Descriptions given are often banal, and too general in character. In short, there is not enough evidence to convince the reader that Niromi had necessarily undergone weapon training. Details of camp-life is often expressed without character. Even more interesting is how Niromi and Ajanthi – both frequently marked apart from the “general female carder” for their more “affluent” backgrounds – and the combatants from remote and impoverished socio-economic circumstances get along with no tension or friction. Class or its implications or complications do not hinder camp life, except in the case of the senior, male leadership, who treat Niromi differently from the rest, being considerate of her softer upbringing. The female carder are also seen playing a game called “Guessing the Laugh”. This choice of name came across as classed, and improbable.

Book_Tamil_TigressThe generally elusive LTTE leader Prabhakaran is omnipresent in Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress. He is seen coming and going to the “Freedom Birds Headquarters” at all hours, freely mingling with the carder. He even explains step by step of his political programme (such as the laying down of arms in 1987 etc) to the female carder. Though this is not improbable, there is still an air of fiction and embellishment about these passages. Prabhakaran is seen engaged in weapon training in a part of the Jaffna University, even though the campus is said to be within the range of IPKF missiles. A large quantity of intercepted letters, photo albums and documents of importance are seen to idly lie in the Freedom Birds Headquarters, which includes correspondences from moderate Tamil politicians in exile, writing home. In one of his meetings with Niromi, Prabhakaran hands over Rs. 20000 for purposes of clothing the female wing. In 1986, that amount for that specific purpose is somewhat overwhelming. Other leading figures whom Niromi gets a chance to interact at close quarters include Mahatthaya, Kittu, Yogi Master and Karikalan.

The writer claims that LTTE frontliner Kittu’s leg was critically injured and amputated about “18 months prior to” July 1987: the month of Niromi’s commencing her weapon training. By this admission, Kittu’s injury would have been received in January 1986. Historically, the injury is understood to have occurred in March 1987. Going by Niromi’s timeline, the ceremonial handing over of arms by the LTTE to the IPKF happens in mid-August 1987, a few weeks past its possible historical date. Niromi’s weapon training ends in the end of August: a course of 2 months. Later, she is sent to set up claymore mines, though there was never references to her being educated in mine-setting during her basic 2 month training.


Subothini Anandaraja alias Niromi de Soyza with Frances Harrison  

According to Niromi, a Government Agent is shot to death a few months after Thileepan’s death in September 1987. The said official’s daughter, by the writer’s admission, was her classmate. Who this government official is a bit unclear. Jaffna’s Government Agent from 1984 to 1989, Panchalingam, was shot to death by the LTTE in 1989. Still, in 1987, a group of Jaffna university students, on their way to the computer lab, is stopped by Niromi and her fellow cadres who are on sentry duty at the campus gates, making the studentship disgruntled. Indeed, it is worth to verify the existence of such a facility – and, in spite of my ignorance, there may have been such a center – even though according to the University of Jaffna website, the Faculty of Science, along with a Computer Science Department, was only set up in 1991.

In the first instance of being unexpectedly called upon to halt the progress of an encroaching enemy battalion, Niromi rushes in, while eating biscuits. She has a brief Wordworthian moment when, 100 meters ahead of her, she spots a “thousand” IPKF soldiers waiting in ambush. Niromi’s sentry duty falls almost always at either 1.00 AM or 2.00 AM. There is something uncannily repetitive about that roster. She is both witty and quick in responses with even the senior-most carders: this, in spite of the LTTE being introduced as a strict, hierarchical institute. At one point, Niromi has senior male carders such as Roshan tightly wrapped around her finger, while carders like Razzak, Thileepan and Muralie are different to her. Even Prabhakaran speaks to her with visible difference.


Niromi de Soyza (Image c/o her website)

Most unconvincing are the two battle scenes which Niromi minutely outlines for us. The first battle scene – the unexpected confrontation with the IPKF and the retreat – is quite unconvincing. The mode of the LTTE’s operation, if indeed it happened the way it did, betrays an amateurish rag-tag quality. The Second Battle is a disaster, especially if the writer uses it to evoke pathos and tragedy. The second battle triggers as the contingent led by Muralie and Sudarshan try to cross a road, and is set upon by the enemy from all sides. This scene, I feel, is heavy in melodrama and echoes a badly choreographed Bollywood script. Bullets are seen whizzing by, while bombs thrown are seen to cinematically cut across the air towards you, giving you just enough time to duck, and to call out a warming to the carder next to you (Gandhi Aiya); and for it to hit the fellow carder, his brains to spill all over you, and for his headless torso to fall on the ground. Bullets are seen to graze you by, hitting all in the vicinity, but you. Even as carder after carder fall attempting to scamper across the road, the rest still follow through. Banana fronds, water tanks and roofs are readily available for carders to retreat to. The 2000-strong enemy misses his target within touching distance.

Michael Roberts and DBS Jayraj were two writers whose commentary of the book in those initial stages came across as engaging, and since then, there have been others who have contributed to the discourse sparked by Tamil Tigress. Roberts, writing from Adelaide, has made several submissions and collated others’ views in his blog space, assessing the text as questionable, and dishonest, to say the least. Jeyaraj, on the other hand, has made sustained efforts to defend the text, even while going to the extent of supplementing the reader with personal anecdotes and chunks of background information that would make the reader rethink the work as fact. In fact, one of Jeyaraj’s entries, written in his engaging hand, is more fulfilling than Niromi de Soyza’s rendition. Jeyaraj comes across as having all the right information that will fit all the questions people have to ask of the book. No wonder Niromi de Soyza is yet to answer her critics.

And After She Shuts the Door? : Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”.

Is it an accident that Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), at one level, offers a playful and mischievous response to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)? Of the little history I know of either playwright I am yet to come across a close association between the two, but yet the above line of inquiry intrigues me, given the frequent cross-sections at which the two plays meet. This, in a context where the first English version of A Doll’s House premiered in London in 1889, and where Wilde, a dynamo of the literary and social circuits of his day, first publicizes Lady Windermere in 1892.

oscar-wilde-avatar-15211For a playwright who was also a favourite of the London society circles, Wilde was a first-hand witness to the social and moral frictions and tensions of the milieu of the upper middle class: a class whose theater-goers would now be introduced to and familiarized with what has since been proverbial as “Nora’s Question” in Ibsen’s play: the moral dilemma of a straitjacketed, middle class woman who had been accustomed to find “contentment” in her male-dominant, humdrum marriage to the banker, Trovald Helmer. The play develops in a way where Nora, after a sequence of events, finally unshackles herself from the marriage; and foregoes her domestic commitments by leaving the house, in order to “realize herself” as an individual. The play ends with her walking out to a world that is unknown and challenging; but, by implication, one that is freer and energized with hope.

