Imperialist land grab – Relevance of Thoradeniya’s latest novel
Review of the novel “Madaran” by Sena Thoradeniya
Reviewed by N.A.de S. Amaratunga
The subject of Sena Thoradeniya’s latest novel titled “Madaran” is the land grab practiced by British colonialists in the 19th Century which created landless peasants, poverty and much suffering. This theme has its relevance today when the US attempts a similar maneuver by means of MCC, SOFA and ACSA. The terms used for the various land taxes imposed on the poor farmers to deprive them of their land ownership were “Madabadda”, “Weebadda” and “Madaran”. Hence Thoradeniya’s title for his latest novel. He deals in detail with the methods employed by the British rulers to force the people to part with their inherited land holdings and the reaction of the people and the uprisings against these taxes and cruelties in 1818, 1840 and 1848.
The story is unfolded through the main protagonist Malinda. His wife Opali and their seven children take little part in the story. The story begins with Malinda returning to his wife after a long absence. He had been away fighting the British in the first uprising. But before the story begins there is a Prologue which takes the form of a little episode that is placed in recent times concerning a mass grave which is very much similar to the happenings in relation to the Mannar mass grave of recent times. The Prologue gives a description of the dirty tricks and treachery that today’s imperialist West adopts to subjugate third world countries and take them in their hegemonic grip. The role played by their local agents is also described showing the danger this country could be facing. A mass grave is found under a rock in a land belonging to a retired army officer and he is indicted in courts for mass murder of Tamil terrorists. How the incident is blown out of proportion by the UN with the connivance of the local agents of imperialists forms the essence of this Prologue which connects the present with the past.
Malinda’s character depicts the national consciousness of the native Sinhalese and their bravery in the face of adversity. Despite hardship he wants to fight the British whom he sees as his oppressor. He is glad to hear that the Sinhalese has found a king who could lead them against the foreign ruler. He leaves his wife and goes in search of the king. He joins the king’s army. After the uprising had been put down by the ruthless British he returns to his wife. Helpless Opali meanwhile had formed an alliance with another man and given birth to a child. As the man is no more Malinda accepts both his wife and her child and they have seven more children. They have a bit of land and they make a huge attempt to eke out a living. But the land grabbing policy of the British would not allow them to be land owners. Vast extents of land that belonged to the upcountry peasants were expropriated and handed over to big time coffee cultivators. Roads and railways were built to facilitate the transport of the products. Upcountry peasantry was made landless. Malinda’s children go in search of employment and are lost to him and his wife. He and his wife end up as homeless coolies and end up living in a cave. Yet he still dreams of the splendour of arts and crafts of the Kandyans and his own gallantry. He has not lost his national consciousness and would like to have another fling at his tormentors.
The author employs a novel method to describe the situation in the country while Malinda’s story is unfolding. Details of the various taxes, ways of the British ruler and how the ruler appears in the view of the people are described in the form of conversation of nameless villagers. Apart from these conversations he briefly looks at the character of few of the British officials who are deployed to implement the harsh tax laws. Some of these British officials themselves feel the pain of the suffering masses. Their personal view of the harsh taxation methods where the motive is to force the people to sell their land clashes with the demand of their official duties.
Malinda’s character is typical of the Sinhala villager who resisted the occupation by colonial forces while some higherups in the feudal society collaborated with the foreign rulers in order to get personal benefits. His bravery under adverse conditions is something inherent in the national consciousness of the Sinhalese. This national consciousness is discernible from early times when the inhabitants of this island fought against foreign invasions with much success. Malinda would leave his young wife in Pathadumbara and go to Uva to join the uprising. When the struggle fails he returns to his wife and accepts her lovingly forgetting that she had borne a child by another man. Thoradeniya has captured the nature of the Sinhala peasant in the character of Malinda quite successfully.
