Connect with us

Features

Unjustified hype on coming COVID-19 vaccines

Published

on

by Dr B. J. C. Perera

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician

Many portals of information of various types of media are agog, enthusiastic and terribly excited with the so-called ‘fantastic news’ of the possibility of the arrival of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. This little blight of a virus has been responsible for causing a pandemic that has spread through the entire world like an uncontrollable wildfire, practically causing chaos, disorder and bringing untold misery to virtually every nation on our planet. The Homo sapiens have been eagerly waiting and even praying, for something, be it a medicine or a vaccine, which can be used to tame this microorganism. They, the public, are practically wailing for a respite. There is intense expectation that a vaccine, against this bug would be the panacea for all ills of this nasty disease. There are reports of vaccines in the pipeline that are thought to produce intense protection against the disease. If that is the case, it would indeed be like ‘Manna from Heaven’ for suffering humanity.

There is intense expectation among the general public of the entire world and most definitely in the people of this emerald isle as well, that an effective vaccine against COVID-19 is just round the corner and would be available even within one or two months from now. Yet for all that, it is time, and time well spent at that, to somewhat critically examine the realities of the publicity and hype that has been catalysed by these reports. The general populace is of course totally justified in their expectations following these promulgations from a variety of sources. However, is it really the truth and nothing but the truth? Or is it somewhat far from the real and genuine truth?

Many claims have been made, at least by two of the purported manufacturers of vaccines that their trial vaccines are kind of around 95 per cent effective. These claims seem to be based on provisional and interim results of all phases of animal and human 

clinical trials, announced grandiosely in the public domain, even before proper completion of Phase 3 Clinical Trials. It is pertinent to remind people that Phase 3 Clinical Trials by sheer definition, should involve tens of thousands of human volunteers. By virtue of the lack of completeness of Phase 3 Clinical Trials, none of these claims have been substantiated through publication in reputed Scientific Journals. That really means that there has not been any intense and rigorous scientific scrutiny and peer-review of the results that have been claimed. What we have today are outwardly impressive and dazzlingly attractive statements made by the manufacturers of these vaccines, whose claims have not been

 validated and accepted by a discerning scientific community.

So far, no vaccin e against COVID-19 has been registered under any internationally recognized regulatory authority, or for that matter, even the World Health Organisation (WHO). True enough, the WHO has been examining the feasibility of securing an effective vaccine, its provision to the entire world and the tremendously complicated logistics of its distribution. However, that is really in anticipation of the arrival of a scientifically effective and safe vaccine. It is of course a very wise course of action to follow. If and when such a vaccine arrives, we should not be caught napping.

At least one manufacturer of a vaccine, that has claimed around 95 per cent effectiveness, has suggested that their vaccine would be available for the general public by the first half of 2021, which is just next year and perhaps just a few months from now on. Even then, are we likely to get it in Sri Lanka? Even if we manage to get it, is it for everybody in the country?

It is on record that millions and even billions of doses of the vaccine have already been contracted for and even paid for by some of the countries of the developed Western world. It will probably become a despicable tragedy of vaccine nationalism. ‘I’ and ‘We’ before all others seem to be the buzz phrase. The administration of one notorious leader from a very affluent Western country has compared the global allocation of vaccines against COVID-19 to oxygen masks dropping inside a depressurizing aircraft. They have so pontificated; “You put on your own first, and then we want to help others as quickly as possible”. Incidentally, Sri Lanka has no such contracts with the manufacturers of these vaccines. As these vaccines have not completed safety studies and as no recognized regulatory body has registered them, Sri Lanka is not in a position to make upfront payment and reservations for them either, even if we can garner the money in the face of an economic downfall caused by the virus itself.

