Friday, September 29, 2017

Reflections on a father, a son, and a scanner


A tribute to those who fight so that others may live.

About a year ago a campaign to raise money to purchase a much-needed machine for a hospital was carried out. Successfully. It was an attempt to get relevant authorities to be aware that such a machine was needed for about 100,000 of those living among us suffering from cancer, and 20,000 more who get added to that number every year. I wrote on that, the person who led this campaign, and the “why” and “how” behind the person’s motivations. More than a year on, where are we?

Numbers don’t lie. So here are some statistics. In addition to the 100,000 who suffer in the country and the 20,000 who get added, at any given point there are around 300 doctors tending to cancer patients laid down on more than 1,100 beds. Two years ago, of that 20,000 more than 13,000 had been admitted to the Cancer Hospital. In Maharagama. That’s the Hospital the campaign I mentioned above was for. The fact that 65% of our cancer patients resort to it indicates, discernibly, that most of those afflicted with the disease are unable to afford private treatment elsewhere.

It all began three years ago. A man called M. S. H. Mohomed wanted his son, diagnosed with osteosarcoma, cured. He took his son, Humaid, to a hospital in Chennai. The hospital had facilities and the latest technical expertise, but cost a lot. And so the father spent. Throughout 2014, he sold three of his properties, dug into his pockets, and tried a cure. Nothing worked. He thus brought his son back to Sri Lanka. Humaid was admitted to a private hospital for six months. Again, the bills kept on mounting and nothing happened, despite two surgeries on his lungs. Desperate, his father admitted him to the Maharagama Hospital.

The Hospital wasn't privately owned. For someone like Mohomed, it was kind of last resort you'd run to when you'd run out of options elsewhere. In other words, a place associated with squalor and lack of quality. For Mohomed, though, a few days and weeks were enough to open his eyes. "The doctors were kind, the service was excellent, and the nurses were courteous," he remembered later for me.

Because of this, he wanted to give back. He wanted to appreciate and to let others know. He picked on a key item the Cancer Hospital lacked: a PET (Positron Emission Topography) Scanner, used to differentiate between malignant and normal tissue when detecting cancer (something the machines that the Hospital had couldn't do). The scanner was available at private hospitals, but for better or worse (I prefer not to take sides) they were and continue to be run at a profit. For this reason, tests were expensive. Getting a scan at one of those hospitals cost about 150,000 rupees, clearly outside the reach of a great many people.

So Mohomed got to work. He had contacts. He had money. He used both. For the next few months, he drove a campaign which was unparalleled in that it didn't receive the kind of recognition it should have from officials. People responded. Citizens, be they Sinhala, Muslim, or Tamil, got together. Where the government failed, the people delivered. They needed to raise 200 million. Hefty, but not impossible.

Along the way, they got more support. An anonymous donor gave 35 million rupees. A TV station gave airtime and was behind the campaign, proving that the media wasn't as unethical as the government claimed. Back when ministers were quibbling over vehicle permits, when the worst floods had come without as much as a proper government salvage operation, the people came out. An organisation was founded by Mohomed, the Kadijah Foundation (named after his mother), to collect funds.

On June 13 the campaign was over. They'd reached 200 million.

That campaign wasn’t just for the PET Scanner, by the way. It was also for those other machines the: a MRI Scanner, a CT Scanner, a Genetic Lab, an Endoscope, a Colonoscope, a Bronchoscope, an Ultrasound Scanner, at least two other ambulances, and, finally, hearses for the dead. The Cancer Hospital lacks most of these and what it has are either (as with the CT and Ultrasound Scanners) almost 15 years old or (as with the Endoscope) malfunctioning. As for the cost, Mohomed gave me a figure: more than 800 million rupees. Not an amount to play with, one can argue.

Mohomed was born in Kalutara. When he came to Colombo in his youth, he had nothing, except a will to survive, to thrive, and to live with his conscience. When he rose up, with a family, and when his business flourished and everything seemed alright, his son, Humaid, complained of a pain on his shoulder. That was when everything really started, including the campaign, and Mohomed, whom I called “our hero” (the nation’s hero) last year, encountered his conscience. The personal is always greater, and more potent, than the social, which is why in this crisis, and through it, he remembered his boyhood will to wade through thick and thin with that conscience.

All that congealed last year to a new trust, a new foundation: “Fight Cancer Trust”. Limited by guarantee. They held seminars, frequently visited government and medical officials, and tried to ensure that the 200 million and the 800 million were not in vain. Of the equipment that the Maharagama Hospital needs, the PET Scanner figures in significantly. Which begs the question: why has it taken so long?

Now getting down a PET Scanner is not easy. There’s work to do. Time to spend. You can’t go in your private capacity as a citizen; you must order it through the Ministry of Health. A Tender Committee needs to be appointed. Once the tender is called, you have to wait for 42 days (a statutory requirement) before you close it. Then the tender must be approved by the Tender Board, which can take anywhere between two weeks and two months. The Minister’s final approval can then take up to another two months. Even after all that, ordering the Scanner still isn’t easy. You need to open a Letter of Credit. You then need to tell the manufacturer who scraped through the tender process to assemble it as per the requirements of the hospital. That takes around two months. Shipping it takes three weeks, fixing it in the hospital takes six, while radiologists at the Cancer Hospital need to be trained to handle it. Meanwhile, you need to import fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a chemical used in the machine, from India.

And then there’s the hospital itself. You can’t move the machine into it as you would another machine. You need to move it into another building and what’s more, you need approval from the Atomic Energy Board, after which you can finally get the machine down. And that after more than 50 weeks, 12 months, or one year. Waiting for one year, as I’ve pointed out before, means waiting for death to take over about 13,000 other people (in keeping with those statistics). Which in turn means that the Ministry should have done the needful and, all in all, quickened the process.

Have they though? The short answer, not really. The campaign that officially ended 16 months ago has lagged. To get a PET Scanner requires getting through several barriers. That’s part and parcel of the law, and how it’s institutionalised to ensure that everything involving money, and public causes, is planned for while adhering to both its letter and spirit. One can argue that it takes time, that it’s an inconvenience, and that it’s casually done away with once a powerful politico wants to get his or her cronies through. Even with such arguments, however, the original argument for getting such processes screened through legal mechanisms is powerful, defensible.

But there were other ways. The PET Scanner could have been called for through a collective Cabinet decision, instead of letting it be shrouded with regulation after regulation that can at the end of the day prove fatal for those 13,000 people. It wasn’t. Why not? Is the Scanner so inessential (the fact that it’s considered a necessity even in private establishments indicates otherwise) in the minds of our officials?

I am writing this with some anger. And not for no reason. 16 months ago, the campaign was launched. 16 months later, that Scanner is yet to come. Not just yet to come, but yet to come with a key person behind the campaign missing. For M. S. H. Mohomed’s son, Humaid, that young man who got the father interested in this whole matter, passed away a few weeks ago. I mentioned before that the personal being stronger than the social in getting us to understand tragedy. The personal, ladies and gentlemen, is strongest in times of loss. And bereavement. That’s where we are, and the fact that no official has striven properly for the betterment of the only affordable Cancer Hospital in this country tells a lot about us. Rather badly.

Written for: Daily Mirror, September 29 2017

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Towards a new musical sensibility


Regi Siriwardena, who wrote on writers, directors, playwrights, novelists, and mavericks, once wrote on William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. Here’s what he noted:

From sympathy and enthusiasm through disillusionment to fear and hostility, strengthened by patriotic sentiment once the war commenced – the gamut of emotions that the two poets underwent paralleled the general movement in the reactions of the upper and middle classes in England.

Siriwardena was writing about the French Revolution, and how the initial ardour for the revolutionists soured, turning into horror and then reactionary hysteria, in England. Not even the poets were spared: overnight, both Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were in their twenties when the Monarchy was overthrown and had celebrated the social and economic uprisings it compelled, became jingoists in the most conservative sense of that term. Robert Browning, in arguably the greatest single poem in English summing up the rage of the revolutionist against the turncoat, described this shift in “The Lost Leader” (“Just for a handful of silver he left us / Just for a riband to stick in his coat”).

Some of the greatest poets – one can include not just Wordsworth and Coleridge, but also Pushkin and Auden and Spender and Day Lewis – were either reactionaries or turncoats, whose youthful feelings of exuberance at social change slowly, but gradually, turned over. What matters today, however, is not whether they rejected the labels we had, once upon a happier time, pasted on them, but whether those labels still befit the poems and the lyrics and the songs and ditties they composed and wrote when they were still in their youth, as idealistic and revolutionary as you and I are today. I don’t think there’s any point lambasting them for their later reversal; after all, we have no moral right to pinpoint such reversals given our own renouncement of revolutionary fervour. (In Delovak Athara the protagonist speaks for all of us in this sense: “Everyone’s a socialist at 20!”)

