Tuesday, November 25, 2014

His Heart Suddenly Failed Him

Professor Chelva Kanganayakam (1952-2014)

Scattered like floating lotus
Defying land and time,
Our wings gained strength.
Your life the essence of kindness

We can tread on fire, or
Defy the wind;
We cannot lose our lives…

These lines from an elegy I wrote for a close friend of mine who passed away last year were perhaps the last poem Chelva Kanaganayakam translated from Tamil to English. After reading and translating the poem Chelva was so deeply moved and read it out toThiru, his beloved wife. Then he called me in the middle of the night to share my grief. I was inconsolable.
Even though I was somewhat used to the dreaded midnight or early morning phone calls from SriLanka over the past several years of war and devastation, I was completely unprepared for the grim email message from Chelva’s brother-in-law late last night.

After attending the official function inducting him as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in Qu├ębec City on November 22, 2014, Chelva suffered a cardiac arrest and passedaway.
A great man o fkindness, wisdom and intellectual rigor is no more.

Chelva Kanaganyakam, received his bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literatureat the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and his doctoral degree at the Universityof British Columbia. After his doctoral studies he joined the University ofToronto’s Department of English and became professor of English.  He was the director of the Centre for SouthAsian Studies at the Munk School of Global affairs.

His research andteaching interests were post- colonial studies, as well as diasporic writings and translations. While the geographic focus of his research revolved around South Asia and South East Asia, Chelva was always attracted to “hybridity andhierarchy” of literatures in English and in the vernacular languages of these regions and the diaspora. He would often pose the question whether one should have some grasp of a vernacular language rather than, or in addition to, French,German or Spanish in order to undertake serious research?

“The centrality of the literary text” he would argue, “cannot be erased although the frame could be one that includes but goes beyond a Eurocentric one.” In his constant search for alternative ways of configuring the field of postcolonial studies, Chelva was prolific in writing and publishing.

In the study of literary history Chelva was keenly interested inventuring into new methodologies. Another theme that animated his current workis the notion of aesthetics in Tamil writings that emerged as a response and resistance to war, loss, genocide and trauma. Through his translations and accompanying critical reviews, Chleva was grappling with the question of how notions of aestheics and poetics as articulated by modern writers of resistance in theTamil context can challenge traditional ideals and formulations of aesthetics.

Chelva was an excellent translator of fiction and poetry from Tamil to English, his translation of Nedunalvaadai- a classical Sangam Tamil epic - is a great work of finesse, beauty and painstaking detail. Indeed, Chelva translated almost all of the great contemporary Tamil writers from Sri Lanka.

Chelva was one of the founding members of the annual Toronto Tamilstudies conference at the University of Toronto since 2006. The conference isthe largest international Tamil Studies conference in North America.

Some of his other key works include: In our Translated World: Global Tamil Poetry (2013),Nedunalvaadai (in Tamil2010), Wilting Laughter: ThreeTamil Poets (2009), You Cannot TurnAway (2010),Counterrealism andIndo-Anglian Fiction (2002); Ed. Lutesongand Lament: Tamil Writing from Sri Lanka (2001); Dark Antonyms and Paradise: The Poetry of Rienzi Crusz (1997); Configurations of Exile: South Asian Writersand Their World (1995);Structures ofNegation: The Writings of Zulfikar Ghose (1993).

A few months ago Chelva completed compiling, translating and editing a grand volume of Tamil literature since 1948 titled Uprooting the Pumpkin for Oxford University Press. He spent       hundreds of sleepless nights working on this volume and it is so painful that hewas unable to see the volume in print.

At the time of his death Chelva was working on a massive volume on thehistory of South Asian literatures in English. It is so unfortunate that thisproject as well as his other translation projects will not be completed by him.

