by Nilakshan Perera
(continued from last week)
On July 23, 1983, when the LTTE ambushed 14 Army personnel including Lt Waas Gunawardena, we were at Ratmalana Air Force hangar to receive and assist Security Forces personnel. We will never forget the tragic scene of the special Y-8 plane carrying 14 dead bodies wrapped in polythene landing at Ratmalana. The next day onwards we were deployed for Internal Security duties. That was a somber period that opened our eyes to the stark realities of military life. However, no sooner the situation in the country became somewhat normal we too reverted to our usual routine.
Though we could move around with other students at University we were strictly instructed not to engage in any form of ragging as it will lead to the suspension of our studentships as well as being discharged from KDA. Among the next batch of university students, a few happened to be the daughters of some senior officers. For ragging, we asked them to bring us packets of home-cooked lunches wrapped in “kehel kola” with dhal, pol sambol & fried dried fish and asked one of them to get us a good machete so that our midnight operation (plucking kurumbas) could continue after the machetes used earlier had been confiscated. We also asked themto take us to Hotel Rahima (biryani), Venice Ice cream Parlor, or Shanthi Vihar for dosa. They were all good sports and readily obliged.
After one of the dinner nights, we were tasked the next day to rearrange the tables and chairs (we were the juniors throughout our cadetship at KDA as no new cadets were admitted due to protests over KDA entry by various student movements), and the job was going to be quite a task as long distances had to be covered with the tables and chairs. Fortunately, the Duty Officer of the day told us to use the Army 1210 TATA truck provided there was a volunteer driver. Only two of us could drive during our cadet days, but we grabbed the chance and did the unloading and rearranging and then drove back via Airport Road, Borupone Rd, Ratmalana Station Rd – a journery of about two hours. The truck was perfectly parked at the vehicle yard with all 14 of us seated comfortably inside at the end of the assignment.
Lt Dushantha Chelliah of Sri Lanka Navy (he retired as Commander in 1995 and migrated to Canada) took over as our Troop Commander. He came directly from Naval Maritime Academy where he was the Asst Division Commander (the Course Officer of Admiral Ravi Wijegoonawardane, former Chief of Defence Staff). He was a great cricketer who played for Royal College, Sri Lanka Navy, and Defence Services as an opening batsman. He was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t tolerate any nonsense. We were fortunate to have played either football, cricket or rugby matches with teams of several foreign naval ships visiting Sri Lanka. These games were played either at Welisara Navy grounds or S. Thomas’ College grounds, Mt. Lavinia, thanks to Lt Chelliah.
In addition to sports, he also helped us with our studies and with his
contacts. We had our very first sea experience of a voyage from Galle to Colombo onboard SLNS SAGARAWARDANA. (Sadly now it’s at the
bottom of the sea). We were given on-board training of most naval operations We all loved the food that was served on board the vessel with all kinds of fresh seafood on offer. Lt Chelliah had also introduced us to maintaining a Journal. We had to write details of events that took place daily and submit our records to the troop commander by Monday morning at 0700hrs before leaving for campus. He returned the journals marked and corrected the same evening when we returned. Before doing anything else, we read and redid the corrections knowing the consequences if we did not do so. It was a great lesson we learned and we still maintain historic information and important dates.
Few of the most undisciplined cadets were made to measure the depth of Sir John’s lake near the summer hut as punishment. The water was not that salty but the smell of muddy water and different types of rotting vegetation and small fish lingered in our overalls. That was all part and parcel of our training and we still cherish the experiences.
Changing uniforms for parades had to be done to split second precision. We had to get ready in 30- 40 seconds and report to Sir John’s bungalow in a couple of minutes – a maximum of two to three minutes for running back to billets which were 750 meters away and returning to stand at attention in a place where a spotlight was focused. Cadets couldn’t move beyond that point. Lt Chelliah would come to the balcony and see/instruct us on the next kit change and timing. This will go on for about 20-30 minutes. Some tried shortcuts by placing all kits – civil, white PT, battle order uniform and recreational kit – under a coconut tree on the grounds and changing there rather than running back to billets.
