10 August 2017

Let the Court of History summon all perception-peddlers

Dayan Jayatilleka is absolutely opposed to any move that goes beyond the 13th Amendment (in terms of power-devolution).  ‘Not even a single millimeter!’ is he ready to concede.  He adds a caveat: ‘even the implementation of the 13th amendment must be gradual and conditional on conduct.’

The ‘conduct’ element has been prompted by a recent speech by the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, C.V Wigneswaran, delivered in Jaffna to an audience that included some British parliamentarians and members of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. 
Percipere: seize, understand

In that speech, speaking on ‘reconciliation,’ Wigneswaran makes the pertinent point that it is ‘mind-oriented’ as opposed to reconstruction, which is physical.  Therefore, he argues, that one has to appreciate the role of perceptions.  Thereafter, he proceeded to list the relevant ‘percepts.’  Let us note, parenthetically, that the word ‘perception’ derives from the Latin ‘percipere’ which means seize or understand.  

Perspective, in the sense the word is used, is about regarding, understanding or interpreting something.  Objectivity is not assumed, naturally.  In other words, we are not talking about claims that can be or need to be substantiated. 

Anyway, Wigneswaran proceeded to lay out the percepts which, as per his own preamble, would permit others to dismiss as ‘sheer lunacy,’ given different perceptions (if we are to be generous to Wigneswaran).  Dayan has picked the appropriate Voltaire quote here: “if you believe absurdities you will commit atrocities”.   Appropriate because Wigneswaran is not calling for an audit of perceptions in terms of historical evidence (including, if he so wishes, community-glorifying literature, but certainly not limited to such ‘tracts’).  Appropriate, also, because he is essentially mimicking his predecessors in the line of Tamil chauvinists — drawing heavily from the politicizing script of tall tales, creations and/or exaggeration of grievances and the painting of myth and rank falsehood as truth and historical fact.  But let’s put all that as ‘perception’.

Wigneswaran’s exercise clearly and unabashedly is one of setting up preamble to the statement of objective, namely ‘federalism’.  This is how he puts it:

The Sinhalese are allergic to the term federalism since the politicians of both communities have created the belief that federalism is separation or federalism leads to separation. Both ideas are incorrect. Federalism joins together disparate entities of peopleThis perception of the Sinhalese that Federalism is separation and/ or leads to separation has stood in the way of reconciliation.”

Now the above can be dismissed as ‘perception’ or can be countered by a painting of ‘Tamil (chauvinistic) beliefs’ and relevant ‘allergies’.  We can then demonstrate that Tamils and not Sinhalese have stood in the way of reconciliation.  But if we were to strip the federalist ‘imperative’ (couched inside a narrative about perceptions) of its racial frills, we have to contend with the issue of ‘disparate entities’.  That, of course, makes imperative a historical audit or a comprehensive assessment of all claims, ‘perceptions’ if you will.   It will, for example, force us to examine the ‘logic’ of provincial boundaries; i.e. whether or not they contain ‘historical communities’.  All of Wigneswaran’s claims (and of course the claims of other chauvinists, Tamils and also Sinhalese) would have to be ‘strained’ through such an audit to obtain something rational to frame reconciliation with.  

It is clear that Wigneswaran would not want this for if he did (because, say, he was actually convinced that his claims would stand the test of scrutiny with respect to historicity) he would have been the first to call for a historical audit.  Instead, he wriggles around it.  He says, quite pompously and self-righteously, “Lots of our Tamil leaders would shudder to say these truths (sic) for fear they would hurt the feelings of the Sinhalese,’ and adds, ‘by not informing the truth we are consolidating the wrong perceptions fed into the Sinhalese mind.’   

He would have to concede the equal pertinence of a perception along the following lines: ‘Tamil leaders would shudder to utter such preposterous claims for fear that they would be called out for lunacy.’  And this: ‘in truth Wigneswaran is consolidating the perception that Tamil chauvinists such as himself are not interested in reconciliation because they are not interested in eliciting the truth of history-claims.’