Chelva’s students, friends and colleagues will always remember hiswarm, welcoming but slightly hidden smile and open heart, the heart that suddenly failed him, and us too.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

People’s SAARC Regional Convergence 2014

People’s SAARC Regional Convergence 2014
22-24 November 2014
Kathmandu, Nepal
South Asian people's movements (women, youth, peasants, labour, socially marginalised groups) and civil society organisations have planned a convergence  from 22 to 24 November 2014 in the form of People's SAARC or people's assembly, parallel to the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu, Nepal. 
The overarching theme will be ‘People’s Movements Uniting South Asia for Deepening Democracy, Social Justice & Peace’. The people of South Asia are coming together at People’s SAARC 2014 challenging systematic marginalisation of people, groups, communal division and fragmentation and degradation of environment and impact of climate change through widespread voicing of ideas and experiences and by forging solidarity across the borders.  Thus the theme of this year’s People’s SAARC Convergence is focused on People’s Movements Uniting South Asia for Deepening Democracy, Social Justice & Peace.
Key Areas, Issues and Concerns:
·         Alternative Regionalism
·         Food, Food Security, Food Sovereignty and Trade 
·         Migration, Freedom of Movement, Human Trafficking 
·         Attack on Labour, Expanding Labour Rights regionally
·         Climate Change, Ecological Justice, Economic Cooperation, Livelihoods
·         Gender Rights, Women's Rights, Women and Armed Conflicts
·         Human Rights, Social Justice, Exclusions, Caste Discriminations, Politics of Hatred (Protection of Minority Rights and strengthening ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural pluralism and diversity)
·         Refugees and Indigenous People's Rights
·         Sustainable Development
·         Peace, Democracy, Rule of Law, De-Militarisation (expanding spaces for civil society and social movements)
·         Tax Justice, Fiscal Responsibility, and Corporate Accountability
·         Community control over natural resources, resource commons, water commons
·         Energy security for people
In this context we are planning to have side events on ‘Universal Social Security’, ‘Sexuality, Exclusion and Resistance in the South Asian Context’ and ‘Conflict led challenges and way towards sustainable peace for women of South Asia: Discussing women’s ESCRs’. People’s SAARC while challenging systematic marginalization of groups, it is important to acknowledge the concerns of the South Asian women that has not achieved much attention at national, regional and international economic growth policies and development agendas. To take these issues forward it was felt that side events should be organized with widest possible participation from all.
For more information on People’s SAARC: 
Concept note is attached for more detailed information on the same.


