A review of ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’

Do not buy ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’. The author, Andrew Fidel Fernando, is better known for his sporting columns. This is his first book – described as a labour of love – a term usually reserved for how parents think of juvenile delinquents when they were born & still beautiful. The Lonely Planet inspired cover suggests a saccharine capture of Sri Lanka by ‘bus, cycle and trishaw’, the preferred modes of transport for Instagram influencers and their Ludwig or Crema filtered snapshots of a sleeping dog, crowded train or thambili. As reviews go, this is clearly an inauspicious start. But as the author will attest after covering cricket’s vicissitudes as only he does and can, a terrible start doesn’t necessarily mean a calamitous end.

The recommendation to not purchase this book is anchored to personal experience. I read it in about four sittings over two days. In that short span of time, Fernando’s sardonic, salubrious and sharp prose resulted in spilt coffee, tea and water, nearly choking on a lozenge, actually choking on an Afghan chicken kebab, a near miss with a spill on keyboard, slight stains on book, a bigger stain on sweater, many scarred strangers and very scared birds. I suppose a more accurate capture would be to recommend a warning label with this book – abandon decorum, all ye who read. Nearly three decades after I first read Carl Muller’s ‘Jam Fruit Tree’, Andrew Fidel Fernando’s penned a book that, even though an entirely different genre and lens, is as compelling and effortlessly, gloriously witty. Do not buy this book for a quiet read, or to pose at Barefoot or Kiku with. Buy it to engorge the text as one would a biryani from Hotel de Buhari. The meal stains as much as Fernando’s prose sticks, and in both cases, the experience is worth far more than what one paid for and not easily forgotten.

Through a dozen chapters, covering the author’s journey across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, country, cities, communities and context are captured with an unerring eye for detail. Foreign readers unfamiliar with the country will no doubt appreciate the artful turn of phrase and skill at prose, both of which, astonishingly, are far better than more seasoned authors I’ve read. But the book is by an observant, sensitive, empathetic, domiciled Sri Lankan, for Sri Lankans. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Avoiding the self-indulgent smugness of Samanth Subramanian’s ‘This Divided Island’, and far more aligned with the empathetic gaze of Rohini Mohan’s ‘The Seasons of Trouble’, Fernando’s prose isn’t about proving authenticity or a parade of revelations otherwise inaccessible or unknown to those from Sri Lanka. ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’ is as Sri Lankan as arrack and EGB, written from an insider-partial perspective that, when necessary and effortlessly, informs a Tiresian critique of society, politics, culture, community and country.

Familiar to those who read and love Fernando’s cricket commentary, the book offers an entirely original capture of island life through dexterous device. Government departments are “staffed by people who considered arriving at work their primary task for the day”. Maithripala Sirisena “may well be remembered as one of history’s great invertebrates”. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s personal motto is “making Sri Lanka wildly prosperous, one immediate family member at a time”. And if this is good, Fernando’s capture of Sri Lanka’s real wildlife is even better. Never before have the sex lives of Minneriya’s young bull elephants and Mannar’s donkeys been so engagingly and effortlessly entwined into profound insights on loss of habitat, livelihoods, development, communal relations, the human-elephant conflict and ravages of war. Inhabitants of cities – women, children and men drawn from diverse backgrounds – are captured through both contemporary and historical frames, projecting their worldview, location or livelihood through an empathetic gaze supported by significant scholarship. Fernando’s research is meticulous and offers both original and captivating insights for even the seasoned reader of non-fiction on Sri Lanka. From nuanced capture of historical figures like Saradiel and Keppetipola Disawe to individuals encountered on his travels, the author uses – with great skill – stories recounted to him and the surroundings he finds himself in for a night or two to prise open and lay bare Sri Lanka’s multi-layered character. It is here the book is most removed from say a Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, which would rely on tired tropes to satiate the passing tourist’s gaze, instead of Fernando’s studied, nuanced and ultimately, more honest appraisal – warts and all.

‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’ is part travelogue, part ethnographic pastiche and all wit. With unerring accuracy, the book captures a sense of place and space down to taste and smell. The visitor is offered a complex country that doesn’t quite make sense, but works somehow, much to the incredulity of those who inhabit it as well. The Sri Lankan reader is offered fresh insights into a familiar loathing and love of country, which for many of us unceremoniously co-habit in our negotiation of everyday life. Fernando occupies himself with individuals even I would never encounter or choose to stay overnight with (the descriptions of phantasmagoric lodgings and their trappings were primary reason for spills, choking and belly-laughs).  And yet, in the capture of post-war realities, religious tensions, deep ethnic binds, feral wildlife, febrile politician, imagined place or geographic space, Fernando never once exoticizes.

There are, however, unpardonable errors. Fernando suggests that any traditional Sinhala wedding features a groom dressed up in Kandyan attire, and a woman decked out in an osari. The violence of this is considerable, for which the author must be held accountable by retraction or correction in the second edition. No one, absolutely no one, save for Kandyans – and even then, not without an abundance of hesitation – dresses up on their wedding day to walk like constipated ducks, bedecked in a costume that is in effect a bejewelled condom guaranteeing the impossibility of any conjugal or even convivial relations between the couple till summarily disposed of. The penultimate chapter features a capture of private school alumnus, in which the author invents a new school – St Thomas’ College. As an old boy of S. Thomas’ College, which if Fernando had had the good fortune to attend, would have learnt how to spell correctly, this error could have been forgiven were it not for the unnecessarily unkind and entirely inaccurate capture that follows. Neither have I ever used the truly awful, classist phrases attributed to alumnus from these two private schools, nor have I once heard those who went to either school use this terrible turn of phrase. A fiercely egalitarian spirit deeply ingrained in the DNA of S. Thomas’ is absent in Fernando’s writing, with even a caricature of school rendered unrecognisable by uncharacteristic imprecision.