The novel has only one major character as such but the conversations of the nameless people that take place in ambalamas and such other places brings into the novel many characters that as mentioned earlier make a lasting impression in the reader’s mind. Another character though minor but who is nevertheless very important is the GA in Nuwara-Eliya, Le Mussier. Special mention is made of him for he feels for the suffering masses. He introduced several projects to mitigate the burden of the land taxes. He makes a heart rendering speech at one of the occasions when he commissions one such project where he laments the cruelty of the system. He talks about the beauty of the country and says that it is a pity that people have to die while they look at the beauty of Nuwara-Eliya.
The book is a treasure trove to the student of history. It is full of information on the British period of this country. Some of this information must have been unearthed by lot of research as the author says in the introduction. The system of government that the British adopted made use of the existing systems and the human weakness for titles and other benefits. They could pursue their agenda as there was personal vendetta among the Sinhalese high officials and they could be made to betray their own people. The novel brings out the emotion of ordinary people like Malinda when such treachery affect them. They are left helpless to fend for themselves. The situation today is not very much different. The imperialist West is stalking us relentlessly. There are local opportunists and separatists waiting for every opportunity to help the West.
Thoradeniya’s art is not for art’s sake. It has a purpose and social relevance. He wants to analyze and lay bare the reality of today through the eyes of the historian. Yet his latest work is somewhat different from his previous works. As usual it is not a straight forward narration but this novel is different from his usual realistic novel. It has no beginning and an end. The conversations of nameless people intermingle with the main narration, the story of Malinda. These conversations like a haunting melody captures your mind and remains there while you grapple with the pathos of Malinda. Though it is an unusual method of story telling the experiment seems to work. Yet the work is not post-modern which usually has no identifiable aim of depicting an aspect of human life.
Thoradeniya’s work is mainly anti-imperialist and therefore is timely. The Prologue which deals with the mass grave is a powerful anti-imperialist statement. It brings to focus immediately the hidden agenda of the West, the fact that human rights is a tool in their hands and is used to force third world countries to obey their dictate. Some critics may say such a prologue has no place in a novel. A prologue is different from an introduction and may take the form of an addendum that help the reader to understand the message of the novel. Thoradeniya’s message is clearly anti-imperialist and has social relevance in the present context. Mitchell Brechtlet the present High Commissioner for Human Rights got involved in the Mannar mass grave incident and clearly jumped the gun in an attempt to incriminate our armed forces and now she is busy trying to crucify Sri Lanka in Geneva. Thus the Prologue of the novel vividly exposes the cunning and treacherous intentions of the West. It helps the reader to understand this present situation and appreciate the past that the novel expounds through the pathos of the peasantry under the British rule.
With regard the purpose of the novel there are two schools of thought, one believes that the novel has a social function and must depict an aspect of life. Others say novel as an art has no specific social function and believes that art is for art’s sake, its only function seems to be entertainment. The latter view has its origin in postmodernism which in essence is the philosophical basis for neo-liberalism. The post-modernist novel therefore cannot raise a voice against neo-liberalism and the hegemonic agenda of the West. One could be glad that a prolific writer of the calibre of Sena Thoradeniya belongs to the school of thought that believes the novel has a social function.
Blind security sector reforms:
Assurance to US on the size of military
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Defence Ministry recently quoted State Defence Minister, Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon, as having assured US State Department official, Afreen Akhter, that the military would be ‘right-sized’ to perform their classic role.
The assurance was given on 15 May at his office, in Colombo, just ahead of the14th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), when our security forces brought the war to a successful conclusion, on the morning of 19 May with the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) troops wiping out a small group of hardcore LTTE cadres, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Among the dead was LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Why did the State Defence Minister make such a pledge? Did Akhter, the Deputy Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asia Bureau of the State Department, seek a clarification as regards security sector reforms? If the military had continued to perform their classic role of being a ceremonial Army, the LTTE could have achieved Eelam. But the nearly three-year long sustained offensive brought the LTTE to its knees, 14 years ago.
Afreen Akhter oversees Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives, as well as the Office of Security and Transnational Affairs.
Her visit was the first by a State Department official, since National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, Wimal Weerawansa, last month alleged, in a published book ‘Nine: The Hidden Story;, that the US had a direct role in the removal of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year. The former industries minister is on record as having disclosed that US Ambassador here, Julie Chung, personally offered Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena an opportunity to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, regardless of constitutional impediment, to bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe, in an unannounced visit to his official residence.
