By Uditha Devapriya
I’d like to begin this tribute with a memory. I wasn’t always an avid reader of newspapers. My father, on the other hand, was. Somewhere in middle school, in Grade Eight I believe, I began picking them up once he had done with them, poring over the columns.
My eyes rested on certain topics more than others. They’d invariably centre on the war. How were we fighting the enemy? How was that enemy fighting back? What new conspiracies had been unearthed? Who had unearthed them? Who was next on the enemy’s kill list? The peace process, dead as a dodo long before it died, had floundered. Officially, we were back at war. As intriguing as that would have been, it was also disconcerting.
Even more disconcerting was the ambivalent stand of the English language press on the war. Not that the editorials called for a cessation of hostilities, much less a return to the peace process. But beneath the fine print, one could discern an almost confused pacifism, an almost abstruse neutralism.
This conformed to the same pattern: an acknowledgement of the heroism of the armed forces followed by a critique of government policy. Ultimately it all boiled down to, not whether the government was conducting the war properly, but whether the war had to be conducted at all. Even there the editors remained indecisive: they concluded that the LTTE had to be defeated, yet refused to endorse the war being waged to achieve that end.
None of that felt frustrating, of course. Cut off from the fears of a war next door, one could only revel in the delicatessen of wartime journalism. Yet it was clear the scales tilted to a side: very few writing in English advocated a military solution to the world’s longest running ongoing ethnic conflict. What explained their hesitation?
I didn’t bother finding out, but given the preponderance of those who wrote against the war, I was transfixed by those who wrote in support of it. Of them, one in particular caught my attention. Seven years later I met him: a coincidence I ponder over even now.
I have known Malinda Seneviratne in his many forms: writer, poet, translator, activist, editor, citizen, father, husband, and teacher. Yet I can’t recall why I wanted to meet him. Was it the eloquent prose, sharp as nails even at its most polemical? The equally eloquent poetry, haiku-like and evocative of both Neruda and Galeano? Or the activism, unabashedly nationalist in a country whose Westernised intelligentsia abhors such “tribalist” sentiments?
Malinda’s political education began with the Left, first with his father Gamini, then with a batch-mate of his father, Nanda Wickramasinghe (attached to the Revolutionary Communist League at the University of Peradeniya), and finally with Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygunasekera (until the latter’s defection to the UNP). The Ratawesi Peramuna, precursor to the Sihala Urumaya, came later.
His activism in (and for) the Ratawesi Peramuna followed his return from Harvard (where he completed his Bachelor’s in Sociology) in 1991. It was while in this group that he deepened his friendship with two of his biggest influences, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thera. It was also his activities there that landed him in trouble; the police swooped on a meeting organised in 1992 at Wadduwa, following an exhibition of LTTE, IPKF, and JVP human rights abuses held in Matara, was intercepted by the police, who proceeded to arrest 15 members, including Ranawaka, Rathana Thera, and Malinda.
Held for three weeks, and tortured on the orders of a drunken OIC, they filed a fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court. Upholding their case, the Court, which acknowledged that the RP did not constitute a threat to national security and did not warrant the treatment meted out to its members, ordered the State to pay Rs 5,000 for each applicant. The Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota later archived the case, “Channa Pieris and Others v. Attorney General and Others.” In the meantime, the Ratawesi Peramuna turned into Janatha Mithuro, a green socialist/nationalist outfit preaching the gospel of alternative development paradigms (what Ranakawa called the “third chapter of development”).
Malinda ended his political associations once he started out on his journalistic (and writing) career in the 2000s. By then he had gone through Janatha Mithuro, Sihala Urumaya, and the National Movement Against Terrorism (2006-7). These are, no doubt, colourful affiliations, befitting a colourful memoir. Yet, despite his activism, it’s hard to put a finger on his convictions: he just can’t be categorised in the same way his opponents, or for that matter his allies, can.
On the ‘national Question’, on the 13th Amendment, on our relations with India, indeed on global politics, he projects a provocative perspective. Thus, for instance, while he supported the Sihala Urumaya’s and Hela Urumaya’s parliamentary aspirations, he critiqued the latter’s decision to field Buddhist monks at elections. Even so, however, he does not oppose the entry of monks on a matter of unyielding principle: for him, they constitute a group having as much a right to parliamentary representation as any other.