Chapter 9, anchored to Killinochchi and Fernando’s travels to Jaffna, was for personal reasons particularly poignant. The author is too young to have travelled to or past the Killinochchi or Elephant Pass that existed during the Ceasefire Agreement, from 2002-2005. The pregnant capture of what it is like today, quite unexpectedly, brought a flow of memories of what the city and region were like nearly two decades ago, when I first travelled there. The author’s grandfather, after watching the 7 pm news during the war, we are told, would with a forlorn look and deep sigh say a variation of “Terrible thing no, this war? Whoever they are fighting for, they are all somebody’s son or daughter, isn’t it? Just imagine. All human lives. Our very own people”. I confess I put the book down as I finished this chapter because it was hard just to keep on reading. But what greater measure of an author’s talent, than to unshackle the darkest memory from deepest recess?

A final word on the full-colour illustrations which capture key moments of Fernando’s travel and travails. For reasons best known to Picador India, the artist’s name isn’t mentioned, which is a travesty. The illustrations, resembling the work of Richard Gabriel from the ’43 Group, are beautiful, complementing Fernando’s sublime writing. One hopes that a revised edition openly recognises the significant talent behind these drawings.

Buy ‘Upon a Sleepless Isle’. Gift it. If after Easter Sunday, utterly banal Lonely Planet writing by foreigners who parachute into country is what we tweet about and share to make ourselves feel and look good, Fernando’s book deserves much more publicity. Between this book’s covers is a compelling capture of Sri Lanka’s irrepressible character and a textured patina of life, love and loss. Here is a text, like a long-term partner who snores, farts unapologetically and picks nose in public, which is embarrassing at times and even insulting at first blush or encounter, but you grow to love truly. Fernando is Sri Lanka’s karuthacolomban of new authors. Anyone who disagrees deserves a fate no less violent than the peacock towards the end of this book. You simply must read it to find out.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 14 July 2019.

On friends

“I love that word relationship. Covers all manners of sins, doesn’t it?”

Every year, for close upon two decades, on Christmas Day, I watch ‘Love Actually’. There is a scene in it where Hugh Grant, playing the British PM, takes on the American President, played by Billy Bob Thornton. The trans-Atlantic relationship between the UK and US, in the film, is strained by the American President’s lewd remarks on and sexual harassment of a member of the British PM’s staff. And while today, life not just imitates art, but is stranger and more violent than what the film depicts, the PM’s comments to the press corps sprang to mind over an exchange on Twitter last week. In it, a tweet of mine calling out the signature chutzpah and hypocrisy of the SLPP was mindlessly responded to by someone associated with and benefitting from the party, very active on social media. The submission that we were friends prefaced the response. Disabusing my interlocutor of this fiction resulted in the mawkish, self-indulgently sentimental response so many on social media project, produce and promote, which is a study in itself. I did highlight the fact that one didn’t need to be a friend, or my friend, in order to engage or debate in a civil, principled manner around matters of mutual interest. This fiction of friendship prefacing the most insulting innuendo, insipid insinuation, vapid or violent commentary isn’t unique to Sri Lanka’s social media sphere, but is interesting to flag, nevertheless.

I wonder, but do not know for certain, if there’s a link between this loose, self-serving definition of friendship and the increasing use of Facebook, with its capture and presentation of ‘friends’ and the transactional, virtually mediated values of friendship in ways very different to what I grew up with, and still treasure. But this is not a rant against the dilution of human relationships because of technology. I am sure that for billions on social media, and especially for those separated by geography, key traits of friendships including love, caring, trust, empathy, confidentiality, respect and support, are present and as authentic as what I hold as markers of a deep friendship. What I am more interested is in the display or manufacture of friendship, unilaterally expressed, which serves to preface much of what one would not say to friends, in the manner expressed and with the language used.

