by Raja de Silva
An inevitable change in our social life has resulted from the restriction to our movement caused by the onset of Covid-19. We tend to refrain from visiting friends and relatives, staying in our homes instead; we have more time to think of the past and reflect on those we knew in days gone by. Very recently I had a rare visit from a relative, a medical man who is also an amateur antiquarian. He asked me to relate something about the legendary Paranavitana, whose last living erstwhile assistant I am. Like Hercule Poirot, I consulted my little grey cells and told him old stories, which I now place on record.
The year was 1949 and I had appeared before Paranavitana, Archaeological Commissioner (AC) (1940-1956), who together with Director of Museums, Paul Deraniyagala and the Professor of Chemistry, A. Kandiah constituted an Interview Board at the Archaeological Department. Three of us friends had applied for the post of Archaeological Chemist to be trained in India, and I was the first to be interviewed. Paranavitana commenced his inquisition with the following memorable words.
: Mr. de Silva, we have your biodata with us. Tell me, who was your mother?
RH de S (knowing that the purpose of this question was to find out my caste): My mother’s maiden name was Jayawickrama, Sir.
: Jayawickrama from Kurunegala?
RH de S: No Sir, from the South, in Mirissa.
: Any relation of Francis Jayawickrama who helped to restore the Tissamaharama Mahathupa?
RH de S: Her father, Sir.
(with a gleam in his eye): If you were to join this department it is not impossible that one day you would be able to restore old dagobas in a more scientific manner.
I knew of course that the superstructure of the Tissamaharama Mahathupa was of a most peculiar shape, conical in silhouette, unlike the familiar superstructures of all restored dagobas in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva.
After a second interview at the Public Services Commission, and being appointed a Probationer I was immediately sent for a two-year period of training by the Archaeological Chemist in India, Dehra Dun.
One day the AC called me and Saddhamangala Karunaratne (SK) Assistant Commissioner, who was appointed a year after me, to his room to speak generally about our duties. His opening move was to slide two tins of cigarettes forward, a Navy Cut and Bristol, the latter of which he used to smoke. I took a Navy Cut and put it in my shirt pocket. SK declined. When we came away, I asked SK why he didn’t accept a cigarette. His reply was, ‘How could I smoke in front of the AC?’ From then on the AC used to offer me a cigarette but none to SK.
One early afternoon the AC had sent his peon on several occasions to my office requesting me to see him. It was about 2.10 when I appeared in the AC’s office soon after returning to work from my lunch break. The following dialogue took place:
: I have sent for you many times; where were you?
RH de S: I went home to lunch, Sir.
: Where do you live?
RH de S: In Ward Place, Sir.
: Don’t you know the lunch period is 12 to 1? It is now past 2.
RH de S: I know Sir, but I have a nap for one hour after lunch, because my efficiency is then better in the afternoon.
: Is that so?
and the AC told me what he wanted done.
From then on I was allowed to continue this salutary practice. I made a discovery 13 years later, when I moved into the office of the AC, that there was an ante-room provided with a large safe, a small table and chair for having lunch, a wash-basin and a cane easy-chair ideal for reposing in for forty-winks. It served me as it must have done the Old Chief.
At the outset, the AC told me that the Sigiriya fresco pocket had been closed to the public from 1947, and I was to go there often and attend to the paintings, some of which were cracked and in danger of falling off. In 1952/53 I used to occupy room No. 2 at the circuit bungalow, whereas the AC was often in room No. 1, after peering at the ancient writings on the gallery wall. One evening after sundown, he summoned me from room No. 2 where I had taken refuge and told me to get into his Willy’s station wagon. He told his chauffeur to drive us to the Rest House one minute away. Once we were settled comfortably in the verandah, with the waiter standing by, the AC asked me what I would like to drink, to which I replied, ‘A small whiskey and water please’. He ordered a wee whiskey for me and a small brandy and ginger ale for himself. He next announced, ‘You may smoke’, at which I brought out my packet of Gold Flake cigarettes and laid it on the table. The AC extracted his tin of Bristol from his coat-pocket and lit a cigarette, while I gave my Gold Flake a rest. We spent close to half an hour at the Rest House, and I remember what the AC told me, as if it were yesterday. ‘Do not accept anything from those junior officers in the field. They might put king coconuts in your car or offer you cigarettes or soft drinks. Do not take anything’. This was (I believed) in order that I would not become familiar with or beholden to anybody.
