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Prostituting public service

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By Sonali Wijeratne

Once in a while, albeit at least a state minister tells the explicit truth. Dr. Nalaka Godahewa quoted in The Island of 06 August said: “There are over 1.4 million public sector workers. There are a large number of pensioners. Annually, we need about Rs 1.2 trillion to pay salaries and pensions. In 2020, our annual income was Rs 1.4 trillion. We are left with Rs 200 billion to provide health services, education, transport et al.” It is a fact that the annual public service wage and pension bill has surpassed the trillion-rupee mark for the first time in history with the budgetary outlay for both public sector salaries and pensions showing a significant rise from 2019 to date.

It is ironic that these extraordinary revelations are made in the context of the current government continuing to burden an already overstaffed top heavy public service of over one million with yet more massive injections of 150,000 public servants! This programme to offer jobs to 50,000 unemployed graduates and another 100,000 so called ‘poor’ applicants with educational qualifications below the GCE Ordinary Level was first mooted as a pre-election promise in 2019. However, the Chairman of the Elections Commission directed its postponement due to the declaration of the general election in 2019. The expectation of employment opportunities would no doubt have supported the poll in favour of the incumbent government which has now commenced the said programme without work study, or needs assessment, but presumably purely on the basis of amassing support for future victory at the elections! But where will such short term manoeuvrings, by politicians to keep themselves in power at the expense of the country’s steadily depleting resources, lead us the citizens of Sri Lanka?

The recruitment of unemployed graduates and others into the public service outside the required cadre cannot be healthy or useful when most of them find themselves in an overstaffed environment with little substantive work to do. The relative lack of challenging work occupations and inadequate training to go around leads to a gross misallocation of resources with a superfluous workforce engaged in repetitive replication of tasks. Sooner or later this huge multitude of public servants will find itself with no real opportunity, ideal or goal to make a worthwhile contribution. Their only recourse then is to latch on to the privileges of the public service such as security of employment, shorter work hours and extensive leave entitlement, pension and less work.

Many castigate the bloated public sector in Sri Lanka as generally lethargic, corrupt and parasitic. What else could one expect when politicians of every hue continuously use what was once an elite meritocracy as a job bank to get more votes for themselves to win in the short run to the next elections! Even the most enthusiastic, qualified youth selected to the public sector is bound to encounter demoralisation, and dissipation of his or her talents when faced with such self-defeating and destructive manner of recruitment often imbued with politicisation and nepotism to boot. We no longer have Permanent Secretaries heading Ministries which was the hallmark of the previous era of the Ceylon Civil Service. Even the Constitution was changed in the 1970s to facilitate all Secretaries of Ministries to be hand-picked for appointment and changed at will by the political authorities irrespective of their ability, seniority or official experience and qualifications! Therefore, in order to safeguard their prized privileges, position and perks of office, most Secretaries of Ministries are apt to take the easy way out by appeasing political authority and not taking a stand against irregularities.

Moreover, it is no surprise that in recent times, the government seems quick to placate a group of vociferous public servants in the education sector who take to the streets, howling vengeance on the State if their so-called demands for wage increase are not met without ascertaining whether there is a genuine justification or need for such a pay hike! It is a fact that these teachers wilfully neglect their helpless students in a crisis situation, virtually holding the people and government of this country to ransom and taking undue advantage of the pandemic situation by denying online education to innocent schoolchildren already bereft of a normal education. At the same time, they have become super spreaders of COVID-19 in public demonstrations disregarding all norms of curtailing the pandemic which is at its highest. All the while, it is a fact that after bringing formal online education to a standstill, they are engaging in the lucrative practice of private tuition online and earning a mint owing to increased demand for such services.

Since placating the teachers at any cost seems to be the intention of our politicians, even the simple fact whether there is any truth to the so called allegations of anomalous salary in the education sector is not the focus of the government or that giving an undue salary hike to teachers will upset the delicate equilibrium of the salary structure across the entire public sector and result in further anomalies and require an all-round increase of salaries to the entire public sector.

The previous so-called Yahapalana regime too had in turn feted the entire public service with more than 100 percent pension and salary increase between 2016 and 2020. It is now the turn of the present government, already saddled with a huge economic crisis replete with debt burden, intractable budget deficit and balance of payments woes, to promise another round of public sector salary increases with the next budget in November this year. Anything and everything to survive in power on the horns of the populist vote.

