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BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT?

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The killing of a Prime Minister

by Sanjiva Senanayake

(PART I)

Many people ‘know’ the conventional tale about the assassination of the Prime Minister of Ceylon, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, 62 years ago. However, they each have a slightly different take and theory about the facts, the reasons, the conspiracy theories and who ‘actually’ did it. Those then unborn or too young to have been aware of it at the time, have heard about it from older people. We have to assume that the intrinsic Lankan sense of rumour would have spiced up the details as time went by.

There is a common belief that the standards of general governance, integrity and legal processes were much higher back then, in Ceylon, than now. Bolstering this justifiable belief, adjudication was done by the Supreme Court (SC), the verdict was confirmed in the Court of Criminal Appeal and accepted by the Privy Council in London. Therefore, the predominant view continues to be that justice was served objectively and impartially.

However, there were many controversial interpretations and theories that circulated before, during and after the Bandaranaike trials. There were several aspects of the conduct of the trial and the actual evidence presented that raised questions about the guilt of the alleged assassin and, as a consequence, the guilt of the others.

Articles about those traumatic events of long ago have been published periodically, but they have progressively reverted to recounting and sometimes sensationalizing the standard version, and have not adequately addressed the many controversial questions.

This article focuses specifically on the alleged murderer and the most critical of the controversies, based on the ‘eye-witness’ evidence led at the SC trial – was Somarama proved to be the assassin beyond reasonable doubt? If there is any doubt, it opens up the possibility of a different, politically motivated conspiracy, especially since Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister during turbulent times.

THE STORY IN SUMMARY

The PM was shot several times with a revolver at his residence ‘Tintagel’ – 65, Rosmead Place – at around 10 am on September 25, 1959. Despite appearing to recover somewhat by evening following surgery, and even dictating a message to the nation from hospital, he died the next morning. The only thing Bandaranaike said about the identity of the gunman was that he was “a foolish man dressed in the robes of a monk”. This was the first major targeted political assassination in post-independence Ceylon, one that changed the future course of the country.

A Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama, was immediately arrested in the house, with a gun in hand, on suspicion of being the assailant. He was a hitherto low-profile Buddhist monk who was an eye specialist at the College of Indigenous Medicine in Rajagiriya.

After several days another monk, the politically powerful Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, was arrested in addition to several other individuals alleged to have assisted Buddharakkitha as part of a year-long conspiracy to kill Bandaranaike using Somarama as the assassin. Buddharakkitha, although only 38-years old, was the chief monk of the important Kelaniya Temple and, as the head of the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna (EBP), the most politically powerful monk in the country at the time. He was also headstrong, impulsive and confrontational – certainly not a pious monk. Although the EBP helped bring Bandaranaike to power in 1956, by 1959 Buddharakkitha was antagonistic toward the PM for being too ‘soft’ in pushing a more aggressive Sinhala Buddhist agenda. Buddharakkitha was aligned with the right-wing of the government and his antagonism toward the leftists (and vice versa) in the government was public knowledge.

After exhaustive investigations and a long trial in the SC, a special jury found both monks and H.P. Jayawardena, a close associate of Buddharakkitha, guilty of the conspiracy, and Somarama guilty of committing the murder, and all three were sentenced to death. The convictions were upheld in the Court of Criminal Appeal, but due to an inadvertent omission in intervening legislative change, Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena were sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to commit murder. An appeal to the Privy Council in London failed, and Somarama was subsequently executed.

There the matter rested and most people forgot about the details of the case with the passage of time. Other dramatic political events followed thereafter leading to an attempted coup d’etat on January 27, 1962 to overthrow the government of Bandaranaike’s widow. Resort to violence for political purposes became more prevalent from the 1970s, and targeted assassinations of political leaders more frequent.

Only two books have been written in English about the assassination; one by the late Justice A.C. Alles and the other by the late Lucian Weeramantry, who was Somarama’s counsel in the trial. It is surprising that more books and academic studies do not seem to have been published specifically about the assassination, an important event in our post-Independence history.