Again in 1954, in Anuradhapura, the AC took me out one evening to the Grand Hotel (now Tissawewa Rest House) for a drink. One drink; the same, and I did not smoke. I have no doubt that Driver Grade 1 Dassanaike would have duly reported to the minor staff that the lokumahattaya had given me a drink; my reputation would have gone up through the ceiling.
After about two years work at Sigiriya, I was able to inform the AC that, in my opinion, it was safe to open the fresco pocket to the public, provided that only a few people were allowed in at any one time. This was done in 1954, and the AC was commended in the newspapers.
On the occasion of the retirement of a senior Assistant Commissioner P.H. Wilson Peiris, ARIBA, in the course of the AC’s valedictory speech, he referred to an incident concerning Peiris’s little son who used to roam about exploring the Archaeological Department. One entrance to the AC’s private office had swivel half-doors (as was common in barber’s saloons). The AC related how the little boy pushed open the two flaps of this entrance and inquired of him who had looked up in surprise, ‘Barber saloon ekak the?’. AC had replied, ‘Nää puthè, barber saloon ekak nevey’. The boy had retreated in disappointment. The AC concluded by declaring that we would all miss the intrepid young explorer.
In the garden of the Polonnaruva circuit bungalow, Conservation Assistant Shanmuganathan had built a pond rather like the ancient lotus pond in the archeological reserve. It contained water and a gourami fish lived there. The AC on circuit never failed to feed the gourami a crumb or two after breakfast. One day, Hinton (the bungalow keeper) was suddenly informed that the AC on circuit, was arriving at the bungalow to dinner. The resourceful Hinton executed the gourami and served a fish course to the AC. The next morning when the AC looked to feed the gourami, he was aghast to find it missing. On inquiry, Hinton had professed no knowledge of the fate of the fish. A well-wisher who aspired to be the circuit bungalow keeper had ratted to the AC that Hinton was the guilty party. It was common knowledge that Hinton was no more at the circuit bungalow. On a visit of mine to Dimbulagala, ten miles away, I met Hinton who related to me the story of his banishment. Several years later, feeling that Hinton had served a long enough sentence among wild bears, who infested the jungles around the Maravidiya caves, I restored him to the Polonnaruva Circuit Bungalow.
Out of favour
Misfortune had set in. In 1954, certain paintings in one of the Maravidiya caves at Dimbulagala were subject to vandalism by a fanatic carrying buckets of cow-dung and applying it in water over the paintings (ASCAR 1954, 8, para 32). On the occasion of the AC seeing me at the Anuradhapura circuit bungalow, the following dialogue took place one morning.
: I want you to give instructions to Sarath Wattala to clean those paintings at Dimbulagala.
Assistant Commissioner (Chemist): Sorry, Sir, I am unable to do so.
Assistant Commissioner (Chemist): He is the Modellor, and he would not know the difference between an acid and an alkali, Sir.
. You do not like him, do you?
Assistant Commissioner (Chemist): Sir, it is not a question of like or dislike. He is just not suitable for the job you wish me to give him. I shall try to clean the paintings myself.
That was the end of the conversation, which I saw had displeased the AC, who left Anuradhapura in continuation of his circuit. However, in a day or two I received written orders from the AC to give instructions to Sarath Wattala to clean the Dimbulagala paintings. I replied, from Anuradhapura, that as explained personally, I regretted it was not possible for me to do as the AC required, but that I would attempt to clean the paintings. All attempts, including an effort by Luciano Maranzi, UNESCO expert, failed. In this connection, Paranavitana later (1958) wrote ‘In caves on the adjoining hill at Dimbulagala, there were, before a fanatic recently obliterated them, fragmentary paintings of the first half of the 12th century.’
