By Seneka Abeyratne
Sri Lanka, with its exquisite shoreline, its enchanting seascapes and landscapes, its diversity of climate and terrain, and its abundance of streams, river valleys and lagoons, must have been one of the most attractive places to live on earth in ancient times. No wonder that various people came to its shores, some to settle down, others to imbibe its culture, its religion, its idyllic setting, and to continue with their travels. One of the top 10 rivers in the island, the Walawe Ganga, joins the sea at a small fishing village called Godawaya in the deep-south. Godawaya was once a port in the ancient Maritime Silk Route, which ran from China in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. So was Manthai, a small coastal town in the northwest (bay of Mannar), where the Malwatu Oya, Sri Lanka’s second longest river, flows into the sea.
Due to its strategic and central location in the Indian Ocean, the island was a magnet for seafarers, traders, missionaries, pilgrims and envoys from many countries. From the east of Lanka came Chinese, Malays, Burmese and Cambodians, and from the west came Greeks, Turks, North and East Africans, Persians, Venetians, Arabs and Indians. Among the great missionaries, pilgrims and travellers to visit the island were Buddhaghosa and Fa-Hien (5th century), Marco Polo (13th century) and Ibn Battuta (14th century).
Emissaries from Lanka also travelled to various parts of the world with which it had cultural, political and economic ties. Some went as far west as Rome and others, as far east as China. Buddhist missionaries also went hither and thither. It is interesting to note that in the 5th century, as a consequence of Fa-Hien’s visit, Sinhalese bhikkhunis, or female monks, travelled to China to admit women into the Order of Sangha, the local term for the Buddhist priesthood.
It was primarily because the island was centrally located on the sea route, linking east and west, that it constantly attracted traders, pilgrims and invaders. Prior to European intervention, the invasions were almost exclusively from South India. The invaders, at various times, were from four different Tamil dynasties – Pandyans, Cholas, Pallavas, and Cheras, who were at most times hostile to one another. These dynasties were either allies or enemies of Sri Lanka depending on the political circumstances.
Not all South-Indians were invaders and usurpers. Most of the Tamils who settled in the northwestern and northeastern littoral and in the northern extreme of the dry zone, that is, the Jaffna peninsula and northern part of the Jaffna mainland, migrated to Sri Lanka peacefully. Some Tamils also became part of the Vanniyar community. The Tamil settlers included farmers, traders, merchants, and Brahmins.
It is interesting to note, by way of a digression, that the monarchs of Anuradhapura (103 in all) included six Tamils from South India, probably Colas and Pandyas, who reigned from 428 to 455 CE. “Perhaps the incursion of Tamils into Sri Lanka in the fifth century, which brought the country under foreign rule for a little over quarter of a century, was not unconnected with the disturbed conditions that prevailed in South India at the time” (Siriweera, W.I. History of Sri Lanka: From earliest times up to the sixteenth century, second edition, 2004).
It was mainly commerce and the concomitant need to secure new trade routes that brought the seagoing nations of Western Europe to Ceylon in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The island was a European colony for nearly 500 years. The western colonial powers exported culture and religion to Ceylon (Catholicism/Protestantism) while importing a range of primary goods, including gems and spices. The British introduced tea to Ceylon and by the time they left, it had become the island’s leading primary export commodity.
Prior to the advent of colonialism, there was a significant influx of Indian, Arab and Malay traders to the island. Though commerce was the common factor, the processes of trade were fundamentally different. In the case of the Western European naval powers, commerce, military aggression and proselytisation went hand in hand. The Portuguese were the first to invade Sri Lanka in 1505. They were ousted by the Dutch in 1658, who in turn were ousted by the British in 1796.
Traditional view of Island’s ancient past
Many a scholar has written about Sri Lanka’s colonial and pre-colonial history, but what is known about the island’s ancient past, and how much of it is accurate? Should we take our myths and legends for granted, or should we subject what is regarded as ‘common knowledge’ to a critical reappraisal? Since Independence, archaeological research in Sri Lanka has been intensified and availability of modern techniques of investigation and analysis has enabled scientists to explore previously uncharted territory and come up with findings which throw new light on the island’s ancient past. The nature of these findings is such that modern scholars have formulated a view of prehistory and protohistory which by traditional standards is not only radical but also highly controversial.