In any case, whatever those convictions, the more I read him in my middle school years, the curiouser I got: then as now, what defines Malinda is the contrast, one could say paradox, between his ideological predilections and his poetic instincts. The two do get together, more often than you’d think, in his anthologies (just sample his poems on Geneva). And yet there’s a disjuncture between them. Perhaps this was what made me want to visit him.
Our first meeting went by innocuously enough. Lasting a little more than an hour, it ended on the promise of a second meeting, which transpired a month later – to be followed by another, and then another. The rapport between us grew quickly; by the time of the third meeting, he was asking me to come in and write to the paper he supervised as editor.
I hesitated at first. With characteristic flippancy, though, he shrugged my concerns aside: “When you work for me,” he promised, “you will write on everything.” I thus gave in: as with all 21-year-olds new to the trade, I wanted to write and be read in print. A few months later, in fulfilment of a promise he made before the January 2015 election, I was in.
Malinda taught several lessons as a writer, journalist, and senior. First and foremost among them was the line between writing news and writing features. For no matter what people may say, a good writer does not necessarily make for a good reporter. Pen and paper in hand, you need to record whatever it is that you’re covering is putting out to the public. Cutting through a morass of irrelevant anecdotes, you need to distil what you heard. And of course, you need to separate facts from comment: you can’t editorialise.
This proved to be a difficult exercise for me, far more difficult than the light pieces I ended up submitting to the features section. Suffice it to say, then, that insofar as Malinda taught me anything about journalism, it was that I could never aspire to be a journalist.
The second lesson was simpler: no matter how good (or bad) you may be as a journalist, if your editor doesn’t encourage you, your ink will dry. This applies to other professions also: where would Thomas Wolfe be, for instance, without Max Perkins?
Malinda, of course, was not my first editor. Yet he and I shared interests which immediately bridged the gap between him and me. In the end, I wound up writing on topics I had always wanted to talk about. That could not have been possible without him.
The third lesson, the most important one, was that writing to newspapers is never going to be a stable profession, especially not here. I learnt this lesson the hard way: five months after I got in, his paper closed down. Petrified for days, wondering whether I would ever be able to write again, I eventually came to realise that, as shocking an experience as it may have been to me, for Malinda it did not mean much: he’d been pole-vaulting from one paper to another from the day he left active politics for journalism.
His experience there became my guide: one evening, after the storm clouds of his termination had died down, he told me bluntly, “In this trade, if you’re good enough, you’ll never be out of tenure.” I disputed him. Six years later, having contributed to every paper he wrote to and is writing to, I realise I was wrong to do so.
Having read him and met him, I thus ended up learning under Malinda: a trajectory I am yet to go through a second time with anyone else in his line of work. I can’t really assess him, or do him justice, except maybe to note that, for the little or the lot he taught, he never demanded a payback.
Perhaps that’s just as well. For without taking away anything from what he did, I was hardly the only person he supported this way. Many others, most of them as young as I, all of them endowed with a superior penmanship, also found their way to the pages of the papers he oversaw. I know for a fact that he always insisted on compensating them – in full.
The West Indian international relations scholar Herb Addo once wrote that Andre Gunder Frank, from whom he learnt about the political economy of underdevelopment, “taught me nothing.” For his contemporaries, Addo argued, Frank “taught from a distance”, yet let his students develop as individual, independent intellectuals, in their own right.
By no means do I suggest that Malinda taught me nothing, or that he did so from a distance. But reflecting on how he taught all that one needed to know, and how he dismisses it today as though was just letting me evolve on my own, I wonder: was he, as Frank had been to Addo, a teacher in the Gibran vein, leading me to the threshold of my mind?