Justice Alles’ book provides a lot of relevant background material but, judging by assertions made and conclusions drawn, it appears to have been written on the assumption that the conspiracy allegedly planned by Buddharakkitha was true and the verdicts just, although he does refer to some questionable issues.

Weeramantry restricts himself to the procedures followed, the evidence led and the submissions made in the SC, to demonstrate that there was more than ‘reasonable doubt’ about the convictions. He argues that the prosecution of the case was politically influenced and not neutral.

It is a fascinating case with many twists and turns as well as contradictions. A critical reading of the above books is recommended to anyone who is interested in digging further into the unusual events specifically pertinent to the murder and trial. A deeper understanding of contemporary political and social developments also helps.

BACKGROUND IN BRIEF

Bandaranaike left the United National Party (UNP) in 1951 and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). His party lost badly at the next general election in March 1952 and it appeared that his political career was doomed. In the meantime, political pressures by Sinhalese and Buddhist groups for affirmative action had been intensifying since Independence to redress what was perceived as historical discrimination against them from colonial times. The UNP was rather indifferent to these forces but Bandaranaike decided to channel them and was supported strongly by the ‘pancha maha balavegaya’ consisting of Buddhist monks, Ayurveda practitioners, vernacular teachers, peasants and workers.

The SLFP then formed a coalition called the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) with a leftist party headed by Philip Gunawardena and a small party

led by W. Dahanayake, to contest the general election of April 1956. A key election slogan was ‘Sinhala-Only in 24 hours’, a potent rallying cry that meant different things to different people. The UNP too adopted the slogan prior to the election when it realised its electoral potential, but its late volte-face lacked credibility and the MEP won by a landslide.

However, the very next year, Bandaranaike initiated discussions with Tamil political leaders to provide devolution of some powers through the establishment of Regional Councils and the so-called Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was signed in July 1957. It was a compromise on both sides, which the PM likened to the Buddha’s Middle Way, but most of the politicians of the time were focused on short-term gains and not inclined to compromise for stability and longer-term progress. There were opposition and agitation from both sides and some avoidable incidents occurred in the process. Eventually, the pact was abrogated under severe pressure in April 1958, with the EBP too playing a major role.

The antagonistic posturing did not cease and this led to one week of intense conflict at the end of May, the so-called Sinhala-Tamil riots that left long-lasting social scars. The PM’s rule was seen as weak and indecisive in bringing the riots under control and the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, played a major role in quelling it.

Despite all this, Bandaranaike introduced the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958 less than three months later in August 1958 as a compromise measure to accommodate Tamil demands regarding matters such as education, public service entrance examinations and the administration of the north and east. This too was criticized by extremists on both sides.

Ceylon in 1959, a decade after Independence but still looking for direction, was a hotbed of political turmoil. Agitations and strikes were rampant, with the constant interplay of all the emotion-rousing political forces of the time – urban vs. rural; westernized vs. nationalist; capitalist vs. socialist; Buddhist vs. Catholic; Sinhala vs. Tamil; rich vs. poor – trying to quickly carve pieces out of the emerging national pie. The old order was dying and a new one was being born.

In April 1959, Bandaranaike had a difference of opinion with the Inspector General of Police, Osmund de Silva and decided to replace him. The PM had been previously warned by various Buddhist leaders and MEP coalition partners in Parliament about a right-wing conspiracy to topple his administration with the involvement of the police and armed forces. Although Osmund de Silva was a Buddhist, all the senior Police officers next in line were not and, despite protests from within the Police, Bandaranaike decided to appoint M.W.F Abeykoon, an administrative officer from outside the Police service, angering several senior officers.

That was not all. The urban elites, more inclined to western lifestyles, accustomed to calling the shots politically and economically, and linguistically quite alienated from the masses, were becoming increasingly alarmed at the turn of events since the debacle in 1956 of their preferred political party, the UNP. The growing influence of more aggressive Sinhalese and Buddhist groups was causing concern among the established organizations and social groups.

