By Kirthi Tennakone
The dwellers of the Japanese city Hiroshima resorted to their routine on 6th August 1945. That day the morning sky had been clear – people observed three air planes and descending parachutes. These are happenings to be expected at the time of a war and largely ignored.
Around 8.15 am a flash of light intensely brighter than the sun and a burning sense of heat terrified the population. The noiseless instant effect reacted more severely over a circular area of radius approximately 1 kilometer. Men, women and children exposed to the flash were incinerated to ash or fatally burnt. Cloths crumbled to pieces or spontaneously ignited – particularly if the shade is darker. A man dressed in white was burnt lightly, but his wife in black beside him died as a result of harsh burning. Most people within the range succumbed immediately- very few shielded by thick concrete survived. After fraction of a second a blast wave flattened almost every building in an area of nearly 40 square kilometers. A fireball formed created in the atmosphere expanded rapidly blowing a horrendously hot wind – setting fires everywhere up to a distance of about 4.5 kilometers from the centre. The pressure of the blast wave and heat of the rushing wind killed or wounded many more people. Expanding and a rising fireball created a white plume extending to the atmosphere up to a height of 6100 meters darkening the city as if night has befallen. Around 9 am a black toxic rain poured over a large area, sickening those who got wet. The death toll in the day of the incident exceeded 40,000 and subsequent mortality resulting from injuries was estimated to be more than 100,000.
The Japanese government and most of the world at large could not immediately fathom how a ferocious calamity unheard previously was inflicted. A devastation of such magnitude would require dropping thousands of most powerful conventional bombs simultaneously – a technical impossibility. On August 7th, the American President Harry Truman announced ‘It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East’. He further stated that the bomb had more power than 20000 tons TNT- more than 2000 times the blast power of British Grand Slam which is the largest bomb ever used in history of warfare.
The bombs based on detonators such as tri-nitro toluene (TNT) derive energy by breaking of the molecules of this substance into lighter more stable fragments. In contrast atomic energy is released when the nucleus of the uranium atom disintegrates into lighter nuclei – a process referred to as nuclear fission. A calculation based on Einstein’s theory of relativity revealed that the energy liberated in fission of uranium is about one million times the equivalent weight of ordinary explosives. Fission is triggered by hitting the uranium nucleus with a neutron. When the nucleus breaks-up several additional neutrons are emitted. Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard speculated extra neutrons might disrupt other uranium nuclei causing an explosive chain reaction–a possibility of making a dangerous weapon. In 1939 he persuaded Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt pointing out the urgency of the United States engaging in this effort – otherwise the consequences could be disastrous if Adolf Hitler develop a nuclear weapon. United States Intelligence found Germany had already started to work on the problem, hastening President Roosevelt to appoint a committee replying Albert Einstein. Soon the research work aimed to develop a nuclear bomb was commissioned as the Manhattan Project – under scientific leadership of the Robert Oppenheimer and a team of several other eminent physicists excluding Einstein. Perhaps Einstein was considered too much even for a project of this nature because of his extreme radicalism and pacifist views.
Leo Szilard with Albert Einstein
Despite theoretical soundness of the argument of achieving an explosive nuclear chain reaction, the Manhattan project encountered many astounding practical challenges. Natural uranium occurs in two forms named as isotopes U(238) and U(235). A chain reaction is feasible only with U(235) occurring as 0.7 percent of the metal found in the uranium ores. Furthermore to initiate a chain reaction at least a critical mass of about 60 kilograms of U(235) is required. Refining the ore to obtain this amount was an arduous costly task. Another option explored has been to use plutonium instead of uranium. The advantage of the latter is the smaller critical mass 5-10 kilograms. Plutonium is not found in nature can be synthesized – again a time consuming costly affair. Expenses of the project ran to 100 million dollars a month!
The other hurdle was assembling of the critical mass.
The requisite amount of uranium or plutonium cannot be simply cast as an ingot. Moment the critical mass which depend on shape and density of the sample is reached. The chain reaction propagate emitting radiation, because even one neutron is sufficient for triggering. Some neutrons always exist in the environment and also produced by spontaneous fission uranium. A method planned was to collide two pieces of uranium in a gun-like device using dynamite so that their union creates the critical mass. Another method considered was casting uranium or plutonium into a sphere of calculated size and implode it to increase the density by firing an appendage ordinary explosives. These methods needed to be secured foolproof and tested.