The AC was annoyed with me. In February 1956 I was given nine months duty leave by the AC to attend a British Council course in the Preservation of Works of Art. But, the AC arranged for my junior colleague, Saddhamangala Karunaratne (SK), Assistant Commissioner (Epigraphist), to study for a PhD at Cambridge University, for a period of three years on duty leave. For this purpose, the AC had addressed Government stating that “with my imminent retirement, it is necessary to have an officer trained in research work so that he may be equipped to head the Archaeological Department“. SK was chosen for such a scholarship abroad. I saw that letter in the file in 1957 when I was senior Assistant Commissioner (detailed to look after administration), while the Acting AC, Claudio Sestieri, was to be free to do field work and train the staff in excavation. SK left for Cambridge in 1957.
It was now my turn to be righteously annoyed. I wanted to show the retired AC that I was capable of research work, and how better than by criticizing one of his own theories?
I published a long newspaper article in the Sunday Observer dated April 4, 1957, criticizing Paranavitana’s theory that the Dakkhina thupa, Anuradhapura, was built on the site of King Dutugemunu’s cremation (See de Silva, Raja 2005, 93 – 103). There was no reply from my old chief, who was by then Professor of Archaeology, Peradeniya University.
Lost ground retrieved
The Government (1959) agreed (on representation made by me) that I should be given the same facility for post-graduate research work abroad as was given to SK. I was to be given a placement at Oxford University, provided that my university professor and my departmental head testify to my good character and capability to undertake research work. The certificates were to be sent to Oxford through the Education Officer, Ceylon High Commission in London. The Chemistry Professor sent his recommendation (on my request) direct to London. I informed Professor Paranavitana of this requirement, and kindly requested that the required certificate be sent to London. Mirabileé dictu, my old AC sent me (for onward transmission) a recommendation that was couched in superlative terms. I realized what a warm-hearted gentleman Paranavitana was, and humbly thanked him for the splendid certificate. I was thus able to be on duty leave in Oxford for a period of three years from August 1959.
Retired AC becomes Professor
After I was appointed AC in 1967, my former AC used to visit me in my office, whenever he came to the Library to refer documents. I would get up, go round to the visitor’s side and sit down to converse about his requirements. To assist Professor Paranavitana in his researches, I was able to obtain the approval of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to give him all his requirements free of charge. I used to take to his residence rubbings of inscriptions that he wished to inspect; I was once shown on a rubbing the spots where the words Platava (Plato), Alaksandara (Alexander), and Abrasthita (Aphrodite) were seen by him. The Professor used to give me autographed off-prints of his academic papers, which I have safeguarded to this day.
My old chief died in 1972. It gave me satisfaction to persuade a chieftan of the Lake House Press, to bring out from their press, the former AC’s latest book, The Story of Sigiriya, before the date of his state funeral.
Paranavitana was roundly criticized by latter day scholars for his study and publication of later interlinear writings on old inscribed stones. I replied to several of these critics and defended Paranavitana from the insinuated charge that there were no interlinear writings and he was therefore an intellectual fraud. My defense of Paranavitana was titled ‘Paranavitana and the interlinear writings’ in my book Digging into the past (2005: 203-216), where I showed that his peers CE Godakumbure and Saddhamangala Karunaratne had both accepted that there were interlinear writings on stones.
Senarat Paranavitana the scholar, is justly remembered as the greatest Sri Lankan archaeologist of the first half of the 20th century. But not second to him was Paranavitana the gentleman, who was not known to many people outside the Archaeological Department. It was an honour to have known him.