Monday, November 17, 2014
Remembering Pandian

MSS Pandian 
Generosity. That’s the first word that came to mind when I thought about how to write this difficult reminisce on Pandian’s passing away. Though I had been aware of his many essays in the EPW and had read “The Image Trap” by then, I met Pandian only in the early 1990s when I walked into his office at the MIDS in Adayar. Dressed casually in his bush-shirt and slacks, the thin and boyish guy with a scraggly mustache was a bit hard to square with the mental image I had of him. I was just beginning my research into India’s intervention into Sri Lanka and Pandian opened up a world of possibilities for me. He suggested names and phone numbers of people I should meet; groups in Chennai and elsewhere that I was unaware of; and books and articles to read. His interest in my research – and we met regularly almost every summer thereafter while also exchanging many emails – was deep and genuine. Most importantly, he helped me think otherwise than the nation. His take on Dravidian politics; on the alleged peripheries – both regional and intellectual- of the heartland and the mainstream; on the multiple and varied idioms of resistance to majoritarianism; on the ways in which support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause in Tamil Nadu was something that could not be adequately understood or calibrated through just the formal domain of politics; and a host of other issues enriched and complicated my thinking in all sorts of ineffable ways. Looking back, what is striking was his patience with me. Especially at the beginning, I had unconsciously and completely ingested a very mainstream and Delhi-centric narrative of India’s intervention into Sri Lanka. Helping me see that, and in a wider sense to “rescue history from the nation,” was something Pandian did almost imperceptibly and as a consequence of our equitable conversations. Most importantly, all our interactions and arguments were marked by his generosity towards and affection for what I was doing.
The students and others you met at Pandian’s office in MIDS were different from the ones you might run into at the offices of most of India’s intellectuals. Very often they were more comfortable in Tamil or in regional languages rather than English, and were not part of that comfortable upper-caste/middle-class/English-educated habitus that dominates our academy. Pandian interacted with them no differently than with the twice-born, whether domestic or NRI or authentically firangi. The outpouring of remembered generosity by a wide diversity of his students from various places – MIDS, JNU, Manoa and elsewhere – is the real testament to his innate egalitarianism and collegiality. And of his respect for interesting ideas and people, irrespective of their provenance in terms of class, accent, language, or caste.  
As shown by his contrarian stance on the cartoon controversy, by his daring resignation from MIDS to become an academic libero for a while in the early 2000s, and his refusal to accept certain regions, cultures, civilizations or individuals as somehow more consequential than others, Pandian hewed to an ethic that came from both within and elsewhere. His was a distinctive voice, and a rare one in the context of India. In these biopolitical times marked by an obsessive and commodified care for the self, Pandian indulged his love for cigarettes, alcohol and the good life in full measure. I am trying very hard not to channel my frustration with his early passing into wishing he had played more by the rules. For Pandian was never about playing by the rules but more about playing with them, as he himself might have said with that delighted gleam in his eye.
Krishna (Profile Picture)
Sankaran Krishna is Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has written extensively on ethnic identity and conflict and identity politics in India and Sri Lanka. Prof. Krishna is the author of Postcolonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka and the Question of Nationhood, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000) and Globalization and Postcolonialism: Hegemony and Resistance in the 21st Century, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Comrade Sarath Justin Fernando and I met as students of the Engineering Faculty in Peradeniya campus in the late 1960s. Justin as we came to know him was from a very well-known leftist family from Kegalle. Together we were involved in university students’ issues and activities both independently and through ‘Socialist Society’, which was a student’s association affiliated at the time with the Peking wing of the Communist Party headed by comrade Shanmugathasan.
With the uprising of April 1971, comrade Justin was taken into custody and his family property in Kegalle was set on fire by the security forces and their goons. When we were held in Magazine prison in Borella, we spend some time together in one of the prison wards. He had political differences with the JVP as he had his pro-Maoist ideological views, orientated more towards organising the peasantry of Sri Lanka, which was about 70 percent of its population. He was also devoted to his religious views with his compassionate attitude towards the people who are subjected to suppression and exploitation. It took a long time for me to convince him to join the activities organised by the 1969 Engineering Batch of the Peradeniya campus. I understand he was extremely happy in associating himself with those activities later on.
While in prison our political journeys diverged. Despite this, we have remained friends and used to meet every now and then when I visited Sri Lanka. He had devoted his whole life for achieving socialism by organising the peasantry through the extremely good work done by the movement he founded ‘Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform’ (MONLAR). I personally know that through this organisation many progressive activities had been supported. The anti-capitalist and anti-neo-liberal policy platform presented by MONLAR under comrade Justin’s leadership had been widely discussed in global alternative gatherings such as World Economic Forum. Though he retired from his work as founder and leader of this movement, I know in heart and soul he was still involved with the progress of this organisation. Currently the organisation and till his untimely death Justin have been involved in agitating against perceived actions of the government to turn the country’s traditional agricultural practices to one more conducive of transnational agri-business.
I met him last in July this year when I was in Sri Lanka to attend my mother’s funeral, at a family and friends gathering organised in Rambukkana by our friend Dr Raja Wijetunga. It was a great and happy occasion where comrade Justin and his wife sang together for a while. Though he was unwell, he discussed his plans for future including publishing his memoirs. He wrote to me wishing me on my last birthday, but it was so sad to hear his passing away a short time afterwards.
I have really appreciated the positions he and his organisation took when the people of Sri Lanka were faced with crucial situations, be it the national question, neo-liberal exploitation, or destruction of natural environment. As a Sri Lankan left intellectual and activist what he did for the progress of the people of Sri Lanka will never be forgotten. The major lesson I take from his life is that there are many schools of socialist thought on addressing the socio-political and economic issues faced by the society and that all these schools need to work together in achieving our goals, rather than fighting and destroying each other and ultimately the socialist camp itself.
On a personal, he is also one of my brother in laws and I farewell comrade Justin both politically and personally. He will be missed both as a friend and a comrade whose life was devoted to making Sri Lanka a more democratic and egalitarian nation.

Lionel Bopage, is a former General Secretary of the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) in Sri Lanka. He appeared before the Criminal Justice Commission as the second accused in the failed JVP insurrection in 1971.

