Memories of my father

Late October last year, I was woken up early in the morning by my mother in a state of panic. I had returned to Sri Lanka a few days before to pursue my doctoral fieldwork. Responding to my mother’s cries, I found my father unconscious on the floor. The significant brain trauma and internal haemorrhaging resulting from the fall, or because of a sudden stroke that led to loss of consciousness (we can never be sure), required immediate hospitalisation and surgery. My father died on Christmas Eve and was cremated the day after, on Boxing Day.

He was 82.

Since October, I have tried to give expression to or somehow define – for my own sanity – the vacuum his physical absence has created through death, even as he lives on, in a very real way, in memory. I’m often angry at how monumentally unsuccessful all and any attempts have been to reconcile his passing. I’ve succumbed to the debilitating violence of grief at strange times and places. When boarding my flight back to New Zealand, at a time I would usually message him. When driving in Colombo, suddenly realising I was in his car and road trips to Kataragama from decades ago. Seeing puhul dosi at Keells, which he loved. Every single morning since his death, looking out my bedroom window, when I used to spot him, silhouetted against sunrise, returning from a brisk walk – an adorably comical sight of loose fit shirt and trouser, hat, unwieldy stick and sometimes, freshly-made maalu paan or hot ross-paan he had picked up for me. Writing this. The grief is paralytic but instead of numbing over time, at least in my case, sharpens and amplifies its impact with every episode of an overpowering memory. I am envious of my elder sister in this regard, who takes recourse to and clearly finds great comfort in the dhamma to deal with Thaththa’s death. I just have memories.

The earliest are from the times we used to go down South as a family. My father believed in and later on studied astrology. It was for him a way to make sense of the world, and his place in it. For the rest of us, it meant that whenever we left home, we had to leave at an anointed time that was always a tad strange – say 4.11, 10.23 or 9.47. There was a direction he stepped out facing, always with the right foot placed first. And before the journey, he circled the steering wheel thrice, whispering a silent prayer for our safety and a good journey, whether around the corner or Kandy. I remember how from 4.50 to 5.20 am, every weekday till I did my O/L’s, my father and I used to pray at home, seated on a padura. I was often too sleepy for piety but had memorised enough pali to repeat by rote. Thaththa was far more conscientious, and ended every day by blessing me, stroking my head repeatedly. It was my favourite part of the morning. I remember going to the old Lake House and Peoples Publishing House near Nippon Hotel with him, as well as the Caves bookshop in Fort. None of these places exist anymore. Growing up with very little money, I learnt – like my sister – to never ask our parents for things we intuitively knew they couldn’t afford. But with books, I made an exception, knowing my father would always oblige. I am terrible at math. My father – a Chartered Accountant – was very good at it. I have this nagging suspicion that he was sad his only son turned out to be someone who was a slave to calculators, Siri or Google to figure out what he could, often faster, compute with his mind. Thaththa was happiest when I did well in school or at University, which is understandable for someone who taught himself English and was the first to go to Peradeniya University from Pitabaddara, a remote village deep in the South. Unlike how I am with my own son, Thaththa never cuddled, kissed or hugged me – physical expressions of love just wasn’t his thing. But he was present, always. And within the parameters of his own limitations, a supportive, loving father.

Without and before social media’s ubiquity and persistent reminders, my father’s life will be what those around him remember it to be. My mother, married to him for 50 years, has lost more than I – for her, Thaththa was an anchor in a world she is only now learning to navigate and negotiate alone, without help. Ironically, days before his fall, I was driving my parents to my sister’s house when they erupted in a fight anchored to bananas. My father bought several kilos worth of them every week to feed squirrels and birds at home, and my mother’s valid point was that he was growing too old to lift the bags filled to the brim with over-ripe bananas. This was, true to form, vociferously denied by my father, who with a final flourish, asked my mother to choose between starving animals or leaving him to manage bananas by himself. Chuckling silently, I continued to drive. I grew up with these flare-ups pegged to the most random of things. There was, however, nothing more serious. My father was a teetotaller, and at the time of his death, had no known health condition that impaired movement, sight, hearing or dietary intake, which in a sense was the hardest blow – to see him alive and well one day, and the next, to be lost in a spaghetti of tubes and wires at the ICU.