Such cynical callous disregard for economic imperatives seems designed to win the confidence of the masses in the short term in time for the next general and presidential elections. No matter that it may lead to galloping inflation when you feed the public service with paper money due to a myriad of problems facing one of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crises. The nature of government related services in public sector salary and pension expansions leading to rising recurrent expenditures is bound to increase aggregate demand without a commensurate increase in manufacture/supply. This will in turn result in an inflationary spiral owing to an increase in prices eroding the purchasing value of increased salaries and pensions. Once the aggrieved workers and unions start demonstrating for higher pay hikes on the streets, the government will no doubt start printing money amidst other short-term un-economic manoeuvres and accede to their various demands for yet another salary rise. The one million public sector is an all-important voter base for any prospective government. So, to hell with rational responsible governance and sound economic management for sustainable development since the deciding factor for politicians appears to be to stay in power at all costs.

The negative effects arising from unbridled increases in excessive public sector employment expenditure have not been met by reducing recurrent government expenditure by way of rationalizing or downsizing the swollen public sector employment or increasing revenue. Instead, we have nonsense solutions such as non-sustainable recourse to additional borrowings, reliance on futuristic outputs from capital expenditure on a profusion of urban beautification projects, construction of gymnasiums and non-tradable flyovers and the acceptance of unsolicited tenders sans competitive bidding processes.

The case for public service reform to tame the monster of a hugely rotund and moribund public service devouring the nation’s resources sans a worthy contribution has been ably argued by veteran Public Servant, Deshamanya K. H. J. Wijayadasa, former Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka as well as a host of management gurus in the media, journals and other forums. First on the list is the need for de-politicisation, downsising, closure of non-profit making state owned enterprises, ridding the State of over-institutionalisation, duplication of tasks, that has resulted in the lack of coherence and fragmentation, the sheer scale of lack of professional integrity, discipline, accountability and resultant corruption and nepotism.

But it is questionable whether such rationalization is of any value to the politicians in government or those awaiting to form government, whose appeasement, at any cost, of the valuable voter base of over one million public servants is vital to their victory at periodic elections.

Irrespective of political differences, in general one of the first requirements of a politician in charge of a ministry is to find out how much recruitment, whether necessary or not, could be made. Often, the politician in charge of a ministry will single out compliant officers who will do his bidding, even those instructions that flout regulations and go against the best interests of the country. He will then call these officers and give instructions directly ignoring the Head of Department under whom they serve. There are instances where even officers, against whom there are well evidenced serious disciplinary matters pending, will be treated with kid gloves by their political masters and senior officers as Secretaries of Ministries and allowed to continue in privileged status without any inquiry.

The sad truth is that in a land of Lotus Eaters, there are significant numbers of ordinary people, as well as the businessmen and academia, who will lick the feet of politicians to get whatever benefits, privileges, opportunities for themselves and their kith and kin. The so-called Advisors, Consultants, and the hierarchy of senior officialdom surrounding the political authority will rarely utter a word against the dictates of their political masters even in matters of professional subject matter since they wish to hold on to their comfortable posts and enjoy the perks and privileges of office. Despite the fact that the state has given them free education and training both locally and abroad, these so-called professionals are seen flocking like veritable servant boys in their droves, round political authorities often aiding and abetting in deal-making and commissions or leading them down the garden path of policy blunders and national catastrophes. This is apparent, where some have diverted from their own field of qualifications and training and become pseudo authorities on every other conceivable subject!

Some recent examples bear the truth to this parlous state of affairs. For instance, the drastic decision to stop import of chemical fertilisers and replace it overnight with organic fertilizer when the country does not have immediate capacity and supply to service the same. The purported reason of chemical fertilizer being a causative agent for Chronic Kidney Disease and Cancer remains unproven in the international scientific community. Nor have our local pundits adduced scientific evidence in proof of the supposed correlation between ingestion of chemical fertiliser through food leading to carcinoma. The decision has been supported by some sections of the medical fraternity, not the agricultural scientists and growers! Now the farmers are up in arms predicting a poor harvest with food security gone to the whims of unprofessional decision making and implementation.

When import duty for sugar was slashed last year, the benefit was passed neither to the consumer nor the government, which lost revenue to the tune of Rs 15.9 billion. But insider information on the proposed reduction of commodity levy duty from Rs 50 per kilogram to 0.25 cents per kilogram enabled one specially favoured M/s. Pyramid Wilmar Pvt. Ltd. to sell more than 2000 metric tons of sugar, imported under the Rs. 0.25 levy to state-owned Sathosa for an exorbitant price above Rs. 125, per kilogram. The State owned Sathosa then sold the sugar to the consumers at a reduced rate of approximately Rs. 85 per kilo. Therefore, Sathosa purchased sugar at a higher price and sold it at a lower price. It is apparent that this is either due to negligence or official blundering for the purpose of defrauding the state for enrichment of certain vested interests. It was pitiful to see the mandarins of the Finance Ministry making feeble apologies over the media for such blatant debacles.