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2019 Easter Sunday Carnage: An Intelligence Perspective
By Merril Gunaratne
Retired Senior DIG
The predicament of those in the highest echelons of defence and police bring to my mind past serious failures, not entirely dissimilar to the massacre on “Easter Sunday” in 2019. Somewhere in the mid 1980s, an LTTE group, led by their Mannar leader Victor Fulgencius ,entered the Anuradhapura sacred city and brutally mowed down a large number of Buddhist pilgrims in broad daylight. The Coordinating Officer of Anuradhapura, SSP of the area and those below them, must have been “deaf and blind”, for they could not have been oblivious to the bursts of gunfire, and the plea of countless witnesses who naturally would have looked upto them for intervention. No positive efforts were made even to stall the retreat of the terrorists after the carnage to Mannar. Nor were inquiries instituted to hold senior army and police officers accountable for their shocking inertia. Likewise in broad daylight, a terror group, the TELO, stormed Chavakachcheri police station and razed it to the ground, killing all police officers in the station. The Coordinating Officer of Palaly, when questioned by the President at the National Security Council meeting following the disaster, stated that in such situations, “each service should look after itself”. The question raised was whether the Army should have engaged in an immediate and timely intervention. Here too no inquiry was initiated to identify accountability for the shocking failures. The “PLOTE” group of Uma Maheswaran came untrammelled up to the Nikaweratiya police station, in the Kurunegala district, attacked it and caused mayhem. No inquiries were held: none were held accountable. In the 1990s, the Katunayake Air Force base was attacked by the LTTE and the JVP, separately, causing death and destruction. None were called upon to shoulder the blame. Again, in the early 90’s, the LTTE ruthlessly killed over 600 police officers in the Ampara sector, because the IGP at the time ordered the fighting officers to surrender on an assurance from political leaders that the LTTE would release them. No Commissions nor inquiries were held in this regard.
There is however an essential difference between these instances and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. Ample intelligence from India, backed by a plethora of evidence and reports of dangers from the National Thowheed Jamath [NTJ] stored with the State Intelligence Services [SIS], the CID, and the Terrorist investigation Division [TID], had been in the possession of SIS, well before the disaster took place. Therefore the credibility of intelligence received from India was not in doubt, as also time and space available to adopt schemes to plan arrests and flood the country with optimum security. In such a context, the failure of defence and police officers to evolve plans to nip terror in the bud, differ sharply with previous instances. In previous cases, the security forces were taken by surprise. In the case of the “Easter Sunday” carnage, intelligence was available well in advance, so that ample opportunity was available to forestall terror plans.
THE STATUS OF THE STATE INTELLIGENCE SERVICE (SIS) IN DEFENCE
An aspect that came under scrutiny was whether the Director of the SIS had informed the President about the information received from the Indian counterparts. It may not be inappropriate to deal with two matters which find relevance in seeking to understand what ideally should have been done.
First, the SIS is the premier “Intelligence” service in the country, since it is expected to collect and collate intelligence of the police special branch, the CID and the TID, in addition to their own efforts. It is also responsible to monitor political targets, in addition to those connected with subversion, terrorism and espionage. It also enjoys wiretapping apparatus to enhance its capability.
Second, the Director of the SIS is virtually “primus inter pares” amongst members of the national security council [NSC], when it comes to access to the head of state, and in relation to his vital role of leading deliberations at meetings of the NSC with suitable briefs. Each and every director of the national intelligence service in its long history, will vouch for the veracity of this arrangement. From as far back as 1950’s, even superintendents of police in- charge of national intelligence had far more access to the head of state than the IGP; and the IGP did not often know what the Intelligence head had discussed with the President. The authority of the Director of the SIS therefore at times exceeded that of not only the IGP, but many others in the NSC as well. At the time I was Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, President Jayewardene would see only me before 8.00 am, prior to leaving for Cabinet meetings.
Though in pecking order, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) is superior to the Director of the SIS, in actual fact, the latter wields far more authority since all agents and informers are controlled by the SIS. In addition, CNI only plays a supervisory role, while the Director of the SIS is the actual operational head of the intelligence agency.
SUBMISSION OF “SPECIAL”OR “SERIAL” REPORTS BY DIRECTOR SIS TO THE PRESIDENT
Being in a position of such privilege, whenever credible intelligence is received, the Director of the SIS has to take two immediate steps. First, he should immediately, through the shortest possible route, despatch a written, classified report to the President, with copies to the Secretary of Defence and Chief of National Intelligence [CNI]. Traditionally, a special ‘Box’ has been used for such despatch to the President, keys available at both ends to unlock and retrieve reports. The ‘Box’ would impress the president that the document inside was of an urgent nature. Depending on the gravity, nature and the urgency of such intelligence, as with the NTJ of Zahran, the Director may even decide to despatch copies to Secretary to President, IGP and Service Commanders as well. He has to concurrently speak on the telephone to each of the recipients of his report, emphasise the credibility and the grave nature of such intelligence, and also propose that the NSC be convened for discussion without delay. Such a standard arrangement of despatch of reports and telephone calls wherever the intelligence is of a grave and urgent nature, is a precedent in vogue from as far back as 1950s. The role of the SIS is to help the NSC to proact, rather than react. The prototypes of the SIS in the service and the police will play a supportive, rather than a leading role. The Director of SIS therefore can galvanise the National Security Council to act, or “put it to sleep”. There has been no indication from the Easter Sunday Commission findings reported in the media that the Director of SIS had despatched a written, classified report to the President.
