Glamour of theatrical reality in genuine art

“No Return” by Rajitha Dissanayake:

By Ranga Chandrarathne

Apahu herenna behe (No return) – a stunning success in the contemporary Sri Lankan theatre

Rajitha Dissanayake’s drama “No Return” is, perhaps, one of the best original drams produced and a stunning success in contemporary Sinhala theatre which analyses the decadence of the establishment in its manifold aspects.

Though the action takes place primarily in a Media Centre which issues press releases for the consumption of the public and in Ajith’s house, each and every character truly represents diverse strata of the society which is in a state of decadence with absolutely no sense of direction.

The society Ranjith depicts may be in Sri Lanka or in any other country is one which is increasingly collapsing and is on the fast track to absolute dictatorship.

The dictator or the leader operates through Ministers and the Minister operates through his begotten officials. The country is in the grip of a protracted struggle and as the struggle intensifies, it becomes necessary for the Ministry of Media to cover up the adverse reports emanating from the theatre of war as well as from political fronts.

Therefore, special media centre is set up at the Ministry of Media to issue press releases containing the government stance on the current situation. It is apparent from the very first scene that the primary task of the Media Centre is to launch a disinformation campaign to eye wash the public of grim realities.

Though most of the employees work willingly with the project, Ajith could not work against his conscience and puts up a brave resistance only to be a celebrated victim of the system. Towards the end, the dramatist lays the hopes and aspiration of a civilized order in Ajith who even lost his employment because of his principles.

One of the salient characteristics of the play is its universal applicability. The decadence of establishment portrayed in the play can be of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. The society is corrupted to the core and top echelons of the administration are occupied by charlatans who pose off as efficient and patriotic officers. However, it is clear that their prime motive is nothing but money by any means.

“If some person is a nobleman in this country, then he is a rogue. If he is not, either his father or grand father was a rogue. There are very few noblemen who reached to that level without falling into these categories.

However, since we do not have such persons in our ancestry, I thought of starting it myself. I am not afraid to reveal them. I can purchase ships. If I want to buy them, I buy them myself in my name not in someone else’s name.

“-Samaranayake, the secretary of the Media Centre states in a soliloquy.

Samaranayake’s key lines epitomises the general attitude of the bureaucracy who are keen on exploiting the racial sentiments to earn quick money.

The dominant political discourse is in favour of the war and engineered patriotism which will cover up the sins committed by top bras of the army and the crafty politicians while the ordinary citizens and soldiers facing the brunt of the war directly and indirectly.

Samaranayake represents the stinking bureaucracy which is corrupted to the core and which feeds on the misery as vultures on the decomposed carcasses.

However, Ajith the idealistic character which perhaps, is the mouthpiece of the dramatist reveals the harsh reality of war and its repercussions on society.

“Friend, we still cannot understand the difficulties of war although we speak a lot about it. Besides how many become destitute while few become rich “-Ajith

“We stated in the press release that those who are speaking about the destruction caused by war, at the moment, are the forces that support the enemy. Ajith, you are also expressing the sentiments of the enemy, “- Sudath.

It is now clear beyond doubt that those who are opposing the war will, eventually, be labelled as “traitors to the nation” and thus silences the dissent not only against war but also against corruption and malpractices in the society.

“Preparing a country for a war is not an easy task even in the king’s reign. Besides, terrorising those who are against war is also not an easy task. I did both. When criticisms were there to the effect there is no development projects in the offing, I gave publicity to useless projects as best development projects in the world. Now they say that I submitted wrong reports. ….I am not a person who looks back until I destroyed the person who tried to attack me “- Samaranayake.

This is the order where no one’s position is secured. Each and every officer is in a perpetual struggle of survival and their fate is, by and largely, determined by the rumour-mongers who make up the inner circle or the kitchen cabinet of the leader.

As the leader could no longer mingle with the people and has now become a prisoner of the inner circle, implicitly believing the information provided by them. It is through them that he perceives the world outside his confinement.

