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Does man live by bread (or rice) alone?

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What is missing from our dinner menu is not the fault of the kitchen keepers!

By B. Nimal Veerasingham

There was this gentleman who lived on the lane behind our house. Let’s call him ‘Chella’, and unrelated to his acquired name, he was a tall and burly strapper. Chella was the chef or chief cook at the local Teachers’ Training College, where, obviously, meals must be prepared for a larger crowd. The legend is that ‘Chella’ uses his bare hands to crush large quantities of garlic, ginger, curry leaves and green chillies to be put in boiling cooking vessels. His curries were graded ‘A’ by the future educators and that possibly enhanced their ability to enlighten students and in turn helped in an indirect manner to build a country with greater resolution and mission. While Chella’s role at the college kitchen was not widely realised, there was another side which became a legacy of his. On pay day, Chella, became another beast, howling, singing, swearing, kicking fences over—a driverless bulldozer in motion. The booze takes complete dominance over him, so much so his family members had to take refuge in neighbouring houses.

There was another gentleman—let’s call him ‘Nada’—who worked with us many moons ago. Unlike Chella, Nada was at the helm of finance with many professional acronyms adorning his name. Tall with well-oiled hair, combed back, his forehead always had light holy-ash markings. People have noticed that his posture, while standing, in relation to the ground, is not 90 degrees, unlike that of other fellow Homo sapiens; he stood at more or less an obtuse angle. When he was under the influence of liquor, which became a daily evening ritual, his angle became pronouncedly more obtuse, perhaps qualifying as a new Yoga posture. Friends swear that once he ended up in the hospital mortuary because he lacked vital signs. In the middle of the night the mortuary attendants heard heavy banging from inside and ran for their dear lives to fetch a ‘kattadiya’. His friends further swore that Nada was finally rescued from ‘death’, fully sober and the news appeared in the local newspaper, though nobody believed it.

My paternal grandfather was a man of few words, literally. During our childhood, other than the warnings he yelled at our climbing the many tall guava trees in his garden and during our ‘hide and seek’ episodes, fleeing down his low roof and side verandah, he hardly spoke. I attributed this to his habit of chewing betel. He was a jack-of-all-trades, a handy person who could fix anything, be it our broken leather soccer ball or a stuck bicycle axle. On his ‘pension day’ he would go to the local grocery store to settle the monthly grocery bill and would get us the best sweet chewy muscat in town. On his way home, he would stop at the ‘corner bar’ to have his quick dram, and the man would become even quieter afterwards.

Legend

Alcohol, or rather the escapades resulting from the effects of the ethanol is the foremost conversational topic in the vast majority of gatherings, at times beating the banter on a recently held cricket series. Of course, alcohol has a complicated history. Traces of alcohol has been detected in archaeological evidence unearthed from Chinese pottery as old as 7,000 to 6,000 BC, and further evidence proves that a part of the wages of Great Pyramids of Giza workers were paid in beer. The distillation of wine is alluded to in Arabic works, attributed to Al-Kindi (c.801-873CE) and Al-Farabi (c.872-950 CE), and in the 28th book of Al-Zahrawi. Southern Europe developed a taste, (pun intended), for the distillation methods introduced by Middle Eastern Muslim chemists by the early 14th Century. During the same period the methods were introduced and widely used in India, during the Delhi Sultanate rule.

The four main reasons for raising glasses and toasting, then and now are, to create a positive mood, to be social, to ‘cope and to confirm’. ‘Coping’ and ‘confirming’ usually considered as negative motives while to cope will likely lead to alcohol use disorders depending on the identity, social norms, and self-image of the drinker.

Chemistry

In 2018, the Global alcohol industry was valued at a trillion dollars. And no matter what the marketing tools of the industry tout as joyous in flowery melodies, the liquid in the bottle is simply disguised ethanol or ethyl alcohol, colourless, odourless and flammable in its pure form. A formula born out of fermentation, which could slow the blood flow to the brain, resulting in slow response of the body’s systems. It also triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure and satisfaction, and what’s more, stress relief is also associated with another neurotransmitter released under the influence of alcohol, Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA).