This brings us back to Dayan’s ‘conduct clause’.  If Wigneswaran (or anyone else) conducted him/herself in non-lunatic ways (let’s say), should the 13th Amendment be implemented?  The problem is that if we were to probe ‘conduct’ on the basis of lunacy (and there can be many strains to this malady) and the truth-value of history-claims, then we should begin with a review of the 13th Amendment itself by questioning its preamble which, we all know, was obtained from Tamil chauvinist narratives and not from the outcome of a historical audit. 

Of course there are grievances which were and still are real, but for the solution to be a map-based one, then lines have to have history-worth especially since the overall narrative is history-laden.  In any event, quite apart from history, the relevant geographic, demographic and economic elements need to be factored in.  The 13th clearly did nothing of the kind.  

My contention is that a sober laying out of facts would necessitate a review of the 13th Amendment.  Such sobriety would have to include a consideration of claims, tall or otherwise, uttered by the sober or by the lunatics.  Wigneswaran, as things stand, doesn’t seem to be interested.  He is not engaging with the Sinhalese.  He is not interested in the truth. Perceptions dressed up as biblical truth constitutes political bread and butter, one might conclude.  He can peddle absurdities because he can afford to do so.  

He can crank his fairy-tale machine and serve these to a naive audience of foreigners predisposed to a) believing minorities never lie and b) terrorists are actually freedom fighters if they are doing the killing in some other country.  He can do that because it costs him nothing.  He is no fool.  He knows what is what.  He is not interested in reconciliation. He would go with ‘atrocity’ if that’s what it takes to remain politically relevant.  

However, if anyone is truly serious about reconciliation (reconciliation peddlers please note!) then why should there not be a serious discussion about claims?  Why not call for it?  History, as I have argued frequently, ought to chair the reconciliation process if not for anything because (let’s humour him!) Wigneswaran is clamouring for it.  Let the man and his words stand trial before we talk ‘reconciliation’.  The issue of ‘conduct’ would no doubt be resolved in the process along with the the more important issue of conflicting claims (perceptions, if you will).


06 August 2017

Onella Karunanayake has a point

Yeah, why single out Ravi!  
Onella WIranthi Karunanayake has asked a valid question: “Why only my father’s name comes up all the time in such a huge government?”

The ‘father’ is of course Ravi Karunanayake, Minister of External Affairs.  Karunanayake’s  name has ‘come up,’ to use Onella’s words because of his close friendship with Arjun Aloysius, the man at the centre of the Central Bank Bond Issue fiasco.  Karunanayake is a target because a) he was at the time the Minister of Finance, b) Aloysius’ father-in-law, Arjun Mahendran, was the Governor of the Central Bank, and c) this ‘friendship’ has found expression in Aloysius pocketing out millions so the minister could enjoy residency in a luxury apartment.

In the note that Onella has posted on Facebook, she proposes (as her father has) that there is a well-orchestrated effort using ‘well paid character assassins’ targeting Karunanayake. The media and the public, she claims, are playing judge, jury and executioner.  She is wondering and she encourages everyone to wonder why only her father is coming under attack.  This ‘focus on Ravi K’ if you will makes her wonder (and she wants us to wonder too) if Ravi K has been handpicked as the ‘Fall Guy’ (again and again).  

It is, as she has pointed out, a ‘huge government’.   Right now, the focus is on her father, she is correct.  Coverage of any issue is fair game.  Coverage of an issue where billions may have been made courtesy the time-tested mechanism of who’s-who is fair game.  Onella may have a point when one considers the fact that even Lake House is covering the case (that’s Daily News and not all Lake House publications, by the way).  Bigger issues have gone under the radar of the state media, but that’s ‘accepted practice’.  Indeed, her father initially remarked that the entire process indicated that things had changed in the country.  Questionable operations of dozens of ministers and officials have in the past been ignored by Lake House editors.  Indeed, some issues have been virtual touch-me-nots to all media in years gone by (and we are not singling out the Rajapaksa era here).  

But why only Ravi K, she asks, and that’s a valid question. Perhaps Daily News has suddenly acquired some freedom; if so, it should be celebrated and not pooh-poohed on account of that newspaper not taking all errant politicians to the cleaners.  In a country where even private media institutions think twice before attacking the government, a state-owned media outfit doing ‘the unthinkable’ has to be applauded.  We can only hope that this move would put all politicians on their toes and also embolden all state media institutions to act in the public interest. 