The heat seems to have died down on Sri Lanka’s most destructive environmental disaster of the X–Press Pearl and the previous New Diamond ships affecting marine life, livelihood of fisher folk, and most importantly the coastal and oceanic environment of a small island state. Questions remain as to why the Sri Lanka Ports Authority allowed an already compromised leaking ship to enter the port of Colombo with tons of toxic substances. Investigations have revealed deleted email communications, and a general delay, inaction, malaise, on the part of a number of state regulatory organisations responsible for this sector. The removal of the politically appointed Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority does not seem to absolve the responsibility for this great national disaster which also rests on several marine environment, merchant shipping regulatory organisations in the public sector as well as its political leadership.

As for the performance of the public health sector, we are in the fourth wave of the pandemic reporting approximately 200 official deaths per day, many hundreds under wraps or undocumented, a dire warning from World Health Organization of a holocaust of deaths to come! The ‘Bubble Tourism’ and great economic resurgence expected to be ushered in by the new normal of carrying on ‘business as usual’ with all public servants requested to report to work on a daily basis now seems to have evaporated into nothingness! Thanks to the mayhem policy prescriptions of blowing hot and cold on regulating movement, the peniya (decoction) which received a temporary approval without adequate plan on bona fide data of COVID-19 spread, the relative absence of consistent implementation of restricting large crowd gatherings, inter district travel and Sinhala and Tamil New Year travel. Except for the still small voice of truth of the Sri Lanka Medical Council and a few upright academics, the pitch seems to be full of the blame game, some professionals casting cheap accusations of sabotage against other professionals for lack of data when all the while the truth is plain to see. Over 75 percent of approximately 8,000 deaths recorded due to COVID-19 are those above the age of 60 years with comorbidities such as high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney dysfunction. Why was this group not given priority in vaccination since the beginning of this year? Who is responsible for such manslaughter and criminal negligence? When the Sri Lanka Medical Council recommended a lockdown during the April New Year period, and subsequently, why was such informed recommendation rejected by the Government? When the admirable performance of the former Health Ministry Secretary, Dr. Anil Jasinghe showed a controlled management of the COVID-19 last year, why was a ‘push-up-and-kick-out’ strategy followed when he was moved as Secretary to an entirely different sector foreign to his medical training and experience as Environment?

The sad truth seems to be that behind every public servant stands the shadow and spectre of the politician. His is the desire for continued electoral victory, by hook or by crook, power and desire for personal wealth creation during term of office. The 1972 Constitution has ensured that the public service is at his disposal and command to achieve such objectives.

There are exceptions no doubt, but the brave and the honourable few who take a principled stand and try to work for the good of the country are invariably sidelined, undermined and ignored. These are the faceless public servants, quiet heroes and heroines who still serve and give their best, striving to make a difference for the better: They are those who trust in God and do their best for their fellow citizens despite all odds and being wearied and harried in the extreme! It is they who experience the ultimate bliss of certainty and quiet joy of knowing that come what may, their exertions have not been in vain and even in extremely limited and circumscribed circumstances and terrain, they have been able to deliver for the common good.

(The writer is a retired Public Servant with 34 years service as an executive  in varying capacities in Colombo State Sector and  Diplomatic Service.)



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Features

My father, the unforgettable Premnath Moaraes

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Birth centenary fell on Jan. 31

by Pradeep Moraes

Singer, Songwriter, Lyricist.

Actor, Film Director, Scriptwriter, Producer.

Weightlifter, Wrestler, Footballer, Cricketer, Athlete, Gymnast

Journalist, Sports Editor, Creative Head & Copywriter.

Commentator, Compere and Silver tongued Orator,

Believe me, the list goes on.

Renaissance Man? , Bohemian Artist? Yes to both, but to me, most importantly, the gentlest human being one could hope to meet, and the most devoted husband to my mother and loving father my sister Rehani or I could ever have hoped to have .

Premnath Joseph Moraes – born Joseph Peter Moraes Fernando on January 31, 1923, was of solid middle class stock, who carried his simple and devout Catholic faith right through life.In many ways he epitomized the essence of the very best of the Benedictine trademark ,with traits and talents that wove a rich tapestry of Arts, Sports, Humanity, Simplicity and a Christianity that was lived rather than preached.

Abundantly blessed with talent and versatility, he was however trusting to a foolish degree and unfailingly gullible so as to be a target for exploiters and worse, resulting in the vicissitudes of economic circumstances. So it was not his largesse that begets the incredible goodwill he has left as his legacy to his family, but rather a tribute from people of all walks of life to Premnath the man.