Our profound gratitude to you Sir, for who we are today – dedicated disciplined gentlemen officers. Though he was a strict disciplinarian he always respected us cadets and trained us to be the best. He punished us when we did wrong with the good intention of making us better officers so that we too will train our subordinates in the same way in the future.
Normally on Poya Days, we had bana for about an hour, preached by one of the Buddhist monks from Bellanwila Raja Maha Viharaya. Having this in mind, on the day before Poya, we took our civil clothes and left them at a friend’s place on the other side of runway of the Ratmalana Airport.
This particular Poya day in Dec 1983 also happened to be a Saturday which suited us fine for our escapade. While the rest of the cadets were plucking araliya flowers for the bana, five of the worst rascals crossed the runaway to our friend’s place for a quick change into the civilian clothes left there and then scooted off on trip to Sri Pada. We caught the 9.40 am Udarata Menike express train and got to our destination.
We didn’t have any plans for meals but for our good luck, while climbing the mountain we made friends with a very nice family with four pretty daughters. They looked after us very well with food and soft drinks and all we did accompanying them to the summit. We returned their hospitality by carrying all their belongings down the mountain as we had nothing to carry ourselves. This was easy as we had carried heavy backpacks and weapons as punishments and for training and compared to those what we carried for our friends was nothing.
Two of the daughters of that family became popular pediatricians and one a well-known banker. We were fortunate to have met them and still are in touch. We managed to return to KDA secretly by 4.55 am on Monday to be mustered for PT at 5.30 am. All went well but the Air Traffic Controller at the Airport had spotted five cadets wearing PT kits crossing the tarmac. But he had not reported it to KDA as he was a good friend of one of the cadets. We owe him for not reporting his observation to our superiors; and also the rest of our batch-mates, who who covered for us by putting down our mosquito nets and pretending that all of us were asleep in our billet. The duty sergeant on his night round saw all nets down and thought 14 cadets, including us absconders, were sleeping soundly.
We were the very first Intake to decline the leave given for Sinhala/Tamil New Yearone year. We were given four days off but it was hardly enough time for Saliya Weerakkody, whose home was at Diyatalawa, to travel to and fro with the travel time alone two days. We requested more days of leave on behalf of Saliya but when this was refused, all of us said we’d stay back at KDA. Because of us many others from the training staff, naval catering, medical, and transport also had to sacrifice their leave. We were very well served for our ‘solidarity’ with pack-drills, in the morning, afternoon, and evening continuously on all five days. As a result of this became fitter and tougher and also well united and bonded.
Mess Assistants from the Navy and two waiters were dead scared of us as we used to complain about the quantity and quality of food etc. to duty officers who had to either instruct the catering staff to cook separately for us or reach the proper standard. Because there was only the 14 of us in the camp at that time, our unity and comradeship was very high. Only two of us had girlfriends when joining KDA and whenever a love letter was delivered by post, the recipient had to read it aloud for everyone to hear. Others hardly received any letters even from parents but on our own we posted letters to ourselves, just to pretend that we too were getting mail. Few of us were so well known at the Ratmalana Post Office that letters addressed with only a name and Ratmalana reached us. With no WhatsApp, Viber, FB, Twitter and Instagram then, we used to have many singsongs. Preethi would sing Amaradeva’s Minidada Heesara, and Upul Wijesinghe, Mal Warusawe. Just Walking in the Rain was Damian’s favourite while Thiru contributed Maha Re Yame. There were a lot of M.S. Fernando’s songs and baila sung too.
