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Professor Ashley Halpe, the great humanitarian I knew – I

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By Rohana R. Wasala

I do not know
the thin reek of blood, the stench
of seared flesh, the
cracked irreducible bone; I know
only the thinner reek of pity,
the harsh edge of self-contempt,
the ashy guilt of being too old,
salaried, safe, and comfortable.
I would know their reasons,
the rigour of their hot hate, their
terrifying faith. But
they have said everything
in dying, a communication
beyond all speech….
        Ashley Halpe, ‘”April” 1971’

In the incantatory rhythm of the short meditative lyric contained in Professor Ashley Halpe’s collection of his poems entitled “Silent arbiters have camped in my skull” from which the above lines are quoted, we sense the ebb and flow of the self-assumed guilt (note the play on the word ‘ashy’ that echoes the sound of his first name) and the attendant self-contempt of a socially well ensconced and physically secure but conscience-stricken senior don; he imagined that he was so circumstanced as to be a helpless onlooker while the young students, for whose safety and wellbeing he held himself at least indirectly responsible, were getting slaughtered during the April 1971 JVP rebellion. The young people he empathised with were engaged in a violent struggle in the name of a cause that they fiercely believed in. Professor Halpe had the deepest concern for the education and wellbeing of the youth of the country. On its publication by the Tisara Prakasakayo, Dehiwala, in June 1976, Professor Halpe gifted me an autographed copy of the volume: He wrote “What about writing, too?” in the inner title page before signing it for me. I still have it with me.

He had great sympathy towards the young people who took part in the first JVP insurrection, that took place in April 1971; but he didn’t show any interest in the politics that drove their activism. He had a number of poems in that selection which were implicitly dedicated to the many young boys and girls, including university students, who had perished in that ill-prepared, ill-timed and ill-fated adventure, attempted though it was by a group of selflessly committed and genuinely patriotic young Marxists.

 

Tribute

This present piece of mine, reluctantly autobiographical and discursive, is a memorial tribute to the late Professor Ashley Halpe of the University of Peradeniya, who breathed his last, aged 83, on May 15, 2016. It is five years overdue, though, (the reason for which is explained below). I was prompted to write it after reading three recent write-ups published in honour of the late professor: Tissa Jayatilake’s commemorative essay “Remembering Professor Ashley Halpe”, Aparna Halpe’s filial appreciation “Learning from My Father, Five Years after His Passing” (Aparna was no more than a little chatterbox of a toddler when I first saw her in her father’s light blue Datsun stationwagon, looking through the open shutters and commenting on the passing scenes on the way in her charming baby-prattle during a drive from the campus to Kandy) and George Braine’s “Shakespeare in a takarang shed”, befitting a pupil, published in The Island issues of May 17, 23 and 26, 2021, respectively. To date, Tissa Jayatilake has written quite a number of articles in appreciation of his beloved teacher and respected senior colleague in the academia over a long period of time. I still remember how Tissa, as a novice assistant lecturer, wrote a well-argued defence of Professor Halpe, the foremost Shakespearean scholar of the time in the country as he described him, countering an attack on the latter by some biased critic; it was published in a national newspaper, probably in the Daily News or the Sunday Observer. It was in the second half of the ‘70s decade. I find many laudatory assertions Tissa makes about Professor Halpe in his deeply felt latest eulogy (which is devoid of any hint of hagiography, nevertheless), that I can endorse through my own experience as one of the late professor’s close companions (at a particular time). The only reason for my inordinate delay in writing a commemoration article in honour of Professor Halpe was my own persistent diffidence and hesitation to do so caused by the feeling that the attempt might involve telling too much about myself in the process (instead of the person remembered) that would not be of any interest to my readers. However, I have now realized that that potential danger cannot be avoided by any of his grateful students in celebrating the memory of Professor Halpe simply because of his self- effacing humble nature. While alive he played a distinguished multifaceted role in the national educational and cultural sphere as the doyen of Sri Lanka’s English literature academics.

 

Opportunity

I enjoyed the opportunity to closely associate with Professor Ashley Halpe, the English scholar, poet, dramatist, translator, and painter, initially as my teacher and mentor, and eventually as ‘friend and colleague’ (as he had us identify him) during the 10 years from 1972 to 1982. He treated all his junior associates in the same unassuming manner. At times a rare vainglorious person among them would pretend to be extra pally with him by addressing him by his first name, something that our then colleague, the late Aubrey Kuruppu, well known cricket columnist, commentator, umpire, administrator, and coach – in fact, cricket filled his life – used to ridicule as trying to be ‘on Ashley terms’ with the professor! Professor Halpe was above all a great human being as Tissa Jayatilake has stated more than once in his writings about the late professor.

To me, Professor Halpe was an immensely knowledgeable teacher and a kindhearted guide with a philosophical bent, at a familiar personal level, rather than at a routine official level, due to the uniqueness of the circumstances on my side that caused me to seek his help at a time I had no direct connection or communication with him; but to him, in his own generous estimation, I was one of his ‘young colleagues’, an honour I let myself accept with a keen awareness of my own inadequacy beside him. The latter phase of our relationship (‘friends and colleagues’ stage) was during 1976-82 when I served as an English instructor in what was then known as the sub-department of English (which at a later time became the English Language Teaching Unit/ELTU), whose function was to teach English to the new entrants of all the faculties of the university who lacked the proficiency in the language that they needed to acquire in order to complete their academic studies at the high level of excellence that the university traditionally maintained.

