Excerpted from the memoirs of Chandra Wickramasinghe, Retd. Addl. Secy. to the President
I was a member of the Public Service Commission when President Chandirka Kumaratunga appointed me as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France in 2001. I was fortunate to have had as my predecessor Danesan Casie Chetty, a very senior career diplomat, who had organized the work in the Embassy meticulously, making things so much easier for me to step in and take over. He and his wife Shanti had refurbished and decorated the fine apartment which was in a prime residential area in Paris (which had been purchased by the Govt. of SL), most tastefully and elegantly.
Within months of my appointment, the Govt. entered into a Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE, brokered by the Norwegians. My major concern while serving as Ambassador was to work towards increasing the volume of our exports which were primarily tea, spices and garments; to promote tourism to SL and to do my utmost to counter the sustained propaganda blitz directed against us by the Tamil Diaspora in France. When I met President Chirac for the presentation of my credentials, I expressly told him of my plans to try and increase the volume of our major export items to France adding I would also endeavor to popularize Sri Lanka as a prime destination for French tourists.
He interjected to say that Sri Lanka being a beautiful country, it should not be difficult to make it an attractive destination for French tourists. Referring to the terrorist problem that was plaguing SL, I told him that the LTTE was actively supported by the Tamil Diaspora in Paris who collected and remitted substantial funding to the terrorists in SL to pursue their destructive activities and that if the French Intelligence Services could curb these illegal activities of LTTE sympathizers in Paris, it would help SL to combat the terrorist scourge .(President Chirac gave some instructions to one of his aides on this issue). He graciously agreed to do whatever possible to assist SL in the matters raised by me.
Arrangements were made thereafter by Nimal Karunatilleke, the Trade Attache of the Embassy, to liaise with the exporters of the major SL export products to France and facilitate their participation in a number of International Exhibitions and Trade Fairs that were held in Paris. On my visits to these Exhibitions and Trade Fairs subsequently, I found a good many SL exporters busily contracting trade deals with the French importers of our export items.
I also attended an International Tea Exhibition in Bordeaux called ‘The Road to Tea’, where I was able to interact closely with French tea importers. I was invited to tea by the Mayor of Bordeaux at his residence where to my surprise, I was served ‘Dimbula’ tea and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Mayor was himself a lover of ‘Dimbula’ tea. I must record here, the unstinted support I received from Nimal Karunatilleke of our Embassy in all matters pertaining to Trade between France and Sri Lanka and make mention the enthusiastic support I received from Manisha Gunasekera and Saroja Sirisena who were two senior career diplomats at the Embassy during my entire period there. Saroja Sirisena in particular, with her charm and winning ways, proved a veritable asset to me during election time to various international bodies. Come election time, she used to give Ambassadors a dainty peck on their cheek and they would come in droves and vote for SL! When the former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar asked me how SL managed to win certain crucial elections, I related Saroja’s technique (he knew Saroja well) and he laughed loud and long!
Soon after I assumed office, I discovered that the French Tea importers had formed themselves into a cartel comprising four major tea importers, of whom I was able to cultivate two of the more influential to help me to promote SL tea. This I did by inviting them for meetings and by hosting them to dinner at my residence etc. One of them, a lady told me that although Ceylon tea was by far the best in the world, our marketing was poor. She said we should promote our tea the way the French promoted their vintage wines with attractive labels giving information of the origins on the tea, its vintage, subtleties of it’s bouquet et al. She further said that Ceylon tea deserves to be similarly advertised in attractively designed packs stating that it is grown in the central highlands at an elevation of over 4,000 feet, with plucking done with the onset of the first flush of leaf. Having taken the cue from her, I emailed the Chairman/Tea Board at the time, Ronnie Weerakoon, conveying the information I had gathered from the French lady on how Ceylon tea could be attractively packaged and marketed.
Within days, Ronnie who had latched onto the concept, sent out circular instructions to all the tea exporters advising them on the above lines. I have no doubt that the tea producers who followed his instructions would have received a substantial boost to their tea exports in good time.
I also found that although the French are inveterate coffee drinkers, the upper classes were, strangely enough, aficionados of high grown good Ceylon tea. I used to occasionally entertain Members of the French Parliament to high tea in a room in the Parliament premises with the permission of the Speaker who I knew. The French MPs, curiously enough, had a partiality for our mutton cutlets , rolls and fish patties and in between sessions used to come in large numbers to partake of these snacks with the high point being fine Ceylon tea – Dimbula tea to be specific, served at the end.
Once I decided to have a little Kandyan dancing session performed by a Sinhalese boy and a girl living in Paris with drum accompaniment thrown in. The little drummer boy got a bit carried away and with the din reaching the Parliament Chamber where there was I think, a debate in progress on Corsica, the Sergeant at Arms sent a message to keep the noise levels low. I remember at one of these informal gatherings I addressed the French Members of Parliament who were present saying that although the French were traditionally coffee drinkers, it should not be forgotten that pristine Ceylon tea is like their wine, red in colour and that they were both healthy drinks. They had a good laugh while sipping our good high grown tea!
