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Election reminiscences Part III

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Continued from October 10

This story is hard to believe, but nevertheless true. It was the general election of 1947 and the results of the Akuressa Electorate were announced. It being a stronghold of the Communist Party, its candidate. W.P.A. Wickramasinghe was an easy winner. After the election results were announced, the counting staff found, to their horror, that they have overlooked three ballot, boxes!. The agitated Returning Officer rushed down to Colombo and informed the Elections Commissioner about it.” Get back at once and somehow get the candidates to agree to the counting of the three ballot boxes in their presence,” said the Returning office, adding, “If it makes a difference to the result already announced, contact me.”

The candidates readily agreed to accommodate the Returning Officer and when the votes were counted the original results remained unchanged, with the majority of votes a so counted, with the winner.

One ola leaf reading in Madras, written thousands of years ago, gave the name of a future Prime Minister of Sri Lanka as ‘West Ri Vandaran’. (West Ri Bandaranaike).

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The Sinhala New year dawned a few days after this General Election. But despite the fun and festivities, thousands of people were still licking their election wounds, the air was hardly friendly. In a certain village, some right thinking people decided to organize an Avurudu Uthsavaya (New Year Festival), and invite the person who had been selected as MP and his rival, who had lost, as Chief Guests.

As the winning MP was proceeding to the festival, in his brand new Pajero, he saw his rival’s battered W jeep being pushed along the road by some youngsters. Stopping his Pajero the MP asked his rival, who was at the wheel, “What is wrong?” “I don’t know machang, the damn thing just packed up,” was the reply. “And now I’m going to be late for the Avrudu Uthsavaya to which I’ve been invited.” “Jump into my vehicle,” said the MP, “I am also going for the same festival.

When the crowd saw the two erstwhile rivals arriving together, they were given huge cheers amid the din of lit crackers. In their speeches both politicos appealed to the villagers to forget their political difference and live in harmony. “If we can be friends after such an intensive and bitter campaign why not you people?” the two of them said.

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Elections are replete with pre and post violence. At the 1936 State Council Election, the Matale Seat was won by B.H. Aluvithare. He was getting ready for the victory parade, when some gunman opened fire. The winner and about 15 others were seriously injured four were dead. Several others were also injured. Of interest is that William Gopallawa was one of the defeated candidates at this election. He was later to become the President of Sri Lanka.

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When S.W.R.D. Banadaranaike was cast ashore on the golden sands of political power in 1956, some MPs were ill-educated, clueless, nonentities. “We shudder to think how you are going to speak in Parliament,” said a friend to one such MP. “Why should I speak I say? The Speaker is there no?” retorted the MP.

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One day a senior minister read aloud a newspaper headline, in the presence of several fellow MPs, “President Carter sends Cyrus Vance to India.” “Sir!” said a new young MP promptly, “If he sends any to Sri Lanka, I want three or four vans for my electorate!”. (Cyrus Vance was the US Secretary of State).

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In 1956, a large number of MPs donned the popular mass appeal garb called the national dress. One such MP went to a Government Department to get some work done. The head of the Department saw him and called one of his assistants to find out who he is. The assistant offhandedly said, “He is either an MP or a peon, as both of them looked alike these days!”

Apart from the above dress, some of the MPs wore a trouser (instead of the verti), donning the banian of the national dress on top. It was called a ‘Kapati kit.

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In the General Election of 1956, when SWRD’s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) swept into power, the Colombo Central Seat riveted everybody’s attention. M.S. Themis, a minor employee in the Postal Department, proved to be a killer, when he was returned as one of the three members to that seat, routing a Mayor, (V.A. Sugathadasa) a Minister, (Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel), Ex-Ambassador to Burma (A. E. Goonesinghe). I still remember ‘contributing my mite, in the form of 10 cents, to Themis’ election fund when the till went round at one of his meetings.

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One day an MP who made every effort to impress and make his presence felt, both inside and outside Parliament, greeted the former Prime Minister Sir John as “Hallo John!”, Sir John’s angry reaction is better imagined than said. Another day a lady known to this MP, gave him a lift to the Parliament. As there were some parcels on the front seat she apologetically requested him, “I hope you don’t mind occupying the back seat.” To her horror he blurted out “My lady, I am comfortable on your back side.” At the destination, very correctly, he thanked the lady, whereupon she courteously replied, “Don’t mention.” The politician then told the good lady to her utter embarrassment, “Don’t worry, I won’t mention it to anyone.”

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One day a lady had taken the train from Colombo to Kandy and had got into the wrong carriage. When a minister met her at the Kandy station, he had said “Madam! I am sorry you had a miscarriage.

