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Neruda returns to Ceylon after nine decades with the film “Alborada”

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by Eda Cleary Panguipulli, Chile, January 2022

Pablo Neruda, considered by Gabriel García Márquez as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in all languages”, has returned to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in an extraordinary film entitled “Alborada”. It was written and directed by Asoka Handagama, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost filmmakers today. Asoka Handagama has a long and successful career as a filmmaker, painter and playwright.

“Alborada” was invited to participate in the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival in October 2021. The film has not yet been released in cinemas, but it is already giving a lot to talk about. The trailer can be seen on Youtube. The theme of the festival was “Crossing Borders”, which sought to showcase cross-cultural stories, and the story of Pablo Neruda in ancient Ceylon is certainly one of them.

The film is set in former colonial Ceylon during the years 1929-1930, a period in which 25-year-old Pablo Neruda, already the author of the famous book “20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair”, took over as Chile’s honorary consul on the island, after having carried out similar duties in Burma.

The script is a fiction that is structured from Neruda’s own memories in “I confess that I have lived” (1974) in the chapter “The Luminous Solitude”, where he describes in seven lines about how one day he sexually forces himself on a Tamil girl, who came from the lowest caste of the Sakkili, who were considered “untouchables”:

“One morning, I decided to go all the way, I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, brimming cups of her breasts, made like one of thousand-year-old sculptures from the South India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive . She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated”.

Asoka Handagama, an admirer of Neruda’s work, was stunned to read this paragraph of the memoir and for more than ten years entertained the idea of making a film about the incident. But it was not until 2021, in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic, that this dream would be realized with the filming of “Alborada”. The title was inspired by the name Neruda had given to his Ceylonese friend Lionel Wendt’s house built in the elegant Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood of Colombo. Wendt was a musician, photographer, filmmaker and promoter of the arts in his country.

The plot of the film is based on the following sequence: Neruda arrives without luggage in Ceylon because he had just come out of a supposedly “terrorist” love affair with his Burmese lover Josie Bliss, to whom he had not said goodbye. When he made his social debut in Ceylon, he met Patsy, a French girl, with whom he had free sex with no commitments. Just when he thought he was safe from Josie, she suddenly appears at his door. Neruda prevents her from entering, forcing her to spend the nights in the street, causing a public scandal. He hides and orders his servant Rathnaigh, not to let her in. Meanwhile Neruda continues intimate encounters with Patsy in secret from his Burmese ex-lover. Josie understands her disadvantageous situation and decides to leave him and go home for ever. Neruda is left devastated and now turns his attention to the Sakkili girl, whose job it was to empty and clean his buckets of excrement from the toilet every morning.

Neruda fantasizes poetically about this young woman, attributing to her goddess-like qualities because of her immense resemblance to a sculpture of the goddess Parvathi that he kept in his living room. His Tamil servant Rhatnaigh, a firm believer in the caste system, fears for Neruda and himself because he feels that any contact with this “untouchable” caste would necessarily “dirty” them. Neruda is alien to that cultural tradition. For him, the relationship between a man and a woman does not pass through caste. That is why he sees no obstacle to behave like a conquering “macho” when he feels like possessing a woman. The Sakkili girl, accustomed to her inferior position, does not accept Neruda’s attempts to approach her. But he insists and forces her in such a way that she is left with no alternative but to endure a sexual assault for Neruda’s carnal satisfaction alone.

This picture could have given rise to a number of different scenarios, starting with a mere voyeuristic version of what happened, a trivialization of the event, or perhaps simply its denial and/or justification. But that is obviously not Asoka Handagama’s style. Judging by the surprising interweaving of the subsequent scenes, and their unexpected ending, where a real explosion of pain, rage, despair and desire for salvation of each of the characters emerges, Handagama triggers a process of reflection that leads to a frontal humanizing approach. At no point does “Alborada” force the spectator to take sides with the good guys against the bad guys as if it were a battle, where passion could not give way to reason and understanding of what is happening.

Neruda never managed to forget the contempt the Sakkili girl felt for him. His ego was so wounded that shortly before his death in his memoirs he decided to make a crude public confession about the incident and thereby unveil a fact that is generally hidden.