Talking of all walks of life, my father trod many paths; a short outline of which I hope will make good reading.

Joining the Police force soon after school , he was seconded to the CID and later advised to leave by a senior police officer after having spoken openly at the funeral of a colleague who had been gunned down when leading an unarmed raid on a den of vice.

Thereafter he sought and secured a position as a reporter with the Times of Ceylon after an interview with its Editor, Frank Moraes ( later Editor of the Times of India and father of the poet Dom), who reminded him that “the coincidence of our surnames will remain just that! “

Leaving the Times of Ceylon building , Premnath was almost knocked down by a vehicle driven by his friend Sangare Sellamuttu (later Mayor of Colombo ) with whom he got chatting and informed him of the job he had just landed . “What nonsense ” said Sellamuttu , “with your looks you should be in films . Let me introduce you to Sir Chittampalm Gardiner. ” Good looks he had, no doubt about it, but rather than me being accused of understandably favourable bias let me quote an excerpt from a long , eloquent and emotional appreciation by the late, great Gamini Fonseka:

“On those extra broad shoulders

rested that handsome head

of a barrel chested man

with a wasp like waist

His features stirred envy

In the hearts of “stars” of his day. “

The shoulders were actually very broad prompting the late T.B. Illangaratne (author and later Govt. Minister) to describe the hero in one of his books (in Sinhala) as having a moustache like Ronald Colman, and shoulders like Premnath Moraes.

Getting back to Sir Chittampalan (also an old Ben) , the great man was too busy to see my father that day and instead told him “meet me in Madras on Monday morning” (this was Friday) leaving the young applicant to find his own fare – perhaps a test of mettle.

Young Premnath (a name he then assumed ) was signed on as an actor and thus started a romance with the film industry which lasted over 50 years ( from 1947 to 1998 , from starring in ” Kadawanu Poronduwa “ (also known as Broken Promise) the second Sinhala film to be produced, to Demodara Palama, circa 1997. Warada Kageda and Kapati Arakshakaya in the late forties were followed by several others .

This was followed by a stint in Shanthiniketan the Centre of Arts north of Calcutta , the stay which was undertaken for purely aesthetic reasons, gave my father the most pleasant memories among which was seeing and hearing Maestro Ravi Shankar perform for over a hundred cumulative hours.

The long visitation was in the company of his close friend Shanthi Kumar Seneviratne (Star and Director of Ashokamala – the first Sinhala film). Though they both learned classical dance in Shanthiniketan, my father unlike Shanti was never a fan of ballroom dancing – much to the chagrin of Rani , my mother.

From Shanthenikitan, Premnath moved to Bombay where he was in the famed Raj Kapoor/Nargis circle , and was close friends of Dilip Kumar (Mohamed Yusuf Khan), and closer still to one of the most beautiful Hindi actresses of the time, whose gift to him – a gold , Universal Genève watch , I wear to this day.

Back to Ceylon , and the man took up to singing, was contracted to the HMV label (His Masters Voice) , recorded solo, and with Latha (Walpola) and Chitra (Somapala), of the many recordings perhaps the most famed are “Sri Lanka Rani Meniye” ( the de facto Catholic anthem of Sri Lanka) and “LakDeepe” .

Mellifluous to a high degree, his voice had the unusual combination of mellowness and power, in fact we have a photograph of my father recording “5 ths” in a studio a full 20 ft away from the “mike”.

Here, permit me to express a son’s view albeit emotionally flavoured ; I truly believe that no one could sing Olu Pipila or Kokilayane Kolila Nade, better . Incidentally the great Sunil Santha who immortalized these songs was also a Ben .

The Sri Lankan Nightingale Rukmani Devi once told me that she and her husband Eddie Jayamanne (both of whom were very close to him) used to badger my father to sing the 1939 classic “Over the Rainbow ” at every possible opportunity, and redoubtable fellow Benedictine Ben Navaratne ( argued to be the best wicketkeeper Sri Lanka or Ceylon ever produced) used to always ask my father to promise to sing ” O Danny Boy ” over his grave; very poignantly Ben Navaratne and Premnath Moraes are buried within yards of each other at the Jawatte Cemetery.

On to 1953. Production Assistant (titles were not grandiose in those days ), and Second Unit Director for Elephant Walk , directed by William De Telle , the son in law of the legendary Cecil B De Mille ( of Ten Commandments Fame ) .