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Antarabhava and Rebirth
By Dr Upul
“As far as I am concerned, there is more than enough wisdom in Buddhism, even if I put the rebirth hypothesis on hold.” This was one of the personal comments received following my article “Is there an Antarabhava: Missing link in rebirth?” (The Island, 26 May) and was from a theoretical physicist with a special interest in quantum theory. Naturally, he is seeking a mechanistic explanation for the process of rebirth and before coming to this conclusion, he argued the case as follows:
“Assume that there is some mental structure which contains memory and life information in its structural features. We don’t know what it is made of. It is obviously not hard matter. Let us say it is some form of energy – e.g., electromagnetic energy – but it could be some unknown form of energy- some type of ‘dark energy’. That is, the mental structure which is assumed to persist after death of an individual is not a random structure (maximum entropy), but has features corresponding to information (information means decrease of entropy) about the person who ‘died’. Now, all things that physics has observed in the universe, be it black holes, matter, dark matter, stars, radiation, electromagnetic waves, gravitational energy, etc., all obey the second law of thermodynamics. Accordingly, order spontaneously changes into disorder: Hot bodies spontaneously cool, bringing everything to a common low temperature: Pure phases become mixed and ‘dirty’: Smooth flowing rivers develop eddies and turbulence: Even a rock inscription undergoes weathering and erosion: Information becomes disinformation, etc.”
“You can keep things ordered, or retain information safely by constantly renewing them, etc., but all this costs energy. A living being strives to maintain a persisting cellular and neural structure during its lifetime and the organism does this by using the energy supplied by the food to rebuild the cells and neurons that normal decay. But even this has a limit. Death occurs when the decay processes exceed the rapidity of the rebuilding processes (the balance between anabolic and catabolic processes is lost). After that, let us say this “persisting mental structure” escapes the body and becomes the “antarabhava” object but the information encoded in the “antarabhava” structure will begin to rapidly become disordered due to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The longer it has to stay (e.g., years), the more decayed and disorganized it becomes. This also happens to a computer memory if the memory chips (magnetic records) are left alone, and not re-energized each time you start up your computer. As I see no source of energy to maintain this “antarabhava” structure, I expect it to decay as fast, or even faster than the more solid neural structures of the brain that would have decayed once the oxygen and ATP stop arriving into the brain.”
With my limited knowledge of physics, last acquired over six decades ago, I cannot argue with a retired professor of theoretical physics who now functions as a principal research scientist in the National Science Research Council of Canada. In any case, he is in very good company as even some learned members of the Sangha too cast doubts on the concept of rebirth. One of them is Ajahn Sumedho, former US Navy Medic who served in the Korean War, one of the senior Western representatives of the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism and was the Abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, UK, from its consecration in 1984 until his retirement in 2010. In Ajahn Sumedho’s book ‘The Sound of Silence’ there is a chapter named, “Questions About Awareness and Rebirth” wherein he states:
“Rebirth,” like “reincarnation,” is a term that’s used generally referring to having gone through a series of different lives, and then there are various views about whether once you get reincarnated into human form where you can go, become a frog again or something like that. But the truth of the matter is, nobody really knows. The historical Buddha refers to previous lives in the scriptures and things like this, but for me these things are speculative.”
Unfortunately, I am not in touch with Ajahn Sumedho to get personal verification but, very fortunately, am in regular touch with Bhante Dhammika of Australia, who makes excellent contributions to this publication. Responding to my humble request for his comments on my article, he sent links to two posts on his blog which are well worth reading. However, most interesting was this reply of his, to a comment on the post on rebirth: “You will notice that very little on my blog is given to rebirth, pretty much because, like you, it is not a subject that particularly interests me.” This too confirms what I stated in my article that rebirth is of less importance to Buddhists by conviction than to Buddhists by birth, who tend to frown upon anyone even questioning the concept of rebirth.
These are some of the interesting comments on rebirth in Bhante Dhammika’s post (http://sdhammika.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-buddha-on-rebirth.html):
“The first Buddhists regarded life (jiva) as a process of consciousness moving through a succession of bodies, death being only a momentary event to this process. This phenomenon is sometimes called `moving from womb to womb’ (Sn.278) or more precisely, rebirth (punabbhava, D.II,15). Later Buddhist thinkers explained rebirth in complex and minute detail – death-proximate kamma (marana samma kamma), last though moment (cuti citta), relinking (patisandhi), the underlying stream of existence (bhavanga sota), etc. Interestingly, none of this is mentioned in the Sutta Pitaka, much of it is not even to be found in the Abhidhamma Pitaka. It is the product of speculation dating from the early centuries CE onward. This is not to say that such concepts are valueless, but it is important to distinguish between early, late and very late Dhamma concepts. Buddha mentions rebirth often enough but what does he say about the actual process of rebirth? The answer is `Not very much’.”
