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Upali Wijewardene brilliant man and generous friend

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Cambridge days

by A. C. Visvalingam

Some time in late 1955 or early 1956, I was planning to abandon a course in Agricultural Engineering that I was following at the University of Tokyo in order to return to Sri Lanka with a view to starting a scientifically-run farm when I was called upon to act as an interpreter for the well-known personality Mr. Ray Wijewardene, whom I had then just met for the first time. He was appalled at my decision to give up my studies and, on his return to the island, had made a special trip to Kandy to see my father in order to persuade him that there was only one place in the world that I should be going to – and that was Peterhouse, the oldest college in the University of Cambridge, his alma mater.

My father, who was unaware at the time that an earlier operation he had had for stomach cancer had failed to halt its growth, was persuaded – and, in turn, convinced me -to apply to Peterhouse. It was about this time that Mr Wijewardene told me that two of his younger first cousins – Ranjit Wijewardene and Upali Wijewardene – would also be entering Cambridge at the same time.

For his part, Upali had obtained admission to Queen’s College and it was one or two days more before I met him. That is, Ranjit had arranged to meet Upali and a few others at an Indian restaurant and I, too, was invited to joint the crowd. Even before I saw Upali, I happened to hear his voice from a little distance and was rather put off because he spoke with a strong public school accent – which many Sri Lankans still frown upon as an affectation. It was not long before I learnt that Upali had, in fact been studying for two years at Bedales, an exclusive private school in England, and that his accent was nothing unusual in the circumstances. Later on, after he returned to Sri Lanka, he lost almost all trace of this accent.

Even at that stage of his academic career, Upali gave one the impression that he had great ambitions and had no doubt about his ability to fulfill them.

Within a month of my entering the university my father wrote what was to be his last letter to me to say that the doctors had diagnosed extensive cancer and that he had been given only a few months more to live. He counselled me not to give up my studies and not to return to Sri Lanka for his funeral rites.

As my father had been a very powerful personality and had had a profound influence on the formation of my character, the prospect of his death completely put me off my studies and I became greatly dejected. It was in this context that Upali, though a few years younger than myself, showed his maturity by persistently exhorting me to look at things less emotionally and more objectively. He, almost literally dragged me out of the depths of my depression.

Cambridge University was, at all times, a hive of intense activity with students immersing themselves in their studies, in sports, in the work of the numerous associations, societies, clubs and unions, in heated intellectual discussions, in innumerable extra-curricular activities, patties, dances and so on.

Most of the Sri Lankans did not involve themselves much in these activities – other than their studies, in the discussions and in sports to some extent. In any event, when it came to parties, dances and river picnics, there was no chance for a Sri Lankan to get a local girl as a partner because the British men in and around Cambridge far outnumbered the available British girls. This shortfall was met by the substantial number of other European girls who were in Cambridge to study English. For some obscure reason, these girls felt a greater rapport with Asians than they did with Britishers.

Now the interesting thing is that, whereas these continentals did spare the rest of us an occasional glance, there were two Sri Lankans whom they just swooned over at the mere sight. One of them was Upali, who was quite slim then. His height and sharp angular features, which Europeans hold in such high regard, made him a real winner. Upali’s close friends felt that Providence had been most unfair in distributing its largesse of unevenly! In fact, there was more than one attractive girl who would have gladly given up her fiance back at home if Upali had only dust given the requisite signal!

One of these girls, I remember, had been the object of the attention of a large number of foreign undergraduates. However, she was, for all practical purposes only, interested in horses and the beauties of nature. While the others who were very keen to get to know her gave-up their efforts after a time, it was not long before Upali was seen going horse-riding! He, like Sir Oliver Goonetilleke before him, had found quite early in life that the way to make a person take an interest in you is first to take an ardent interest in the things which are of importance to that person. Although he looked upon getting her attention as a challenge which he could not ignore, he did not allow the friendship to develop so far as to cause her any pain of mind when they eventually went their separate ways.

It was in December 1958 that Upali, Ranjit and three other contemporaries, including myself went on a motor car trip to Spain via France. It was a hair raising trip as we had to drive through unbelievably thick fog on the way from Cambridge, to Dover, and on the most slippery ice; through the precipitous Pyrenees, without benefit of tyre chains. Some details of this trip, have already appeared in these pages before; so I shall only mention a few things which got left out the last time.