Starring Vivien Leigh, Peter Finch and Dana Andrews – all Oscar Winners – (Peter Finch and Dana Andrews later, Vivien had already won hers for Streetcar named Desire). Living at the Galle Face Hotel for a full nine months, interspersed with long stays at up country locations, my father enjoyed close interaction with the best acting talent the world had to offer, with the huge bonus of frequent visits from Laurence Olivier, probably the most acclaimed Thespian and Actor who was obliged to check on his wife Vivien, who succumbed to a nervous breakdown within the shooting period. Many were the occasions when the “master” himself was coerced to perform Hamlet to a private audience,

What is remarkable (given that this was 1953) is that Vivien’s condition was recognized , possible inability to proceed was anticipated, and EVERY scene was shot twice, one with Vivien Leigh, one without. So upon Vivien being unable to proceed with the film, the images of Elizabeth Taylor were superimposed – without her ever having visited Ceylon. Not bad for 1953!

Two short stints as Second Unit Director for United Artists “Captain’s Table” and “Purple Plains” which starred Gregory Peck , on to India where he was Production Manager at Gemini Studios in Madras, where most of the Sinhala Films at the time were edited, dubbed and produced. Coincidentally his uncanny look alike, the Tamil film star Gemini Ganeshan, got his eponymous name through association with this studio.

Wide varied and versatile though my father’s exposure to the celluloid world, in my opinion his single most significant to the Sinhala Cinema were his unremitting efforts to get Gamini Fonseka into it, culminating in a successful introduction to Lester James Peiris who brought Gamini into Rekawa in a non starring role. The rest – to use a cliché – is history!. Gamini never lost an opportunity to credit my father (whom he referred to as his “guru “) with his entry to films, and Lester has also endorsed the fact over the years.

Many are the others whom Premnath introduced and inducted into the Film world, stars, cameramen, sound artists, script writers, editors , music directors et al, and many are the pioneering developments he introduced to Sinhala cinema.

A classic example is Sri 296 which he directed in 1959, wherein he provided Henry Jayasena , Joe Abeywickrema and Punya Heendeniya with their first “starring ” roles (all had played small roles earlier), introduced the very beautiful Zeena Valencia to whom he attributed the screen name “Sumitra” (a name she retained for life) who then went on to marry Gamini Fonseka.

Sri 296

is considered a watershed in Sinhala Cinema with the introduction for the first time of an all Ceylonese crew (film crew up to that point were from India) and also for the introduction of two full colour sequences under the mastery of cameraman A.V.M . Vasagam

Sigiri Kashyapa

followed circa 1961 with Gamini in the starring role and Shane Gunaratne as Migara. Scenes from the filming of this film form some of my earliest, distinct, memories with sword fighting being practiced in the main hall of our home at Colpetty (this house had previously been perhaps Ceylon’s only synagogue and an extremely large mosaic floored circular hall). And the equestrian escapades of the horsemen who were trained by Ranjith Dahanayake , later of Hermes International fame . Space does not permit a fair recording of his film career but mention might be made of his roles in Kathuru Muwath, Priyanga (where he played Vijaya Kumaratunga’s father ) and Hitha Honda Minihek where he at Gamini’s insistence played a virtual real life role as Gamini’s “finder” and mentor.

Association with Tyronne Fernando (Minister) and Manik Sandarasaga led to my father writing and scripting the rather ribald Colomba Sanniya (Coming Sweet). He also was the “ghost writer of the Hollywood Production of God King , and to use the term employed by that great Ben, Ravindra Randeniya who was the star of the film – “the de facto director” of much acclaimed Kalu Diya Dahara .

Ironically, given his long involvement with Sinhala cinema, Premnath won the most kudos , and international and local acclaim for directing the Tamil Film “Vaadai Kaatru” in the seventies, shot on the arid dunes of Pesalai. As recently as on September 26, 2015, that redoubtable and insightful journalist , DBS Jeyaraj referred to Vaadai Kaatru as “probably the best Tamil Film” ever made in Sri Lanka .

(To be continued next week)

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Features

National Day and news from across the oceans

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Cassandra has groused, groaned and suffered, yes suffered both emotionally and in mere existence by the stubbornness with which the National Day parade and all that will take place tomorrow. She is joined by almost the entire population of Sri Lanka. We are greatly angered by the expense of 200 million rupees on a pointless, useless, far too extravagant celebration with no feeling of freedom or democracy enjoyed. This grand show is on (almost solely for Ranil’s W R’s benefit) while officials circumvent the globe with the begging bowl; us Ordinaries suffer privations; and many almost starve in this land which is bountiful and kind but for the craft, corruption and sheer incompetence of government leaders down the years.