But in death too, there was laughter – just as we shared so much of it when he was alive, and in response to pithy comments he made, or in response to Amma’s complaints of his mercurial requests, like a quarter cup of milk tea. Not a full cup or half. A quarter. With the sister of one of my closest friends, I spent Christmas last year doing the paperwork required to get my father out of the morgue. Upon walking into Kalubowila Hospital, a nurse who we stopped to ask directions misheard me and excitedly congratulated us on the birth of a baby we were told we had arrived just in time to see. When I repeated my question on how to get to the morgue, the poor woman turned beetroot red and refused to speak or even look up at us. Finalising the paperwork at the hospital, I was nonchalantly asked if my friend was my wife, in a room where all the nurses took turns to look at her, then me, and giggle. Looking at them quizzically only amplified the komale. Maybe it was some inside joke, but strangely, even as unwitting subject of their mirth, I was happy to see their faces and hear laughter. Another Sanjana – removed from the person in the room – I remember smiling at them. I then proceeded to identify, with assured confidence, another corpse for my father. I have absolutely no explanation for it. When presented with a body, I looked at it and saw my father. I was thus completely confused when another woman howled ‘Aney ape Thaththe’ and lurched towards it. Looking several times in quick succession at the corpse and this strange woman in distress, I recall distinctly wondering how on earth my father could be her father too. At this point of total chaos and tragi-comic confusion, attendants at the morgue, clearly used to this sort of madness, stepped in and shouting at each other and also no one in particular, said that my father was in fact still in another freezer.

Placed (actually more like dumped) on the floor on a cold steel stretcher, I felt no connection whatsoever to my father’s body, and could only focus on the creases of his sarong and the complicated knot used in the bandage holding up his jaw. The other woman continued to wail loudly. I felt awkward and hurriedly nodded that it was ok to release my father, subconsciously registering a heavy smell, viscerally pungent, like rotting durians. I had learnt to associate my father with ambient smells in the last two months of his life. Hospital disinfectant. The smell of whatever was administered to him intravenously. The musty smell inside an ambulance. The stale odour of lifts, and fresh medicinal cocktails at pharmacies. The smell of fresh sheets. The Baby Cheramy cologne Amma liberally sprinkled on Thaththa, first as patient to keep him fresh, and lastly, as corpse, to render him more alive.

Alive is how I remember him the most, even as I saw more of him in stages of death than other members of the family. In our conversations on politics, for example, I remember Thaththa as someone grounded in a Sinhala-Buddhist identity, and enduringly sceptical of federalism which he associated with separatism and the LTTE. On these and other fronts, related to faith, relationships, and other life choices, I felt the most distant from him. But he never failed to surprise me. A couple of years ago, already in his late 70s, Thaththa braved a severe, sudden tropical downpour in Colombo to cast his vote at an election at the Institute of Chartered Accountants for a man he didn’t know, had never met, but believed was completely deserving of the post he was vying for. This random man, Thaththa told me, was a Tamil and had been the subject of what I understood to be some racist commentary prior to the election. My father felt compelled to vote because he didn’t want this commentary and its authors to shape the outcome of the election. Meritocracy ran deep in my father’s veins. Growing up with no safety net of influence networks or security of large inheritance, his greatest lesson was in allowing me to first fail and fall to realise the importance of perseverance, hard work and honesty – qualities he embodied to the fullest. He was a self-made man and expected the same of his children. The smallest of things mattered the most for him. Punctuality. Cleanliness. To do well whatever one undertook to do. The dignity of labour. The value of education, beyond school or university. Happiness in and from small things. The importance of living simply, but not in austerity. The love of nature. Of music, from Shankar to Chopin. Of judging others based on what they did and said, and not how they were talked about in absentia. Of having faith, but never imposing it on others or shunning pragmatism. Of having an opinion but being open to others and, occasionally, informed revision.

From my first reluctant forays to a pola, to memories of my hand completely embraced by his warm, firm grip as we walked across a road, from the silky smooth well-water of his ancestral home as we bathed together, to my love of curd, dhal and rice, learnt by seeing him savour it from childhood, flag posts of this persistent dreamscape of grief are vivid memories of my father that randomly surface. It is a terrain, I suspect, he would have been very upset I have to negotiate alone. Akka tells me, with great fervour, that she feels his samsaric journey has come to an end. Obviously, for Thaththa’s sake, I hope she’s right. But every time I run my hands through one of Thaththa’s sarongs beside my pillow, seeking fleeting emotional refuge, I also selfishly hope that he is not entirely beyond knowing, seeing or hearing – somehow – how much I miss him.

And how much he is, and will remain, loved.