 

Peradeniya

The Peradeniya University’s department of English, even then, more than two decades after its heyday, harked back to its classical fame under its legendary gurus, such brilliant English scholars of the ‘40s and ‘50s as professors EFC Ludowyk, HA Passe, and Doric de Souza. They together bequeathed to the later generations of students the likes of Professor Ashley Halpe and Associate Professor Thiru Kandiah {the latter later moved to the Department of English Language and Literature of the National University of Singapore}.) The Trotskyite English don Doric de Souza (a prominent member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party) played a significant part in the formation of the sub-department and was responsible for the compilation of a prodigious amount of appropriately chosen practice materials which were designed to meet the advanced linguistic needs of the general mass of students who had little or no English on admission.

I believe I was lucky enough, under the volatile circumstances later reflected in this personal account, to have the chance to subject myself to something of the lasting influence of the first two stalwarts mentioned above, in my attitude to, and grasp of, English literature from and through Professor Halpe, while drawing similar inspiration from the astonishingly creative and productive ideas independently incubated by Doric de Souza about teaching English for academic purposes (which our work as instructors was all about) through Dr Thiru Kandiah. I didn’t personally know Dr Kandiah before my appointment as instructor in 1976, but from then on, my friendly as well as productive interactions with him became as close as those with Professor Halpe.

At this point I feel that a quick flashback to my senior secondary school days is necessary to put my relationship with Professor Halpe in perspective. (By the way, I’d like to alert my readers to the fact that the account given here is not going to be linear; it will have a number of duly indicated flashbacks and flash-forwards, which, I hope, you will not find to be too much of a disjunction in the narrative.) My particular family circumstances caused me to interrupt my GCE AL studies and find a job. While still attending school at Poramadulla Central, I appeared for a competitive examination for admission as a ‘non-teacher’ to the Government Teachers’ Training College at Maharagama, the country’s premier secondary teacher training institution of the day (The National Institute of Education stands at the same venue today) for following a secondary English teacher training course. In those days (the latter ‘60s), Maharagama specialist trained teachers (in any of the specialized fields of science, maths, English, etc) enjoyed special recognition and were paid on a higher salary scale than those from general teacher training colleges. This salary disparity was removed under the UF government of the ‘70s. Our English teacher at the GCE OL in the mid-60s was an alumnus of G.T.C Maharagama.

 

Ambition

It was at the G.T.C. that I started entertaining an English Honours degree ambition, thanks to two scholarly lecturers there: Mr A.M.G.Sumanapala Akmeemana who held a BA English Hons (London) degree, and was also a postgraduate TEFL (UK) diplomate, whose thought-provoking lectures delivered in flawless (but not stilted) English left a lasting impression on my young mind. It was from him that I learned what the ‘Socratic method’ of teaching was: for a considerable part of the lecture time, he didn’t ‘teach’; he asked questions and made us think. Tissa remembers the same stimulating approach used by Professor Halpe, and I agree with him. (Incidentally, the senior English lecturer at Vidyalankara University, Mr A.M.G. Sirimanne, that George Braine mentions in his piece was Mr Akmeemana’s older brother, but I never saw him; I had only heard about him as a first-class English scholar.) The other lecturer who similarly inspired me when I was training at Maharagama was the late Ms Chitra Fernando, linguist, academic and author, and eminent English fiction writer. She was a Peradeniya English Hons graduate, who had been tutored by Professor Passe and other stalwarts in the later ‘50s; she was perhaps a little junior to Professor Halpe at Peradeniya. On my first day at Maharagama, she called me to her after a lecture, and asked me from where I was and how old I was. I told her. When I said I was 19 plus, she said to me: “You are still too much of a kid. You should be in a university, not here. Don’t stop your studies after training”. Her words made a seminal impact on me. The training gave a foretaste of my Peradeniya experience, which I went through in unusual circumstances.

Before being enrolled as students of the Teachers’ College, the successful candidates were appointed as assistant teachers so they could be paid while in training.

They were made to sign a bond committing themselves to mandatory unbroken government service for a specified period after training, failing which they were required to pay back the cost of the training in full. On completion of the two year course, they were appointed to secondary schools. As luck would have it, I was appointed to a secondary school close to my home town, which suited me in view of my family responsibilities and my postponed university education prospects. This was a year or two before the first JVP rebellion of 1971.

Now, still in my early twenties, while teaching in that school, I successfully appeared for my delayed GCE AL exam as a private candidate offering English as one of the standard four subjects to be offered at the time in the arts stream instead of the science stream which I had followed at school, and qualified to apply for enrolment in a university. However, I couldn’t legally find admission to a university or leave the state school system which employed me without losing my job because of the training college bond that I had signed with the government. So I decided to achieve my ambition as an autodidact, and got enrolled for the external degree programme of the Peradeniya university as a special English trained teacher.

Following this, I wanted to make contact with an internal student in the English department. I did that through a former schoolmate of mine who was just finishing his studies in another department of the Peradeniya university. He said he had a friend doing English, who, he was sure, would gladly help me with his notes and other materials as he was a ‘kaddek’ with revolutionary leftist ideas in politics ‘like us’, and offered to take me to him. (The slang word ‘kaddaa’ in university parlance meant a (male) person who was already competent in English or was pursuing studies in the English medium; ‘kaddee’ would have been the feminine form, which I never heard, though.)