Upali’s generosity continued unabated even though I had refused to work for him.

I had agreed to go on this trip reluctantly because my allowance was strictly limited Ranjit and Upali were determined that I should not return to Sn Lanka without having seen something of the Continent. So they kept on at me until I agreed and, hence, had to bear part of the expenses which I myself should have properly borne. Luckily, they had access to rich relatives in the UK!

It was in Spain that i came to realise, to my great annoyance that Upali’s idea of a holiday was to go to sleep as late as possible every night and to get up only in time for lunch the next day! My hopes of looking at some of the cultural treasures of Spain were totally blasted. As he was the most pleasantly persuasive guy, when it came to getting his own way the rest of us just accepted the routine set by him.

In Torremolinos, too, the great attractiveness of Upali to European girls became manifest. The four others were green with envy to see a red rose appearing every afternoon by his bedside when we used to return after our breakfast-lunch. The rose was, as we realised all too soon, an expression of the admiration which the two pretty maids felt for him!

Back at Cambridge, Upali had come to make the acquaintance of a mixed couple an English wrestler and his black West Indian club singer cum entertainer wife.

One day, the wife turned up alone to see him in his rooms during the period he had set aside for his studies, clearly indicating that she had a more than a passing interest in him. With some difficulty, he managed to get her to leave and had just got back to his work when there was a heavy banging on the door.

It was the wrestler! Upali’s knees nearly gave way when the Englishmen told him that, when he found his wife missing, he had thought that she must have come to see Upali. He succeeded in convincing the powerfully-built man that there must be some other explanation for her absence from his side and the matter happily ended there.

Upali obtained an Upper Second Class in his first examinations. He was encouraged by this but was determined to do better in his Finals. All of us were hopeful that he would achieve a good result because he was very disciplined in the matter of the time which he spent on his studies.

For example, he would agree to meet us only during certain specified hours which were outside the hours he had reserved for his academic labours. Nevertheless, something did not go quite work out and he was greatly disappointed when he got only a Lower Second Class Honours degree in Economics – a subject in which he later shone in the practical world of business.

Our ways parted in mid-1959 after our degree examinations. I stayed on in England and then went on to Ghana but kept in touch with Ranjit and Upali who had both returned to Sri Lanka.

By 1970,1 felt that I had studied long enough and acquired sufficient experience overseas in the fields of civil engineering which were of relevance to river basin development to be able to make a positive contribution here and, therefore, decided to return home.

When I wrote to Upali in this connection and asked for his advice on whom I should write to, he, instead, offered me a job in his then young organisation as his Managing Director I remember that he sent me his projections for the expected growth of his business – which, if I recall correctly, was to reach a turnover of Rs. 100,000,000 by 1976 or a little thereafter.

However, I did not find any difficulty in convincing him that I should stick to my chosen path and that, in any event, I would be a rather difficult-to-control employee. I may mention that lie did, by various innovative strategies, achieve the targets he had set for himself despite the highly adverse economic policies being enforced at the time.

He found that my efforts to obtain a post – any post at all – in the engineering field here was being met with blunt resistance by the local engineering establishment. When he found that I was not making any progress, he took it upon himself to speak to the Minister concerned but even the latter could not help me against the might of the technical bureaucracy. Eventually, thanks to some information which was passed on to me by Dr. Lal Jayawardena, I found myself working at Embilipitiya at the River Valleys Development Board.

Upali’s generosity continued unabated even though I had refused to work for him. The ground floor visitor’s room in his castle-like home was put at my disposal whenever I had to be in Colombo on duty, irrespective of whether he was in Sri Lanka or not. When he was in the Island, long hours were spent discussing the Mahaweli Development Project, the Walawe Project, water management, road construction, business, economics, politics, the share market and important personalities in Sri Lanka.

His comprehension of engineering principles was astonishing. Months after I had explained some engineering matter to him, he would refer to it accurately in some other related engineering context with an understanding which I would normally expect only of engineer.

It may surprise the reader to learn that Upali did not have much experience of the workings of the stock market until I told him one day that I had managed to complete my PhD at the University of London largely with the help of money that I had made on the UK stock market by investing my savings from my Ghana days. He questioned the exhaustively on whatever I knew but it was not very long before he had gone into the intricacies of the subject to a professional depth to which I had no aspirations.