At the time of writing of this article in the evening of 23rd November 2020, it was reported in the media that the G-20 Summit declared that their members would take all necessary steps to ensure equal and equitable distribution of a COVID vaccine to all countries of Mother Earth. To some in the know-how, this may definitely appear to be wishful thinking. Some of these very same countries that made this pledge are the same worthies who, not all that long ago and in the face of global shortages, hoarded supplies of respirators, surgical masks, and gloves for their own hospital workers’ use. Overall, more than 70 countries plus the European Union imposed export controls on local supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators, or medicines during the first four months of the pandemic. That group also includes most of the countries where potential Covid-19 vaccines are likely to be manufactured. In fact it is well recorded that such hoarding of vital equipment, medicines and vaccines is not new. A case in point is that of a vaccine that was developed in just seven months for the 2009 pandemic of the influenza A virus H1N1, also known as swine flu. That contagion killed as many as 284,000 people globally. But wealthy countries bought up virtually all the supplies of the vaccine. After the World Health Organization appealed and intervened, several of these very same countries agreed to share just 10 per cent of their vaccines with poorer countries. However, the caveat of that ‘magnanimous’ gesture was the stipulation that they would do so only after determining that their remaining supplies would be sufficient to meet their domestic needs. As for the future behaviour patterns of these very same countries regarding a COVID vaccine, your guess is as good as mine. If history is anything worthwhile to go by, they would get up to their tricks, once again.

We have an organisation, The Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka, which was established over a decade ago. Its objectives are to educate healthcare workers and the public regarding vaccines and vaccination and to have a dialogue with the Ministry of Health on vaccine related matters. It consists of, among others, immunologists, microbiologists, paediatricians, community physicians and family physicians, who practice vaccination and/or have an interest in vaccines. In a recent communiqué, published in The Island Newspaper on 24th November 2020, they have decreed that the only way that Sri Lanka would get the COVID vaccine would be through COVAX, the initiative of the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), WHO and others. COVAX pledges to give all low and middle income countries equitable access to vaccines. The vaccines will be made available to priority groups. These include healthcare and social care workers, elderly, and persons with chronic non-communicable diseases. However, the most likely chances are that WHO/COVAX would be able to provide some vaccine doses to Sri Lanka only towards the end of 2021. WHO/COVAX has pledged that they would reserve a supply of vaccines necessary for only about 20% of our total population, and Sri Lanka will have to pay for them. They have also indicated that they do not wish to buy vaccines that exceed a cost of 20 US dollars per dose for any country. Apart from anything else, what the reaction of the general public would be to a scenario where only 20 per cent of the population is provided with a vaccine that is claimed to protect against a potentially fatal infection, is indeed mind-boggling. It would not be a surprise at all if the populace decides to get on to the roads in protest. There might even be combative riots.

In a truly scientific sense, the COVID vaccine research studies that have been carried out so far, apart from the claims of around 95 per cent efficacy, have not given us reliable information as to how long the immunity would last, how it might wane over time, the degree of protection in different age groups, whether yearly vaccination like the influenza vaccine would be necessary, whether the effectiveness would be just to prevent symptomatic disease rather than preventing infection by the virus, the absolutely essential logistics of transport of the vaccines, possibilities of major adverse effects that may come on after a protracted period of time, the manufacturing capabilities of the providers and the actual cost of bulk purchases of these vaccines. These are just a few among several other hitherto unanswered questions. In particular, we have no information about the use of the vaccine together with or without physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing. Would the usage of even an effective vaccine contribute to our getting on with life as it was in the Pre-COVID era? Would it allow us to abandon all the measures advocated by health professionals as proven preventive strategies? These seem to be queries that need to be addressed most urgently and ever so decisively, well before a vaccine is released for general usage.

We need to face the spectre of stark reality in the face of many unknowns in this novel virus infection. There are many significant questions and very few answers. Real and rigorous scholarly science dictates that these have to be firmly and truthfully dealt with before we can claim that we would be able to defeat this marauding virus by using a vaccine. Scientifically unsubstantiated sensational proclamations that trigger public hysteria and the vision of a bright light at the end of the tunnel, are certainly not of the essence, and are very definitely not in the dominion of the desperate need of the hour.

In such a scenario, the general public should consider these contemplations ever so carefully and, of course, sanity should prevail. For at least the time being, it is vitally essential to implement mechanisms to educate the public on getting vulnerable persons to hospital early for management of complications of COVID-19 and to prevent unnecessary deaths. As so eloquently expounded by The Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka, it cannot be stressed too strongly that it is absolutely essential and undoubtedly crucial to continue vigorously with the public health recommendations on wearing face masks, physical distancing, hand washing and related mechanisms, which have stood the acid test of time, even from the era of the Spanish Flu of 1918.

There is a recent movement known as ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ in the Western world. It has taken those countries by storm to protest against injustices to people whose skin colour is black. The Westerners sometimes label South Asians as ‘Brown Sahibs’ because our skin colour is more akin to brown than to real black. In case there comes a time when this world has a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, all we can tell the foreign powers who control such a vaccine is that ‘BROWN LIVES MATTER TOO’.