By the way, it may be said that the campus colloquialism ‘kaduwa’ for English (from which base the above forms were derived) originated among university students, about or just before the time covered in this narrative; they, having mostly come from the non-English speaking (or exclusively swabhasha speaking) rural peasant and generally subaltern sections of the society with negligible English, recognized the alien language (English) for what it had been in the past: a symbol of colonial power and privilege and an instrument of oppression and exploitation; a perception that they expressed by calling it ‘kaduwa’ (sword). I owe this analysis of ‘kaduwa’ to Dr Thiru Kandiah mentioned above, internationally known Sri Lankan linguist, who both spoke and wrote about it occasionally in his normal research related contexts. He drew upon his research experiences among Black and other non-white subjects from dispossessed backgrounds in America in this respect. I remember him describing “kaduwa” used in that sense as a remarkably expressive poetic construction. Being a senior lecturer in English, he happened to be the coordinator of the subsidiary division of the English department at the time I got appointed to the permanent cadre of instructors in1976 after facing a highly competitive recruitment test (By that time, I had completed my English Hons degree, while working in a government school as a teacher.)

To go back in my narrative again, the ‘kaddaa’ that my school friend took me to was none other than the same Tissa Jayatilake I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, then a student of both Halpe and Kandiah. This was around 1970 to early 1972, i.e., well before I came into any close contact with the latter two. Today he is well known as English academic, political analyst and director of the Fulbright Commission of Sri Lanka, among other things. When Tissa was appointed as the director of the American Center (called the American Corner at present?) in Kandy in those early days that I am talking about, he was given a big official vehicle by the embassy that employed him. I still remember (hope my memory is not erroneous) him telling us how embarrassed he felt to be driven about in that ‘limousine’ among the poverty stricken fellow citizens of the place. I also remember attending a public lecture on the prominent ‘metaphysical poet’ John Donne (of the late 16th- and early 17th century) that he delivered as a fresh lecturer (no doubt on being recommended by Professor Halpe) at the British Council library, then located in a building adjacent to where the current supergrade branch of the Bank of Ceylon in Kandy was built decades later. In passing, it must be remembered with gratitude, that the British Council and the American Center libraries in Kandy, which were well stocked with books, offered the local readers (mostly students) free library facilities, that I made the best use of as additional resources in my scholastic endeavours.

Going a few years further back from this point, the past scene of my first meeting with Tissa is clearly etched in my mind. This was in the early ‘70s, during the months that the April ‘71 insurgency was gradually fomented, got suddenly ignited and was quenched with considerable violence. The security situation in the country was still tense consequent to the JVP revolt, which I had survived miraculously unscathed. The untimely death of my father due to sudden illness a few years previously left my family without its anchor. The responsibilities that my father shouldered largely devolved on me. This left me neither the opportunity nor the inclination to take part in the revolutionary political movement, which had been initiated by the ‘Peking Wing’ (of the Communist Party) led by N. Shanmugathasan. The activities of the ‘Peking Wing’ led to the formation of Rohana Wijeweera’s Janatha Vimukti Peramuna.

We – my school friend and I – , to resume the episode of my first meeting with Tissa, called on him in his room in a hall of residence whose name has now slipped out of my memory. He was reclining in his bed against some pillows, chatting with some friends of his (from the adjoining rooms, as was obvious). He immediately sat up, and welcomed us with warmth, while his friends left, letting him talk with us. Tissa showed great empathy with my situation. He proceeded to give me some very useful hints. He named books that he thought I had to read in addition to the prescribed texts for the first year exam or the General Arts Qualifying (GAQ) examination, which he had already been through. Later, Tissa introduced me to an assistant lecturer named Wimal Weerakkody for help with Western Classics. The latter’s brilliance in spite of his visually handicapped situation was amazing, and he was very generous in helping me. This Wimal Weerakkody was none other than the late Prof Emeritus of Western Classical Languages D.P.M. Weerakkody (familiarly known as Wimal Weerakkody), then an assistant lecturer in that subject, who was residing in either Jayatilake or Arunachalam Hall of Residence – I can’t clearly remember which – close to the Arts Theatre and the central library of the university. Meanwhile, my schoolmate friend borrowed the books that I needed from the university library using his student library tickets.

Subsequently, I passed the GAQ examination, earning eligibility to read for a Special (or ‘Honours’ as it had been known until not long before that) degree in any of the three subjects that I had offered for the GAQ (namely, English, Western Classical Culture and Economics). I opted to major in English, which had been my lifelong dream. I chose Western Classical Culture as the subsidiary subject to go with my principal subject English. This happened about a year after the first Che Guevarist uprising (1971) of the JVP was brutally put down by the government security forces, as shown above.

I thought it appropriate to go and see Ms Chitra Fernando and Mr Akmeemana at Maharagama and express my gratitude to them for invigorating me with their kind advice and guidance. Unfortunately, the former was not there. But I was able to meet Mr Akmeemana. He seemed more pleased to see me alive than to hear about my exam success (not that he underrated the second). “My family circumstances and my passion for English saved me, sir”, I told him. Like Professor Halpe (whom I came to know a year or two later), Mr Akmeemana, it was evident, wept in his heart over the ‘tragic destruction of young lives’. “Those innocent boys and girls were on the threshold of life. But their idealism killed them”, he mused, “They were just waiting to be slaughtered in the jungle!”

