Qadri Ismail: In memoriam

Prof. Ismail (Qadri) was one of the earliest champions of Groundviews, and over the years, one of its best critics and contributors. Qadri and I met infrequently, but corresponded over email at a pace determined, often, by socio-political developments in Sri Lanka coloured by electoral moments, Islamophobia, violence or political turmoil. These were moments when a draft of an article, to Groundviews or some other platform, would be sent, and prior to publication, we exchanged some thoughts over. This is a polite way of saying that our exchanges were seldom in agreement with his preferred thrust or tone, but in that difference (and, admittedly, in the early years, a self-imposed deference) there was so much that I learnt, and I would like to think, he enjoyed debating too.

Though we exchanged a significant number of emails for well over a decade, Qadri sent under a dozen articles to Groundviews. His first, almost exactly 12 years ago, prefaced themes he would return to repeatedly on the platform. In Critiquing the President’s victory speech: Evidence of a majoritarian mindset?, Qadri took on majoritarianism’s entrenchment and autocratic expansion at a time when it was extremely unfashionable for academics or activists to do so. Prefacing the submission of this piece were emails to both myself and Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. In them, Qadri expressed concern for the death threats Dr. Saravanamuttu (Sara) had received, in what few today may recall was the socio-political context in the months after the end of the war in May 2009. In a monthly email I sent out as Editor framing the best submissions to the platform, I highlighted Qadri’s piece thus,

Renowned writer, academic and political commentator Qadri Ismail, in his first submission to Groundviews, turns his critical gaze to the President’s speech in Parliament on 19th May, officially declaration victory in the war against the LTTE. He observes that, “The president, one should note, does not call for ideas or proposals towards a solution. He is not interested in consulting different shades of opinion, letting there be debate, disagreement. His position is firm: a solution to the problem of the minorities shall be based, grounded, on the philosophy of Buddhism, the religion of the majority. All political parties, and by extension all citizens, are merely asked to support, to assent, to this. This is, I submit, a strange, troubling view of politics which, by definition, involves more than one party. But, in this understanding, one party alone can propose a solution.”

Qadri’s prescient critique embraced not just what the Rajapaksas would come to synthesise, symbolise and normalise, but how we can understand the rise and roots of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Our emails and conversations in person, on the rare occasion we met in Sri Lanka, ranged from politics and social media to art, music, theatre and culture. I re-discovered today an exchange from 2011 around some medicines I had sent from Sri Lanka to his address in Minneapolis. I have no recollection what I sent or why, but chuckled when I re-read the characteristically sardonic response I have from him as a note of appreciation. Our exchanges on English literature, theatre and the arts were amongst those I enjoyed the most. From him, I learnt of a more nuanced (read troubling) history of those more widely known, mourned and celebrated in Sri Lanka. His stories and insights, shared with great candour, never transgressed a deep loyalty to even those he stood firmly opposed to, but knew personally and at some point of time, had been friends with. We often talked about the art and politics of an old friend of his – renowned artist Jagath Weerasinghe, starting with the publication in 2014 of Jagath Weerasinghe’s Hiding. In fact, one of our last email exchanges was around a podcast I did for Saskia Fernando Gallery with Jagath mid-2020, and Qadri’s critical perspectives on Weerasinghe’s latest work. We had planned to meet-up in person when Qadri and I were back in Sri Lanka to talk with Jagath, because as Qadri told me “One of the things i admire about Jagath, apart from his artistry, is that he can take criticism. But I think this should be conveyed in person. Email is a most abrupt means of communication.” In a similar vein and published in December 2015, Copies of Loss is a poignant capture of Sri Lanka’s negotiations with war, violence and peace through art, articulating perspectives shared with me personally in more public form.

In Responding to Aluthgama, Qadri was one of the first to write to Groundviews about the rapid rise of virulent Islamophobia that in June 2014, found violent expression, and not for the last time. What, to the minority, is democracy? in 2018 and From casualty to catastrophe the following year examined the same tropes, topic and tensions, as only Qadri could. I am heartened to see many sharing the news of Qadri’s passing flag the archive of his writing on Groundviews. We often talked about the merits of social media, and the intersection of online content with offline cultures. Late 2018, in one of the exchanges during the height of the constitutional coup, I said it was a pity he wasn’t on Twitter, to which he said “I am not on Twitter because I fear it’ll overwhelm me. I can see myself spending a whole morning composing the perfect bon mot.”

Qadri was quite interested in my doctoral research, and often asked about it. Over a long lunch in March 2015, he recommended doctoral research as a way of critically engaging with the content published by Groundviews. I dismissed the idea at the time, which since coming to Otago in 2018, he obviously reminded me of on several occasions. This elephantine memory was characteristic of the man. Qadri led an interesting life, and remembered much of it. Through friendships and relationships in the 80s and 90s, he was witness to events and harvested experiences that found expression in his writing as well as stories recounted in person – tall, perhaps, but always brilliantly told with twinkle in eye.

In one of our last email exchanges a few months ago, Qadri reminded me I owed him a drink (true) and noted also that “now more than ever, we have to fight back.” The exchange was precipitated by the unsurprising pushback to his final article on Groundviews, F*** You, Mr. President – one of the last I published on the platform. Characteristically taking offense that I starred the f-word and other expletives (“put in the proper spelling , man😈!”), we ended up agreeing to fight it out in person when we met again in Sri Lanka.

In fact, Qadri’s last piece on Groundviews is worth re-reading today. Given the farce and litany of failures growing at pace, Qadri’s characteristic and searing critique of incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (“The kernel of the colonel, Rajapaksa’s fiat is fear”) is truer today than when he wrote it. Given that meeting up over a drink will now have to wait, the least I can do in the interim is to publish the last line of Qadri’s final piece as he wrote it, knowing that a growing number in Sri Lanka are increasingly, and in public, partial to the sentiment.

So I say, Mr President: you are a truly hideous human. Fuck you.

I will miss this writing, and its author, sorely.

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