“Some Buddhist schools teach that after death, consciousness hovers in an in-between state (antarabhava) for a certain period before being reborn. Others, such as the Theravadins, assert that rebirth takes place within moments of consciousness disengaging from the body. The Buddha suggests that there is an interval between death and rebirth and spoke of the situation `when one has laid down the body (i.e., died) but has not yet been reborn’ (S.IV,400). On several other occasions He said that for one who has attained Nirvana there is `no here, no there, no in-between'(S.IV,73), presumably referring to this life, the next life, and the in-between state. When the consciousness is in transition between one life and the next it is referred to as gandhabba, and the Buddha said that this gandhabba has to be present for conception to take place (M.I,265)”
“In traditional Buddhist countries but particularly in Sri Lanka, young children occasionally come to public attention after claiming that they can remember their former life. Some of these claims have been carefully studied by Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. His researches have been published by the university as Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol.I,1975; Vol.II,1978; Vol.III, 1980 and Vol.IV,1983. While not being easy to read, Stevenson’s research has a high degree of scientific credibility and objectivity. According to the Buddha, just before the attainment of enlightenment some individuals have an experience called the knowledge of former lives (pubbe nivasanussati, D.I,81). During this experience, vivid and detailed memories of one’s former lives flash through the mind.”
Bhante Dhammika’s comments on the last thought and rebirth are very interesting (http://sdhammika.blogspot.com/2013/04/last-thought-moment.html):
“While the Buddha understood the mind to be a ‘flow’ or ‘stream’ of mental events (vinnanasota), later Abhidhamma thinkers speculated that it was actually a string of individual thought moments (cittavithi) arising and passing away at great rapidity. Later still, the theory developed that the last thought moment (cuticitta) a person has before they die will determine their next life. This idea, a part of Theravada orthodoxy, seems to be an unjustified development of the Buddha’s teachings and at odds with his idea of kamma and the efficacy of morality. The Tipitaka records many occasions where the Buddha counselled people who were either dying or critically ill. If the last thought is really crucial to one’s destiny one would expect such occasions to be the most appropriate time for Him to mention it, and yet there is no record of Him ever having done so. Nor did He mention it anywhere else. Mahanama once confided to the Buddha his anxiety about dying at a time when his mind was distressed and confused, thinking it might result in him having a bad rebirth. The Buddha reassured him that because he had for a longtime developed faith, virtue, learning, renunciation and wisdom, he had nothing to fear if such a thing should happen (S.V,369).”
Perhaps, some of these responses justify this question I raised in concluding that article: “By denying the concept of Antarabhava, has Theravada Buddhism unnecessarily disregarded a vital link that may explain rebirth?”
My good friend Dr Upali Abeysiri, who nearly missed donning the sacred robes in his youth, continued the study of Dhamma in addition to becoming a very successful Plastic Surgeon, practicing in Sri Lanka and the UK. The publication of his book on Abhidhamma, simplifying the complex concepts, is delayed due to the pandemic. He has already translated Asvaghoa’s Buddhacharita, the epic poem detailing the life of Gautama Buddha composed in the early second century CE, which was published by the Buddhist Cultural Centre. He is an unwavering believer in rebirth and posed this question in support:
“Some of us also have natural abilities not inherited. I can write Sinhala poetry as soon as I want. No one in my family has written poetry. Words come to me very easily to rhyme. I translated Asvaghosa’s Buddhacharita into Sinhala poetry of over thousand stanzas. How did I get the ability? I only studied Sinhala to GCE O levels. Can you explain?”
He also referred to the recent case, shown in YouTube, of a six-year boy in a village named Naiwala who could talk fluently in English and Hindi, in addition to Sinhala, and remembered his past as a pilot in the Indian air force who crashed in a desert area. His parents are not well educated, father being a motor mechanic and the mother a housewife. Upali told me to apply Ockham’s razor and that I would come with rebirth. I checked on Ockham’s razor and found it to be a principle from philosophy enunciated by William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan Friar, which goes as follows: Suppose an event has two possible explanations, the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct. Another way of saying it is that the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely the explanation is. It is said that Occam’s razor applies especially in the philosophy of science but is also true in everyday life.