Henrik_IbsenIn many levels, Wilde’s somewhat simplistic comic plot arrangement in Lady Windermer’s Fan seems to parody and unpack the stiff humanistic and moralistic frame Ibsen’s play operates in. Lady Windermere is, at its simplest, a conflict caused by mistaken identity, which is easily reminiscent of the frame of classical comedy. The eponymous Lady Windermere, now two years into her marriage, mistakenly construes that her spouse is secretly engaged in an affair with an older widow of “dubious reputation”, a Mrs. Margaret Eerlynn. The Lady, in turn, is wooed by a Lord Darlington whom she first rejects on moral grounds; but, subsequently thinks better of accepting. A series of convenient coincidences, allowances and prohibitions later, her submission to Darlington is avoided in the last minute through Mrs. Eerlynn’s intervention. The latter urges the Lady to stay with Lord Windermere and not to walk out of her marriage and her child. In the concluding Act, the Lady learns of Mrs. Eerlynn to be her mother, whom she from a young age was made to believe had been dead.

Wilde seems to playfully mock the ease with which Nora Helmer walks out of her settled, middle class marriage life, out into a world where she has no foothold or banister; all, in the name of agency and individual will. Lady Windermere, alike Nora, is indoctrinated courtesy of her socialization through the upper middle class with “principled morals” and a “sense of right and wrong” which are closely hinged to her being a “happy wife”. Under the impression that her husband had had an affair, she chooses to forsake this cherished code — but, not until then. By making things so, Wilde rejects from the root the idea of “morality” as a condition, but evaluates it as a necessary construction that defines one’s desired social and domestic roles. As a play, Lady Windermerer’s Fan dwells heavily on the theme of “morality” — this, for that matter, is a recurrent line in the “society scenes” in both Acts 2 and 3 — but, the play ends with the Lady falling back on the safety net of family and upper middle class stability. The reasons for her “not breaking through”, at this point, are inconsequential; but, in her we find a woman who “almost errs” into recklessness, upon an error of judgment.

il_fullxfull.337053865In his novel Bluebeard (1987), Kurt Vonnegut, in passing, takes the reader back to the “Problem of Nora”. In the novel, celebrity artist Dan Gregory’s much abused mistress Marilee Kemp tells the young narrator / protagonist Rabo Karabekian as to how the story of Nora walking out of her marriage and domestic is a myth. On what does Nora propose to survive in the world? Who is going to provide her employment? Marilee’s dilemma , being unable to escape the abusive Dan Gregory who otherwise provides for her in materialistic fronts is similar to what, Marilee suggests, Nora must face. The following lines are memorable as they are perceptive in the way they pull down Ibsen’s lofty ideals to the  ground:

“Nora didn’t have any skills or education. She disn’t even have money for food and a place to stay… That ending is a fake!… Ibsen just tacked it on so the audience could go home happy. He didn’t have the nerve to tell what really happened, what the whole rest of the play says has to happen… She has to commit suicide — and I mean right away: in front of a streetcar or something before the curtain comes down” (Bluebeard, p. 142-143)

Is Wilde’s then an attempt to balance out with commonsensical and practical caution the zealous idealism the London audience is peddled with by his famed Norwegian contemporary? Witty and charming in the outset, irreverent of upper middle class morality and convention, can the dramatist yet stress on the need for restraint; for, in Lady Windermere’s being held back alone climaxes his parodic rebuttal? I assign no value to the direction in which Wilde takes the contention of “conformity” against “breakaway” in the play, as I don’t see his interest being one moral. Rather, his interest is that of a counterpart who strives to rebut the controversial — yet fanatical — “Solution of Nora” which Ibsen proposes.

ShawLady Windermere appeals to our interest as being a contentious text at other points too. The mundane quality of the relationship Nora shares with Helmer — a perfect picture where furniture, benefits and appliances go; but one that, nonetheless, leaves an emotional vacuum in Nora  — complements with what Lady Windermere is moved to believe is the rut her marriage has fallen into, with Lord Windermere allegedly being in an affair with Mrs. Eerlynn. Another resonance is found in Dr. Rank of A Doll’s House who adds to Nora’s growing confusion with a declaration of love; that, too, at the brink of his own death. In a melodramatic passage of play that almost seems to mock at sensationalized love declarations, Lord Darlington, in Act 2, communicates to Lady Windermere his love for her, in a corner of a drawing room already teemed with party guests. An element of scandal hovers over both plots: in Ibsen’s play, tension builds up concerning a borrowing of money in which Nora finds herself at the mercy of Krogstadt. Similarly, the assumed “scandal” of Lord Windermere courting Mrs. Eerlynn impacts the movement of the plot in Lady Windermere throughout the four Acts. The influence of Mrs. Linde’s presence in Nora’s life, to a certain level, can be seen in parallel to Mrs. Eerlynn’s influence in Lady Windermere finding a last minute reprieve in her name and reputation being saved from disgrace. The Lady had earlier decided to leave her husband under the misconception of his having an affair with Mrs. Eerlynn, and the latter steps in to prevent the Windermere family from disruption.

In the immediate years that predate Lady Windermere’s Fan Wilde had had average success with his two attempts at Tragedy, with The Duchess of Padua and Salome. The latter, in particular, is a powerful dramatic achievement, but one that left Wilde desperately at edge, as it was banned upon being staged. For Wilde, the years 1890-1892 would have been spent in a certain degree of agitation and tension, in spite of the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Dorian Gray, in a way, is akin to a gospel on public morality and society — or, at the least, how Wilde assessed them — and the defense he had to put up in saving his novel from the choler of London’s upper middle class moral police was both strenuous and tiring. These developments which would have taxed Wilde’s own creative energy, temperament and patience are concurrent to Ibsen’s premiering in London with A Doll’s House. The surprise should be if Oscar Wilde did not want to make a fitting repartee.  


Regulations to Bat Blades: More for the Game, More for Cricket.