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One day a young M.P. told S.W.R.D. “Sir! I am going to make my maiden speech in the House tomorrow and what form should it take?” The premier had replied, “My dear fellow! A good speech should be like a fashion-conscious girl’s frock. So short as to arouse interest but long enough to cover the subject.” One of his Cabinet Ministers who was a smug, pompous ass who made every effort to impress and make his presence felt, limped into the House one day. Seeing him the Premier asked, “My dear fellow! what’s wrong with you?” “My ankle is swollen Sir,” replied the Minister. “So your lower extremity is also swollen?”

There was a young MP who had more money than brains. He used to buy new cars and sold them off each time, only a short while later, to buy another. One day SWRD asked him, “My dear fellow! I heard that you have bought another new car. What happened to the car you bought last month?” “I sold it Sir! I get rid of anything once the novelty wears off ” My dear fellow!” I hope you don’t ever get married.”

One day a party stalwart said, “Sir! We promised the people Sinhala Only in twenty-four hours and it is weeks since we were elected. Nothing seems to be happening and the people are asking awkward questions.” “My dear fellow,” said Bandaranaike, “What does one mean by 24 hours?” “One day,” replied the party man. “Exactly”, chuckled Bandaranaike “and we shall make Sinhala Only the state language one day!”

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On the appointed day, a deputation of a Trade Union called on one of the clever Ministers in the SWRD Cabinet. He was a very witty man who told the deputation that he liked to meet trade union delegations as they had very interesting demands, adding that in Marseilles, the dock workers who handled a shipment of women’s underwear went on strike demanding “a temptation allowance!”

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During election time several years ago, two candidates vied for the Galle Seat. A fellow club member took a thousand rupee bet with another, that one candidate, whom he named, would win. The two ‘betters’ handed a thousand each to a senior member who would hold it and pay the winner. But a few days later, when he heard from several people that the other candidate was the sure winner, my friend got cold feet. So as a form of ‘insurance’, he stealthily took a bet with someone else that the candidate he had named the first time was going to lose. Once again it was thousand rupees. He was now assured that his money was safe, for he would be losing and wining!. The results of the Galle seat were announced in the early hours of the morning, and that evening my friend walked jauntily, into the club and collected his winnings from the senior member. As he was handed the money, all those present gathered round him, congratulating him and demanding drinks. He could not but oblige and at the end of the evening he was down almost a thousand rupees.

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Soon after the general election of 1970, Neale de Alwis, who had been MP for Baddegama and had been appointed a Junior Minister, found himself faced with a political problem which needed a political solution, a phrase very much in vogue these days. Some of his catchers, (in this case the boys of the LSSP Youth League of the area), wanted two school teachers transferred out of the electorate for working for Neale’s rival, the UNP candidate. Neale promised to look into the matter.

About a week later he dropped in at the office of the Principal of the school where the two teachers worked, and asked him about them. The Principal gave a glowing account of their work, and told the MP most emphatically that transferring them at this stage would do untold harm to the students who were preparing for the O/Level exams. “Sir,” said the Principal, “even if you replace these two teachers, I don’t think you could do so with teachers of this calibre. Neale de Alwis nodded, thanking the Principal and left.

A few days later his Youth Leaguers were at his doorstep again, complaining to the MP that the ‘errant’ teachers were still at the same school. Whereupon, in very unmistakable terms, Neale de Alwis told them that he was not prepared to sacrifice the future of dozens of innocent children for political expediency. “These two teachers are doing a fine job of work,” he snapped, “and if they are good workers I don’t care a bloody damn whether they are UNP or Federal Party!”

One day, as I was coming out of the Galle Kachcheri I saw Neale de Alwis coming down the stairs of his office. He was then the Political Authority for the Galle District too. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he was confronted by a constituent who went into a long tale of woe about his son who was working far away from home, and was asking for a transfer to a place closer home. After listening to the old man, Neale told him that he had got his son employment with the greatest difficulty, and that it was most unreasonable for him to ask for a transfer to his home station so soon. “Manussayo,” said Neale, “if our young men are not prepared to leave their villages to go and work, this country will never progress.” The chastened voter went away muttering under his breath.

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It was just after the Kesbewa by-election, held after the death of the sitting member, the poet of the revolution, Somaweera Chandrasiri. The UNP did not expect to win it. But thanks to a three cornered contest, they did. ‘Subsequently, in Parliament SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, by adding the figures polled by the SLFP candidate and the independent candidate (also an anti UNPer), attempted to prove that the ‘progressive’ forces had actually won the by election. While the UNP, going by the figures she had given, had lost it.

When she sat down after her weighty treatise, UNP Chief Dudley Senanayake rose and his eyes twinkling said gravely, “Madam? wish you many more victories of that nature.”

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In the last State Council whose period should have been over in 1941, but was extended up to 1947 because a general election couldn’t be held while a world war was going on, there was a very controversial, but colourful politico. One day, Sir D.B. Jayathilaka the Leader of the House, who was on holiday in England, bumped into this politico in a London Street.