There was an international dimension too. Despite the intense Cold War then raging, the Bandaranaike government had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in December 1956 and signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement in 1958. The previous UNP government had recognized the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, supported China’s entry to the United Nations and entered into the historic Rubber-Rice barter agreement in 1952. The Bandaranaike government established full diplomatic relations with China in 1957.

The government’s plans to nationalize State-assisted private schools and foreign businesses such as the oil companies, and its decision in October 1957 to abrogate the Defence Pact with Britain and take back control of Trincomalee harbour and the RAF airbase at Katunayake, were all loud alarm bells.

By the latter half of 1959 the PM was into the fourth year of his five-year term, and already the coalition was fraying. The leftist faction, led by Philip Gunawardena, resigned from the government in April 1959 due to pressure from the coalition’s right wing regarding socialist measures such as the Paddy Lands Act, which included land reform. Strikes became more frequent and intense.

In this milieu, there were many disparate groups that could have had reasons to eliminate Bandaranaike, and perhaps get a bonus by pinning the blame on Buddharakkitha to neutralize a powerful, antagonistic group such as the EBP and the growing direct involvement of Buddhist monks in politics.

THE SHOOTING

Unlike today, firearms were not easily available and targeted political killings were extremely rare. The level of security considered necessary was quite basic and Bandaranaike himself was not keen on too many guards. Access to his residence was freely available during the morning to all and sundry. The shooting at close quarters happened on the verandah of the PM’s private residence with at least 30 people in the immediate vicinity.

Somarama was seated at one end of the outside verandah. There was another monk (Niwanthidiye Ananda) seated about 10 feet away from Somarama and more to the centre of the verandah, near the entrance to the corridor that led from the front porch into the interior of the house. Several others were standing around including a teacher named Gunaratne who was opposite Ananda.

The PM first spoke with Ananda and gave him some instructions. He then moved along the verandah toward Somarama and, as he bent and worshipped him in greeting, a gunshot was heard. Bandaranaike cried out in pain, turned and tried to run back into the house. Further shots were heard, and the PM was hit in the chest and abdomen. Altogether he was hit by four bullets, the first one glancing his left wrist and three entering his torso as he staggered into the house. Gunaratne, who should have had a clear view of the shooting, was also shot in the neck area by a fifth bullet as Bandaranaike stumbled past him to escape into the house along the central corridor.

In the utter confusion that followed, Somarama followed the PM into the house carrying a revolver and was then assaulted by several people who came from other parts of the house before he could say anything. In the melee the revolver went off once, the last bullet, but no one was hurt. The World War I vintage revolver, in rather poor condition, that had been used was recovered by the police.

Somarama’s version was that someone dressed in robes shot repeatedly at the PM from the garden just below the verandah, threw the revolver on to the verandah and then ran off toward the road. He then involuntarily picked up the gun and followed the PM into the house to hand it over to someone responsible.

In the meantime, PC Samarakoon, who was the sentry at the main gate, rushed to the house and shot at Somarama, injuring him in the thigh and groin area. The PM was sent to hospital by car and, soon after that, DIG Sidney de Zoysa, who had a prior appointment to meet the PM, arrived and took control of the chaotic situation. In fact, de Zoysa passed the PM’s car going toward the hospital on his way to the house, but didn’t realise the injured PM was in it. Some time after de Zoysa’s arrival, a bleeding Somarama in obvious pain was, for some inexplicable reason, despatched to the Harbour Police station on the other side of the city and detained there for around two hours before being taken to hospital where he underwent an operation to remove one of his testicles.

The firing of the first five bullets was rapid and probably took less than 10 seconds, since the PM was also moving away. The despatch of the PM by car and the arrival of Sidney de Zoysa would probably have happened within 10-15 minutes thereafter.

It seems, at first glance, to be a straightforward case. The alleged assailant, the weapon, the victim and witnesses were all readily available, and it happened in the heart of Colombo, in a narrow space, in broad daylight. On the face of it, only the motive and the possible involvement of others had to be discerned. But in political murders things are not always what they seem.

