by Rajan Philips
The SLPP’s election fireworks in Anuradhapura may have perished instantly in the Sacred City’s ancient lakes. But political moves and counter moves are emerging independent and regardless of local government elections being held or not held in the near future. New developments are being reported both within the governing (SLPP/SLPFA) alliance and outside it, as well as independent of the government and on behalf of the government. There are four potentially significant developments that have been and are being reported in the media:
1) Shifting political alliances both within the governing alliance and among opposition parties.
2) An ‘all-party’ initiative in parliament to persuade the government to take steps for restructuring debt payments to tide over the country’s critical foreign exchange shortage.
3) The sudden and shocking return of White Vans in Colombo even as the government is trying to improve its human rights image in time for the March UNHRC sessions in Geneva, and while the Catholic Church is threatening to ‘go global’ in its search for justice for the victims of 2019 Easter Sunday bombings.
4) Foreign Minister GL Pieris’s unusually expansive interview to The Indian Express, during his recent visit to India, and his exclusive interview with S. Venkat Narayan, Sunday Island’s Special Correspondent in New Delhi.
Shifting Political Alliances
On Thursday, February 17, the Daily Mirror reported what would appear to be very consequential shifts occurring within the political alliances that underpin the current composition of MPs in parliament. According to the Daily Mirror, twelve of the political parties who are now part of the SLPP/SLPFA alliance and all of whom were left out of the of SLPPs’ family rally in Anuradhapura, are expected to announce in early March the formation of a new alliance, while remaining part of the SLPP-led government.
The leading lights of the new alliance will be Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, as well as the Chairmen of the three crucial parliamentary committees – Tissa Vitarana (Committee on Public Accounts – COPA), Charitha Hearth (Committee on Public Expenditure – COPE) and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa (Committee on Public Finance – COPF). The new alliance is expected to include a few SLFPers as well, two of whom are also committee chairs.
What will the group’s ministerial troika (Wimal/Gamanpila/Vasu) do? Will they quit cabinet, or stay on as ministers until the President shows them the door? Giving up their cabinet positions may mitigate their political culpability until now, while getting fired will not improve their already tarnished political credibility for the future.
The formation of this alliance will not result in the government losing its current parliamentary majority, but it could take away the government’s two-thirds majority which will be required to effect constitutional changes. The President and the SLPP could just ignore the group, forego the craving for two-thirds majority, and give up on going ahead with constitutional changes. That in itself will be a positive outcome for the country. The country will be spared the agony of going through an ‘organic’ constitution after the disaster over organic fertilizer!
The new alliance could also bring pressure on the President and the government to undertake basic remedial measures that are desperately needed to tide over the country’s current financial and food crises. But there is nothing automatic about the effectiveness of this group in influencing policy or changing government direction. And its effectiveness will be limited unless the group is prepared to work with opposition MPs and parties, as well as more constructive SLPP MPs, on specific issues that are now critical to the country.
Principled cross-floor collaboration can serve two purposes. One, acting as the legislative branch of government, parliament could take independent positions on critical issues to countermand mistaken presidential actions and provide alternative routes for the country’s government. As a consequence of this, parliament can establish its constitutional role in the presidential system without being a mere rubber stamp to the president.
Many have commented on President (G) Rajapaksa’s rootlessness in political parties as a source of weakness for his presidency. Conversely, it could be argued that the deep rootedness of previous presidents in their parties (except Sirisena, who was neither here nor there as President) was a source of weakness for the legislative branch. Shouldn’t parliament use the present opportunity to restore its constitutional role and function?
The Daily Mirror news story also reveals shifting alliances within the opposition in parliament. Of special note are reported discussions involving Champika Ranawaka, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and parliamentarian Kumara Welgama. A coming together of upstart ambition and decadent frustrations, to paraphrase the inimitable turn of phrase of Doric de Souza! Where and how far this convergence will carry, it is not worth a second of speculation. What is pertinent is that Champika’s overtures to Ranil are reportedly the result of Sajith Premadasa’s failure to respond to Mr. Ranawaka’s request for deputy leadership in the SJB.
Mr. Ranawaka apparently is not the only one feeling unrequited in the SJB. “Minority parties” affiliated with the SJB are also reportedly disappointed that Mr. Premadasa is not heeding their calls for formalizing a broad alliance where ‘minority parties’ can maintain their identities. If Sajith Premadasa is reluctant to go into broad alliances, it may be due to his own insecurity and there are also reports about other prominent and young UNP-defectors who too are not very pleased with the leadership and the insulated inner circles of Premadasa the Younger. But I am trying to get to a different point here.