He is quite correct that there are many things in life which defy explanation and rebirth may be one possible explanation. Talent: is it God given? Inherited? Result of experience in past lives? A lot to think about!
Upali Abeysiri too supports my contention that Theravada has lost out by disregarding the intermediate state, antarabhava, after death. He feels this was done to prevent misinterpreting antarbhavaya as Athma, soul. Some of his arguments are:
Virginia University team has, by analysis of incidents of genuine near-death experiences, has shown the mind can survive for a short period out of the body and non-functioning sensory organs, hearing, seeing etc. Theravada cannot explain this phenomenon but intermediate state of Yogavacara Abhdhamma (common to all sects of Mahayana) can explain this. The intermediate state may exist for at least seven days, maintained by clinging to existence and also nutrients obtained from smell and may even come back anytime to the original body, if the life faculty is maintained.
During the third Sangayana, the Theravadins tried to edit antarabhavaya out by maintaining there is no gap between last consciousness of present life and the first of next life. Kathavatthu book of Tripitaka was written for it and other topics. However, they did not edit the Tripitaka to erase traces of antarabhavaya but added commentaries to justify. These are some that remain:
1 Mahathanhakkhaya sutta in Majjima nikaya: Buddha says, ”Bhikkhus, three conditions are essential for a pregnancy. Union of mother (ovum) and father(sperm) and the presence of a gandhabba” The commentary gives the meaning gandabba as the death consciousness of a being who is to be reborn.
2 In the Karaniya matta sutta, ‘ bhuthava (borne) sambhavesiva (to be borne) are described as last two variety of beings to project metta. The commentary says those who have come into the egg or womb and those who are waiting to come out of the egg or womb are described thus.
3 Udana: Bahiya is told by Buddha ”Bahiya if you follow my instructions, you will not be existing in this life, next life or in between the two” (ubhaya mantharena). The commentary cannot explain it and says it is a figure of speech.
4 Abhidhamma of Tehravada explains five types of anagamins who die without attaining enlightenment are born in the fine material worlds called Suddhavasa. Here the first type is called those who attain enlightenment while in the intermediate state. Again, the commentary gives lame excuses by saying as soon as they are born attaining enlightenment.
Upali Abeysiri opines that dependent-origination (Patichcha Samuppadaya) too could be better explained with the incorporation of antarabhava and has a very plausible explanation regarding the type of cases investigated by Ian Stevenson and others:
“As to the rebirth stories, more than 80% occur following sudden deaths such as drowning or accidents. At such deaths, the last thought process does not end in 7 javana moments as in normal consciousness. The last two occur in rebirth. This is why they may still remember past life details. After six or seven years, these memories fade away as ours’ of infancy do. As their kamma was obstructed by sudden death due to another kamma, they are born as humans again, whatever the last thought was.
Whilst thanking all who made me extend my thought processes further, my search for the truth about rebirth continues!
Brave new world of veganism
When Britain’s largest bakery, Greggs, brought, a vegan sausage roll into the market, it was attacked by a senior reporter as “Stalinist”, and the idea of having a vegan roll as “nauseating”. In India, we never have this problem, because almost everyone at the top of society/media/government/sport/films is vegetarian. But all over the world hundreds of vegans/vegetarians can tell you horror stories about the reactions of “conservatives”. One study found that more than half of vegetarians had experienced discrimination, and nearly 10% of vegetarians said that family had severed contact with them because they didn’t eat meat. About the same percentage say they were not hired for jobs because of their diet.
Why are carnivores threatened by the rise of veganism? I would have thought that being a gentler approach to society and all its beings, a movement towards better environment and better health, would have appealed to all. But apparently not. Those that stuff dead bodies into their faces every day are genuinely resentful that this change has come.
In 2019, protesters against veganism turned up at a vegan market and started eating raw dead squirrels, in order to “shame” those that didn’t eat meat. To eat or not to eat meat: this has become a vitriolic debate, a battleground between conservative meat-eaters and those that venture into a brave new world of peace and good health for all. From robbing pigs from shelters and throwing deer legs into the houses of vegans, to vicious articles on “Is veganism good for you?”