We shall briefly explore the uncharted territory, keeping in mind that the modern historian is still a long way from producing a comprehensive, as well as convincing, picture of Sri Lanka’s ancient civilisation; as such this essay cannot pretend to be anything more than a hypothetical sketch. With that caveat in mind, we proceed.
According to the traditional historian, who is largely guided and influenced by the ancient Pali chronicles (Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Culavamsa), prior to the arrival of settlers from northern India, the island was inhabited by demon-worshippers, snake-worshippers, tree-worshippers, and a tribe of primitive cave-dwellers called Veddas. The Sinhalese were the first civilised people to inhabit the island because they spoke an advanced Indo-Aryan language known as proto-Sinhalese, practised the art of agriculture, knew how to make tools and weapons from iron, and introduced a traditional system of governance for villages which has survived to this day in a more complex form.
The Sinhalese adopted Buddhism as their religion during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura (250-210 BCE). This was more than two centuries after the first settlers arrived from northwestern or northeastern India. The Sinhalese first occupied the inland valley systems of the dry zone and later established their village settlements throughout a greater part of the island, including the deep-south, birthplace of the great Sinhalese warrior king, Dutugemunu. The Tamils and other ethnic groups, such as the Moors and Malays, came later and transformed what was a homogeneous society and culture into a heterogeneous one. South India is the traditional enemy of Sri Lanka because it attempted to conquer the island several times and annihilate the Sinhalese.
This, to reiterate, is the traditional view of Sri Lanka’s early history, which modern historians have subjected to considerable revision, modification and reinterpretation.
Sirisena Cooray: The manager of victory
By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
My mother told me, decades later, that she was sure Sirisena Cooray knew I was under 18 when he let me slip into the cinema in my long-trousers for the 9:30pm show for movies that were ‘adults only’, having conspired with my father. She remembered Mr. Cooray laconically saying “wait till the lights go off”. What surprised me was that my mother, too, had spotted our scam. Sirisena Cooray was the manager at Ceylon Theaters, which was the role in which Killi Rajamahendran became his lifelong friend. The two friends died in the same year. Cooray had tossed Killi and his brother out of the cinema for some infringement.
That was his day job, or rather, his on-the-books job. Off the books he had already started on his vocation. That was as the righthand man of Ranasinghe Premadasa. Cooray’s elder brother Nandisena was Deputy Mayor of Colombo. Premadasa used to visit Cooray’s father. As a young man heading the Sucharitha Movement, which he had founded, while a student of St Joseph’s College (Godfrey Gunatilleke once told me that Premadasa had been his classmate, except he had been Premadasa Ranasinghe at the time, not Ranasinghe Premadasa), Premadasa had already cut a figure in the ’hood.
Sirisena Cooray’s father told him, “If you are interested in politics, don’t hang out with your older brother, he won’t amount to much. Follow that young man, Premadasa, he will lead the country someday”. Young Sirisena took the advice.
Premadasa’s Kid Brother
Sirisena Cooray became, in effect, Premadasa’s younger brother, though he always referred to him in conversation with others as “Mr. Premadasa” and with the man himself as “Sir”. He was a younger brother who played the same role that Raul Castro did to Fidel. Raul was the man who made Fidel’s dreams comes true; who gave organisational shape and material form to Fidel’s soaring vision. Fidel strategised and led the victories; Raul organised them. That is also what Sirisena Cooray did for Ranasinghe Premadasa.
It was Premadasa who started Cooray off in politics. When Nandisena Cooray died, Premadasa wanted Sirisena to run in his place, for a city ward. The United Front coalition government had a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the UNP had lost badly and was internally divided, the powerful Left controlled the city’s politics, and an emergency had been declared because the rise of the JVP had been detected. Cooray won. The shock waves hit. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government reacted by suspending all local authorities’ elections and appointing a special commissioner, Mr. Fowzie, to run Colombo.
In time, and with Premadasa’s support, Sirisena Cooray was elected the Mayor of Colombo, the first executive mayor the city and the country had. In July 1983 Premadasa and Cooray cautioned President Jayewardene not to permit the bodies of the 13 soldiers to be brought to Colombo for cremation, but he didn’t heed their counsel and caved in to the defence establishment. The nation paid the price.