Many posthumous accounts published after Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, including his last editorial in the Sunday Leader, very clearly highlight the friendship shared with the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The country’s worst racists, including those in our immediate and extended families, never lose an opportunity to publicly proclaim their friends include Tamils and Muslims. This often happens just before, or immediately after rabid commentary that justifies boycotts, normalises violence against them, renders them alien or projects hate. Not long after the constitutional coup late last year, Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa were seen seated together, enjoying a music concert. Mangala Samaraweera’s commemoration of 3 decades in politics, in February, included both Sirisena and Rajapaksa. In June last year, after the communal violence and riots in Ampara, Digana and elsewhere, Gotabaya Rajapaksa attending an Iftar ceremony said that his brother, Mahinda, “was a long-standing friend of the Muslim community”. In 2014, UNP MP Harsha de Silva castigated the then Rajapaksa government for dealing with a Chinese company, debarred by the World Bank for corrupt practices, to develop the Colombo Port. He also noted that Chinese loans would bleed the country dry. Last year, MP de Silva, referring to Chinese investments under the Belt and Road Initiative noted that Sri Lanka must “attempt our very best to partner with all our friends to leverage our ports”. Searching for the phrase ‘friend’ on the official Twitter accounts of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe reveal much about mentality, man, charisma and politics. Many, for Rajapaksa, are good or old friends including Subramanian Swamy, Hamid Karzai, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and before him, Abdulla Yameen, the late A.H.M. Azwer, Scott Morrison and Imran Khan, who is apparently an all-weather friend. Sirisena follows suit, with PM Modi to Pundit Amaradeva listed as friends. Wickremesinghe, pictured with, in the presence of or referring to many of the same and others, rarely refers to individuals as friends. The late Senator McCain and PM Modi are the only two references to friends in just under one hundred tweets over a year. For Sirisena, Putin is a good friend, while PM Modi and President Danny Faure are true friends. Exactly three years ago, an exchange between PM Wickremesinghe and NFF Leader Weerawansa in Parliament was also pegged to friendships, with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge. The actual issue being debated was post-war reconciliation, but much of the exchange was pinned to friendship as a vector of attack, with who was friends with whom, why and around supplanting more pertinent facts. In 2014, a New York Times article on the then Presidential campaign dynamics quoted Rajitha Senaratne as “a friend of the Rajapaksa family for more than 40 years”, who found it “painful” to leave his friend, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There is a serious point in all this. The projection of friendship, or calling someone a good, special, true or old friend, is in public discourse now on social media and for much longer, in Parliament and politics, entirely distinct from any real, meaningful markers of friendship. And while there may well be decades old friendships with political partners and opponents, the democratisation of spaces for conversations to occur around difference and divergent opinion is often unprincipled, ugly, vicious, violent and vindictive. If these are friendships, they sound, look and feel terribly dysfunctional. The sort one would in other circumstances recommend distancing, divorce or therapy. There’s also a nuanced power play at work. Called a friend, only to deride or demean, few would push back and say that there is, in fact, little to no meaningful friendship. When someone says they have good Tamil and Muslim friends, few would question them on the timbre of these relationships. The culture of dissent or the expression of difference in public space like social media seems to now require some obsequious flattery or signifiers of friendship – almost as if by not doing so, or not appearing to be friends, you can’t disagree or get away, as easily, with what one says and how one says it. The appropriation of words and their meaning to further violence is a feature of dominant power structures. The pushback against the submission that someone was my friend, when it was a fiction at best, wasn’t anchored to the insensitive rebuke of a well-meaning overture.

If we must and are to move forward as a society that can mature into discussing emotive, hard issues, pretences have to fall. Not being my friend doesn’t make you my enemy. Not being a friend doesn’t make an opinion, well-articulated, any less credible or important. We choose our friends. Those choices and relationships, in public life even out of mainstream politics, define us. But how we treat, speak to and engage with those who aren’t our friends and, especially, those we disagree vehemently with, is what shapes us more.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 7 July 2019.

An ode to an Olivetti

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A lower-middle-class household in the 1980s offered only the most basic, tactile, physical pursuits for a child, bounded by the garden or at the furthest, the start of a private lane leading to my house. I wasn’t adventurous and, in any case, after July 1983, a neighbourhood marked by charred remains of brick, mortar and Tamil lives wasn’t one parents sent their children to wander around in. I spent my time with books, inherited from my sister. And then, I discovered my father’s Olivetti typewriter. It was a mechanical contraption of a sophistication unmatched by anything else in the house. Precariously perched on two cushions, I grew to the required height to hear it respond to what would have been small fists smashing on to an unbreakable keyboard. Jammed armatures offer no joy, and I quickly learnt that each keystroke required a second’s patience for retraction, before another could be attempted. At this stage, it was the sight, smell and sound of a typewriter that captivated me. I was too small to read well or spell correctly. My grandmother’s protests, aimed at preserving typewriter, were cast aside by my father, who for whatever reason – perhaps anchored to amusement above anything else – continued to grant me access to a machine I wasted page after page typing gibberish.

When this week, I took delivery of a 1974 Olivetti Lettera 35i, it was not my father’s typewriter I remembered. It was the transparent plastic cover on white tablecloth, the covers on the cushions with tassels on the end and the slight wobble of the chair I remembered, along with the smell of thin A4 sheets, since the production of voluminous gibberish wasn’t an expense my father could cover with a thicker, better grade of paper. Triggers of childhood memories sometimes surprise in their vividness, and it seemed that my new purchase had unlocked many I didn’t realise were captured with such clarity. I remember, over a few years, my typing progressing to the dizzying heights of copying of entire Ladybird books – a task I came to measure by how fast I could do it. By then, my father’s Olivetti and I were close friends. I had learnt, in that inexplicable, largely unconscious fine-tuning performed by our mind, to perfectly time the keystrokes. The weight of the machine was familiar, and with stronger hands, depressing the shift to generate a capital letter became easier. I loved the smell of the ink on the ribbon, which hopelessly transferred to hand in the course of a long session. My father took to reinking ribbons, against because of the higher cost of purchasing new ones. Not once did he ask me to slow down or stop. I spent hours with that machine. From inevitable paper cuts resulting in vivid cerise blots to every movement and substantial sound each part uniquely made, every shudder and shiver of progress, letter by letter, was palpable and tactile. Each page was a marker in a growing, deepening relationship with the machine and its character. As you aged, it aged. A computer keyboard is a sterile affair in comparison. You work with and talk to a typewriter. You type on and swear at a keyboard. There is a world of difference between the two.

