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By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum

Preparations to Hand Over

Towards the end of 1978, my employer, Walkers Tours/John Keells Holdings Group confirmed that I would be promoted to the Manager of their Hotel Swanee, Moragalla, Beruwala on February 1, 1979. They further confirmed that as soon as I moved to Hotel Swanee (which was a short drive from Hotel Ceysands), I would continue to manage the Food and Beverage operations and kitchens of Ceysands until the tourist season ended around early April, 1979.

I was happy to do both jobs for a short period of time. However, I was hopeful that my successor, particularly a new Executive Chef, would be appointed for Ceysands sooner than later. I was keen to do a professional hand over and help with an orientation for my successor.

During my last couple of months at Ceysands I focused mainly on training and developing the kitchen, restaurant and bar teams. For the 1978/1979 tourist season, the hotel needed around 12 new food and beverage servers. I recruited 24 young persons without any experience in the hotel industry mainly from nearby towns and villages. I used the current employees to spread the word around to their friends that Ceysands was a great employer. They were recruited as temporary trainees for a period of one month. They were paid minimum wages and provided with meals. All that was required of them was to attend the practical training that I conducted with the restaurant supervisors as my co-trainers.

On the first day, the trainees were informed that there would be practical tests held during the last week of their training period and only the top 12 trainees would be offered jobs. That competitive incentive made the initiative extremely successful. Basic English, German and French terms that were used in hotels were also included as a part of the curriculum. We arranged for continuous on the job training to the successful 12 trainees.

The most effective elements in this training and development program were the opportunities we provided for the new trainees to shadow more experienced servers. Learning through peers was powerful as long as the peers had learned the right skills and had some on the job training skills. To my great delight, some of the new trainees progressed well in the hotel industry. They developed quickly and became operational supervisors and managers within a few years. In the hospitality industry, employees with the right attitude and the basic skills training could progress rapidly without any formal certifications.

Preparations to Take Over

Well before starting the new job I focused on getting a better understanding of the culture, ownership, structure, concept, strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities of Hotel Swanee. When I was a student of the Ceylon Hotel School four and half years ago in 1974, I was actually present at the opening ceremony of Hotel Swanee. It was an advantage that I knew the colleague who took over the management of the hotel on behalf of Walkers Tours in 1975, Jayantha Silva and the outgoing manager, Ratana Lawrence.

Hotel Swanee wasn’t a well-planned and developed hotel. However, when Walkers Tours took over the hotel, they wisely invested in major upgrades for the hotel soon after the opening. They hired respected professionals such as Major Bevis Bawa, arguably the best landscape architect of Sri Lanka, to upgrade and maintain the landscaping. As the first hotel to be managed by Walkers Tours/JKH, it was also an important learning journey for the group who eventually became the largest hotel operator in Sri Lanka. At the age of 25, I was proud to be identified as the new Manager. I was determined to raise the hotel’s standards, reputation and increase profits to a new level.

The majority of the rooms of Hotel Swanee were on the ground floor, except for ten rooms that were on the second floor of a new wing completed just before I was transferred. The open concept with a large seafront garden in the middle of the room wings and the front garden were beautiful. The key challenge was that the hotel was right in the middle of a small but a notorious village called Moragalla. The managers before me had a series of major problems with a few toughs from the village.

Prior to leaving for my new job at Hotel Swanee, Captain D. A. Wickramasinghe (Wicks), the General Manager of Hotel Ceysands gave me some useful advice. I felt that he did so not only as my previous boss, but also as my intended father-in-law. I was treated like the son he never had. He even started calling me by my nickname, given to me by his teenage daughter. “Chandi, you have done wonders at Ceysands, but one area you must improve in is public speaking and public relations (PR). Try to develop these skills to build up your confidence.”

I took that advice very seriously and made a big effort to improve my public speaking, PR and understanding of marketing. In later years, I became a graduate of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) in the UK, read for an MPhil/PhD in International Hotel Marketing at the University of Surrey, UK, and then became a university professor and a popular keynote speaker. Those made Captain Wicks very proud. He used to say jokingly, “Chandi learnt all this PR from me!” with a big smile. Captain Wicks was a good man.