In 1988,Premadasa, was determined to run for the Presidency, with or without the UNP. That single-minded determination actually helped the UNP because he had instructed Cooray to plan a campaign and set up the organisational apparatus for an independent candidacy. The UNP conceded the candidacy to Premadasa after Ranjan Wijeratne concluded his nationwide survey informing President Jayewardene that neither Gamini Dissanayake nor Lalith Athulathmudali had a chance of winning; only Premadasa did. But the UNP could not mount a campaign. The JVP had paralysed it by killing every UNP organizer and activist it could.
When Ranasinghe Premadasa got the candidacy, in October 1988, the parallel apparatus and campaign organised by Sirisena Cooray for an independent Premadasa candidacy was clicked into place. Against all odds, Ranasinghe Premadasa won, addressing even empty public squares, knowing that poor people were listening behind closed doors (in terror of the JVP). Sirisena Cooray was the manager of that victory.
Premadasa had opposed JR’s ban on the JVP. He had over a thousand JVP detainees released, declared a ceasefire and offered the party three portfolios in a coalition government. It refused and returned to war. The Jayewardene administration had fought the JVP from 1986 with limited success. Premadasa took oaths as President in January 1989. In November, Wijeweera and Gamanayaka were dead. A key element in the victory was the Ops Combine, associated in the public eye with Ranjan Wijeratne as Deputy Minister of Defence. However, as Prof Rohan Gunaratne, always close to military intelligence, wrote in his book on the JVP’s second uprising, in reality, the Ops Combine – and Ranjan Wijeratne– reported to Sirisena Cooray.
Once, in a rare moment, on his birthday while sharing a cognac with a few guests, including Ranjit Wijewardena, Killi Rajamahendran and Milinda Moragoda, Cooray rapped the surface of the finely worked round table we were seated at, and said “meke daala thamai JVP ekata gahauvve!” (It was here, at this table, on this surface—where the plans were rolled out—that the JVP was defeated).
When Cooray was called Premadasa’s right hand man, he would occasionally permit himself a half-smile and a twinkle, gently murmuring “some may say I was his left-hand man”. In another mood, when Cornel Perera rolled-in a white chocolate birthday cake with wishes in icing to “the Godfather”, Cooray demurred: “Now, I am only a grandfather”.
After Ranjan’s assassination and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera’s refusal to take the post, Cooray offered to take it and accomplish the task. I daresay he might have. Premadasa refused for two reasons, which he gave his friend, and shared with me when I asked him the obvious question: “Why don’t you give the job to Mr. Sirisena Cooray?” He didn’t want to put his friend in the firing line and risk losing him, and he didn’t want his friend to commit the deeds and accumulate the (karmic) demerit he would have to in order to win the war. If not for his fealty to his friend, Premadasa might have survived and gone on to win a second term.
Premadasa entrusted his Housing Ministry to Sirisena Cooray and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar. Cooray and Susil Sirivardhana handled Premadasa’s Gam Udawa programmes.
When President Premadasa wanted the Khettarama stadium built, Sirisena Cooray built that world-class stadium without a dollar in foreign funds; only with the funds of the Municipality which he collected in the requisite quantity by merely changing the periodicity of payment of Municipal rates. When the Free Mid-Day Meal programme for schoolchildren, was kicked off it was through the Colombo Municipality.
Cooray had a wry humour about Premadasa which disguised the love he felt. When asked whether he was the only one Premadasa trusted, Cooray quipped, “He didn’t trust anyone, not even himself. To the extent he did trust someone else, I suppose I was that person”.
During the years I worked with President Premadasa I never met Mr. Cooray. Later, he would joke to his crew, referring to me and a fellow director of the Premadasa Centre (now a respected, courageous political commentator): “ey kaaley api meyaala hambuvelavath naha; ey kaaley meyaala Janaadipathi-ge minissu ney!”. President Premadasa kept things compartmentalised, he and Cooray had their own crews, and in any case, Cooray was self-effacing.
I met him after the Premadasa assassination, at the Sucharitha. Pulsara Liyanage showed him to me saying, “There’s Sirisena Cooray, why don’t you speak to him?” He was seated silently in the row of the main mourners, a little forlorn.
Sirisena Cooray was conscious of a single political distinction between himself and Ranasinghe Premadasa. Cooray was a UNPer, a party member at 16 and the first member of the UNP Youth League, he proudly claimed. When the UNP boss threatened to sack him, he snorted that he had a life-membership of the party. “Mr. Premadasa was different. He came from the Labour Party; he joined the UNP with Mr. A.E. Goonesinghe” he mused. Premadasa’s ideology was always different from that of the UNP establishment.