But it was more than this. The study of social media at scale – hundreds of posts a day, millions of records over time – affords insights on not just what’s said by whom, but how. Spelling, grammar, intent, clarity, precision and focus, even in the most hateful of comments, often leaves much to be desired. It is as if a few expletives, badly spelt yet sprinkled liberally, suffice to make what in author’s mind is a sufficiently strong point, coherently communicated. This is rarely the case. A keyboard offers no friction to a garbled stream of semi-consciousness. In comparison, a typewriter’s physical movement makes for better writing. The mechanical production of letters forces the mind to slow down. Mistakes are obvious on a page, even and especially after correction and serve as subconscious reminders to not repeat. The resulting writing is stronger, when reflectively broken down to constituent letters, instead of reflexively touch-typed. Used to the muscle-memory of emoticon or emoji, social media’s toxicity is in no small way the result of relatively frictionless production and sharing. Conversely, a typewriter is entirely based on friction. You cannot bypass it. All attempts to do so are met with unwavering resolve that puts a complete stop to any further content production until addressed. The backspace doesn’t erase. There is not cut and paste. There is no autocorrect. The crisp, high-resolution screen is an unforgiving A4 sheet. It is this you move around, not cursor, to position where to type text next. There is a single font. And on my Lettera 35i, two colours – a rare luxury. Many typewriters just have one colour, black. Writing by hack or Hemingway on a typewriter is indistinguishable save for form and flourish in word and wit. There was nothing else to be distracted by other than how to write best what one wanted to express. The linear progression from thought to page, left to right, character by character, line by line, was simple to learn and common to all typewriters ever made. Ironically, it is precisely the joy around this minimalism that modern word processors including Microsoft Word’s new ‘Focus Mode’ and a new market for smartphone and tablet writing apps seek to emulate or return to.

And yet, pixel is a poor substitute for page.

The greatest expense and most attention I’ve devoted to a keyboard was when I purchased one to minimise repetitive stress injury after long hours of feverish typing. The Lettera 35i is an investment that will outlive me. Unused for 45 years, all it needed was a new ribbon to spring to life. I forgot that in many typewriters from that time, the letter l was a substitute for the number 1 and searched in vain for a lost key cap in the box. Line division, key pressure, spacing and indent required the pinching, turning, flicking and sliding of tactile switches, tabs, cogs and levers. The carriage return was precisely that, with a satisfying sound to boot. Designed by Mario Bellini, the Lettera 35i – not unlike the more iconic red Valentine model – is a timeless design and an expression, at its most pure or precise, of form following function. Typewriting is an affaire de cœur, and today – not unlike figuring out the f-stops on old D-SLR film cameras, manual shifting gears or using a hiramane to grate coconut – a stand and statement against automation and its trappings. There are easier, more efficient ways to get things done. But the typewriter is a reminder of what social media companies like Facebook have only acknowledged recently. Friction, forcing reflection and impeding rapid-fire response later regretted, is good and contributes to a net benefit.

I will never go back to the time when I wrote Editorials – for the S. Thomas’ College magazine – on a typewriter. But in the months, years and hopefully decades ahead, the letters I write on this amazing contraption, already older and wiser than I am, will leave a legacy of occasional missives that require no electricity to for recipients to read, restore and revive. And through this writing, I will get to know my Olivetti’s mercurial character better, leaving a patina of curse, celebration, curl and crimp behind, for someone else to add to, or repair.

A keyboard can measure hours in a workday. A typewriter is something more. It is always a measure of life, and perhaps, of a life.

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Published in The Sunday Island, 30 June 2019

What we are today

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Waiting for the Barbarians, C P Cavafy

To condone the stoning of Muslims. To boycott their shops and businesses. To say that eating from Muslim shops poisons Sinhala Buddhists and makes them sterile. To say that a Muslim doctor had destroyed thousands of Sinhalese children. To say that the Rule of Law doesn’t work. This is no longer the domain of fringe lunacy, or a renegade monk. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero is the Mahanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter. He said all this and in public. To my mind, this is by order of magnitude worse than and indeed, going by statements made after Rathana Thero’s farcical fast, entirely counter to more conciliatory sentiments expressed by Gnanasara Thero, who isn’t known for his pacifism or love towards Muslims. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero’s statement – because of his seniority – take on added significance. In 2017, the Asgiriya Prelate, following a meeting of the senior most prelates in the ‘Karaka Sangha Sabha’, condoned Gnanasara Thero’s virulent words and violent actions, despite the awful harm informed, influenced or inspired by the BBS against the Muslims for years and a campaign of vicious hate directed against Sandya Eknaligoda. After Easter Sunday, the racism of the Sri Lankan state is in full view and indubitable. And every day brings its further entrenchment or, for the more cynical, evidence around how much and to what degree, Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism is and will forever be what animates policies and politics.

Take for example, the President’s sentiments as reported in the media, a few days after the Asgiriya Prelate’s incitement to violence and hate. In Hanguranketha, opening – as one must – a new temple, the President noted in the presence of the Asgiriya Prelate that “the country will never head in the wrong direction if… leaders act on the advice and guidance of the Mahasangha”. That the highest political office has not a word to say against the racism and hate sown by one of the highest Prelate’s in the country comes as little surprise, given the Presidential pardon to Gnanasara Thero last month. At the time of writing, Mangala Samaraweera is the only MP to condemn the Asgiriya Prelate’s speech publicly. Samaraweera is on record questioning why the SLPP and factions of the SLFP are silent. This is pertinent since the Prelate noted the Sangha’s joy around the news that, apparently, Chamal Rajapaksa would be the next President, just before his homily of hate.