Courtesy: Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

Meeting with comrade Bala Tampoe at the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) office in Colombo had been a tradition I looked forward to whenever I visited Sri Lanka. At the end of July, after attending my mother’s funeral in Sri Lanka, I paid a courtesy call to comrade Bala at his house in Ratmalana. When he opened the gate for me, I saw in his soul and eyes a fit and active comrade with a frail body. We had the occasion to have a long chat overmany topics usually talked about when leftists get together: trade union movement; neo-liberalism and socialism; the left; the JVP; women’s rights;corruption; family rule;and human rights.As usual, his talk was never ending, though when he narrated his non-recollectable accident while walking from home towards Galle Road, he appeared to understand the fragility and morbidity with which all human lives end. That was something new in our conversation.
He was living alone in his run-down house, full of books both old and new covered with dust. With his wife, late comrade May Wickramasuriya’s photo still decorating one of its walls. He was personally concerned about the individualistic, selfish outlook of the younger generation in the world recounting his personal experiences. He was also in the process of compiling his life experiences into a biography. I am glad that I had the occasion to catch up to show my appreciation, gratitude and respect for a comrade, who had been fighting for fairness and justice in his own way.

For better or worse, he was the legendaryGeneral Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union(later changed to Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union) for almost 66 years, continuing with the struggle he commenced in 1940s as a trade unionist, then as a leader of revolutionary Sama-Samajism (equal society) uncompromisingly fighting against the class betrayals of the traditional left and also as a human rights defender. He gave generously of his time pro bono to help activists like those in the JVP , who were being prosecuted by the state.His major activities remained among the urban workers, in defending their right for decent working conditions.
I always remembered comrade Bala’s words uttered in 1983, after the defeats in the presidential election and the referendum: "I see history as waves. So far we have been in a receding wave. But even in the gloomy oppressive atmosphere of Jayewardene's rule, I can see an advancing wave that will soon shatter all tyrannical forces ahead of it." I believe these prescient words still stands very true in the current social, economic and political context. Comrade Bala also used to narrate his life story to us. He thought that it was his personal nature and commitment to fairness and justice that brought him along the path of the working class struggle. It was comrade Bala’s exclusion based on his nationality to a famous English school in India that had probably impacted his life making him to strongly support the anti-colonial struggle of the day.

Undoubtedly, not only all left wing and progressive sections of the society, but also all those who like to see peoples’ democracy in action, will positively appraise the tremendous and significant role played by comrade Bala in the Sri Lankan political arena.Here I will restrict myself to recounting my encounters with comrade Bala, formerly as a JVPer. When the JVP was in its formation stages, in its original clandestine form, known as the ‘movement’, the Revolutionary Marxist Party (the RMP) led by comrade Bala was one of the first groups that expressed critical solidarity towards it.

The JVP's first encounter with more radical Sama-Samajists was when the comrades of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Ananada Premasinghe and Marshal Perera appeared on behalf of comrade Rohana Wijeweera when he was incarcerated by the state in 1970. Though we had Stalinist and Maoist political affiliations and they had Trotskyite political affiliations, those differences did not matter when it came to opposing state repression. We had something in common, the real danger to our democratic rights of freedom to political expression from the ruling elite.

Comrade Bala, the RMP and the CMU continued to protest against the illegal and continued detention of cadres and leaders of the JVP. By appearing in courts on behalf of some of the JVP activists, they defended the democratic rights of the JVP to publicize their political views. The CMU protested against the arrest and detention of nearly four thousand JVP activists, many who had been tortured by the security forces. They also opposed the declaration of a state of emergency in March 1971 which empowered the security forces to dispose of dead bodies without holding post mortem examinations.

In the 1970s while we were behind bars, comrade Bala with others formed a human and democratic rights organisation and campaigned for our release. In 1971 and 1972, comrade Bala’s brilliant knowledge and understanding of Marxism and Law brought another dimension to the whole CJC trial in that a holistic class perspective of the April 1971 insurrection could be presented to the world.While the state represented in the unholy alliance of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP, was scurrilously trying to portray the JVP as a bunch of murderous terrorists, with the assistance of comrade Bala and his team we could rebutthose allegations vigorously. It would be remiss of me not to mention the late comrade May Wickremasooriya who was personally committed to defending the JVP youth. She was firmly supporting her husband comrade Bala in his more than full time work in doing this.