In Sri Lanka the revolutionary poet was, at his or her most popular and populist, the nationalist poet: Tibet S. Mahinda Thera comes to mind at once. The conditions in Sri Lanka were not comparable to those in continental Europe, since here the main symbol of oppression wasn’t a rotund, idle king and his consort but a bunch of colonialists and their brown lackeys who lived in their own privileged quarters at the exorbitant cost of the rest of the country. The reawakening that the likes of Mahinda Thera brought about, consequently, was dependent on nationalist rhetoric, to be echoed many, many decades later by a song which spoke of the kind of love for one’s country that he frequently had:

සරු පස පොළවෙන්
වැහි බිඳු අහසින්
මිණි කැට මුතු ඇට මගෙ සිරිලක ඇත

It’s interesting, then, that in about seven or eight cases out of 10, even today, the conventional Sinhala song about oppression, exploitation, and misery celebrate the impermanence of suffering, echoing the Buddhist outlook on the ata lo dahama:

තුන් තිස් පැයේ දෑඟිලි නිදි වරන්නේ
නිල් එළියටයි පෙති ගෝමර දැවෙන්නේ
මල් විය නොවෙද මේ දියකර හරින්නේ
මැසිමද හිතද මහ හයියෙන් හඬන්නේ

That last song (“Rae Wada Muraya”), performed by Sunil Edirisinghe, was written by Bandula Nanayakkarawasam. I met Bandula more than a year ago, when I was attached to another paper and had to interview him. (The interview, incidentally, was never published.) Given that my knowledge of Sinhala poetry was, at best, abysmal, I asked him as to how one can trace its influence in the choice of most of our lyricists to affirm, rather than rebel against, suffering in the same way the early Wordsworth had. Obviously, the answer to this had to bring up one name. Bandula brought it up.

“When Sunil Ariyaratne wrote ‘Perahera Enawa’, he didn’t depict the usual pageant, with people gazing on at the nilames and the kasa karayas with admiration. He brought up a rift between those nilames and those kasa karayas. You can argue that the function of a song is to entertain, to give us some reason to be overjoyed. I would agree, but then there must be at least some lyricists, some performers, who see in music and literature a potential to unearth the political, the social. I may or may not be able to indulge in the political the way Ariyaratne did, but that doesn’t diminish my respect for him.”

The great achievement of the political lyrics of Sunil Ariyaratne and the political songs of his musical consort, Nanda Malini, was their ability to unearth the social reality behind the colourful facade. They do this in “Perahera Enawa”, which unlike Wordsworth’s later poetry and like William Blake’s best poetry undresses what’s perceived, and celebrated, in favour of what’s real, substantive, and all too common. Consider the opening:

පෙරහැර එනවා කස පුපුරනව
හේවිසි නද පතුරනවා
කස කරුවන්ගේ දහදිය මුගුරින් පාවඩ මග අතුරනවා

The sense of grandeur in the first two lines is roundly negated by the third. As the song moves on, thanks to Nanda Malini’s dexterous ability to convey both infatuation and irony through her voice, that sense of negation gets more potent, more discernible:

යදමින් බැදි ඇතු අසීරු ගමනින් හෙමිහිට පාද තබන්නේ
යන ගමනේ ඉම දක ගනු රිසියෙනි ඇත් ගොවුවන් ගාටන්නේ

And then in the final verse, the poet and the performer are at their most ironic:

අඹුදරුවන්ගේ කුස් පුරවන්නයි වන්නම් තාල ගයන්නේ
වේල දෙවේලට අත සරුවෙන්නයි කොහොඹ කළේ නටවන්නේ

The truth is, as far as I can make it out with my knowledge of the field, that the classical Sinhala poet did not bother himself with the kind of revolutionary rhetoric that Ariyaratne and Malini did. It’s their penchant for routing tradition, without flouting it outright, which crops up in gushes and torrents in their most acerbic work. Consider the following:

පොලොන්නරු යුගයේ දී විද්යා චක්ර වර්තීන් බුත්සරණ ලිව්වේත්
කෝට්ටේ යුගයේ දී වීදාගම හාමුදුරුවන් බුදුගුණාලංකාරය ලිව්වේත්
දේවවාදයෙන්  යටපත් වූ බුදු දහම නගා සිටුවීමටයි
මේ වූ කළී එවන් කෘතියකට කාලය එළඹ ඇතිබව මතක් කර දීමකි

The last line brings out a point of comparison between the contemporary polity’s act of yielding to superstition and the classical era’s conflict between Buddhism and the many variants of Hinduism and Jainism: essentially, the intrusion of superstition on the temple of reason. The attempt by the poet to bring together the temple and reason, incidentally, is another sign of his political outlook: for the Marxist in Sri Lanka, the only clergy worth reckoning with were those who dabbled in rationalism: Walpola Rahula, Kotahena Pannakitti, and those denounced by D. S. Senanayake as political bhikkus.

“Budu Himiyantath Kaliyugaye”, the opening to which I quoted above, was not part of Nanda Malini’s most fiercely political album, Pawana, but rather of the earlier Sathyaye Geethaya, which also had “Perahera Enawa” and where she and Ariyaratne were less fierce, less overt. The fact that “Perahera Enawa”, “Sakura Mal Pipila”, and “Sukiri Batillange Geethaya” are celebrated, even today, in favour of and over the Pawana songs brings up a whole new debate about the rift between the political and the aesthetic in music, and indeed in the arts in general. Malinda Seneviratne once observed to this effect that the Pawana songs were dated (“for the most”) and hence were not as remembered or timeless as Malini’s earlier work on childhood, adolescence, and repudiated love.

Malinda’s contention about the timelessness or lack thereof of a particular epoch of a particular artist is a variation on the largely bourgeois debate between the timelessness and the specificity of a work of art. In conventional Marxist dialectics, there’s no production without consumption, no consumption without production. What is true for economics is true also for literature, music, even the cinema: a novel or a play becomes a novel or a play by its act of being consumed by audiences. When the ardent Marxist seeks to analyse an objet d’art on the basis of the social processes which bred it, he or she divorces the act of interpretation from the production of new, subsequent meanings.

I return to Regi Siriwardena with a question he once raised: “Does Maname mean for us what it meant for audiences in 1956?” The question, bewildering if not downright redundant to some, was a response to the ardent Marxist’s rubbishing of classical art, in particular Greek art: “It is because these texts have been most susceptible to continual transformation of meaning that they have survived.” In other words, the best art is not conditioned by notions of timelessness and specificity; on the contrary, the best art survives continual change, while yielding to it and at times even defying the intentions of its authors. (Barthes wrote on the death of such authors; Lester James Peries denied its relevance, while the more political Dharmasena Pathiraja, in an interview I had with him, affirmed it as preferable to the bourgeois notion of the director as a definitive auteur.)

What Malinda observed about Malini’s songs is, for the most, contradicted by their continuing relevance today. “Yadamin Banda Vilangula”, to give just one example, was written as a response to the atrocities of the then government led by the United National Party, and was frequently broadcast in the run-up to the January 8 election in 2015. But I digress. Here are Malinda’s views on the matter, in his own words:

“I cannot help feeling that a cart was put before a horse; that literature was approached through politics and therefore only its ‘purely political’ message was extracted and its larger call for recognition and exploration of humanity was missed or ignored or both.”

Humanity: the ardent Marxist might rubbish that as indicative of the writer’s bourgeois inclinations, just as it is of those who talk about the timelessness of a text, but to me the counterargument is quite simple, really: was it not humanity that mobilised an entire population through her verses, more effective than all the humanistic poetry in the world in substituting active participation for passive affirmation?

සීතල පොළවම සිරියහනක් වේවා...
ගෝණි පඩංගුව මුදු පළසක් වේවා...
ජේලර් මහතුන් නෑදෑයෝ වේවා...
තැටියේ බත්පත දිවබොජුනක් වේවා...

That last song (“Seethala Polawama) was used by detractors of the former regime, incidentally; by those who vouched for the UNP, the JVP, and the TNA, against the imprisonment of Field Commanders and Chief Justices. Not timeless enough? I think not.

And so, in the general order of things, in my book, they remain timeless enough. Where their writer and performer went wrong (because yes, they did go wrong, right after Pawana) is grist for another article. Next week. For now though, I am done.

NOTE: In the original piece I observed that it was Derrida who conceptualised the death of the author. This was a mistake on my part. It wasn't Derrida, but Barthes. I apologise.