Understanding a Violent Culture

I learnt more about the Moragalla village culture and its high crime rate from my peer, the new Assistant Manager of Hotel Ceysands, Sanath Kumarasinghe. He had previously worked as the Assistant Manager of one of the Aitken Spence hotels, Pearl Beach, which adjoined Hotel Swanee. Sanath and the manager of that hotel, veteran hotelier Stylo Aha, were exposed to some unpleasant incidents caused by the village thugs. I introduced myself to Stylo and sought his advice.

Morogalla and the rest of Beruwala area had a strange relationship with hotels since the early 1970s. There were a dozen competing local thugs who claimed one hotel per thug as territory. It was like territories controlled by the five Mafia families in New York during the heyday of organized crime. For example, Rathu Aiyya was the thug in charge of Palm Gardens Hotel, the area of Confifi Hotel was controlled by Rathu Peter and Nimal was the thug in charge of the area of Hotel Neptune. Basically, these thugs believed that the management, employees, security guards and suppliers were under obligation to show them respect, do favours and sometimes pay protection money.

Other thugs Abey, Goulding alias King and Newton controlled sections of the beach. They had a system to book the tourists as they walk towards the beach. It was done in a very organized manner. Once one beach boy booked a tourist no other beach boy could approach that tourist. Beach boys paid a percentage of their earnings to the thugs as protection money. Gradually as more hotels were built in Beruwala area the number of beach boys neared 1,000. This beach boy “tout menace” was a major problem for tourism in Sri Lanka.

The toughest thug, Solomon Mudalali was in charge of the area surrounding Hotel Swanee and Solomon’s elder son, Shantha, an army deserter, was like the Mafia underboss. I had heard that Solomon and Shantha had some major conflicts with the previous manager of Hotel Swane resulting in Solomon, Shantha and their tourist van to be prohibited from entering Hotel Swanee property. They were targeting attacking the Manager if and when he stepped outside the hotel gate.

These thugs controlled the areas where the hotels were built and the access to the hotels from Galle Road. Generally, they were not that violent during daytime, unless someone challenged their authority or disrespected them. Evenings were a different story, as hotels generally prohibited the locals access to hotel bars after sunset. Some of these thugs in the evenings acted like lions. Their Dutch courage resulted from consuming kassipu locally distilled under the protection of the thugs.

Over the years some thugs were eliminated by rival gangs and new leaders emerged. In later years, a new generation of leaders bearing some “funny” nicknames such as Kakka, Raththaran, Ibba, Sudu malli, and Mutgumuni were crowned as the new territorial bosses. Some who were able to survive the rivalry and sustain their power for a long period of time and even became rich businessmen and politicians.

I was happy to note that there was an up-and-coming thug aiming to take control of the Hotel Swanee area. His nickname was Milk Board Mudalai as he operated a tourist taxi from a nearby milk board outlet. He had the reputation of being unpredictable when angry. He was a rival to Solomon’s authority. They were both scared of each other. I was thinking of the good old strategy that worked well for the colonial invaders, “divide and rule!”

When Captain Wicks heard of my creative ideas of dealing with the village problems in my new workplace and residence, he wasn’t happy. Just before I left Hotel Ceysands on February 1, 1979, he gave me one more piece of advice. “Chandi, in dealing with these thugs, show that you are tough, but never practice your toughness. For heaven’s sake, no Judo fight challenges! They will shoot and kill you.” I detected the nervousness in his voice. I smiled but made a mental note to take his advice seriously.

Action on My First Day

Owing to threats and challenges from Solomon, my predecessor had already left the hotel discreetly. Therefore, one of the senior Directors of Walkers Tours, Mr. Norman Impett, accompanied me to Hotel Swanee. After showing me to my office and the manager’s apartment by the swimming pool and seaside, he introduced me to the management team of five and the manager’s personal secretary.

He then said, “Chandana, take care. This is a tough hotel to manage, but I think that you will do well here. All the best!” He hurried away and I was left in charge. I was thinking of what action I should focus on first on my first day. I decided to take the bull by the horns in dealing with the main problem of the hotel.

