By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
A DC-8 aircraft, belonging to Martinair, crashed into the Anjimalai mountain range, also known as the Seven Virgins, on 04 December 1974. The accident happened around 1015 PM and the location was in the vicinity of Maskeliya. This has been the worst ever air disaster in Sri Lanka; 191 lives were lost with no survivors.
Corona curfews give us time to read, and in my isolation, at home, I have been pulling out ‘bucket-listed’ stories to munch. Most articles I browsed through about the Martinair DC-8 crash had covered all aspects of this horrible disaster. Adequate details were available to re-construct the story and come to reasonable conclusions on what may have happened.
We know the easy way out as regards most aeroplane crashes has been the first-choice of the hit-parade – PILOT ERROR. The captain is buried beneath the Seven Virgins hills in a shamed silence. So is his First Officer and the Flight Engineer. The case is closed and forgotten. I have no defence to rub on behalf of the crew to give even a shallow coating of an excuse. There, however, is a ‘BUT’ I need to mention here. On one side, we have technology inundated with fancy aviation jargon. Add to that a half-burnt Black Box and communication tapes between the pilot and the controller, plus all the details of the flying records of the crew and what they have done and what they have not done. Then comes a hundred titbits of aeronautical specifics that act as tinsel to an investigation.
All that is fine and valid to be used at roundtable conferences where aviation-related head umpires and leg umpires, third umpires plus match referees discuss and make decisions, taking all the time in the world. It is not the same for the Captain and his crew. No doubt they are professionally competent, but some decisions to be made in an aeroplane are instant. You win some and you lose some and the ones you lose may have devastating repercussions. You may not even be living to tell your side of the story. A few seconds make the difference between life and death. In such calamitous situations we tend to forget that the most lethal ingredient in an aviation disaster is the Human Factor.
The Captain is not an infallible demigod who jumped out of Mount Olympus and sits in the cockpit of his aeroplane. He is human and so are his crew. They are not different from the ordinary people like you and me. I have been a Captain for a considerable number of years. I have made many mistakes flying aeroplanes. I humbly say I was lucky that I escaped without an accident. There is nothing courageous or brilliant about that; it is simply the way fate rolled the dice. Such would be the story of any Captain. Admitted or not, it is the truth, the absolute truth.
Scales of justice
The scales of justice in an aviation accident investigation is held by competent authorities. In the case of the Martinair DC-8 crash, there were three Civil Aviation Departments associated with the inquiry. Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, and Indonesia, plus there would have been the McDonnell Douglas Company that built the aeroplane and insurance companies that were present to protect their dollar. There were whispers about the Doppler system in this aeroplane having errors that caused inaccuracies in the ‘distance to go’. It was also said that the crew had not been informed of this. There is nothing to substantiate such statements and as such, it is best that I leave them out and let them lie buried along with the aeroplane. I also read that the co-pilot had a traumatic childhood and that could have affected his behaviour when approaching to land. I make no comment on such absurdities.
Let me now take you to the story of the DC 8 that crashed into the Seven Virgins mountain range. The accident tragically killed 191 innocent people (182 passengers + 9 crew). It sure is a terrible night to remember.
The flight was from Surabaya, Java, to Jeddah via Colombo, which was a re-fuelling stop. This was Muslim pilgrimage time to Mecca for the Haj. Devotees came from all parts of the world. Some flew in on private jets but most travelled on chartered aeroplanes. The flight that took off from Surabaya was a DC-8 55CF aeroplane, owned by Martinair of the Netherlands; it had been leased by Garuda Indonesia to fly the Haj charters. In command was Capt Hendrik Lamme, a 58-year-old very experienced pilot who had flown 27,000 plus flying hours, of which 4,000 were on DC-8s. The First Officer Robert Blomsma had 2,480 hours and was new on the DC-8 type with 47 hours. The third crew member, the flight engineer was Johannes Wijnands, who had flown 3,000 hours on DC-8 type aeroplanes. Back in the cabin there were six crew members, four were Dutch and others Indonesian. The aircraft had a Dutch registration of PH-MBH and was less than 10 years old. The flight plan filed call-sign for the flight was MP 138.
Here, I must explain to the reader something about the navigational instruments that the aeroplane had. I want to make it as simple as possible for a non-aviator to understand.
The route from Surabaya to Sri Lanka is mostly oceanic. It starts with an airway called Red-61 and extends on a North-Westerly direction till it reaches the Sri Lankan Flight Information Region (FIR – 92 East longitude) and follows route Golf-462 to cross the coast at a waypoint located over Yala. This reporting point, unfortunately, had no Radio Aid for the pilots to cross-check their navigation when flying overhead. The primary navigation system that was in use by Martinair was called Doppler. This was operated worldwide by many airlines, and during that era it was a primary navigational aid for jet aeroplanes flying long haul sectors. Doppler gave the pilots a digital reading of the distance to go to the waypoint it was heading to. However, Doppler system was not overly accurate when flying over water for a long period and had to be updated over a radio beacon or a known geographical position (maybe a river or town) to maintain its accuracy. Flight MP 138’s route initially had radio beacons to update the Doppler. But the final ocean crossing before the coast of Sri Lanka had no radio beacon for the crew to update the Doppler position. That was a long leg, too long to fly without an update.