Onella, then, might appear to have a legitimate grouse.  On the other hand, if one were to check out the political discussions on social media, it’s not just about her father.  It is about the entirety of the ‘huge government’ she talks of.  It’s about Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena and their crimes of commission and omission.  It’s about the previous regime and Aloysius’ operations before Maithripala Sirisena came to power (i.e. before his father-in-law was made Governor of the Central Bank).  

More importantly, what Onella seems to have missed here is that no one is incriminating Ravi Karunanayake as much as Ravi Karunanayake himself.  It is her father who moved into a plush apartment claiming all arrangements were made by his wife and children and that he had no idea who paid whom and how much was paid.  

Pandula Nayana Bandara, a prolific and witty commentator on Facebook put it this way:  

අපි රු 50 ඩේට කාඩ් එකක් ගත්තත්, "කාගෙංද මේක ගත්තෙ??.... කොහෙන්ද උඹට සල්ලි....." කියල කෙලවරක් නැති ප්රශ්න වැලක් අහන අප්පච්චිලා අතරේ රවී කරුනානායක කියන්නෙ දෙයියෙක්..."ඩැඩී... අපි apartment එකක් ගත්ත.. පදිංචියට යමුද...."
"එල එල...."
අපෙ අප්පොච්චිලට රිදෙන්න සෙයාර් කරන්න...

The story is one of interest-conflict.  Ravi Karunanayake, through his response to this story (in his denials, claims of ignorance and feigning of memory-loss) has succeeded in generating a dozen other stories. If anyone is singling out Ravi Karunanayake for attack it is himself, ironically.  Editors, moreover, cannot be blamed for chasing this story. Indeed, they can only be found fault with if they missed it or pussy-footed around it or distorted it altogether, as some Lake House publications have, unfortunately.  Onella may have heard of the term ‘self-incrimination’.  Well, that’s her father, as things stand now. He has joined the media and the public in playing judge-jury-and-executioner, she would have to conclude if she applied the suggestion of ‘open your eyes’ to herself.

All of the above notwithstanding, she may be correct about the fall-guy claim.  Arjuna Mahendran was appointed by Ranil Wickremesinghe and was the Prime Minister’s friend even during his earlier stint as Premier (2001-2004) when Mahendran was Chairman, BOI.  Both the President and the Prime Minister colluded in dissolving Parliament in mid 2015 just before the then COPE released its report on the Central Bank Bond Issues raising suspicious that the move was to save Mahendran’s behind.   The evidence that’s come out since clearly implicates several ministers.  It is hard to think that Ranil Wickremesinghe was not in the know.  If that were the case he is clearly an incompetent leader.  

Maybe all this will come out by and by and indeed one should hope, as Onella has hoped, that the whole story will come out and all those implicated will be named and shamed.  On this, I am in absolute agreement with Onella.  She has a point here.  

03 August 2017

The fault is in the (political) constellations and not the stars

These are not 'the stars', no....most certainly not!
“We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars…” —  Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert (1925-2012), celebrated poet from the USA, in a poem titled ‘Tear it down’ was essentially calling for self-criticism, for the recognition and subsequent erasure of bias, and perhaps even reflection on the error (let’s say) of being fixated with political projects or preferred outcomes. 

There were many who voted for Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015 not because they believed a word about the yahapalana promise but they thought that defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa was necessary to stop things from deteriorating. On the other hand, there were many who actually believed in the yahapalana pledge, never mind that you cannot get (as the Sinhala phrase goes) feathers from a tortoise.  Among them was the columnist Nalaka Gunawardena.

Nalaka recently quoted a fruit seller who runs a small retail shop near his house in Kotte, Jayasena.  Jayasena Mudalali had told him a few days before the 2015 General Election that there are no honest politicians and that he would prefer if it were possible to vote for a robot.  Nalaka, at the time, had entertained utopian hopes about yahapalanaya, he confesses, and therefore had not agreed with Jayasena. Nalaka yearns for robots today. 

The biggest problem with those who jumped on the yahapalana bandwagon is the term.  It was a challenge and a good one.  It was an aspiration, a standard to be maintained and it was going to be tough.  