Veganophobes call vegans smug, hypocritical (plants have life too), psychopaths. As one vegan put it “Being vegan is like being the main character in a horror movie who keeps trying to warn the others that there is a monster in the room who will destroy them – but no one will listen and keeps calling you crazy”.
People love to moan that vegans are annoying: research has shown that only drug addicts inspire the same degree of loathing. Now, psychologists are starting to understand why – and it’s clear that the reasons aren’t rational.
According to psychologists the presence of vegetarians makes some carnivores feel that their meat consumption is unethical. They lash out against vegetarians in order to preserve their positive self-image. Many people, who are politically conservative, see this as straying from the status quo – which is clearly eating and using animal products. In many nations, holiday meals and barbeques centre around family and friends cooking and eating meat, like turkey, steak, or hamburgers. Vegetarians are seen as countering important social traditions and thus worthy of backlash.
But much more importantly, studies show that conservatives are more likely to have a “social dominance orientation,” meaning that they believe in economic and political superiority for certain groups. This includes the belief that human animals have supremacy over other animals, and that animals are only relevant in as much as they provide food, entertainment and articles of use. People who lean to the right are more likely to hunt and support testing on animals and circuses with animal acts. They are likely to have dogs (not rescued, but bought) that sit at their feet and complete their self-image as masters of the household and realm.
Vegetarians are seen as rebels that ideologically counter these beliefs and hold animals to be on par with humans and as worthy of consideration. Vegetarians, and now vegans, get the same treatment from conservatives that blacks and women have been getting till now – after all they too are seen as a lower species. People who are bigoted toward other humans are likely to be bigoted toward animals as well. It is the same conservatives who are critical of environmentalists (climate change is a myth), NGOs (all are anti national and in it for the money), social welfare for the poor (they should work harder).
Social psychologists call this the moral schizophrenia of meat-eaters. “If you bring your cod and chips home to eat in front of your beloved goldfish, or tuck into a rabbit stew mere moments after cooing over various #rabbitsofinstagram, you’re likely to encounter “cognitive dissonance”, which occurs when a person holds two incompatible views, and acts on one of them. In this case, your affection for animal clashes with the idea that it’s OK to eat them.”
In the Western world there is more and more evidence about how eating meat is bad. To continue to eat meat requires some serious mental gymnastics. Luckily, our brains are extremely good at protecting us from realities we don’t want to face – and there are a number of psychological tricks at our disposal. So, the first thing that meat-eaters do is not think of meat eating as an ideology. Then they pretend that meat has no link to animals, then they pretend they are eating less and less, or they are only eating animals that are “humanely farmed and happy farm animals”.
Unfortunately, most of these excuses and evasions are derailed by the presence of vegans. Suddenly meat-eaters are confronted by an ideology which makes them have to choose sides as “meat-eaters” and stop making excuses. By their mere existence, vegans force people to confront their schizophrenia. And this makes people angry.
So, they look for rational sounding explanations for why eating animals is the correct decision. And one of these is that vegans are bad.
In a study done by psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, meateating participants were surveyed about their attitudes towards vegans, and then asked to think of three words that they associated with them. Most came up with these words: “weird”, “arrogant”, “preachy”, “militant”, “uptight”, “stupid”, and – mysteriously – “sadistic”.
How strange that these people would reject and attempt to demean groups that had made laudable choices. As the psychologists dug deeper into this group they found a common fear of their being judged by vegetarians, and that fear far outstripped any respect they might have had for any superior moral integrity. Those who had thought about being judged by vegetarians first, tended to associate vegetarians more strongly with negative words. The finding also explains why ethical vegetarians are more irritating to omnivores than those who choose the lifestyle for health reasons.
The end of an era and a way of life always frightens people. And the new age, where veganism is glamorous, will bring these reactions from those who feel inadequate.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact email@example.com, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)
Malini Fonseka: Completing the circle
by Uditha Devapriya
Though their performances seem maudlin to us now, the earliest screen actresses earned their living through tears and sobs. When the one-reeler began giving way to the two-reeler, directors began borrowing from Victorian literature. This was a literature of chaste women and rapacious womanisers, in which the heroine usually ended up falling into the wrong hands, having rejected her first lover, and the latter endeavoured to save, if not redeem, her.
