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Actors on world stage

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By Ransiri Menike Silva

‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’
– William Shakespeare

Let me first introduce myself. I am an 86-year-old living in an elder’s home where I am being cared for, lovingly and with concern, by its entire staff. This is not the first of its kind, though definitely the last, for I have been in other complexes earlier, all equally interesting, each in its own way.

Consequently, I have been able to associate with and observe those around me, their habits, foibles, behaviour and general attitudes which do not differ from those of the general public, which we elders are undeniably a part of.

When I made the decision to enter an elder’s home it was because I did not wish to burden my children who were already saddled with other family commitments and responsibilities. When I told them about it, they said, “If that is what you want, it is all that matters. After all, it is your life and if that makes you happy, then we are happy to oblige.”

Many were the places I visited inspecting individual rooms, apartments, wards, with or without food, along with my trusted three-wheeler driver Alles, whom I requested to accompany me, in order to get another’s view. This proved to be beneficial because both of us had almost identical views.

Having made a final choice and settled in, I found that my neighbours offered me much material for writing and it is about the more memorable of them that I am writing about today. Their stories are as varied as their personalities and they affected me in different ways; some were comic, some sad, educating and others revealing. I am presenting them to you with occasional personal comments.

Having resided in three elder’s homes and having been with weirdos, among whom I also count myself, I was in a quandary as to who should be appointed to first position. Then a name sprang instantly to mind, for not only was he the most senior but a real gentleman as well. Moreover he had recently succumbed to the Coronavirus in his mid 90’s and suffered much pain during his last days. He deserved a special tribute.

He was known to all of us as ‘Short Man’ or ‘Shorta’, though the authorities address him by his proper name. He was small-made and active, honest and unselfish, never gossiped, minded his own business, cared about the staff, but was undeniably muddled, with cobwebs in his attic, so to speak.

Shorta was slight in built and though aged, never carried a walking stick. We would see him walking out twice a day, cap on head and swinging an empty marketing bag. On his return it would be overflowing. He would walk straight into the pantry to deposit a part of his purchases, before taking the rest upstairs to his room.

The only thing terribly disturbing was his extra loud voice, which could probably be heard all over the neighbourhood. He also had the radio and TV turned up the loudest. Despite owning hearing aids, he never made use of it. We all liked him though, for not only was he caring and respectful towards the staff, which they appreciated immensely, but he also shared part of his own meals with dogs cats and birds.

Outsiders often offered to treat the residents, some of them even joining in with us. At other times a resident would give us a treat on his or her birthday. These were glorious affairs. An extra table would be added to expand our small dining table and with more chairs we all sat around enjoying together. Often it was Shorta who stole the show with his loudspeaker-voice, enacting episodes, relating jokes, singing and inviting others to join him.

It was during one of these sessions that he revealed to us how he came to develop his, now, loud voice. During his tenure at various institutions he found himself performing duties at the criminal courts. To his dismay, when he called out the names of the witnesses he was hardly heard. So he was forced to start shouting louder and louder until the very summit was reached, only to become lodged permanently. Having heard this interesting tale I forgave him his weakness.

And now to his marketing trips, performed diligently twice a day. The ground staff amusedly confided in me that what he brought back with him were rotten vegetables and fruit, decaying pieces of fish (heads mostly), flesh and fowl which could not be consumed by either man or animal. He made no special request as to how they should be prepared, either for him or the others. There was also a motley collection of rubbish he had picked up from the wayside, along with bus and railway tickets. Where he journeyed to, near or far, was not known.

The rest of his ‘purchase’ was taken upstairs to be stored in his room which apparently stank to high heaven, but was never permitted to be cleaned. This was done without his knowledge, while he was out marketing, when all his rotten purchases were pulled out from under his bed. As he was a highly educated and well read man his room was also packed with books.

Even when he was relaxing downstairs he would carry a small set of books with him which he never let out of his sight. One day when the postman rang the bell Shorta left them on his chair and went up to collect the mail. On his return he found Ranjini, the graduate deprived of reading material, rifling through them. What an uproar he created, but Ranjini refuse to be bowed, retaliating, “Who wants to read your junior comics?”

One day, chief house keeper Alagan, decided to clean out and dust his bookshelves and while replacing, he had glanced through them, to find hidden among his other ‘tomes’ pornographic magazines and photos! No wonder he had ranted at Ranjini, for they may have been in that bundle as well.

Through an outside contact I heard the history of his wavering mind. He had apparently been a sort of a ‘wanderer’ during his elderly days. Which forced his wife to set a time for returning home. In order to enforce the rules she took to locking the gate at the appointed hour. One day he came late, to find the gate locked. He knew that it would be of no use to appeal to his stern wife, and being agile decided to climb up and jump over the tall gate. This he did, only to land on his head, injuring himself.

On his discharge from hospital the family was told there was some internal injury as well. His son subsequently learned from a specialist he consulted, that only a minor adjustment was all that was required to correct it. A date was set two months ahead. Unfortunately he contracted COVID-19. We were deeply saddened, for everyone had been very fond of him, specially the staff towards whom he had shown extra concern. But we could not attend his funeral as it was a private affair conducted ‘behind closed doors’ at the hospital with only his son present.

Even now I often think of Shorta with affection and feel blessed in having known such a special person.



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Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

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Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

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ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

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HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

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