Many who cheered Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe back in 2015 probably knew it would be tough, but what they probably didn’t know was that yahapalanaya was a feather and the yahapalanists were tortoises.  

The problem is that yahapalanaya is an end as well as a process.  Once you embroider the term on to your political flag you cannot play ‘End justifies the means,’ but you have to be alert to the journey, the decisions, each step of the way; and you have to point out deviation.  
Here’s an example.  There were those who demanded that whether one likes the idea or not R. Sampanthan should be made the Leader of the Opposition.  The hesitation of course was  ideological (at best) and racist (at worst), the latter being the more common source of objection.  The argument was about accepted parliamentary practice and the business of numbers.  And yet, the very same lofty principles were duly forgotten when the parliamentary arithmetic changed and it became obvious that the Joint Opposition had more oppositional legitimacy and clout than Sampanthan and the TNA.  

Those who raised shrill cries of horror at corruption, nepotism, abuse of state resources and such during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa are conspicuously silent today.  They are not calling for the blood (or at least a hauling to the FCID) of those accused of swindling the Central Bank (accusation, let us not forget, was ‘crime’ enough for the name-shame game that the yahapalana (sic) media played when it came to those associated with the previous regime).  

The Ministry of Home Affairs has written to public servants in all districts, asking them to arrange all kinds of religious ceremonies to commemorate 40 years of the advent of a particular political ideology and the 40th anniversary of a politician’s first electoral success.  That’s a call for the abuse of public resources, a demand that government servants pander to the interests of a political party and of course a leg-up to the (further) politicization of the public service.  The (obvious) at-odds with yahapalana rhetoric has surprisingly been missed by yahapalana apologists.  

We should not be surprised since yahapalana nepotism first surfaced just days after Maithripala Sirisena became President and no one among the prominent anti-nepotism brigade uttered one word of consternation.  The watchers of the watchdogs were and are silent on the abuse of state media.  They are not exactly howling in protest when the government unleashes violence on demonstrations.  They didn’t say a word about the attempted white-vanning of a student leader.  

And then there’s the issue of postponing elections.  If the country can move along (‘stagger’ if you wish) without local government bodies but just government-appointed ‘minders’ why hold elections at all, one could argue. The same logic could be extended to include provincial councils as well.  But not holding issues is at odds with yahapalanaya, and again that at-odds has not been noticed by the yahapalana cheering squad. 

When one reads the columns of the yahapalana apologists one gets the feeling that at least some of the columnists are embarrassed about what’s happening.  They don’t exactly say it as they should — where a thundering slap is warranted (going by the ease and weight of swing they demonstrated against the previous regime), they mutter ‘tut tut.’ 

Take all that’s happened over the past 2.5 years and imagine that it was the Rajapaksas in power. Now ask yourselves how the yahapalana cheer-leaders would have responded.  It’s a throw-back to the eighties, isn’t it? It is as though people who pretended to be fast asleep during the JRJ-Premadasa tyranny, who were half-asleep during the CBK years and were wide awake during the Rajapaksa tenure, have return to feigned-sleep all over again.  

So what was all the high-minded talk during the Rajapaksa years about, one has to ask.  Were they really worried about corruption? Did nepotism keep them awake at night?  Did they feel stifled by the lack of democracy? Were they upset about violence then but not now because those targeted by Yahapalanists  are dispensable?  Is it just another api venuven api thing?

The fault, as they say, is not in the stars but, as they don’t say, it’s in the constellations.  There are constellation-preferences clearly.  It could just be a configuration of stars that make up an ape kattiya (Our Guys). It could be a constellation called ‘Constitutional Reform Closer To Our Hearts.’  Whatever it is, it is not about things that ought to matter more than ideological and political preferences, such as truth, honesty, decency, consistency, equality before the law, accountability, transparency and such.  

Let us not for one moment imagine that the same principle cannot be applied to those who support the Joint Opposition, see Mahinda Rajapaksa (or Gotabhaya) as a saviour.  They look up and they don’t see stars either; they see configurations that spell Joint Opposition, Mahinda or Gota.  If they see corruption, nepotism and other ills today, the chances are that they were blind to these before January 2015.  