Written for: Daily Mirror, September 28 2017

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The court: Our children as our priority

Broadly speaking, children can encounter the law in three ways: as criminals, as perpetrators, and as witnesses. That there are problems in our justice system stems partly from the fact that we refuse to accommodate those children as children with respect to these categories. Even though we do treat them differently, at the end of the day they tend to find our courts and processes difficult and overwhelming.

Our collective refusal to identify and treat children for who they are is reflected in the almost contradictory attitude the law has taken towards them. Consider how, for instance, their age limits are set when they are tried as perpetrators. A person is said to be criminally responsible only if he or she has attained or passed the age of 8 (as set out by the Penal Code of 1883). A judge has the discretion to try a person as a criminal if he or she is between the ages of 8 and 12, if that judge can ascertain whether he or she has attained a sufficient level of maturity and understanding as to the consequences of a particular course of conduct. Those between 12 and 16 can be held as criminally accountable even if it that point is not conclusively ascertained, while those between 16 and 18 are regarded as adults. (However, no one below the age of 18 can be sentenced to death.) Not exactly helpful or consistent, is it?

And if this wasn’t confusing enough, there was another attempt at a classification made, this time by the Children and Young Persons Ordinance (or CYPO) which stated that children were individuals below the age of 14, and young persons were those between the ages of 14 and 16. In 1998 a study by the Lawyers for Human Rights and Development (LHRD) concluded that this double classification could in the long run explain the confused state of our juvenile justice system. Taken in itself, the argument is tenable: if we can’t set down the age limits of a child in legal terms, how are we to determine if a child is a child and, in individual circumstances, how he or she should be treated, whether as criminals, victims, or witnesses?

The problems are there for all to see, clearly. So what are the solutions? If at all, is there one particular way through which the shortcomings of the law with respect to juveniles can be ameliorated, if not done away with completely? The Child Protection Force, which I dwelt on at some length in last week’s column, seeks to combat all those problems, all those shortcomings, by resorting to a juvenile justice system that lives up to its name. A key component of such a system, which by the way is already there in Sri Lanka, is the establishment of juvenile courts. That there already are such courts in this country is certainly welcome. That they are considered to be inadequate and inappropriate indicates that we’ve become complacent.

The Child Protection Force has as its main objective the implementation of a system of child friendly Legal Aid. Makes sense. A perusal of the very many instances of injustice and disproportionate punishment meted out to our children, of whom some involve such unspeakably horrifying crimes as genital mutilation, would convince anyone that, as the president himself noted two years ago, the entire nation must bear the overall unconditional responsibility for their protection. Here’s what the CPF souvenir I got, on that Sunday two weeks ago, has to say about the matter:

“... the victimised child or the actor is forced to reckon with the various actors in the criminal justice and public juvenile care system due to being the victim of a crime or carrying out the offence himself/herself. Decisions are made... by different persons who are stakeholders in the system, be the decisions appropriate or not for the circumstance of the individual child. The child is then at the mercy of the actors within the system, until a decision is made regarding his/her fate.”

The tagline, so to speak, of the CPF is spot on in this regard: “To Expedite and Educate.” Expedite, because most court cases involving children (as with most court cases, period) are delayed to such an extent that they become harrowing, turning those children into adults before their time; and Educate, because those actors within our system are unaware of how to make that system more amenable to them. I believe that the latter can come about through a cohesive regime of legal aid, in turn predicated on a cohesive juvenile justice system. That’s where juvenile courts come into play.

But first: what are juvenile courts? A good starting point would be the socially conscious novels of Charles Dickens, which depicted the horrifying, sometimes gruesome, conditions of labour and life that awaited the wretched and the helpless. From those novels to the establishment of a first Children’s Courts (as they were referred to back then), a key motif that runs through the debate Dickens raised is that there’s a rift between retributive and restorative justice. The latter is aimed at salvaging the criminal, the former at punishing him or her. Of the two retributive is more suited for adults, so once you inflict it on children, not only are you violating Aristotle’s take on equality (comparing like with like, never with unlike), you are also increasing the chances of them relapsing to their earlier habits once retribution has been meted out to them. There’s a term for this, by the way: recidivism.

It’s not really a coincidence that the world’s first Juvenile Court was established, exactly one year before the dawn of the 20th century, in a country that was seeing industrialisation on a scale unparalleled in any other part of the world: the United States, more specifically Illinois. The 18th and 19th had been the centuries of progress and growth, that is, progress and growth at the exorbitant cost of human development. They were predicated on the sustained denigration of the lower orders, of which children figured in significantly: long before the West became liberal champions of juvenile justice in other countries, it procrastinated on its own processes of ensuring the safety and welfare of its own children.

While the first few decades of the new century saw no real difference between Juvenile and normal Courts, nevertheless the former congealed into a class of their own, guided by one stark principle: for children to be guaranteed justice, either as offenders or as victims, there must not only be the exclusion of features all too common in other Courts (such as the bespectacled, old, and strict judge thrashing his gavel on the table, giving a final determination), but also the inclusion of features that would directly appeal to a child, such as play areas and counsellors. The problem in Sri Lanka, then, is that because of our muddled up definitions of children and their parameters, Juvenile Courts were destined to be muddled up as well.

To be sure, this country doesn’t lack statutory provisions when it comes to juvenile justice. The Children and Young Persons Act was enforced around half a century after the enforcement of the Penal Code. It was the CYPA that created Juvenile Courts, with a caveat: unlike most other countries where such Courts exist independently, here they were created within our Magistrate’s Courts. In other words, as per Sections 2 and 3 of the CYPA, Magistrates would be empowered as judges of Juvenile Courts, with the Act defining such judges and their scope of authority and jurisdiction. Obviously, this was hardly adequate, as can be inferred from the fact that, until about five or six years ago, of the more than 70 MCs situated around the country only one, in Bambalapitiya, could be considered as a Children’s Court. The problems that flowed from this were inevitable and deplorable, including inordinate delays.

In 2010, in reaction to calls made by certain concerned authorities, both civil and even within the government, the first JC was established in Battaramulla. Barely a year later, another such Court was built in Jaffna. The importance of these two can’t be discounted. At all. They were needed, not only to try out child offences, but also to ensure that cases involving children were concluded quickly. However certain imperatives for improvement remained: the fact that most cases involving children are never referred to these courts, the fact that the process of hearing cases, no matter how amicable it may be to the child, is preceded by a harrowing, and often unfriendly, process of making complaints and having police officers and other wielders of the law take them down: all too often, the social stigma attached to this is so overwhelming that children sometimes do not report any offence committed against them at all.

In the final reckoning, then, why does all this matter? Last week I contended that if we continue with a culture whereby children are made to conflate unconditional deference for authority, we will succeed in creating two kinds of individuals: those who wield the baton and those who resist it. Well, that argument is compounded by another: if we continue with a muddled up legal system based on even more muddled up legal definitions of children, and their age parameters, we will end up contributing to that culture. By neglecting that issue, hence, we will be neglecting our own children.

That’s why I think and believe that the Child Protection Force is doing a commendable job. Legal aid is a veritable method of combating the apathy adults in the legal system exhibit towards those children. As Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, at that forum two Sundays back, contended, however, it is not enough. It must be followed by collective action. By everyone. By you and me.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

'Bhava' and 'Harasara Pranama': Of craft and homage


Ranjith Rubasinghe, who occasionally acts (even now) but is better known to those in his field as an Assistant Director, was born in Akuressa, Matara to a father who operated as a peon by day and an amateur playwright by night. “He could sing, he could act, he could craft,” he remembered him for me some months ago, at my house. The father’s passion for theatre had naturally trickled down to the son, and soon enough young Ranjith and his friends were helping him with the choreography and the sets. “Lighting was a problem back then, so we went for the simplest combination: Petromax Lamps and coloured paper.” I was bewildered, which is why I asked him how. He replied, “Depending on the characters and the mood we wanted to convey, we were given cues to change the coloured paper to green, red, or yellow.”

I fervently believe that no art form can survive for long without a proper grasp of both the technical and the artistic. It’s the same story in both theatre and cinema: you need imagination and craft just as much as you need technicians. Rubasinghe grew up to be a “technician” himself, but that love for relating stories, for conveying a mood by resorting to the simplest method, turned him in later years into a director on his own accord. There’s a lesson to be learnt here, obviously, which is why the dichotomy between those who think and those who do remains one of the most simplistic and destructive today. Nowhere is it more simplistic and destructive than in the theatre, the most ritualistic, and at times primeval, of all art forms.