He once explained to me the secret of business growth. It was, he said, the legal avoidance of the payment of tax to the maximum extent possible. He was solidly in agreement with the view expressed by certain economists that any tax in excess of 15% provides a strong incentive to finding all possible means to avoid payment – and is, therefore, largely self-defeating. It causes businessmen and the senior people in their organisations to divert an excessive proportion of their time from productive efforts to tax minimisation.

I recollect asking him who were the Sri Lankan men whose business acumen he respected. At the risk of embarrassing those of them who are still alive, I can recall, inter alia, that he mentioned the names of Senator Sarath Wijesinghe (his uncle), N. S. O. Mendis, Mark Bostock and D. P. D. M. de Silva.

He had a phenomenal memory for names and connections. He could tell the relationships between almost any of the important people whose names cropped up in our discussions.

His comprehension of engineering principles was astonishing.

On one occasion, I happened to be in Colombo on the day Dr. N. M. Perera was presenting his Budget for the following year. His speech, or excerpts of it, were being broadcast and both of us were listening carefully While I had no idea what Dr. Perera was going on about half the time, Upali kept up a constant stream of instantaneous comments on how a smart businessman would exploit the very proposals which Dr. Perera was putting forward to tie them down hand and foot. This ability to think on his feet. as it were, and to react extremely rapidly to adverse developments was the principal hallmark of his business personality.

His office desk was always clear of papers. That is, any papers which were brought to him were dealt with immediately and the appropriate directions given to the person bringing the papers, up to him. To my knowledge, he never studied any office document by himself.

Because of the pace at which he made decisions, he had a great deal of spare time which lie spent talking to his friends and business contacts either at home, in his office or on the telephone. His telephone calls often exceeded one hour in length -sometimes even overseas calls.

In retrospect, one of the more remarkable qualities of Upali Wijewardene was his ability to get the most out of relatively unpromising managerial material. He was not impressed by degrees, wide experience or other considerations. With his ability to analyse problems and arrive at answers with lightning rapidity the qualities he looked for most in his employees were the ability to carry out orders, loyalty and a willingness to work at all hours of the day or night as the situation demanded. Given these qualities in those who worked for him, he was able slowly but surely, to get them to take on more and more responsibilities to the point where several of them became capable of managing large enterprises on their own. This, he was able to do with many employees who would not have passed through even the preliminary tests of a management consultancy organisation.

His office and factory layouts were planned by him personally and were, in my view, extremely efficiently and neatly laid out. The late Mr. Lawrence Tudawe was just given a free hand sketch or two, with a few overall dimensions, and told to get on with the job.

His tastes in furniture and fittings reflected the greatest simplicity of line and good proportion.

As for his cars, he had then maintained beautifully.

At a certain point in time, he got tired of merely making money and decided to use his business strength to introduce a little excitement into his life – needless to say, with no adverse impact on the growth of his business. He chose horse-racing because it was the sport of kings. In particular, it was the sport of his late maternal uncle, for whom he had an enormous admiration. Apart from the sheer thrill of winning, I have no doubt that one of the considerations which would have been uppermost in his mind would have been the high profile image it would provide in dealing with top businessmen in other countries.

Upali did not talk about the few business failures I believe lie had because he probably felt that that would reduce his authority in dealing with people, not excluding his friends.

When the UNP came into power in 1977 and Upali became the Director-General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission, he twice asked me to join the organisation to look after the engineering side. I declined on the grounds that I had had enough of working for the government, i.e. considering my experiences at Walawe.

There was, however, a problem for the young GCEC to find counterparts to deal with the foreign experts who were being sent to help it to set up the Investment Promotion Zone at Katunayake and to plan improvements to the associated infrastructure. Upali, therefore, got certain members of the Commission to persuade me to work, at least as a consultant, with the foreign experts, who happened to be from the Shannon Free Trade Zone in Ireland.

I hardly met him at all, either privately or officially, during the period I did work for the GCEC because of the pressure on all of us to get things organized quickly. It was towards the close of my association with the GCEC that the engineer from Shannon and I met Upali to discuss a technical -report of ours. It took Upali only a few seconds of explanation by us to grasp the essence of the problem and give his decision. The speed of his comprehension greatly surprised the Irishman.

After Upali started taking an interest in entering politics, I found that I did not feel like making the same effort to meet him as I had done hitherto. This was because his new goals led him to tolerate around him a great number of sycophants whom he would normally not have allowed within a mile’s radius.