FLAWED “INFORMATION” REPORT SENT TO IGP.
The ‘Information report” which the IGP received from the CNI, enclosed a note from the Director of SIS. It referred to the plans of Zahran and the NTJ to commit terror attacks, and suggested that further inquiries should be carried out. This report is “flawed” because it is not an Intelligence report. If the Intelligence received was credible (in this instance it obviously was), the report should have been in two parts. In the first part, the piece of information should have been reflected. The second part titled “Assessment or Analysis” is the far more important one, where the Director , harnessing his knowledge of the reliability of the source of information, along with his acquaintance of the background and history of the NTJ available in the subject and personal files stored in the SIS registry, should have stated with conviction that the information was not only reliable, but should be discussed as early as possible, and plans evolved to nip the threat in the bud without delay. A question that arises is whether the report of the Director sans an assessment was adequate to galvanise his superiors to ponder about the gravity of the piece of intelligence received. Even though flawed, the recipients yet had material in the report to discuss and plan on an urgent basis. Of course, a proper intelligence report may possibly have woken them up from slumber. In short, the report or note of the director of the SIS was not exactly an Intelligence report in the classic context. Adrian Weale in his book, “The Army of Evil” said, “Broadly speaking, intelligence is information that is gathered and analysed before informing decisions. Without the crucial analysis step …it is of no-value”
DEFENCE AND POLICE OFFICIALS TREATING THE INFORMATION WITH LEVITY
It had been unfortunate that senior officials such as the Defence Secretary, Chief of National Intelligence, Director of the SIS, the IGP and his deputies had acted in an amateurish fashion. They were not minions who should have been inactive, amidst such serious information, simply because the President was out of the country. If Defence Secretary , goaded and galvanised by Director of National Intelligence, summoned members of the NSC for discussion, many salutary proposals leading to an effective security plan may have emerged. The Defence Secretary was empowered on his own to summon members of the N.S.C. for discussion at any time. His “inertia” baffles imagination. In an overall context, none of those who received the somewhat “flawed” information in their enclaves considered it prudent to at least ‘put their heads together’ and discuss what should have been done.
ACCESS TO SENSITIVE RECORDS IN THE REGISTRY OF THE SIS.
The SIS, by virtue of being the national intelligence agency, is responsible, apart from ferreting intelligence through it’s own network of agents and informers, to collect and collate all overt and covert information from the CID, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), and even from intelligence channels in the armed forces. The comprehensive records that they thereby accumulate, are stored in “subject” and “personal” files in respect of each subversive or terrorist target they monitor. These records are suitably classified ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ so that only those authorised to see them can have access to such records.
The Director of the SIS, apart from the submission of ‘single piece’ intelligence reports to the Head of State, the Defence Secretary and possibly some other members of the National Security Council, also had to periodically compile periodic reports, based on the comprehensive records stored in respect of a particular target in the registry. Each such report will make a mature analysis of the activities and growth of the target, alert the government to their ramifications and sinister designs, and offer salutary proposals to nip or stall their activities. Such periodic reports are described as ‘special’ or ‘basic’ reports, and are invariably classified secret. This discipline too has been in vogue for a very long time. Such reports help the government to monitor, review and proact against terror threats periodically.
In view of the fact that omissions and lapses of the SIS leading to the massacre of innocents were under scrutiny by the presidential Commission the records in the Registry of the SIS could have been made available to the Commission to assist the probe. Terror groups like the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ) are extremely clandestine when they plant their underground network in the silent, ‘preparatory’ phase. This is a phase where terrorists are extremely elusive because of their obsession with stealth and secrecy. The activities of this preparatory phase can be discerned only through agents and informers, so that the SIS alone will have records which police, the CID and TID would not possess. The latter are predominantly investigators’ of acts after their occurrence. It is the SIS which should have good intelligence about external and internal links of the NTJ, their financiers, safe houses, military or weapons training etc. This is the kind of intelligence which helps the SIS to submit comprehensive, periodic “special” reports to the government.