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Afghanistan: Down the Memory Hole

Published

on

By Gwynne Dyer

I t’s only one year since the fall of Kabul last August and everybody in the countries that sent troops to Afghanistan has already forgotten about it (apart from journalists in need of a topic in a slow news month). This was predictable, but it is also unfortunate.

The 20-year Afghan war was never more than discordant noises, off-stage, for most people in the rich Western countries that sent troops there, so you can’t expect them to remember the ‘lessons’ of that war. The Afghans never had any real choices in the matter, so they have no lessons to remember. But Western military and political elites should do better.

The first lesson is: if you must invade somebody, do try to pick the right country. Americans definitely wanted to invade somewhere and punish it after the terrorist outrage of the 9/11 attacks, but it’s unlikely that Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers were aware of Osama bin Laden’s plans. The ‘need-to-know’ principle suggests that they were not. The second lesson is: whatever the provocation, never invade Afghanistan. It’s very easy to conquer it, but almost impossible for foreigners to sustain a long-term military occupation. Puppet governments don’t survive either. Afghans have expelled the British empire at its height, the Soviet Union at its most powerful, and the United States.

Terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. Sinn Fein, in early 20th-century Ireland, had the same goal as Kenya’s Mau Mau rebels of the 1960s – to expel the British empire – whereas the Western ‘anarchists’ of the early 1900s had no territorial base and (deeply unrealistic) global ambitions. So do the Islamists of al-Qaeda today. There are as many different flavours of terrorism as there are varieties of French cheese, and each has to be addressed by strategies that match its specific style and goals.

Moreover, the armies of the great powers must always remember the paramount principle that nationalism (also known as ‘tribalism’) is the greatest force-multiplier. Western armies got chased out of Afghanistan, a year ago, because they forgot all the lessons they had learned from a dozen lost counter-insurgency wars in former colonies, between 1954 and 1975: France in Algeria and Indochina, Britain in Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, Portugal in Angola and Mozambique, and the United States in Vietnam.

The driving force, in all those late-imperial wars, was nationalism, and Western armies really did learn the lesson of their defeats. By the 1970s, Western military staff colleges were teaching their future commanders that Western armies always lose guerilla wars in the ‘Third World’ (as it was still known at the time). The Western armies lose, no matter how big and well-equipped they are, because the insurgents are fighting on home ground. They can’t quit and go home because they already are home.

Your side can always quit and go home, and sooner or later your own public will demand that they do. So you are bound to lose, eventually, even if you win all the battles. But losing doesn’t really matter, because the insurgents are always first and foremost nationalists. They may have picked up bits of some grand ideology that let them feel that ‘history’ is on their side – Marxism or Islamism or whatever – but all they really want is for you to go home so they can run their own show. So go. They won’t actually follow you home. This is not just a lesson on how to exit futile post-colonial wars; it is a formula for avoiding unwinnable and, therefore, pointless wars in the ‘Third World’. If you have a terrorist problem, find some other way of dealing with it. Don’t invade. Even the Russians learned that lesson, after their defeat in Afghanistan, in the 1980s. But military generations are short: a typical military career is only 25 years, so by 2001, few people in the Western military remembered the lesson.

Their successors had to start learning it again, the hard way, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe by now they have, but they’ll be gone, too, before long. This cycle of learning and forgetting again doesn’t only apply to pseudo-imperial wars in the post-colonial parts of the world. The wars between the great powers themselves were having such frightful consequences by the time of the First and Second World Wars that similar disasters have been deterred for more than 75 years, but that time may be ending. Like many other people, I oscillate between hope and despair in my view on the course that history is taking now: optimistic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, pessimistic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and I refuse to think about it at all on Sundays. Today is a [fill in the blank], and so I’m feeling [hopeful/despairing].

Continue Reading

Features

Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s loss should result in breaking down societal imbalances

Published

on

The river we step in is not the river we stand on

By B Nimal Veerasingham

Years ago, when visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, I found myself wandering through the sprawling campuses of Loyola University. It is not far from the mighty Mississippi river flowing almost 6,000 km and economically powering significant parts of US Upper Midwest. In an unassuming quite corner under a well branched shady tree I noticed a memorial structure commemorating the killing of eight people in El Salvador, including six Jesuit priests in 1989. The six priests were also professors at the university of Central America in El Salvador at that time.