Only once did I advise him in this connection -and that was to warn him, after ‘The Island’ started attacking certain political figures – that it was a very unwise thing to do and that he should try to “mend fences” with his targets as quickly as possible. After all, I argued, people who have been in the hurly-burly of politics could not be expected to take kindly to a relative newcomer upstaging them. Unfortunately, those giving the opposite advice were more numerous and spent more time around him. Thus, my advice came to naught. The rest is history.

No man is without fault but Upali had many more pluses going for him than minuses. May his journey through Sansara be brief!

The one thing that I never could have foreseen was the immense hold lie had developed on ordinary Sri Lankans by the tremendous strides he was making in the business world, particularly outside Sri Lanka. The man in the street felt proud that one of their countrymen could go out into the wide world and make a success of himself with such panache. It was his disappearance – and the suddenness of it – that created the situation where all of us became aware of his charisma.



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Beyond the fiction of Alborada

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By Sarath Chandrajeewa

“No matter how much a work of art is sweet, if it hides the truth and disregards humanity it can only be equalled to a beautiful but empty shell that attracts us.” (L.E. Kerbel – Russian Sculptor)

‘Alborada’ is the Spanish word for ‘the dawn’. In 1984, a music group was born in Peru, South America by the same name and they gained immense popularity. Their music mainly spread among people in North and South America. Their music’s foundation was the traditional music of Native Americans who lived in the Andes mountain range (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTD2VDcxvNc). Likewise, in 2005 a soap opera by the same name was broadcast in Mexico, North America, which became very popular. This story was based on a series of events that took place during the historical period when Panama and Mexico were on the verge of gaining freedom from Spain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iM5s_d1vls).

In 2021 Asoka Handagama made a film in Sri Lanka by the same name, Alborada. The protagonist of this film is Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), the Chilean Consul in Ceylon for two years, from 1929 to 1931. He was very young, only 25, when he was appointed to this post. Ceylon was a colony at the time and he was lodged at No. 56, 42nd street, Wellawatte, Colombo 6, a place close to the sea. He had written down his reminiscences, in his own language, in book form. Later it was translated into English and published under the title ‘Memoirs’. According to this book, he had referred to his house as ‘My solitary bungalow’. It is said that the name Alborada was proposed by Pablo Neruda for the house of his friend, Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944), who had lived at Guildford Crescent, Colombo 7.

Wendt too was fluent in several languages including English, Spanish and some other European languages. It is apparent, from documents and events that took place at that time, that his house, Alborada, had not been a lonely or tranquil place. It is clear that house Alborada was always full of people, such as painters, dancers, actors, photographers as well as pianists and those who enjoyed music. It was more like a cultural centre where discussions, art critiques and debates took place. (L.C. Van Geyzel, et al. [2000]. ‘Lionel Wendt: A Centennial tribute’. Lionel Wendt memorial fund; Sampath Bandara. [2017]. Lionel Wendt Kalava Saha Jeevithaya, Sarasavi Publication. [Sinhala]).

Though Handagama’s film was titled Alborada, the actual location, where incidents mentioned took place, was the Solitary Bungalow, the Chilean Consul’s official residence (Jamie James. [2019]. ‘Pablo Neruda’s life as a struggling Poet in Sri Lanka: A young poet’s Adventures in the Foreign Service’. Retrieved from https://lithub.com/pablo-nerudas-life-as-a-struggling-poet-in-sri-lanka/). In the 20th Century Sri Lankan context, Alborada was a distinguished active cultural centre. As a Sri Lankan cultural symbol, it directly connects with the character of Lionel Wendt. The creator of a work of art has the total freedom to create his work as he pleases and also to choose whatever name for the particular work. Handagama’s Alborada is similar to a poem, set to inspiring music. It includes a series of artistic figure compositions and features a number of skilled performing artistes. The trailer of Handagama’s film gave me some ideas.

When creating a work of art based on historical events, rather than myth and imaginary incidents, its trustworthiness depends on the people who faced the incident, the actual incidents, exact places, time period and the political and cultural background. Consequently, thorough research is necessary to identify accurate works based on historical incidents. It is difficult to rectify myths or false assumptions ingrained in society by unreliable books, documents, magazines or films. People will always embrace falsity, deception and myth, over the truth. Our culture as well as other cultures are replete with many such examples.