College as it was then, and continues to be

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

An invitation from the Head Prefect to submit an article to the College Magazine is not one that can be refused easily or taken lightly. I last wrote to the magazine in the mid-90’s, before taking over as Editor. That’s before many who will read this were even born. Some of the technologies used in the magazine’s production then would be alien to those in charge of it today. I did the final version of an article on a typewriter, with freshly purchased ribbon so that the ink would be uniform and dark. I then shifted to WordPerfect, a programme and format that’s now entirely defunct. All the drafts were handwritten. The type-setting was done at the printers, which meant we had to meticulously go through proofs and mark on the margins everything that needed to be corrected, edited and adjusted.

The writing of, amongst others, leading public figures, lawyers, entrepreneurs, speakers, businessmen, activists and researchers today can be found in the pages of the College magazine at the time. The topics were diverse, ranging from science, technology, politics, literature and contemporary developments to more subject specific content or those based on personal experience. Satire was encouraged, and no one was spared. Allow me to recall one incident. In an article penned by me under a pseudonym, Coll Cops and even teachers at the time, loved or reviled, were taken apart by reference to Dryden’s poetry and the wider cannon of English literature. No real names were mentioned, but characteristic traits, phrases, mannerisms and behaviour served to identify the victims of an acerbic wit. A day after the magazine was out, the late Neville de Alwis, the Warden at the time, called me to his office. The Warden never once asked to see the final proof of a magazine before it went to print, but was invariably held accountable for its content. Knowing full well why he wanted to see me, I wanted to his office not without some dread. Magazine in hand, he inquired as to why I wrote what I did, because he had entertained complaints from the targets of my satire that they had been made fun of, and that too, in the College magazine, read by parents and old boys. I said it was essential to question those who taught us and were office bearers in school, because to obey authority without question ran against the very ethos of College. And that, I said, is what I thought makes a good Thomian. After a brief pause and another glance at the article, addressing me by my surname, Bakka (as Warden de Alwis was fondly or fearfully called at the time) cautioned me against riling the teachers and senior Prefects any further, but said he would stand by the piece. I never heard anything from him again on the issue, and I never knew what pushback he had to face from teachers and others around the content I had written and published. Even after this incident, he never once asked to see final proofs of the magazine before it went to print. Warden, and College – beyond just the brick and mortar of buildings, but the very spirit of our institution – instilled in us the belief that to truly learn, one needed to question. That one could be brutal with ideas and their contestation, but kind with people and their beliefs. That there was no one, and nothing, above questioning. And though none of us realised it at the time, to be entrusted with great responsibility at a young age was its own lesson – that once asked to be in charge of something, you took the blame and fall, but allowed others and College to take the credit for all that was good and great. Warden’s approach of entrusting students with responsibility, taking their side whenever they were not in the wrong, and non-interference in work, are lessons many of us have internalised and now define how we work.

College was the foundation of what we do, and who we are. And it was this light touch of guidance and freedom, or inspiration and education – beyond and often in spite of boring syllabi – that defined our time at S. Thomas’. This is also why it is so difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t gone to College why it is so fundamentally different to other schools – no less prestigious and staffed by those no less devoted to learning and education. College teaches life lessons without setting out to do so, and most of those lessons are learnt outside the classroom – in what we do, say and write in the fourteen years we spend in school.

I realise though things are different today. When I left College, the Computer Room still had Commodore 64’s, hooked up to individual TV screens. There was no broadband, and the cacophony of connecting to the Internet over dial-up was a dead giveaway that you were going to surf the web. Social media hadn’t been invented. There were no smartphones. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo or YouTube. There was no Android or iPhone. No WhatsApp or any other instant messaging service. CellTell sponsored live updates at the Roy-Tho in the mid-90’s, and I was in charge of calling in the scores after every over on Motorola that was the size of a small car battery and about as heavy.

