Towards fuel-efficient fishing for food and nutritional security
by Prof. Oscar Amarasinghe
Chancellor / Ocean University of Sri Lanka
President / Sri Lanka Forum or Small-Scale Fisheries (SLFSSF)
The present economic crisis, and the associated energy crisis, has mightily affected the fisheries sector, reducing the number of boats at sea, dwindling market supply, soaring fish prices, all affecting food and nutritional security of the people in Sri Lanka. Being a highly fuel-dependent sector, there is a pressing need for the sector to find means of economising on fuel and continue to provide the most important animal protein to the people-the Fish. Yet, the tale of woe of fishers is that they have neither the physical nor economic access to fuel. Time has come to reexamine ways and means of improving the fuel use efficiency of fishing vessels to meet the escalating food crisis which has already hit the people with a monstrous force.
Fishing is among the most energy-intensive food production methods globally, and the world’s fishing fleet consumes about 1.2% of the total global fuel consumption, which is equal to 0.67 liters of fuel for each Kg of live fish and shellfish landed. In dealing with the issue of fuel efficiency in fisheries, it is imperative to understand how energy is expended in a fishing vessel and what means are available to minimize energy use without any fall in the efficiency of productive operations and incomes. It may also be necessary to understand how energy use can be influenced by the operator, boat-builder or mechanic, etc. Apart from improving the fuel use efficiency, various parties have been trying out the potential for using alternative sources of energy such as solar energy and wind energy. Yet, information on various issues related to the use of solar energy, use of sail on motorised fishing boats, the diverse benefits and costs associated with such innovations, etc., are quite scanty.
Giving due consideration to the significance and urgency of the above issues, the SLFSSF (Sri Lanka Forum for Small Scale Fisheries) organized an Interactive Platform on “Improving the energy use efficiency in fisheries” on the 17th of June. This platform brought together representatives of the Department of Fisheries, Boat yards, companies producing solar power, marine engineers (consultants), civil society organisations, fishing leaders, academics and researchers of the SLFSSF, etc., who deliberated on their knowledge and experience on various aspects of energy use in fishing crafts and proposed certain recommendations by common consent. The aim of this article is to bring to the attention of the fisheries authoritie, and other relevant parties, the results of these deliberations, which have very important implications for immediate, short term and medium-term measures that could be adopted to improve the fuel use efficiency in fishing vessels.
It was disclosed that only about a third of the energy generated in a fishing vessel is expended to turn the propeller, while the rest is used to overcome resistance offered by a diversity of factors: 27 percent to overcome wave resistance; 18 percent to overcome skin friction; 17 percent to overcome resistance from the wake and propeller wash against the hull; and three percent to overcome air resistance. This information has already been published by the FAO more than 20 years ago, although they have evaded the attention of fisheries authorities in this country. In overcoming resistance offered by waves, hull fouling, wake and propeller wash, etc. ,a number of strategies were proposed to be adopted, which included, slowing down (reduced speeds), proper hull designs, regular engine and hull maintenance, capacity building of operators, etc.
Speed was one factor which was discussed in detail. Generally, fishers like high speeds and try to reach fishing grounds within the shortest time possible which will allow them to return with the catch early. Thus engines are often run to maximum speeds. It was revealed during deliberations that fuel requirement for increase in speed increases exponentially. To double the speed, one needs more than double the amount of fuel. Thus a reduction of the speed appears to be an effective means of increasing fuel use efficiency. It has been estimated that 10-20 reduction in the speed could result in 35-61 percent savings on fuel. The FAO has published optimum speed recommendations for fishing vessels by the size of the vessel, and they were accepted as applicable to fishing vessels used in the country at present. For example, for boats with a waterline length of 13 meters, the recommended speeds are 8.5 and 7.1, knots, respectively for long thin vessels and short fat vessels. The same for boats with a 15 m water line are 9.1 and 7.7 knots, respectively. Of course, reduced speeds will result in longer fishing trips, short periods of shore leave and/or lesser number of trips annually. The use of fish finding devices, information from NARA to locate fish resources and reach fishing grounds early, etc., are important strategies to surmount loss of fishing time and to reduce the amount of fuel required to travel one nautical mile. Fuel wastage could also be minimized by reducing the number of zero catch days which is quite common in fisheries, often emerging from resource and weather uncertainties. In this regard, too, information on fishing grounds and weather would be of great value. Such information show where and what opportunities exist to improve energy use efficiency.