While Premadasa was ambivalent about 1956 and SWRD Bandaranaike in that he sympathised with the social overturning of the old elite, Cooray strongly felt that that ’56 was the Great Fall. He was firm in his conviction that without the UNP’s non-racialist/multiracial ideology, the country would fail and without Premadasa’s programmes and philosophy the UNP would fail. In a cover story of Business Today in early 2001, he predicted that the de-Premadasisation of the UNP under its then (and current) leadership would doom it to an average 25% vote. He never confused non-racialism in ideology with minoritarianism in political and electoral strategy: “winning the majority of the majority” was the cornerstone of electoral success, he would often say.
The Ranasinghe Premadasa-Sirisena Cooray combination led the UNP to its highest achievements: victory in civil war, rapid growth with rapid equity, election victories at all three levels of the polity: presidential, parliamentary and local authorities. After Premadasa’s assassination by the LTTE, Sirisena Cooray’s removal as UNP Gen-Secretary and the party’s ideological de-Premadasisation and burial of the Premadasa programmes, the UNP was never to lead the nation again.
Sirisena Cooray proved prophetic. He died a year after the UNP did electorally. He had founded the Premadasa Centre which proved valuable (in keeping the flag flying) but transitional. The Premadasa statue at Hulftsdorp at which the annual Premadasa commemoration is held (I was present at the first, and several after) was commissioned and built by Sirisena Cooray. It has been the starting point of a new cycle of the Premadasa saga, with his only son leading a new party that within months of its break-away from the UNP became the country’s main Opposition. A Premadasa is now the leader of the Opposition, with the potential of rescuing and rebuilding the country as his father and Sirisena Cooray once did, three-and-half decades ago.
Exquisite intermingling of the novelistic and the poetic
by Liyanage Amarakeerthi
A debut novel rarely achieves the same excellence as Baththalangunduwa by Manjula Wediwardena. In any language, such first-novels are rare. Still there are many writers who have mesmerised readers with their first novels. This is certainly one among them. In writing this novel, the author does not hide the fact that he arrives at the art of novel, bringing with him the technical devices of poetry and short play, two genres he had excelled in earlier. He uses those elements to create a style that makes his novel a sensation in the contemporary Sinhala novel. The book has been translated into English. This essay, though based on Baththalangunduwa, is about the significance of style in a novel.
One of the challenges that new writers face is to create a ‘new language’ for the Sinhala novel. Not to argue that a single style fits all, but style is one area in which a writer can establish the novelty of his work. Our writers seldom experiment with language to create a style that is both simple and attractive at the same time. When it comes to experimentation with narrative techniques, even young writers do not show the youthfulness found in the work of senior writers such as Ajith Thilakasena, Siri Gunasinghe, Simon Nawagatthegama or Tennyson Perera, to name a few. Naturalist realism becomes rather stale, if it is not presented in an innovative style or using other experimental narrative devices. The realist mode is, however, extremely malleable, and an inventive writer can still make it look surprisingly fresh if he or she is imaginative enough with regard to the technical devices of fiction writing. Stories can be crafted in numerous ways. Possibilities of fiction can never be exhausted. Every once in a while, a writer or two appears to remind us about those possibilities. In recent times, Manjula Wediwardena was one such writer. Of late, there are others but we are yet to see if they would continue to develop literary careers.
Tissa Abeysekera, one of our greatest writers, points out this problem of style and language in his excellent collection of essays, Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences. In it, Abeysekera argues that even though Martin Wickramasinghe was able to produce a language for the realist novel in Sinhala no writer was able to surpass him. Abeysekera goes on to argue that Viragaya (The Way of the Lotus) is the pinnacle of the Sinhala novel. It can be said that this is an accurate observation. One can agree that Viragaya is an immortal novel. Yet, the weakness of Abesekara’s argument is that it does not mention any writer who has apparently attempted to surpass Wickramasinghe. The novels of Simon Nawagattegama, for example, are excellent examples of creating a fresh style of language for each novel. The characters or the environment of Dadayakkarayage Kathawa (The story of the Hunter), or Ksheera Sagaraya Kelambina (The Milky Ocean is Churned) cannot be properly portrayed in the language of Wickramasinghe’s Gamperaliya (Uprooted). Furthermore, those novels have levels of reality whose existence is predicated upon the existence of a unique language, and Nawagattegama creates that language. Let’s look at a paragraph of The story of the Hunter, even though it is hard to make my point in a translated segment:
“Those who belonged to the lineage of the hunter had no satisfaction by merely being hunters. To be a shooter, one only has to train himself in shooting a target. It is not such a big deal to brag about either. Is it? Even though one can aim at an animal and shoot it down, even though one can shoot every day all the animals one sees and carry them to the village, it only shows that one has already committed so much sin and one still has Karmic disposition to acquire sins that can bring Karmic fruits for five hundred lives to come. Does it not?”