Cass never fails to watch the February 4th celebration at Galle Face Green, Independence Square or in front of Parliament by the Diyawanna. She is involved emotionally: impressed by the dignified splendour of the event; bursting with pride when the Lion Flag is hoisted, getting all teary at the sight of the young girls and boys in three types of national dress singing the Country Anthem, Jayamangala Gatha and the blessing. During the Yahapalana era, tears were doubled in her eyes, compounded with the sense of justice and non-racialism that was evident when the National Anthem was sung both in Sinhala and Tamil. This year only two events to earn reluctant kudos: singing the N Anthem is two languages, which is hoped will be the order of the day, and garlanding the Father of the Nation. This last has a canker in the flowers; its stupendous cost was questioned by the President. So, the native cunning must have crept in the quotation with money slipping into private pockets and not only to the florist.

A letter writer to the Editor of this newspaper classified Ranil W. as a deaf, unseeing, uncaring, stubborn President; also vain. Cass endorses this characterisation; many of the traits thought originally to be alien to this man of good family, good school, good education and good principles –THEN.

It’s Wednesday as Cass writes this Cry and so far she has not heard the practicing jet planes fly past overhead. Has that been cancelled as a compromise to protests? Jolly good if it has as that part of celebration is a fuel guzzler and thus adding tremendously to the cost. Also, doubly unfair as Capt Elmo Jayawardena pointed out in an article last Sunday in the sister paper that “The F7 fighter jets in this aero-ballet burn 40 litres of fuel a minute at low level. And we minions of Paradise loiter in snaking queues down below with our QR codes to get 20 liters for one week.” Do hope at least this crit was taken.

If I were Prez – my speech

An appropriate, non-insulting, above-board video clip is making its rounds. Dr Rohan Pethiyagoda with excellent inunciation of British English gave voice to the speech he would have made if he were President of this country. Cass adds here that zoologist par excellence, knowledgeable scientist with pragmatism and sincere humane being that Rohan P is, he should thank his stars he is not the Prez of present day Siri Lanka – vilified and thought so little of by the general public and puppet-stringed by a person who should live in his adopted country, not here.

Rohan, speaking as a pretend politician, addressing his Fellow Citizens, traced the history of Sri Lanka succinctly from the prosperous Polonnaruwa period -16th C, through colonialism to Independence Day February 4, 1948, when Ceylon was the most prosperous country in Asia and definitely of S Asia. India before colonialism was at its apex of prosperity; export oriented with manageable population. Over here post-independence, in 16 years from living amicably multi-racially and multi-religiously, we were fractured. First the Burghers migrated, then Tamils and now Sinhalese and all Sri Lankans where possible. While in 1955 we had a surplus of rice and a dollar cost less than Rs 50.00, things changed for the far worse. The pretend Prez Rohan blamed politicians but “you, the citizens” more for the rapid downfall. There were the pluses: free education, free health services, free rice, but then the minuses: the Diyaw Diyaw demand of the populace and elections becoming a lottery – biggest bidder and greatest giver winning votes. Hence nationalisation and giving pensionable jobs to most. Gotabaya comes along and destroys agriculture; many in power are thugs, criminals and morons. Again, the politico blames us the people and tells us to look in the mirror to see the bigger faulters.

No truer words were said. No blacker can our mood be; no streaks of light in the bleak future. For how long will this dark spell last, we ask?

Blots overcome by tennis’ No. I

It was an excellent diversion from our sea of troubles and darkness of tunnel we travel through with no glimmer of redeeming light at its end, to watch the Australian Open tennis. Relief was great when Novak Djokovic won the finals in a nail biting three sets. Cass invariably reprimands herself for getting worked up over a match played by, to her, unknown persons, but she does get stressed watching the finals.

She missed seeing Djokovic’s wife and kids who are normally in the area of seats allocated to him. This time noticeably absent. He mentioned, after the semis win, his ten-year-old son as playing good tennis with him and hoped one day he’d compete in the men’s double as a team of father and son. Cass googled to see whether the family is together. They are. Maybe the children’s schooling or whatever kept them away.

A minor upset was his father being banned from witnessing the men’s semifinals because Djokovic had been seen in a video with Vladimir Putin fans on the tennis grounds in Melbourne and Russia is now anathema to the Australians and many others. In fact, the Russian flag was banned from the meet such that against Daniil Medvedev’s name on the score board, there was a blank space where the country flag would be displayed. However, Craig Tiley, manager of the AO – lifted the ban on him for the finals and permitted attending the finals in the Rod Laver court. He absented himself. These would have been troubling Novak who is very family oriented but he won his 10th title in Australia beating Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and equalling Nadal’s number of wins.