When the JVP leadership was released from prison in November 1977, we had only one shelter to go to and that was the CMU office in Colpetty. On that happy day we met many CMU comrades, held our first press conference at the CMU headquarters and embarked on a political campaign that gave rise to post-1977 JVP. During the long political discussions we had in the seventies, comrade Bala often talked about the need of the deadwood in the left giving way to new shoots that needed to be nourished. The political collaboration between the JVP and the CMU became visible when a United Red May Day rally was held in 1977.

Whenever human and/or democratic rights of the people were under threat or violated, comrade Bala was at the forefront making the masses aware of the situation and demanding with passion an end to such violations.Comrade Bala and the CMU have been consistent champions of all working people and the oppressed irrespective of their racial, linguistic or religious background. Comrade Bala, The RMP and the CMU opposed the government policy of inequitable treatment of people on the grounds of race, language and religion and advocated regional autonomy for Tamil speaking people as a just solution to the national question. Comrade Bala and the CMU continued to condemn the killings by all sides to the conflict. They also pointed out how the anti-terror laws have contributed to the steady growth of rebellions, anti-government activities and national disunity.

Comrade Bala maintained his left credentials despite many of his erstwhile colleagues joining the ranks or supporting the ruling elite. He was the driving force influencing the CMU to take just and fair stands with regard to many national political issues. As a revolutionary at heart he never wavered from his uncompromising class positions.The best way for us to respect comrade Bala’s revolutionary ideals would be to rebuild the CMU and to discuss the many questions openly, publicly, and with complete honesty. The CMU has to produce leaders who could succeed in their day to day struggles while adhering to the democratic and legitimate traditions it has upheld since its inception. The CMU fought for the autonomy of unions and organised workers to fight against any attempt to submit them to the whims of the bourgeoisie. They also fought for the workers’ control of the working-class movement. The CMU was and is independent and able to fearlessly express its views and take action on human and democratic rights violations. The strength of the CMU will continue to depend on its membership and the quality of their leadership.

I have no doubt that those who were in the JVP in the seventies and early eighties and those who continue to-date to work for fairness and justice will join me in extending our revolutionary salute, deep respect and fraternal gratitude to comrade Bala. Whatever happened in terms of political and trade union history, comrade Bala showed by example, the significance of a working class that remains cohesive and united despite divisive norms and rules imposed from without.

I express my revolutionary salute and fraternal political and personal gratitude for the positive role comrade Bala and the members of the CMU under his able leadership jointly played in the post war history of the Sri Lanka, and for the genuine and determined class assistance extended to the JVP in the seventies, when we most needed it while being behind bars.
At a more personal level let me salute and farewell comrade Bala:
Your fraternal services to the working people in Sri Lanka will never be forgotten. Your dedication, loyalty and devotion to the cause of the working people will remain forever in our hearts and continue to provide us with inspiration to endure along the path you have set through your exemplary life.

Lionel Bopage, is a former General Secretary of the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) in Sri Lanka. He appeared before the Criminal Justice Commission as the second accused in the failed JVP insurrection in 1971.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Dr Ananada Guruge Passes away!

Renowned diplomat author of Buddhist publications, UNESCO ambassador and university lecturer          Dr. Ananda Guruge has passed away in California yesterday.  He was 85 years old at the time of his death.  Dr. Guruge had  represented  Sri Lanka as a diplomat in many countries.  He had also functioned as a secretary to the Prime Minister and held many responsible positions in the government sector.  Dr. Guruge was well known as a leader in many Buddhist organizations.
 He had compiled 53 books in the Sinhala and English languages. Dr. Guruge was also responsible for the translation of the Mahawansaya into English.

