By Jagath Asoka –
When a dog bites a man, there is no story to tell, but when a man bites a dog that story is worth telling. That was my sentiment after seeing the Sri Lankan play—Balloth Ekka Bae—in Staten Island, New York.
I saw something that I have never seen before. All of us have either seen or heard the stories about sleazy, venal politicians; impudent, presumptuous secretaries; and impotent government officials; how the creator of this play chose to tell the story of our present Sri Lankan society, using a politician, his secretary, a government official, a prostitute, two Buddhist monks, and a make-up artist impressed me. Like all the actors of this play, the actor who played the role of the make-up artist did a wonderful job, but I think a better role would have been a spineless journalist who indirectly supports the current regime for perks, while giving the impression that he is criticizing the government. After seeing the play, one gets the impression that being a prostitute in Sri Lanka is much more honorable than being a politician, a government official, or an impious monk.
For nearly two hours, the actors could keep my attention. Usually, I am the first to leave a show—sometimes within ten minutes—if the show is not entertaining. I have done it several times; most people think that I am crazy to leave a show within ten minutes. I think to squander your time and money when you are unaware of what you are getting into is ignorance, but to continue on that path when you are convinced that the show is going to be bad, is stupidity. During this show, for nearly two hours, I even forgot about Freud’s thoughts about artists: One who desires intensely “honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women,” but lacks the means to attain them; frustrated the artist becomes introverted and turn with unsatisfied longing from reality to fantasizing; however, the artist is gifted with a mysterious ability to reproduce his daydreams in such a way as to afford satisfaction to other frustrated souls. So, the artist earns the gratitude and admiration of other frustrated souls. Even though I agree with Freud to some extent, I could not help but admire the artists because they gave a wonderful performance.
I don’t think that I should tell the entire story because that would not be apposite. The new element of this story is the portrayal of the politician and his secretary disguised as Buddhist monks: The politician and his secretary disguise themselves as Buddhist monks to escape the usual harassment after losing an election. The creator of this play cleverly mocks our impious Buddhist monks in a carnival-like lese majesty, in his particular case, mockery of monks who are usually revered by people. We proudly say that Buddhism is not just a religion in Sri Lanka, but our proud heritage; therefore, mocking monks was taboo in our society, but that taboo has been broken because monks have become members in our Parliament, and some monks have become the violent, virulent, and spitefully hostile members of social groups such as Bodu Bala Sena: the scourge of Sri Lankan Buddhism.
This play cleverly reveals the sad state of Buddhism, particularly the behavior of some Buddhist monks in our society. Not only we have heard of monks using vituperative language and drinking Black Label Johnnie Walker but also committing heinous crimes such as murder, rape, adultery, etc; however, such stories were extremely rare, like a man biting a dog. The act of mocking unctuous, venal, barbaric characters in our society has been always valid and apposite, except when it involves the Rajapaksa clan. But now mocking applies to our impious Buddhist monks as well, because such stories of Buddhist monks have become so pervasive in our society, like a dog biting a man.
Given the history of Buddhist temples in New Jersey, USA, I think that those who made the decision to invite Balloth Ekka Bae for a fund raising event for one of the Buddhist temples in New Jersey inadvertently created a festival of a Saturnalia, where the object becomes subject, and the subject the object. In the festival of the Roman Saturnalia social tables were reversed: masters served their slaves, and a mock king who could break rules as he pleased was elected. During a Saturnalia, a slave can insult his master, but not even a word of reproof would be uttered for conduct that at any other occasion would be rewarded with severe flogging, imprisonment, or death. I felt like a participant in a Saturnalia in a carnival-like atmosphere where the audience participated indirectly in an act of mocking impious Buddhist monks who have become tartuffes. I think most of these actors are probably Buddhists; otherwise, the Bodu Bala Sena would have a field- day. The creator and the actors of this play are courageous, clever spirits, who have trodden a difficult path of revealing a theme that was once taboo. But it is also obvious that the creator of this play and its actors did not want to touch the untouchables in our Sri Lankan society: The Rajapaksa Clan.
I hope that soon our artists will figure out a way to break this taboo as well. After all even the Buddha resided in heaven until the right conditions were ripe.
I have a feeling that I am going to see more Sri Lankan plays in Staten Island, New York.