Jayasena Mudalali has a point, all things considered.  But if we are a long way off from robot-governments and if we recognize that humans designing robots are never value-neutral, then we have to go beyond the more persistent constellations, i.e. those that describe the dominant political formations in the country which include not just the UNP and SLFP but also the JVP, TNA and SLMC (and their off-shoots). 

The stars that are backgrounded by such constellations are in fact the very stars that are used to create the constellations only to be sidelined post-creation: the people.

Jack Gilbert says ‘The village is not better than Pittsburgh, only Pittsburg is more than Pittsburg’.  We don’t have to look to the constellations, we don’t have to look across the seas and over the mountains.  The fault is right here. Among us.  Within us. So too the solution.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.   Twitter: malindasene

02 August 2017

The bodhisatva prerogatives of love

Pic courtesy 'Vintage Posters of Ceylon,' by Anura Saparamadu

Dhammika Bandara is a man with many hats.  Probably best known as a ‘tuition sir,’ Dhammika is also a poet, a lyricist and a theatre person.  Naturally, he’s also a good story teller.  Last Saturday night, he told a story, after being invited by another well-known lyricist and presenter, Kelum Srimal, to do so.  

It happened at the Nelum Pokuna.  It was at a concert called ‘Esala Tharu Paana’ organized by a group of lawyers practicing in the magistrate courts and featuring Amarasiri Peiris, Nirosha Virajini and Victor Ratnayake.  Kelum wanted Dhammika, who happened to be in the audience that evening, to tell the nidhaana kathaava of a particular song: Hanthanata Paayana Sanda (The moon that shines on Hantane).  It is one of the more popular of Amarasiri Peiris’ songs.  

Dhammika told a story.  There are many ways in which songs get written, he said. This song was essentially a weaving together of three separate experiences or stories.  

Dhammika, then a student at Colombo University, had visited Peradeniya University to meet the inimitable Gamini Haththotuwegama, widely known as the Father of Street Theatre in Sri Lanka.  The magic of that university wears off after some time as far as resident students are concerned.  Dhammika was a visitor.  He spent hours at night walking around the university.  He saw the moon rise.  He would have seen the glow on the Hantane range above the campus.  He had always wanted to write a ‘Peradeniya Song.’  

As a ‘tuition sir’ later on in life he had encountered many young couples in his class.  One couple had caught his attention.  They would sit at the corner of a bench during a break and share a packet of rice.  A few years later while he was walking along the road, a van had stopped near him.  It was the boy.  He was a salesperson and was driving a delivery van.  Dhammika had inquired about the girl.  

The boy explained: ‘She got 4 A’s and went to Peradeniya.  I am a mutt, I do this job.   She’s better off without me; it wouldn’t have worked, sir.”  Dhammika didn’t buy it.  He asked if the girl was in agreement with the boy’s thesis.  Apparently not, but the boy had been adamant; he felt it was the best decision as far as the girl’s future was concerned.  ‘You are a bodisatva!’ Dhammika had laughed.

That day, reflecting on the conversation, Dhammika’s thoughts had strayed to that classic 1976 film Hulavali.  It was a particular episode that had come to mind.  Dhara, discovering that his woman Subha was having an affair with the trader Bibile Aththo had attacked the latter. Subha, distraught, had chided the assailant saying that violence was all he was capable of.  

Dhara is overcome with remorse and decides that Subha should be with Bibile Aththo. He orders her to boil some water, treats the wounds of the injured man, and tells him that he should take Subha with him and take care of her, warning that if he does not he will pursue Bibile Aththo throughout sansara from lifetime to lifetime.  Bibile Aththo had not been looking for a life-partner, but he was left without a choice.  He takes the low-caste woman with him, but suggests that she sheds the clothes that identified her in terms of social status and wears something else.  The clothes are thrown into the river and are later found by Dhara.  No comment.  Just a song composed by Dharmasiri Gamage and sung by Sunil Edirisinghe.  Just a simple observation alavadana yana theruma bosathkama saki (The true meaning of loving, my friend, is to exude the qualities of a bodhisatva).  Dhammika related it much better of course. This is just gist.