The advent and ubiquitous availability of technology, many in College and outside it fear, dilutes our values and principles, diverts our attention, divests education to various virtual agents and damages the fabric of school, especially for sentimental old fools – nay, boys – who never fail to note that things were much better in their time. Is that true? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Boys in College who read this know better than their parents the trappings and distractions of social media. They also know how useful it can be, and how community, friendship, camaraderie and Thomian grit have virtual connections as strong, and as real, as the physical bonds in College. The current Warden, on Facebook, is a beacon of our essential values, to all those who follow his updates. The Head Prefect of College, who I’ve followed for a long time on Instagram, doesn’t appear to be in the least bit corrupted or distracted by his use of the photo sharing platform. We tend latch on to every single instance and story about the misuse or abuse of social media, but fail to recognise that these are the exceptions. Whether in a classroom and with books, in Chapel arguing with fellow debaters, in the College Hall during Current Affairs, at the library checking out books, in the playing field, swimming pool, scrum or pitch, at kumite or cricket, as fourth man or Number Eight, as Captain or coxswain, buying sweets from Kāti or playing carom at the Cop Shed, we learnt lessons in behaviour, civility, queuing up, sportsmanship, humility in victory, grace in defeat, respect without genuflection, freedom of thought, the courage to uphold our convictions, a fierce independence of spirit, the importance of meritocracy over anything else and the value of a liberal worldview. We were given space to fail, lose and make mistakes. We were told that the greatest lessons College had to impart was not from the syllabi we had to memorise and regurgitate at exams, but in how we treated one another. And all this both predates social media and is also present in them, by virtue of how the platforms of used by those in College. I wouldn’t worry too much about technology corrupting young minds – you know better!

It is customary for an article of this nature, by an old-Thomian and former Editor to boot to offer words of advice to those in College today. I have absolutely nothing of the sort to offer. I know nothing of your lives, and how you live them. Your choices are your own, and you will reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of what you do, in College, outside it, and when you have left it. Sri Lanka today offers one great lesson – that you can cheat, lie, kill, insult, rape, plot and force your way to positions of wealth and power. The very values held sacred at S. Thomas’ are those jettisoned the first in the pursuit of fame and fortune. You can opt to do the same. You may also opt to do something different. All the Thomians who have remained my close friends are those who have taken the less travelled road. There are gifted lawyers who instead of commercial law, focus on human rights or constitutional reform. There are photographers, who are highly paid for their commercial work, but whose heart is in social activism and the capture of injustice or environmental devastation. There are those who have embraced their sexuality, and knowing they are gay, bisexual or transgender, now help others deal with the incredible cruelty meted out by an intolerant society against those who fail to somehow conform. There are award winning thespians, who help others through acting to discover their full potential. There are those who have braved death threats to stay on Sri Lanka and create institutions that have in turn attracted other Thomians to its fold, to strengthen our democracy.

Arguably, other schools also have illustrious alumni. So, what makes an old boy of College any different? There is an apocryphal story of how a Royalist would walk down a road, thinking he owns it, and how a Thomian would walk down one, not caring who did. The essential irreverence in College, which is its own tradition, is what makes you exceptional, and also, well suited to take on challenges across a myriad of disciplines. More than anything else, what would concern me the most about College would be if the careful mix of irreverence and respect was upset by either by annoying progressives who feel there was little need for tradition, or conversely, by mawkish conservatives who feel there is nothing to be gained by embracing modernity. More than the Warden and teachers, you are responsible for maintaining this careful balance. It’s what you do that defines College – how you present yourself and behave at mall or match, just as much as what you write at an exam. It’s about taking pride in being a Thomian, but not allowing that to gloss over what is wrong in College, and with College. It’s about speaking out and stepping up, no matter who or what age you are. Importantly, it is about how we treat others who aren’t Thomians – including girls and women. How we see, talk to and treat them – friend or foe – defines us. And the worst we can be is to be to those who, for whatever reason, hate us, what they are and seek to do to us.

What more can or should I say? It’s easy to romanticise our time in College, and tellingly, this almost often is articulated in a manner that places us in a superior position to other boys schools. Saying we are better than others doesn’t make it so. What we do matters. How we speak matters. What we believe in matters. How we deal with difference and adversity, matters. How and who we choose to love matters. Me telling you this may not matter. But you understanding the value of it for yourself, does matter. And that’s what, for me, College does. It doesn’t care a toss about who you are or where you came from. It treats with equal contempt and love, everyone. Everyone has a fair go at everything. With over fifty extra-curricular activities, societies and clubs, it’s not just cricket, rugger and exams that define College life. It’s a Christian school, but it’s not a Christian faith that defines it. It’s an exclusive, private school many who rant against it secretly wish they went to, but mindless elitism isn’t what is taught inside it. We grew up fighting with, fiercely loyal to, loving or hating our classmates or teammates not because they were Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, rich or poor. We saw them, and they saw us, only as Thomians.

That’s something rare, which you will only more fully realise when you leave both this magazine and College behind. We see the world differently to others, because College is a wonderful, verdant space – in my time, before my time as well as now – that doesn’t differentiate or treat students based on their identity, faith or last name. What results, for those who imbibe the prodigious opportunities for learning and growth in College, is a rare breed – a cosmopolitan, liberal gentleman.