(To be continued)



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Master gardener’s role in transforming Singapore into ‘garden city’

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By B. Nimal Veerasingham

Soil from time immemorial has been regarded the womb of mother earth – creating, shaping, and nurturing life. Recognising the pivotal role soil plays in sustaining life through greenery, water, food, ecology, weather and organisms, human livelihood continues on its familiar path. Life, which originated from the earth, is recycled as ‘ashes to ashes – earth to earth’, while most earthly elements are present in the human genome. The cycle of life continues.

The most visible extensions of soil are arboreal and tropical, deciduous and dense canopies. Greenery became the pulse of human existence, incubating larger settlements and civilisations. There is nothing possibly more satisfying than witnessing mother nature in one’s own backyard, or, for that matter, every available public space.

In 1965, when the father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), a Cambridge educated Lawyer, started off with a clean slate in a Singapore separated from Malaysia, which paved the way for an economic revolution, his inheritance was a forlorn nation. There was no reliable water source to even dream of greening the landscape. After all, redeeming masses from exploitation, crime, disorderliness while ushering in economic growth and hope was a more immediate requirement than providing secondary sustainable green space for the sake of livability and healthier environment. ‘Let’s put the house in order and fire the economic engine, and we will create an environment, both aesthetic and an internalised social asset for the citizenry to appreciate livability’, was the order in which the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula placed its priorities.

The founding father LKY envisioned a wholesome meritocratic outline, long term social and economic planning as opposed to populist policy, at times shaped by the evolving experiences elsewhere, to shape what others might have defined as daydream.

Green historians strolling through the landscape of Singapore might come across the obvious milestone, envisioned in 1967 and started with the very first official ‘Tree planting day’ in November 1971. LKY foresaw this attempt, to transform the country into First World standards, as per his memoir ‘From Third World to First’. But is there something that is not visible other than the obvious?

The majority, almost 70 percent of Singapore’s population is made up of those with Chinese ancestry. Confucianism is the backbone of Chinese thinking and lifestyle in many respects. It speaks strongly of the rhythm of nature’s ability to sustain life, both its biological and socio-cultural renditions. Its holistic organic continuum makes nature interdependent and interrelated to all aspects of harmonious human life. Landscaped, planned gardens or efforts to incorporate soil and greenery, are part of this grand equation, to bring nature closer to home. It is no secret that LKY strongly adopted practical realities including in early thinking, in his efforts to make Singapore a ‘garden city’, or the later attempt to place the ‘city in a garden’.

The art of harmonising nature with human lives by way of landscaped gardens by the Chinese Emperors has been observed well over 3,000 years ago, earliest recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Many features were added to synchronise waterways, vegetation, rocks, galleries, etc., besides the earthen or wall backdrops to add an element of surprise to suddenly unfolding spectacular scenery far and near. Explorers like Marco Polo (1300 AC) and early Jesuit priests (1600 AC) wrote in detail about the Chinese gardens which later became the inspiration for landscaped gardens among European royalty.

The earlier garden concepts were mostly undertaken by rulers who not only created the same for relaxation and pleasure, but also to impress others. This is no different from the present-day home gardeners. The same is true in a sense, of Singapore’s ambitious economic agenda. They realised the need to impress investors, distinguishing themselves from other developing countries, while also softening the harshness of urbanisation for its population. An orderly, manicured and planned green abode without litter, graffiti, or crime, provides an ambiance of a desirable, well-organised destination for investors and visitors. ‘Clean & Green’ became the slogan where land was specifically set aside for tree planting, green buffers and park development; even overhead foot bridges, lamp posts and flyovers were camouflaged with creepers and climbers to transform the dreary concrete jungle into life.

LKY, at the beginning, turned towards schoolchildren to fight entrenched old habits, getting them involved in valuing greenery, thereby taking the message home to the grown-ups, to prevent walking over plants and grass, trampling flowerbeds and saplings and damaging with motor vehicles. Whether his interest in green ecology was inborn or born out of necessity is hard to gauge, but he poured over many models and of ecosystems around the world during his many overseas visits. He discovered that in Paris a drainage system was built below the pavements to sustain broad tree-lined boulevards, and the reason rolling meadows of New Zealand cannot be replicated in Singapore.

In fact, he brought two experts from New Zealand under the ‘Colombo Plan’ technical assistance programme to learn how rain water dripping from an equatorial forest as found in New Zealand, replace torrential rain that washes away the topsoil in Singapore, with its tree canopy. He frequently sent out expert teams all along the equator to find different vegetation that could thrive locally. He even trapped rainwater falling on the roadways, filtering the grime and oil to water the vegetation under the flyovers, in some cases even splitting the flyovers for sunlight to reach underneath. Hardheaded and pragmatic, he was not ideological or dogmatic, but willing to try many methods to get at what worked best. ‘A well-kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders, the people’s ability to work hard, organize and to be systematic,’ he would say.

Fundamental to any dream of greening is water. There was no natural water source in Singapore. The entire water supply had to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet, imported water was cut down by more than 50 percent, and Singapore became a world leader in reclaimed water technology, setting up rainwater reservoirs and desalination.