Shantha Liyanage used to do ‘bat drills’ as he played cricket for University and Lal Padmakumara, being a jack of all trades, advised even carpenters and masonry workers at construction sites at KDA. Manoj was glued to James Hadley Chase’s books, one after the other, but Dimuthu had other plans. He used to take us fishing at Bolgoda lake and Panadura bund. Whether we like it or not, we too went with him. He knew all the culverts in the Borupone area, where guppies breed. Only later did we learn that he had fished the best Mermaid of the Kanangara family consisting of three daughters who lived down Borupone Road. That was Nalika (Dr. Nalika Gunawardena, former Senior Lecturer at Medical Faculty Colombo and presently at WHO as National Professional Officer) Catholics among us were allowed to attend Sunday Mass at nearby St Mary’s Church in Ratmalana and Buddhists went to Bellanwila Temple. While returning to KDA we used to check if Dimuthu’s Dad’s EN 2876 black Morris Minor was parked under the portico of the Principal’s bungalow(highly respected Mr.
Cyril Gunawardane was the Principal of the Deaf & Blind school) and if the car was there we were sure of a good dinner and a free ride to KDA with Dimuthu. We’ll never forget Uncle Cyril and Aunt Dolly’s wonderful hospitality and unconditional affection for all of us.
Whenever we were invited for a birthday party (especially girls’ 21st birthday parties) or any other social gathering we got permission but had to return before the 10.00 pm roll call so that the Duty Cadet could report that all 14 of us were there and no one was sick. In case the Duty Cadet wanted to check, he would call them personally by 2200 hrs but not later. Whoever had gone out had to walk along the Kandawala Road would look at our top floor bathroom window. If a green towel was hung there, he could go back to the party and come for the next day’s PT by 5.30 am. A red towel signaled “return immediately.” Coming back we had to navigate a 12 ft. high barbed wire fence.
We were fortunate to have our first ever CADET BALL in December 1984. We were asked to bring our dancing partners and most of the pretty girls of Moratuwa and Colombo Universities were there on the floor. It was all organized by Cadets of Intakes one, two and three and we were well trained in all aspects of hosting these functions very well by our Officer Instructors.
We had the privilege of associating with Military Academy Intake 16, 17, 18 & 19 Cadets on their Unit visits, and having a football match played at railway grounds and also several Cadet Intakes of Naval Maritime Academy Intakes 11 & 12 and China Bay Air Force Academy. Among these cadets, there were two future Army Commanders, Three Navy Commanders, and two Air Force Commanders.
We were also fortunate to have the remarkable company of a few great Air Force flyers like Jayanthalal Thibbotumunuwe, TTK Seneviratne, and Ruwan Punchihetti as they were attached to KDA while doing their flying training at Ratmalana. Sadly all three of them died in action later, (Wing Cmdr. Thibbotumunuwe in Nov 1996 at KKS and Pilot Officer TTK Seneviratne & Officer Cdt Ruwan Punchihetti in May 1995 during a Sia Marchetti training flight accident at Beruwala)
In our last year, five of our batchmates captained University teams.
Dhammika (rugby), Saliya (football), Damian (basketball), Dimuthu (rowing) and Ruwan Upul (athletics). After completing the University final exams in Nov 1985, four joined the Navy, another three joined Air Force and seven others joined the Army for their advanced and further training, saying goodbye to KDA, where we had spent almost three years and three months. Our passing out parade held in Aug 1986, with Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, Minister of National Security, as the Chief Guest.
Thanks to General John Kotelawela five of our batch-mates found their life partners from Colombo University and two got married to two
doctors from the Medical Faculty while two others wed lawyers from
the Faculty of Law. One found his bride in the Faculty of Science.
After joining the respective services our cadets excelled in their duties to the country at the highest level, especially at sea. Manoaj Jayasooriya, Preethi Vidnapathirana, and Dimuthu Goonawardena played aleading role in defeating Sea Tiger craft and engaging with Sea Tiger cadres face to face many times. For bravery and selfless acts, Manoj was promoted to the rank of Commander while at sea (Field/Sea promotion) by the Commander of the Navy in Feb 1999.
November 19, 1997 was perhaps the saddest day for the officers of Intake three when news was received that Lt Preethi Vidanapathirana, one of the most disciplined and adorable of our batch mates and a dear friend, has made the supreme sacrifice during one of the fierce sea battles in Mullaitivu.