Handagama’s great contribution is to have brought this story told in just seven lines to the screen with overwhelming complexity without falling into the temptation to light judgment.

The formidable outcome of the plot leaves many questions open, not only about the story that took place in 1929, but also about the relevance of these same conflicts in the present. Neruda is therefore only part of the chess game of the story, because Asoka Handagama, a connoisseur of his culture, has no qualms about revealing the world of brutal prejudices and superstitions that hung like a sword of Damocles over the “untouchable” Tamils. Especially on women, within their own caste they were the most discriminated against, and then doubly so by the society around them.

The occasion for the film could not have been more controversial. Almost five decades had passed since the publication of Neruda’s memoirs, which had been a resounding success. But time changes, social movements change, and so do readers’ perceptions. A few years ago, global feminism branded the story told by Neruda about the Sakkili girl as a big patriarchal lie. Overnight, social media was filled with angry statements against Neruda and the tone was to “cancel” Neruda. Now the most widely read poet of the 20th century was nothing more than a sexual predator. On the other front, Neruda’s unconditional followers went on the offensive and their strategy essentially focused on downplaying the fact. Both positions have contributed to the trivialization and caricaturing of the intricate origins of macho violence and toxicity, where the world is seen in black and white, divided between the good and the bad, the superior and the inferior. But life itself is more than that, and it is necessary to delve deeper into this history. In this sense, “Alborada” succeeds.

Confronted with the radical fundamentalist positions on this incident, Asoka Handagama approaches with creative audacity the dramatic subject of sexual violence, the caste dilemma and the racism underlying “machismo”.

Neruda’s confused life situation in Wellawatte is masterfully illustrated. The poet appears as a labyrinthine, multifaceted and contradictory personality. He is both victim and victimizer. He hides from Josie, is simultaneously cowardly, playful and adventurous, loses patience, smokes opium, takes his chances with Patsy, but does not hesitate to protect a woman beaten by her fisherman husband in Wellawatte. Crucial to the story, however, is that this confusion is not enough to understand the violent incident with the Sakkili girl. Asoka Handagama rudely but wisely lays bare the crushing destructive force of the patriarchal view of existence. From this incident, everyone is hurt, and the most damaged, of course, is the Sakkili girl.

The director of “Alborada” manages to bring the mature Neruda down from his poet-god pedestal without denying his immense talent and poetic genius. He humanizes him by pointing out his impotence to free himself from the macho ballast of male domination and shows him in his own masculine labyrinth.

This film is irreplaceable when it comes to an unbiased discussion of the real poisoning that patriarchal ideology creates in human beings in every age, in every occasion and in every culture. From a specific story, it universalizes the discussion on the difficult approach to the gender question, which is currently essentially caught in the grip of fundamentalist feminist positions that oscillate between the “culture of cancellation” and the traditional positions of the culture of denial and silencing of patriarchal violence.

Finally, “Alborada” is also a moving film with an excellent cast. The period setting gracefully opens the door to the past and makes us empathize with its protagonists. The handling of the camera to capture the characters’ states of mind with precision is outstanding. The colors, the scenes, the lighting and the music will be a real aesthetic delight for the viewers.

Eda Cleary is a sociologist with a PhD in political science from Germany. She lived for six years in Myanmar (the former Burma) between 2015-2021. She is the author of two essays on Neruda published online in the literary platform Letralia, Le Monde Diplomatique in Spanish and in the Chilean online newspaper El Mostrador. The first appeared in 2015: “Josie Bliss, Pablo Neruda’s Burmese lover 88 years later” and the second in 2018: “Ceylon in Neruda’s heart. Deconstructing Neruda’s life and work in Ceylon”. For this work, the magazine “Chile somos todos” of the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared her a “world-class Chilean” in 2016.

Editor’s note:

The author sent us this review after the publication of a feature on Handagama’s new film in this paper attracted her interest. She felt it deserved attention by the Spanish speaking world, did a review for Le Monde Diplomatique and sent us this translation of it in English.



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Features

BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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