The gap between English and Sinhala theatre is so patently wide that it merits an entire article to itself, particularly with respect to how each is nurtured in our schools. This gap, I will get to next week. For now, though, I’m concerned about how a drama society, from a school and from this country, is trying to get its members to understand that point I highlighted above: that for the theatre to thrive, there must be both active participation and a felt, honest tribute and throwback to how it was sustained in the past. In other words, a consistent culture of craft and homage.

On two days over two months, the Sinhala Drama Society of Royal College, Colombo will hold two events that will respectively “give back” to these two theatrical cultures: on September 25 and 26 with Bhava, and on October 26 with Harasara Pranama. Bhava is, for all intents and purposes, done and dusted. Harasara Pranama is not. Because the one can’t be written and sketched down without the other, however, I will write on both. And because neither can be talked about without at least a footnote about the Society, its members, history, and trajectory, I’ll write on those as well.

First and foremost, the Society. Online records indicate that it was first established in 1998. Written records, though, indicate an earlier timeframe, with the first play to be directed by the students in school for the National Interschool Drama Competition staged in 1967 (it would win second place, while the following year’s play would come first). However, what was considered to be a promising start deteriorated rapidly, and soon enough we come across a break in the Society’s history throughout the seventies and eighties, before it was properly revived in, yes, 1998. The first few years thereafter were inconsequential, after which another revival of sorts was brought about by students and teachers in the early 2000s. It’s in this context that one should dwell on all the shows, competitions, and skits organised by it at present.

To a considerable extent, those shows, competitions, and skits are rooted in the Society’s overriding objective: getting its members to explore the aesthetic parameters of the medium. Theatre is arguably the most “live” of all art forms, let’s not forget, so naturally, for it to be sustained in any institution, its interest should be kept alive through workshops, training sessions, and rehearsals. Speaking with the current Chairman of the Society, Ayath Withana, I understood that at Royal, such rehearsals, which follow a veritable set of workshops headed by teachers and Old Boys, can last up to the final week before the unveiling of a show. These are obviously nothing if they don’t get their participants to carve and to reflect on the past. Bhava seeks to address the former, while Harasara Pranama seeks to address the latter.

Bhava is an exhibition and one that strives to tell those who patronise it, “The theatre is as much a product of our labour as it is of our imagination.” That’s being crude and simple I agree, but for now it’s the best way I can sum it up. Begun yesterday and ending today, its reach, so to speak, goes beyond exhibit hours (from 8 am to 2 pm) and venue (the Royal MAS Arena). The fact is that the entire exercise has got its organisers to create, to carve, and so together with various stalls from our Universities, schools, and even Navy, we can expect a veritable display of masks, shoes, costumes, and other ranga baanda from not just Sri Lanka but also China and Japan (two theatrical cultures which have influenced ours).

I am no connoisseur of the theatre and not being one hinders me from delving into what these boys have done. Suffice it to say, then, that the entire enterprise has made them aware of the intricacies of the medium they’re in. Ayath was quite clear on that point: “Before this the younger children didn’t know about spotlighting or set designing or even the different mask cultures in this country. We are questioned on them in the O Level Drama Paper and are asked, for instance, to come up with a set of dialogues and to identify certain sanniyas with respect to particular masks. So when you get involved in not just studying but also carving them, be they masks or shoes or even costumes, you tend to understand the culture, the story, behind them.”

Being able to understand, by default and in the arts, means being able to value, to remember, to reflect. That’s what Harasara Pranama has been organised for. The history behind it is more recent, and goes back to 2001, when the school’s submission for the Interschool Drama Competition, for some reason, was skewed and downright ignored by certain officials. “We felt hard done by, to be honest,” Ayath told me.

Three years later, to address what was felt to be an unjust snub, the then teacher-in-charge of the Society, Rathna Lalani Jayakody, mooted and got the students to organise a single event that would a) award the winners of the school’s Inter House Drama Competition (held earlier that year) and b) honour two veterans in the field. This was Harasara Pranama ("Homage"), the first edition of which felicitated Lucian and Malini Bulathsinhala and was held on March 26 (with March 27 being the World Theatre Day). The following year, the number increased to three: Wijeratne Warakagoda, Lalitha Sarachchandra, Somalatha Subasinghe.

Three years after it was first held, the Society inaugurated another event: Abhina, an interschool competition. It was decided to award the winners at Harasara Pranama as well, until four years later, in 2011, when the teacher-in-charge herself felt that the children were not up to the task of holding such a massive pranama ulela. “We faced a lull after that,” Ayath told me, “It took six years for us to get back. This year, we’re reviving the show. We’re bringing it back.” Scheduled to start at six in the evening at the Navarangahala, this edition of Harasara Pranama will as usual pay tribute to three veterans: Ramya Wanigasekera, Neil Alles, Jayantha Chandrasiri.

That lull after 2011 didn’t come about for no reason, obviously: the truth is that an event of this sort has to wade through certain constraints that the Sinhala theatre, in general, has to suffer. It’s one of the biggest ironies today, but our national theatre finds it more difficult than its English counterpart to get proper, consistent sponsors. It’s all arbitrarily and more often than not self financed. “Even for a two or three hour show, we have to spend heavily,” Ayath confessed, “When our Committee decided to organise it, our past Chairmen had one piece of advice for us: come up with three names, then find the money. The first has been easy; the second, so far, has not.”

All these observations, illuminating as they are, interest me more for how they reflect the general thrust and philosophy of the Drama Society at Royal. Ever since Rathna Jayakody left earlier this year, the boys have sought to maintain her contribution to both Society and school. “She was there for us all, to be honest, helping us find the names, getting the necessary contacts, going out of her way to mould our members to be active participants. Of the 80-odd children we have, only around 20 are ‘active’ in that sense. That’s rather sad, but to be expected, given the horde of other responsibilities and activities they have to put up with. That’s why both Bhava and Harasara Pranama indicate our efforts to keep Sinhala theatre alive at school.”

With about one or two events organised every month, adding up to about 15 or 16 every year, the Society clearly has a lot to maintain. Perhaps what Ranjith Rubasinghe told me, not too long ago, is what drives these boys: in a context where the Sinhala theatre, more than its English counterpart, has to survive on institutional charity and individual effort, we need to nourish it through our schools and our childhoods without forgetting that all too important point about an art form, any art form, flourishing through both labour and imagination, both craft and creativity. Perhaps that’s one lesson Bhava, Harasara Pranama, and even Abhina will teach us.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Bases loaded: A game, a team, and a tour

The Baseball Team of Royal College, Colombo toured Japan as part of an exchange program by the Asia Pacific University (APU) from September 22 to 31. Here are some reflections on the prologue and afterword of that tour.

Reflections on the game

Baseball enthrals me. Not because I play it, but because I happened to watch a great many movies which featured American children (my age, back then) batting and pitching. For some reason, these kids reflected their bitterest sorrows and profoundest joys in their act of running from first base to second and third base and then back to the home plate. That was natural: baseball was born in America, and became rooted in its people’s sorrows and joys, though its interest has become widespread, global.

Introduced here in 1985 by the US Embassy and two local Ministers, Vincent Perera (Sports) and Festus Perera (Fisheries), it spread to 25 affiliated clubs and 25 schools. That we got it at a time when cricket was awarded test status speaks volumes about the trajectories of these two sports, the bottom line being that we haven’t yet crossed over from a nation of baseball players to one of professional players.

There are reasons. The first is the facilities, or lack thereof. And I’m not talking about digital scoreboards, well articulated commentaries, or a firm institutional base. I’m talking instead about one simple fact: that, of the stadiums we have, only one, at the Mahinda Rajapaksa Ground in Diyagama, is fit for the game. It’s roughly the same situation in hockey (we still have only two turf grounds, in Colombo and Matale).

That’s just one problem. There’s another: the lack of any impetus through which our players can learn, nurture, and improve on their tactics. Since we don’t have enough facilities, the best if not only way our players can sustain their prowess is by learning from another country. That is why it matters very much that Japan has been, since the establishment of baseball here, trying to uplift us, especially through a series of exchange programs involving our Universities, Clubs, and schools.

Reflections on the team

In February 2015, 16 members from the Asia Pacific University (APU) Baseball Team came over to Sri Lanka for a seven-day tour. The idea was to teach and to get to know our players, to build a bond of sorts between their homelands. Not surprisingly, given the enthusiasm of our players, it didn’t take long for that bond to grow.