Ambassador Chung swiftly rejected the allegation made no sooner ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ was launched at the Sri Lanka Foundation on 25 April. However, Speaker Abeywardena gave credence to lawmaker Weerawansa’s shocking claim by remaining dead silent.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government quietly began downsizing the SLA, which was little above 200,000 at the height of the war. However, the present government officially acknowledged the downsizing of the war-winning, Army on 13 January, 2023. State Minister Tennakoon was quoted as having said that the SLA strength would be further reduced to 135,000 by the end of next year and 100,000 by 2030.
Of course there cannot be an issue over the need to gradually decrease military strength in peace time, taking into consideration post-war national security requirements and the pathetic economic situation, confronting the country.
Regardless of the developing political-economic-social crisis, it would be the responsibility of the military top brass to brief the political leadership of the ground situation. Post-war national security requirements shouldn’t be looked at only on the basis of economic indicators. That would be suicidal. In other words, the country is in such a precarious situation, political leadership may tend to conveniently ignore basics, especially to please Uncle Sam, the obvious king-maker here now, thereby jeopardizing the country’s national security.
Declaration that the SLA would be reduced to 100,000 by 2030 means the total strength would be cut by half, from its peak.
The Defence Ministry statement didn’t refer to any other issue. But that doesn’t mean contentious issues hadn’t been taken up with Akhter during her visit. The US continuing to needle Sri Lanka, 14 years after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional military capability, despite Washington’s own hands dripping with so much innocent blood from so many of its worldwide military misadventures, to retain its international hegemony, is mired in continuing controversy.
The designation of Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy commander (2005-2009) Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda, in late April, this year, over a spate of abductions carried out in 2008-2009, at the height of the war with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, as was even acknowledged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighted how the Washington establishment continues to pursue an agenda severely inimical to Sri Lanka.
Sanctioning of Karannagoda is the latest in a series of US measures directed at the war-winning military here. Among the sanctioned are Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and General Shavendra Silva, the controversial travel ban on the celebrated wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of 58 Division formerly Task Force 1, the Numero Uno among the SLA fighting formations that literally took the fight to the LTTE, was imposed in Feb. 2020.
Expansion of SLA
The LTTE couldn’t have been defeated if not for the rapid expansion undertaken during the then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s tenure as Commander of the Army (2005-2009). The SLA lacked the wherewithal to sustain a large scale ground offensive while deploying sufficient troops on a holding role. For want of adequate infantry battalions, the SLA couldn’t undertake large scale offensives, simultaneously. But the rapid expansion, since the launching of operations on multiple fronts, in Vanni, from 1997, paid dividends soon enough.
Sri Lanka should review post-war developments, taking into consideration the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year. The overall failure of the security apparatus to meet the public protest campaign that had been backe, clandestinely by the US, as alleged repeatedly by lawmaker Weerawansa, quickly overwhelmed law enforcement authorities and the military. Law enforcement authorities and the military should have been prepared to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately, a public protest campaign that was launched on 31 March, last year, targeting the private residence of the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, exposed the serious weakness in overall government response to hitherto unknown threat.
Military strength should be the prerogative of the government. The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, now headed by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera MP, should closely examine the developments and take up matters of importance, both in and outside Parliament. It would be a grave mistake, on Sri Lanka’s part, to consider/implement defence sector reforms at the behest of literally bankrupt external powers, with sinister motives. Defence sector reforms should be in line with overall security-political doctrine, instead of piecemeal restructuring. There cannot be a better example than the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s readiness to enhance the SLA’s strength by nearly 100,000. That decision, taken in the aftermath of Velupillai Prabhakaran declaration of Eelam War IV, in August 2006, was perhaps the single most decisive factor in Sri Lanka’s final victory over terrorism against so many odds placed against it.
In spite of the increasing military strength, as the LTTE gradually stepped up the offensive, and, finally, its threat became conventional in 1990, Sri Lanka never gave a real boost to military personnel numbers as explained in the chart published on this page. The period from 1981 to 1987 can be categorized as the Eelam War l. The Eelam War ll and lll were fought from 1990 to 1994, and 1995 to 2001, respectively.