Not surprisingly, the first directors banked their careers on their actresses, turning them into mascots: thus Florence Lawrence became “The Biograph Girl”, while Mary Pickford became “Little Mary.” The films they starred in offered very little variety: they were all variations on the same stories and themes. But audiences loved them, and audiences kept returning.
Something of the ineffable charm of these films survives in the performances of these actresses, most of whose names we have forgotten today. The women the latter played defined themselves by their fragility: always up for grabs, they fell victim to tricksters posing as their paramours, and had to be saved by the humble, usually poor lover they had rejected earlier.
Even after the two-reeler gave way to the six-reeler, the new actresses retained this sense of tragic fragility and sensuality in their characters. When film production travelled the world, actresses everywhere inadvertently emulated these stars. In Sri Lanka, the first of these tragic heroines, at times proud, always sensitive, came to be played by Rukmani Devi.
From Rukmani Devi to Malini Fonseka, we traverse 20 years: between Kadawunu Poronduwa, released in 1947, to Punchi Baba, released in 1968. The sensibilities that defined these two could not have been more different. Rukmani’s conception of the heroine, rooted fundamentally in the Victorian melodrama, the Hollywood of D. W. Griffith, and the drama of Parsi troupes, occupied a universe where the heroine lived solely for her lover. She usually held back, because the moral compass that governed her life prevented her from asserting her autonomy.
This is not to say she accepted defeat: in a Rukmani Devi film the heroine always wins, yet she lets events determine her fate. There’s no attempt on her part to shape her destiny; it’s the men who end up defining its course for her. Like the lovers of Enoch Arden, a work whose theme we come across in so many Sinhala films, even in Kadawunu Poronduwa, her romance is marred by reversals of fortune and misfortune: she loses sight of her lover, marries another, more often than not against her will, and is reunited with the man of her dreams in the end.
A world or two away from Rukmani’s maudlin heroines, Malini Fonseka became the idealised female, the fetishised woman, in a different way. She became the symbol of a new woman in an era marked by a new consciousness: the consciousness of a Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, whose rise accompanied the transition from 1948 to 1956 and beyond.
What explained Malini’s extraordinary popularity? Even in her worst films, she gave a decent performance, and in all her performances, she made every man who came across her want her. Directors who realised this tapped into their box-office potential, not by pairing her with the big stars of the time, but by separating her from the characters they played.
Malini’s characters not only made us want her, they also made us go to any lengths to have her. She didn’t want anyone dominating her, but she got every man to wish they could dominate her. It’s difficult to think of any other actress here who could equal her on that count. Probably that’s why she was never cast as a femme fatale; the closest to such a figure she got was the heroine in Sasara Chethana – a movie she herself directed. That role fitted her mould as much as the cast of the tragic, spurned, defenceless woman did, which is to say it didn’t fit her at all.
In K. A. W. Perera’s Wasana, Vijaya Kumaratunga croons Jothipala: “Oba Langa Inna” distils the lonesomeness that so defines Malini’s lovers. Separation makes the heart grow fonder; this was the underlying philosophy in Wasana and, later, in Apeksha, where, if you look beneath and beyond the class conflicts within which the plot unfolds, the entire story boils down to Amarasiri Kalansuriya’s desperate attempts at winning Malini.
Some of her most memorable commercial outings in the 70s – the films of K. A. W. Perera, for instance – present her like a doll: fragile, defiant, yet rebellious. In Sahanaya, for example, she’s paired with Gamini, but their roles are somewhat inverted: she’s the spoilt heiress, he the idealist who paints her without her knowledge and who she slaps when she finds out. Sequences like this – multiplied many times over – show how she could ensnare the men of her movies.
If you sense a naive sense of self-discovery in her first roles it’s because that more or less echoes actual persona. Malini Senehelatha Fonseka was born to a modest working class family in 1947 in Peliyagoda; she was the third child of a family of 11.
Initially educated in Nugegoda, she later shifted to Gurukula Maha Vidyalaya, Kelaniya, where she befriended some future collaborators: Wimal Kumar da Costa, H. D. Premaratne, and Donald Karunaratne.
Gurukula bordered on the Vidyalankara Campus, now the University of Kelaniya. One day some students from Vidyalankara came over looking for an actress to play a lead role; the University had no women. The dancing teacher at Gurukula considered Malini; having asked her, he chose her once she obtained permission from her parents. The play, Noratha Ratha, directed by H. D. Werasiri, marked the first time she had acted outside school.