THE LEGAL PROCESS

Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena were arrested on October 14, 1959 and held in remand custody, along with Somarama. Following intensive investigations by the police, the magisterial inquiry started on December 14, 1959, less than three months after the murder, and went on until July 27, 1960. At the end of the almost seven month-long hearings, five people were named to stand trial in the SC.

1. Mapitigama Buddharakkitha thero

2. H.P. Jayawardena

3. Anura de Silva

4. Talduwe Somarama thero

5. Newton Perera

All the accused were to be charged with conspiracy to murder the PM, and the fourth with murder as well. The indictment read as follows:

That between the 25th of August, 1958, and the 26th of September, 1959, at Kelaniya, Wellampitiya, Rajagiriya, Colombo and other places within the jurisdiction of this Court, you did agree to commit or abet or act together with the common purpose of committing or abetting an offence, to wit, the murder of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, and that you are thereby guilty of the offence of conspiracy to commit or abet the said offence of murder, in consequence of which conspiracy the said offence of murder was committed, and that you have thereby committed an offence punishable under section 296 read with sections 113B and 102 of the Penal Code.

It specifically mentioned a date 13 months earlier (August 25, 1958) as the origin of the conspiracy. This was the date on which the PM, on the advice of senior technocrats of the Ministry of Finance, decided not to award a shipping contract to a company in which Buddharakkitha’s brother had a significant interest. The direct implication is that Buddharakkitha’s resentment due to this act was the trigger for a year-long conspiracy that led to the assassination.

The defence counsel made a request for a Special Jury at the start of the SC trial due to the highly politically-charged nature of the case. They requested that government employees should be excluded but, in the end, the Foreman of the English-speaking jury was a public servant. As a matter of interest, six members were Christians and the seventh was a Buddhist, and all were from Colombo. However, the integrity of the members of the jury was never questioned.

During the SC trial it became apparent that the third accused was an insignificant character and he was finally acquitted unanimously. It was not clear why he was charged at all, or placed ahead of the alleged murderer Somarama, if there was indisputable evidence against Somarama.

Newton Perera, a police officer, allegedly procured the revolver and ammunition used in the killing. He was also accused of training Somarama to shoot, but this was not established. He was subsequently found not guilty in the SC with the jury divided five to two.

The SC trial commenced seven months later, on February 22, 1961 before Justice T.S. Fernando, and went on till May 12, 1961. The government retained George Chitty QC, a prominent criminal defence lawyer from the private Bar, to lead the prosecution in the SC, by-passing the Attorney General’s Department. The Deputy Solicitor General, A.C.M. Ameer, who was the prosecutor in the Magistrate’s Court, resigned in protest.

There were criticisms that the prosecutor for the State focused more on getting judgements against the accused who were charged, rather than seeking the truth via a broader inquiry to get to the bottom of who actually killed the PM of the country, and why. Some of the defence counsel, including Phineas Quass QC, who came over from the UK to defend Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena, also alluded to this during the trial.

The prosecution did not call Gunaratne who was in a perfect position to see the shooting at close quarters. Neither did the prosecution call key witnesses DIG Sidney de Zoysa or any of the senior (Gazetted) police officers who investigated the case. De Zoysa was called instead by Weeramantry, Somarama’s counsel. There was a lot of evidence led by the prosecution that did not appear to have relevance. The government even paid to bring down a ‘witness’ from the UK (Bruno Perera), who only served to distract attention. He was reprimanded and fined by the Judge at the end of the trial.

The seven members of the Special Jury were the final arbiters of the judgement rather than the Judge. They would have had a tedious task in assessing the oral evidence, unravelling the many counsel’s interventions and addresses, absorbing the Judge’s directions on points of law, and then arriving at a decision in a short while. In those non-computerized days, the jury had to rely only on what they heard in the courts almost every day for 55 days and make a decision on a matter of life and death, without the advantage of printed transcripts of evidence. A total of 97 witnesses testified and the typed record of the proceedings ran into 3,536 pages.

(Note: typed transcripts of the day’s proceedings were, however, made available to the Judge and counsel the following day)

TO BE CONTINUED …..