Peace memorial

This May, as per Loyola’s ‘Maroon’, at the memorial event held at the Peace Quad at Loyola university New Orleans, now dedicated as a memorial to this tragedy, Prof Alvaro Alcazar addressed the gathering. ‘The colonial power that is still very much in place in Latin America has created a ‘faith’ that is blind to or silent about injustice. It was this faith that inspired the Jesuit’s activism, but it cost them their lives’.The involvement of US in this tragedy was also addressed by Prof. Susan Weisher something the United States has never taken accountability for.

US Foreign Policy

The many contradictions and positivity of US foreign policy and its vast turns and switches in reaching many parts of the world is like the mighty Mississippi that prowls almost through or parts of 32 US States. The depth and power of this vast river cannot be estimated by mere width and length. Hurricane Catarina breaching the dikes nearly destroyed the entire city of New Orleans.

Fr Eugene Herbert memorial

Early this year a memorial statue of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert SJ was declared opened by Rt Reverend Ponniah Joseph, Bishop of Batticaloa in the outskirts of Batticaloa town right by the shores of Batticaloa lagoon. The statue was placed midway between the Batticaloa town, where he lived and taught, and the town of Eravur, where he ‘disappeared’ along with one of his students at the Eastern Technical Institute, where he was a Director. He was on his way on the scooter to arrange a safe way for the nuns trapped in a convent in the nearby town of Valaichchenai engulfed by ethnic riots.

Rev Fr Eugene Herbert was born in Jennings Louisiana. He joined the Jesuits on 14 Aug. 1941, while still in his late teens. He volunteered to join the ‘Ceylon Mission’ and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948. As in the traditions of Jesuits as providers of high-quality education from their founding of their first school in 1548, Rev Fr Herbert served particularly in two schools in the East, St. Josephs College Trincomalee and St. Michael’s College Batticaloa. It is well known that Education in the Jesuit tradition is a call to human excellence. It develops the whole person from intellect and imagination to emotions and conscience. It approaches academic subjects holistically, exploring the connections among facts, questions. Insights, conclusions, problems and solutions. It has succeeded in a variety of cultures because it adapts to the context of the learner.

Multi-talented

Rev Fr. Herbert was a multi-talented genius excelling in music, science, technical studies, vocational studies and to be outdone of it all, in the basketball courts. In all disciplines, he brought a stricter structure that is besides excelling in the fundamentals, incorporating situational strategies encompassing critical thinking and adaptation. This was greatly visible none other than in the basketball courts where he injected exuberance and counter strategies to conventional wisdom. Saint Michael’s College Batticaloa up until his arrival in 1974 just was crawling in all Island Championships more so maintaining the status-quo. But Rev Fr Herbert revolutionised the outcome when Saint Michael’s started winning All Island Championships almost in all age groups against much more resourced Colombo schools.

Excellence in Basketball

Human excellence as we all know is not rocket science but striving to be the best with practice, discipline and endurance. But Rev Fr. Herbert’s presence provided the boys from the East who often lacked a concentrated leadership with clear and precise roadmap. The structural imbalance whether it be not so well built or barefooted at matches, didn’t determine the outcome. Rev Fr, Herbert provided energy and leadership both morally and corporally to the boys of the East who faced systemic roadblocks by not getting the direction and leadership. This was further evidenced by Rev Fr. Herbert’s active and emotional coaching that led the College teams to ignore opponent’s big city environments and large support base, but to keep concentrated on the final execution, the championship.

The referees in matches, where Saint Michael’s played paid greater attention to their decisions something that became standard when dealing with someone who knew the rulebook top to bottom. Rev Fr. Herbert quite often, if not in all matches, where St. Michaels College played could be seen challenging the referees for their inaccurate or missed calls. He always carried a basketball rulebook and could be seen feverishly waving the exact page of the rule and exclaims at top pitch when the referees failed to observe especially when the game was heated, and the difference between was swinging by one or two points.