The language of this novel is formed in such a way that it focalizes the story through the life and point of view of the hunter. This style takes the reader into the hunter’s consciousness and sustains the reader within the level of reality, where the hunter dwells.
There is a misconception that there exists language or style suitable for all novels. It is an opinion constantly repeated by popular literary journalists. Poetic talents can be extremely useful for a novelist. More often than not, it gives immense pleasure to read novels written by poets. All novels by Michael Ondaatje are like long poems. Yet, each of his novels has its own language. If anyone expects a single language or style from all his novels, he simply does not know the meaning of novelized language. A British critic once claimed to have found Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost a bit too poetic, and might have reasons for that argument.
Possession by A.S. Byatt is very much a poetic novel, and there is a narrative reason for it: It is a story of love between a poet and a poetess. One might not be able to write a novel of that kind without a great deal of poetic skill within oneself. Byatt writes in a beautifully poetic language. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald is also a captivating novel about the life of the German poet Novalis. In it, the author’s controlled-use of poetry within the novel contributes considerably to the book’s immense attraction. That Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is poetic should not surprise anyone, for it is an epic of the life of a poet. But there poetry does not intermingle with prose. It is true that there are so much poetic description nearly everywhere in the book. But what is obviously poetic is included as a collection of Zhivago’s poems, at the end of the book. So negligible was the connection of poems to the structure of the novel, that the poems were later published as a separate book. Separation of that kind is not possible in Possession, where after every few pages poetic sections appear, helping to advance the plot. The immense appeal of Rainer Maria Rilke’s stunning novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, is predicated upon the author’s undisputed skills in poetry. In some ways, it is a Campu written in German translated into English!
Prose or Campu
Vilasiniyakage Premaya (The Love of a Courtesan) by Ediriweera Sarachchandra is a Campu poem, as the author prefers to name it. In a Campu, verses are a part of the structure because it is a genre that uses a mixture of prose and verse. In it, verses are used to express the inner feelings of characters, to express interior monologues or to send some coded message. Another novel that deals with poets, poetry and poetic talents is Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. It is clear from Baththalangunduwa itself, that Wediwardena has been heavily influenced by Kundera’s novel. Intertextual significations the Sinhala novel develops by constantly referring to Life is Elsewhere, and in reading it, an experienced reader is regularly reminded of many other novels in which the novelist and the poetry merge in an exquisite union. In the manner the author uses language in the novel, it is very much comparable with numerous other novels mentioned above.
A good novel, among other things, creates a style that refreshes the language of contemporary fiction. Baththalangunduwa does refresh the language of the Sinhala novel or novelistic Sinhala. Though there have been many recent newcomers to the genre, the promise made by those novels to renew novelistic Sinhala has not always been kept. Hundreds of novels are routinely published, written in a style which fails to attract and surprise us with its beauty and artistic fineness. Only a few novelists, Sunethra Rajakarunanayake for example, delivered on the promise, by writing several innovative novels. Perhaps, it has a lot to do with the fact that a style alone cannot give a novel lasting substance.
Insights into human life
Why have we failed to sustain the genre of novel as a text that generates unique insights into human life and society? Some Sinhala writers use attractive styles, but their thinking is a bit too plain to make them great novelists. Conservatism of thought has been plaguing the Sinhala novel in recent years. Cultural nationalism, as the most dominant ideology in the country, gets in the way of achieving literary greatness. In fact, the same nationalism, which is extremely conservative about the language, is one of the greatest obstacles for inventive writers. More often than not, writers who break away from conservative grammatical traditions, have to face considerable hostility from conservative thinkers. Wediwardena seems to be aware of these challenges. This book has a new style and a new content, and they supplement each other beautifully. Moreover, the book’s thematic content cannot be separated from its style.