To have a maximum upper-limit regarding the depth of a Cricket bat’s blade is commonsensical, though it has eluded the far-thinking Establishment of the game until the last year or two. The height and width of a Cricket bat, and the substance from which it can be made, are clearly set down in the rule book; so, why not the depth? The debate that has largely been happening on the sidelines and corridors of Cricket has now, once again, been refreshed by the recent MCC proposal that a comprehensive parameter should be set for the thickness of the blade of a bat.

The debate on bat “thickness” has finally been recognized as an issue, though, coincidentally it happens in an age where a non-Caucasian team such as India has grown a reputation for using “abnormal” bats, and in applying them to churn scorecards that look like pay cheques. Still, better late than never, I would say, since this — same as some of the other areas where Cricket needs revision — is a focus of paramount importance; except that the move comes a decade too late. The record books, milestones and careers made and unmade in that period of a decade would have been otherwise if this lapse was considered a shortcoming and treated accordingly.


The bat used by Barry Richards to score 376, and the club used by David Warner

The use of thick blades has become a ridiculous tactical edge in global Cricket, and this is not to undermine the sterling quality in players like David Warner, Chris Gayle, M.S Dhoni, Virat Kohli and so on who depend on bats with extremely thick blades, but to say that, perhaps, some of their performances over the years would have been more “mortal” to fathom, and less abnormal to the eye, had there been a proper standard set for the upper limit to the depth. Growing up in the mid 1990s, an oft repeated fact, and with some admiration / amusement, too, was to do with the bat Sachin Tendulkar – then, an upcoming star in the Indian outfit – used: of its weight on the heavier side, and how it contrasted with the wafer-thin willow his Captain, the stylist Mohammed Azharuddin, used to carry.

Then, a decade later, the discussion on weight shifts into the blade’s thickness, and a whole generation of power-hitters with doctored bats – which look more like clubs from a war-epic than bats – enter the fray. Specially, with the rise of T-20 and the commercial and economic implications of that mode, a format where the bat-dominates-the-ball was conceived, and that conception worked well with all noble parties who were willing to make a monetary and material investment out of the game. The impact T-20 had had on almost every aspect of the game in the past decade is arguably more revolutionary and decisive than what the game had undergone in terms of change in all of post-world war years. Unfortunately, the game was allowed to be dented as a money-spinner with very little focus on quality or balance. The involvement of extremely successful and murderously ambitious businessmen in the game and its enclaves — a scenario where any aspect of the game could be bought, sold, promoted, condemned, cut off, or silenced — as well as its power epicenter moving from the traditional climate of England to an alliance maneuvered by Indian stakeholders were among the key changes global Cricket has been pushed through in this very decisive, yet unenlightened decade of ours.

Among other news sources, The Herald Sun, in a recent article carried on the subject, supposes the new proposals to reduce the thickness of a blade to 67 mm. This, in a context where the club carried by a player like David Warner of Australia – custom made for his liking – can have a blade thickness of 80 mm. Such gigantic arsenals have increasingly taken over from the natural stamina, strength and ability of players, and often carried a miss-hit over the wide-third man boundary, if not over the heads of the in-ring fielders to an open space in the outfield.

My own personal concern on the thickness of the bat-blades came with the abnormality with which the Indian Cricketers suddenly began to score at ease, four or five years back, amassing runs almost at will, with their edges carrying them over the ropes, and any deft touch resulting in a boundary. Some of these players were not athletically built or with muscle, but, they seemed to apply their clubs with a brutal finality — characteristic of players who flourished for India in the last half a decade or so, such as M.S Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina and so on. In the current set up, we have players like K.L Rahul who often edge his way to the boundary. These players are not stylists in the way a Sunil Gavaskar, Mohammad Azharuddin, a Saurav Ganguly or a Rahul Dravid were. None of them have the Vertical-elegance of the stroke, as what they apply is the weight of the bat on the ball, which, at the most, produce a crude half-way between a thrust and a Cricket shot. However, the piles of runs they score have made this obvious bluntness in style invisible, and no Cricket commentator or writer would dare call them club-wielders, lacking the style and elegance of a classical Cricketer.

In my opinion, other things that have to go out of the game includes the DRS system, the avalanche of T-20 fixtures, and at least one of the mandatory power plays in limited overs games. DRS should be a definite exclusion, as it compromises the level of “human engagement” in the sport. The LBW is not to be treated as a case of accuracy in decision, against inaccuracy; but, as a “human judgment” (that of the umpire standing 20 yards off) of the possibility of a ball hitting a wicket or not, if not obstructed by the batsman’s pad. To translate that into an impossible scientific-mathematical problem is to take away from the natural human instinct. The accuracy of an LBW decision given by the Umpire, as well as its inaccuracy, are both part of the game.

The Use and Abuse of Classical Motifs: The “Mahabharatha” in Shankari Chandran’s “Song of the Sun God”.

In her Song of the Sun God, Shankari Chandran uses many references to canonical classical texts, among which, the Mahabharatha is the most frequently used interjection; which is used almost as a motif that detains our attention for its frequency and purpose of use. This series of references are very carefully thought out, and done as a part of a conscious project which maps symbolic resonances between the two warring factions of cousins, and the Tamil and Sinhala nations of post-independence. One might even say that the kind of allusion Shankari makes to the Mahabharatha is predictable and not too unobvious a reference; except that, in a text that strives to narrate the deep sense of dislocation of the Tamil community within the modern Sri Lankan nation, the borrowing of a classical Indian epic as a set-piece doesn’t render a strong anchor for that community under threat. One may ask, why, at all, an Indian epic? Why, the Mahabharatha? What added impetus can one derive from such a scaffolding of an iconic text around the weave that deals with the rupture and schisms of the modern nation? Personally, I felt that Shankari’s stubborn leeching on to the Mahabharatha as a motif was, after a point, a tad contrived, and that it took away from the strength of her delivery.

SONG-OF-THE-SUN-GOD-FINAL-COVERShankari’s appropriation of the Mahabharatha is not as ambitious as Manuka Wijesinghe’s creative re-weaving of the Ramayana myth, in her Monsoons and Potholes, which is a second novel from more recent literature that uses a scaffolding of myth to give the text overall direction. In Shankari, the Mahbharatha motif, as overused and exhausted as it is, is referenced at least in seven instances out of at least twelve interweaves with iconic oriental classical texts (that in no other way impact the development of the storyline). Out of these, the Ramayana and Mahawansa are referenced at least twice, while the Thirukkural – a text that is more centrally locatable in the Tamil community of Lanka – is marginally referenced in one of the early chapters.