TESTING THE BOMB
After three years of intensive activity, scientists and engineers at the Los Alamos Laboratory assembled an atom bomb on 13th July 1945. It was a plutonium device containing around 6 kilograms of this metal in the form of a sphere. Why was a plutonium bomb instead of uranium chosen for testing? The amount of weapons grade uranium available at that time was sufficient to make just one bomb, planned to be fired by the gun mechanism. Plutonium of much lower critical mass, adequate for several bombs was ready in the processing line. Furthermore, the implosion firing mechanism worked out for plutonium bombs demanded experimental confirmation.
Including accessories the bomb nicknamed ‘Gadget’ weighed nearly 5 metric tons. Gadget was transported to the testing site in the New Mexico desert and hoisted to a 100 m high steel tower. The bomb was scheduled to be exploded at 4 am 16th July 1945. However because of bad weather the time was pushed forward to 5.30 am. Scientists stationed 10 km away eagerly awaiting to watch the test were concerned. Some doubted whether the bomb would turnout to be a dud. Other pointed its power might exceed the expectation and pose danger to observers and community in the neighbourhood. Emphasizing this point, Edward Teller who later came to be known as the father of the hydrogen bomb distributed suntan cream.
When the trigger was switched-on at 5.30 am, the whole landscape was instantly lighted many times brighter than sunlight and a rising vividly coloured fireball appeared in the sky. The test was a success and a moment that changed the world forever. Seconds later the bang was felt, following a gush of wind. Physicist Enrico Fermi floated pieces of paper, timed their motion and quickly calculated the strength of the bomb, saying it is equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT. More precise calculations carried out later revealed that strength was 22 kilotons.
The success of the atom bomb test was conveyed to President Truman but not publicly announced. general public inquisitive of the blinding flash and the bang were told an explosion occurred in an ammunition storage. President was planning to visit Germany to attend Potsdam conference – the famous big three Truman–Stalin–Churchill meeting. At the proceedings he hinted new development but did not elaborate. On 24th July Truman met Stalin casually and told him the United States has developed a weapon of unprecedented strength. Stalin did not react with excitement or interest and said ‘I hope the United States would make good use of it ‘. The reason for Stalin’s indifference became clear later. Soviet intelligence had been aware of the achievements in the Manhattan project.
Potsdam deceleration warned Japan to surrender unconditionally or suffer utter destruction – which Japan did not accept. Immediately the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was confirmed. The directive was said to be – hit Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata or Nagasaki after 3rd August as weather permitted.
The bombing operation was assigned to Colonel Tibbets of the US Air Force. On August 6th early morning he took-off from Tinian Island air base in the Pacific carrying the bomb. Two other planes accompanied the B-29 bomber to monitor weather and parachute instruments to record the physical effects of the explosion. At about 8.15 am the pilot released the bomb from an altitude of 9.5 kilometers. The bomb fell down for 47 seconds and exploded at a height 600 meters above the ground – the triggering mechanism designed to explode the bomb in mid-air for the purpose of maximizing the destructive power. Tibbets who hurried away was at a safe distance of 18 kilometers when he observed the flash and the fireball.
The bomb aimed to the Aioi Bridge missed the target by 250 meters and detonated overhead Shima Hospital flattening it instantly. Amazingly the structure of the Hiroshima Industrial Promotion Hall almost at the epicenter did not collapse. A temperature exceeding 4,000 degrees Celsius burnt the roof killing everybody inside, but the peculiar way in which the shockwave approached, left the structural shell largely intact. This landmark ruin named Atomic Bomb Dome serve as a memorial for lives lost and a reminder for peace.
I (the author of this article) visited Hiroshima in the year 2000. My daughter then a high school student posed in front of the dome for a photograph and smiled. When I said this not a place to smile. A group of Japanese visitors at the site understood what I meant and emotionally expressed appreciation of my remark.
WORLD AFTERMATH HIROSHIMA
Even after Hiroshima attack, Japan did not surrender but vowed to fight. Soviet Union declaring war on Japan 8th August 1945 and United States dropping of a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki next day changed the situation. On 15th August 1945 the Emperor Hirohito agreed unconditional surrender effectively ending Second World War. Some celebrated the bombings implicating it’s a lesson to warmongering and crimes committed, but those died were innocent civilians. The horror atomic bombings particularly the late effects of radiation continued to uncover as days and months passed. Nevertheless there were glorifications of nuclear weapons. Many nations strived hard acquire them, boost their destructive power and develop strategic methods of delivery. Human desire for increasing power of self-destructive weapons did not end with atom bomb. In 1952 United States tested first hydrogen bomb or the thermonuclear device based on nuclear fusion – the opposite of fission where lighter nuclei similar to hydrogen fuse together to yield heavier nuclei liberating extra-large quantity of energy – thousands of times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb. In the following year, the Soviet Union exploded a similar weapon. Between 1950 -1962 the competition of super powers in detonating nuclear bombs polluted the atmosphere- increasing the incidence of cancer.