See you after the celebration of independence and nationalism, hoping there will not be massive walkouts of workers protesting the tax hikes.

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Features

Why Neighbours (AsalWasiyo) should be considered an exemplary piece of Sri Lankan drama

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By Charith Gamage and Gem Taylor

With the doorbell ring echoing through the house, Mrs. Josephine, living in the suburbs with her three unmarried daughters, gets excited as she realises someone has come to inspect her vacant annexe house. In the next scene, the face of the sturdy woman (wearing an old patched dress) soon disappoints after seeing her potential rental tenant – a married couple! They have fulfilled all the typical qualifications, such as financials, and are okay with higher rent, but Mrs Josephine turns them down without much consideration. Although Mrs Josephine should only be concerned about receiving a smooth higher rent – all she needs as a landlord – it is not necessarily her expectation through renting out her annexure house.

The answer to the strange behaviour of Mrs Josephine lies in the thirteen dramatic episodes of AsalWasiyo First aired in 1989 in Rupavahini and directed by the veteran director Bandula Vithanage (with assistant direction by Wimalarathna Adikari), the format of the drama can be considered as something that single-handedly challenged the face of Sri Lankan teledrama in the 1980s. Many Sri Lankan viewers still love the drama, proving that it also stood the test of time to become a timeless art piece that can exemplify a quality drama. Although it talks about profound themes and socio-economic issues in that period of Sri Lanka – a mother’s sacrifices, the housing crisis, and even dowry – the director preserves the dramatic quality rather than giving an explicit socio-economic or socio-political tone. In addition, among other reasons, the drama’s unpredictable nature, high-quality comedic elements, realistic acting, and music also make it stand out and intriguing to watch.

As the drama unfolds, it shows Josephine’s circumventing strategy in searching for marriage partners for her daughters. She rents out her annexe house to people whom she thinks have affluent backgrounds so that her daughters build relationships with them. The middle-aged widower Paul, who is going through a housing issue, meets Josephine after seeing her newspaper advertisement. Paul’s family, with his two unmarried sons, seemingly matches Josephine’s dream tenant perfectly, except that he only boasts about himself and his sons without having the qualifications Josephine is looking for. Despite not having the desired qualifications, Paul who just worked for a lawyer for some time introduces himself to Mrs Josephine as a lawyer. Meantime, his younger son is introduced as an Engineer when he is a casual employee at a motor garage.

As Paul’s family lives in their false identity about their status, drama develops with subsequent clashes from Josephine’s family entertaining revenge when their true identities are revealed. Although one may classify it as a comedy, from a socio-economic standpoint, the drama also depicts a segmental view of the lower-middle-class and middle-class life of Sri Lanka at that time. It shows how hopes of solving one problem can lead to a bigger problem, bringing them back to square one.

What does the drama structure tell us?

AsalWasiyo has a simple but rich storyline, making it an excellent blueprint for those who want to study quintessential family dramas which depict wider Sri Lankan society. The show follows a climactic plot structure similar to as laid out in Fig 1, which offers plenty for viewers to analyse. In drama, a climactic plot structure is a term used for when we witness a rise in action throughout the storyline before we eventually witness a dramatic climax and subsequent fallout. The drama initially shows Paul searching for accommodation, while at the same time, Josephine is desperately searching for wealthy tenants to match her taste and needs. As their lives – and the lives of their various children – intertwine, the show’s writer (Somaweera Senanayake) and director bring multiple (character-wise) storylines together, which leads to a dramatic and humorous climax.

The climax in the drama comes when it is revealed that not only is Paul’s son not an Engineer – but he also loses his garage job for using clients’ vehicles to maintain his status. Similarly, as a father, Paul considers himself a master planner throughout the show – and he insists on the annexe house as a dowry to approve the marriage between his son and Josephine’s second daughter. However, his plans fail when he and his sons are exposed. Lastly, viewers watch as Josephine and her daughters go through the full circle of making friends with Paul and his family, building relationships with them initially, and trusting them in their lives and home – only to learn that they were being deceived the whole time. Overall, the climactic plot structure allows audiences to enjoy the tension of these two mismatched families coming together and trying to impress each other – as well as the drama of their secrets being exposed in the climactic finale.

How much Shakespearean influence have helped?