The more obvious usage of the Mahabharatha is as an association for the disintegration of order, where two warring factions that share (in some way) a common ancestry, wage a destructive, epic battle bathing both houses with blood and agony. The filming of Karnan, a film where Karna (of the Mahabharatha) is the hero, is screened against the larger national bedrock where the infamous Sinhala Only debates are taking place. Karnan is played by Sivaji Ganeshan, and on the eve of the fatal final battle, Karnan is deprived of his magical breastplate – the one call that will make him immune to all adversary. “The armour was fused to Karna’s body and he bled as he cut it from his flesh, knowing that his death in the war was now inevitable”. Parallel to this, protests against the Language Bill was being neutralized with violence and the one “power” that will place the Tamil community on par with the other linguistic majority was being pulled away. Shankari’s supplement reads: “The Tamils no longer had a language with which to communicate with the State – and the State would no longer listen to them… In the North, Tamil people refused to comply. They did business in Tamil, they stuck Tamil number plates on their cars over the Sinhalese ones, and they issued their own Tamil postal stamps… As Arjuna shot the final arrow into a dying Sivaji, Rajan’s heart broke and Nala cried openly, clutching her husband’s hand” (102-103).


The Mahabharatha – Bhishma and Krishna. 

While the Mahabharatha is shown to be the “story” through which young Priya (the second generation of the novel) comes to awareness of life and the world, in a different continent – in Australia’s Sydney – the Mahabharatha continues to be the parable being fed to the third generation of children, such as Smrithi (193). Here, through the story of Draupadi and her five Pandava husbands, Dhara teaches the virtues of sharing and obedience to young Smrithi. Interestingly, Dhara’s own copy of the Mahabharatha is a 1977 version of the original English translation: the year Smrithi was born. As such, in addition to the Mahabharatha being used as a mirror of the larger politicial and historical dislocation of the Tamil community, it is also located in a pedantic and instructive light; though, quite frustratingly, this seems to be the only text that is used at that capacity, which rings hollow for a family belonging to the Lankan Tamil culture which is rich and well grounded in its written and oral literatures.

The Mahabharatha motif is evoked once again where Shankari refers to the State’s violent crushing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, in the Years of Terror, between 1987 and 1990. This intra-state conflict between two factions which was largely of the same ethnic group makes Dhara see the epic in a different light: “No-one knew exactly how many Sinhalese died because so many bodies were never found, but an estimated seventy-thousand of its own people were killed so that the JVP understood the message… The Pandavas and the Kauravas: cousins who should have loved each other like brothers. Instead, both sides of the family were destroyed and all that was left were mothers and widows. There was nothing, no glorious kingdom to rule over for the Pandavas. They won the war, but every single one of their sons was killed. A whole generation of their young lost to them… The Mahabharatha had helped [Dhara] understand. Any human endeavor, whether it be a civil war or a fight for freedom would be flawed” (269-270).

In the above passage, the effort with which Shankari must parallel the more nuanced political and social friction between the government of Sri Lanka and the J.V.P-led “patriotic forces” with the Kaurava and Pandava war is palpably seen. The wishful thought of apolitical musing, as to how the J.V.P and the government ranks should have (my emphasis) “loved each other like brothers” – and as being mused on by the political-minded Dhara, too – takes away from the weave the sense of history and political friction among historical power groups, which is necessary to see the depth of friction. I suggest that Shankari’s need to use the Mahabharatha motif flexibly wherever there is conflict even in places where it renders an abnormal reading, has caused this “misfit”, as it happens where you try to fit a foot into a shoe of the wrong size.


Shankari Chandran

Two other places of interest to which I would like to draw our attention includes Shankari’s use of the Ramayanaya. The brute force of Ravana is powerfully incorporated as a metaphor of state and ethnic violence. The Ramayanaya is memorably referenced where growing tensions in the North with the coming of trained militant groups is alluded to (140); but, more powerfully, the state blessing of the Pogrom of July 1983 is described with an unmistakable reference to Hanuman, who sets the nation ablaze (148). In the internalized version of the myth, Ravana is evoked as a “demon” (140), and that demonic force haunts the childhood dreams of Dhara. Intriguingly, Dhara’s mother Vani is brutally gang-raped during the 1958 riots, and the collective of her violators are referred to as a multi-limbed demon (145). Dhara, herself, is raped at an army camp as a young 28 year old, and the brutal association the writer makes between the two incidents is obvious.

Returning to my departure point, are such mythological / classical supports necessary for a novel such as Shankari’s debut? Is there a strength such agents can bring into the weave, which makes an impact the text otherwise cannot create? In my view, the classical motif is abused and overused, leaving behind a sense of “forced labour” from which the text, in the end analysis, suffers as a whole. In the end, the Mahabharatha motif deteriorates to the level of a redundant accessory in the absence of which, perhaps, the text would have earned spontaneity and enhanced originality.


Destruction is Never Random: Shankari Chandran’s “Song of the Sun God”.

Shankari Chandran’s Song of the Sun God threads together memory, legacy and struggle, as it locates the Rajan family – an upper middle class, metropolitan, Colombo-based family of a well established surgeon – and its offshoots, in their dogged, yet frail and human negotiation against the violent political tides of post-independence Ceylon. In no way is Shankari’s theme a fresh one, but it is a documentation which she enters with much understanding and empathy. She runs the risk of reproducing a cliché, which she intelligently avoids by making her novel a close reflection of complex emotions and sentiments of a ruptured people, as well as the hard choices they are bound to by war; as well as their dogged spirit, often driven by necessity and compulsion, that fights to survive, to recuperate and re-grow.

SONG-OF-THE-SUN-GOD-FINAL-COVERThe novel can be segmented and discussed at multiple levels, and as a whole, the novel takes note of the gradual sidelining of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic majority from the social and political map by the pro-Sinhala regimes of post-independence; but, this is not new in literature. To me, the strongest asset in Shankari’s commentary is her confrontation of the Lankan state in relation to its much disputed conduct in the so-called Final Stages of the war. This comes as a culminating thread to a discourse anchored in history which includes constitutional and extra-constitutional violations of the Tamil community, its dignity, its rights and its culture.

Working for Doctors-without-Borders, Dhara is caught in (what is probably the first of) the “No Fire Zones” in 2009. Dhara is later seen to “vapourize”, in the hands of the state paramilitary, who keeps watch over her movements in Colombo.