Alborada

‘Alborada’ is the name of Lionel Wendt’s house. It is important as it is the house of a great Sri Lankan cultural icon of the last century. It is also important as Alborada was the name given to the renowned cultural centre of modern history, in Sri Lanka. It is from this place that art activities in our country were taken to the international arena. Alborada was situated at No. 18 old Guildford Crescent. Today this street is called Premasiri Kemadasa Mawatha. Six years after his demise, in 1950 his friend Harold Peiris (1905-1981) demolished his old house, Alborada, and built a gallery and a performing arts centre (Lionel Wendt Art Gallery and Theatre) to commemorate him. It was designed by painter Geoffrey Beling (1907 – 1992), Principal Art Inspector, Department of Education, and Bernard G. Thornley (Manel Fonseka. [1994]. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).

When Lionel Wendt was alive, renowned upcountry master dancers, Amunugama Suramba and Nittawela Ukkuwa used to lodge at Alborada with their troupes, when they visited Colombo (Dancer Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, daughter of Master Dancer Suramba, Personal communication, 2017).

A documentary movie ‘Song of Ceylon’, directed by Basil Wright in 1934, was placed first at the Brussels International film festival in 1935. The creative segments of the movie were organized at Alborada. Manel Fonseka reported in an article, ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’ in 1994, that in an interview with Julia Margaret Cameron, Basil Wright had said this about Lionel Wendt; “I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived. I should place him among the six best I’ve come across”.

As a result of discussions held at Alborada, master dancers Nittawela Ukkuwa and Amunugama Suramba were taken to England for a recording of drum beats, for the movie ‘Song of Ceylon’. This trip was sponsored by painter Harry Peiris (1904-1988). A dance school was established to develop up-country dance, in Gunnepana, Sirimalwatte, Kandy in the 1920s for Master Suramba, as a result of discussions held among a group led by Wendt and George Keyt (1901-1993). This troupe, which included the group of up-country dancers, Ukkuwa, Nittawela Gunaya, Punchi Gura and Sri Jayana Rajapakse, was later upgraded as the ‘Dance Ensemble of Central Lanka’. Jayana’s coming of age ceremony, inclusive of his ‘Ves ceremony’, held at the Degaldoruwa Rajamaha Viharaya, Kandy, in 1939, and Jayana’s dance training in India later, were all sponsored by Wendt (Dr. Vaidyavathi Rajapakse, Personal communication, 2017).

The first art inspector appointed to Sri Lanka, during the colonial era, was Charles Freegrove Winzer (1886-1940), an Englishman. He became close friends with Wendt, during his tenure in Sri Lanka. In the early years, Winzer and Wendt both wrote reviews on exhibitions of George Keyt, Justin Peiris Deraniyagala (1903-1967) and Geoffrey Beling. Wendt also translated Neruda’s art reviews from Spanish to English and published them (Manel Fonseka.

[1994]. ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt, Lionel Wendt Photographs’. Deutsche Bank Colombo and Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund).

The first avant-garde art movement in Sri Lanka, the ’43 Group’, was born under the leadership of Winzer and Wendt. The 43 Group consisted of Wendt (Chief Organizer), painters Harry Peiris (Chief Secretary), George Keyt, J.W.G Beling, Richard Gabriel (1924-2016), Ivan Peiris (1921-1988), Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, George Claessen (1909-1999), Aubrey Collette (1920-1992) and L.T.P Manjusri (1902-1982). The meetings of the 43 group were held at Alborada until Wendt’s death.

Afterwards the meetings were held at the house of Harry Peiris, Sapumal Foundation, Barnes Place (Sarath Chandrajeewa. [2010]. ‘Modern Art in Sri Lanka and its socio-political environment’, Artful resistance: contemporary Art from Sri Lanka, ZKF publishers. Germany).

As mentioned above, Pablo Neruda was only 25 when he was in Sri Lanka as the Chilean Ambassador (1929-1931). At 29, Wendt was four years older. In his book ‘Memoirs’, translated from Spanish into English by Hardie St. Martin, published by Penguin, Neruda had written thus about Wendt, on page 93.

“Little by little the impenetrable crust began to crack open and I struck up a few good friendships. At the same time, I discovered the younger generation, steeped in colonialist culture, who talked only about books just out in England. I found out that the pianist, photographer, critic and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon.