Another short term measure would be to minimize energy expended to cope with hull fouling. There is accumulation of marine growth on the boat hull, resulting in reduced speed. It was revealed that about 18 – 20 percent of the energy is expended to counteract hull fouling. The most appropriate measure to reduce resistance offered by hull fouling is to clean the hull below the water line during servicing, at regular intervals. It was also noted that by using a good anti-foul paint, which could last three year or longer, would be beneficial, economically, even if the investment cost could be high.
A complain that is often heard is that there is too much of fishing pressure in Sri Lanka’s waters, especially in inshore waters: too many crafts and too many fishers. In such a context, the higher the fishing pressure, the higher would be the fuel consumption and degradation of resources, and the lesser would be the income per fisher. Therefore, there is an urgent need to stop building small crafts such as fiber glass boats with outboard engine. One way to do this is to put an end to the process of registration of such crafts.
Recognising the fact that search for resource areas is a huge cost, needing the multiday boat crews to carry 12-14,000 liters of diesel on board, improvement of fish finding information, provided by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, by strengthening the relevant process, would be of utmost importance in reducing search costs. Moreover, low-cost fish detection systems available in the world, could be tried out locally to find out their applicability and adoptability. If this is found to be successful, fuel savings from this measure would be colossal.
Quite often, due to the high cost of cleaning boat hulls below water line, boat owners ignore anti-fouling measures. Facilities for treating hull fouling, such as cranes and hoists, could be installed at harbours and they can be offered to fishers at concessionary rates.
Another short term measure could be the training and capacity building of boat crew on fuel efficient fishing and maintenance of engine and hull. The Department of Fisheries could organise awareness building workshops for boat owners and crews, with the participation of other experts, on the subject of energy use efficiency in boats. It was also stated that potential fuel savings gained from running at recommended speeds (reduced speeds) could be worked out and shown to the fishers.
Use of wind energy to charge batteries was also discussed. It was shown that this technology is already in use in some multiday boats, revealing the potential of adopting this technology with suitable modifications. Thus, installation of devices that use wind energy was recommended, which was also shown to be a good safety measure against the risk of engine failure which will make the GPS non-functional.
Medium and long term measures
An array of medium term measures were proposed, which included, solar panels for boats, sail assisted propulsion, engine and hull maintenance and two-day fishing trips for fiber glass boats with outboard motor.
The potential for using solar panels on fishing boats was discussed in detail. Experts, on the production and installation of solar panel systems, showed that the area required to provide a fishing boat with the requisite energy was too large, compared to the surface available for solar panel installation on boats. This was true for both small and large fishing boats in use. Moreover, the decks of multiday boats are tightly packed with extra fuel barrels, fishing gear, various sticks and poles and space is hardly available to accommodate installation of solar panels. However, there might exist some possibility of using a hybrid system (solar + fuel) in boats, but this needs to be researched.