“No. Fire. Zone. Three inaccurate words… They used the church as a hospital. It was large… On the battered and scabbed roof of the church, they painted a blood red cross. It drew the sick and the dying, and they prayed it would deter the army. The drones could see it and it was all they could do to protect themselves. The steady beat of shelling was getting louder… They had advised the Red Cross of their new location two days ago and again yesterday when they realized the shelling was coming closer. The Red Cross assured them each time that they had informed the army… She looked up and saw raindrops of fire fall from the sky. Droplets burrowed through the clothes and skin of people it touched” (325-326)

Shankari relates to the people trapped in the ever-narrowing zone of mock safety, now “trapped on a narrow strip of beach in the far north-east of the island. For four months, as fighting intensified, a mass of battered people moved as one, eastward, seekingsafety. They picked up their remaining children and ran towards the coast, towards the rising sun. This was President Rajapaksa’s ‘Zero Civilian Casualty Policy’… The Tigers fell back… The army killed and stepped over the morass of bodies without a second thought” (333).

Shankari’s charges complement with observations made by agents such as Gorden Weiss who, as early as 2011, submitted a charge-sheet of systematic shelling against the Lankan state through his The Cage. Both Weiss and Frances Harrison – author of Still Counting the Dead (2012) – as well as Cullum McRae’s Channel 4 team have been brusquely sidelined by hardline Sinhala chauvinist forces and pro-Rajapaksa elements as “foreign conspirators”, hot after the good name of the “Lankan patriots”. These have, in short, been scoffed at as literature of a pro-LTTE / pro-Tamil Diaspora (a problematic term) sort. Such denial and non-acceptance has been the foundation of the Lankan state’s response to the carnage caused between late 2008 and May 2009 throughout the 8 years that post-dates the military crushing of the Tigers, and the current regime – considered more moderate and accommodating in many ways –, too, is ambiguous (if not amphibian) in its response to the same. Some of the bitter-to-digest charges referred to above, have since been reaffirmed by sources like Rajan Hoole (whom one can by no means suggest is pro-LTTE) in Palmyrah Fallen (2015), and independent journalists such as Rohini Mohan (The Seasons of Trouble, 2014) and Samanth Subramaniam (This Divided Island, 2014).

srilankaAs mentioned above, in the post-war situation, Dhara – who had her father killed by the riots of 1956 at Gal Oya, who had her mother gang-raped during the same, who herself was raped by the military in 1976 as a 28 year old doctor, who chose to stay behind when everyone fled the island, and who used her energy to peripherally support the Tigers – is “vapourized” (or, “white-vanned”, as that singular act of state-sponsored black magic has entered the vocabulary), in a Colombo filled with “a jubilation not seen since independence. There were fireworks and parades, parties in houses and hotels. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa were hailed as heroes… Sri Lanka had won its war on terror. Gotabhaya… was preparing to teach governments and armies of other nations, how to defeat terrorism” (337).

In spite of these sections that deal with the military crushing of the LTTE, its aftermath and the writer’s contest of the state, Song of the Sun God is much more. It is at the same time, a powerful novel reflecting on the dogged spirit of the Lankan Tamil community, enduring in its hardships, while battling (enforced) change, constitutionally and extra-constitutionally maneuvered by successive governments since 1956, and its struggle to sustain itself. It is also the saga of a family, emerging from hard-invested toil, rising to the top of fashionable Colombo society, and having to relocate and resettle after being forced into exile; and its efforts to carry on to its best ability. Though I do not plan to elaborate in this space, I found the novel intriguing for Shankari’s nuanced capture of the many complexities and paradoxes within the migrant Tamil community she portrays, as well as for her skill in giving shape to the emotional and personal depth in her showcase of conflict.

However, Song of the Sun God is not the story of the “common” or “ordinary” Tamil family. The Rajans, as a family, is classed and is “luckier” than many faceless citizens who were set upon and murdered without a second thought owing to her/his ethnic Tamilness. The closest Rajan, Nala and Smrithi comes to their lives being threatened is when a mob rounds them up in Negombo, in 1983. But, even here, their lives are saved when someone points Rajan out as the “President’s doctor”. A glimpse of the ordinary, relatively voiceless subaltern Tamil’s plight is marginally seen in the case of Thiru, who sells meat in the Colpetty market, and is displaced after the ’83 riots. A son, a daughter-in-law and grand-children are flayed by the riotous mob at Dematagoda, and he is forced to return to the remote East to cultivate land and to pick up life afresh in his old age. One may draw a parallel between Thiru and Dr. Rajan who is forced into exile to Australia; except that the latter, a skilled laborour and a man of standing, finds himself “on his feet” and with a palpable security and social safety net under him. However, even as I make this observation I understand that Shankari does not intend an across-the-board discussion of plight across classes.

Shankari’s is an ambitious project, for, to maintain a momentum in a story that stretches across eight decades and three generations is a challenging task. On the whole, Shankari reasonably succeeds at this, though, I felt that the first section (titled Attrition) and the opening chapters of the second thread (Dispersion) were better harmonized, and written at an even pace. There is an even rhythm to and a smooth unhurried flow in these sections, to which is infused a disciplined eye for detail. This, however, is offset in some of the later sections – specially, passages dealing with the Australian experience – which come across as pushed through, or as hurriedly fit in.


Shankari Chandran

The motif of ethnic violence and the resultant dislocation of the middle-upper middle class Colombo Tamil space is not new to Sri Lankan Literature in English. In that capacity, Shankari treads the road “oft taken” through the foot prints of writers like Jean Arasanayagam, Shyam Selvadurai, Karen Roberts, Roma Tearne, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Nihal de Silva, Nayomi Munaweera and – more recently – Ayathurai Santhan. At one point, Shankari’s efforts to enmesh the political threads of post-independence nationalism into the weave runs the reasonable risk of looking a tad too contrived, as almost all “milestones” of that uneasy pre-war path from 1956 to 1983 are strategically pushed into the storyline, making things seem a tad too predictable at times. For instance, the birth of Priya (born in 1948), Nandan (1956) and Smrithi (1977) coincide, in that order, with the year of Independence – granted with a rejection of demands for equal representation –, the year of the National Languages Act, and the year of the J.R Jayewardene election victory and subsequent riots. The Gal Oya massacre (1956), the riots of 1958, and the riots of 1983 are equally factored in, while Radha and Anand are seen in the forefront of TULF rallies.

