By Dr Laksiri Fernando
On November 15 and 16, two consecutive days, Rev. Fr. Cyril Gamini was asked to come to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and has been questioned for almost eight to nine hours each day, from 9.00 am to 5.00 or 6.00pm. On the second day, in the afternoon, he was asked to come on the next day, and it was on his request, or protest, that the statement taking was completed on the same day.
Otherwise he would have been asked to come another day. As he clearly expressed to the media after returning from the CID, he has strongly felt that he had been harassed by the CID by dragging the so-called investigation, questioning, and statement taking for no valid reason. A victim has been converted into a ‘perpetrator’ by Sri Lanka’s intelligence system.
Who are the victims?
The whole world knows what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter, April 21, 2019. Apart from three luxury hotels in Colombo (Cinnamon Grand, Kingsbury and Shangri-La), attacks were carried out by suicide bombers on three churches (St. Anthony’s, Colombo; St. Sebastian’s, Negombo; and Zion Church, Batticaloa).
Later that day, two more bombs exploded, one at a house in Dematagoda and another at the Tropical Inn in Dehiwala. A total of 269 people, excluding the eight suicide bombers, were killed in the events, including about 45 foreign nationals, while at least 500 were seriously injured.
All eight suicide bombers were identified as Sri Lankan citizens associated with the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) organization founded by the suicide bomber at Shangri-La Hotel, Colombo, Mohamed Cassim Mohamed Zahran alias Zahran Hashim. This is what was revealed by the investigators and the intelligence services.
The victims included not only those who were killed or injured, but also the families, the Catholic Church, the priests and the devotees. This is the reality. Anyone who cannot understand this reality is either ignorant or apparently complicit in the attacks, in my opinion.
There is still so much mystery and unknowns associated with the incidents. There are questions about the attack, and the organization behind it.
(1) Why did they attack the Churches and hotels? There is no apparent connection between the two. (2) There had been no evident conflict between the Muslims and Catholics in Sri Lanka. Both are minorities facing similar marginalization. (3) Zahran Hashim, the alleged leader, attacked a hotel and not a Church. Is it possible that two groups operated within the operation? This is a question, not a conclusion. (4) Zahran was primarily an extremist ideologue, and a preacher. Other sources were responsible for the technological know-how and planning. (5) Had Zahran been the actual leader of the Easter carnage? Given the later revealed bigger network of operations, it is difficult to believe that the leader would commit suicide at the first attack.
Then there are questions about the CID, the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), the State Intelligence Service (SIS), the Military Intelligence Corps, the Police, the Ministry of Defence, the National Security Council and the then Prime Minister, and the President.
(1) According to what is revealed, Zahran and his organization, NTJ, have been in operation at least since 2014. What have security organizations been doing since then? Why such apathy and indifference towards this terrorist organization? (2) It is very clear that the rise of Jihadism in Sri Lanka was a consequence of anti-Muslim riots in June 2014 and other activities, instigated by some extremist Buddhist organizations such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Ravana Balaya. These organizations should have been banned, identified as potential terrorist outfits. No such action was taken.
Most importantly, as very clearly revealed in the inquiries of the Parliamentary Select Committee and the Presidential Commission, the whole of the Security Apparatus had failed to act on the ‘early warnings’ received from India and other countries. In such a situation, it is quite obnoxious for the CID to harass Fr Cyril Gamini on the instigation of the Head of the State Security Service (SIS), Major General Suresh Sallay.
Complaint against Fr Gamini
As far as I can gather, Fr Cyril Gamini at present is the Pastor at St. Anne’s Catholic Church at Kurana, Negombo, and also the Director of the National Catholic Centre for Social Communications (NCCSC). He has also often acted as the spokesperson for Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo of the Catholic Church.
In these capacities, Fr Gamini has every right to express his views on these disastrous events, those who are possibly directly or indirectly involved in the attacks, and call for justice on behalf of the victims and the Church. Of course, as anyone else, he should refrain from baseless accusations, or expressing misleading information, knowingly.