The overwhelming human tendency to associate the experience of getting drunk with pleasure, draws them into a mirage, plunging them into disease, disaster, and worse, death. The rush is like the stock market, does not let you remain high forever, and the gravitational pull would not guarantee a soft landing. Driving after two drinks (assuming one drink equals 12 ounces of beer or five ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of spirits), when the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeds 0.08 percent, is a punishable criminal offence that entails many penalties in many jurisdictions around the world. In 2010, 31 percent of all driving fatalities in the US were alcohol related.

Consequence

The body absorbs alcohol relatively quickly, but it takes longer to get the alcohol to flush out of the body. The liver needs about one hour to process one drink, where enzymes break ethanol into acetaldehyde and acetate. Consuming several within a short span causes the body to saturate with alcohol yet to leave the body, resulting in longer hangovers. Muscles absorb alcohol faster than fat, as a result people with muscles and less body fat have higher tolerance. Dark liquors, such as red wine or whiskey are more likely to result in severe hangovers, while white or clear ones much less. The abuse contributes to well over 200 diseases, injury related health conditions and unintentional injuries such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, burns, assaults and drownings. In 2016, three million deaths or 5.3 percent of all global deaths (7.7 percent men and 2.6 percent women) were attributed to alcohol consumption.

While the negative impact of alcohol abuse is very much tabulated with numerical data, the positive side of alcohol consumption in moderation, for example, the many indirect economic, health and collective societal asset building advantages of alcohol induced socialising, is not readily available.

Magic of red wine

In market studies on all spirits, there is a huge following for red wine and it tempts the novice with a reason to drink. The amount of sugar usually added to red wine should be taken into consideration, as studies conducted by King’s College London shows that brands with excess sugar could lead to irritability of the bowels and inflammation. It could also lead to bacterial overgrowth leading to bloating, pain and other discomforts.

Wine, depending on the culinary pairing at the dining table, has become a part of the standard European diet. Both as a ubiquitous social lubricant and a digestive enhancer, wine’s role in typical European backgrounds enhances societal binding and togetherness. Grapes, which grow well in Mediterranean and Southern European climatic conditions, have taken firm root in their diet. It is evident that most Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Spanish households, wherever they live, have grapevines in their back garden. Though 71 percent of the world’s grape production is used for wine production commercially, individual households take pride in producing their own.

European influence

The influence of wine was felt in Asia by way of European imperialism, in the name of trade expansion, through the sequential spread of religion. Christianity, notably Catholicism celebrates Eucharist, wherein the Last Supper, when

Christ requested his followers to remember him through bread and wine, is commemorated. As a result, wine, which is a part of the European diet, has now entered the lives of the followers at least on Sundays. The jury is still out on whether the wine served at the Last Supper or, for that matter, the wine mentioned in the very first miracle Jesus performed, in turning water into wine at a wedding, is indeed alcohol or just grape juice. I had friends at school who were alter-boys, whose ability to siphon off left-over wine after the mass, was legendary.

Most of the Protestant Churches do not serve wine during ‘communion’ as the occasion calls for coming together in remembering the death of Christ, the wine being only a symbol. The Salvation Army does not have communion or consume alcoholic beverages as per the calling of William Booth outside the ‘Blind Beggar’, a tavern in the infamous East End of London. Most of the converts of the early days were alcoholics and the denomination does not want to tempt them once again into poverty, disease, and dependence.

As part of their attempt to Europeanize the Asian culinary scene, the Colonial capitalists tried to pair the curries with wine, resulting in a disastrous outcome. Washington Post columnist Greg Kitsock describes it as, “Spices distort wine flavours, turning white wines hot and red wines bitter.” Rather than living on negative results, the capitalists discovered beer to match the fiery curries. “Curry’s main ingredients, garlic, chillies, coriander, lemon grass, turmeric, ginger…. All those warming spices meld wonderfully with the toasty flavours of malted barley. The richness of coconut milk and palm oil can’t knock out the crisp texture of carbonation …. Plus, a beer is often served chilled, which is a refreshing contrast,” says Lucy Saunders, writer contributing to many Asian magazines.