And so, right then, the three rivers came together: the moonlight streaming through a particular night in Peradeniya, a boy and a girl whose togetherness was interrupted by an exam result that made them go in separate directions, and the memory of an old film.  All about love. All about the quality muditha embedded in the Sathara Brahma Viharana, that of rejoicing in the joy of another.  Love that overcomes selfishness, love that vanquishes envy, jealousy and possession. Love that gives and in giving rejoices.  And so, in the gathering of waters, the collapsing of eras, Dhammika Bandara came up with a Hantana song that remain long after all the characters involved in its making are gone.  

Kelum Srimal didn’t have to invite Dhammika to tell this story.  The song is beautiful even without the nidhana kathava.  The song, for those who were present, is richer now.  Life is richer.  Some of those who were there if not all would see connections and commonalities between incidents, words, a particular sheen created by moonlight and such things, where previously they would not have.  Time is not linear, some may conclude.  That boy and that girl in that tuition sir’s class have many, many names, someone might think.  

And somewhere, who knows, there will be a lover someday who will rise above his or her circumstances, vanquish jealousy, affirm the paramitas of giving, and with the unguent of a tender melody alleviate the pain of terrible wounds that take so long to heal that they seem incurable.  And there'll be a Dhammika Bandara who will tell the story, hopefully.  

28 July 2017

O Zorro, Zorro, wherefore art thou Zorro?

There’s a singular vacancy in this country, according to some.  Ranil Amirtthiah of the popular local band ‘Black,’ whenever he speaks and in whatever forum he chooses to do so, is often poetic but sometimes he flushes subtlety down the tube.  He says it straight from the heart, always.  This is clearly evident in a vacancy ad he posted a few hours ago.  

Post: Sri Lankan ZORRO. Area of work: Colombo and suburbs. Job description: to terrorize those "selfish Essential service blackmailers", whip them and show them the righteous path of service to the nation. Salary: the entire nations gratitude.

For those who may not be familiar with the name and legend, here’s a wiki-intro:  

Zorro (Spanish for "fox") is the secret identity of Don Diego de la Vega, a fictional character created in 1919 by pulp writer Johnston McCulley. He is a Californian nobleman living in Los Angeles during the era of Mexican rule (between 1821 and 1846),[1] although some movie adaptations of Zorro's story have placed him during the earlier Spanish rule.  The character has undergone changes through the years, but the typical image of him is a dashing black-clad masked outlaw who defends the commoners and indigenous peoples of the land against tyrannical officials and other villains. Not only is he too cunning and foxlike for the bumbling authorities to catch, but he also delights in publicly humiliating them.

Ranil was of course referring to the current strike by Ceylon Petroleum Corporation workers which is inconveniencing a lot of people, especially those who own vehicles.  ‘Throw them out,’ is a call that has gathered momentum with respect to striking workers.  It is a call that has found some currency in certain circles with respect to striking doctors as well.  

Not all the objectors to strikes are regime-defenders, let us acknowledge this first up.  It is about inconvenience and it is about outrage; anger about services considered to be ‘essential’.  Let us also remember that many of those who are today saluting the Government for ‘sending in the Army’ were chest-beating moral-high-horse objectors when the previous regime opted for such strategies.  One might bet that should the petroleum workers resist and resistance was met with force leading to two or three or more being killed, the very same people who cried with horror over the Rathupaswala killings would say ‘the hooligans deserved it!’  

Yes, it is a story about political loyalties and the moralizing doesn’t quite hide the fact.  The more honest among the advocates of force have demonstrated some nostalgia for the preferred opposition-quelling methods of the previous regime (sans white vans, the advocates hastily add).  That tells a story. 

Let’s ignore the political colour of all this.  Let us focus on the scenario sans loyalty.  It boils down to hope or versions of the same hope: a (benevolent) dictator.  Not too many people are stopping in their tracks to ask themselves, ‘wait a minute, wasn’t yahapalanaya (good governance) about better systems and not about personalities?’  

Ranil has not spelled out ‘dictator’.  He has instead called for a hero who will dash in, whip the pants off the rascals, offer infinite relief to long-suffering citizens and dash out. Just like that! 

Now one could argue that this ‘Zorro-Option’ need not be unleashed only on striking workers but on all those who err including politicians and everyone benefiting from or supporting a system that is flawed, makes for the making of dictators and containing all kinds of loopholes for theft and the escape of thieves.   The problem is that is focuses on individuals and not systems.  