As if not more important, for Mr Samaraweera, the PM and the UNP, is to question why former SLFP’er and current UNP MP Mayantha Dissanayake, in the company of and referred to by the Asgiriya Prelate, hasn’t said a single word against or distanced himself from the incendiary sermon. Mindful of the bizarre context in Sri Lanka, where critical reportage on content inciting hate or violence risks arrest more than powerful political or robed producers of hateful rhetoric, I listened very closely to the Asgiriya Prelate’s sermon in Sinhala when translating it into English for subsequent dissemination amongst those who otherwise wouldn’t grasp the import of what was said. Thirty-eight seconds into the most shared version of the sermon, published by Radio Gagana on YouTube, there’s a reference by the Prelate to something that Mayantha Dissanayake had apparently said. The Prelate’s words are unclear. To be safe and maintain fidelity to the original, I translated this segment to English rather innocuously – as the Prelate noting that Mayantha Dissanayake had spoken earlier. However, though unclear, the Sinhala original is far more pregnant with meaning. In timbre and tenor, the Prelate is not berating Dissanayake or expressing something that was distinct from or different to whatever the MP had said before. The Prelate’s words prefacing the segment where he implores Sinhala Buddhists to not go to or eat from Muslim shops – “Maath kiyanawa / I also say” – suggest approbation and continuation of a line of thought that seems to be anchored to whatever UNP MP said, not repudiation or a clear disconnect. What Dissanayake said is not in the public domain. But his silence is telling. We know where the SLPP, SLFP and now the President stand. We do not know yet where the MP, PM or UNP stand, aside from Mr Samaraweera’s timely and courageous rejection of communal hate.

Stochastic terrorism, or so-called lone wolf attacks, is a growing risk in a context where hate and violence is normalised to the degree that one finds in Sri Lanka today. Terrorist acts that are ‘statistically predictable but individually unpredictable’ have no easy fix, since they are given birth to by a larger context of sustained hate mongering. When our President and Prelates openly espouse or condone violence against Muslims only to be met with weak repudiation and resistance at best, and a telling silence in the main, context, country and community risks and is ripe for radicalisation. The targets of hate, quickly and unsurprisingly losing faith in political office, public institutions and electoral processes, choose responses that by design, or quickly become, violent. The majority community, continuously and conspiratorially captured as facing destruction or destitution, out of unwarranted but palpable anxiety and fear, can and will take to violent means to secure their future, especially when the lives of their children are projected as being at stake. No good will come out of this prolonged barrage of hate and violence produced by some of the symbolically and politically most powerful people in the country.

Though subject to debate, the broken windows theory from criminology suggests that that visible signs of violence, if unattended to, encourages even greater and more serious violence. Think of the barrage of hate against Muslims as an endless enfilade aimed at what remains a fragile democracy, hanging on to the faintest of hope that another war or genocide can be averted. The shards of glass, metaphorically, is the permissive context for greater violence – fueled by anger, anxiety or arrack – that the likes of the Asgiriya Prelate and Gnanasara Thero create with total impunity. The hate and violence spewed by Buddhist monks, condoned by Politicians, is after the Easter Sunday attacks very visibly the warp and woof of mainstream identity. It is racist to the core. It is violent by design. It is strategically divisive. It is politically expedient. As someone quipped on Twitter just after the Asgiriya Prelate’s joyful assertion that a Rajapaksa would be the next President, it’s perhaps better to call Sri Lanka a theocracy and be done with it. It is also a useful starting point to critically appreciate the work of ONUR and many other arms of government, over the past decade, anchored to reconciliation in some form or the other. It is a useful reflection for donors and diplomats to also have, given how much and how often they praise strides in post-war development and democracy the country’s made, which I am at a complete loss to identify as easily or confidently.

Let’s be clear about all this and not mince words. This is a systemic problem, beyond just episodic sermonising and specific individuals. We have been, still clearly are, and will for the foreseeable future, be a racist state. The elimination of Muslim lives and livelihoods is what Chamal Rajapaksa’s glowing endorsement from the Buddhist clergy entails. Erasing them from society is what the President condones. The silence of the PM and UNP, save for one conscientious individual, is its own damnation. Despite all this, I am frequently told to maintain hope in light of a ‘silent majority’ of both the Buddhist clergy and Sinhalese that reject this rhetoric. I imagine this must be the same silent majority that was supposed to stop Nandikadal from happening.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 23 June 2019.

All media is social

My Editor, and the general readership of this newspaper fall into a demographic that doesn’t quite understand the media landscape in Sri Lanka today. As long as this demographic doesn’t go on to propose and make laws or regulations that seek to govern for tens of millions what they cannot or do not understand, I empathise with their confusion and discomfort. Because of sheer complexity as well as the speed of evolution, we can no longer clearly explain what we see or study in contemporary media landscapes. It wasn’t this way growing up.

Today, the very act of tuning into a channel or turning a page to access the news is quaint in a world where boundaries between terrestrial broadcast, print media and content consumed online are indivisible and invisible. It used to be the case – as recently as a decade ago – that agile, responsive campaigns anchored to civil society were best able to leverage the affordances, power and reach of new media platforms. I should know, having created Groundviews as an entirely web-based operation and platform in 2006 to carry what at the time, print and broadcast media would or could not. A year after, I created the first official Facebook Page and Twitter account for any media institution in the country. They were respectively the first accounts in South Asia for a civic media platform. Neither Facebook nor Twitter remotely resemble what they are and look like today. There were far less than a hundred thousand on Facebook at the time in Sri Lanka. There was no like button. There were no responses through emoticons. The mobile app was rudimentary. You couldn’t upload photos or videos. There was no misinformation produced by anyone active at the time, from any political or partisan perspective, in the way it is understood, treated and studied today.