Perhaps, the Commission could have been authorised access to the periodic reports and files of the SIS in respect of the NTJ. Such classified material would have been valuable in the quest for the roots and ramifications of the NTJ. Most of the witnesses who appeared before the Commission for evidence may not have possessed the type knowledge of the NTJ and its ramifications which only SIS officers would have possessed.
The SIS usually seeks to protect the identity of their officers as well as their records, for risk of exposure. Such safeguards may be necessary in normal circumstances. However, the carnage and massacre on Easter Sunday in 2019 due mainly to inadequacies of those in Defence and Police echelons, had led to a high level probe by a Presidential Commission, and evoked considerable public concern and interest. The entire tragedy has been in the public domain. It may therefore have been unreasonable if the records of the SIS had been withheld from the probe.
Steeped in realism, rich in poignant themes and metaphors
By Sajitha Prematunge
Asexual relationships are getting considerable limelight in the Sri Lankan cinema, what with Gehan Cooray’s The Billionaire and the recently released film, Ayu portraying such relationships, albeit in the vantage of different sexual orientation. Ayu was screened to a limited audience in celebration of the 74th anniversary of Sri Lankan cinema at Savoy Cinema, Wellawatta, on January 22. It is the maiden movie production of General (retired) Daya Rathnayake and the second film directed by Chathra Weeraman after Aloko Udapadi.
Presented by Weeraman Brothers, based on a story by Saman Weeraman, Ayu stars Sandra Mack, Jagath Manuwarna, Malani Fonseka, Ashan Dias, Kenara Wiratunga, Samanalee Fonseka, Sampath Jayaweera, Priyantha Sirikumara, Thumindu Dodantenna, Nalin Lusena, Udara Abeysundara, Kasuni Kavindi Fernando, Akalanka Prabashwara, Dinushika Senevirathne, Thiwanka Ranasinghe, Prasanna Dekumpitiya and Dasun Pathirana in a guest appearance. The crew includes cinematographer Kalinga Deshapriya, Chamara Selara as Assistant Director, Bimal Dushmantha in production designing, Saman Alvitigala in film editing, Milinda Tennakone in music, Harsha Manjula and Haroon Shaideen in makeup department, Sasika Marasinghe in sound department, Dinindu Jagoda and Lahiru Madhushanka in editorial department, Kumara Karawdeniya in costume designing, Shehan Obeysekara in production photography, Iresh Karunarathne, Primal Ranasinghe and Sashika Ganegodage in Production Management and Anuradha Weeraman as the Associate Producer.
The psychoanalytical film wastes no time documenting stressful therapy sessions or treatment. It is a journey towards the healing of the mind. Nishmi, a female pediatrician, didn’t only lose her baby in the almost fatal car accident that required the blood transfusion that sealed her fate, she’s maimed for life, with no hope of ever having a family of her own. Ravi, her husband’s elated revelation, “It’s negative,” comes as a surprise not to only Nish, but also the audience who was thus far convinced that the sole cause of her predicament was Ravi’s promiscuity.
Much is insinuated and less said in the film. Hardly anywhere is the acronym AIDS mentioned and only in one instance is HIV mentioned. This in itself is symbolic of the stigma HIV AIDS entails. We are given a first hand account of the kind of stigmatization AIDS patients undergo when Nishmi’s coworkers shun her as if they could contract the disease by brushing against her. A mother pulls her child away from Nish with an uneasy smile, while nurses and attendants avoid her. The stigma is so ingrained that Nish cannot expect to be accepted by her family. For example, Nish’s mother, played by Malini Fonseka, profusely washes her hands after dressing Nish’s wound. This is the last straw for Nish, who contemplates suicide.
There is no doubt that excellent casting choices contributed to the success of the film. The anguish of a mother in Fonseka’s words “I am your mother, I am your mother…” uttered to assuage her HIV positive daughter after she slighted by washing her hands, does not fail to evoke empathy in the audience. The film also marks screen queen Malini Fonseka’s 150th performance in an acting career spanning four decades.