If our hero, as he rides into the proverbial sunset, deigns to look back, he will no doubt find a flawed system more or less intact.   

Here’s another FB post that gives perspective: 1) No petrol in the sheds, 2) Doctors on strike, 3) When they are not on strike there is still a dearth of medicines, 4) People are dying daily from Dengue, 5) There is no proper solid waste disposal system, 6) The forests are being cut down but the President proudly says the Environmental Ministry is under him, 7) There is cocaine instead of regular retail goods in SATHOSA containers, 8) When a politician is found guilty of wrongdoing he is fined Rs 2000.00, 9) The failed Uma Oya Project is rendering people homeless, 10) The Parliament approves leasing of Hambantota Harbor to China.  So much more can be added to this.  For example, the ‘logic’ of lumping lotteries with foreign affairs, and of course the hilarious case of the continued pampering of those implicated in the Central Bank bond issue scam.  The question is, can one Zorro clean it all up?  How many Zorros would we need, to put it another way?

A better leader or better leadership would go a long way in curing the country of at least some of these ills, one could argue.  This is why there are some who call not for a Zorro but for a Gota (that’s Gotabhaya Rajapaksa).  Yes, the term ‘benevolent dictator’ is often used when this ‘option’ is discussed.  It’s a hope, obviously and as is typical not a hope that can be obtained from track-record.  However, we have to recognize the fact that one individual is not a front.  

One Zorro might make for cheers and some relief, but adventurers, Robin Hoods, brigands and troubadours, romantic as they obviously are, have seldom changed systems or altered the course of history. 

At best they offer or make a name or a political moment respectively to a process of system-change already in motion.  In the terms of the political scientist, they give a name to a moment when objective preconditions mature to the point of significant social upheaval.  

This is why we need to debate individual heroes versus collective effort.  Bertold Brecht in “Leben des Galilei” (Life of Galileo) elaborated on this ‘Zorror Wish.’  Andrea Sarti tells the would-be Zorro, i.e. Galileo Galilei, “Unhappy is the land that has no hero.” And Galileo Zorro, if you will, responds, “No, Andrea; unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” 

Of course we can call for ‘Zorro.’ We might even get ‘Zorro.’  We will cheer when Zorro dashes in, but the Zorros in real life don’t ride off into the sunset, they transform into quite un-Zorro-like entities.  No cheering then.  For those who doubt, I invite them to reflect on the Zorros of the past: e.g. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka, Velupillai Prabhakaran, SWRD Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardena, Maithripala Sirisena, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Rohana Wijeweera, Ranil Wickremesinghe and (how could we forget?) Yahapalanaya! 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene

23 July 2017

Laughing at Dayasiri or ourselves?

On Wednesday evening at Sooriya Village, while speaking on relationship-education, vulnerabilities of children, especially girls, in cyber space, what can be done, what is being done and what should be done, Hans Billimoria asked a question from the audience.  ‘Did you get Sanath’s video?’  He pointed to several men and each of them said ‘yes’.  He went on to talk about consent.  Respect.  Knowledge.  
Had Hans asked ‘Did you get Dayasiri’s video?’ or else ‘Did you get that disce amuta disce discarde video?’ the chances are that everyone would have said ‘yes’.  I am pretty sure that Hans could have then proceeded to talk of hypocrisy, arrogance, ignorance, elitism and misplaced notions of self-image.  If he wanted to.   

Salivation.  That’s what it is all about. In both instances.  There’s nothing to dissect in the eyes-wide-open, jaw-dropping, tongue-hanging-out thrills sought by whoever it was that posted the first video and of course whoever passed it around.  The Dayasiri video is different.  That’s Dayasiri Jayasekera, Minister of Sports.  

Dayasiri mispronounced the Latin in the Royal College motto.  He also dropped the ‘Esto’ of the Thomian motto ‘Esto Perpetua’.  He stumbled.  He struggled.  He was reading a prepared text and perhaps the Latin parts were written in Sinhala.  Maybe there was a typo.  Maybe it was hand-written and maybe poor handwriting was what made the Minister of Sports struggle the way he did.    