Providing gracious natural amenities all across the city state was also a matter of equality, thought the planners, where a network of over 300 parks and four nature reserves were created spreading over the island almost the size of Colombo. Singapore was consistently ranked within top 10 of world’s greenest cities by leading global organisations, with further ambitious plans for cleaner energy models in transportation, public buildings and landfills by 2030.

The economic engine was in full swing in the late 1980s as the City State was ready to expand the green movement to provide greater space for leisure activities and to rejuvenate the population with parks and connecting green corridors, allocating more than half a billion Singapore dollars.

The annual tree planting week, which eventually expanded into the clean and green campaign, was aimed at providing a mental and physical stimuli for the population, in a tropical garden city setting. LKY mentioned the initiative as a crucial strategy for the wellbeing of Singapore, and never missed an annual tree planting event until his death at the age of 91. The campaign grew from 150,000 in 1974 to almost 1.4 million in 2014. The 162-year-old Singapore Botanical garden, being the crown green jewel, glares in its testimony as being the only tropical garden honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Being ranked high in UN Human Development index as well as having the second highest GDP per capita in the world with longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality was no accident. As one of four Asian Tiger economies with limited land area (728 Sq KM), Singapore continuously evolves from labour intensive industries to high end technological incubators and brain intensive software industries with less labour. Their economic innovation exemplified in diversifying digital technological opportunities is key to staying ahead of others to ensure economic supremacy. As part of this evolution, Singapore has started exporting expertise of urban industrial parks and residential complexes through its subsidiaries of national agencies, notably to China and Indonesia.

For all its glory of using nature for the benefit of the population’s physical and mental well being and productivity, there are critics who associate the attempts with social engineering and the state’s heavy-handed interference in individual freedom. They weigh in with arguments of Confucian influence where the elders or the State knows best and decides for the rest. Some critics point out that the whole green revolution is a pretext to keep the population within the watchful perimeters of large housing estates (91 percent home ownership), where they are watched, controlled and given directions.

But to all critics, Singaporean planners’ response is that the City State simply follows what the democratically elected lawmakers have enacted as statutes; the rule of law prevails. Corruption of any sort is severely dealt with. Nepotism and ethnic favoritism are legally barred and diligently followed in all areas of civic administration, to the books.

As the interwoven tropical topography of the region was ideal for spices, empires vied for control for supremacy over the aromatic gold, which changed the economic prospects of the region forever. Though the forced takeovers provided trading infrastructures and routes, the economic base needed to be reinvented with times, towards the long-term betterment of its inhabitants.

Among its pioneer influence of relevance, four dominant trees could be highlighted for their stronghold in Singapore from the time it was founded as a British Trading Post by Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Nutmeg and rubber trees changed the industrial world in two different but intrinsic ways, with economic expansion and industrial dynamism. Raffles himself planted Nutmeg trees after claiming Singapore, the spice that revolutionized baking globally. Singapore Botanical Gardens became the leading exporter of Rubber seeds whereby Malaya supplied almost half of the entire world supply of rubber. Banyan and Rain (Samanea saman) trees, known for their vast reach and circumference, have no promising economic purpose, limited to providing shade.

What the model of Singapore foretells in terms of an economic miracle is that, as Lee Kuan Yew found out from his vast exposure and experience as the Chief Gardener of Singapore, the economic diversity and resilience of the likes of nutmeg and rubber trees have to be replicated and developed. But the characters of the Rain and Banyan tree in particular have to be avoided at all cost in order for the model to work, let alone succeed.

Like the parasitic Banyan tree eventually kills its host, corruption in any form would kill the very foundation of any economic model––borrowed, replicated or home-grown.

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Sat Mag

A tribute: Sumana Aloka Bandara

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Top and bottom photos show Bandara with his theatre troupe

 

By Uditha Devapriya

Photographs of Bandara
by Manusha Lakshan

“That the man who wrote these plays wasn’t mentioned in the State Drama Advisory Board’s ‘Playwrights of the ‘60s baffles me even today.” (Sunil Mihindukula)

Sunil Mihindukula was referring to Sumana Aloka Bandara. When my friend Chathura Pradeep broke the news to me of Bandara’s passing away last Monday, I first wondered how many people, particularly young people, would have heard of his name. In the heady years of Sinhala theatre, in the early 1960s, Bandara lived and breathed theatre. If his works aren’t as remembered today as they ought to be, they were immensely popular then. His sole achievement, for those who have the foggiest notion of what he did, seems to have been introducing Malini Fonseka to the stage. Yet this isn’t all he did.

In much the same way Sarachchandra became a product of his era, Bandara epitomised the cultural zeitgeist of the times he lived in. He counted among his contemporaries G. D. L. Perera and Premaranjith Tilakaratne, as well as the formidable Sugathapala de Silva. Critics invariably refer to this generation as the children of 1956, but they were more correctly the pioneers who made 1956 possible: hailing from a subrural middle-class, educated in English, they lived and revelled in a bilingual twilight between West and East, studying Shakespeare, Becket, the kitchen sink realists, and kabuki with as much dexterity as they did traditional dramatic forms. I lamented the passing away of this era when Premaranjith Tilakaratne died four years ago. With Bandara’s demise, the circle seems dismally complete.