The French Perfumery Association
Our spices are much valued in France, with cinnamon occupying pride of place. SL cinnamon and lemon grass oil are in high demand by the French perfumery industry for their unique and distinctive quality and aroma. The French Perfumery Association is a powerful guild in France that is extremely quality conscious laying down and rigidly enforcing the highest quality standards in the manufacture of their world famous brands like Chanel etc. With their long and distinguished tradition of manufacturing quality perfumes, they were wont to pick the best spices, flowers and oils used in the perfume industry from across the globe with scrupulous care.
My relationship with the French Perfumery Association became so close that they made me a Life Member of the Association. I was able to open lines of communication with the Association and some of the leading cinnamon and lemon grass exporters of SL, some of whom even visited Paris and had fruitful discussions. In fact, my association with the FPA became so close, that they even created a special perfume called the ‘Spirit of Lanka’ and presented it to my wife at a formal ceremony arranged by them. This newly created perfume made of spices, oils and the essence of flowers exclusively from SL was a special, limited issue of 100 bottles which were distributed among the Ambassadors and other VIPs present at the ceremony. They even let me into what they said was a closely guarded secret – one of the perfume extracts that went into the manufacture of their world famous ‘Chanel’ brand came from the ‘Araliya’ flower which grew in SL. This SL Araliya flower they said, had a distinct and unique scent , not found in this genre of flower, anywhere else in the world.
I must record here, my appreciation of a friendly couple who were resident in France –Pierre and Ionie Silliere for making arrangements for me to visit cities and townships in Normandy to deliver talks on Sri Lanka with video presentations showing the scenic beauty and historical sights of Sri Lanka. Many people who attended these talks had only heard of Ceylon and it’s tea and were astounded by the breathtaking beauty of the island and the many places of historical and archaeological interest visitors could see. They just could not believe that we had enormous monuments (dagobas), the tallest being just five feet shorter than the tallest Egyptian Pyramid- Cheops. The Silliers told me later that many who had been present at the lecture /slide presentations were planning to visit Sri Lanka with their friends.
Despite the Ceasefire, the LTTE were still active in Paris
Despite the Ceasefire between the SL Govt. and the LTTE bringing about an uneasy calm and a tenuous cessation of hostilities, as the terms and conditions were heavily weighted in favour of the LTTE and decidedly unfavourable to the Govt. of SL , the LTTE in Paris had not let up on their propaganda activities. There was a particular area in Paris called Le Chappel which had virtually been commandeered by the Tamil Diaspora. Once I visited the area incognito on the pretext of purchasing Sri Lanka curry stuffs etc., which were available in the shops there with my driver shadowing me at a discreet distance. But despite all these precautions, one or two of the hard core LTTE sympathizers got suspicious, which I could see from their reactions in reaching for their cell phones and talking animatedly to whoever at the other end. This was enough of a warning for me to beat a hasty retreat.
Interacting with Ambassadors and important personages
It was also my view that an Ambassador representing a country should interact not only with other Ambassadors, but should also make the acquaintance of prominent personages in the host country while also mixing with the ordinary people to the extent possible. The French, with their long and illustrious tradition of suave and elegant diplomacy, are a people who treat Ambassadors with a lot of deference and respect. This is made abundantly clear when you are introduced to them as an Ambassador. Following tradition, French Ambassadors have remained a cultured and elegant lot. They are knowledgeable and conduct themselves with appropriate diplomatic finesse wherever they go. They would naturally expect the same standards of decorum and conduct from their foreign counterparts.
This does not mean that one should assume an unprepossessing hauteur, which would immediately be taken note of and often find reflection in certain cynical reactions. Being knowledgeable and convivial, at receptions and social gatherings is crucially important and would unfailingly elicit the correct responses from them. These were my perceptions which I am sure will be shared by many senior diplomats who have served particularly in Missions in the West.
I must say that I successfully made the acquaintance of academics, prominent public figures, former Ambassadors, leading businessmen dealing with our principal export products etc. by entertaining them at my residence at the many receptions my wife and I hosted. In my discussions with them, I was able to disabuse them of the misconceptions they may have had about SL, exposed as they were, to the relentless barrage of LTTE propaganda. Of course the former Foreign Minister par excellence, Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar had already done a lot of damage control by the brilliant speeches made by him at numerous international fora by convincingly assuaging the fears and suspicions of many countries in the West to the point of veering them round and making them go to the extent of banning the LTTE in those countries. He was ably assisted in this stupendous task by Rohan Perera who was the Legal Advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time.
Among the people with whom I struck up firm friendships, I can name Prof. Meyer of Sorbonne University and Bernard de Gaulle, nephew of the late President and President of the de Gaulle Foundation. They were particularly sympathetic towards SL and the unfortunate predicament the country was in. I was quite touched when Bernard de Gaulle presented me with the ‘de Gaulle Medal’, when I was about to relinquish duties as Ambassador. He said it was in appreciation of my efforts to strengthen Sri Lanka –France cordiality and friendship.