“Hullo,” said Sir D.B. in surprise, “What are you doing here?” “Sir. I came for medical treatment,” said the young man “Why, what’s wrong with you?” asked Sir DB much concerned. “My doctor says something is wrong inside my head,” the other replied.

“I say, you didn’t have to come all the way to London to find that out,” said Sir DB, roaring, with laughter. “We could have told you that back home! After all you are the man who moved two motions in the State Council, one calling for a ban on dowries, and the other calling for the establishment of licensed brothels in Ceylon!” At this sally, the younger politico joined in the laughter.

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An apparently eccentric politico had done all his canvassing in his large electorate on foot and when he filed his election return, it was discovered that his election expenses came to the princely sum of 13. He was Dr. A.P. de Zoysa MSC Colombo South.

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Sat Mag

An epic Air Ceylon charter flight in late 1940s

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Reminiscences upon turning 100:

The comprehensive and interesting article written by Capt. Elmo Jayawardena in The Island newspaper of 06 October 2020 under the title, ‘First Pilgrimage to Mecca by Air,’ described the daring flying capabilities of the Ceylonese pilots with limited navigational facilities when Civil Aviation commenced in Ceylon in 1947.

The final pilgrimage to Mecca by Air Ceylon was to take a group of pilgrims organised by Adamjee Lukmanjee family and friends not only on pilgrimage to Mecca but also on a tour to Cairo and Damascus.

The crew consisted of Capt. Peter Fernando, Co-Pilot. P.B. Mawalagedera, Co-Capt. Ken Joachim, Radio officer D. L. Sirimanne and Flight Engineer G. V. Perera.

The Ratmalana Airport was chock-a-block with well wishers, relations and friends. The pilgrims were all dressed in white. The DC3 aircraft had 21 slumber lounge seats for luxury travel. The aircraft loaded to full capacity finally took off on a beautiful clear morning and set course to Bombay on its first lap. It was a four-and-a-half-hour flight flying at 8,000 feet. Approaching the Indian air space, we were cleared to ascend to 12,000 feet to fly over the Western Ghats. Heavy cloud formations were encountered. Fasten-seat-belts warning was switched on and the aircraft got enveloped in thick clouds; the flight became extremely bumpy, rough and turbulent. Down drafts almost sucked the passengers off their seats. It lasted for about half an hour and then the plane shot out to blue skies and steady smooth flying again to the joy of the frightened passengers and landed at Bombay for refueling.

The passengers were relieved to stretch their legs and attend to toilet facilities at the airport. Lunch was served and when ready took off to Karachi, a three-and-a-half-hour flight. The weather was superb. Nearing Karachi, the evening sky became hazy turning red in the setting sun. The famous R 101 Hangar at Karachi Airport was visible from as far as 70 miles which was a useful navigational aid for homing. It was a huge aluminum roofed hangar which reflected the setting sun like a glistening star. It was built in 1929 for the R 101 Airship to fly long distance in the British Empire, but on its maiden flight from England, crashed over France killing the crew and passengers. On landing at Karachi, the BOAC agent took the passengers and crew for a night stop to their BOAC ‘Speed Bird’ transit hotel at the Karachi Airport similar to the KLM ‘Midway House.’ It had comfortable rooms with sleeping and toilet facilities and attendants at the press of a button. A sumptuous biriyani dinner was served.

Early next morning after breakfast, we left Karachi and headed over the sea to Salalah on the Arabian Coast. The five-hour flight was smooth and uneventful and we landed at Salalah for fueling. Since it was midday, the lunch packets and drinks loaded at Karachi were served on ground. Refreshed, we took off and did a five hours flight in clear weather and landed at Aden for a night stop. Aden was beastly hot and unbearable. The BOAC staff welcomed us and took the passengers and crew to a comfortable hotel in the city centre for the night.

Early in the morning, we took off, and after a three-hour flight landed in Jeddha, a busy transit airport for Hajj pilgrims to Mecca. The Adamjees thanked us and bid farewell on their journey to Mecca on a Saudi Airline as foreign aircraft were forbidden to operate to Mecca. We returned empty to Aden for a three-day stay. To our annoyance, the Aerodrome Control instructed us to park in a remote area far from the normal parking bay. Three miserable days later we left Aden and arrived in Jeddah. The pilgrims having finished their rituals at the sacred Kaaba in Mecca were gleefully waiting excitedly to tour famous Cairo and Damascus. The leader of the party had brought two large barrels of Holy Water and requested they be loaded. Capt. Fernando politely refused to take them as the aircraft was loaded to capacity and suggested they be shipped to Colombo.