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Features

Beyond the fiction of Alborada

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By Sarath Chandrajeewa

“No matter how much a work of art is sweet, if it hides the truth and disregards humanity it can only be equalled to a beautiful but empty shell that attracts us.” (L.E. Kerbel – Russian Sculptor)

‘Alborada’ is the Spanish word for ‘the dawn’. In 1984, a music group was born in Peru, South America by the same name and they gained immense popularity. Their music mainly spread among people in North and South America. Their music’s foundation was the traditional music of Native Americans who lived in the Andes mountain range (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTD2VDcxvNc). Likewise, in 2005 a soap opera by the same name was broadcast in Mexico, North America, which became very popular. This story was based on a series of events that took place during the historical period when Panama and Mexico were on the verge of gaining freedom from Spain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iM5s_d1vls).

In 2021 Asoka Handagama made a film in Sri Lanka by the same name, Alborada. The protagonist of this film is Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), the Chilean Consul in Ceylon for two years, from 1929 to 1931. He was very young, only 25, when he was appointed to this post. Ceylon was a colony at the time and he was lodged at No. 56, 42nd street, Wellawatte, Colombo 6, a place close to the sea. He had written down his reminiscences, in his own language, in book form. Later it was translated into English and published under the title ‘Memoirs’. According to this book, he had referred to his house as ‘My solitary bungalow’. It is said that the name Alborada was proposed by Pablo Neruda for the house of his friend, Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944), who had lived at Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7.

Wendt too was fluent in several languages including English, Spanish and some other European languages. It is apparent, from documents and events that took place at that time, that his house, Alborada, had not been a lonely or tranquil place. It is clear that house Alborada was always full of people, such as painters, dancers, actors, photographers as well as pianists and those who enjoyed music. It was more like a cultural centre where discussions, art critiques and debates took place. (L.C. Van Geyzel, et al. [2000]. ‘Lionel Wendt: A Centennial tribute’. Lionel Wendt memorial fund; Sampath Bandara. [2017]. Lionel Wendt Kalava Saha Jeevithaya, Sarasavi Publication. [Sinhala]).

Though Handagama’s film was titled Alborada, the actual location, where incidents mentioned took place, was the Solitary Bungalow, the Chilean Consul’s official residence (Jamie James. [2019]. ‘Pablo Neruda’s life as a struggling Poet in Sri Lanka: A young poet’s Adventures in the Foreign Service’. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/pablo-nerudas-life-as-a-struggling-poet-in-sri-lanka/). In the 20th Century Sri Lankan context, Alborada was a distinguished active cultural centre. As a Sri Lankan cultural symbol, it directly connects with the character of Lionel Wendt. The creator of a work of art has the total freedom to create his work as he pleases and also to choose whatever name for the particular work. Handagama’s Alborada is similar to a poem, set to inspiring music. It includes a series of artistic figure compositions and features a number of skilled performing artistes. The trailer of Handagama’s film gave me some ideas.

When creating a work of art based on historical events, rather than myth and imaginary incidents, its trustworthiness depends on the people who faced the incident, the actual incidents, exact places, time period and the political and cultural background. Consequently, thorough research is necessary to identify accurate works based on historical incidents. It is difficult to rectify myths or false assumptions ingrained in society by unreliable books, documents, magazines or films. People will always embrace falsity, deception and myth, over the truth. Our culture as well as other cultures are replete with many such examples.

Alborada

‘Alborada’ is the name of Lionel Wendt’s house. It is important as it is the house of a great Sri Lankan cultural icon of the last century. It is also important as Alborada was the name given to the renowned cultural centre of modern history, in Sri Lanka. It is from this place that art activities in our country were taken to the international arena. Alborada was situated at No. 18 old Guildford Crescent. Today this street is called Premasiri Kemadasa Mawatha. Six years after his demise, in 1950 his friend Harold Peiris (1905-1981) demolished his old house, Alborada, and built a gallery and a performing arts centre (Lionel Wendt Art Gallery and Theatre) to commemorate him. It was designed by painter Geoffrey Beling (1907 – 1992), Principal Art Inspector, Department of Education, and Bernard G. Thornley (Manel Fonseka. [1994]. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).