The last point the DC-8 could have done a navigational cross-check would have been at a waypoint closer to Banda Archi airport, which was about 135 miles right of their track. From there Capt. Lamme still had to fly close to two hours to reach the coast of Sri Lanka. He was navigating now purely by rudimentary ‘dead-reckoning’ and Doppler ‘distance to go’ readouts without any cross-check to update his position.
Flight MP138 crossed the FIR at 8.27 pm local time – six minutes earlier than the estimate. Calculating its speed by distance between two waypoints and time taken, the ground speed would be 478 at eight miles a minute. Six minutes would be almost 50 miles. The FIR was about 850 miles from the Sri Lankan coastal waypoint. Maybe, Capt. Lamme and his crew were getting a wrong ‘distance to go’ reading from their Doppler. It is difficult to fathom whether it was because of the reported fault in this particular aeroplane Doppler or it was because of a very long sea track flown without an update. It could even have been both.
Already there had been a six-minute (50 miles) correction made. Was it correct or was it a Doppler error? There was no way to cross check and update. If it had been a Doppler fault, that could have caused the Martinair DC-8 to fly all the way to its death in Maskeliya.
Flight MP 138 first contacted the Colombo Air Traffic Control located at Ratmalana at 9.52 PM and reported 130 miles out at 35,000ft. They were only going by the Doppler. The controller answered ‘MP-138 clear descend 10,000 when ready and call 50 miles from Katunayake.” When Capt. Lamme commenced his descent by what his Doppler reading displayed, his actual position would have been 50 miles east of where he thought he was. Unfortunately, Katunayake Airport at that time did not have Approach Radar nor a Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), which would have digitally told the pilot exactly how far he was from the airfield.
Few minutes later the DC-8 called “50 miles” and was cleared to 6,000 and handed over to Colombo Approach Control at Katunayake. The First Officer who was doing the radio called Colombo Approach at 10.08 PM and reported he was ‘one four” (14) miles from the Katunayake airport passing 7,000 for 6,000. Approach Control had no Radar to see him. The controller had to go purely by the MP 138’s estimate of 14 miles from the airfield. He cleared MP 138 to 2000 ft and told him to call “field in sight” or overhead the KAT radio beacon.
“Roger, cleared 2000, to KAT or field in sight.” This was at 1010 by the first Officer.
That sadly was the last communication!
On descent, the DC-8 hit the 5th of the Seven Virgins mountains at a height of 4,354 feet. The impact place was about 65 miles from Katunayake. When F/O Blomsma reported 14 miles from the airport, he was most certainly giving the distance from the cockpit Doppler. He had to read from a possible error-tainted Doppler. If you add 14 miles to the error of 50 miles on the Doppler the answer is 64. Give or take a few miles for the random calculation I am doing, and then perhaps the 64 coincides with the distance from Katunayake to the place where the crash occurred in the Anjimalai hills.
The only other explanation for Capt. Lamme to initiate an early descent could have been a wrongly interpreted weather radar sighting of the eastern coast. These were black and white radar displays and it is possible that a low cloud could have been mistaken for the coast maybe 50 miles before ALGET.
I, in no way, can say what I have written is the gospel truth. I have no crystal-clear facts to ponder on. It is just my opinion I am stating. I do have some knowledge on Doppler matters as I have flown these routes in similar aeroplanes using Doppler navigation. Many opinions are expressed by journalists about this disaster. How true such inferences are is debatable.
I was greatly assisted by Sri Lankan Air Traffic Controllers and communication officers; some of them handled MP 138 arrival. I am deeply grateful to them for their first-hand information.
The possibility remains that Capt. Lamme may have commenced his descent approximately 50 miles before the planned point to leave 35,000.
The aeroplane crashed. There were many factors that left room for or would have contributed to human error.
Capt. Hendrik Lamme was guilty of being a human being!
Today, people driving past the Norton Bridge town see a strange sight. A structure displaying a large tyre. It is a wheel from the DC-8 that crashed into the Seven Virgins mountains. It could be all that was left of that magnificent aeroplane owned and flown by the Dutch. If one is interested, there is a place where one should stop on the road from Norton Bridge to Maskeliya. A plaque of remembrance is there, erected in memory of those who are buried around this place at the foot of this hill. The Martinair crew and the Indonesian pilgrims who died on the slopes of the mountain were buried in a common grave by the roadside. People say flowers do get placed, off and on, at the memorial. In remembrance of whom we know, but by whom is the question.
Up in the mountain is the main memorial, a stone pillar-like monument erected at the actual crash site. Wind-swept and rain-soaked it stands in its forgotten loneliness. Perhaps, it whispers its sadness amidst the Seven Virgins mountain range. The column has been erected in remembrance of the 191 innocent people who died there on a sorrowful December night, a long time ago.
Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole
By Gwynne Dyer
I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.
The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.
The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.
Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.
Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.
The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.
Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.
Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].
Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances
The river we step in is not the river we stand on
By B Nimal Veerasingham
Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.
This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.
US Foreign Policy
The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.
Fr Eugene Herbert memorial
Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.
Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.
Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.
Excellence in Basketball
Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.
The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.
Reaching the stars
I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.
The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.
Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.
In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.
‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.
The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.
Breaking down societal imbalances
El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.
The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.
This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.
Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs
By Uditha Devapriya
Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.
In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.
In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.
There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.
Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.
Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.
In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.
Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.
Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.
If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.
Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.
Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.
In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.
Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.
He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.
Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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