Before directing AsalWasiyo, Vthanage had significant exposure to Shakespearean theatre, particularly through Merchant of Venice in 1980. Shakespeare is undoubtedly a formative force in theatre for blending tragedy and comedy, presenting a powerful genre in his plays. In addition, Shakespearean comedies sometimes end with marriage or reuniting. In AsalWasiyo, Shakespeare’s trait of combining tragedy and comedy is visible, except that the drama does not insist on a marriage or reunion. The elements of Shakespearean comedy, such as mistaken identity, reason versus emotion, and idyllic settings, can still be seen in this drama. Paul’s impersonation of a higher-status professional depicts a mistaken identity. In addition, Josephine’s second daughter, led by emotion rather than reason, is similar to A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Hermia, who disobeys her father, and chooses to pursue a romance with Paul’s second son. She insists on the romance even after he is exposed, regardless of Josephine’s approval. Finally, idyllic settings are common in Shakespearean dramas like the mysterious island of Illyria in Twelfth Night. Idyllic settings depict perfection, like having a house when there is a housing crisis for others and having a professional bachelor in the family when there is a demand from middle-class mothers as prospective husbands for their unmarried daughters.

How have characters been used, and how has their acting helped?

Characters and actors in a play as primary communicators help the director to interconnect and deliver the intended plot to the audience. It starts with Elan Silvester, who keeps the motion of the story going through her portrayal of the protagonist, Josephine. Although Josephine seems humorous, she is tough inside, suppressing all her agonies. Elan’s quick facial changes and ability to shift from amusing to serious emotions are remarkable on this front. On the other hand, Paul (portrayed by Hemasiri Liyanage) thinks about his image and likes to show off. The character’s use of mixed Sinhalese-English dialogues, which boosts his perceived identity by thinly veiling the true one, is a significant feature in the drama. The scenes, such as his English dialogues with an innocent lady who supplied them with dinner at the beginning and knowing she had no idea what he was talking about, are examples. This character (Paul) shows less emotion than Josephine and blends well with Josephine’s psychological expectations of a wealthy potential in-law, as he cannot meet their expectations in his real identity.

Besides the leading characters, other characters also show more realistic passion, improving the drama’s quality that could grab the audience’s attention. Priya Ranasinghe, Samantha Epasinghe and Thamali Peiris play Josephine’s first, second, and youngest daughters, depicting their distinct personalities in the drama. Samantha gives life to Josephine’s second daughter and realistically contributes to more funny and dynamic scenes. Her performance contributes considerably to the drama in filler scenes, from hiding under a bed to evade Josephine, getting attacked by a curry in a pot by the eldest sister in defending her boyfriend, and a series of beatings by her mother for passing Paul’s message of dowry requirement.

On the other hand, how the youngest daughter’s character is architected in the drama shows similarities to how such characters can be used in successful productions. Like Zazu from The Lion King and Ron from Harry Potter, she is knowledgeable, diplomatic, and usually a sidekick of the main character. In addition, she does not shy away from expressing brutally honest opinions with humour, even if the recipient is offended. Quotations such as “Now, do we put this rental ad in the rental section of the newspaper or the marriage proposals section?” in response to the mother’s draft, and “They won’t stay here for long if they have to eat what you [eldest sister] cook.” are examples. She also shows characteristics of “Ingénue characters”, the female characters with a virtuous and adorable appeal that make them immediately inspire great affection in the viewers. In addition, Suminda Sirisena and Sriyantha Mendis, who played Paul’s two sons, are also notable for building up the drama with their contrasting character traits under the influence of their father. Overall the drama has carefully selected those elements and coordinated them to get the audience to connect with the plot.

What does the overall evaluation tell us?

The play is a solid effort on the dramatic front, even with the paucity of technology breakthroughs and resources at the time. Times have changed with the formats of Sri Lankan dramas and technology, but the basics of this drama remain valid for present and future drama enthusiasts. These include careful use of direction and script writing to build up characters; employing natural vocal intonation that matches the acting; and good use of music in supporting character emotions and plotlines. In particular, the music by Premasiri Kemadasa helps build the director’s desired atmosphere while setting up the next scene. Efforts made by the camera relative to the 80s to preserve cinematography are also helpful on this front. Finally, William A. Ward once said (paraphrased) the well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope in achieving your goals. The drama depicts a tragedy, but its use of comedic overlay is very effective as a refresher, keeping the audience’s interest (possibly making the scenes memorable) and carrying them to the director’s desired destination effortlessly with the intended message passed. With everything explained, the drama shows the characteristics of a timeless creation, with elements that can still be used as a stencil for young Sri Lankan enthusiasts in drama.

Charith is an Assistant Lecturer attached to Monash University, Australia. Gem is a UK-born theatrical artist (actress) from Atlanta, USA, with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) focused on theatre. Authors would like to thank Wimalarathna Adikari for helping for the article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. Email: charith.gamage@monash.edu

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