Reaching the stars

I can remember that Rev Fr. Herbert once refused to participate in a Consolation Finals of a tournament. The team wanted at least to bring home a Consolation Finals Trophy, having failed to reach the finals. Rev Fr, Herbert looked at it differently. ‘We came here for nothing else but for the Championship trophy. Now that we couldn’t, we are catching the 8.00 PM night train tonight back to Batticaloa – and by the way, the practice for the next tournament will begin tomorrow evening, be on time’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s humanity was visible in practically everything he exemplified, calculating the speed of the travelling train to explaining the mechanism of automobiles and the melodies from his clarinet. Between the matches and practices in Colombo he said mass at the Jesuit residence at Bambalapitiya. As teenagers with expectations we got confused sometimes with his message from the pulpit. ‘We strive to become the best and win. But at times that is not possible, and we have to accept defeat gracefully. But we have to rise again learning from our mistakes’.On another occasion, the security person refused to allow us to sleep on the floor of an enclosed classroom.

The train was late, and it was late in the evening; there was no one to instruct the security to open the classroom. He was ready to allow only the priest to the reserved quarter upstairs. ‘I will stay with the team and do not need any special arrangement,’ said Rev Fr without blinking, sleeping the entire night with us on the ground of an open but roofed half basketball-court, using his cassock as the bedsheet.

Rev Fr. Herbert exemplified through his life the true meaning of his calling and forging a future full of hope to a population that was at the receiving end of things for a longest while.

Last letter

In one of his last letters to his fellow Jesuit in New Orleans he wrote,’ Enough for our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. I had really planned to write to USAID for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. This is in addition to our regular three -year course in general mechanical trades’.

‘Pray for us. God willing the current instability and disturbances will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune’.

Rev Fr. Herbert’s letter foretells several aspects of humanity that he was called upon to uphold.

The US continues to provide resources to ensure economic wellbeing, stability and peaceful existence across the Globe. The rule of law cannot be simply behavioral codes or identifying the cause or the culprit but ensuring resources and direction for the citizenry in general to break the cycle and rise above injustice. The rule of law cannot be applied differently to different set of people or on a best effort basis.

Breaking down societal imbalances

El Salvador and Sri Lanka were victims of a vicious violent cycle, where Jesuits lost their lives in obeying to their calls from above in their attempt to remake what it ideally should be. Many lost their lives in these cycles of hatred and violence both ordinary and clergy, including my well-liked and ever smiling classmate Rev Fr Savarimuthu Selvarajah. Fr Herbert’s disappearance galvanizes the distrust in our own destiny; many thousands were killed by fellow citizens than in the nearly 500 years of combined occupation by the foreign colonial powers.

The mighty Mississippi River, which travels almost 6,000 km is hardly comparable to a mere 56 km-long Batticaloa lagoon. Yet the son who was born on the shores of Mississippi became the true son by the shores of the Batticaloa lagoon.

This August 15th marks the 32nd anniversary of Rev Fr. Eugene Herbert’s ‘disappearance’. Ironically, at the time of his disappearance he was a year less a day from celebrating his Golden Jubilee in joining the Jesuits (14th August 1941). No one has been brought to date to justice or rather under the clauses of the ‘rule of law’. The one who held the rulebook up above his head is still denied justice.Batticaloa and the entire Sri Lanka lost one of its true sons, and he just happened to be born in the United States of America.

 

Continue Reading

Features

Vijaya Nandasiri : Losing it in laughs

Published

on

By Uditha Devapriya

Vijaya Nandasiri left us six years ago. The epitome of mass market comedy in Sri Lanka, Nandasiri belonged to a group of humourists, which included Rodney Warnapura and Giriraj Kaushalya, who redefined satire in the country. Nandasiri’s aesthetic was not profound, nor was it subtle. It was not aimed at a particular segment. Indeed, there was nothing elitist or pretentious about it; if you could take to it, you took to it. It was hard not to laugh at him, it was hard not to like him. Indeed, it was hard not to sympathise with him.

In the movies, Sri Lanka’s first great humourist was Eddie Jayamanne. Typically cast as the servant or bumpkin, Jayamanne could never let go of his theatrical roots. More often than not his laughs targeted a particular segment, so much so that when Lester Peries cast him as the father of the hero’s lover in Sandesaya, he still seemed stuck in those movies he had made and starred in with Rukmani Devi. Many years later he was cast as a close friend of the protagonist in Kolamba Sanniya, in many ways Sri Lanka’s equivalent of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Even there, he could not quite escape his origins.

In Kolamba Sanniya, Jayamanne played opposite Joe Abeywickrema. Hailing from a different background, more rural than suburban, Abeywickrema had by then become our greatest character actor. Dabbling in comedy for so long, he found a different niche after Mahagama Sekara cast him in Thunman Handiya and D. B. Nihalsinghe featured him as Goring Mudalali in Welikathara. Yet he could never let go of his comic garb. Cast for the most as an outsider in the cities and the suburbs – of whom the epitome has to be the protagonist of Kolamba Sanniya – Abeywickrema discovered his élan in the role of the man who falls into a series of absurd situations, but remains unflappably calm no matter what.