Be proud you are one of them.

Esto Perpetua!


Published in the S. Thomas’ College magazine, Term 1-3, 2017, Vol CXL Nos 1-3

Right to Information: All hype with no bite?

Right to Information (RTI) legislation was unanimously passed in Sri Lanka’s Parliament last week without a vote. It sounds easy and inevitable when framed thus, but that one sentence masks decades of activism and advocacy to pass RTI to no avail, and strong pushback from government predominantly based around national security issues. It was unlikely that during war, Sri Lanka would have passed this legislation. Yet even today, seven years after the war ended, the default mode of operation for government is to hoard, retain, hide and obscure information. The law will invariably engineer great resistance at all levels of government and state administration. RTI is progressive because it places the onus on public institutions to respond to queries by the public, opening them up to a degree of legal scrutiny hitherto unprecedented. The law is disruptive precisely because of this. Decades of a culture of secrecy, of hoarding information, of not releasing information in the public interest is now turned on its head. Public institutions will have to proactively disclose information to the public, and also disclose when requested by the public. To do this, information officers will be appointed – and they will face the gargantuan task of dealing with requests from the public for information there may not even be official records around. Our bureaucracy is based on who knows whom, and what one knows about another. It is based on clientalism and nepotism, with systemic record keeping more to thwart and stifle genuine accountability, over any interest in efficiency and effectiveness. RTI turns this on its head too. Comprehensive records management now trumps favour, personal relations and convenient amnesia. And it is not just the hoarding of files in gunny bags in a dark basement. RTI emphasis that records must be kept in an easily and effectively retrievable manner that is systematic, without being hostage to the often mercurial and entirely subjective “filing systems” of individuals who happen to inhabit a particular office over a period of time.

Beyond all this is how RTI can strengthen and support civic media as well as investigative reporting. In a regular column to the newspapers, I wrote that RTI comes to Sri Lanka at a time when we are on the cusp of almost ubiquitous connectivity – from continued upgrades of existing telecommunications infrastructure to the advent of new technologies like Google Loon which promise high speed wireless connectivity from all corners of the country. I argued that the implementation of RTI in Sri Lanka needs to be digital and mobile first, enabling citizens to interact with and ask questions from government, using the provisions in the law, through their mobile phones, tablets and desktop browsers instead of resorting to paper, pen and post. It is here that I foresee the greatest challenges around RTI’s implementation, which I frame as a crisis of the imagination.

Used to being in the opposition, and stuck in survival mode, civil society now needs to use RTI to frame requests from government in support of their work. This means understanding the law, and using it, instead of fighting against unjust laws, which has largely defined the work of rights-based civil society advocacy and activism in Sri Lanka. The emergence of ‘solutions based journalism’ is a school of practice and thought that holds great promise for the practice of journalism under RTI, which is anchored to generating ideas to solve key issues, rather than just flag what’s going terribly wrong. The generation of new ideas and innovation, it stands to reason, can only gain from information around what decisions have been taken in the past and why, which is where RTI comes into play. Questions that interrogate structures, decisions, mechanisms, institutional history, purchases, the hiring and firing of individuals, the non-disclosure of interests and the under-utilisation of assets, the awarding of tenders to the selection of service providers, measuring key performance indicators around promises made and asking information that impacts the families of the disappeared – this is in the future all possible in Sri Lanka because of provisions in our RTI legislation.

At least, it is in theory. Information in the public domain does not automatically engender the political will to address official wrongdoing or maladministration. Oftentimes, information secured by RTI will require more requests to be made possibly from other public institutions, cross-verification, some translation and finally, contextualisation. Ordinary citizens may demand information, but government is not bound to provide the information in a manner that is easily comprehended. This is why it is so important to strengthen civil society and independent media to use RTI to transformation information to knowledge, and raw data into context. This is where journalists, including citizen journalists, step in. While RTI’s importance extend far beyond media and journalism, journalists and acts of journalism by citizens can showcase the power and potential of RTI to prise open official mechanisms. Accountability is not a given today, and will never be. Just like the decades of activism and advocacy, against the most determined adversity that was required before RTI was passed in Sri Lanka, the litmus test of legislation will be in its fullest implementation. Else, all this hype and hoopla would have been for nothing.


First published in SAMSN Digital Hub

“Sinha-le”: Comment to media on implications

Was asked by a mainstream media newspaper to send in comments on the ‘Sinha-le’ phenomenon.


“Sinha-le”, a campaign primarily promoted over social media both in Sri Lanka and abroad, can also be seen on stickers adoring three-wheelers and other vehicles.