The BOAC Representative informed that it was a mandatory requirement for passengers visiting Cairo from Jeddah and South Africa to spend three days quarantine in El Tor as a precaution against Yellow Fever. On the navigation chart we observed it was almost on our heading to Cairo. The four-hour flight was uneventful and we homed on El Tor NDB. We got landing instructions and the runway was an improvised airstrip marked with white painted stones and a small building at the end. We landed and taxied to a camp spread in front of the building which, we later learnt, was a base hospital with spacious tents for accommodation.

After immigration formalities, we were taken over by a Medical Officer and a batch of nurses who attended to the passengers, and the crew was taken to a separate tent with beds, enclosed toilets and shower facilities. A little later, a nurse in uniform gave each of us a test tube with a small piece of wire tipped with a swab of cotton and a small bottle for specimens of feces and urine. After a while she came back with a tray to take them. We were unable to have them ready and requested her to come in the evening. She was furious and returned with a bulky health officer who asked us to comply immediately. Otherwise, he would be compelled to take samples by force. We had to give in as we did not like anyone poking wires into our anuses and requested a little more time. Our Flight Engineer G.V. Perera said he has an inclination and retired to the toilet. He came back with his test tube full. We shared what he brought amidst peals of laughter. The nurse came and took the samples away. We all chuckled. What if G.V’s had anything infectious? All of us would have been in quarantine for a longer period!

We were made comfortable during the three days with food, drinks and listening to the blare of Egyptian music and songs on a loudspeaker broadcast for the whole establishment. The nights were cool although no trees were within sight. There was a billiard table that kept us in good spirit. Three agonizing days in the sweltering desert heat dragged by and finally were given a Clean Bill of Health to proceed to Cairo.

El Tor airport had no control tower but only a cabin. Peter asked me to get flight clearance from the Controller. The Controller said he could not do it as Cairo was in fog. After an agonising wait of more than two hours, clearance was granted. It was a tricky take off from that short sandy runway in the desert. I held my breath with prayer as we just managed to clear the end of the runway on full power; luckily there were neither trees nor high obstructions to fly over. After an hour’s flight we landed in Cairo, a huge busy international airport with modern navigational and landing facilities. The fog had dissipated, the temperature was rather cool compared to Aden and Jeddah.

The BOAC handling agents cleared formalities and took over the passengers to a hotel, and the crew to Shepherds, where international flight crews stayed. A magnificent hotel built by the British during their occupation of Egypt to accommodate royalty and other dignitaries including King Farouk of Egypt. The hotel was like an Egyptian palace with huge pillars painted red and gold and even the rooms were large with high ceiling and huge king-size beds. The ornate lobby had a palatial atmosphere and the waiters were six-foot Nubians in colorful robes. The hotel was located overlooking a broad avenue where thousands of cars roared past without sounding their horns, a continuous mushy sound indicating how busy modern Cairo was. The food was delicious and served with wine. One had to be in full dress for dinner and we went in our Gabardine ceremonial uniforms.

The following morning, we visited the famous Cairo Museum, a vast building and saw the Mummies of King Tutankhamen and Queen Nefertiti and a huge collection of ancient artifacts of ancient Egypt and then ended with a boat ride on the Nile. There were many interesting places to visit in Cairo and further south. In the afternoon, we motored to a hotel in Giza to see the Pyramids. We hired a tour guide and six camels, one each with its keeper. I was the last to follow the batch. Half way, the camel suddenly sat on its belly and wouldn’t move. I shouted to the rest of the crew to stop and help me, but they didn’t hear and I felt frightened to be left alone with the camel keeper in the desert. He tried everything possible for the camel to get up but it wouldn’t. Then the camel keeper asked me for some ‘buckshee’ (money) and in desperation I gave him a few Egyptian pounds. He tucked it into his waist and fed something to the camel. Suddenly, it rose to its feet and started trotting at speed to follow the rest. The Pyramids are made of massive blocks of stone and there were several of them in the distance. The biggest was next to the Sphinx. We got down and there was a large hole at the base of the pyramid and we climbed within, one behind the other, an unending ladder leaning at about 40 degrees. It was dark and each was given a torch and, on all fours, we reached the middle chamber of the pyramid and strangely there was a ray of sunlight. There were empty ornate royal coffins or sarcophagus, lots of statues, and other ancient relics in it. A little while later we started descending until we came out into bright sunshine, which hurt our eyes.

In the afternoon while we were in the spacious verandah of the hotel watching the rich visitors who come to the hotel, a Muslim gentleman visited us and introduced himself as Majeed, a Ceylonese businessman owning a jewellery shop opposite the hotel. He had heard some Ceylonese had arrived and are staying in the hotel. We told him that we were an Air Ceylon crew bringing a group of Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca and they are touring Cairo for a couple of days. He was delighted to meet us. We ordered tea. While chatting, Majeed said he had heard there was a high-level diplomatic conference at the hotel that afternoon and the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake were expected to arrive here on their way after attending a Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in London.