“No Return “also excels in dramatization and sheer organisation of scenes that bring character to life. The best indicator of the drama’s contemporaneous and its timeliness is the audience’s interactive response.

Through out the drama, audience reacted to the witty remarks of the characters in general and Characters of Samaranayake and Ajith, the two characters that represented the opposite end of the spectrum.

Ajith being an idealistic person who has come down from USA with a genuine interest to serve the nation, eventually becomes a victim of the system and Samaranayake, the secretary of the Special Media Centre who is a product of the system, represents the corrupt bureaucracy.

Everyone in the society are in one way or other caught up in the scheme thrust upon them by demagogues who enjoy the fruits of the misery. It is only the leaders and corrupt officials who are profited by the raging war. “No Return” is a rare production in contemporary Sinhala theatre which the theatre goers should not miss.


On focused characters


Bimal Jayakody

Saumya Liyanage

The Characters of Ajith (brilliantly portrayed by Saumya Liyanage) is perhaps, the pivotal character which represents the ideal. Though it is an ideal character, Ajith represents hope and aspiration for a just order and a society where people are recognized by their talents rather than on the basis of affiliations.

Samaranayake (W.Jayasiri) represents the corrupt bureaucracy and represents the so did -realities of the system. He is hell-bent on preserving the order and is also profited by it though he becomes a victim of it towards the end.His delivery of dialogue is remarkable and is marked for, perhaps, the natural acting.

Office Assistant (Bimal Jayakody) is also an important character which represents another aspect of the system. He is true to the character and least, one could say about him is that he portrayed the political agent or the spy in the office. His portrayal is also natural and seems that he had done his home work well.

(Courtesy : Sunday Observer)


A Mirror to Look at Our Collective Face:July Notes on A Sinhala Play

Saturday, 12 July 2008
by: Liyanage AmarakeerthiAs it is believed in government circles, the end to the war is just around the corner. That is, by defeating the LTTE military wing. If that reality comes about, it will force a paradigm shift in Sri Lankan politics by creating opportunities for Tamil people to rally around moderate leaders among themselves. The LTTE knows this, that is why it has been eliminating almost all moderate leaders within the Tamil community. In case of its military defeat, it does not want anybody to usher in a new era with a totally new kind of approach.It does not want anybody to come up with new ideas, new angles of vision. So, if all the moderate and intellectual politicians among the Tamils could be killed, there will be a cultural wasteland which can assure the rise of LTTE- type ideologies. When the war enters its final phase the LTTE will accelerate killing moderate Tamil leaders hoping that next generation will also produce leaders no different from Prabhakaran. As Major General Sarath Fonseka recently argued, LTTE violence will continue as isolated and random attacks even after its ‘armed forces’ are totally destroyed. These isolated attacks will target moderate Tamil leaders while the LTTE buys time to regroup its armed forces.What this means is that the cycle of violence is not going to end after the capture of Kilinochchi. Can we in the South help Tamils to come up with a totally new kind of politics after the bloody era of the LTTE? Yes we can. But we have to learn to accept that the ‘totally new’ post-LTTE Tamil politics cannot be something dictated by us, in the South.In order for us to usher in a new era, we must be dialogic––in the broadest sense of the word.May be it is little bit too early to talk of a post-LTTE era. Perhaps, it is better to be too soon rather than to be too late. Running the risk of being too wishful, I want to reflect on what the post-LTTE era would be like.For a post-LTTE era to be meaningful, we must be able to get rid of the very structures that created an organisation like the LTTE. We will be happy without Prabhakaran but we all will be happier without the economic, political and ideological structures that created a man like him. It is ironic that Buddhism, which is so good at explaining the violence hidden in what is taken to be ‘self’- both in a personal and cultural sense- has not been able to help us imagine a fundamentally new and peaceful Sri Lanka.Perhaps, there is no better time for this kind of reflection than the month of July- the fatal month during which the South fell from grace 25 years ago.I was 14 then, old enough to remember how Tamil houses of my village were burning one morning. Yet, the burden on my conscience is bit less since no Tamil was killed in that village. Those people were wise, and they fled before the killers could get to them! And some of us saved the life of one man, whom we called “Master Mama.” But one of the richest men in a group of villages, including ours ,lost his coconut and coir mills just because he was Tamil. Our villages, however, deserve some credit: that man could become ‘one of the richest’ among us in spite of being Tamil. Many Sinhala men and women worked for him. Some Sinhalese managed his business. Years later, when I visited the village which my family left in 1983, I could hardly recognise the place; Maheswari Stores of Ramayya mudalali once stood at Welipillewa, Digalla- about four miles north of Kuliyapitiya. By then Sinhalese businessmen had acquired uncle Ramayya’s property.Ramayya was the first to bring a television set to our village. That was in 1980. He kindly allowed us village kids to watch the wonder that was TV in his large living room. Three years later, some men, perhaps the parents of those little TV-fans, broke into his house, not to watch the big TV but to take it away. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka was correct in his great piece in Midweek Review, 09/07: to say that the culprits of ’83 riots were government- sponsored thugs is self-deceiving. ‘Normal’ Sinhala Buddhists and Christians became goons overnight- may be just for a night. Ideologies do such things to people all over the world.