I feel I must further state here, that I was able to interact in this amicable and informal manner with French academics and other Frenchmen of stature, due to the broad education I had received in Sri Lanka in the English medium. English was indeed a pass word to knowledge to all those who were fortunate enough to study in that medium. It opened up to us the best in English literature as well as access to the better known books in Russian, French, Italian, German literature et al, in translation. In fact, other Ambassadors used to often express their surprise when I quoted extensively from
Shakespeare, Satre, Balzac, Goethe, Plato, Aristotle, Omar Kayyaam and the lot. This certainly was not an advantage that was peculiar to me, but was a distinct advantage enjoyed by the great many who had studied in the English medium and who thereby acquired the knowledge and the breadth of vision that came with wide reading.
These are by no means self-congratulatory statements by me, but are hard facts which powers that be, should take cognizance of in making appointments at the level of Heads of Missions to important countries in the larger interests of our country. I must re-iterate that these candid observations are being made having the best interests of Sri Lanka at heart. One cannot, of course, blame the younger generations who followed in our wake, for their lack of proficiency in the English language. They were the unfortunate victims of the woeful chicanery of self-serving politicians who deluded the masses with their hugely populist measures, sacrificing long term national interests for short term political expediency.
I daresay there are still certain areas where persons proficient only in Sinhala and Tamil languages in Sri Lanka, could work admirably in discharging the duties expected of them. But with the rapid advances made in Information and Communication Technology, people are increasingly realizing the value of English as a necessary tool for knowledge enhancement and for gaining access to certain fields of study which would be denied to those possessing proficiency exclusively in Sinhala and Tamil languages.
The four Presidents whom I served, I must say, tried their best to take certain remedial measures in this regard, but the magnitude of the problem was much too overwhelming for such corrective measures attempted by them to register any lasting impact. The present Govt. too is acutely aware of the enervating effects of the problem, reflected in the lowering of knowledge and competence levels across the board, and is doing its utmost to remedy the situation by having a Special English Unit under a competent Advisor in the Presidential Secretariat dedicated to the training of English teachers. But it is proving to be an uphill task even for this Special Unit, due to the paucity of competent teachers of English.
It is therefore necessary that the problem be addressed frontally with due resolve if the situation is to be prevented from deteriorating further. It is suggested that the authorities try selecting newly passed out graduates and putting them through a six months ‘total immersion’ course in the English language. These young graduates are intelligent and already equipped with learning skills which should enable them to acquire the required proficiency in the English language with ease within the stipulated six month intensive training period. This should, whilst providing gainful employment to the increasing numbers of graduates passing out annually from Universities, also enable the authorities to tackle the problem of improving English proficiency island wide in a pragmatic manner.
Accreditation to UNESCO as Ambassador
In addition to my duties as Ambassador to France, I also represented SL at UNESCO in Paris. I had to devote considerable time to UNESCO discussions where I was elected to Chair certain Committees. UNESCO has always been at the forefront of the UN Agencies in SL assisting the country substantially in the areas of Education development and in the cultural field. UNESCO is currently primarily concerned with encouraging developing countries who are its members, in the rather daunting task of meeting the Millennium Development Goals that have been laid down by the United Nations. During this time, Dr. Sarath Amunugama and Prof. Carlo Fonseka visited Paris in a delegation to attend a UNESCO conference on the theme -‘Towards achieving the Millennium Development targets’. I remember Dr. Amunugama, (who was a familiar figure in UNESCO circles) making a stirring speech on the subject which was rapturously received by the representative audience.
On the 50th Anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second, my wife and I received an invitation from Sir John Holmes, the British Ambassador, to attend the Commemoration Ceremony which was to be held at Notre Dame Cathedral. We were conducted to the seats reserved for Commonwealth Ambassadors in the front row, from where we were able to get an unobstructed view of the entire ceremony. The event was indeed a memorable one as the wondrous ‘ambience’ of Notre Dame Cathedral, lent a special grandeur and solemnity to the occasion.
Addressing the UN General Assembly on the subject of Ageing
I consider it a singular privilege and honour to have addressed the United Nations Second World Assembly on Ageing, held in Madrid Spain in April 2011. My address was on “Perspectives of the Ageing population in Sri Lanka”.
On my return to the island I was appointed Senior Advisor to the President. It was during this period that I worked in collaboration with my colleague SMSB Niyangoda, on nine Presidential Committees to study and make recommendations on numerous problems relating primarily to land matters. These recommendations made by the two of us received the approval of the President as well as the Cabinet of Ministers. I was also a member of the Presidential Commission on ‘Law and Order’,with Nihal Wadugodapitya former Justice of the Supreme Court who was Chairman and Frank de Silva former IGP. The Commission submitted a comprehensive report to the then President recommending sweeping changes to the entire Criminal Justice system which unfortunately did not find favour with the gentlemen occupying the highest echelons of the Judiciary at the time for reasons best known to them.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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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