Professor Ananda Guruge of Sri Lanka: Passes away

Professor Guruge is Dean of Academic Affairs, Director of the International Academy of Buddhism, and Editor of Hsi Lai Journal of Humanistic Buddhism of the University of the West (formerly Hsi Lai University), Los Angeles County, California. Professor Guruge was also former ambassador to USA (in Wahsington DC), France and UNESCO. Professor Guruge was a senior civil servant as well, who help positions as secretary to 2 prime ministers and secretary to ministries. Thushara Diyabalanage interviews this distinguished Alumni for DAANA.
How did you join DRCK?
Quite ironically, it was an Italian Jesuit priest who advised me to study humanities and thus directed me to select DRCK, a Buddhist school. I had my primary and secondary education at a Catholic missionary school in Ampitiya. I had planned to study math to become an engineer despite my greater passion for Pali and Sanskrit. However, this scholarly priest had other ideas about my future, probably after carefully assessing my strengths. He said that the Asians need to know how to appreciate their culture and insisted that people like me need to play a major role to make it happen by being able to interpret the culture of our part of the world to the rest of the world. The best place to acquire this knowledge as well as the attitudes of appreciation of the national heritage, according to my parents, was Dharmaraja College. I am glad that this decision was wisely made. Now, after more than 65 years, as I look back, I feel that I have achieved my objective.
 How was your school life.
I enjoyed it enormously. I was from a modest family and we lived near Kandy rail way station. Every day I used to walk 3 miles distance to my school in Ampitiya. The bus fare at that time was six cents, but I relished that 6 miles journey with my friends, enjoying the panoramic beauty of Kandy Lake. I was a student at DRCK from 1945 to 1946 and the daily walk was reduced by two miles. I first did the London University Intermediate in Arts which enables me to be employed as a teacher for seven months before entering the University of Ceylon in July 1947. I had a wonderful set of teachers and an equally inspiring batch of classmates.
How did DRCK contributed to your life as a writer?
Undoubtedly the enchanting natural beauty of the environment around Dharmaraja hill inspired my creativity and imagination immensely. Those days we had a lot of free periods.  We used to climb to the top of the hill and spend a lot of time there, reading, writing and discussing scholarly topics. In fact, some of my first books were written at the summit of this hill. Sinhala Sahitya Praveshaya was written in 1946 when I was in Grade XI. Mr. S. A. Wijetilake wrote a preface for it.
My autobiography “Ma wani Bilinda has a lot of detailed accounts about such excursions at DRCK.
During this free time I learned a lot from my fellow students too. Most of them became leading figures in public service much later.
Is it true that you scored highest marks in Sri Lanka at the university entrance examination in Arts stream? How did you excel in your studies at the University?
That is true. I won the national University scholarship for this achievement and entered into the arts faculty of the University of Ceylon in Colombo (the only University then) in 1947. In 1950, I graduated with  first class honors in Sanskrit special degree with History as the subsidiary. I was a very fast writer and one of my final exam answers had 51 pages. Those days, final degree exams were evaluated by a Professor of a Foreign University. The professors of London University who went through my answers could not believe this. They have informed Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice Chancellor that they suspect whether I knew the questions well in advance, to write such long and explicit answers. My Professor, Dr. O. H. de A. Wijesekera had reported favorably about my skills. I also won the Government Scholarship tenable in England. As a result London University decided to admit me to a PhD and waive the requirement to do a Masters. Then Jennings too extended the same offer to do a PhD without doing a MA. I accepted that very gladly because I was also keen to compete for entry to the Ceylon Civil Service.
What was the title of your PhD thesis?
It was tilted Social Conditions of ancient India as reflected in the the Valmiki Ramayana by Valmiki. This was published as a book later both in Sri Lankan and India and is regarded in very high esteem by the scholars even today.
How did you get into the Civil service? You seem to have excelled in several entirely different roles as a civil servant?
I took the civil service exam at the age of 23 and joined the civil service. My first appointment was to Jaffna Kachcheri.  I had the dexterity and versatility to fit into several different roles as a civil servant. There was a time that I was in charge of Dehiwala Zoo as well from Colombo Kachcheri. Eventually I was transferred to the treasury and from there to the Prime Minister’s office. I served both Mr. Dudley Senanyake and Sir John Kotelawala until I was entrusted with the government program to celebrate 2500 Buddha jayanti. I was the youngest to act as a permanent secretary to a large ministry. I never had problems with politicians and had very good relationships with all parties. As a result I was never transferred out of Colombo.
How did you become the secretary for the Prime minister?
I was not only the sole person who had PhD in Civil service that time, but also the only person who could write elegantly both in Sinhala and English, besides handling Tamil. Therefore, I was chosen for this job as Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake wanted someone with my linguistic skills. Eventually, I worked for Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawala as well. I must emphasize that even though the latter is known as a tough person, he was a great patriot with sheer humane qualities. My successor was none other than Mr Bradman Weerakoon.
How did you leave Sri Lanka?
While in Sri Lanka I was working as a Professor of Sanskrit at Vidyodaya University. However, I realized that there was a growing passion deep inside me to devote more towards academia. When I could not resist it anymore, in 1967 I accepted an offer from University of Buffalo as the Professor of Asian Studies.
How did you join UNESCO and become a diplomat?
During this time, UNESCO was looking for specialists from Third World countries to fill some key positions. It was Mr Iriyagolla who proposed my name. I was there for next 18 years. In 1985 Mr J. R Jaywardane and R. Premadasa asked me to function as Sri Lankan Ambassador to both UNESCO and France. Subsequently in 1992 I was appointed as the ambassador to USA.  In 1994 I retired and came to California to spend my retirement.
You have been spending a lot time on writing. What’s your most recent work?
So far I have written 53 books, mainly on Asian history, Buddhism and education. I have also published over 175 research articles on these subjects. I was awarded by Italy the prize for the best work on Indology of the 1990s for my work of emperor Asoka I have just completed my newest contribution, a trilogy on Sri Lanka. They are Free at last in Paradise, Serendipity of Andrew George and Peace at last in Paradise.
Is there any message that you want to convey to young Rajans and DAANA members?
DRCK was formed with the objectives of providing leadership to Sinhala Bhuddhists, groom patriots and appreciate the culture of the country. They should strive to uphold those objectives. 
If you have a good objective, if you are prepared work really hard towards reaching it, there is nothing in the world that a Sri Lankan cannot achieve.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Thursday, May 8, 2014