Weeraman has commendably captured the anguish of the characters. Specially noteworthy is the performance by Sandra Mack as Nishmi, whether it is to her own credit or Weeraman’s ability to get a novitiate to strike the right emotional chords is irrelevant, because the end product is realistic. The fresh face of Mack helps to heighten the realism. We have never previously seen her acting and this makes it that much easier to identify with her role. Although her dialogue seems a bit contrived at the onset, which could be attributed to a shortcoming in dubbing, she grows on you.
Manuwarna’s ruggedness contrasts sharply with the seeming fragility of Mack’s Nishmi and the repelling magnate-like chemistry between the lead actors adds a novel flavour to the film. Make no mistake, it’s not your typical rich woman falls for poor guy kind of soppy. The film is abound with underlying deep socio-political and economic themes presented in the dichotomy of the upper middle class represented by Nishi and lower class by beach boy Sachin. It is certainly a thought-provoking movie peppered with allusions to Buddhist teachings, from the metaphoric boat that is life, to allusions of rituals such Bodhi Pooja conducted in hopes of being impregnated. Though Nishmi contemplated suicide earlier in the film, at the end, she just wants to row the boat. True to the Buddhist doctrine Nishmi comes to realise that we are but mere cogs in the samsaric machinery and that there is no other way out but to ‘row your boat’.
Inspired by true events, from plot, dialogue, acting to cinematography, Ayu religiously sticks to realism. The fight scenes are commendably choreographed with excellent cinematography helping to enhance realism. Even the songs are well placed, sans the melodrama, typical of Sinhala films.
However the tempo of the 116 minute film is somewhat slow, unnecessarily stretched to create the movie-length feature. The audience does not know where in time a certain scene is set. It is somewhat akin to memento or arrival, in that fragmented scenes are scattered throughout the film going back and forth in time. For example, images of passing lights from the vantage of a trolley being pushed through a hospital corridor, at the beginning of the movie, foreshadows a catastrophe waiting to strike. Although the trope makes it difficult to establish a footing, it adds to the arthouse flavour of the film. Things eventually fall into place when the film comes full circle, reconciling the past and present.
The genre, and by extension the target audience of the movie is ill-defined. Whether it a commercial or art house movie would depend on audience interpretation. The character of ‘Ayu’ is a case in point. Does the kid really exist? After all nothing is revealed about her. Her grandmother is MIA, the audience is in the dark about where she lives and when she is uprooted from her life in the village, whisked away by two strangers no one bats an eyelid. Uncannily similar to the character of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe in ‘Sixth Sense’, who turns out to be a ghost oblivious to his own ghostly existence, Ayu, who’s name literally means ‘life’, has little interaction with the characters other than Nishmi and Sachin, who are both, ironically dying. This life/death juxtaposition forms the crux of the film. Ayu may very well be a figment of one’s imagination, a metaphor for ‘life’. Is she a mere symbol for life or ‘ayu’ in Sinhala? If so, what better symbol for life than a child. If not, then the script is fatally flawed, in that it failed to develop an essential character. It is unrealistic that as a doctor Nish would have no qualms about exposing the child to a life threatening illness.
All things considered, Ayu is welcome respite from the mundane Sinhala movie that only offers unrealistic love stories that involve a lot of running around bushes, obviously phony fight scenes and ill-timed sorry excuses for songs. It is to be released in theatres soon and is not to me missed.
St. Antony feast Katchatheevu
The Jaffna Divisional Secretary informed the public, well in advance, that St. Anthony’s Feast in the Kachchativu island had been cancelled this year due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. The decision was well understood by devotees of both Sri Lanka and India.
This annual feast on a tiny island closer to the India-Sri Lanka International boundary line (IMBL) was an annual meeting place, especially for fishermen of both countries. Last year (2020) the feast was attended by more than 10,000 devotees. For the first time, Sri Lankan devotees out-numbered the Indians. Anticipating such a situation, the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Justin Bernard Ganapragasam had invited Bishop of Diocese of Galle, Rt. Rev Raymond Wickramasinghe as well. The mass last year was conducted in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.
As a devotee of St. Anthony, the Saint who looks after seafarers, like me, even though I am a Buddhist, I was sad that I might miss this year’s feast.