I saw in both platforms the ability to bypass authoritarian censorship, reach new audiences quickly, create and sustain engagement around inconvenient truths and publish in the public interest content that on these platforms, created a new, resilient engagement economy that contested or bypassed traditional media’s stranglehold on framing the news. I was right to identify the potential to change the way society speaks with and sees itself, and political communications are conducted. I was profoundly naïve in my idealism that it would be a tool enduringly employed for public interest media, or in the service of civil society output bearing witness to human rights in a context of violent adversity.

It was impossible to foresee the use, abuse, adoption and adaptation of social media today by powerful political and media actors a decade ago. In May and June 2009, posts on Facebook that in turn linked to content on other sites like Flickr or YouTube captured horrific ground realities as well as propaganda from the Government and the LTTE. Leading up to 2010’s Presidential Election, the two leading contenders – Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka – created Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts anchored to their campaigns. It was the first time a Presidential election featured online media as an extension of traditional campaign activities and propaganda. The General Election later that year featured party leaders as well as political parties signing up to Facebook. The Municipal Elections in Colombo, a year later, was when from the Western Province and beyond, political communications on social media, distinct from communications in other media, platforms and fora, sprang to life. In late 2013, Mahinda Rajapaksa launched his official Twitter account. The one used for his Presidential bid in 2010, by then, was long discontinued. By 2015’s Presidential election, social media was central in the organic online campaigns to champion the current President as well as sophisticated, slick propaganda campaigns of the Rajapaksas, by then treating engagement in digital domains as a seamless extension of hoardings, posters, mugs, caps, pens, wall clocks and other more common debris of campaign freebies handed out at rallies. This was also when the clear distinctions between traditional and social media started to break down.

This brief history, as with any brief history, glosses over competing trends and a more nuanced appreciation of the media landscape’s evolution, even just since 2015. It does, however, serve as a warning for those who seek to weaponise the fears of an older demographic around the dangers of the current media landscape to support policies and regulations that ultimately help censorship. The careful capture and preliminary study of data from the local government election in February 2018, the Digana riots last March, new forms of political campaigns like Jana Balaya led by Namal Rajapaksa that used digital content to mobilise footfall, the unprecedented 52-day constitutional crisis late 2018, the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorism including repeated and increasingly devastating riots against Muslims, the coverage of the PSC on the Church attacks, the release of Gnanasara Thero late May and mid-2018, his incarceration, major civil society initiatives and campaigns, the commemoration of a decade after the end of the war and the volume of content uploaded to YouTube by every single major TV broadcaster since 2015 all suggest – unequivocally and indubitably – that social media is now populated the most by content produced by traditional media.

So what does the term social media mean today, if anything? To many, it continues to conjure up a domain inhabited by anarchic voices, uninterested in or divorced from truth, producing hate and hell-bent on destroying everything good or great about our society. However, the data strongly suggests the greatest producers, by far, of content that incites hate and violence online are, in fact, traditional TV channels. The data indicates that during the constitutional crisis, credible journalism produced by trusted journalists was in high demand on Twitter. The data clearly shows that though the most amount of political commentary happens outside the official pages and accounts of political parties or politicians, first time and young voters are anything but apathetic or disengaged. In the myriad of conversations I track daily, quality, civility, expression, intent and perspective may leave much to be desired, but is this not a valid critique of media the pre-digital generation grew up with and still like to romanticise?

I believe leading politicians know this, but in their pursuit of power see greater appeal in whipping up anxieties to ultimately help secure their control of all media. But to know and realise this helps resist it. The greater the appeal of a president’s or politician’s proposal to fight misinformation, the more sceptical we should be. The simpler the solution proposed, the greater the risk of censorship and abuse. The greater the paternalism overtly, the stronger the parochialism covertly.

Shutting down or blocking Galle Road because of a higher volume of bad drivers in recent years, contributing to many more offences, accidents and deaths, is not an option. Instead, we stress the stronger application of existing road rules and question why they aren’t enforced. Why should a conversation on media regulation be any different?

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First published in The Sunday Island,  16 June 2019.

What the PSC portends

For a few interested in and used to confirmation hearings or congressional sessions into individual or institutional activities in the US, the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) hearings in Sri Lanka, at first broadcast live, is something of a novelty.

Videos featuring Kamala Harris or Mazie Hirono questioning Brett Kavanaugh, Dianne Feinstein questioning Willian Barr or the now more frequent clips of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning federal employees including high-ranking FBI officials and CEOs have gone viral even in Sri Lanka for a variety of reasons. One, it is an entirely alien political culture for us. Even with a puerile, offensive Commander in Chief and Executive Branch, other sections of government in the US hold accountable public institutions and public officials in ways we don’t even have constitutional provisions for, or the political imagination to construct and enact. There is something enobling about the proceedings – of public officials and industry giants being questioned around policies and practices – that appeals globally. We are unused to this scrutiny and questioning, given a political culture unaccountable to voters once in power and Parliament. Two C’s – commissions and committees – defying both decency and democracy, define and draw outrageous political impunity in Sri Lanka, for decades. The most egregious abuse of power, negligence of public duty, corruption and nepotism, carry on with impunity even after very public announcements into their investigation through mechanisms that invariably fade into oblivion.