Sri Lanka launched Division-sized ground offensives during Eelam War lll that began with the sinking of two gunboats, berthed at the Trincomalee harbour, and the downing of two Avros, with 100 officers, and men all, in April 1995, during an informal ceasefire with the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime. But the military top brass, or the political leadership, at that time, never felt comfortable in executing a real expansion of the SLA.
In hindsight, they never wanted to go the whole hog. Operation ‘Riviresa.’ launched in Oct. 1995. was meant to bring Jaffna town under military control and consolidate government positions in the Jaffna peninsula. The operation that involved three Divisions was the largest combined security forces campaign until the Vanni campaign in 2007-2009.
However, the SLA never received the boost it desired during Eelam War lll. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga authorized Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ (victory assured) to restore the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna peninsula. Having launched the offensive in May 1997, the government called it off, in 1999, following unbearable debacles. It was a miracle that the Army did not crumble at the time down to Anuradhapura or even beyond with a Commander in Chief like that, who was nothing but a cunning chatterbox with no sense of time. The government quite conveniently refrained from making a real difference on the ground by enhancing the number of infantry battalions available for ground commanders. According to the chart on this page, the SLA strength had been 117,705 officers and men (volunteers included) in 1996, the year before the launch of Operation ‘Jayasikurui’ and by 1999 when it was called off the paid strength in that particular year was 121,473.
The chart reveals a drop in the paid strength in 2000 to 116,739 in the wake of a series of humiliating battlefield defeats, culminating with the worst single debacle in the entire war when SLA abandoned the strategically located Elephant Pass base. A Division plus troops couldn’t repulse the LTTE offensive and the base collapsed in April 2000. Regardless of the Elephant Pass fall, the following year paid strength recorded a marginal increase. According to the chart, the paid strength in 2001 had been 118,331 while the strength dropped again in 2002 and 2003 during the operation of Oslo-arranged infamous Ceasefire Agreement.
The situation started gradually improving in 2004 and by 2007 paid strength stood at 151, 538. Having neutralized the LTTE in the Eastern theatre, the SLA was on the move on the Vanni west in 2007. That year marked the turning point in the war against the LTTE as the latter was overwhelmed on the Vanni front. The opening of multiple fronts on the Vanni theatre wouldn’t have been possible without the continuous flow of fresh recruits for newly raised Divisions as well as Jaffna-based formations.
It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka acquired Mi-24 helicopter gunships in 1995, Kfirs in 1996, MiG27s in 2000 and a range of naval platforms since 1980s, though successive governments that ignored the need to expand the fighting strength. During the deployment of the Indian Army (July 1987- March 1990) the military ignored the basic requirement to provide sufficient troops to protect the MSR northwards from Vavuniya to Elephant Pass. The situation was so bad, Vavuniya-Elephant Pass stretch was held by isolated and poorly manned detachments at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities in June 1990 following 14-month-long ‘honeymoon’ between President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran.
At the time Eelam War ll erupted in 1990, the paid SLA strength had been 60,596 whereas it consisted of 37,759 officers and men. Sri Lanka, in 2015, cancelled the war Victory Day parade following Western pressure. The last Victory Day parade was held in Matara in 2014. The rest is history.
Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka
The Popular Sinhala Cinema:
~ Part two ~
by Laleen Jayamanne
Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.
However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.
Two approaches to Lankan Film History
One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.
The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.
So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.
(To be Continued)
By Lynn Ockersz
In cozy Board rooms,
Of the imperiled Isle,
It’s the ‘bigger picture’,
That’s made to count,
And that goes down well,
With those holding the reins,
But the pain is in the details,
And these easily unfaze,
Those of sound conscience,
For, we have unemployed men,
Furiously tramping the streets,
Their tools lying limp on shoulders,
Hunger gnawing at their innards,
Some taking leave of their senses,
To the amusement and laughter,
Of entertainment-starved fellow men.
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