There is nothing profoundly or intellectually funny in Kolamba Sanniya. Like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the humour emerges from the characters’ imperfections and foibles: their way of looking at the world, their accents, their lack of polish and elegance. The dialogues are not convincing, and some of the situations – like the hero’s family discovering a bidet for the very first time – are downright silly, if not condescending. What strengthens the story is Joe Abeywickrema’s performance; specifically, his ability to convince us that, despite the situations he is being put through, he can stand on his own. Like the protagonist of Punchi Baba, left to take care of an abandoned baby, he is helpless but not lacking control. He often makes us think he’s losing it, but then gets back on track.

Vijaya Nandasiri was cut from a different cloth. In many respects he was Abeywickrema’s descendant, yet in many others he differed from him. Whereas Abeywickrema discovered his niche playing characters who could conceal the absurdity of the situations they were in, Nandasiri’s characters could only fail miserably. Abeywickrema convinced us that he was in control; Nandasiri could not. As Rajamanthri, the politician who for most of us epitomised the silliness and stupidity of our brand of lawmakers, he frequently parrots out that he’s an honest man. Abeywickrema could say the same thing and get away with it. Nandasiri could not: when he says he’s honest, you knew at once that he was anything but.

Nandasiri revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune the ubiquitous Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile), though we don’t get why the latter never returns his affections. As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man flirting with his wife, the issue being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married. The whole plot pivots on two things: the fact that his boss doesn’t like him, and the fact that he has to disguise himself as an older husband of his own wife to conceal their marriage from his boss.

In his own special way, Nandasiri went on to represent our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians, by turning them into easily recognisable and easily mockable stereotypes. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold – though his wife only pretends to give in to their employer’s advances – and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure here during the past 20 years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even when playing characters who only vaguely reminded us of him, such as the antihero of Sikuru Hathe.

Many years ago, I watched a mini series on Rupavahini revolving around a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri played the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri’s driver. Early on I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s voice with the other, a trick that survived the first 10 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident that (inexplicably) leaves onlookers and relatives confused as to whose body belongs to whom.

Both are near dying. A quick surgery is hence followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices now revert to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but also a useful trick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the believer in authority and the politician the believer in Marxist politics. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Nandasiri’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him when he was there. For the mini series to work, hence, he had to be himself.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he raises in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle in Colombo he gets used to in Kolamba Sanniya, Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s not a coincidence that, in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, very often in professions that called for security, stability, and status: as a Junior Visualiser in an ad agency in Yes Boss, as the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and as a police sergeant in Magodi Godayi. These symbolised a lifestyle that Nandasiri’s antiheroes sought to subvert and to defy.

Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and serials – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it: in Sikuru Hathe, for instance, he commits one deception after another for his family’s sake, especially his daughter’s.

Where he was paired with another actor, I think, Nandasiri failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are mistaken for two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in a village, he could not really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, he was less than he usually was whenever he was opposite Gamini Susiriwardana. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among a plethora of other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. There are moments in Yes Boss when Lucky Dias nearly outshines him. But Nandasiri gets back on track; he exerts his dominance again.

In other words, Nandasiri could give his best only if his co-star was alive to his range, or if his character was of a lesser pedigree than his co-star. That is what happens in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a fairly good comic actor himself, and because Nandasiri’s character, Hunther, hails from such a different world that the present (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) appears outlandish to him. Hunther to get used to this world, and that means getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s ultimate triumph was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Abeywickrema often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his career has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of upping the antagonist, but he does just that, providing us with the final twist in the story.

He couldn’t behave this way as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (the latter played by W. Jayasiri), the film preaches to us a homily on the corrupting influence of power, a warning for all politicians. But then, just as you come to terms with this conclusion, he wakes up; the whole scene, it turns out, was a nightmare.

Ordinarily, you’d think he would learn from such a nightmare. But he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he is soon back to being the pompous figure he always was. Yet in that brief sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about how the corrupt remain corrupt, and how irredeemable they are. Was it a cruel coincidence, then, that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya Nandasiri played Rajamanthri? We may never know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Continue Reading

Trending