And that is about what seems to be a shared reluctance among Gotabaya/Basil Rajapaksa (SLPP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP/NPP) to enter broad alliances with other parties. The reluctance might be due to different reasons – arrogance and not having to answer to anyone (Gotabaya/Basil), insecurity (Sajith), and – call it – progressive puritanism (JVP/NPP). But the effect of this shared reluctance would be a major shift in post-presidential electoral politics that needs to be watched as the electoral dynamic unfolds over the next three years. The past alliance champions – Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena are now spent forces with little consequence.
National Unity over National Debt
There is nothing more serious than the national debt burden, and its aggravation of foreign exchange shortages and import capacity limitations. There have been suggestions for negotiating debt payments and calling on the IMF for help. But the government and the Central Bank have done nothing about either suggestion. In the absence of government action, a group of government and opposition MPs have been putting their heads together to urge the government to act promptly on negotiating with the country’s creditors and for approaching the IMF.
TNA’s MA Sumanthiran has been the convenor of these discussions, the second of which was attended by R Sampanthan (TNA), Sajith Premadasa, Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne (SJB), Rauf Hakim (SLMC), Mano Ganesan (TPA), , Shanakiyan Rasamanikam (TNA), and from the ‘government side’ Charitha Herath (COPE Chair), Tissa Vitarana (COPA Chair) and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa (COPF Chair). Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya attended the second meeting. The first meeting was also attended by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Kabir Hashim (UNP), and Dr Harini Amarasuriya (JVP/NPP).
As reported in the Sunday Island last week, Mr. Sumanthiran has indicated there is agreement in the group that the government should commence renegotiating with creditors before running out of existing foreign reserves and reschedule loan settlements. The group recognized renegotiation as a multi-step process, which could be guided by the experiences of other countries such as Argentina and Uruguay. The purpose of debt negotiations would be to ensure the continuous flow of essential goods and the continued protection of the poor and vulnerable social groups.
Again, there is no indication how far this initiative will go. But this is an instance and an opportunity for parliament to assert itself and literally compensate for the lack of political will on the part of the President and the Minister of Finance. There is another angle to this initiative given the convenor-role of Sumanthiran. It underpins the unifying role of national debt and everything ‘economic’. It also speaks to Mr. Sumanthiran’s role as a parliamentarian and a constitutional lawyer, and his abilities to work across party lines and ethnic boundaries on matters that are of importance to all Sri Lankans. I cannot think of a Tamil parliamentarian before him who would have played such a national role so well while being inflexibly principled on matters affecting the rights and expectations of Tamils as Sri Lankan citizens.
White Vans Return
The most shocking development last week was the return of White Vans after nearly seven years. In the first reported instance, goons in a white van attacked the house of TV journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrema with rocks and faeces and drove away with impunity. In the second instance, Catholic civic activist Shehan Malaka Gamage was arrested and taken way by CID men who too had arrived in a white van. Gamage managed to livestream the arrest on Facebook, calling it abduction, and the publicity forced the CID to produce him in court where the Magistrate released him om bail.
Gamage’s arrest stirred the ire of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who endorsed Gamage’s description that what was done to him was abduction. The Cardinal went on to call it “an uncivilised, thuggish act that should have no place in a democracy.” The Cardinal lambasted the Attorney General who authorized the ‘arrest,’ reminding him that the country’s Attorney General is “a public servant and not a tool of politicians.” According to media reports, the Cardinal also condemned the attack on the residence of journalist Chamuditha Samarawickrama, and “expressed his disbelief that the government would resort to such tactics with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session just days away.”
It is not only the UNHRC that the government will have to worry about for this year’s month of March. Cardinal Ranjith has put the government on notice that Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church is working with the Vatican to help find justice for the victims of the 2019 Easter bombings. The outspoken Cardinal has said that “if we cannot find a solution within the country, we will try going through international organizations.” And that “the government alone must take responsibility for that, because it is the government that has not paid an iota of attention to this.”
The return of the White Van a week after the release of Human Rights and Constitutional Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah might suggest that the SLPP operatives in the government do not know what they are doing. More sinisterly, the family, the SLPP and the government might be switching sides as they struggle to contain the continuing fallout from the Easter bombings. First they promised retributive justice to Catholics at the expense of the Muslims. Now the SLPP government might be trying to woo the Muslims and abandon the Catholics.