Sumana Aloka Bandara was born on October 31, 1940 in Diullegoda, near Nikaweratiya. He obtained his primary education at Diullegoda Rajaye Pasala and his secondary education at Vijayaba Maha Vidyalaya. At Vijayaba, he met Simon Nawagaththegama.

Apparently Simon had been quite a character: “he was almost always mulling over a book.” While the school hadn’t boasted of exceptional facilities, “it empowered us to explore our interests.” Against this backdrop, Bandara and Nawagaththegama ended up becoming great friends: “I sincerely believe that, to his dying day, I was the only childhood friend he kept in touch with.” Surprisingly for Nawagaththegama, however, “he never took part, neither was he called to participate, in the plays we were taken into.” Bandara remembered two plays in particular: Sarachchandra’s Pabavati and a radio drama called Alokaya.

“It was a heady time for playwrights. Pabavati, as you know, established Sarachchandra. The English critics began to notice him. I won’t say I was a big theatre fan but these things did not escape us. On the other hand, we were also exposed to the big screen.” Of the films he watched, he remembered “the Tamil ones the most, since they were frequently screened: M. G. Ramachandran and Anjali Devi were particular favourites.” No doubt these lit a fire in Bandara’s soul: “I wanted to go beyond my hometown, to Colombo if possible.”

In 1961 Bandara did just that. Working as a clerk at the Civil Aviation Department, he soon got to know people who had links to the theatre in the capital. “We watched as many films as we could, given that there was hardly anything else we could do in our free time, but more importantly we developed and nurtured an intense passion for drama.” Sooner or later these lovers of the theatre would get their shot at writing and producing their own plays, and the opportunity came, invariably, through their workplace.

“I was a member of the Government Clerical Services Union. We were tasked with the soliciting and procuring funds. One way we did that was by organising a drama festival. Through these festivals, I met a man called Dharmadasa Jayaweera. He mooted to us the idea of staging original plays. That’s how we formed our troupe. We called ourselves the S Thuna Kandayama (‘S. Thuna Group’), after the first initial of the names of the founders: S. Aloka Bandara, S. Dharmadasa Jayaweera, S. Karunatilake. By then Sugathapala (de Silva) had formed Ape Kattiya, and Premaranjith Tilakaratne 63 Kandayama.”

Somewhere in 1965, S. Thuna came up with Akal Wessa, their first production. The play, Bandara remembered, “contained three characters: a woman and her husband, plus a second man that woman falls for. The plot was based on a short story called ‘Trikonaya’ by Daya Ranatunga, from a collection of stories, Thuththiri Mal. Dharmadasa played the role of the man and I took up the character of the husband, but we had an issue with finding a girl to play the wife.” It seems they approached every thespian: “we went to Prema Ganegoda, Chandra Kaluarachchi, even Leoni Kothalawala. Being newcomers, we couldn’t make much of an impression. We had to fall back on a fresh face.”

Fortunately for Bandara, a friend of his from school working at the Treasury Department, by name Ekanayake, living in Wedamulla, a suburb in Kelaniya, was good friends with a family, one of whose daughters had taken part in several school based productions and won beauty contests. “He suggested her for the role and we went around inquiring whether she would like to take part. Her father was hell-bent against it. Eventually, through some miracle, she got permission, and came down to play the wife’s character to perfection.”

Despite its controversial subject matter, the play became a phenomenal success: “It ran on for more than 10 shows.” Sumitra Peries, talking to me about that period, remembered Akal Wessa as “revolving around an interesting theme and becoming popular among mainstream audiences.” Tissa Liyanasuriya, who, like Sumitra and her husband Lester, went to see every play he could, had gone to watch it with four friends, including Joe Abeywickrema. “Were it not for a problem that cropped up regarding the authorship of the text,” Liyanasuriya noted, “it would have become one of the most successful plays of its kind.”

Liyanasuriya remembered Akal Wessa for another reason: “the girl who played the wife’s role won Best Actress at the Drama Festival, and we selected her for our next film.” That girl was Malini Fonseka, and the film Punchi Baba. So much of an impression had she created in the minds of those who saw her that two other directors vied to take her in: G. D. L. Perera with Dahasak Sithuvili, and Lester James Peries with Akkara Paha. “Lester selected her as the protagonist’s sweetheart, and later cast her as his sister,” Sumitra recalled.

Akal Wessa was followed by three productions: Nidikumba (1967), Api Kawda (1969), and Kiri Kandulu (1972). With Nidikumba – which featured Nita Fernando, who had just entered the cinema – Bandara made yet another contribution to the theatre: while it was far from the first absurd Sinhala play, it was through that play that a Sinhala word for Absurd theatre was coined: “Vikara Rupa.” The term was Bandara’s.

Api Kawda was an exploration of rebirth against the backdrop of marriage life, while Kiri Kandulu delved into unemployment, uncertainty, and the transcendental love of a mother. By then, however, a new dramatic form had entered the stage, and as a result the era of Jayasena, Gunawardena, and Sarachchandra had to yield to that of Nawagaththegama, Hemasiri Liyanage, and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, among others.

Amidst all this, Bandara recalled, “we faced the vagaries of life as they came to us: periods of intense poverty, joblessness, uncertainty. I took to writing novels and autobiographies. Sumana Mathaka and Patirikka, my memoirs, were published by Godage some time back. As for drama, well, I couldn’t return to it. Times had changed, I had a family to manage, and besides we were not in the 1960s, when it was possible to experiment in theatre and live a moderately comfortable life. We could no longer afford that life.”