I came to know Fr Gamini first in 1996 in my capacity as the Director of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI), and more closely during my tenure as the Director of the Peace Building Project, Ministry of Constitutional Affairs (2002-2005). He is well-respected and modest and a person committed to social justice, peace and human rights. I have had no contact with him thereafter and this opinion is completely independent.
Fr Gamini must have been involved in many discussions with many people, mainly people associated with the Church, in Sri Lanka and abroad on questions regarding the Easter attacks, the unfortunate fate of the victims, and apparent absence of justice even after three years. The zoom discussion in question had taken place on October 23, 2022.
Unfortunately, it is the Director of the State Intelligence Service, Major General Suresh Sallay, who has made the complaint against Fr Cyril Gamini to the CID. According to various newspaper reports, there appear two main complaints. (1) Because of the alleged statement by Fr Gamini, it was claimed that the lives of the Major General and his family have been threatened. Accordingly, in this case, the ‘victim’ is a Major General and the ‘perpetrator’ is an innocent Christian Priest. This is hilarious and childish. Perhaps Suresh Sallay is trying to equate Fr Gamini to Zahran Hashim, who was also a preacher.
(2) It was also complained that because of the apparent mentioning of the Major General’s name at the zoom discussion, considerable damage has been done to his ‘prestige and integrity.’ This is quite unbelievable. The Director of the State Intelligence Service is a public servant. All public servants should be accountable to the people. It is also not clear in what context Suresh Sallay’s name was mentioned by Fr. Gamini at the discussion. However, this is not the first time his name was mentioned in connection with the Easter attacks. Several Members of Parliament and others have mentioned his name under various contexts.
After the complaint, the CID had taken the matter very seriously, for some reason or the other, and had hunted for Fr. Cyril Gamini running about here and there for some days and weeks. In the meantime, some other priests, on behalf of him, went before the CID and requested some time for Fr Gamini to appear before the CID. This was not properly heeded. The CID went before the Colombo Magistrate to get an order, through the Attorney General’s Department, for Fr Gamini to appear immediately. It appeared therefore that the whole State apparatus was involved in the victimization.
The concern of Fr Gamini and many others was that, if he is arrested by the CID and taken to the Fourth Floor what would happen to him, or how would the CID treat him? The Fourth Floor is infamous for mistreatment, and forcing some, in certain instances, to jump out the windows.
It is in this context that Fr Gamini went before the Supreme Court requesting the Court to safeguard his fundamental rights to ‘express his views’ and raise ‘concerns about his parishioners’ who were killed and severely injured during the Easter Attacks. One of the immediate pleas of the case was to prevent him from being arrested.
A full hearing is to be held pertaining to his full range of fundamental rights under the Constitution, and other related matters. However at the first hearing, the three member court took up the matter of the threatened arrest. What had the CID said? Through the Attorney General’s Department, they had said that they have no intention of arresting Fr. Gamini at that moment. This statement itself proves that Suresh Sallay’s complaint about a threat to his life is baseless.
In March 2021, Suresh Sallay made a complaint to the CID against a Member of Parliament, Nalin Bandara. The accusation was similar to that levelled against Fr Gamini. Apparently, the CID is still investigating the case. The situation is so confusing and controversial and Suresh Sallay, as the Head of the SIS is apparently exerting undue influence, regarding these cases, on the CID. This is not right.
Incidents like the Easter attacks are so complex and multifaceted. It is primarily the victims who know the pain and agony. It is the right of the victims and their spokespersons to express their views, raise questions and suspicions, of course without resorting to defamation. It is the duty of the State, or the CID in this case, to investigate them without harassing the whistleblowers or the victims. The harassment of Rev Fr Cyril Gamini by the CID should be strongly condemned.
Beyond the fiction of Alborada
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. . ‘Lionel Wendt: A Centennial tribute’. Lionel Wendt memorial fund; Sampath Bandara. . 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. . ‘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’ 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. . ‘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.
. ‘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. . ‘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 . Penguin Books).
To be continued
Politics at its most primitive
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 email@example.com
Thirty two little ballerinas win awards at TBSC’s 2021 prize giving
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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