The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 forbid atmospheric tests. However, underground tests continued and the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of the United Nations could not be strictly enforced as some nations avoided the agreement. On July 2017, United Nations proposed the resolution – The Treaty on the Prohibitions of Nuclear Weapons. The enforcement of the agreement require signature and ratification of 50 states. To date of the 82 countries, who have signed the treaty, only 40 have ratified it. Some countries seem to abstain from signing and ratifying the accord on the presumption that those who might not agree will pose a threat – vicious circle contradicting attitudes. Global citizens worldwide and a number organisations advocating peace, campaign to prohibit nuclear weapons. Most vociferous among them are the survived victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki- popularly known as ‘hibakusha’. Their pledge is ‘so that the people of future generations will not have to experience hell on earth, we want to realise a world free of nuclear weapons while we are still alive’.
The first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima was Barak Obama. On May 26th , 2016, talking to a gathering there, Obama said ‘Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom require moral revolution as well ’.
Human greed – the limitless urge to acquire material possessions – is blind to dangers ensuing in the horizon, threatening their own existence. Nuclear weapons and excessive burning of fossil fuels are two examples.
The author Prof.Kirthi Tennakone, National Institute of Fundamental Studies can be reached via email@example.com
Ukraine War: Mother May I?
By Gwynne Dyer
“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”
The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.
The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”
Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.
But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?
It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.
Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.
Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.
Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.
Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.
The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.
Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity
Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation
Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran
A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication
Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz
This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.
Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.
What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.
The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.
The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’
When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.
At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.
For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.
A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.
‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.
However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.
The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.
Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.
Reflecting on Swineetha Weerasinghe
By Uditha Devapriya
One of the clearest memories I have of Welikathara is Gamini Fonseka lavishing his love and later his anger on his wife. Welikathara is the closest to a Hollywood thriller (in the classic mould) ever made in Sri Lanka, and this aspect comes through even in its depiction of the romance between the two leads. By then Fonseka had established himself as more than just a primus inter pares of the Sinhalese cinema: he had become its king. Cast opposite him, the equally great Joe Abeywickrema, along with all other cast members, could only quail before Fonseka. That was why Abeywickrema’s Goring Mudalali had to go off like a dog at the end: because no other fate would have done for anyone playing Fonseka’s foil.
There is, however, one sequence where Fonseka’s supremacy is put into question. It comes towards the end, right after Goring Mudalali makes his big revelation about Fonseka’s past. Confronted with the fact of her husband’s infidelities, his wife taunts him, asking him why he is so afraid of Goring and why he doesn’t do anything about him. Ever gentle to his wife, he refuses to say anything. This only aggravates the situation, sparking off a fuse: in an ever rising crescendo, his wife goes on to ridicule him, reminding him of the difficulties of their marriage. She then questions his manhood. That hits him badly: getting up from his bed in a fit of anger, he slaps her harshly, then dons his police uniform to go after Goring.
Cutting between close-ups of Gamini Fonseka’s and the wife’s face, the sequence plays out beautifully: it reminds you of the café sequence in Juan Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist, where the characters’ faces betray unspoken and desperate dreams and desires. In Welikathara Nihalsinghe gives us the most Americanised film to hit Sri Lankan theatres; the dialogues, written by the great Tissa Abeysekara, take you back to the films of Billy Wilder. The first encounter between Goring and the wife, and the later confrontation with Fonseka, unveil with so much tension that we feel tense watching them ourselves. Much of that has to do with the acting of its three leads. And in her encounters with the two male leads, Swineetha Weerasinghe winds up with one of the finest performances in her career.
Swineetha Weerasinghe is an enigma, an ineffable mystery. She hasn’t been in too many films. By the standard which one may use on, say, a Malini Fonseka or a Sandya Kumari, her career hasn’t been prodigious. She herself has told me that she has been selective, that she has been careful about the scripts that came her way. Perhaps. But this is just half the story. Swineetha’s life, as with her career, has certainly been colourful. I doubt she’s failed to get the recognition she deserves. Yet seeing the plaudits lavished on her peers, that recognition came rather belatedly. It came around the time I first met her, in 2014, the year she opened her life and story to writers, just before she got featured in the only programme which could have done justice to someone like her, Rupavahini’s Alakamandawa.
Swineetha hailed from a middle-class Sinhala Buddhist family. Her father, a retired Army gunman, and her mother had both hailed from Dehiwela. She was raised there, educated initially at Buddhist Girls’ College in Mount Lavinia and later at the Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. “I liked singing and dancing,” she told me, when I asked her whether she “took to the arts” at that age. She had also played netball and had been an avid athlete, managing to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. Yet she refuses to believe that these had a large say in her career: “I never considered any of these seriously, certainly not as my career.” She felt her vocation lay elsewhere: in medicine.