When Lionel Wendt was alive, renowned upcountry master dancers, Amunugama Suramba and Nittawela Ukkuwa used to lodge at Alborada with their troupes, when they visited Colombo (Dancer Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, daughter of Master Dancer Suramba, Personal communication, 2017).

A documentary movie ‘Song of Ceylon’, directed by Basil Wright in 1934, was placed first at the Brussels International film festival in 1935. The creative segments of the movie were organized at Alborada. Manel Fonseka reported in an article, ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’ in 1994, that in an interview with Julia Margaret Cameron, Basil Wright had said this about Lionel Wendt; “I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived. I should place him among the six best I’ve come across”.

As a result of discussions held at Alborada, master dancers Nittawela Ukkuwa and Amunugama Suramba were taken to England for a recording of drum beats, for the movie ‘Song of Ceylon’. This trip was sponsored by painter Harry Peiris (1904-1988). A dance school was established to develop up-country dance, in Gunnepana, Sirimalwatte, Kandy in the 1920s for Master Suramba, as a result of discussions held among a group led by Wendt and George Keyt (1901-1993). This troupe, which included the group of up-country dancers, Ukkuwa, Nittawela Gunaya, Punchi Gura and Sri Jayana Rajapakse, was later upgraded as the ‘Dance Ensemble of Central Lanka’. Jayana’s coming of age ceremony, inclusive of his ‘Ves ceremony’, held at the Degaldoruwa Rajamaha Viharaya, Kandy, in 1939, and Jayana’s dance training in India later, were all sponsored by Wendt (Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, Personal communication, 2017).

The first art inspector appointed to Sri Lanka, during the colonial era, was Charles Freegrove Winzer (1886-1940), an Englishman. He became close friends with Wendt, during his tenure in Sri Lanka. In the early years, Winzer and Wendt both wrote reviews on exhibitions of George Keyt, Justin Peiris Deraniyagala (1903-1967) and Geoffrey Beling. Wendt also translated Neruda’s art reviews from Spanish to English and published them (Manel Fonseka.

[1994]. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).

The first avant-garde art movement in Sri Lanka, the ’43 Group’, was born under the leadership of Winzer and Wendt. The 43 Group consisted of Wendt (Chief Organizer), painters Harry Peiris (Chief Secretary), George Keyt, J.W.G Beling, Richard Gabriel (1924-2016), Ivan Peiris (1921-1988), Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, George Claessen (1909-1999), Aubrey Collette (1920-1992) and L.T.P Manjusri (1902-1982). The meetings of the 43 group were held at Alborada until Wendt’s death.

Afterwards the meetings were held at the house of Harry Peiris, Sapumal Foundation, Barnes Place (Sarath Chandrajeewa. [2010]. ‘Modern Art in Sri Lanka and its socio-political environment’, Artful resistance: contemporary Art from Sri Lanka, ZKF publishers. Germany).

As mentioned above, Pablo Neruda was only 25 when he was in Sri Lanka as the Chilean Ambassador (1929-1931). At 29, Wendt was four years older. In his book ‘Memoirs’, translated from Spanish into English by Hardie St. Martin, published by Penguin, Neruda had written thus about Wendt, on page 93.

“Little by little the impenetrable crust began to crack open and I struck up a few good friendships. At the same time, I discovered the younger generation, steeped in colonialist culture, who talked only about books just out in England. I found out that the pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.

Lionel Wendt, who owned an extensive library and received all the latest books from England, got into the extravagant and generous habit of every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books. Thus, for some time, I read kilometers of English novels, among them the first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in Florence” (Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, translated from Spanish by Hardie St. Martin [1997]. Penguin Books).

To be continued

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Politics at its most primitive

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By Uditha Devapriya

Review of Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell

Sarasavi Publications, 2021, 118 pages, Rs. 300

Half-way into Shaveen Bandaranayake’s novel, the Minister at the heart of the story tells us that the wealth he earned was people, not money. This is what politicians usually say. In the very least, it is what people who dislike politicians imagine they say.