This novel is quite minimal in its content. In time and space too, the novel’s scope is limited. For that very reason, its style is the central feature that breathes life into the text. Usually, a novel, which focuses on a relatively small life-world situated within a small space and short time period, places greater emphasis on its style. Such a novel aims to achieve its completeness through an innovative and captivating style. Baththalangunduwa is such a novel. There are such novels in world literature as well. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August, for example, have achieved excellence primarily through their styles. Novels like, Karamazov Brothers, War and Peace, or Anna Karenina are so grand in their theme and scope that they achieve greatness even without any particular inventiveness in style. That is not to say that Tolstoy was not a great stylist. He certainly was, and there are memorable sentences and paragraphs everywhere in his novels.
Wediwardena’s novel tells a story set in an Island of the North-Western coast of Sri Lanka, and the novel becomes unique simply because of the sub-culture of the fishing community of the island. But he still faces the challenge of inventing a style suitable to create the world of that community in his text. He does invent that style wonderfully.
The challenge he had to face was a complex one. The community he is writing about is different from Sinhala Buddhists, which make up the largest chunk of the cultural world of Sri Lanka, and the community in this small island is different from the mainstream Christian community living on the main island. This small island is an island in the cultural sense as well. It is a tiny island that belongs to a larger island. The writer, writing in Sinhala, has to portray this small fishing community in a manner accessible to the readers living in the main island, who have little or no knowledge of this sub-cultural group.
In addition, there is another challenge, perhaps much more demanding: Sinhala language is mainly a product of Buddhist culture and many Sinhala words have Buddhist connotations. The majority of novel readers in Sinhala are also Buddhist. They know very little about Christian communities and much less about fishing communities in these small islands. In this sense, writing about Baththalangunduwa, the island, is as difficult as writing about a foreign land.
Son searching for father, father in search of son
The other side of Wediwardena’s challenge is even more complex: When the narrator-son goes to this remote island to look for his father, he is a young man exposed to the postmodernist conditions in Colombo. He takes with him a Sinhala translation of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. It is through this character that the fishing island and its people are presented to us. Thus, the challenge of style gets even more complicated. The writer has to come up with a style that can hold together two worlds, which are strikingly different from each other: The postmodern urban world of the son and the unsophisticated life of the fishing community, where the father makes his home. It does not end there. Since the narrator is a poet, the style of the novel needs to be one that can facilitate poetic sensibilities. As I see it, the author successfully meets all these challenges. At times, the novel’s style is too poetic to be novelistic but, in the main, it is able to breathe life into ‘postmodern Antony’, (the son) and the men and women in the fishing community. The style wonderfully absorbs fishermen’s wisdom of the ocean without destroying their epistemological foundations. In other words, those folkloric views of the fishing community enter the author’s prose without being subjected to any rationalist comments of an urban observer. Thus, one is able to listen to the most beautiful descriptions of the ocean through the dialogues of those fishermen.
Though characters of a novel exist in language, characterisation largely belongs to the plot. The complications of characters appear in the way they react to different incidents of the story. But in this novel, the style is instrumental in characterisation as well. Wediwardena allows the language of these Island-dwelling fishermen to merge with the author’s narration in a way that provides important glimpses into the lives of those men and women.
This novel does not have large dramatic events. Thus, the plot is not all that crucial in characterisation. Instead, the author skillfully uses his style to present his unique characters.
Organic connections with characters
The author deeply loves the characters he portrays and he is honest to life there on the island. Consequently, very much like the main character, Antony, the writer himself has no hesitation in mingling with life on the island. He is not a detached observer of that life. Antony does not detach himself from the community in the island as an elitist visitor from Colombo. But rather he eats, drinks and have sexual relationships with those people. The ethical rationality that undergirds those activities is not something brought from metropolitan Colombo; it is a form of ethics unique to the island. Both Antony and his father share everything that the island offers: food, drink, lodging, and even sex. For the conservative moralists, the island might look like an abode of sin. But the ideal reader of the novel, the reader this novel seeks to ‘create’ might see this island as a place where primordial innocence still exists. That innocence is something we have lost with the advent of modern life. It would not be surprising for the reader to feel like eating fish curry, drinking locally made illegal alcohol with those fisher folk and making love freely as they normally do. This aesthetic effect is achieved primarily through style.