Two years later (THIS year) in April, the APU team came over again, this time for a friendly match with the National Team. That encounter, powered up jointly by the Sri Lanka Baseball Association and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), was a preparatory exercise for the upcoming West Asia Baseball Cup Tournament in Pakistan. Given Japan’s role in the promotion of the sport here (two of their coaches currently serve in our team) and the dedication put into the encounter by the 76 volunteers of the JICA, their favour needed to be returned.

The return, so to speak, came four months later, at the end of August, when one of our teams left for Japan to reinforce that bond. Not a University, not a Club, but a school. This article is about that school team.

In 1985, C. T. M. Fernando instituted the first school baseball team in Royal College, Colombo, where he was Principal. Since then, its imprint has been unmistakeable, not least because of the tournaments it’s waded through. Before delving into their tour, therefore, a quick perusal of their history is in order.

Royal became the Runners Up at the first National Baseball Championship, the John H. Reed Challenge Trophy, held the same year the Team was begun. In 1993, it won the first Under 13 Little League Tournament organised by the Baseball Association. Two years later, the Sri Lankan squad which took part in the first Asian Baseball Championship, held in the Philippines, was headed by Deepal Amarathunga, an Old Boy. Fast forward to 2016 (when the Team became Runners Up at the Under 17 and winners at the Under 19 National Championship) and 2017 (when it won the Under 18 Championship) and you get a decent idea of how they’ve improved over the decades.

All in all, these records, hard to win as they were, couldn’t have been won in the first place without a clear and consistent philosophy that stands out, on its own. The fact is that the Royal Team has built up a set of tactics and strategies, along with an identity they can claim as theirs. To ascertain what these are, I sat down with the Captain, the Vice-Captain, and the Centre Fielder on a Friday evening two weeks ago.

The Captain, Kaveesha Abeysinghe, was quite firm and clear: “We take in anyone who professes interest in the sport, mould him, and turn him loose.” This process, which lasts up to a year, has the advantage of pairing beginners and their betters while focusing on the former. In other words, practices (on Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays) are a series of fitness and game-play sessions which inculcate a basic level of competence in the individual player. To a considerable extent, that is rooted in the thinking of their Coaches, Sisira Kumbukage and Tharindu Ayeshmantha, both of whom, Kaveesha informs me, are “adamant on getting the best out of the weak by pitting them against, and with, the best there are.”

Of the players in the squad, about four are left-handed, a natural advantage given that left-handed batters are hard to come by and find it easier than their right-handed counterparts to drop the bat and, well, run. For me, then, what defines these boys best is how they’ve managed to balance individual endowments like this with outside realities. They focus on every role, from the pitcher, who is trained to identify the qualities of the batter: whether he resorts to a particular type of release and action, for instance. That boils down to a rather important point about the game: who you are playing against is as important as, and can determine, how you will play against him.

Not that it’s all easy-peasy of course. Kaveesha interjects here: “Even as a senior player, I’ve had my share of difficulties. Last year, for instance, while in the semis at the Under 19 Championship, my bat started to slip from my hands. Mind you, this started with the first match. I got several warnings, each progressively more serious, before politely being told to get out.” He grins here as he reflects on his early days: “Sisira sir is strict. He gets what he wants out of you. There’s no telling what he’ll tell you if you let the team down. Because those first days were instructive owing to him, they come back to me whenever I slip up. Even now.” Kaveesha, incidentally, was recognised as the Best Batter in the Under 18 Championship last April.

Rushing through the names in the squad, I was struck by where they come from. Kaveesha himself is from Embilipitiya, while every other member, including Sahan, hail from outside Colombo. While it’s true that a sport should not be determined by the locales of its followers, it’s also true that a diversity of background indicates that the sport has developed enough to be followed by players from every region, as far flung as Kadawatha, Ratnapura, and Balangoda. Probably that’s one quality it shares with cricket: its ability to inspire passion in everyone regardless of their hometown.

So much for the team. What of their outing in Japan?

Reflections on the tour

Originally slated for three matches, the Team had to reckon with two, with the second being cancelled due to bad weather. The first match, played at the Daihatsu Stadium against a sports college having a top rank in the Japanese League, had been tough, with a score of 8-2. The second match, earlier scheduled as the third, had been played at the Taketa Stadium against the APU, and had been easier, with a score of 3-2.

The squad had been lodged at Seminor House, in Kaveesha’s and Sahan’s words “something between a hostel and a hotel.” The entire exercise had been organised in part by Old Boys domiciled in Japan, who had once been avid followers of the game. Spatial considerations prevent me from delving into the other activities the Team indulged in: visits to hot springs, shopping malls, bathing centres, and temples, social dinner gatherings, even cooking sessions for sushi and curries. I believe the photographs I’ve got, which adorn these pages, are enough to convey something of the freshness of the encounters these boys had, as important as the matches.

And to be honest, the matches to me seem peripheral compared with the ramifications of the visit, not least because it has turned these young players into goodwill ambassadors, reinforcing the bonds between their country and their hosts which have been nourished all these years. I believe Kaveesha summed it up best: “We learnt what we have and what we do not have. Doesn’t mean we should get upset of course.”

So as you can see, this year’s tour was good. Exceptional. Discernibly. Like I said earlier, baseball enthrals me. It enthrals me even more when considering the many strides our players are making. Including and especially these boys, I can add.

Written for: The Island YOUth, September 24 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Some notes on the art of film criticism

Most criticism of contemporary art and popular culture follows either of two trends: nostalgia for the past, and acceptance of the present. The first is an act of yielding, of giving in, while the second is an act of accepting what is generally considered to be inevitable and inescapable. Given this crude dichotomy, it’s no cause for wonderment that contemporary criticism is muddled up. That it survives in some form in a country, any country, particularly one as packed in and small as ours, is a miracle.

For a genuine culture of music, theatre, cinema, dance, etc to subsist here, a veritable culture of criticism must be in place. In this paper some weeks ago I pointed out that we can’t be a nation of writers without being a nation of readers. Well, we can’t be a nation of critics either, a problem given that in Sri Lanka, artistry is predicated on critical judgments; put simply, our artists can disseminate their work most effectively through discerning critics. The problem is the gap between what is deemed as populist, unserious, frivolous and what is deemed as arty, profound, obscurantist. The former is ignored to such an extent that there aren’t any critics to discern them at all; the latter is inflated so much that there aren’t any critics to intelligently discern them.

The hysteria associated with the latter is an ironic reversal of the hysteria that was once associated with the former. What is considered tasteful and serious, in our cinema and theatre, still thrives on a conception of these mediums that flourished in an earlier era. The cinema of Asoka Handagama derives its outlook from the cinema of Bergman, Antonioni, and the East Europeans, for instance, which he goes for, again and again, with despairing frequency. (Is it any wonder that, to me at least, his best films, like Channa Kinnari and Ini Avan, are less derivative in this sense, while his lesser work, like Aksharaya and the more recent Age Asa Aga, are more so?)

Because our critics, in whatever media, are so enthralled by what they see on the surface – etched in black-and-white symbols, metaphors, and unfinished, mangled sentences – they are inclined to heap praise on the objet d’art without delving into what makes up that objet in the first place. They are ready to forgive what a plain, unsullied audience may consider as unforgivable errors of judgment and taste. On the other hand, as members of that audience we exhibit roughly the same kind of joy or cynicism regardless of whether what we see is commercial or art-house.

Two years ago, I believe on a Sunday, I was at a cousin’s house watching one of those populist reproductions of history that win so much at the box-office and yet say so little about our history. This film was based on a Jathaka tale, and involved, towards the end, the impending murder of a princess by a horde of lascivious princes demanding their pound of flesh. Now in a chivalry-laden romance like this you know what’s going to happen: like the poor woman tied to the rail track in those early silent movies, the princess is bound to be rescued by the same man she had spurned.

Which is what happens, and what compelled laughter from my cousin and his family, as we watched, with baited breath, that prince arriving on horseback and preventing that butcher of an executioner from despatching her for good. “Ohoma wenne naha, pissu yakku!” my cousin, who was still at school, roared, grinning so widely with the satisfaction of knowing in what way the hero and heroine would be reconciled. The hero, incidentally, had a physical deformity; in the original, his lover marries him despite that, while in here, she marries him and he is cured. (Perhaps Deadpool – yes, THAT Deadpool! – was more faithful to the Jathaka tale: after all Vanessa’s love for Wade Wilson doesn’t redeem his earlier figure.) I think it apt to mention that none of those Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics of the forties and fifties were accurate either. We despise the Americans, but follow their penchant for ahistoricism.