The question of how to effectively engage with issues such as peace, justice and reconciliation is one that is proving both urgent and controversial in post-conflict Sri Lanka. Perhaps unsurprising, but definitely unfortunate there exist currently very few spaces for free and open debate. Where debate does occur it is often in the context of intense social divisions, strong hostility towards a perceived hypocrisy in international human rights and a national community which has experienced trauma, suffering and loss on all sides.

With this in mind I welcomed the recent invitation I received to participate in a film screening programme in eastern Sri Lanka. Having attended the programme before, I was pleasantly surprised by the open discussion and intelligent debate the films – dealing with a wide range of topics and from all over the world – generated. On this occasion I was also keen to see the film being shown: IniAvan. I had heard of Handagama’s reputation as a leading Sri Lankan film-maker and the topic - one man’s efforts to rebuild his life following rehabilitation as an ex-LTTE cadre – struck me as both an important and interesting one. Sadly I and the audience were to be deeply disappointed by what we saw (so much so that at least one participant went home angry enough to write his own review!). In what follows I would like to explain why I think this is a problematic film that requires us to reflect critically and deeply on the role that art and artists play in reconciliation and social justice processes.

For a start, I must state upfront that I reject any claim that a work of art can stand outside of its political or social context. This is even more so when the piece is not even attempting to disguise the particular location, people and time period it is seeking to represent. When dealing with current and highly sensitive issues it has to be the responsibility of the painter, poet, dramatist or film-maker to represent these with the utmost care and attention. It is this care that I found tragically lacking in IniAvan.

The film is extremely specific in terms of the characters and setting: the protagonist is an ex-LTTE cadre returning to his community in Jaffna following the rehabilitation process. He is met with distrust and even open hostility by fellow villagers. This, combined with difficulties finding work lead to him becoming involved in smuggling activities. We discover that those involved are men formerly known to him from his life as an LTTE cadre. Meanwhile, having rescued his childhood sweetheart from the social isolation of her life as a young widow (forcibly married to a man much older than her to avoid being recruited by the LTTE), his path becomes entwined with another woman: the abused wife of the security guard whose job he takes. With such subject matter it is understandable one would expect a very serious film.

However, while all of the issues raised are very serious and real, the film-making style fast becomes more reminiscent of mainstream south Asian cinema with highly stereotypical imagery (the violated young widow running in her wedding sari) and incongruously comical scenes (the opening bus ride, which also drags on for an excruciatingly long time). As one audience member put it: ‘it is not real nor surreal, which makes it unreal!’.  Meanwhile another astute member of the audience asked: what – if any – research did the film-maker do with the community he sought to portray? Certainly the audience – who were themselves from war affected communities, including a few from Jaffna – felt that the portrayal was more how the film-maker imagined the situation in the North of the country to be than a reflection of anything they recognised as their lived experiences.