 

It was wonderful news and we waited anxiously to meet our PM. Little later Mr. Senanayake with two gentlemen arrived, and Capt. Peter Fernando went and greeted our PM with due respect and invited him to join us. Senanayake was surprised to meet Ceylonese in Cairo, and when told that we are Air Ceylon crew flying a group of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and touring Cairo and Damascus, he congratulated us. There was a commotion and Jawaharlal Nehru arrived with a large retinue. Our PM wished us goodbye and joined them.

It was the time King Farouk was forced to abdicate and Abdul Nasser had taken over the government. The British were sent out of Egypt and the Suez Canal was taken over. Our Co- Capt. Ken Joachim, a fair Burgher in Gabardine uniform looked handsome like a British military officer. He had seen a beautiful French sales girl in a perfume shop nearby and would go on the pretext of buying some perfume. The police had stopped him and questioned him as to what he was doing in Cairo. When told he is a pilot from Ceylon bringing some tourists, they let him go. Ken got scared the Egyptians would lynch him mistaking him for a Britisher, begged me to chaperon him when visiting the perfume shop. On the last day in Cairo he bought a bottle of perfume for his wife. A message was received the passengers were ready to proceed to Damascus. We took off from Cairo at noon the following day and after a three-hour flight landed in Damascus.

Damascus is the capital of Syria. Due to turmoil in the Middle East, the Damascus Airport was full or fighter planes and soldiers. The passengers and crew were cleared and taken over by a BOAC Officer to a hotel in the centre of Damascus. Something amusing happened there; a high-ranking Air Force officer at the airport with lots of medals asked Captain Peter Fernando, from which country we were from. When told from Ceylon, he was surprised for he thought Ceylon was part of India. He wanted to know how many planes Air Ceylon had. Peter without batting an eyelid lied: ‘We have six DC4s, ten DC3s and we operate to cities in India and East.’

The pleasant and amiable BOAC Officer visited us that evening and took us to dinner at a restaurant in the Damascus City Square and then to a nightclub. It looked like a dark little den, crowded with Syrians in their traditional dress and seated on cushions on floor, smoking hookah. The air was pungent with a strong tobacco smell. We were distinguished guests and being foreigners, given front row seats. A waiter wearing tiny cups around his belt would stoop down gracefully filling the cup with strong spicy coffee from the container strapped on his back and a brass tube curved over shoulder with the snout offered coffee free on request.

Loud Syrian music by a band of musicians started playing and with a rousing applause, a fair young buxom Syrian beauty appeared on the stage scantily dressed in a sequined bra and flimsy colorful veils hanging from her waist covering a sexy bottom and shapely legs she danced her belly and hips in an erotic rhythm displaying shapely thighs, and the audience applauded with delight. Most of them were bearded old men. While dancing she snatched a veil from her waist revealing a bit of her pubic region and threw it to the audience who grabbed it gleefully throwing money to the stage. One by one while dancing she removed leaving the last to cover her nudity. The crowd in ecstasy screaming wildly threw more money at her feet. The dance went on and suddenly she coyly removed her bra, revealing beautiful dancing breasts with pink nipples, and threw it to our group. The audience was in raptures. Our amiable BOAC Officer caught it quickly and threw it back to the stage with a handful of money and hastily took us out saying she expected a night out with us.

The following morning, we went on a conducted tour of Damascus. The place that interested me most was the window in the Wall of Damascus, where St. Paul escaped in the night from certain death and fled to Jerusalem. We entered the massive market called ‘Souq’ in Arabic, is a labyrinth of passages lined with shops under one vast roof where one could get lost. Bargaining was a customary ritual. It had a variety of merchandise including beautiful clothing, genuine Persian carpets, gold, jewellery, perfume etc. I bought an attractive brocade dressing gown. Peter was looking for wartime medals, especially the “German Iron Cross,’ a medal given by Hitler for bravery. He tried to take a snap of some beggars and the police snatched the camera saying photography was prohibited. Probably, they did not want the world to know that poverty prevailed in Syria.

After three days of sightseeing, the Adamjees were ready to get back home and so were we. We flew to Sharjah for refuelling and then to Karachi for a night stop. The next morning, we took off, had lunch in Bombay and reached Ratmalana in the evening where crowds were waiting to receive the pilgrims with garlands. Thus, ended a memorable and exciting adventurous flight.

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Sat Mag

The playwright and the novelist

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Notes on culture:

By Uditha Devapriya

Sir Chittampalam Gardiner was a man to be reckoned with. With a sure eye for what would work and what wouldn’t, he had built a sprawling empire in the movie industry. By instinct he knew what people wanted, the kind of tastes they pandered to.