Lionel Wendt, who owned an extensive library and received all the latest books from England, got into the extravagant and generous habit of every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books. Thus, for some time, I read kilometers of English novels, among them the first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published privately in Florence” (Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, translated from Spanish by Hardie St. Martin [1997]. Penguin Books).

To be continued

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Politics at its most primitive

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By Uditha Devapriya

Review of Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell

Sarasavi Publications, 2021, 118 pages, Rs. 300

Half-way into Shaveen Bandaranayake’s novel, the Minister at the heart of the story tells us that the wealth he earned was people, not money. This is what politicians usually say. In the very least, it is what people who dislike politicians imagine they say.

Come to think of it, both amount to the same thing: we’ve turned politicians into objects of hate so much that we’ve come to love them for being who we think they are. Since we can’t control them in real life, we want to dominate them in popular fiction. The number of plays and films that poke fun at Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Ministers testify to how badly we want to be, not like them, but above them.

I am deeply suspicious of satire of that sort. In his excellent review of Pusswedilla, Hafeel Farisz tells us why political parody ends up serving the people and objects being parodied. This is not rocket science. At its best, political satire can move us to anger, disenchantment, and rebellion. At its worst, it can lull us into a sense of complacency with things as they are and as they seem. Farisz seemed to think that Pusswedilla epitomised the latter, reinforcing cultural stereotypes while offering no proper critique of the political establishment and the ruling class. I suppose you can say the same thing of Vijaya Nandasiri’s comedies: at his best, he makes us aware of the corruption of the political class; at his worst, he turns the corrupt into objects of love-hate, full of tropes and clichés but nothing substantive.

Shaveen Bandaranayake’s Groundswell reads as a political satire, though I have my doubts. Interweaving different stories and unfolding like a film, it goes back and forth. I won’t call its ending funny, but then how can any novel involving politics end on a funny note?

What Bandaranayake does in his story, short as it is, is to tell us that nothing good can come out of a system mired as much in corruption as in patronage. Since these people are tied to each other through politics, politics can prove to be their undoing. The way he forays into this theme and explores it, without regurgitating the usual political clichés, puts the novel at a notch or two above what you come across at, say, the Lionel Wendt. Without conforming to crude stereotypes, he attempts to humanise his characters, showing us why connections matter in politics, and why they don’t always work out.

The plot is simple enough. A woman comes across a corpse of a man at the foot of a hill one fine morning. She informs the police. By the looks of it, he seems to have lost his grip and fallen to his death. The story then rewinds to a political rally at that most obtrusive site of political rallies, a temple, where we are introduced to Sarath Aluwihare, a Minister trying to win his next election. We are also introduced to Sunil, a young man endeavouring to land a job. Events will unfold in a way that will bring the two of them together.

We are told that Sarath hails from a family of politicians, and that this family has been in politics for over two generations. The surname tells us as much. Sunil, on the other hand, is so unobtrusive that Shaveen doesn’t grant him the privilege of a surname, which, after all, is the preserve of those who matter. Like other village youths lacking employment and in dire search of a patron from the ruling class, Sunil clearly is not important; even when he finds a job as Aluwihare’s driver, his status rises, but not so much as to protect him from the novel’s ending. He is as destined to his place in life as Aluwihare is to his.

There are other characters though, and they have surnames. There is the head priest of the temple, for instance, an unabashed admirer of Aluwihare who uses him to achieve his not so religious purposes. Then there is Dileepa Jayanetti, who rises “from rags to riches” and ends up becoming the owner of the country’s biggest media house. Dileepa finds his way up by befriending the daughter of another prominent politician, who introduces him to Aluwihare, who in turn becomes his biggest benefactor. You sense the pattern here.

Halfway through the story, Dileepa hires Lasantha Muthukumarana, a journalist who tries to stick to the tenets of his trade. Dileepa does this because he thinks that by hiring the honest, he can keep them from being honest. For someone who is so bright and manipulative, this is far from the most brilliant decision he could have taken: a few pages later, Muthukumarana is investigating a hit-and-run incident which may be connected to Aluwihare.

In Bandaranayake’s world, everyone seems to know everyone else. That is why it comes to no surprise that the man run down by a vehicle in the middle of the night should have been married to a woman Aluwihare just happened to hire at his Ministry, and that she should be rumoured to have formed the object of Aluwihare’s affections. That Lasantha thought for a moment that a news report linking all this to a prominent Minister would make it in a paper linked to and blessed by that Minister is, of course, intriguing. But he tries to get it published it anyway. When the predictable opprobrium follows and he finds he can’t get it in, the story moves to its inevitable and in many ways unsurprising conclusion.