The campaign is essentially racist, mixing elements of violent xenophobia, Islamophobia, racial slurs and hate speech in what is promoted as a campaign signifying love for country and patriotic zeal. Perusing through a Facebook group, one of many others, established in support of the campaign, one encounters outrageous content of a nature the careful observer will immediately recognise as exactly what was promoted by similar pages, groups and sites aligned with the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Fringe lunacy has a place in a democracy, as precisely that. The danger under the previous government was that extremists, like the BBS, were allowed the space to thrive and operate in conditions of near total impunity. In comparison, the ‘Sinha-le’ movement is as yet nascent. Aside from inspiring one act of vandalism, it has yet to grow into the monstrosity that was the BBS and other chauvinistic forces aligned to it, especially online.

The enduring danger is that ‘Sinha-le’ and similar movements that crop up in the months ahead are black swan events – spontaneous mechanisms created to instigate communal unrest over a specific instance, individual or location, but go viral and develop a life of their own, ending up by spilling over into violence in the real world. Not unlike the appeal of the Islamic State (ISIL) through online social media, the racism, intolerance and violence of ‘Sinha-le’ is rendered invisible to its vocal proponents. The fans and followers create echo chambers, where radicalisation is fostered by the production, publication, dissemination and discussion of deeply racist material. Almost exclusively in Sinhala, this content passes under the radar of platforms like Facebook and policies in place against content that instigates communal violence, racism and hate speech.

The catch-22 is around how best to respond to ‘Sinha-le’. Also using social media and in Sinhala, the pushback has been very creative, sardonic, significant and widespread. It is unclear however the degree to which the more liberal, progressive and democratic voices are able to infiltrate the well-springs of the ‘Sinha-le’ movement, and engage with, to the extent possible, its proponents. Some propose strategic inaction – hoping these movements will die down after a period of time. The danger around this approach is that the opposite will happen, and by the time policymakers take note, adequate, timely responses are significantly more complex to generate.

As Sri Lanka embarks upon constitutional reform and other major projects this year, involving the whole of government and reshaping how we see our country, I expect ‘Sinha-le’ to be the first salvo in what will be many more movements, on similar lines, that attempt to deny, destroy and decry the essential diversity in our country. The litmus test will be around how we respond to extremism, and what measures can be proactively taken to combat the growth of these movements amongst young adults – the future leaders of Sri Lanka.


Invited by Anukshi Jayasinghe to write for Ceylon Today’s Celebrity Bookcase section, these are five books I love and keep returning to.


Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
A compelling novel based on the indentured labour from Japan, mostly young women, who came over to the West Coast of the United States. This is the horrible, exploitative and violent flip side of the glitzy American dream – of women beguiled into a better life outside Japan, only to face hard labour, rape and utter deracination of self-respect, yet ultimately embracing a foreign land and raising their own children. A moving read.

Can Asians Think? by Kishore Mahbubani
First read in 1999 as an undergraduate, a book I keep coming back to. Mahbubani is currently Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. It’s a collection of essays on Asian identity. Mahbubani’s clear prose champions a fusion of Western and Asian civilisations and calls for “retooling the social, political and philosophical dimensions” of our societies.

Harold Pinter – Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948 – 2005
I picked Pinter in Karachi in my first visit to the city in 2006, weeks after the bombing of the Marriot Hotel. We were advised to not wander away from our hotel. I did, and walked into a bookstore amidst the wails of sirens. It was an apt context and backdrop to a book that so incisively deals with, inter alia, violence, human dignity, human rights and war.

Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers by Shashi Tharoor
Recommended by a close friend who was at the time in Iraq, I picked up the book many moons ago at Barefoot and finished it before I left its garden café. Just as Riot is for me Shashi’s best fiction, this tome captures, at a time the author was a UN Under Secretary General, some of his best essays on topics as diverse as film, literacy, diplomacy, myth and above all, the power of the written word even in the most despondent circumstances.

Questions Without Answers: The World in Pictures by the Photographers of VII
Weighing over 1kg, this VII’s tome cannot be read reposing on a haansi-putuwa or bed. As noted on the publisher’s website, “what unites VII’s work is a sense that, in the act of communication at the very least, all is not lost; reparation is always possible; despair is never absolute”. From photographs that capture the visceral to the ephemeral, the outstandingly beautiful to the acutely painful, this book is impossible to ‘read’ in one go and is one of the best books on photography I own, and have perused.