Movies meant big business those days. They invariably conformed to a certain pattern: men and women chasing after one another through song and dance, heroes and villains facing each other in a final skirmish, good triumphing over evil, innocence over cynicism. Primitive though they may have been, these nevertheless determined the fortunes of directors, actors, and technicians. As such they stuck to the same formula, and gave audiences more of the same. Gardiner knew this, and hence knew which horse to back.

Lester James Peries’s first encounter with Gardiner has to be situated in this context. Chitra Lanka, the “company” Lester and his acolytes had set up for his debut, Rekava, needed money. They had no one else to turn to. Thus with six reels of film in a bag, they went to meet Gardiner and his wife at the Regal, on “a dreary dismal morning.” In the darkness of the hall, no one said a word when they projected the film. They were nervous. If he said no, they had nothing else to do but wrap up production.

After much rising of tension, they sighed with inexorable relief as Gardiner asked them to come up to his office. There, beside Lady Gardiner, he wrote a cheque for Rs. 125,000 for the three mavericks: Lester, Willie Blake, and Titus Thotawatte. Not a particularly bulky man, he was nevertheless wont to making papal pronouncements. He chose this moment to make one of them: “I have just seen,” he declared, “the finest Sinhalese film ever made.” Lester’s heart fluttered: could it be that that the biggest movie mogul of Sri Lanka had liked Rekava that much? Apparently not: “Do you know that Seda Sulang will be an all time great?” he asked them quixotically. He had seen it in Madras a few days earlier.

The cultural renaissance which flowered in 1950s Sri Lanka took time to make itself felt in the cinema, and Gardiner’s comment in its own way proves it. Both Sarachchandra and Martin Wickramasinghe had made their mark years before Lester James Peries returned to Sri Lanka. Wickramasinghe had by then been acknowledged as the man of letters in, and of, the country, as much as Faulkner and Steinbeck, through their stories of rural society, had in the United States. Sarachchandra, who rated Wickramasinghe’s work highly in The Sinhalese Novel, had begun to experiment more boldly onstage, seeking inspiration in not just kabuki, but also Sinhala and South Indian folk drama.

In order to do justice to Lester Peries’s contribution to the cinema, we must juxtapose the playwright with the novelist. It is in the confluence of their worldviews, as different as they may have been, that we see the renaissance of the 1950s run its course and reach its peak, thereby shaping the trajectory of the cinema.

By the turn of the century, the theatre had found a receptive audience among sections of the urban working class and petty trading class. Its literary equivalent was to be found in the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena, under whom the written word became a tool of propaganda for Sinhala nationalism. The Sinhala stage – really a hybrid one, representing a melange of Parsi and rural folk drama – became Janus-faced: it valorised traditional values while subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of the past. Thus John de Silva’s Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, while celebrating the heroism and martyrdom of Madduma Bandara and Ehelepola Kumarihamy, made no mention of the defection of their patriarch to British territory, and transformed the king into a non-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist pretender.

Sinhala nationalism, the ideology of small time traders, merchants, and vast swathes of the urban working class, became rooted for a while in these plays. As Frantz Fanon has observed, “[t]he history of national liberation struggles shows that generally these struggles are preceded by an increase in expressions of culture.”

This proved to be true of the small time trading class espousing anti-imperialism: the seeds of their opposition could be found more at the Tower Hall than at the Legislative Council. Their mode of protest remained at best a cultural affair, though as the case of Anagarika Dharmapala (a scion of a family of merchants) showed, such protests could go beyond a cultural framework and question the very basis of colonial rule.

What then of the novel? We need to examine its evolution in the West. Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel, argued that as a mode of narrative the novel was rooted in the emergence of the bourgeoisie; it’s more than just symbolic, after all, that it established itself definitively in 1847 and 1848, a period of unending revolution throughout the continent.

Edward Said would take up this argument in Culture and Imperialism decades later. Regi Siriwardena, however, disagreed. In a largely negative review of Said’s book, he argued that inasmuch as the bourgeoisie contributed to the growth of the novel, it gained popularity at the same time in societies where the aristocracy still held sway, the most obvious example being 18th century France. Siriwardena fails, in my opinion, to make a distinction between the evolution and the popularisation of the novel; either way, there’s no denying the role of the bourgeoisie in the West in the growth of narrative fiction.

The development of the novel, as with the theatre, played out differently in countries like Sri Lanka. Under conditions of plantation colonialism, newspapers and periodicals came to be owned by a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and European businessmen on the other, though a rentier elite later took over: D. R. Wijewardene, for instance, bought the Dinamina in 1914 from a Sinhala scholar five years after it had been started.

Nine years before WIjewardene’s takeover, A. Simon de Silva had written Meena, reputedly the first Sinhalese novel; a tale of love and intrigue, it had little in common with the later endeavours of W. A. Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena. The latter, for their part, popularised fiction among the same crowd patronising urbanised Nurti productions, and went beyond the likes of John de Silva by appealing to a rural middle class as well.