I called Gamini Soyza, the Restaurant & Bar Manager to my office. Based on my earlier research, I knew that Gamini was a nephew of the medical doctor turned businessman and politician, Dr. Neville Fernando, who had built the hotel. Having worked at the hotel from its inception, Gamini knew the area well. “Do you know where Solomon Silva lives?” I asked Gamini. When he nervously said that he did, I told him, “Please go tell him that the new hotel manager would like to have a chat with him as soon as possible, ideally this morning”. Within 10 minutes Solomon showed up at my office with a loud bang on the door.

I welcomed him in Sinhala, “Āyubūvan Mudalali, thank you for coming to see me at such short notice. Please take a seat”. I pointed to a chair in front of my desk and closed the door. Instead of sitting behind my desk, I sat next to Solomon. Then there was a short period of silence while we looked at each other trying to get the hang of each other as we had never met before. Solomon was about twice my age and I guessed that he was around 50. He was dressed in a white shirt and a white sarong. He had a slight stammer and was curious about my intentions.

I told him that I knew of the past conflicts he had with my predecessors, but indicated that I wished to have a good rapport with important leaders of the village like him. I encouraged him to talk about his family and business interests. Within 30 minutes I learnt a lot about Solomon. His late father had been a well to do person owning a few fishing boats and a toddy tapping business. Due to a drinking and gambling addiction, his father had sold some of his seafront land at a low price to the developer of Hotel Swanee.

“You mean, this land would have been yours?” I inquired. He said, “Yes” and became a little emotional. He explained how he felt deeply insulted when he, the son of the previous owner of the property, and his van were barred from entering the land now owned and developed by rich outsiders. “I hated it when my fellow villagers laughed at me behind my back. Respect is very important to me” he confessed.

A Negotiated Settlement

When I asked Solomon what is his main business was, he said, “Tourism.” He told me that he made a living mainly by arranging tours around Sri Lanka for the guests of Hotel Swanee. Then I asked him to bring his tour van and show it to me. It was a reconditioned Toyota HiAce, but kept clean and tidy. At the end of our discussion, I gave him permission to park his van in the car park inside the hotel premises.

I called the hotel Maintenance Engineer who looked baffled and uncomfortable, when I instructed him to immediately get a prominent sign board painted and have it hung near the front office. It displayed the registration number of the van and confirmed that “Mr. K. Solomon Silva was the owner and driver of the vehicle. It was authorized by the Management of Hotel Swanee for tours of our guests.”

With that single gesture, Solomon became my biggest fan in Moragalla. He was very happy that the new manager had shown him respect and helped his reputation and business, all in one day. At that point I told him, “Solomon Mudalai, this is not free. You need to pay the hotel a monthly fee.” He looked somewhat surprised. I wanted to signal that the arrangement was not for protection’s sake but a business deal. We negotiated immediately and agreed on a reasonable fee. I then called the hotel’s Chief Accountant and asked him to draw up a contract and ensure that the money was collected on the first of each month.

After Solomon and I signed the contract, I told him that now he needed to do me a favour. I sought his help in getting the locals to leave the bars by 7:00 pm every day. We agreed and during my term as the Manager of Hotel Swanee, all villagers left the bar and hotel premises obediently and promptly on or before 7:00 pm, with one exception. Solomon usually overstayed by about 30 minutes to show all the other villagers that he was special. I turned a blind eye to that. I clearly understood his action and decided “not to sweat over the small stuff.”

Before Solomon left, I took a quick walk with him through the hotel garden and walked on the beach. Hotel employees as well as the beach boys/touts were surprised to see us together. After that we shook hands and agreed to keep in touch if the hotel ever had any village problems. My success on day one built up my confidence.

Getting Ready for the Next Steps…

Often newly promoted unit managers in any business tend to learn from previous best practices and follow the norms. Going with the flow is the safest and easiest. In my case I decided to be different instead of copying others. I needed a free hand to build an innovative management team aligned with my vision.

The next step was to focus on preparing for my first-ever public speech. I fixed a day to address the 100-member employee team within my first week at Hotel Swanee. Before that I got to get to know the five managers and senior supervisors in one-to-one meetings. I also wanted to meet the union leaders, West German tour leaders, all the repeat and long stay guests. More fun next week…

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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].

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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.

Peace memorial

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.

Last letter

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.


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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

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