170509SRILANKAWAR432Several “abnormalities” and “incongruities” (that can be considered marginal to any critique of the work) punctuate the text in terms of historical consistency, as well. While these “irregularities” are often negligible in the holier realm of creative writing, for me, the “representation of history” has to be fact-fully and tact-fully handled. Unlike the cockroach stuck in Prime Minister Kotalawala’s ear, some of these representations take away from the discipline of the narrative, which Shankari often upholds as a merit. A few such instances that comes to mind includes Rita’s cautioning of Nala regarding Anand’s involvement in Chelvanayagam’s politics. Here, in a section dated as 1971, an imminent clash is forecasted between Chelvanayagam and “that thug in the jungle, Prabhakaran” (130). In 1971, Prabhakaran would be 16 years old, and four years yet from making his debut in militancy. In a section dated 1974, Anand is remanded for protesting at a Cricket Match at Lord’s (135-136). The corresponding protest happens in 1975, at the Kensington Oval during the World Cup series. In a further section, dated as 1980, Prabhakaran is seen making a speech condemning rival military groups in the North, justifying their annihilation (183). This, in a context where the LTTE’s hunting down of rival PLOTE, TELO and EROS members was yet to shock the Northern world. 1980, however, tallies with the breakaway of Uma Maheshwaran from the LTTE: a split that moves Prabhakaran to the top position of the party hierarchy.

Shankari Chandran operates at multiple levels, and The Song of the Sun God offers much threading that must be carefully considered, and should not be rushed or packed into one straitjacketing essay. Perhaps, I may continue on the same subject in a future entry. For now, I sum up with what is for me the most memorable passage of the novel, where an aged Dr. Rajan says: “People died in our homeland for the protection of our mother tongue. It seems nothing less than ungrateful that since escaping the war, Tamils here (in Australia) think it’s fashionable to be sanctified and cremated in Sanskrit, a language that is also dead. At my funeral the priest must speak in a living, breathing language. And he must wear a shirt – none of this ‘sarong only’ business” (382).

The phrase “living, breathing language”, after all that carnage, suffering and destruction, is like a beacon that stands up for the struggle to continue – for the struggle that must go on.


“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.


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.


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.

Vishnu Vasu: In Conversation with Grief, Loss and the Remains of War.

Vishnu Vasu’s latest film is the 18 minute Untitled: a work which, at a glance, seems to take off from where his Butterfly  – a documentary on child soldiers during the Lankan Civil War – rounds up to a close. Untitled is a blending together of three women’s loss and pain, as they confess the breakdown of their lives, families, livelihoods, as well as the grief sustained through the loss of the near and dear – in a word, how perfectly ordinary lives lived in the North were, in the least imaginable way turned to dust over a two decade period – while being clawed and mauled by warmongers of both sides of the divide.

dks8kflaIn a recent screening and discussion at the Kandy ICES, Vishnu spoke in detail to a gathering of academics, researchers, students and so on about Butterfly, Untitled, and his chosen role as a film maker recording and reproducing tales of grief and trauma. As an artiste who is multidimensional and with a background in film, theater and music, Vishnu’s current fixation on recording narratives of loss from the subaltern terrain of the war-ravaged has much meaning and value. Vishnu admits that his work is done under much difficulty, with state surveillance being his most interested “audience”, right throughout the 2009-2015 period. All stages of the filming of Butterfly, says Vishnu was monitored by the Ministry of Defense and its proxies, which included suggestions on scene selection and documentation process. Vishnu’s anecdotes on the governmental breath hissing down his neck, indeed, added comic relief to the discussion in question, but also indicates the tragedy which faces the film maker, while endorsing the importance of projects such as the one Vishnu has undertaken.

Untitled is, in many ways, different from Butterfly, though, at a glance, it seems akin to an extension of the former. One felt that in this film Vishnu is more aware of the limitations of the genre he works with, and strives for a compromise – a balance between narratives that open up the most intimate wounds of the heart, and an artistically coherent modulation of the same. Butterfly, in that respect, is more a documentary, with the tabling of voices that have been denied a lobby easily taking over from any artistic preoccupations. As such, one might say that with Untitled Vishnu takes a step in a different direction, and is also in better control of his scope as an artiste. A comparison of the two films is counter-productive, as they represent two different objectives and purposes; and it suffices for it to be noted that of the two, Untitled is closer to Vishnu’s own chosen tag: “a poem in motion pictures”.

maxresdefaultVishnu’s words are not without a cutting edge. He notes with empathy the issues facing the Northern communities, as their lifestyles and livelihoods still remain unsettled 8 years since the termination of the war. Vishnu confirms the criticism against the earlier authorities that very little stability has reached the communities that live in the villages and into the deeper tracts, away from the regions bordering the town of Jaffna. Vishnu, as a film maker, is sensitive to the nuances in the crises arising out of unreturned land (to the peasants after the war) and the inability of the Southern politicians and the non-Northern bureaucrat to understand or touch the local ethos. As an example, the traditional social fabric and the cultural matrix has not been taken into the least account in the so-called rehabilitation of or the vocational development among ex-combatants, states Vishnu. He equally lays emphasis on the total disregard of the psychological implications in the re-socializing process of these young men and women. Vishnu’s attempt, therefore, is to make the grieved speak on his/her behalf: a communication that has been paralyzed or not provided by the heavy-footed agents of rehabilitation.

Vishnu often shoots with a hand-held camera. His budgets are enviable, and his energy seems tireless. Though not exactly Trotskyite, he is “internationalist” in his thinking and in his outlook on life, and as such his claim that he is “NOT Sri Lankan” makes a lot of sense, and gives light to his deeper search for “truth”; both, in and out of the former war zones. Part of this truth-finding mission is to view and identify grief and loss at the most personal of levels: the one dimension that is deselected and rarely tabulated by statistics and tables. Vishnu’s is a personal quest on behalf of the person – the individual – in the name of humanity in its absolute form. Yet, as he ventures on, Vishnu Vasu is bound to be badgered with decisions he will have to make, and choices he will have to justify. At one point Vishnu will have to make decisions tougher than what he has had to make in his career thus far. On such a day we may return to this essay, and pick things up from here.