It seemed curious to me at the time that this cousin, and his family, had thought highly of the picture. Their general high regard for it did not compensate for or even outweigh their disgust for such crudely conceived sequences. Such a concurrent attitude of admiration and disgust, which reflected the film’s own unenviable blend of high production values and zero aesthetic values, confused me for a long, long time, because I thought it odd that a film that could wring so much from the box-office could also wring so much cynicism from the audience, a fairly good microcosm of which was my cousin’s family. They were reacting to the picture in parts: perhaps a reminder that in this digitalised, pixelated era where we watch television with all those commercial breaks while tapping on our phones and stalking other people on their Facebook profiles, we no longer react properly to anything. How we react is tempered by how we take to something. Our art is closer to advertising than art in this regard, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: for directors to win us, the audiences, they must deliver on our briefs and get us to the theatres from the word go.

In any given society, if critics are like audiences in their opinions about a film, a play, or even an art exhibition and dance item, they are disregarded and put off as impressionistic. Their tastes and criteria of value are questioned as being random, arbitrary, and irrational, forgetting that what is random, arbitrary, and irrational in them was what drove the first critics of any art-form. Since I can speak with any kind of coherence only about the movies, I will limit my views from this point to the cinema, the art-form that has evolved faster than any other. My cousin had reacted to a film; had the critics reacted in that same spontaneous, immediate way to what are deemed as art-house pictures, which they are invited almost every other week and month to, the art-house directors would have seen the light of day, and vanished.

The first film critics were writers and journalists. Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw were nearing the end of their careers and lives when the cinema was born: what they wrote, consequently, reflected their distrust of a medium which seemed to privilege visual excess over imagination, while confusing the one for the other. Bernard Shaw had his stints at journalism, but didn’t belong to that field. Those who did, and wrote like artists, were destined to be the first purveyors of the world’s most industrial art.

They came in a particular order, and most of them are forgotten but still read today: Manny Farber, James Agee, and Pauline Kael. All of them were idiosyncratic and, at a time when newspapers devoted meagre spaces to movie reviews which forced the reviewer to tone down, prospered in magazines or became their own publishers: Kael with The New Yorker, Agee with The Nation and TIME. Their discovery of the publishing industry was a blessing, but was also a curse: when postmodernism arrived, those who prided themselves on being purveyors of the medium academised their feelings and put them on print. The result was a proliferation of intellect, and a diminishment of sincerity. Film criticism, because movies are still fresh, is not surprisingly the most misunderstood form of criticism, because intellect never really works. You need to FEEL what you are writing, what you are reviewing.

Susan Sontag, in her groundbreaking essay “Against Interpretation”, argued that inasmuch as interpretation was and is essential to art, culture, even society, its contortion at the hands of some of its wielders meant that there was no consistency, no cohesion, in the field of criticism. What this means is that when you read into a text – a film, a play, a dance item, a concert, etc – you often become unaware of what you are reading into. Consequently, your interpretation gets bogged down by abstract generalisations and simplifications that don’t convey what the artist intended for his or her audience (which, by the way, is the key function of any critic worth his salt).

When it comes to movie criticism here, the hackneyed phrase and cliché and tribute are held as sacrosanct, inviolable. Added to this is a horde of superlatives which are there, not to reduce the film to its barest essentials and dissect it, but to push forward the artist’s perception of his own work (manifestly different to his intentions: how you rate your own work, after all, is different to how you intend its message to pop out).

The reviews that Prasanna Vithanage’s Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka compelled were rather symptomatic of this trend: one by one, the reviewers all came out in their universal, almost unanimous summing up of it as probably the greatest post-war film ever made. Regardless of whether it was great or not (it may have been Vithanage’s least visual film), its treatment at the hands of journalists did a disservice to the director and his vision, particularly since the easiest way to sum up a movie is by resorting to the cliché. They will say it’s great, just as they will say Handagama’s Age Asa Aga is a cinematic masterpiece, but why? And how?

Agee could get away with overblown adjectives, and so could Kael and, closer to home, Regi Siriwardena (who used such adjectives sparingly, by the way), because in their hands even a cliché became more than what it was. Perhaps that’s the first point I can make of our (movie) critics: they lack the prose, the feeling for words and phrases, which can help them tide over their penchant for those adjectives and adverbs.

Written for: Daily Mirror, September 21 2017

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Ajantha Ranasinghe: The late and the lamented

In Ajantha Ranasinghe’s lyrics there is a coming together of the literary and the romantic. This is nothing new, nor was it something Ranasinghe wrought; the truth is that he belonged to a tradition that bred Mahagama Sekera and Premakeerthi de Alwis, Kularatne Ariyawansha, Sunil Ariyaratne, and Rathna Sri Wijesinghe.

If there is a quality of freshness in the work of these men it’s not because they were radically experimenting with, or rebelling against, the accepted conventions of their day, but because they were able, within the confines of those literary conventions, to comment on the social systems they lived in from an individualist, relatable standpoint. The best love songs are those that relate to us the experiences of a single lover, after all, just as the best satirical songs are those that relate to us the misadventures of a misfit (think of “Aron Mama”, “Handa Mama”, “Aluth Kalawak”, all by Premakeerthi). That’s what their package was: their ability to root the social in the individual. And that’s why their work continues to be enjoyed, even today.

Probably the best thing to happen to our poetry was the fact that these men were able to transcribe it to the three-minute song, and probably the best thing to happen to the three-minute song here was the availability of a rich poetic tradition it could take from. But the lyricists who were nourished by our poetry, like the first film composers in Hollywood who were influenced by the symphony (William Walton, Max Steiner, Camille Saint-Saëns), didn’t want to be inhibited by the classical; consequently, even in the choice of themes they went for, they often defied those conventions which had shaped them. Now to defy tradition you need to be steeped in tradition, which is what they understood all too well: they read, they wrote, many of them worked as journalists or broadcasters, before moving into music. They were all literary romantics, who never confused their abilities, their experiences, for their greatness.

Ranasinghe belonged to this literary milieu. His death last year at the age of 75 was significant in that sense, since he was the last of his generation, a generation that would be followed by the more idiosyncratic Sunil Ariyaratne and Wijesinghe. This is not a tribute to him, however. This is a sketch, or rather an attempt thereat.

He was born in Thalammahara in the Kurunegala District to a fairly middle class family. “We revelled in the village and our childhoods,” he remembered for me two years ago, adding, “That was because we were schooled by our experiences, around where we lived. We were at one with our surroundings. In fact most of my songs owe their legitimacy to those experiences and surroundings.” He could have added, as he did, that the lack of such childhood experiences partly explains why songs today seem to be unmoored, cut off, cast away. “Today’s generation are not fortunate,” he observed, “They can’t feel, they can’t write.”

Educated firstly at the local school at Pannala, again in Kurunegala, he was later sent to St John’s College, Nugegoda (where Sunil Ariyaratne studied as well) on account of his family’s decision to have him schooled in English. Given the fidelity that artistes in general exhibit towards such institutions of learning I expected him to be thankful, to be nostalgic. He was thankful, yes, but not nostalgic. “To be honest, I didn’t come across our culture as much as I had in the game iskole. I’m not finding fault with missionary schools, but the truth was that they were established to spread their faith and only then to embrace our way of life. That’s why, apart from the Language and Literature periods, I didn’t encounter Sinhala in Nugegoda.” Perhaps for that reason, he left St John’s after completing his GCE Ordinary Level Exams.

Eventually he found himself among a group of likeminded lovers of literature and the arts led by Sunanda Mahendra. “We would buy books and discuss them. We got to appreciate both Sri Lankan and world literature, and met every fortnight to talk, to debate. It was while purveying our language that I discovered the link between the written word and the articulate lyric. Because we found time to dabble in fruitful conversations over the arts, we knew what to write. You just don’t come across that kind of interest among youngsters today. Forget the fact that they aren’t interested: even if they did, they don’t have the time!”

Ranasinghe began his career in the media, through Radio Ceylon, where he joined the Lama Mandapaya program, and through Lake House, where he started off as a cub reporter and moved up as a local news editor, a short story writer, and eventually a poet. While juggling his work and his interests, 1956 came and went, as the single most significant event to transpire in our cultural sphere in the 20th century.

At Radio Ceylon, working under the formidable Karunaratne Abeysekera, Ranasinghe met one of his most frequent collaborators: H. R. Jothipala. Jothipala, who through his sister had heard of the man, wanted him to write a song. “It was to be about his newborn daughter,” he remembered, “And it had to be, in his own words, the ‘world’s most beautiful lullaby.’ Apparently Mohomad Sali was to direct and compose it, and I had to meet him. I felt helpless at the time. Forget writing what he wanted, how was I to capture and convey what he wanted me to feel, on his behalf?” Eventually, however, he accepted the challenge, went to Sali, talked with him, and came up with a song: “Mage Wasanawam.” It marked the first time the two had got together: they would get together, again and again, for much of what Jothipala is known and popular for today, the translated, sometimes transliterated, Bollywood melody.