Sail- assisted propulsion could also be a possibility. Of course, the use of sail as auxiliary propulsion, could result in very large fuel savings (up to 80 percent with small vessels on longer journeys) but the applicability of sail to motorized fishing is, however by no means universally popular. Sri Lanka too does not possess much experience in using sail-assisted propulsion in motor boats, although there is some scanty evidence of using such hybrid systems. Undoubtedly, sails fixed on motorised crafts, with inboard or outboard motor, are likely to tamper with fishing operations on the deck, while requiring additional ballast for balancing of the crafts. This warrants further research on this technology. Very specific circumstances are required for this to be a viable technology, for motorised fishing crafts in the country, in terms of weather conditions, the design of the fishing vessel as well as crew attitude and knowledge. Sailing puts additional requirements on the vessel, with respect to stability and deck layout, and sails are usually only a viable technology for use on vessels that have been specifically designed for sailing. Smaller fishing vessels may require the addition of further ballast or an external ballast keel (a weighted horizontal keel under the hull) to improve both stability and sailing performance across or towards the wind. What possibility exists in fixing sails on small FRP boats or offshore crafts is not known.
The deliberations further focused on the possibility of expanding the size and operating distance of the fleet of small fiberglass boats with outboard motors, which account for 40 percent of the fishing fleet or 24,000 crafts, operating up to a maximum distance of 24 nautical miles (up to the edge of the contiguous zone), engaged in one-day fishing trips. Following requests often made by small scale fishers and the need to improve the fuel use efficiency of fishing crafts, the possibility of modifying this craft by introducing a fish hold for icing of the catch and providing moderate accommodation facilities for crew, to allow for a two-day fishing trip was also discussed. The boat yards recognized the existence of this possibility but were of the view that further research on boat designs, and applicability and adoptability of this technology was required with the participation of technical and fisheries experts and fishing communities.
At a previous meeting on a similar subject, fuel inefficiencies arising from having about 5,000 multiday crafts with individual ownership was also noted. It was disclosed that such an organizational structure could change over to a cluster-based fleet, each cluster having its ‘mother ship’ to fish while the remaining boats could transfer the catch to the shore, minimising fuel costs to a great extent.
Expert panels and research
One of the momentous turns at deliberations was the emphasis laid on the need for an assemblage of technical experts, including engineers from boat yards, scientists (academics, researchers, consultants) fisher leaders, etc,. to guide technological change. This was especially important to design small boats with facilities to engage in two-day fishing trips, use of solar panels to assist using hybrid type of energy systems, sail assisted propulsion, use of wind power to charge batteries, etc. It was recognised that, endowed with a large array of educated and qualified experts, technicians, etc., what is required is for the Department of Fisheries to take the initiative in organizing such platforms and use them gainfully towards achieving the above goals.
Paradigm shift towards change
It is a pity that, endowed with a large conglomerate of intelligentsia and an array of experts in a large diversity of technical disciplines, the fisheries authorities still appear to work, confining themselves to their own little shells. Even with hesitation, it needs to be reminded that, by joining hand with others you will know what you know and what you don’t know, which is considered the true knowledge. It is said that, knowledge is power and knowledge shared is power squared. Therefore, it is strongly advised that the Department of Fisheries forms a Technical Expert Team, consisting of experts on marine engineering, boat design (architecture) and construction, solar power producing and system installation, sail assisted propulsion, and also of fishing leaders and boat owners, all of whom could guide them in boat designs and construction, fuel usage, minimizing energy requirements, search for alternative energy sources, etc.
As the theoretical physicist, David Bohm stated, it is the ability to perceive and think differently that will take us a long way rather than the knowledge gained.
Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole
By Gwynne Dyer
I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.
The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.
The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.
Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.
Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.
The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.
Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.
Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].
Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances
The river we step in is not the river we stand on
By B Nimal Veerasingham
Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.
This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.
US Foreign Policy
The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.
Fr Eugene Herbert memorial
Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.
Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.
Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.
Excellence in Basketball
Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.
The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.
Reaching the stars
I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.
The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.
Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.
In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.
‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.
The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.
Breaking down societal imbalances
El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.
The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.
This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.
Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs
By Uditha Devapriya
Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.
In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.
In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.
There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.
Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.
Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.
In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.
Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.
Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.
If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.
Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.
Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.
In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.
Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.
He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.
Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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