By Mahesan Niranjan –
The situation in Sri Lanka is chaotic. With foreign exchange reserves low and debt repayments suspended, economy is in crisis. Politically, there is no consensus in decision-making to find a way forward. Just before quitting, the former Prime Minister tried the age-old trick of inciting violence. Mercifully, that did not work. But Gods are not kind to Sri Lankans. A serial loser representing a one-man party in Parliament is suddenly thought of as the unique solution to Sri Lanka’s problems. He who represents nobody has been tasked with representing everybody. “You can’t be serious”, the tennis player might scream.
But is it just the economy and political deal-making that should concern us, or is there a wider picture of the nature of the Sri Lankan State and society? The country has seen much violence since independence. Sinhala youth rebelled in 1971 and 1989. Tamil youth rebelled over a 30-year period. They were all crushed with extreme brutality. Arbitrary arrests, torture and murder were widespread, going to show that violence is structural in the State apparatus of Sri Lanka. An arrest by police is usually followed by beating, the probability and intensity may differ based on the ethnicity of the suspect. The war with Tamil youth had serious disenfranchising overtones, both in cause and its energetic execution.
State violence was never questioned by the citizens. They accepted in silence and went onto enjoy the peace of the aftermath, gullibly swallowing the fibs of its necessity, ignoring altogether the irresponsibility in governance that laid the foundations for these uprisings. That we were generating educated youth without employment opportunity, or we were unwilling to devolve a small amount of power to allow local decision-making in return for global loyalty and citizenship, were never subjects of critical appraisal.
The inability and unwillingness for introspection is what held back Sri Lanka from moving forward, despite the tremendous advances in education and health achieved in the years immediately following independence.
Those were the thoughts of my friend, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram, my regular drinking partner, when he travelled to London yesterday to see a film. We also have another drinker, Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Soloman Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela, Pol for short. He is Sinhalese, but this not why we have reduced drinking sessions with him. Pol’s admiration for the Sri Lankan President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, portraying him as an “action man” annoys us. We return the favour by asking our version of that famous question, which, spoken with the right Sri Lankan intonation is not a question, but a dismissive statement:
“Who is Nandasena?”
Today, it was just the two of us with our rounds of Peroni.
The film Thevaram went to see, Single Tumbler, is by Sivamohan Sumathy, Professor of English at the University of Peradeniya. It was screened as part of a South India film festival running in London. Thevaram’s previous Tamil film was Shobasakti’s Dheepan in 2015 (read that experience here).
Being the first to arrive, Thevaram took his seat numbered X42. Despite the theatre being empty, a young lady, the second to arrive, took X44. British adherence to rules. You might have observed, a single Brit waiting for his bus would stand in an orderly queue of one! Thevaram and the lady started a conversation and the mood very rapidly changed to a Sri Lankan setting. With a few introductory phrases exchanged with a touch of characteristically Sri Lankan inquisitiveness, they figured out they lived within a few hundred yards in Bridgetown and were alumni of the university there. The event organizers also reinforced that Sri Lankan atmosphere by starting 20 minutes late. The host placed two chairs on the stage promising a discussion afterwards, but that did not happen.
“The storyline is uncomplicated. A Tamil woman who emigrated to Canada around the time of the war visits family, learns about the death of her brother, sees the impact of the death on the mother and other two siblings, asks the family home to be given to her, miserably fails to connect and leaves. Woven into this simple setting was a beautifully crafted and powerful narrative demanding from the Tamil side, what we saw a few paragraphs earlier as what was missing in the social and political trajectory of Sri Lanka:
“The focus of the setting,” Thevaram continued, “was the disgraceful act of the rebel group – the striped one — to chase away the entire Muslim population from the Northern Province. People who had lived in those parts for generations – including Taylor Miskin who sewed all my school uniforms – were thrown out at gun point.
“Single Tumbler features two school-teacher friends, a Christian Tamil (Daisey teacher) and a Muslim Tamil (Fatima teacher). Daisey’s son Jude had links to the rebels. His sister is the one visiting from Canada. His other two siblings feature prominently. Throughout, the film injects family tensions induced partly by the war environment and partly by cultural values. When the expulsion was ordered, Jude, with the help of two priest, tries to talk the rebel group out of it. That fails. Following those efforts, he gets taken away. Fatima teacher thinks Jude, as part of the group, is also responsible. Daisey teacher thinks it is Fatima teacher’s curse that caused Jude’s death. She destroys all the goods that Fatima teacher leaves with her.
“Just one tumbler appears to have survived and serves as link to their past.
“The tumbler even survives catching fire when put into a microwave oven.
“A strong message that links cannot be severed – by design or by accident – comes through.
“Had I been a nit-picking critic, machan, I would have said there was no electricity connected to the oven. But the drama by then was sufficiently absorbing to be distracted by detail.
“My summary is simplified. The film does not tell a direct story. It makes sudden jumps in either direction in time, successfully dragging you with it. It leaves many things intentionally ambiguous forcing you to think, imagine and interpolate. It alerts you the impact of war is not in mere statistics. Just like what my uncle working in a remote Eastern village said to me in 2011: “half the adults in this village cannot sign their names”! The interpolation demanded of you makes you aware that while expulsion of the Muslim population was a barbaric act, it is not the only one. That is how an artform differs from news. Art demands intellectual engagement. News, in comparison, is just for consumption as fact (or, nowadays, fake).
“I agree, machan,” I interjected. “Otherwise, you know, Leonardo would have told us what the woman’s smile was about, no?” Thevaram ignored me, took another sip, and continued.
“Muslim expulsion didn’t get universal approval among the Tamil population. Some who disagreed kept quiet. `Akka [older sister], we could only open our mouths to drink tea,’ Jude’s sister tells the visiting sibling. The alternate would have been Jude’s fate. His death is portrayed beautifully in the film. A naked man slowly walks into the sea, the sound of the waves and wind giving a tensed effect. Two fishermen discover the body in the morning.
“Was it mud on the body or marks of torture?
“Was it Jude in Mannar or Richard De Soyza in Colombo?
“I couldn’t tell.
“Again, it was the power of intentionally crafted ambiguity.
“Some Tamils have argued that the Muslim expulsion was legitimate. Military intelligence had infiltrated that population and there was conflict in the Eastern province between Hindu Tamils and Muslim Tamils, they say. Others have taken their defence to the extreme as Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran found out when he visited Toronto some years ago. A member in the audience forcefully argued that it was for their own safety because most of their homes were within shelling distance from the Jaffna fort!
“Ridiculous, you might think, but challenging such manufactured stupidity is what a film like Single Tumbler engages in.”
Finishing our third round of Peroni, “Single Tumbler is thought-provoking, you say machan,” I teased my friend to wrap up the session on a pessimistic note:
“In our society, you can only provoke the thought of those who have already thought!”