Perusing his subsequent career, I was struck by the names of two other collaborators: K. A. W. Perera (whose films introduced Ranasinghe to popular audiences) and Premasiri Khemadasa (who composed the music for them in the seventies). Ranasinghe’s first film song, “Pokuru Pokuru Mal Sanakeli”, in Perera’s Wasana, would be followed by several others, as renowned: “Mey Gee Eda” from Janaka saha Manju”; “Manamalayi Manaharayi”, “Kanata Arungal”, and “Mata Asai Hinahenna” from the phenomenally successful Hingana Kolla; and the quaint, almost unheard of “Suba Gamane” from Wathura Karaththaya. When Perera opted for Greshan Ananda in the eighties, he left Perera to follow the man who had composed all these hits. That is why, after Sekera and Amaradeva, I believe Ranasinghe and Khemadasa to have made up the most prolific lyricist-composer relationship to ferment our music.

Consider the following sample: “La Nil Lassana” (T. M. Jayaratne); “Sudu Rosa Malak” (Jothipala and Malini Bulathsinhala); “Rathu Rosa Pokurin”, “Wikasitha Pem”, and “Pemwathune” (Amaradeva); “Mage Lowata” (Neela Wickramasinghe); “Ra Hande Henakin” (Amaradeva and Niranjala Balasuriya); and my personal favourite, “Paloswaka Sanda” (Amaradeva and Neela). Like the best poetry of Thomas Hardy and Sekera, these are punctured by the poignancy of expectation, the intermittent sorrow at the lack of fulfilment, and the final anguish of failed hopes:

අදත් එදා මෙන් බලා හිදී
මගේ ලොවට ඔබ වඩින තුරා වඩින තුරා

Ranasinghe’s most prodigious period was the eighties, just as Sekera’s had been the sixties. Here his earlier optimistic conception of love is superseded by a more philosophic, stoic outlook: the lovers in these songs do not have their dreams realised, but wait for the day that they will be, even with a chance encounter:

කියා ගන්න බැරුවා
සිතු දේ තොල් අතරේ රැඳුනා
මනාපදෝ මන්දා
මා සිත ආදර මල් පිපුණා

And sometimes, it’s those chance encounters that give them some sense of happiness:

ඔබ සැමරුම් රැඳි කවුළුව මානේ
කඳුලක පැල්ලම් ඉරි ඇඳුනා
අළුත් මලින් පිරි වනෝද්‍යානේ
සැඳෑ ‍බොල් හුළ‍ඟේ
මට තනියක් දැනුණා

That last song (“Tharu Arundathi”) was written after he saw a girl, unnamed and unknowable, across the street; he never got to know her, and neither does his narrator. It’s experiences like this that colour his best songs, remembered as much today as what I consider to be the ultimate blend of young love and silliness in a Sinhala lyric, “Sili Sili Seethala Alle”, where he’s the incurable romantic he’d been earlier:

මිහිදුම් සළුවේ දැවටී නැළවී,
ලා දළු තේ පඳුරේ...
හිමිදිරි සීතල කඳුකරයේ,
හමුවෙමු අපි දෙන්නා...

In the nineties he moved on to other themes, more mundane, less personal.

මේ පොලෝ තලේ එදා උන්නූ
රාජ රාජ සිංහයන් වන් වූ
දූ පුතුන් ලෙයින් තෙදින් නැං වූ
මගේ...
පුජනීය භුමියයී ලංකා

The then and the now of the Sinhala lyric has been expounded on so much by others that I won’t bother dwelling on it beyond a few cursory reflections. The fact is, and this is something Ranasinghe accorded with when I pointed it out to him, that if during his time the lyricist was able to root the social in the personal, today we tend to dilute the social in the personal: manifestly different, manifestly deplorable.

Without being either a puritan or a philistine, therefore, what I will say here is that the great ability of our greatest songwriters was in making us aware of the world around them, and us, through unnamed narrators, lovers, and aspirers. In Ajantha Ranasinghe we come across one such songwriter, who could speak for all our poignant, unrealised hopes in a way that no one, after him, could. Perhaps that’s why his loss, reported rather scantily by our media, is truly and deeply a loss. We don’t have anyone to follow him, and if we do, they are hidden away in other fields, other careers.

Written for: Daily Mirror, September 19 2017

Monday, September 18, 2017

Visulmina Subasinghe reflects on kayaking

There are two broad routes through which a player, any player, can achieve at anything: by besting another contender, and by creating the standard through which every contender can achieve and win. Every athlete, cricketer, tennis, table-tennis, rugby, and diver I’ve interviewed for this column falls into the former category. They’ve taken in what others have bequeathed to them and, in turn, have given back the way they can. This week’s player is different. He’s given back, yes, but in a way that makes him less an ordinary competitor than a veritable benchmark-builder.

Like rowing, kayaking was born out of a need to survive and conquer the water. It morphed into a sport in the 19th century and became a competitive activity (with Federations spanning the entire world) by the end of the 20th. Sri Lanka, of course, is no stranger to aquatic sports: the long list of rowing, diving, and water polo championships here will convince anyone of that. But for some strange reason, kayaking has never really gone beyond the hobby-sport it remains for those in Sri Lanka who like to “conquer” the Mahaweli and the Kalu Ganga as an annual rite.

Visulmina Samanga Subasinghe wants to make a difference there. Visulmina, as I wade through his story, has conquered age category and open championships, and has gone as far as to reach the finals at a regional tournament. Speaking with him several weeks ago, I was struck (as I still am) by how he’s not made up his mind to not just nurture and develop the game in Sri Lanka, but also to create the standards that we will need to uplift it beyond what it is to most of our countrymen today.

Visulmina’s first foray into a water sport was through swimming in Grade Two. Until 2015, he would clinch College, Zonal, and Provincial Colours. Swimming had in fact been the first real activity he found to his liking: at his school, St Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, he had tried, but failed, to take to basketball, karate, and other ball-and-racquet sports. “I couldn’t picture myself playing them, to be honest. So you can imagine how relieved I was when swimming salvaged me, and gave me some sense of meaning, of order.” It would, of course, be a precursor to bigger victories.

He would eventually shift to his current activity. How that came about was rather coincidental. “Years ago I went to the Ambalangoda Meets, getting to the finals. I would have been in Grade Seven or Eight then, when I began indulging in kayaking as a hobby of sorts. Mind you, this was just after the National Association of Canoeing and Kayaking had been set up, so the game was still in a primitive state. Then, while I was in Grade 10, I emerged third in the National Finals in the Freestyle 100m category. That got me my College Colours. I was taken to Bolgoda, for another meet. While I was practicing and just walking around, I happened to chance across a set kayakers. One thing led to another, I got entranced by what they were doing, and eventually was invited to do some serious kayaking myself. This was in 2015.”

The sport had been new to him, even then, so after his initial encounter Visulmina had still taken to it as a hobby. “I went to a tournament called the Diyawanna Sprints, held at the Diyawanna Lake. I obviously wasn’t aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of the game, so for the first few weeks I was clumsily trying to conquer my canoe. Eventually, after much trial and error, I ended up as the third in the Open 500m relay, one where not just schoolboys and schoolgirls but also Navy and Air Force personnel competed. I was quite exhilarated, needless to say. I followed it up that same year at an endurance championship in Bolgoda, where, to my astonishment, I became the Number One national player in the 100m Under 18 category.”

That latter victory would prove to be pivotal to his subsequent career, when after perusing his performance, no less a person than Mihin Amarasinghe, the national kayaking coach, asked him to consider taking off as a serious kayaker. Amarasinghe and Preethi Perera, the President of the Federation, jointly asked him to practice harder, and so soon enough he was practicing, by now having all but completely given up swimming. Not surprisingly, this would be an augur, a prelude, a foreword.

Here’s an attempt at a list of all his achievements thereafter, then. In 2016 he became the Number One Under 18 200m player in the K1 category (the equivalent of a single scull in rowing), clocking in at 49 seconds. In September that year, he was invited or rather selected for the Asia Kayaking Cup held at Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which (in his own words) he went to less for reasons of winning than for reasons of garnering some experience as to how the sport was being played, and promoted, elsewhere.

Needless to say, he won discernibly at the category he had built himself up for before, getting into the finals at the 200m K1 category and becoming the seventh among a contingent of players from other Asian countries. He had not, however, performed as well in the two other categories, 500m and 1000m, since he hadn’t prepared himself for them. The following year, at a demonstration race overseen by the President of the Asian Canoe Federation, Shoken Narita, he clinched first place at the Under 18 event and fourth place at the Open event.