A Royal – Thomian Family

A Royal – Thomian Family
Sanjana Hattotuwa

“A cricketing fiesta such as this is my idea of nirvana”
Into the passionate Soul of sub-continental cricket, Emma Levine

The setting: Big matches are as unique as they are similar. There is cricket of course, but no a big match is defined by the game itself. It is a far larger spectacle, a seething mass of humanity bursting with life threatening with every delivery to spill over the edges of the stadium, a heady, adrenalin driven and testosterone filled carnevale.

But I digress. I’m not writing about any big-match, but the veritable The Royal – Thomian, which at over 126 years old is a manic festival of cricket that is the second oldest uninterrupted test encounter in the world.

Imagine the heady intoxication of music, alcohol and greasy Chinese rolls. Imagine the coveted chilled beer, making its way from mouth to mouth, a sip of nectar. At first anyway – those at the end of the food chain got a mix of froth, a few dregs of malt, and a whole lot of saliva. Not that it mattered at the time. The empty bottle could always be thrown at the head of a particularly annoying opponent, or better still, a College Prefect attempting to bring order to what is perfect chaos. Imagine the colour, the sound, the sight, the smell all mixed into one hedonism that lay to waste the larger hurdles of term end exams, parental desires for prefectships and the favouritism of teachers. This was happy dust, the fanfare of the bands, stolen souvenirs to cackle at the caricatures of players in the field, ribald jests on the (alleged) secret (and not so secret) homosexual desires friends, players and teachers even, intoxicated brains conjuring up lyrical baila, waxing forth arguments in verse as to why to learn or to depart is quite a silly idea.

The cricket: Sadly, I can’t remember much of it. Apart from the players, the scoreboard and the Coach, it’s questionable whether anyone remembers in detail the details of the game, even those in the Mustangs tent. Of course, there were the not infrequent pitch invasions to volubly protest against a particularly damning decision against College. The umpiring in question that needed to be strongly denounced from the middle of the pitch was alerted by those several times removed from the actual protestors. These original informants often saw multiples of everything, under the influence of a motley array of alcohol, and were thus increasingly ignored as the match progressed. Pitch invasions were always accompanied by the strongest reprimands by the Prefects and stern warnings of dire consequences to one’s own balls if the act was ever attempted again. And though the pitch invasions continued history does not record whether the Prefects actually carried out their threats.

There was, to those genuinely interested, very good cricket. Some of the finest innings in cricket’s history are writ by the signature strokes of willow against leather over the past century at the Royal – Thomian. This was serious cricket and the firmament of so many dreams of making it to the national team and thereon to international fame. What one does remember slightly better are the boundaries – when the entire stadium would erupt is a riot that Tharoor would find hard to describe. Cheering, well jeering – loud, riotous and increasingly hoarse – were not really aimed to animate anything in the playing field, but at the far more noble enterprise of conscientiously challenging the “other” school’s faith, flag, virility and sexuality (or lack thereof). Getting drunk at the mere whiff of arrack was part of the foundation for lyrical arguments amplified by the ever present, alcohol fuelled and untiring papara bands.

The “boys”: The Royal – Thomian is primarily about boys (including those disguised as older and wiser men). The general melee of a Royal – Thomian in our day would guarantee two things. More booze. More chaos. More riotous dancing. And then more booze. So I lied, that’s more than two – but in those days, we never kept count of anything during the Big Match. With fists flying at no one and everyone, the pitch was not the only place to crack balls. There were fights over girlfriends. There were fights over the last dregs of coconut nectar. There were fights over lyrics, deemed heretical by those who sang no better and on no less heretical topics. There were, however, never fights over religion or ethnicity. These mattered little, and the only boundaries that matters were those that raised the score. And while there were fights over territory, these were not linked to traditional homelands. Anyone was a potential fucking-sperm-dog, arse(hole), mother-fucker, shit(e) or son of a harlot (or a heady combination of any of the above). Deeply confusing to an outsider, these seemingly derogatory terms were used with great affection amongst close friends and with bitter invective against those from the “other” College. Sure, there was caricature of ethnicity and religion, but never with mal-intent or militant animosity. Friendship crossed many boundaries that would in later years define who we were and were not. Arrack was a great leveller, and in our stupor, what was said in verse was replied to in verse (through vaada baila sessions that were sheer genius). That anyone could be insulted, and could insult in turn, created an atmosphere of strange equanimity, where everyone was united by that elixir of life and nectar of under-age alcoholism – Mendis Special.