But the irony is that barley and hops, the main ingredients in beer, are not native or produced en masse in Asia but must be imported from Europe.

Ceylon arrack

Irrespective of whether the word ‘arrack’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘Arak’ (distillate) or the arecanut tree, being the base for many varieties of arrack, ‘Ceylon arrack’ made from coconut sap is the most popular among Sri Lankans.

Collecting sap from coconut and Palmyra trees is physically exhausting and left to experienced climbers and tappers who venture to climb countless trees to collect relatively small volumes of syrup from each tree. Arrack is one of few liquors that has a distillate of a 100 percent natural fermentation and, unlike whisky, distilled at high strength. Unfortunately, it is said that half of all Asians lack the active enzyme which breaks down acetaldehyde within ethanol found in most forms of alcohol. Most Westerners have this enzyme and as a result should drink more than Asians to have an equal buzz.

According to the World Health Organization’s data repository, in terms of alcohol consumption, South Koreans (over age 15) lead the pack, with 10.9 litres a year on average, while Vietnam follows with 8.7 litres. Although Sri Lanka and India scores closer with 4.5 and 4.6 litres, the numbers collected from legitimate and regulated bodies sometimes do not convey the real story.

There is a greater distribution of locally and illicitly brewed, cheap varieties that do not make it into the national statistics. A 1997 study in eight Sri Lankan villages revealed that 71 percent drink on a regular basis and 93 percent of the respondents consumed locally brewed alcohol. Another study on the urban poor showed that in families wherein members consumed alcohol, more than 30 percent of the total income was spent on alcohol.

Though rice, sugar cane and coconut sap, the three main locally available commercial agents, could be used in mass production, the local illicit brews do not source them due to high cost. Consequently, in many cases, cheap jaggery, coconut water, rotten greens and fruits are used.

Sovereigns of our nourishment

The business of feeding the household, for many generations, was entrusted to women, mostly the grandmothers of the family. It is their domain and they assumed the responsibility of keeping everyone cared for and nourished, through the act of feeding. One may call it a maternal hierarchy, but victors and successes always had their origins in kitchens that are shaped and sustained by women. ‘Masculinity’, in the historical context or current, is shaped by the mundane activities and experiences of the kitchenettes that played the role of second womb.

Both my grandmothers had kitchens, narrowly separated from the main house and almost the size or bigger than the living room. That was their territory and their friends visited them there directly to have tea, chat and to exchange home grown vegetables, seated on a mat, or low stools. The place was spotless-clean and neatly kept, and we hardly knew what was kept where, and even the pets, cat and dog, would never dare cross the kitchen entrance. I have overheard from my grandmothers that, long before childbirth was considered an ‘illness’ that required hospital admission, people always gave birth in their kitchens.

Under this regime of established womanhood in our part of the world, it is not difficult to understand the underpinnings of a family meal. What is approved and served by the matriarch at the dinner table becomes the benchmark of decency.

Women from our part of the world did not have control over the production of any variety of alcohol, and therefore were denied the ability to regulate or to add to the menu, unlike their European counterparts. The main ingredients, sugar cane, coconut sap and rice were beyond the boundaries of individual home gardens. The prime objective of rice cultivation is feeding the hungry rather than quenching the recreational thirst, which would require large volumes for alcohol production. The working class that taps toddy was kept at the lower rungs by a hypocritical society that had no qualms about consuming their laboriously made toddy.

The culture that influences how people consume alcohol is not determined arbitrarily but rather by the circumstances under which ingredients are made available for the women to regulate or to determine the form it needs to be presented in the family menu. My grandmother made awesome ‘hoppers’, with toddy replacing yeast, but it had to be procured through a neighbour who was a regular at the toddy tavern.

What if, as in Italy, our home gardens also produced grape wine? Would wine have become part of our menu? If that was the case, I doubt that ‘Chella’ would have kicked over fences, or ‘Nada’ got a cold reception at the mortuary, not to mention, my grandfather, who would not have had to wait in line for his quick dram on pension day at the ‘corner bar’.



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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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