The list doesn’t end there, of course. Earlier this year he participated at the Kayaking Nationals, kayaking at the Under 23 event and, naturally enough, clinching the first place in the 200m category (46 seconds) and getting crowned as the Best Paddler therein. That victory and every other victory before it had convinced him to give back to his school, and so in February he started a College team with 12 paddlers. “Of those 12, seven participated at the National Meets. We won the Under 14, Under 16, and Under 18 championships, along the way winning eight gold medals in total.”

Glancing through these victories, I can’t help but wonder as to what Visulmina learnt from them. They’ve certainly spurred him to invigorate the state of the sport in the country, which is why I ask him as to his attitude to the game. He replies by saying that unlike the more popular rowing, which has more or less crept to every school (in Colombo), the kayaker’s boat (that is, the canoe) is more unstable and less dependent on the player’s legs. “In rowing, as long as you hold your paddle correctly, you won’t fall off, and even if you do, the boat will keep you steady on the water. The canoe, on the other hand, is tougher to handle and is based primarily on how well you manoeuvre it with your hands, which is why it’s not determined by your leg power. In fact the entire concept of kayaking is different to rowing, not least because the props, the equipment, the facilities are completely different.”

According to Visulmina, those facilities haven’t been properly upgraded or even established in Sri Lanka, something he learnt on his own all too well in Uzbekistan. “Earlier we competed at the Bolgoda. Now we compete at the much more developed Diyawanna Lake. However, the reason why the Lake better is simply that the Diyawanna consists of a two-kilometre landing stretch for the Air Force. In other countries there are specialised two-lane canoeing pools, replete with electronic timing. Perhaps it’s because it took a long time for a Federation to be established in Sri Lanka, but we are still very much behind considering the state of the game elsewhere.”

What of his “thereafter”, given all these reflections and accolades? There is a very high probability that Visulmina will compete at the next Asian Championship, with other paddlers from the Navy and the Army. His hope, however, is to go beyond the national and regional level and compete at the 2020 Olympics. The future of the game in the country promises much in that respect, with an interschool kayaking competition to be (hopefully) held this December. How that will end, whether it will be enough to move our schools from a historically more reckonable rowing culture to a more rapid, spontaneous, and unstable paddle sport, is something we can’t predict, much less determine. Perhaps Visulmina’s past is a good indicator that, given the woeful state of those sports and activities considered “popular” today, we can still, as a country, clinch something of value along the water, as opposed to on the field.

Photos courtesy of ThePapare.com and SEBS MEDIA

Written for: The Island YOUth, September 17 2017

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The cane: our children as our priority

Last Sunday (September 10), I woke up earlier than my mother, who woke up so late that breakfast delayed meant my schedule for the day delayed. I don’t resolve to travel on weekends; those are the only two days in my life that I spend at home. But September 10, no different to all other Sundays in September, was special. To me. Somewhere in Colombo, an organisation was about to hold its inaugural forum. This forum, I got to more than an hour after it started. What I heard and what I missed, despite the inconvenience of a late, hurried breakfast, has stuck with me to this day, because I had known that this organisation would be initiated a few months back.

Before that, though, a perusal of some facts and figures. Records in 2012 show 758 children who were sexually molested and another 745 who were sexually abused. There were nine cases of incest by a family member, in addition 22 cases of child murders, 54 child abductions, 10 attempted murders, and 247 cases of child assault. From 2011 to 2012, the National Child Protection Agency (NCPA) collected more than 20,000 complaints, an almost unprecedented amount. Why do these matter? Because this organisation, through that forum on Sunday, seeks to combat instances of gross neglect, wanton abuse, and irrational complacency that make up our justice system when it comes to our number one priority: our children.

There are fundamental differences between fairness and expedience with respect to the legal system of a country. This approximates to the wider differences between an individual and a collective in any given society: put simply, the interests of the former can and will be weighed against the interests of the latter, which is why we talk of the greater good and the lesser evil. The conflict or rather conflicts between these two can and must be balanced out, so as to ensure a) due process and b) fair hearings for everyone. What gets missed out here, however, is that perpetrators are often victims of abuse, and the victims of today can well become the perpetrators of tomorrow.

The problem with our justice system, in general and over the years, has been its blatant lack of regard for the specific needs of children. On two fronts at least, our children have become conditioned to accept, to conform, to set aside those notions of individuality that make up who they are: the cane and the court.

I am less interested in the former than I am in the latter, but for the purposes of my column I will delve through both. Beginning with this: in a culture that privileges deference to and absolution of ultimate authority (whatever that authority may be), children are inadvertently taught about two kinds of citizens: those who wield the baton (the perpetrators) and those who resist it (the victims). The problem, obviously, is that the fine line between these two can, and more often than not does, get blurred.

Take the problem of corporal punishment. Our statutes are discernibly ambivalent over the issue. Article 82 of the Penal Code of 1883, for instance, absolves a guardian (or any person acting as such lawfully) when he or she inflicts punishment on a child, if inflicting the punishment is committed “in good faith.”

Now “in good faith” is probably one of the vaguest legal phrases out there. Despite the later reforms which invaded the Penal Code (not least being Article 308A, which explicitly provided for the offence of cruelty against children), there were subtle exceptions that shielded teachers whenever they chose to inflict punishment (Article 314, for instance, which is about the offence of “criminal force”, conveniently inserts a caveat: a schoolmaster in the “reasonable exercise of his discretion as master” who flogs a student is not, for all intents and purposes, committing that offence).

It’s this concurrent, confused attitude of support for and opposition to corporal punishment (whether inflicted by hand or through a weapon) which has coloured the contemporary discourse on the topic for so long. Even now, it’s so confused that all it has done is sustain a dichotomy within our society: between the puritanical savages who support it, and the yuppie, English-speaking, Westernised liberals who oppose it. Such a dichotomy is at worst antithetical to the spirit of a proper debate over such a contentious theme, because, after all, in the first instance the wrongdoers we are wringing our hands over (and against) are children. Our children.

Let’s not forget that no less a person than the president, in a speech delivered last year, gave an instance where he had been caned for a mistake committed by another child. A friend of mine, having heard this, informed me that when such erroneous crimes go unpunished, they add to a society where even upholders of the law either punish suspected offenders or blow trivial misdemeanours out of proportion and torture those suspects. A quick perusal of Basil Fernando’s harrowing Narrative of Justice in Sri Lanka will convince anyone that this country, a paradise to many and a hellhole to some, is chock-a-block with glaring instances of disproportionate punishments.

So while we’re at it, here are some other points. Pertinent points. Like the fact that he sections in the Penal Code absolving teachers were authored by Englishmen, not “natives.” Or the fact that inasmuch as various Circulars issued by those in charge of our education policy (in particular, the Circulars of 1907 and of 1927, the latter being the first such issued by the Education Department on the subject) regulated the use of the cane and limited it to glaring instances of indiscipline, calls for abolition came much, much later, and could hardly be said to be “Westernised.” That is why some believe that the culture of caning students excessively, like our puritanical attitude to sex, divorce, and love, was a result of “enlightened” laws drafted by Victorian men.

Here’s what I wrote last year on this: Are you for a system of laws written and enforced by Victorians, however enlightened they may have been, or are you for the calls for reform made by bodies that have evolved considerably from the Victorian Era? Or in still other words, would you prefer to remain Westernised in the Victorian sense of that term or Westernised in the modern, civilised sense of that term? 

That final question, despite the fact that I abhor simplification of any sort in whatever conversation and argument, is what makes out for the resolution of this debate.

Corporal punishment, however worrisome it is to me, belongs by default to the private sphere, encompassing student leaders, teachers, principals, and entire institutions. The other problem belongs to the public sphere, and thus bothers me even more: the lack of a proper system of juvenile justice here.

Before I move into that issue (which I leave for next week’s column), though, a word about that forum I attended last Sunday. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, invited as the Chief Guest, and in response to the statistic that one in four children in the country have been abused, exclaimed, surprised despite herself and her own experience in the field (it was under her regime that the NCPA was formed, let’s not forget). “Perfect summing up,” I thought to myself, as I reflected on the many instances in which children, taken initially as flouters of the law, were transformed into victims via a justice system that, following a rather misconceived education sector that confuses unconditional deference for respect, treats them like the adults they are not. The organisation behind that forum, incidentally, was the Child Protection Force. More on that, and the main objectives it seeks to achieve, next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, September 15 2017