How the pioneers of the theatre and the novel in 20th century Sri Lanka – Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe – diverged from these trends is the subject of much conjecture. In their contrasting attitudes to the culture that underpinned their art, we see the paradox at the heart of the renaissance of the 1950s: like all cultural revivals, it took off from the past, yet had to be anchored in the future. Both playwright and novelist understood this duality, but at the same time their approach to it contradicted one another’s.

On the one hand there was Sarachchandra, who saw the Sinhala village as split between two worlds: that of ritual and that of religion. The two, he noted, could never come together. Far from enriching the performing arts, he felt that Theravada Buddhism contributed to their stagnation, and valorised a Sanskritised culture: one sees this even in his characterisation of temple art as narrative rather than emotive.

Like Ananda Coomaraswamy quoting the Culavagga, Dasadhamma Sutta, and Visuddhi Magga in support of his contention that Buddhism ignored the arts, Sarachchandra would view the resuscitation of folk drama and the revival of Buddhism as two different goals. It is ironic that a playwright who went, in much of his plays, for Buddhist parables should reprove religious ideology this way, but it is clear that his vision of the cultural revival pitted him against those who sought in that ideology the wellsprings of the revival.

On the other hand, there was Wickramasinghe, who championed a lesser literary tradition which had laid emphasis on popular, emotional, anti-Brahmanical Buddhism. He debunked Coomaraswamy’s thesis, and like Walpola Rahula claimed that Buddhism encouraged even men of the cloth to engage in cultural pursuits. Making a distinction between amusement and genuine art, he acknowledged the role played by the Buddhist temple in the flowering of the latter. For him, the Sanskritised Sinhala that scholars like Sarachchandra defended in the wake of “Sinhala Only” meant nothing to the ordinary man; on that basis, he defended those who agitated for parity of status for Tamil, accusing the monks who held protests against S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s proposal for the reasonable use of it of having “[t]reated the common man’s spoken Sinhalese as a vulgar language.”

Thus Sarachchandra’s ideal was oriented fundamentally to a ritualistic past rooted in a Brahmanical, Sanskritised tradition. While dismissive of Nurti, he sought to improve on it by incorporating the Buddhist parable with folk drama. Wickramasinghe’s ideal, by contrast, was oriented to a religious past devoid of Brahmanical trappings. In the realm of theatre, until a decade or so later, Sarachchandra’s ideal held sway; in the realm of literature, again until a decade or so later, it was Wickramasinghe’s that did.

When Chittampalam Gardiner raved about Seda Sulang to Lester James Peries, who was much, much younger than either of these cultural giants, the cinema had resisted these ideals. If in their conception of culture Sarachchandra differed from Wickramasinghe, in their critique of bioscope they were more or less alike. They relegated it as an amusement art, a point Sarachchandra underscored when he described Gamperaliya, a film he very much liked, as an opa pathika or a sui generis objet d’art.

Offering a critique of this thesis, Tissa Abeysekara argued that the cinema in Sri Lanka, no doubt epitomised by Lester, underwent the same cultural transformation that the theatre and the novel did. More Christianised than Sarachchandra, and certainly less rooted in the past than him or Wickramasinghe, Peries, not unlike much of the “43 Group” of which his brother, Ivan, had been a founding member, resorted to the visual arts to compensate for his linguistic handicap: just as Ivan had painted, he would film. There could thus be nothing opa pathika about the work he was engaged in; it was rooted, as much as Sarachchandra’s plays and Wickramasinghe’s novels had been, in the cultural revival.

The cinema has been faulted, rightly, as the most Western of all arts; it still hasn’t been “Easternised”, not even by the looming figures of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray. In Sri Lanka as in Japan and India, it had to seek inspiration from two art forms rooted in the past. The purveyors of these art forms here both looked to the past, but their conception of it, though ostensibly similar, radically differed from one another. Gardiner may have preferred Seda Sulang to anything Peries could come up with, yet by the end of the decade and the beginning of the next, the revival that Sarachchandra and Wickramasinghe had unleashed would find its way to the cinema hall. To these two cultural giants, and to their contrasting attitudes to tradition, Peries thus owes more a considerable debt.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

‘You eat what you are’

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When I was growing up in army cantonments, meat was on our table every day. It was taken for granted that military men ate meat because they were “real” men. In my grandfather’s house all the women were vegetarian, but he had to have his meat at both meals and the vegetarian women cooked it for him. When I became vegetarian, I had to listen to any number of men yapping on about how they avoided “ghasphoos”. I’ve never heard this nonsense from a woman.