In saying all this, I am by no means revealing the plot. In fact, surprising as it may seem, the plot is what least interests me about Bandaranayake’s novel. This is a narrative I have come across many times, in many forms. Bandaranayake takes great pains to make it all relevant to the immediate political situation, i.e. the one we are in, now. Those who manage to draw links between his characters and their “real-life counterparts” should, therefore, be forgiven for thinking that he has attempted political critique masquerading as satire. My interest in it, then, has less to do with the novel than the genre it belongs to.

If Groundswell can be called a satire, it is satirical only to the extent that his characters are caricatures. Yet, as I implied earlier, it is not a satire in the way that a work like Pusswedilla is. The characters fit into preconceived and familiar patterns, but that doesn’t make them the clichéd tropes they turn into elsewhere. These characters are more rounded, certainly more complex. Sarath Aluwihare, for instance, does not possess the overstuffed tummy his counterparts from countless parodies do, while Sunil doesn’t become a Renfield type figure hell bent on catering to his “Master.” Even though Bandaranayake can be facetious, and is pugnacious, he refuses to dabble in the kind of satirical humour which could have turned his story into a Vijaya Nandasiri style parody of politics in Sri Lanka.

Depending on how you view it, this may be the strongest point or the biggest weakness in Bandaranayake’s novel. Groundswell makes several important points, and they should be considered pertinent whether they be couched the language of satire or of serious political critique. The medium is hardly the message, contrary to what people might say, and the way you communicate your ideas should not really impact the importance of those ideas.

And yet, there are one or two episodes which reveal Bandaranayake’s funny side. It is here that the disjuncture between the satirical undertones and the ponderous overtones of the narrative, and the author’s voice, proves fatal to the development of the story.

Bandaranayake is at his best when he is setting up situations, and these situations are, all things considered, effective in setting up the plot. He tries to create atmosphere, and does a good job of laying the context. But when each and every point is prefaced by laboriously long explanations of social phenomena, such as the separation between temple and State in Sri Lanka, or the wretched fate encountered by a million or so menial workers in West Asia, you struggle to distinguish between the narrative and the commentary.

For local readers, these explanations will at best be passé. I suspect they will be for foreign readers as well. Groundswell is a novel, or more correctly a novella, which could have been shorter, tighter, and more effective without them. Not surprisingly, the story gains strength when Bandaranayake cuts to the chase, and loses track when he does not.

I have read this kind of story many times before. What makes this one interesting is that it is Bandaranayake’s first attempt at fiction, and that, for a first attempt, it’s damn good. Even within its limits, he has come up with something enjoyable. That I enjoyed the book, and of course the brilliant illustrations that more than just decorate it*, is why I wish it were leaner, shorter, and tighter. Less can be more. More often than not, it is.

* With one exception: the eighth drawing depicts a scene that, if you think about it carefully, is at odds with the text on the opposite page.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Thirty two little ballerinas win awards at TBSC’s 2021 prize giving

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PRIYAN DE SILVA

Thirty two little ballerinas were presented with certificates of achievements and awards at the 2021 prize giving of The Ballet school of Colombo (TBSC) held recently.

Directors of TBSC Tara Cooke and Romina Gyi said that they were extremely proud of the achievements of their charges and thanked the students and parents for their dedication in attending classes diligently despite the trying conditions.

Certificates of achievement were awarded in the baby ballet, junior ballet and intermediate ballet categories to students who excelled in pre-classical and pre-jazz ballet.

Debbie McRitchie, International Director of the Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing (to which TBSC is affiliated), in her congratulatory message thanked the parents for investing in their childrens dance education and the teachers of TBSC for preparing the candidates. She said that dance is like life and is a journey but not a destination and encouraged all stakeholders to work harder.

The prize giving was a proud moment for both students and parents as it was a parent who presented the certificates of achievement to their child. Five-year-old Shenaya de Alwis Samarasinghe was the youngest candidate at the prize giving, passing with honours in pre-classical ballet.

The Ballet School of Colombo was the former ‘Oosha Garten Sschool of Ballet’ pioneered by the late Kalasuri Oosha Saravanamuttu-Wijesinghe and was instituted as the ‘The Ballet School of Colombo’ in 2016.

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