“සැමට අධ්‍යාපනය ලැබීමේ අයිතිය”, සයිටම් තීන්දුව සහ අපි.

education-for-all-1-728“සැමට අධ්‍යාපනය ලැබීමේ අයිතිය” යන්න ඉතාම අපූරු සංකල්පයකි. මන්ද, පූර්ව-කන්නංගර යුගයේ තිබුණු අධ්‍යාපනය සහ උසස් අධ්‍යාපනය සදහා වූ සීමිත ප්‍රවේශය වෙනුවට වඩා පැතිරුණු නිදහස් අධ්‍යාපනය තුලින්ද ඒ කාලයේ බලාපොරොත්තු වන්නට ඇත්තේ “සැමට අධ්‍යාපනය ලැබීමේ අයිතිය” තහවුරු කිරීමක් විය යුතුය. මෙහිදී “සැම” ලෙස අර්ථ ගැන්වෙන්නට ඇත්තේ සමාජ-ප්‍රභූ හා වාණිජ-ප්‍රභූ නිර්වචනයෙන් පිට, අධ්‍යාපනයේ සීමාසහිත බව නිසා එය සාම්ප්‍රදායිකව අහිමි වූ හෝ සීමිතව පරිශීලනය කරන්නට යෙදුනු හෝ පිරිස් ඇතුළු සමාජයේ මැද හා ඉන් පහල ස්ථර මට්ටම්ය. ලංකාවේ අධ්‍යාපනයේ පරිණාමය හා ඉන් සිදුවූ සමාජ පෙරලිය වාක්‍ය රචනාවකින් උපුටා දැක්විය හැකි යයි සිතීම පෞද්ගලික වෛද්‍ය විද්‍යාල පිහිටුවීම මගින් අධ්‍යාපනයේ පවතින සීමාසහිත වීම් වලට ප්‍රගතශීලී විසදුම් දෙන, කාලීන සමාජ මෙහෙවරක් වූවායැයි සිතනවා තරම්ම මායාවකි.

සයිටම් ආයතනය හා බැදුනු අභියායචන තීන්දුව සමග ඇති වී තිබෙන පසුබිම තුල “සැමට අධ්‍යාපනය ලැබීමේ අයිතිය” යන තේමාව නැවත ප්‍රතිනිර්වචනය වී ඇති බව කෙනෙකුට තර්ක කල හැකිය. මෙහිදී, ප්‍රායෝගික අර්ථයෙන් ගන්නේ නම් “සැම” බවට පත්වන්නේ පවතින කුසලතා පදනම මත සම්ප්‍රදායික ලෙස කෙරෙන රජයේ විශ්ව විද්‍යාල වලට බදවා ගැනීම් වලට හසු නොවන කොටස් ය. මොවුන් ලංකාවේ ජාතික අධ්‍යාපන විෂය නිර්දේශය යටතේ ද, 1980 සිට ක්‍රමිකව පැතීරී ගොස් ඇති ජාත්‍යන්තර පාසල් වල ලන්ඩන් / එඩ්-එක්සෙල් නිර්දේශ යටතේ වුවද අධ්‍යාපනය ලැබූවෝ විය හැක. පොදු කාරණය වන්නේ පවතින තරගකාරී ක්‍රමයෙන් පරිබාහිරව ගොස්, ක්‍රය ශක්තිය හෙවත් ගැනීමේ හැකියාව මත ඔවුන්ට මෙම උසස් අධ්‍යාපන අවස්ථා ලබා ගැනීමට හැකිවීමත්, වඩා විසුළුකාරී කාරණය වන්නේ එවන් පිටපාරෙන් යෑමේ ක්‍රමය “සැමට අධ්‍යාපනය ලැබීමේ අයිතිය” හා සමපාත වන බවට ඇතැම් අය විශ්වාස කිරීමත්ය.

“සැමට අධ්‍යාපනය” යන බෝඩ් ලෑල්ල හර පද්ධතියකින් තොරව භාවිතයේ යෙදුවහොත්, එම සැම දෙනා අතරට උසස් පෙල විභාගය අසමත් අයද, සාමාන්‍ය පෙල අසමත් අයද, ඉන් පහල ශ්‍රේණි අසමත් අයද යන සියළුදෙනා ද ඇතුලත් විය යුතු බවටද කෙනෙක්ට තර්ක කල හැකිය. අධ්‍යාපනය ඔවුන්ගේ ද අයිතියකි. විභාගයක් අසමත් වූ සැනින් එම අයිතිය උදුරා ගැනීමට කෙනෙක්ට පුළුවනිද? ශිෂ්‍යත්වයක් හෝ යම් ගෙවීමකට යටත්ව ඔවුන්ට ද උසස් අධ්‍යාපනයක් ලැබීමේ අවස්ථාව හිමි විය යුතු නොවේද? උසස් පෙල විභාගයෙන් වෛද්‍ය පීඨයට අවස්ථාව ලබන්නට තරම් ලකුණු තත්වයක් නොලබන සිසුවාට වෛද්‍ය අධ්‍යාපනයක් ලැබීමට ඇති අයිතිය සද්භාවයේ ප්‍රකාශයක් ලෙස සාමාන්‍ය පෙල අසමත් සිසුවාටද එසේම බලපෑ යුතු නොවේද? මෙහිදී මා මතු කරන්නට උත්සාහ කරන කාරණය වන්නේ ඕනෑම දාර්ශනීකරණයක් හා අර්ථ දීමක් යම් සන්දර්භයක පිහිටා කල යුතුය යන්නයි. අප උස්සන බෝඩ් ලෑල්ලක වන සටන් පාඨයත්, අපි පරමාදර්ශී අර්ථයෙන් ගන්නා වියුක්ත කියවීමත් අධ්‍යාපන ප්‍රතිපත්තීන් තුලට ගෙන ඒමේදී පවතින ක්‍රමයක් වේද, පවතින කුසලතා පිරික්සුමක් වේද, කුසලතාව මත කෙරෙන පිවිසුම් ක්‍රියාවලියක් වේද, ඉන් අතිරේකව කෙරෙන ආනයනය සැමට යන සද්භාවය හා ගැටෙන, එහි හරය නොඉවසන ප්‍රවේශයක් බවට පත්වේ. මෙම කාරණය හා සම්බන්ධ අදහස් කීපයක් මම වෙනත් අවකාශයකදී සටහන් කොට ඇත්තෙමි.