New facet of Sinhalaness
This novel shows us another beautiful facet of Sinhala culture. The culture of this island made with Catholic faith, the trade of fishing and folkloric beliefs about the ocean should also belong in the Sinhala culture at large. Some of the Sinhala people on this island only speak Tamil. But the island is open to Milan Kundera. It is clear from the way the culture of this island intermingles with other cultures that no culture is pure or impure. This novel reminds us of Sri Lanka’s cultural diversity and the intricate connections among different cultural elements. This is, perhaps, one thematic dimension that could have been developed further.
In this novel the impressionist portrayal of life on the island is prioritised over elucidating a strong thematic line. The novel revolves around the trip Antony makes to see his father, the meeting of the father and the eventual separation. What are the themes of this journey; of the search for his father; or of seducing the father’s girlfriend? Is it a case of a son seducing his symbolic mother? Our author does not allow us to make any thematic summaries of the plot. In Faulkner’s As I lay dying, a family takes a dead woman’s body across the Southern US to bury her. That journey itself makes much of the novel. But the mythical allure of the journey lends itself to multiple meanings. Antony’s trip to this exotic island has that mythical quality, whose realization perhaps needed better care. Still Baththalangunduwa is one of the most original works of fiction to be published in recent times.
(Amarakeerthi is a professor of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya)
Crossing the line
An alarming development is the emergence of rogue officers in all branches of government. Rogue officers damage the Government from within and dent its credibility irretrievably. Such officers, totally fearless because of their political connections, are ready to do anything at the command of the highest bidder; in the administrative service such rogues allow illegal mining and falsify records, in the police service they are guns for hire and in the revenue service they are the ones who facilitate tax evasion and money laundering
by DEVENDRA SAKSENA
Good bureaucrats are supposed to implement government policies efficiently and unbiasedly, operate by a set of formal rules and remain invisible throughout. Respecting these principles, the performance of all bureaucrats is reviewed annually. Additionally, anonymity is considered so important that decisions taken by the highest bureaucratic authority are circulated under the signature of the junior-most officer. No doubt, with such SOPs, the Indian bureaucracy is centralised and monolithic ~ almost a “soulless machine,” according to Mahatma Gandhi.
However, this bureaucratic system worked well, with everyone including the political executive, despite anonymity, taking responsibility for their actions e.g., Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as Railway Minister after a major train mishap. Worryingly, in recent years, the Government’s effectiveness has been eroded by a marked fall in integrity ~ both of politicians and bureaucrats ~ and a decline in their ability to take hard decisions.
A case in point is the inability of the Central, Delhi, UP and Haryana Governments to control the annual spike in pollution in north India. All year round, every government tom-toms the measures taken by it to control pollution but falls strangely silent when pollution levels spike in winter. The frustration of the public with the non-performing bureaucracy was summed up by the Chief Justice in the Delhi Pollution Case: “… the bureaucracy has developed an inertia, an apathy…They wait for the court to pass an order even on things like how to stop a car or a fire by using a bucket or a mop… This is the attitude developed by the Executive…. It is unfortunate the Executive has come to this… They just say ‘let the court pass the order and we will sign’.”
The Supreme Court made similar observations, on the inaction of the police in the Lakhimpur violence case, where politically powerful persons were being shielded by the administration. Recent years have witnessed the unseemly spectacle of the three pillars of Government ~ the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature, trying to encroach on each other’s territory, with a blame game playing in the background.
The judiciary’s foray into the territory of the executive and legislature, mainly through PILs is well documented. However, the legislature makes the work of the judiciary more difficult by enacting unsustainable laws and by defining crimes in utter disregard of the principles of jurisprudence. The executive often plays fast and loose; sometimes by inaction and at other times by taking inappropriate action, knowing fully well that by the time a judicial remedy becomes available, the issue would have lost its relevance.
However, the blurring of the line between the political executive and the permanent bureaucracy has gone almost unnoticed. Mimicking the political executive, an increasing number of officers do not want to remain anonymous and willingly assume a public role. At the time of the Covid pandemic, a Joint Secretary and not the Health Minister gave daily bytes to the press. Initially, farmers protesting against the Farm Laws were directed to meet the departmental secretary, enraging the protesters no end. This trend is exacerbated by the creation of a cadre of quasi-bureaucrats like members of the Niti Aayog who don political robes without any compunction.