Dare we hope to believe that the PSC in to the Easter Sunday terrorism marks a change from this? The live broadcast of the proceedings as well as questioning of the State Intelligence Services (SIS) by the PSC has already upset the Executive. This is a good thing. The office of the Executive in Sri Lanka is too powerful to be left in comfort and happiness. Till there is meaningful constitutional redress, the incumbent and any who follow must be made as uncomfortable as possible and the exercise of Executive power – only mildly checked by the 19th Amendment – as difficult as possible. The PSC isn’t perfect. Tellingly, there is not a single woman on it. This matters in a context where Muslim women have suffered the brunt of misguided official policies and practices after Easter Sunday. Late March, around three weeks prior to Easter Sunday, the Speaker of Parliament who constituted the PSC unveiled a poster of Sirimavo Bandaranaike at an event organised by the Women Parliamentarian Caucus. The speech by him on this occasion underscored the vital role and relevance of women in public and parliamentary life. Compare and contrast what he said then with what the PSC looks and sounds like today. The live broadcasts were decried by some who said that intelligence gathering operations were placed at risk. It is unclear how much of a problem this really was, given that those called upon to give testimony could ask for the cameras to be switched off when discussing such matters, or refuse to answer the PSC’s questions based on national security considerations. Ultimately, what transpired was political drama new to Sri Lankans, and this is saying something. Unscripted, broadcast or recorded live and entirely unrehearsed, the PSC’s questions placed the subjects in positions they had never before been subject to. Given the nature of the revelations, untempered and unedited, it is entirely unsurprising that our President, not known for adulting, immediately went into tantrums and was last heard noting that he would ban all carpentry sheds, chainsaws and timber mills. As a close friend of mine opined on social media, it is unclear whether this pronouncement – especially in the context of the PSC proceedings – was a manifestation of madness or character.

Lest we forget, it was during the constitutional crisis engineered and enacted by the President late last year that many, myself included, championed impeachment. Tellingly, calls for impeachment were strongly and publicly resisted not by the SLPP or SLFP, but by the Deputy Leader of the UNP. Major media and TV networks, through terrestrial broadcast, SMS alerts and their significant capture of social media audiences, continue to support this unholy duo, including by shifting public focus to other, more trivial matters and not covering PSC proceedings to the degree and depth it merits. The degree to which this is happening isn’t well-known (and that’s the point), but its continuation has major implications for electoral contests in the future. On Twitter, those associated with the SLPP including Namal Rajapaksa have since Easter Sunday been increasingly and openly critical of the Executive. What is conveniently forgotten in tweets by them that now generate a lot of engagement – given much how they speak to and reflect larger public sentiment – is what happened on the night of 26th October 2018, where overnight, the President turned from pariah to patron, sinner to saviour. But principles isn’t what either of the two p’s in SLPP stand for, so this hypocrisy is entirely expected from charlatans no better than the Executive they now find useful to deride. But why didn’t the UNP more robustly pursue accountability for what the President did late 2018? If multiple subjects brought before the PSC today reveal that the incredible disarray of the intelligence community and systemic failures in prevention and response were the result of and anchored to the constitutional crisis, it is clear that the impunity the President enjoyed contributed to the loss of hundreds of lives. Well before Easter Sunday, those who rallied behind the UNP and the PM entirely independent of partisan loyalty late last year called for a complete overhaul of the country’s political culture. The PM promised much by way of internal party reform as well as a new political culture. Nothing has happened. Nothing.

The PSC’s revelations in this regard resonate far beyond holding the Executive accountable. Officials now complaining they were left out were part of a system that failed. Where does ultimate command and control, and political accountability, reside? If for months on end, one was part of a vital institutional framework that was clearly dysfunctional, does it take the catastrophic loss of life to come out in public against it? What did the PM know around the issues now in the public domain, and did nothing about or chose to focus on? Will he be questioned robustly? Sri Lanka’s worst communal riots, the violence against and on-going stigmatisation of the Muslim community, hundreds dead, hundreds more injured, countless more struggling for their livelihoods, innocents arrested, the ICCPR abused, the law unevenly applied – these are much more colour the government’s response to terrorism. So it’s not just the President to blame. Those with and around him, those who secured his power after last year, those that want to see him continue in office and opposed impeachment, foreign governments who directly support the President through technologies that place all citizens at greater risk, politicians and party cadre who instigate hate and violence – let’s call them all out for what they are. Murderers. Enemies of the state. Racists. Individuals unfit to lead. Individuals unfit to hold public office.

The PSC is anchored to a single event but is more than just about a single individual or institution. The proceedings last week shed light on the awful nature of a public service we have allowed to grow under successive governments and Presidents, overwhelmingly in the service of political paymasters. The proceedings may see the start of a movement towards reform. They may not. But at the end of it all, we cannot say we were ignorant of what the status quo has brought and wrought.

Scientia pontetia est. Knowledge is power. The PSC’s proceedings give us a power we didn’t have before. We must now choose if and how to exercise it.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 June 2019.