If Bandara’s most enduring contribution to the theatre had been introducing Malini, this does not, and should not, belittle his other plays, and the lengths he went to stage them despite all obstacles. “It was a different time,” he smiled at me, bringing our conversation to an end. “A sonduru kalayak.” He may have been facetious there, but he was right. His death hence brings us a step closer to the end, not of that kaalaya, but of the memory of an entire yugaya. The Sinhala theatre, like the Sinhala cinema, has had many obituaries. This may be one among many; the latest, depressingly enough, of many more to come.

 

The writer can be reached at
udakdev1@gmail.com

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That Serial Rape of Girl Child

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by Dr D. Chandraratna

The writer was former Deputy Commissioner, Probation and Child Care (SLAS)

A/Professor Curtin University, Perth

Consultant, UNICEF, Social Care Project 2006

 

The United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines child prostitution as ‘the use of a child in sexual activities for remuneration or any other form of consideration.’ Therein a child is taken to mean anyone under the age of 18 years, The current episode of the serial rape of a girl child has caught the attention of many in the country and understandably so. We all are entitled to know more about it and in a sense it is genuinely everybody’s business for obvious reasons.

Official statistics at the National Child Protection Authority seem to suggest that child, related crimes are perpetually creeping up despite the many institutions, statutes and other state and non-state apparatuses brought in to stem the rise, alongside improved social conditions and law reform. We need to caution that rises in statistics could be due to better reporting and policing by state officials. On the contrary, there are child protection authorities that believe that those official figures, far from exaggerating, underestimate the real quantity of crime, leaving out many who do not get reported owing to a number of reasons. There is also scepticism in society that many schemes unveiled with fanfare as quick solutions to child crimes have not been implemented.

 

Why the sickening abhorrence

Leaving aside the emotional and affective arguments there are scientific reasons as to why this sordid episode is heart rending. First, working as a prostitute is dangerous and presents real risks to children. The body of a Sri Lankan child is often too small and malnourished to have intercourse with an adult man, and early sexual activity can be physically damaging for life. Young prostitution is also associated with poor health and substance use. Many child prostitutes are often already traumatised kids who have been abused. Pimps and traffickers manipulate children by using physical, emotional, and psychological abuse to keep them trapped in a life of prostitution. Venereal diseases run rampant. Children may also suffer from short–term and long–term psychological effects such as depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of hopelessness.

Secondly, technological advances, in particular the Internet, have facilitated the commercial sexual exploitation of children by providing a convenient worldwide marketing channel. Individuals can now use websites to advertise, schedule, and purchase sexual encounters with minors. Third, the overwhelming majority of clients are men, and at most time’s men of economic and social power who thrive on exploitation in their vocations. Fourth, child prostitution is clearly related to other forms of child sexual exploitation, such as trafficking and pornography; the precise links varying between different locations. Child prostitutes are filmed having perverse sex and that these images are stored, shared with others, and, in some cases, made commercially available. In the current episode the mobile phone has facilitated the despicable act of selling the services of this child.

Types of child prostitution

Child prostitution has a number of dimensions: trafficking, debt-bondage, prostitution supplementing family economies, ‘survival sex’, religiously sanctioned child prostitution and a few others. Debt bondage we already know from Bangkok and Phuket streets where intermediaries offer cash advances to parents to procure girls and boys under false pretences. The children are then sent to work in brothels, sometimes without their parents knowing the nature of the work they are involved in, working until they have paid back the debt. Finally, there are also other incredulous instances of religiously sanctioned child prostitution, such as the ‘devadasi’ cults of India, where girls are ritually married to a deity and are expected to have sex with intermediary priests or higher caste members of the community. These variants are operating in the newfound cults of major religions of the world and expose style sensational news hit the headlines from time to time.

 

Sri Lankan child prostitution:
A situational report

Let me explain the merits and demerits of our experience in the field and discuss serious flaws, which need to be improved if we are to contain the possible growth of these instances. This kind of gang raping little girls is becoming all too frequent in a hitherto conformist Sri Lankan society.

Sri Lankan child prostitution came to prominence in the time of the burgeoning tourist industry, alongside the height of the HIV infection. There have been claims that the demand for child prostitutes, in the developing world, rose as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, because children are thought less likely to be infected and are therefore more favoured as sexual partners. There are also claims that some men believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Literature says that similar claims were also made about syphilis in Victorian England.

Our research in the early 2000, conducted as part of UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Services, distinguished between situational and preferential abusers. Preferential abusers were habitual paedophiles that have an interest in either boys or girls only of a specific age. Situational abusers may well not have a particular sexual preference for underage prostitutes but will have sex only if circumstances yield an opening. The South Western coastal belt from Negombo to Tangalle was a haven for paedophiles arriving in the guise of genuine tourists. Evidence was plenty that these preferential paedophiles took residence in some tourist spots and were molesting beach boys, sometimes with parental consent. Parents and others who were benefitting from the sordid crime harassed our research staffs. The police were surprisingly quiet. In one encounter the mother who shouted, ‘my son will not be pregnant, so what does it matter to you’, chased the researcher out of a home. Such is the ignorance of the illiterate folk and the lure of good money.