The “girls”: Unmistakably and unashamedly, the Royal – Thomian is a male dominated affair. Females who attend are overwhelmingly the love interest du jour of male spectators, or their sisters, cousins and their friends. They presence is tolerated more than welcomed, though they indubitably added to the colour and gaiety of the event. They are huge fans of cricket and of each College, not infrequently as much as or even more so than their male lovers or brothers. Some are disdainful of the prods, pokes and pinches to boob and butt as they mingle their way through a throng of testosterone. Others accept the inevitability of such actions and move ever closer to the boundary, to callously divide attention of those behind between action on the pitch and their own lithe movements to the sounds of baila. Lyrical and ageless stories of cupping the insatiable Mary beside the flowing waters of the Mahaweli River and then encountering Mary’s mother and the ensuing drama, as well as Surangani’s travails with fish continue unabated, and were often given more colour by the subtle (and not so subtle) variations added in by females present. Braving catcalls, they walk around the boundary, waving College flags as staunchly as their male counterparts and often, with more aplomb and confidence – for history proves that not a single female has been entreated by an empty beer bottle to shut-up and get lost (as is the fate of many men who try the same feats) in over a century. In short, reluctant though they might be to admit it openly, they have fun.

Family: Surely, the Royal – Thomian deserves consideration as a venerable family that has not only endured two World Wars, but had for generations (re)kindled bonds of friendship and brought together far-flung members to celebrate a common interest in inebriation and cricket (not necessarily in that order).

Given the nature of other articles in this issue however, and from what the reader may gather from the bacchanalia described above, the Royal – Thomian may at first seem an impossible fit into a traditional definition of family, as a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household. But the lens of parenthood or progeny doesn’t necessarily define a family. Built on a common bond to the alma mater and loyal and strong allegiance to the College colours, it is not uncommon to find 3 generations of bucolic and irreverent old boys each enjoy the game in their own inimitable way. They come from afar to be together, to share memories of their time in College – De Saram, Buck, Stone, Wood and Copplestone exchanging ribald stories from when they too heard the belfry toll. For who have left College, there is a sense of nostalgia at a Big Match, a yearning for simpler times of misspent youth, when larger conflict could be forgotten in the afterglow of a day at the Big Match. Family, however defined, brings a security, a certainty, comfort and solace. It is a safe space, a place to escape, to retreat, to truly be oneself sans the heavy adornment of social responsibility, political office or officialdom, to be silly, to laugh, to cry, to love and be loved. Though not all these will be articulated verbally, look through the boisterous ruckus and you’ll find it in abundance. For here, flagrant paternalism and chauvinism exist cheek-in-jowl with a deep respect for the presence of females, to the extent that their honour, if in question, would give rise to all manner of aerobatic and acrobatic feats from which the “knight” would often be rescued by the “maiden in distress”. Men rescued by women, women fighting women, brothers fighting for their sisters, sisters fighting for their brothers, fathers, sons, mothers, lovers, grandfathers and more, all engaged in a ritualistic dance to the strains of a kaffringa, the Royal-Thomian brings with it a sense of strange togetherness – that the chaos has its own logic, the cricket its own pace, the spectators their own music, the females their signature cadence, the males their own rhythm. It is an equal music, a concert of diversity, which for 3 days in the ides of March makes the rest of the world fade away. The Royal – Thomian isn’t many things and never, hopefully, will be. It isn’t politically correct. It isn’t gender sensitive. It doesn’t respect privacy and social boundaries or norms, and has little patience with introverts. It doesn’t welcome outsiders, but should they find themselves thrust in the middle of the ruckus, it embraces them openly and warmly. It is thus a contradiction with its internal logic and modes of operation that cannot be easily explained; only loved. Hard to define it may be, but for the thousands who throng each year to worship an indefinable, indefatigable, destructively exuberant Kali we love and are part of, the Royal – Thomian is family – and ironically, sometimes much more than the dysfunctional social groups we grew up in.

And the strains of Mary’s mother resound once again in the echo chambers of heart and memory…

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There is something about the rain that emboldens us to think more charitably about the world around us.

Something in the footfall of hasty droplets that reminds us of our childhood, of the siestas looking upwards at branches and green leaves bend with the fecundity of a monsoon, of the smell of rain upon gravel, grass and sun parched earth, of the overcast skies that compelled us into bed and into the arms of a spine that held within its arms words that transported us to far away lands.

It beckons us to remember a time of innocence, a time before the warts that coloured our worldview became evident amidst the wrinkles of wisdom we collect as we grow up.

I am most unproductive in the rain.

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