This has the potential to begin a debate about whether an ‘outsider’ can ever accurately represent a community they study, observe or portray. This is not the argument I wish to make. Certainly as a foreigner doing research in Sri Lanka it would be highly hypocritical of me to suggest this was the case. I also believe that an outside perspective can be useful: sometimes we see more clearly when we are outside of our own ‘common sense’ world. However I will say that as an outsider I am extremely conscious of how I may be misreading or misrepresenting what I think I understand. It is this self-reflexivity that I find lacking in Handagama’s film. As a Sinhalese director making a film populated almost entirely with Tamil characters (I will return to the few Sinhalese characters later), I was left wondering what Handagama was seeking to achieve. From an artistic point of view, how did he go about crafting these characters: how did he imagine their inner-lives, their dreams, their feelings, their aspirations and their sorrows? From a social and political point of view, how did he expect his film would be received and contribute to the highly charged public discourse on the war and its aftermath?

For a start, I found Handagama’s female characters passive rather pathetic figures onto which all the exploitation and suffering traditionally associated with women in (and out of) war was cast. As a feminist activist and scholar I do not disagree with any of the issues he raises: the stigma of widowhood, caste discrimination, domestic violence, the horrors of displacement and the ongoing vulnerability to exploitation many women in conflict and post-conflict settings face. Rather, it is the way he portrays the issues that I find problematic. His female characters are simply not full people. They have no agency and very little personality.  This is in stark contrast to the many women I have met – both here in Sri Lanka and other post-conflict settings – who despite all the barriers, challenges and suffering they face display a remarkable resilience, strength and determination. The aim here is not to get into a war of representation: what does ‘the realTamil woman’s experience’ look like. It is instead a challenge to film-makers like Handagama and others to carefully reflect on whether their characters are in fact more than two-dimensional caricatures of emblematic figures. In a film like IniAvan this is important not only from the point of view of making a sophisticated and powerful film, it also has very real significance for how the public debate will come to terms with the legacies of three decades of war, the challenge of building a sustainably peaceful future and (maybe) addressing the root causes of the conflict in the first place.

It is not only in relation to his female characters that I find Handagama’s film troubling. Given the ongoing – albeit understandable – fragility of the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka (I say understandable as both sides have experienced terrible suffering and the inevitable polarisation that occurs through war and the accompanying militaristic, nationalist propaganda produced both sides), it is puzzling to me why Handagama would not only not reflect on this in the film but in fact decide to cast the ‘friendly truck-driver’ offering assistance to the protagonist as Sinhalese while all the sources of conflict and suffering (the employer, abusive husband, hostile villagers, thugs) are Tamil. In doing so he not only opens himself up to accusations – which some of our audience made – of reinforcing Sinhalese nationalist propaganda, he misses an opportunity to explore one of the most important issues facing Sri Lankan society. It was also puzzling to me that there was so little commentary in the film on the protagonist’s experience of rehabilitation. While he seemed traumatised by some of his earlier associations with the LTTE he seems to have been completely unaffected by the end of the war and his interactions with the State. It may be his experience was entirely positive but one would expect it to at least in some way be reflected upon in the film, given that his return from rehabilitation is a pivotal feature of the story. Indeed we know virtually nothing of the protagonist’s views and his motivations and feelings are largely superficial.

If Handagama did not wish to contribute to current social and political debate with this film then he should have avoided entering such dangerous terrain. If his aim was to simply tell a story then he should not have so explicitly set it in such a highly charged context. In choosing to construct a story around such politicised figures as rehabilitated ex-cadres, Tamil war widows and refugees and Jaffna community members Handagama lost his right to abdicate political responsibility. This political responsibility should weigh heavily on him. If he was trying to make a beautiful film, he failed and in the process he did a disservice to the suffering of a community that has a lot of healing to do and a reconciliation process which will take a long long time if more nuance and sensitivity is not shown to how we go about imagining and representing the Other.

Dr. Kiran Grewal