Playing one group against another never works and it always backfires. That has been the story of the entire Rajapaksa power trajectory – its slow rise, sudden peak and the rapid decline. Power not only corrupts and corrupts absolutely, but also comforts the futility of learning nothing and forgetting everything. Of all people, Prof. GL Pieris, easily the most erudite person to be in any Rajapaksa cabinet, gave a demonstration of this during his recent (February 6-8) visit to India.
India – a tried and examined pal
Foreign Minister GL Peiris visited his Indian counterpart Subramanyam Jaishankar in the first week of February. At the end of his visit, the Minister gave an interview to the Indian Express and to the Sunday Island’s Special Correspondent in New Delhi. The latter interview appeared in the Sunday Island last week – in the paper’s print and electronic editions but did not make the cut to the trendy online version. In the Sunday Island interview, Minister Pieris indicated that he had a better understanding of what the people of Jaffna need after spending three days in the peninsula, than any Tamil MP who, according to Pieris, is usually preoccupied with war crimes, which the Minister did not make it a point to deny as he usually does.
The key takeaway from the Sunday Island interview is his refutation of the claim (attributed to ex-Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran) that the proposed new constitution will remove the 13th Amendment and “convert Sri Lanka into a Unitary State instead of a Federal State.” The Minister called the assertion “irresponsible speculation” while not bothering to clarify to the Indian journalist that Sri Lanka is a constitutionally stipulated unitary state. He went on imply the need for patience till the Experts Committee releases its much awaited draft without indulging in “surmises and conjectures.”
In his Indian Express interview (which seems poorly transcribed and was reproduced in the Daily Mirror on February 14), the Minister was categorical that “the 13th Amendment is an integral a part of Sri Lanka’s Constitution of 1978.” Its “primary characteristic,” Pieris said “is a division of powers between the central authorities and the provincial councils.” He rightfully blamed the current suspension of the Provincial Council system on the previous government and the TNA for indefinitely postponing all provincial council elections through legislative inaction by parliament.
Quite apart from the 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils, the Indian Express interview is remarkable for its unusual expansiveness and its glowing allusions to the historical and currently “strategic” linkages between India and its “utmost isle” (Milton), including a potential “financial integration” of the two countries. The Minister described India as “a tried and examined pal that’s all the time there for us.” While admitting to the apparent competitiveness in Sri Lanka’s dealings with India and China, the Minister asserted that “there’s something very particular about Sri Lanka’s relationship with India … a particular high quality about it,” and deemed it “inconceivable that Sri Lanka would (have) allow(ed) our nation for use in opposition to India.”
The Minister identified different economic sectors as underpinning the evolving “strategic relationship” with India. They include ports and harbours, electrical energy, petroleum, tourism, prescription drugs, and of course all the financial credit help which sets up for the “integration of the financial system of India and Sri Lanka” for mutual benefits. If Ranil Wickremasinghe had said half as much, he would have been tattooed and crucified no sooner than he got off the plane at Katunayake. But Pieris may have the Teflon touch as a Rajapaksa Minister.
It could also be that whatever Minister Pieris says in India may be of little consequence for the President or the Prime Minister in Sr Lanka. But that is hardly the way for the government of Sri Lanka to manage its relationship with India. It can get counterproductive when it is apparent that the Sri Lankan government, or Minister Pieris on his own, is trying get New Delhi’s help to deal with UNHRC in Geneva. Besides the UNHRC, there is the EU, and now the Vatican and the whole Holy Catholic See to deal with. Connecting all the external dots internally is the return of the White Van to violate the streets and homes in Colombo. Either the government is inexplicably dumb, or it is assuming that it is cleverer than everyone else in dealing with human rights.
Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole
By Gwynne Dyer
I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.
The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.
The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.
Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.
Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.
The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.
Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.
Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].
Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances
The river we step in is not the river we stand on
By B Nimal Veerasingham
Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.
This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.
US Foreign Policy
The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.
Fr Eugene Herbert memorial
Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.
Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.
Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.
Excellence in Basketball
Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.
The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.
Reaching the stars
I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.
The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.
Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.
In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.
‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.
Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.
The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.
Breaking down societal imbalances
El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.
The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.
This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.
Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs
By Uditha Devapriya
Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.
In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.
In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.
There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.
Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.
Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.
In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.
Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.
Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.
If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.
Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.
Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.
In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.
Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.
He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.
Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
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