Come to think of it, both amount to the same thing: we’ve turned politicians into objects of hate so much that we’ve come to love them for being who we think they are. Since we can’t control them in real life, we want to dominate them in popular fiction. The number of plays and films that poke fun at Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Ministers testify to how badly we want to be, not like them, but above them.

I am deeply suspicious of satire of that sort. In his excellent review of Pusswedilla, Hafeel Farisz tells us why political parody ends up serving the people and objects being parodied. This is not rocket science. At its best, political satire can move us to anger, disenchantment, and rebellion. At its worst, it can lull us into a sense of complacency with things as they are and as they seem. Farisz seemed to think that Pusswedilla epitomised the latter, reinforcing cultural stereotypes while offering no proper critique of the political establishment and the ruling class. I suppose you can say the same thing of Vijaya Nandasiri’s comedies: at his best, he makes us aware of the corruption of the political class; at his worst, he turns the corrupt into objects of love-hate, full of tropes and clichés but nothing substantive.

Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell reads as a political satire, though I have my doubts. Interweaving different stories and unfolding like a film, it goes back and forth. I won’t call its ending funny, but then how can any novel involving politics end on a funny note?

What Bandaranayake does in his story, short as it is, is to tell us that nothing good can come out of a system mired as much in corruption as in patronage. Since these people are tied to each other through politics, politics can prove to be their undoing. The way he forays into this theme and explores it, without regurgitating the usual political clichés, puts the novel at a notch or two above what you come across at, say, the Lionel Wendt. Without conforming to crude stereotypes, he attempts to humanise his characters, showing us why connections matter in politics, and why they don’t always work out.

The plot is simple enough. A woman comes across a corpse of a man at the foot of a hill one fine morning. She informs the police. By the looks of it, he seems to have lost his grip and fallen to his death. The story then rewinds to a political rally at that most obtrusive site of political rallies, a temple, where we are introduced to Sarath Aluwihare, a Minister trying to win his next election. We are also introduced to Sunil, a young man endeavouring to land a job. Events will unfold in a way that will bring the two of them together.

We are told that Sarath hails from a family of politicians, and that this family has been in politics for over two generations. The surname tells us as much. Sunil, on the other hand, is so unobtrusive that Shaveen doesn’t grant him the privilege of a surname, which, after all, is the preserve of those who matter. Like other village youths lacking employment and in dire search of a patron from the ruling class, Sunil clearly is not important; even when he finds a job as Aluwihare’s driver, his status rises, but not so much as to protect him from the novel’s ending. He is as destined to his place in life as Aluwihare is to his.

There are other characters though, and they have surnames. There is the head priest of the temple, for instance, an unabashed admirer of Aluwihare who uses him to achieve his not so religious purposes. Then there is Dileepa Jayanetti, who rises “from rags to riches” and ends up becoming the owner of the country’s biggest media house. Dileepa finds his way up by befriending the daughter of another prominent politician, who introduces him to Aluwihare, who in turn becomes his biggest benefactor. You sense the pattern here.

Halfway through the story, Dileepa hires Lasantha Muthukumarana, a journalist who tries to stick to the tenets of his trade. Dileepa does this because he thinks that by hiring the honest, he can keep them from being honest. For someone who is so bright and manipulative, this is far from the most brilliant decision he could have taken: a few pages later, Muthukumarana is investigating a hit-and-run incident which may be connected to Aluwihare.

In Bandaranayake’s world, everyone seems to know everyone else. That is why it comes to no surprise that the man run down by a vehicle in the middle of the night should have been married to a woman Aluwihare just happened to hire at his Ministry, and that she should be rumoured to have formed the object of Aluwihare’s affections. That Lasantha thought for a moment that a news report linking all this to a prominent Minister would make it in a paper linked to and blessed by that Minister is, of course, intriguing. But he tries to get it published it anyway. When the predictable opprobrium follows and he finds he can’t get it in, the story moves to its inevitable and in many ways unsurprising conclusion.

