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Battaramulla of the 1940s – Paradise Lost



Excerpted from the memoirs of Edward Gunawardena, Retd. senior DIG Police


In January 1939, a few months before my fifth birthday, I was admitted to the ‘baby class’ of St. Joseph’s College. My elder brothers, Owen and Irwin, were already in this school; and my younger brother Aelian was a toddler at home. It was during this year that my mother died. I remember being lifted high for me to view her corpse in the coffin. I came to know sometime later that she had died of complications expecting the fifth child. I remember the large numbers that thronged our house. She had been a much loved lady who had been kind and helpful particularly to the poor women of the village.

I remember the mild earth tremor and the beginning of the war too. It took sometime for my grandfather and father to realize that the rattling of bottles and glasses on racks and tables had been caused by an earthquake. I could not have understood anything about the war. But there certainly was unusual excitement on the streets and among the teachers in the kindergarten block.

I traveled to school with my brothers in a rickshaw. It was a leisurely ride through Etul Kotte, Borella and Kynsey Road to Darley Road. Cyclists dominated the roads and buses and cars were uncommon. The rickshaw-puller was Velu, a strong and amiable man. A part of his breakfast every morning was a large banana with a pinch of asafoetida (perunkayan). The Tamil I learnt conversing with Velu has been of immense value to me. We lived in our parental home in the suburban village of Battaramulla; and I have continued to live in Battaramulla ever since.


The Village

Nestled amidst lush paddy fields and marshland of mangroves and reeds was the small, quiet and homely village of Battaramulla. One square mile in extent it was bounded in the West by the Diyawanna, the South by the ancient Korambe Ela canal, the East by a stretch of paddy lands called The Deniya and the seventh mile post of the main road from Colombo; and on the North by the marshes bordering the village of Kalapaluwawa. The most pleasing natural features of the village were the clean and perennial waterways and the vast extents of marshland with an abundance of flora and fauna of different species.

Elevated flat lands rising above the marshes and the paddy fields particularly on the western fringe also featured the landscape. Kumbukgahaduwa abounded in bushes of dang (blackberry) whilst the Seeniduwa was a recreational ground particularly for the children. It was also the place for the traditional adult competitions between the Udupila and Yatapila of ang-adeema and pol-gaseema. These competitions which were organized to invoke the blessings of goddess Pattini were enthusiastically fought out by village folks. The spirit in which the people participated certainly promoted unity and harmony.

Other elevated areas above the marshlands and paddy fields were Polduwa and Kamathgoda. Today, on the former stands the Water’s Edge Hotel; and the Central Environmental Authority building complex has swallowed up the latter.

The Diyawanna Oya and the Korambe Ela were waterways with crystal clear water. The Diyawanna was broad and shallow but midstream was deep enough for padda boats (paru) to navigate. The bridge over the Diyawanna separating Etul Kotte and Battaramulla was a single lane contraption of wooden sleepers. Whenever a vehicle crossed this bridge, the rattle of the sleepers could be heard even from our home, particularly in the night. The level of sound pollution was so low that distant sounds such as the siren of the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills and the Colombo – Opanaike train passing the Cotta Road, Narahenpita, area could be heard. There were nights when one could hear the sound of the breaking of ocean waves. During the South West Monsoon the symphonic croaking of thousands of frogs disturbed the tranquility of the night.

The Korambe Ela which is only about 200 meters from where I live on Robert Gunawardena Mawatha that was earlier Korambe Road is of special significance to me. This was the clear stream in which we as children swam and frolicked in. The water was so clear that fish such as ralli and nala-handaya could be seen as in an aquarium. During the rain floods (pitara) of March – April and October there were many amateur fishermen who laid nets across this stream and had a fine catch of fish such as Loola, Kavaiya, Magura , Hunga, Angkutta and Theliya.

The wanton destruction of the wetlands in particular has led to the pollution of these waterways and immeasurable environmental damage in general. At the conclusion of the Waters Edge case in November 2008 1 wrote to the newspapers on the Wetlands of the Battaramulla — Kotte area. This letter was given prominence in several newspapers and I reproduce some excerpts.