The evening before, three batch mates Manoaj, Dimuthu and Preethi sailed from Trincomalee harbor as directed by the Commander Eastern Naval Area along with a flotilla of ships and crafts on an offensive patrol to disrupt an enemy movement that was due to take place between Thiriyaya and Mullaitivu.
Manoj who commanded the prestigious Fast Attack Craft Flotilla (FAF4) twice in his career after perfecting the art of naval battle, joined this important operation displaying his tactical leadership taking quick and vital decisions in battle. His presence in the theatre was undoubtedly a morale booster to all. Preethi was in Command of another FAC, P452 and Dimuthuin Command of a Chinese Gunboat SLNS Ranawickrama tasked to neutralize enemy launching pads along with SLNS Ranarisi. The two gunboats and eight Dovras engaged targets both at sea and on land to prevent a Tiger logistic move. The battle which is considered one of the bloodiest at sea lasted from approximately 2100 hrs on Oct. 18, to 0330 hrs on October 19, 1997. In the ensuing battle, Preethi having successfully attacked one of the enemy clusters was hit by a high caliber gun mounted on the bows of an enemy boat which immediately immobilized him, paving the way for two enemy suicide boats to ram his vessel sinking it within seconds approximately 3.5 nautical miles off Kokilai.
By this time, the enemy was forced to abandon its logistic move and return to base and what remained at sea were their two offensive clusters. Preethi was one of the best swimmers of his time and shone both in Ananda College, KDA and at the University of Colombo. As the incident occurred quite close to the shore, Manoaj and Dimuthu scoured the area for the next 24 hrs hoping to find and recover Preethi and his crew. But there was no sign of them.
Preethi was posthumously promoted to the rank of Lt Commander having been killed in action. We never forget to leave out Preethi’s beloved wife, Dr. Dayani Panagoda (Senior Technical Specialist Global Communities at USAID/SCORE) at our gatherings for she too is a part of our Intake family.
Manoj retired from the Navy as Commander in 2002. For his gallant and meritorious conduct in battle, he had been decorated fourteen (14) times by the President of Sri Lanka and he remains the most decorated officer in the Navy with this record has not been broken to date. He is a proud recipient of Rana Wickrama Paddakkama (RWP) seven times and Rana Sura Padakkama (RSP) seven more times. He is presently Executive Director of a well known Motor Company and Director/General Manager of a famous Engineering Company.
Dimuthu retired as Rear Admiral in April 2018, and presently functions as Director Communications and Publications at the Institute of National Security Studies having served in several senior positions in the naval hierarchy with his distinguished naval career recognized with awards on several occasions. Shantha Liyanage retired as Major General in Feb 2018 and held the prestigious appointments as Colonel Commandant Army Service Corps and former Commandant Army School of Logistics. He is recipient of PSC, and LSC.
Lal Padmakumara retired as Major General in Sept 2017 and was the former Director Budget & Finance Management of the Army, also the recipient of PSC and HDMC Damian Fernando retired as Rear Admiral and was the former Director-General Budget and Finance of the Sri Lanka Navy, proud recipient of USP, VSV, Purna Bhumi Medal too. Major General Dhammika Pananwela retired in Nov 2018, functioned as Commander Security Forces East, also a proud recipient several times of RSP for bravery, NDU for academics and was trained to bring death to the enemy from the sky. A qualified combat parachutist. Palitha Sirimal retired as Lt Col in 2002 and is at present he is a Director of a semi-governmental organization.
Ruwan Upul Perera retired as Wing Commander in Aug 2005 and is looking after his coconut plantations and other properties in Marawila.
Upul Wijesinghe is the Deputy Chief Executive of one of the largest Life Insurance Companies in Sri Lanka and also former President of the Sri Lanka Insurance Association. Others are well settled abroad like Thiru Amaran (Sydney) Shantha Edirisinghe ( London) Saliya Weerakkody (Melbourne) and yours truly in Singapore.
We salute all our senior officers of Intake one and two for their insightful guidance and patience, tolerating all our acts of misbehavior.