The yellow spines

Back home in Ratmalana, I have around 10 years worth of National Geographic magazines stacked on a bookshelf. My father subscribed to the magazine when I was in school. I haven’t yet asked him what drove him to do this, but I am grateful. Every year, the magazine sent subscribers a world map. The beautifully printed Mercator projection distorted size, but opened exciting new geographic possibilities to a kid who had never travelled out of Sri Lanka. Here I could see boundaries I hadn’t realised existed, as they mysteriously snaked their way across continents – sometimes following terrain and topography, but at most times an arbitrary logic no different to an unthinking scribble. I didn’t understand then and don’t fully understand now how these borders all came to be made. But long before the vagaries of politics entered consciousness, the size of the map in relation to myself at the time gave a sense of how big the world beyond my room was. It isn’t a feeling digital media consumed on lap or palm is able to fully recreate now. Capitols, rivers, mountains, seas, cities, countries, roads and routes, harbours and hinterlands all came alive through a cartographic precision the magazine staked its reputation on. And then there was the photography. Long before I started to appreciate photography as a medium or art, it was the message. The photographs in the National Geographic were, and still are, a visual feast. Critiques of this early, exoticising gaze or framing are now abundant and valid, but again, to a child of the 80s who had never set foot out of the country and whose only other visual teleportation device was a 21” Sony Trinitron TV with two channels, the magazine’s high-quality photos on glossy print were utterly captivating. From tribe to terrain, country to community, valley to village, each issue was a private portal into lands and landscapes I never thought I would see. Some of what I first saw on the magazine’s pages, I have now visited and witnessed in real life. Many more places and people, I will never visit or meet. I realise now how little the father could afford the subscription, but continued with it nevertheless to bring lands to me, he could not afford to send me to. The value of this is lost on the young reader and child. But later in life, I can draw a direct link to what I love the most – travel within and beyond Sri Lanka, getting lost, mindful photography, unspoilt nature as well as mindfully constructed urban landscapes – to the framing of the National Geographic.

There was also something more. Whether the magazine set out to do it consciously, or whether for the reader, it was a more subliminal connection between stories and issues over the months and years, the National Geographic rendered the complexity, fragility and inter-connected nature of life on Earth. This is the most obvious thing now and even fashionable to tout. In the 1980s, clean energy, environmentalism, conservation, global warming and climate change weren’t issues and hadn’t even entered the popular imagination or political firmament. Through its writing and photography, the magazine focussed on indigenous livelihoods, communities living with and the power of nature, the implications of poaching, the nature of rain forests, the life on rivers and riverbanks, how seasonal change impacted agriculture, animal migrations, the varied climates in various continents, livelihoods in littoral areas versus the lives of those in mountainous regions, space exploration and the borderless views of earth from geostationary orbit, the science of life as well as snapshots of life, in all its mundaneness, grandeur, vitality, cruelty, venom and boundless, incomprehensible love. Imagine the impact of this on readers at the time, like myself, across the world. We weren’t children of educationalists, activists, or cosmopolitan liberals. We didn’t know or associate those richer in experience and wealth who could tell us stories of their lives and travels. We couldn’t afford to explore extensively within Sri Lanka, save for the annual pilgrimages to places where religion or relatives lived. Without any of the affordances now a thumb press, page load, click, flick, call or budget flight away, the magazine laid the foundation of appreciating, many years later, the complexity of ecosystems, essential fragility of nature and, importantly, our place in – not above – all this.

All this came back to me on Thursday evening, as I listened to a lecture by the legendary Jane Goodall. Some years ago, I listened to Maya Angelou in New York, speak about her life and then recite, as her final flourish, Still I Rise. I still get goosebumps at just the memory of her voice. Goodall, last week, offered a comparable experience, in a very different way. The two women are nothing like each other. Goodall’s diminutive figure in real life hides over six decades of experience bursting with insight, stories, forewarning and despite all she’s seen, hope. At a meet and greet session before the formal lecture, she appeared with what appeared to be a single malt in a cut glass, perched herself on a high-chair and then signed various things for over an hour. Each person present was entitled to a professionally taken photo with her, but the usher warned us she would only look up for groups of two or more. By coincidence in the company of staff from the Jane Goodall Institute in Wellington, I learnt that she spent 300 days of the year travelling to events, fund-raisers, lectures and other meetings. The toll on the eyes of an 85-year-old woman of constant flash photography was just too much to bear, but as luck would have it, the photographer informed me that she had blinked when he clicked my photo with her. Sheepishly moving back to her side, I told Goodall that at her age, she must find all of us, and all of this, a bloody nightmare. I may have also used a mild expletive. Goodall loosened up, chuckled and through her smile for the photo, looking away from camera and straight at me, confessed it was bloody tortuous. My first and only conversation with the world’s greatest living anthropologist and primatologist was thus anchored to an honest appraisal of how little she enjoyed endless meetings with her giddy fans and ardent, loving followers. How could one but not feel partial to and equally pained by this? I was told however that Goodall was very partial to dogs – something she hinted at in her lecture as well, when speaking about how animals showcase a range of emotions and social behaviour that were once ascribed only to humans.

Her lecture was pure magic – effortlessly enthralling, fearless, fascinating and profoundly moving. Aside from her life with and work around primates, Goodall also stressed the importance of addressing poverty as integral to and inextricably entwined with habitat preservation. The choices she said that were made by affluent families around ethical goods and services were not those possible in poverty, where the cost of food mattered far more than the source or how it was produced. Echoing David Attenborough, she spoke of how we were all part of larger systems where the loss or displacement of one species had a direct correlation with the health and well-being of humans. Goodall’s holistic approach, which grounded the importance of environmental protection in frameworks that the disempowered and poor could also identify with, is what drives her work with communities and children. And while many would have latched on to what she said about her activism, I was more intrigued by what she said about her mother. When girls and women continue to face derision today for taking up science, technology and medicine, she spoke of how her mother had been pivotal in supporting her choice to become what she was today – never doubting or shouting, quietly supportive, resilient, sacrificing much to ensure she had what she needed to pursue her dreams.

I have asked my parents to never give away those National Geographic magazines, which remain where I left them after I moved away from Ratmalana. Though the spines are now a faded yellow, and in various stages, succumbing to humidity, the pages remain in pristine condition. They are my Goodall. They are my Attenborough. They are my treasure. They are life.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 2 June 2019.