The Wetlands Of Battaramulla — Kotte

“Apart from the damning exposure of the corrupt and illegal acts of President Chandrika Kumaratunga et al, the Water’s Edge Judgment has very forcefully brought into focus the importance of natural wetlands mainly from the point of view of flood protection and water retention. Indeed, as acclaimed by the entire nation, this is a landmark judgment that reminds every citizen of the importance of the preservation and nurturing of the environment. It is only second to the historic first sermon of Arahat Mahinda when he told king Devanampiyatissa that the latter was only a trustee of the land and the environment and had no right to destroy what rightfully belong to generations to come.

“This judgment should strengthen the hands of policy makers and enforcers of environmental laws. Writers of textbooks on environmental studies for school children could also draw inspiration from the observations made in the judgment.

“The sections of the judgment that dwell comprehensively on the environmental significance of wetlands with references to erudite judgments of Indian Courts were of particular interest to me; the simple reason being the fact that I have seen and enjoyed the wholesome beauty of the pristine wetlands of the Battaramulla — Kotte areas from my childhood in the late thirties of the last century…..Every macro or micro geographical region has distinctive morphological and features of vegetation. Even the Arctic regions, the Sahara desert, the Himalayan peaks or the Amazon forests are endowed with serene natural beauty. With the changing seasons, the sunsets or when moonlit they provide heart warming, enchanting sights. Streams, rivers beaches and coral reefs also enrich the environment. All these gifts of nature are beneficial to man.”

Sri Lanka is perhaps one of the few countries in the world with a variety of natural environmental facets concentrated within an area of 65,000 Sq. K.M. The hill country is characterized by its mountains, meandering rivers, waterfalls and wooded valleys. The endless forests of the dry zone rock outcrops such as Sigiriya, Gunners Point, Veddagala & Toppigala are truly fascinating. In the wetzone Sinharaja the virgin tropical forest is a world heritage reserve. Of the wetzone the Battaramulla — Kotte area was not long ago characterized by vast extents of wetlands. On the fringes of these wetlands extending for acres and acres were paddy lands that yielded profusely whilst helping water retention at times of excessive rain.

Traveling to St. Joseph’s College, Darley Road, from my parental residence in Battaramulla from 1939 to 1952, first by rickshaw, then by buggy cart and finally bicycle the road took me across the wetlands of the Diyawanna and the wetlands of Rajagiriya. The Battaramulla Etul Kotte — Welikada Road and Castle St. were across these wetlands. on the road to Etul Kotte over the Diyawanna Oya was a wooden bridge. The noise that it made when a vehicle crossed it occasionally could be heard in the nights several kilometers away. Buildings were rare and far apart. The Kotte U.C. building is perhaps one of the older buildings that remain. The Castle St. Hospital is one of the first buildings to come up on reclaimed land.

It is with the construction of the Parliamentary Complex and the shifting of the capital to Sri Jayawardenapura in the early eighties that the building boom began. The buildings alongside the Parliament Road from the Pelawatta end to Koswatta such as the Foreign Employment Bureau and the Central Environmental Authority came up on filled paddy lands. The entire ‘Waters Edge Golf Course’ was an area of lush marsh vegetation, the highest point being ‘Pol Duwa’ on the western end of the present Subhuthipura which was then a high land planted with rubber.

These wet lands that were highlighted in the Water’s Edge judgment, on the northern side of the Battaramulla, Kotte Road extended beyond the Welikada – Kalapaluwawa Road linking up with the wet-lands of Kolonnawa and the Orugodawatta – Modena wet lands of Colombo North.

The wet lands on the southern side of the road from Battaramulla via Kotte to Castle St. linked up with the marshlands of the Attidiya – Bellanvila area. Closer to the City centre these wetlands extended to Narahenpita and beyond.

I wonder howmany will remember that there was after world War II a regimented labour force called the Essential Services Labour Corps (ESLC). This labour force was mainly involved in Unemployment Relief Work (URW) such as the reclamation of low lying land for state purposes. The present RMV’s office and the Police Transport Div. are on the land reclaimed by the URW programme.