On a visit to Jaipur, I had lunch with Dr. Mehta, the ex-head of SEBI and founder of the Jaipur Foot movement. I drew back in horror when I dipped into the curry. It tasted like meat. My host explained the origins of the dish and why they had prepared it specially for me. Two centuries ago, a sage turned the women of the royal families of Rajasthan vegetarian. But since the men were adamant about hunting, fighting and eating meat, the women secretly created a recipe out of wheat and ghee which tasted exactly like meat. The only problem is that the preparation takes hours so it has now become very rare.

Food and gender have been, and continue to be, closely intertwined. It’s less ‘you are what you eat’ than ‘you eat what you are’. Women are expected to be compassionate and virtuous, so veganism and vegetarianism are seen as feminine. Men are defined as rough and tough, so eating meat is masculine.

Everyone knows that eating meat is bad for health and humanity, the environment, the economy and animals. The ongoing COVID pandemic is an extreme reminder of all of the above, and meat eating has definitely dipped. But rationally it should have ended. The trouble is that simply making an information-based appeal about the benefits of a vegetarian diet ignores the primary reason why men eat meat: It makes them feel like “real” men. And “real” men are entitled to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, and wherever they want. Damn the consequences.

The last vestige of prehistoric man as “hunter” is his consumption of meat. The man today may be a lazy, paunchy shopkeeper selling plastic toys, and the meat cheap, supermarket sanitized slabs, but in his own mind he is the ultimate male proving his masculinity by stabbing his fork into a fatty steak.

The idea is so ingrained that according to research by the University of Hawaii, men often eat more meat in situations where they feel their masculinity is under threat. Which is why for years, until I stopped it, live animals used to be dropped by plane to border areas of the army so that they could get fresh meat.

 So why is eating meat still seen as a symbol of manliness?

In her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams explores how the media has marketed meat as a sign of masculinity to boost sales. We’ve all seen the overtly sexualized commercials selling that idea.

In addition to clever marketing it has been the misleading medical theories emphasizing meat as the primary source of protein, which is linked to strength, which is seen as masculine.

There is also the misbelief that masculinity requires risk taking (dangerous driving, excessive drinking) hence the association between unhealthy eating and masculinity: if you’re a real man, you shouldn’t be so concerned about your health. Numerous studies have found that larger portions and unhealthy food are perceived as more masculine, while healthy food and smaller portions are considered more feminine.

There is also the class angle that, in the past, it was the rich or masters who ate meat which is prepared but not partaken by the slaves. In fact, the English bragged about how they were able to colonize India because their soldiers ate red meat unlike the native men.

What is it that deters men from turning vegetarian? Social anxiety. Paradoxically, these so-called “real men” are actually afraid to quit meat for fear of being dubbed feminine. In a Twitter poll directed at men, 45 percent of respondents reported their biggest barrier to leading a vegan diet was social stigma, the fear of being called ‘beta males with limited options in the outside world’, with ‘way low testosterone levels’, ‘x/y organisms who don’t eat meat, not men’, ‘pushovers, controlled by women, who have feminine characteristics’, people who ‘aren’t capable of hunting and gathering’ and ‘soyboy, low testosterone feminists’.

The good news is that there’s a growing new sensibility that strongly challenges these outdated stereotypes.

Most famously, the documentary The Game Changers follows elite special forces trainer James Wilks as he showcases the world’s top athletes in sports as rigorous as cross-country running, boxing, wrestling, football and Formula 1 racing, including former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom credit their health and performance to their vegan diets.

When asked about his relationship with masculinity and powerlifting after he adopted a vegan lifestyle,  Nick Squires, a champion powerlifter and vegan of five years said, “There’s so much in the way of traditional gender roles that I think cause men to be reluctant about veganism. Putting aside the misinformed conception that you need animal proteins to build muscle, there’s an idea that men need to be muscular, and to most people this is tied to the consumption of animal products.” He is living proof that it isn’t.  In fact, another study found that a plant-based diet leaves men feeling more satiated than a diet including meat and dairy, because they had increased levels of healthy bacteria in the gut.

With better education, is dawning a more authentic understanding of masculinity. A recent study found that men who had more education generally consumed less meat. Those subjects, who subscribed to new or more progressive ideas of masculinity, had a positive relation with less meat attachment, more willingness to reduce meat consumption, and a more positive perspective on vegetarians.

This is further evidenced by another paper, published in the journal Appetite, which examined the compelling link between meat, gender and class status. Part of the research involved offering participants a “beast burger” presented as either meat-based or vegetarian. The highest demand for the meat option came “from those who rated themselves lower in socioeconomic status.” Meat, to the extent that it’s associated with power, becomes “substitutable for the status they lack.” The lower you are on the totem pole, the more likely you are to cling to the old-fashioned symbols of masculinity – like meat.

Unraveling the strong cultural association between men and meat is critical to the prospects of global sustainability. So, come on out all you closet male vegans and vegetarians. The earth is even more threatened than your fragile male egos. Admit it: real men do eat “ghasphoos” and are lovin’ it.

 

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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