Probably, we would be better off with the American system, where top bureaucrats hold office co-terminus with the President or Governor who appointed them, and everyone’s interest is well known.
On the other hand, ministers are not satisfied with laying down policy but want to participate in day-to-day administration; many ministers like to decide on annual transfers of peons or accord approval for a contract to whitewash the office building. This malaise has travelled down even to the local self-government institutions, making elections to the posts of corporators, pradhans etc. highly combative ~ all at the cost of the poor taxpayer whose hard-earned money is lost in corruption.
The move to grant extensions to top bureaucrats, including an unprecedented five-year extension to those manning top enforcement posts, will hasten the politicisation of the bureaucracy. Such extensions go against the grain of Government functioning where even low-ranking bureaucrats are transferred every two or three years, lest they develop a vested interest in their post. Not surprisingly, according to the new rules, extensions in service will be granted one year at a time.
Even otherwise, officers on extension serve at the mercy of their political masters, as the extension granted to an officer can be withdrawn at any time. The public spat between a cabinet minister of the Maharashtra Government and the Zonal Director of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), provides food for thought to those interested in administrative functioning. To recapitulate, the controversy originated with a drug control operation by NCB.
Flouting Government rules that enjoin officers to shun publicity, officers of NCB allowed full access to 24-hour news channels who made the worst kind of imputations against the accused, dragging the reputation of everyone associated with the accused through mud. Social media, too, was busy in character assassination. Shockingly, the informant was allowed to photograph the accused and take selfies with him, which violated the right to privacy ofthe accused.
With such publicity, the accused were judged guilty by the public even before being produced in court. But because the accused were rich and influential people, politicians waded into the acrimonious debate giving tit-for-tat to the officers of the Enforcement Directorate. Highly personal details of the Zonal Director (ZD), like his birth certificate, were put up on social media.
More controversy followed when a witness to the drug seizure claimed that he had been made to sign a blank panchnama and later on alleged that he had personal knowledge of the ZD negotiating for an unlawful monetary consideration from the accused persons. After such developments, the accuser became the accused in the public eye, and in an about turn, the media made it appear as if the ZD was on trial and not the drug runners.
This denouement could have been avoided had proper procedure been followed in the drug bust operation by avoiding undue publicity, taking respectable persons as witnesses and keeping the informant away at the time of the raid. An alarming development is the emergence of rogue officers in all branches of Government. Rogue officers damage the Government from within and dent its credibility irretrievably.
Such officers, totally fearless because of their political connections, are ready to do anything at the command of the highest bidder; in the administrative service such rogues allow illegal mining and falsify records, in the police service they are guns for hire and in the revenue service they are the ones who facilitate tax evasion and money laundering.
With their capacity of doing the impossible, rogue officers are always in demand with politicians and top businessmen while colleagues and superiors stay away from them.
The drama playing out in Mumbai, where some former policemen are accused of planting of explosives near the house of a top businessman with the aim of extortion and a former police commissioner went incommunicado after various extortion cases were registered against him, signifies the worst that can happen to the bureaucracy.
Significantly, a former cabinet minister of Maharashtra is behind bars for exhorting policemen to collect a monthly hafta of Rs.100 crore. There are also lesser-known instances of customs officers who facilitated smuggling, revenue officers who indulged in tax evasion and IAS officers who sheltered illegal mining activities.
With such functionaries at cutting-edge positions, it is not surprising that governance is in the pits and a common man approaches Government agencies only as a last resort. Various commissions like the Administrative Reforms Commission and judgments like that of the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh case have stressed the need for police and civil services reforms and have suggested ways and means for the same.
Regrettably, because the political executive wants a pliable and subservient police force and bureaucracy, no significant recommendations of any august body have been implemented. The current situation can be remedied to a large extent by enforcing accountability, simplifying the process of punishment of erring bureaucrats and imparting transparency in transfers and postings.
The current inefficacy of the bureaucracy has been beautifully summed up by the British author Peter F. Hamilton: “How many twenty-second century bureaucrats did it take to change a light panel? We’ll have a sub-committee meeting and get back to you with an estimate.” (Sci-fi novel Great North Road, 2012).
(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)
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