During my childhood numerous opportunities came the way of children to roam the fringes of these wetlands. During the War-Years I remember frolicking In the paddy fields and threshing floors that belonged to the family. ‘Welipatha’ in close proximity to the western end of Rajamalwatte, then known as Averlwatta was one such paddy field. Today the speaker’s residence stands where this paddy field was. A stone’s throw to the west was ‘Seeniduwa’ – a slightly elevated flat extent of land ringed by blackberry (dan) bovitiya and eraminia bushes which was the favourite playground of the children of Battaramulla.

The Kirala Kaduru and Vel atha trees attracted large numbers of bats in the evenings.

In the deeper areas of the marshlands where there were fair extents of water exposed to direct sunlight there were nelum, olu and kekatiya in plenty. With the morning sun the nelum and olu in bloom presented a heartwarming sight. Particularly during the days approaching the full-moon there were a few boatmen venturing out to these deeper areas to pick the lotuses and olu in bloom. Kekatiya stalks were also collected as it was a much sought after vegetable.

By today’s standards this was veritably a nature’s paradise. It would certainly have been a special location for nature enthusiasts and tourists. Apart from the traditional birds of the wetlands the ‘purple coots, night herons, cattle egrets, kingfishers and the common KoraWakkas a myriad varieties of birds were attracted by the fruits and berries. To see flocks of cormorants fly in formation or a white bellied hawk snatch a wriggling fish in its talons were common sights. Butterflies of different colours and sizes and dragon flies were plentiful.

The water in the marshes amidst the mangroves and reeds was crystal clear. Rich in all types of indigenous fish, fishing with rods was resorted to in the fringes. Small ornamental fish such as nalahandayas, ralli and thithayas were caught with ease by children with cupped hands and taken away in bottles for rearing. During heavy rains fish such as the cat-fish (Magura) and Kavaiya even ventured up narrow streams to be trapped or cut with swords and manna knives. Monitor-lizards, otters and fishing cats (which were called diviyas) were the main predators.

It is noteworthy that these wetlands also were of direct economic significance to many village folks. There were many families that reared milk cows on grass that grew profusely in the marshes. The milk they produced was delivered at the doorsteps of homes. There were others who raised herds of buffaloes that wallowed in the water and fed on marsh grass. These buffaloes were much in demand by the numerous paddy cultivators for the preparation of the fields for sowing and also for threshing after harvest. The curd produced was distributed to homes and the few boutiques that existed.

I vividly remember the wetlands of the Narahenpita area being put to commercial agricultural use by an enterprising businessman whose name was Ramasamy. He successfully developed a typical tropical marshland agriculture to meet the demands of a specific consumer market. On large extents of wetland he cultivated greens such as Katurumurunga, Kankun and Mukunuwenna. On ridges and elevated places were clumps of banana trees and well tended jasmine bushes. Jasmine flowers were in great. demand particularly in the Wellawatte, Pettah and Kotahena areas for the making of garlands, womens’ hairdos and offerings at kovils.

This businessman also raised a special breed of buffaloes called ‘Thorati buffaloes that produced milk profusely. The numerous saiva hotels in Colombo were the main outlets for the milk. These milch buffaloes were fed mainly on marsh grass. The cattle manure that collected in the sheds was used as fertilizer for the leafy vegetables, bananas and the jasmine plants. Indeed this was an admirable wetlands agricultural model.

The Wetakeyiya plant (pandanus) and other reeds particularly ‘gal eha’ were used for the weaving of mats and baskets. Galeha mats which were woven in different colours using mainly organic dyes were much in demand. Because of the spongy nature of the reed when dry it was comfortable to sit on or sleep on. Large mats called ‘Magal Peduru’ were used for the sun drying of paddy. Many families living on the fringes of these wetlands of the Battaramulla – Kotte area subsisted on this economy.

The “Water’s Edge” judgement is indeed a blessing for generations to come. They will be able to savour a little bit at least of what their forefathers enjoyed. History will record that it was the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka that made it possible.

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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].

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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.

Peace memorial

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.

Last letter

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.


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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

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