It’s all over social media.  And it has generated a lot of comment.  ‘He should have made sure of the pronunciation,’ is a point many have made.  True.  As a public figure and one with quite a few years of experience, he should have known better.  ‘He could have spoken in Sinhala!’ some have observed wistfully.  Should have, under the circumstances.  Then of course there are those who are tickled to death by the whole affair.  

They laugh at Dayasiri’s mispronunciation.  They ridicule his ‘poor English’ (what’s ‘rich English’ by the way?).  Some even claim that the missteps, the struggles, the language-butchering and being unprepared are all indicative of general incompetence.  

Who are we laughing at, really?  Did those who laugh at Dayasiri on account of him not doing his homework, also laugh when other politicians messed up?  Did they laugh at Mahinda’s gaffes and pretend they didn’t hear Ranil’s howlers and vice versa as per the ‘prerogatives’ of political loyalty?  Is it only language-related screw-ups that they laugh at?  I mean, when it comes to politicians jumping the gun, dropping bricks and murdering the queen, do we laugh out loud for certain gaffes, polite cough at others and feign deafness at yet others?  

Dayasiri was tripped by pronunciation.  It was not Sinhala.  It was not English.  It was Latin, a dead language!  Around the same time Ranil Wickremesinghe talked about an ඉරටු තියෙන කොස්ස (literally ‘a broom made with coconut husks but [also] with ekels).  He should have said ඉදල (ekel-broom). Dayasiri’s error was mild in comparison.  But Dayasiri continues to be ridiculed, while the Prime Minister’s obvious unfamiliarity with the Sinhala language hasn’t prompted much comment. 

Are all those who laughed and/or still laughs at Dayasiri perfect in their English and in their Latin?  Does it make those who are good in English feel better when someone shows language incompetence?  Is English synonymous with ‘smart,’ ‘wise,’ ‘clever,’ etc for such people?  

Is English-acquisition a defining and important feel-good factor in their lives and is it this that is being affirmed in a roundabout way by Dayasiri’s little word-trip?  Is this a fallout of Puswedilla or is Puswedilla a product of all this or rather a piggybacking on this elitist language trip?  Is it just that psychological hangup that makes some people call others godayas or yakkhos or, in recent times, bayyas?   Is it a chip on the shoulder that prompts people to laugh at and ridicule mispronunciation, perhaps because they believe that mimicking the elite in this way would give them access to elite clubs?  

In the mid 1970s, I listened to a talk given by my father, Gamini Seneviratne, at an event organized by an organization of English teachers.  He was asked to speak on ‘The language of administration’.  I remember him mentioning the Dutch, the Portuguese and British and the languages these colonial powers used in administering the island.  His argument was that it is best to use the language of the people in the matter of administration.  During the Q&A session a lady asked a question. I can’t remember the question, but I still remember her interjecting something that seemed strange to me then but which I later understood was a product of a common malady among English speakers in Sri Lanka.  She caveated her question with the following: ‘We, the elite.”  I remember my father brushing her off with what can only be described as kindness: “If that’s your self-image, there’s nothing I can say.”  

I also remember my father giving a lift to English language educationist Douglas Walatara, who said with good humor, ‘I don’t think you really believe what you said Gamini.’  ‘I do,’ my father said quietly.  

Self-image is the big story that’s missing in the splash over Dayasiri mispronouncing Disce aut Discede.  And it is about two sets of people: those who think they are ‘elite’ (on account of English competency) and those who think they could get membership to elitist circles by a) laughing at those who mispronounce, and b) taking issue with the ‘Sinhala Buddhist Other’ that is the bugbear of English-speaking ‘elites’ at every possible turn.  

A lot of people would have smirked when Sanath’s video was released.  They were, in liking and sharing, disrespecting themselves.  There are many who laughed when Dayasiri slipped.  The truth is that Dayasiri just missed a step; those who laughed didn’t realize that they had been floored long before Dayasiri took the mic.  And in the end, they all laughed at themselves, Kumar De Silva was spot on when he made this observation a couple of days later.  Dayasiri was Dayasiri.  Those who laughed at him appear to have some problem who who they really are. 

See also:  The true meaning of "Disce aut Discede"