However, some good news came from the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna a few days ago. He said Jaffna Bishop had requested to have a mass at Kachchativu island without the presence of the public and only with a few priests on 27 February 2021, and if I was keen, I could join them. I was delighted to go there.
Kachchativu is located half a nautical mile from the Indo-Sri Lanka IMBL which was ratified by UN Law of the Sea conference in 1976, when maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives were demarcated and agreed to by all three countries and ratified at the United Nations.
It is mistakenly thought both in India and in Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island to dry their nets. That was in the 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had the right to fish in “Wedge bank”, in the Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. When the 1976 agreement was ratified, those privileges were done away with and now Kachchativu is part of Sri Lanka’s territory and well within our waters. Please read the famous book on Kachchativu by late Mr WT Jayasinghe, who was our Defence and External Affairs Secretary in the 1970s (father of late Romesh Jayasinghe, our former Foreign Secretary in the 2000s) to learn more about how our beloved Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s diplomatic skills and close personal relationship with the then Indian PM Indira Gandhi won us the Kachchativu island back.
Those who championed in Tamilnadu and in the Indian Central government on taking back Kachchativu from Sri Lanka should refer to what Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohargi told a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on 26th August 2014: “Kachchativu was gone to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now act as a boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want Kachchativu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.”
I stayed at Fort Hammenniel, a beautiful fort built by the Dutch at the entrance of Karainagar channel, entrance to the old Jaffna port of Kayts, now part of our Naval Base, SLNS Karainagar. This tiny Dutch fort has its own history in our country, the place where the late JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was kept in captivity in 1971 with more than one hundred other JVPers. I could not imagine how it would be with 100 prisoners in this small fort.
I was not accommodated in any of these cells; I stayed in one of the four super Luxury rooms on the top deck of the fort.
My dear friend, Rear Admiral Senarath Wijesooriya, the Commander Northern Naval Area, joined me to travel to Kachchativu on the 26th evening (February). We travelled in an indigenously built Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), which can move at 38 knots (approx 50 mph). During the final stages of our conflict with the LTTE, under the guidance of then Commander of the Navy, today our Admiral of the Fleet, Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy Engineers built more than 100 IPCs which brought LTTE Sea Tigers to their knees on asymmetric naval warfare as per “Lanchester theory” and helped destroy all their “ultimate weapons at sea” – suicide boats. Visionary leader, Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda, always told us, “You cannot buy a Navy – you have to build one” ! How true ! We built it for you, Sir. Bravo Zulu to our Engineers !
IPC moved at 38 knots in the mirror-calm sea, and took only one hour and 40 minutes to reach Kachchativu from Karainagar. I was so impressed with Petty Officer in-charge of the IPC, for his boat handling, and beaching the boat at Kachchativu and professional competence. With such junior leaders, our Navy’s future is bright.
With the full moon, calm seas and light breeze from the North East direction, it was a beautiful night. Few scores of sailors were preparing the church and surroundings for next morning.
One thing missing this year was the crowd. Camping in small groups and singing hymns praising St Anthony was not heard this year. The small “street” in Kachchativu, which was full of makeshift Indian shops with sarees, clothes and sweetmeats and Sri Lankan shops with soap, coconut oil and cinnamon were not there this time around.
The new church built by the Navy five years ago on the request from the Bishop of Jaffna was looking beautiful. This was a hundred percent donation by officers and sailors of the Navy. It cost us Rs. 7.7 million, total contribution by the Navy personnel, majority of them were Buddhists like yours truly. This church is a symbol of reconciliation.
The following day (27) by at 9.30 a.m. mass was, led by Very Rev Father Pathinathar Joshopthas Jebarathnam, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna.
The Mass was attended by 50 officers and sailors following strict quarantine laws. Vicar General , Very Rev Father Jebarathnam blessed all those present and others who had not been able to get there due to the pandemic. I missed Sri Lankan and Indian fishers. Their request to St Anthony is always very simple; that is for them to have a good catch of fish next year so that they could look after their families and come back to St Anthony’s feast again.
I also kept my request simple. “Thank you St Anthony’s, for allowing me to come to Kachchativu this year and give me strength to come back next year as well !”
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