With this in mind, she eventually enrolled for a four-year course at the Indigenous Medical College. Three years into that course, however, Swineetha came across an advertisement in a newspaper. “It was for an upcoming film, and it called for aspiring actresses. Acting never figured in my scheme of things, but I decided to take a shot at it.” In my interview she noted and emphasised that last point rather strongly: “Making it out at the movies may have been at the back of my mind, but I never considered it more than a passing interest.” Her parents, for their part, had mixed feelings: her mother objected to the idea, but her less conservative father managed to convince her that it was in their daughter’s best interests.
The interview was a success; she was selected. Thereafter she met her first figure of destiny. “Robin Tampoe cast me in three of his films: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala in 1963, Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi in 1964, and Sudo Sudu in 1965.” Emblematic of the popular middle cinema of their time, these three films hit it big at the box-office; Sudo Sudu in particular, based on the Sagara Palansuriya poem, in itself based on the Enoch Arden legend that the Jayamanne brothers and Rukmani Devi transposed in Kadawunu Poronduwa years before, revealed and brought out Swineetha’s talents to the world. She quickly set about proving her versatility: as she implied to me, her overarching desire was to show that she could play different types of characters and to show that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed and typecast.
It was at this juncture that she met her second figure of destiny. “At the time I was working at RT Studios. Sudo Sudu was playing in every hall. At one screening I was approached by a gentle, unassuming man, who said he wanted me for his film. By then I had grown tired of playing damsels in distress. He told me that his film would be completely different, in mood and in tenor. There would be no boys chasing after girls, no good guy versus bad guy fights, and certainly no melodrama. It would be more intellectual and sophisticated. I realised that the opportunity was worth taking, and that I had to take it. So I took it.”
That gentle, unassuming man was Lester James Peries, and the film, of course, was Delovak Athara, the most exciting and least conventional Sinhala film to come out by that point. The critic Philip Cooray has called it Peries’s most intellectual work. This is an understatement. In the film’s two-hour duration there’s not a scene or a sequence where we involve ourselves in or identify ourselves with the characters, emotionally. True to Lester’s words, it was to be an intellectual and sophisticated work. And having cast an up-and-coming actress in the role of the protagonist’s university friend, he ensured a decent popular audience for the movie, while providing that actress an opportunity to diversify her career.
Delovak Athara got Swineetha to think more seriously about the cinema. “I read books. I watched films. My favourite actresses back then were people like Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Tushingham. They innovated on the kind of performances that had been associated with women for a long, long time. Needless to say, they inspired me to push my frontiers, to challenge myself, to take on more challenging roles.” Which is what eventually happened: from Lester Peries she would move on to D. B. Nihalsinghe (Welikathara), H. D. Premaratne (Sikuruliya), and W. A. B. de Silva (Hulavali).
These roles and films took her places, literally. “Welikathara took me to Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there.” From Tashkent to the Krakow Film Festival in Poland, and from there to Germany and Czechoslovakia, Suwineetha felt awed at seeing Europe’s movie studios and industries. “We were obviously miles behind them, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t catch up with them.” Hulavali took her to a different kind of world: the 1976 Tehran Film Festival in Iran, where she met, among others, the Shah of Iran and Rita Tushingham, and on his last day before departure, Satyajit Ray.
When television arrived in the 1980s, Swineetha poured out her talents there also, from Dharmasena Pathiraja’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” to H. D. Premaratne’s Sandun Gira Gini Ganee. Her other film credits include Mille Soya. For a long time after Ira Handa Yata in 2010, some felt that she had retired. She put an end to such rumours with her comeback in Bandanaya, in 2017. Directed by Udayakantha Warnasuriya, Bandanaya is, essentially, The Exorcist set in some southern village in Sri Lanka. Casting has usually been one of Warnasuriya’s stronger points, and in Bandanaya he manages to secure convincing performances from Swineetha and her coplayers.
Glancing through her credits and her performances, I realise just how versatile Swineetha has been. After playing the gentle but morally grounded woman in Delovak Athara and the frustrated wife in Welikathara, Swineetha gave arguably the best performance in her life in Sikuruliya, where, as she told me very convincingly, she plays not one woman, but three. It’s a sad and sordid testament to such talents that they have not been accorded the place they deserve in the pantheon of our cinema. I remain optimistic, however: as we wrapped up our interview, she seemed optimistic too. One thing is certain, though: she’s always been one of our more avid actresses. She’s taken her job seriously. And profited by it, too.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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