In 1965 she took part in Akal Wessa, a play written by Sumana Aloka Bandara that won for her a
Best Actress Award and the attention of two members in the audience looking for a newcomer to play the leading role in an upcoming film. Tissa Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrama made their choice that evening; remembering his decision many decades later, Tissa told me, “Some people thought she was too thin for my film, too untried. Joe on the other hand was satisfied with her, as was I. So we took her in. It was a choice we never came to regret.”
Punchi Baba marked Malini’s entry into the cinema. Of her encounters onboard it, Liyanasuriya told me, “I didn’t order her about. She seemed fully involved.” That sense of being involved was what defined her career in the 70s, but in these first few performances (including her second, as the sister to a romantically obsessed lover, played by Henry Jayasena, in Dahasak Sithuvili), she was more the girl who lived next door than the girl who could win your heart.
You see Malini shedding this naive avatar from herself with these first roles, particularly with Akkara Paha, where she’s the sister to another obsessed brother. In Dahasak Sithuvili she more or less succumbs to Henry Jayasena’s moods; here she’s more contained, more assertive. The girl from Punchi Baba was growing, discovering herself, letting herself be known.
By the time of her performance in Nidhanaya, the culmination of all those outings that paired her with Gamini Fonseka, she has become aware of her potential: she has let go of being the girl next door. This was true of Siripala saha Ranmenika, and the films of Dharmasena Pathiraja: from a minor role in Ahas Gawwa to a titular role in Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, to more assertive roles in Bambaru Avith and Pathiraja’s understated masterpiece, Soldadu Unnahe.
It’s a sign of her prejudices perhaps, but when I ask her what her favourite film is, she replied, “Aradhana.” This film, directed by Vijaya Dharma Sri, has Ravindra Randeniya befriend her, and then, pushed by guilt and infatuation, come back to claim her. His character in Dharma Sri’s film is reminiscent of the villain in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama. The entire story, at one level, inverts Obeyesekere’s plot: it’s Dadayama with a happy ending, the sort Malini could find a place in, the same way Swarna Mallawarachchi could in Obeyesekere’s film.
That it was screened in the 80s, in colour, is not a coincidence; Malini admitted to me during our interview that these represented her favourite years, years in which she rose from a performer to an occasional director: Sasara Chethana in 1984, Ahinsa in 1987, Sthree in 1991, Sandamala in 1994. These attempts all revolve around femininity and motherhood; Sthree, for instance, draws a parallel between her character’s travails and those of an elderly cow.
As the years went by, she took on increasingly matriarchal roles, as shown by her performances in Punchi Suranganawi (2002), Wekanda Walauwwa (2003), and Ammawarune (2006). It would be impossible to omit her role in Prasanna Vithanage’s Akasa Kusum (2009), given how much it symbolises the end of a journey, a rite of passage, for her career.
For Akasa Kusum, her best performance since Bambaru Avith, Malini Fonseka won a number of awards here and abroad, including the Silver Peacock at the Indian Film Festival (the “biggest achievement in my forty years”, as she put it). The film has her play the role of a former film star whose return to fame is marked by scandal: basically, a Norma Desmond in Colombo.
One can discern a kind of naked, sublime austerity in Malini’s performance here. You sense little to no exaggeration; more so than in her other performances, she deliberately underplays her part, denuding it of any romantic excretions. This underplaying is essential to the character of Sandya Rani, whose nostalgic reveries into the past are underscored by a harsh, all-too real present. The clash of personal feeling and social reality (especially after her involvement in the scandal) is at the epicentre of the narrative, and Malini epitomises that clash in a way that surpasses nearly all her performances, perhaps barring Bambaru Avith and Eya Dan Loku Lamayek.
Vithanage’s film thus represents the end, not of an era, but of a career. It marks the achievement of a goal Malini’s career has been building up to: the shedding of the excessively theatrical from her acting. For far too long, she’s been the girl next door; by now she has become fully conscious of the rift between fantasy and reality, and has come to accept it. Her performances have been, in that sense, all attempts at self-discovery. And in Vithanage’s film, she completes the circle.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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