In saying all this, I am by no means revealing the plot. In fact, surprising as it may seem, the plot is what least interests me about Bandaranayake’s novel. This is a narrative I have come across many times, in many forms. Bandaranayake takes great pains to make it all relevant to the immediate political situation, i.e. the one we are in, now. Those who manage to draw links between his characters and their “real-life counterparts” should, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that he has attempted political critique masquerading as satire. My interest in it, then, has less to do with the novel than the genre it belongs to.

If Groundswell can be called a satire, it is satirical only to the extent that his characters are caricatures. Yet, as I implied earlier, it is not a satire in the way that a work like Pusswedilla is. The characters fit into preconceived and familiar patterns, but that doesn’t make them the clichéd tropes they turn into elsewhere. These characters are more rounded, certainly more complex. Sarath Aluwihare, for instance, does not possess the overstuffed tummy his counterparts from countless parodies do, while Sunil doesn’t become a Renfield type figure hell bent on catering to his “Master.” Even though Bandaranayake can be facetious, and is pugnacious, he refuses to dabble in the kind of satirical humour which could have turned his story into a Vijaya Nandasiri style parody of politics in Sri Lanka.

Depending on how you view it, this may be the strongest point or the biggest weakness in Bandaranayake’s novel. Groundswell makes several important points, and they should be considered pertinent whether they be couched the language of satire or of serious political critique. The medium is hardly the message, contrary to what people might say, and the way you communicate your ideas should not really impact the importance of those ideas.

And yet, there are one or two episodes which reveal Bandaranayake’s funny side. It is here that the disjuncture between the satirical undertones and the ponderous overtones of the narrative, and the author’s voice, proves fatal to the development of the story.

Bandaranayake is at his best when he is setting up situations, and these situations are, all things considered, effective in setting up the plot. He tries to create atmosphere, and does a good job of laying the context. But when each and every point is prefaced by laboriously long explanations of social phenomena, such as the separation between temple and State in Sri Lanka, or the wretched fate encountered by a million or so menial workers in West Asia, you struggle to distinguish between the narrative and the commentary.

For local readers, these explanations will at best be passé. I suspect they will be for foreign readers as well. Groundswell is a novel, or more correctly a novella, which could have been shorter, tighter, and more effective without them. Not surprisingly, the story gains strength when Bandaranayake cuts to the chase, and loses track when he does not.

I have read this kind of story many times before. What makes this one interesting is that it is Bandaranayake’s first attempt at fiction, and that, for a first attempt, it’s damn good. Even within its limits, he has come up with something enjoyable. That I enjoyed the book, and of course the brilliant illustrations that more than just decorate it*, is why I wish it were leaner, shorter, and tighter. Less can be more. More often than not, it is.

* With one exception: the eighth drawing depicts a scene that, if you think about it carefully, is at odds with the text on the opposite page.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Thirty two little ballerinas win awards at TBSC’s 2021 prize giving

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Text and pictures by
PRIYAN DE SILVA

Thirty two little ballerinas were presented with certificates of achievements and awards at the 2021 prize giving of The Ballet school of Colombo (TBSC) held recently.

Directors of TBSC Tara Cooke and Romina Gyi said that they were extremely proud of the achievements of their charges and thanked the students and parents for their dedication in attending classes diligently despite the trying conditions.

Certificates of achievement were awarded in the baby ballet, junior ballet and intermediate ballet categories to students who excelled in pre-classical and pre-jazz ballet.

Debbie McRitchie, International Director of the Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (to which TBSC is affiliated), in her congratulatory message thanked the parents for investing in their childrens dance education and the teachers of TBSC for preparing the candidates. She said that dance is like life and is a journey but not a destination and encouraged all stakeholders to work harder.

The prize giving was a proud moment for both students and parents as it was a parent who presented the certificates of achievement to their child. Five-year-old Shenaya de Alwis Samarasinghe was the youngest candidate at the prize giving, passing with honours in pre-classical ballet.

The Ballet School of Colombo was the former ‘Oosha Garten Sschool of Ballet’ pioneered by the late Kalasuri Oosha Saravanamuttu-Wijesinghe and was instituted as the ‘The Ballet School of Colombo’ in 2016.

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