Our Achievements on this front

The combined effort by the Ministry of Social services (which included Child Protection at the time) with UNICEF, operationalised a number of projects along the popular therapeutic remedies suggested by child experts. The themes we worked on were many. Very briefly (a) Training the cadre that prostituted children should be treated as victims, never as offenders, (2) Victim-sensitive interview techniques be used in all cases of child abuse, (3) Prostituted children be treated with respect and concern and should be encouraged to talk about their experiences, (4) A holistic approach when working with these children (5) Greater access to services; (6) Private court hearings rather than open courts; (7) Gender sensitive, and culturally appropriate services planned with victims; (8) Victims included in the process of identifying and developing solutions. (9) Professionals to make a concerted effort through information sharing and all stakeholders involved in developing, implementing, and/or overseeing strategies to prevent and address prostituted children and youth; (10) Stiffer penalties for all types of offenders.

We were weak on professionalism in the child protection services and to rectify that we drafted a Human Services Diploma (at graduate level) to cover the entire island. The entire judiciary was to be familiarised on the subject covering all 10 items noted above. The response that the judiciary extended to us including Supreme Court and High Court judges was admirable. The Judges participated with so much enthusiasm.

Sad to note that these programmes (costing over $100 Million) have been one off affairs and the courses themselves have been prostituted for money. Regret to note that this project, funded by, UNICEF came to nought for the unbending bureaucratic attitudes of general administrators who refused to accept any science that upsets their hard earned status and power. The $60 million spent to build Social Care Centres to transform casework practice are cattle sheds. Despicable is too soft an epithet to describe the reticence of bureaucrats. Given the length of this vast topic I will note, by way of a conclusion, a few issues that we must address to arrest further decay.

 

We are accelerating towards a moral abyss?

Firstly, like in many third world countries, the exploitation of children is still prevalent in domestic and commercial trades. Children who fall prey to sex crimes are generally the poorest in countries as Sri Lanka. This exploitation is rampant in Sri Lanka beyond reasonable bounds. Mark Suckerburg’s Facebook and Internet have catapulted societies, which were autocratic, but reasonably moral, into the moral ‘vacuum’ where pornography overwhelms online learning (trawling) as my friends from Colombo tell me. Hope they are wrong. When corruption has engulfed society, exploitation becomes the natural modus operandi. In COVID times we have seen how Asian societies made extortion of the dying without compunction. Lest you charge me for condescension let me state that capitalism in the West has an ethic still held tight both by fear of God, civility and stiffer penalties. Wonder whether readers saw how the Australian Prime Minister himself put down the plunder of toilet rolls at the beginning of the pandemic. Nothing untoward happened in trade and commerce ever since in Australia.

When I queried, the Chief monk, Rev Siri Sobitha, in our Perth Buddhist Temple, he wisely told me that Sri Lankans have given up the eternal truths (Dharma) as enunciated in the Angutthara Nikaya without any semblance of civility in our society. When a society, or an individual, discards ‘Hiri Oththappa’ there is unending decay. The simplest meaning, as our mothers have harped on us, is ‘Lajja Bhaya’. Are we on the doorstep of this Nadir?

 

Police – Protectors or Oppressors

What we observed then were police indifference and neglect. Abuse from the upholders of the law, manipulation of the poorest and most defenceless, and temptations to twist discretion into improper discrimination, improper bias, improper means and intransigence. In Sri Lanka uniformed patrolmen supplementing their meagre pay by small payments from myriads of drivers on the road is an open secret. Every instance of child prostitution had political or economic power links. Wonder whether police were voluntary molesters in this episode, too.

Bribery has become a way of life in highly bureaucratised countries as Sri Lanka. It is well known that bribery is necessary to oil the wheels of essential government services. Overzealous public officials have created unnecessary rules that invite corruption as part of acceptable practice. Corruption at all levels in the country is a chronic political illness. Corrupt police reflect a corrupt community where the government is corrupt and in similar measure the professions, businesses, industry and labour. And even the system of criminal justice is tainted.

 

The sentencing drama

A judge in sentencing, we believe, is guided by a single clear criterion, but it is by no means clear to the public. These crimes are like warfare against the community, touching new depths of consciousness. If criminals are brought to trial, the convictions must be commensurate with the public sentiments such that others will not commit such depredations. The punishments must deter would-be imitators. By the same token retribution has to be proportionate to the enormity of crime. The question of just deserts is important to the degree that punishments shall not exceed the guilt. This rape was vile, repulsive, demanding that it must be avenged, the perpetrators denounced but yet it must accord with the guilt and no more. As Bentham said ‘punishment itself is evil as crime and thus the judge should impose no more of it than the limit allowed’.

The court system is biased against the powerless child victims from poor environments. They are handicapped from the start for several reasons. The judgements given are seen as unfair. Unjustified prejudice, ignorance on the part of courts, poorly conducted police investigations, discrepancies due to the practices of individual judges, discriminatory practices of police, differential ability of defence counsel are insurmountable hurdles against the poor victims.

Finally in Sri Lanka it is difficult to quell public rumours about political interference at various stages in the proceedings. The case against the perpetrators of the Jaffna girl Vidya demonstrated the invisible hand of politics.

Let the citizenry be vigilant to stop this savagery.

 

 

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