5සයිටම් ආයතනය හා බැදුනු අභියායචන තීන්දුව සමග ඇති වී තිබෙන කාරණය ඓතිහාසික හා ප්‍රගතිවාදී තීන්දුවක් ලෙස දකින මධ්‍යස්ථ ලිබරල් (වැනි) අදහසක එල්බ සිටින බොහෝ දෙනෙක්ද සයිබර් අවකාශයේ සැරිසරන ආකාරය අපි පසුගිය දින කීපය පුරාම දුටුවෙමු. තීන්දුවට කලිනුත්, තීන්දුවෙන් ලද පන්නරයෙන් ඉන් පසුවත් ඔවුන් පවසන්නේ ලංකාවට පෞද්ගලික වෛද්‍ය විද්‍යාල අවශ්‍ය වන නමුත් ඒවා හි නියාමනය සදහා පිලිගත්, රජයේ මැදිහත් වීමක් ද සහිත ක්‍රමවේදයක් අවශ්‍ය බවයි. වෛද්‍ය ශිෂ්‍යයෙකුට පුහුණු කාලයක් අත්‍යාවශ්‍ය වන්නා සේම මෙම මතධාරීන්ට ද ලංකාවේ ආණ්ඩු කෙරෙන ආකාරය, 1978න් පසුව ජාතික සේවා සම්බන්ධව ලක් රජයන්ගේ ස්ථාවරයන් හා ප්‍රතිපත්ති, සේවාවන් නියාමනය කිරීම සදහා ඉන් කෙරෙන මැදිහත්වීම් ආදිය ගැන යම් හැදෑරීමක් තිබිය යුතුය. වෙනත් වචන වලින් කිවහොත්, රජය විසින් පසුගිය තිස් පස් වසර තුල පොදුවේත්, පසුගිය දශකය තුල විශේෂයෙනුත් කරගෙන යන ජාතික සේවාවන් වෙලදපොලකරණය කිරීම හා එම සේවාවන් සැපයීමෙන් ක්‍රමිකව ඉවත් වීමේ විෂම ක්‍රියාවලිය ගැන යම් අදහසක් ඇති අයෙකුට ඉහත වන් ප්‍රකාශ කල හැකි වන්නේ නැත. නොවන දෙයක් හෝ වීමට අවම සම්භාවීතාවයක් ඇති දෙයක් හෝ විය යුතුයි යන්න පවසනවාට වඩා එම අසීරු අඩියට යෑමෙන් තත්වය වලක්වා ගැනීම වඩා ප්‍රගතශීලී මාර්ගයයි. වෛද්‍ය අධ්‍යාපනයේ තත්ව පරීක්ෂක ලෙස ක්‍රියාකරන වෘත්තීය රාමුවෙන් ද ප්‍රතික්ෂේපිත ආයතනයක් වලංගු කරවා ගැනීමට උරදෙන පාලන පැලැන්තිය මෙතනින් එහාට වෙනත් ජනතාවාදී පිවිසුමකට යන්නට ඇති ඉඩකඩ කුමක්ද?

protest1තීන්දුවෙන් පසු ලක්ෂ්මන් කිරිඇල්ල ඇමතිතුමා කල මාධ්‍ය ප්‍රකාශයෙන් වෛද්‍ය අධ්‍යාපනය පිලිබදව රජයේ ස්ථාවරය ගැන යම් ඉගියක් ලැබුණා වැනිය. කිරිඇල්ල මහතා එහිදී ප්‍රකාශ කර සිටියේ ඉදිරියේදී ලංකාවෙහි ආයෝජනය කරන්නට නියමිත මනිපාල් ඇතුළු පෞද්ගලික වෛද්‍ය විද්‍යාල 5ක් ගැන පුවතකි. මනිපාල් වෛද්‍ය විද්‍යාලයේ ශාඛාව කළුතර ආශ්‍රිතව ඉදිකිරීමට බිම්සැලසුම් පවා සකස් කොට ඇති බව ඔහු එහිදී පැවසීය. සයිටම් තීන්දුව ප්‍රසූත වී ඇත්තේ මෙවන් බළලුන් කීප දෙනෙක් ද රජයේ ගේ මුල්ලක ලූ ගෝනියක දමා තිබුණු වකවානුවකදීමය. ලිබරල් මතධාරීන් අපට පවසන රජයේ මැදිහත් වීමේ සභාවන්ද පනවනු ඇත්තේ මෙම ගෙදරම වෙනත් කාමරයකය. තීන්දුවෙන් කිරිඇල්ල මහතා කිසිදු කම්පනයකට පත්වී සිටින බවක් හෝ අපි නුදුටුවෙමි. පවතින සහ ඇති වීමට නියමිත වෛද්‍ය විද්‍යාල නියාමනයට අවශ්‍ය ලේඛන, රෙගුලාසි හා ඒ මැදිහත්වීම් කරන්නට අවශ්‍ය ශ්‍රමය ගැන සිතන විට විෂය භාර ඇමතිවරයා මෙතරම් උපේක්ෂා සහගතව සිටීම ම ඉතාම සුභ ලකුණකි.

ඉතින් “අධ්‍යාපනය නිදහස් කරගැනීමේ” යැයි කියන පද පෙරලිය අද තිබෙන්නේ මෙතනය. ජාතික අධ්‍යාපනය පෝෂණය කිරීමට හෝ, එහි නඩත්තුව හා ගුණාත්මක කිරීමට හෝ ඕලාරිකව, අවමයෙන් මැදිහත් වන රජය තම ශීර්ෂය පියවා ගැනීමේ පහසු ක්‍රමයක් ලෙසත්, වක්‍ර ආදායම් මාර්ගයක් ලෙසත් වෛද්‍ය අධ්‍යාපනයේ පෞද්ගලීකරණය භාරගෙන ඇති බව පෙනේ. ලංකාවෙන් පිටට යන විනිමය රට තුල රදවා ගැනීමට යැයි ද, වැඩි අධ්‍යාපන අවස්ථා ඇතිකිරීම උදෙසා යැයි ද කියමින් මුහුකුරා නොගිය තර්ක ඉදිරිපත් කරමින් ඉදිරියට ගෙන යන්නේ “සැමට” ලැබිය යුතු සම ප්‍රවේශයෙන් යුතු උසස් ප්‍රමිතියේ අධ්‍යාපනය වැලලී යන, වෙලදපොලකරණයෙන් පන්නරය ලැබූ නව සමාජ හා වාණිජ-ප්‍රභූ පන්තියකට අණබෙර ගැසෙන වැඩසටහනකි.