I take this opportunity to thank from the bottom of my heart my fellow batch mates of Intake three for the wonderful memories and camaraderie and humbly salute my brother officers who made the supreme sacrifice. During these past 38 years, we were united not just in friendships but in brotherhood and comradeship.
You guys truly are The Best
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
22A: Composition of CC problematic; ensures government domination
By Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne
The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government’s new Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution Bill was presented to Parliament on 10 August 2022. The earlier Bill, which was published in the Gazette in June 2022, lapsed as it was not presented before the recent prorogation of Parliament.
The August Bill is an improvement on the June Bill from a Nineteenth Amendment perspective. Under 19A, Ministers and Deputy Ministers were appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. This was done away with by the Twentieth Amendment. The June Bill sought to bring back the requirement of the Prime Minister’s advice, but that provision would not apply during the present Parliament. The August Bill does not have such an exception.
According to the June Bill, where the President is of the opinion that the Prime Minister has lost the confidence of the present Parliament, the Prime Minister can be removed. Such a provision is not found in the August Bill.
Under 19A, the Speaker, Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition were ex officio members of the Constitutional Council (CC), while the President would nominate one MP. Five persons were nominated jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, two of them being MPs. In making such nominations, they were required to consult the leaders of political parties and independent groups represented in Parliament to ensure that the CC reflects the pluralistic character of Sri Lankan society, including professional and social diversity. One MP was nominated by the MPs belonging to parties other than those to which the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition belonged. The three persons from outside Parliament shall be persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public or professional life and who are not members of any political party. Parliament shall approve their nomination. In practice, such approval was a mere formality as they were nominated jointly and after a consultative process.
The August Bill, like the June Bill, proposes the re-establishment of the CC but makes a crucial change. The five persons referred to are not appointed pursuant to the joint nomination of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. One MP is nominated by the Government Parliamentary Group, and the other MP is nominated by the party to which the Leader of the Opposition belongs. The three persons from outside are nominated not jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition but by the Speaker in consultation with them. The smaller parties are not consulted.
This deviation from 19A gives rise to several issues. If the Speaker is partisan (and there have been several such Speakers), the Government could ensure that all three CC members from outside are their own nominees. The Government, by virtue of its majority, would have no difficulty getting Parliamentary approval. The smaller parties would have no say in the nomination of these three persons. Thus, in the current Parliament, parties such as the TNA, NPP, EPDP, TNPF etc., who together account for twenty-five MPs, would not be consulted.
The 22A Bill says that in nominating the two MPs and the three persons from outside Parliament, Members of Parliament shall ensure that the CC reflects the pluralist character of Sri Lankan society. This would be most difficult as they would be nominated by separate processes. Under 19A, on the other hand, that was ensured as the nomination was jointly by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition after consulting the leaders of all parties in Parliament.
The composition of the CC is of crucial importance for the achievement of a national consensus on high-level appointments. The approval of the CC is a pre-requisite for the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal and appointments to high positions such as the Attorney-General and the Inspector-General of Police. Appointments to independent Commissions are made on the recommendation of the CC. As the other seven members of the CC are all Members of Parliament and may be swayed by political considerations, the three members who are appointed from outside have a vital role to play. They should be persons acceptable to all and who can have a moderating influence on the politicians.
An argument that has been adduced by the Government is that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition may not agree on the to be nominated jointly. No such issue arose both under the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Amendments. Members of Parliament nominated jointly acted with responsibility. Distinguished personalities appointed by joint nomination included Justice Dr A.R.B. Amarasinghe, Professor Colvin Gunaratne, Dr Jayantha Dhanapala, A.T. Ariyaratne, Shibley Aziz, and Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy, Javid Yusuf and Professor N. Selvakkumaran.
That the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition may not agree is no reason to give the power of appointment to the Speaker. The writer proposes that the 19A provisions be re-enacted with the addition that if the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition do not agree on the nominees within a stipulated period, the Speaker will make the nominations in consultation with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of the smaller parties.
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