Our South, their North?

Our South can change the culture of their North by admitting that LTTE in part was produced by us. The discourse on conflict resolution has a useful expression: “structural violence.” It is the violence built into or inherent in our societies and cultures. The ways we eat, live and do politics in the South could be predicated upon structures that create violence for others in other areas. Colombo-centered and Sinhala-centered political and economic structures are such that they marginalize many other areas irrespective of the ethnicities of the people in those parts. The problem of unequal distribution is not always ethnically defined. But it sometime is. Nearly fifty years ago, Franz Fanon and Aime Cesire(and others) showed us that the realities of a white worker and a black worker were not the same even if they both happen to be ‘workers’ in a same kind of factory.

In a white-dominated world, a white worker can easily be ‘superior’ to a non-white one in most contexts. That kind of violence against non-white workers is built into the very structures of colonialism- an era Fanon and Cesire were writing about in their master works ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and ‘A Discourse on Colonialism’.I am not claiming that Sri Lanka’s North is under direct colonial rule of the South. At the same time I cannot disclaim that the way the South behaves towards the North contains in itself a certain form of structural violence. Even after the war ends hopefully next year as our leaders predict, the structural violence will not cease to exist. It is a kind of violence which is difficult to see. To see it and to accept its existence one needs a great deal of cultural self-criticism. If not based upon such self-criticism no solution will be long lasting. This is something that teachers of engaged Buddhism ,such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa, have been arguing for years.

Self and self-criticism

Cultural self-criticism: well, we hardly do it these days. When the war ends in the North, and when we look into the long term future of post-LTTE Sri Lanka, the South also must be prepared to take a good look at itself. A society’s best opportunity for cultural reflection is provided by the art it creates. It is a mirror in which we look at our collective face. In our times, that mirror is literature, theatre and cinema. Last few years, we in the South did not like that mirror. In fact we hated it. We called our best filmmakers, “traitors.”

I have not seen all of those “anti-nationalistic” movies. But ones I saw, such as Prasanna Vithanage’s Purahanda Kaluwara, are modern classics of which the nation should be proud. Hopefully, when the war ends we will regain our sanity to see those great works of art as what they really are.Rajitha Dissanayake’s new play Apahu Herenna Be (No Return), seems to ask us in the South to look back at ourselves. The play is set in a media monitoring centre- an arm of the state, controlling the flow of information: the centre decides what get transmitted as news and what is to be presented as “truth.” Media truths are not free floating ones that are out there. They are truths manufactured and adorned by those who hold power. Therefore, mass media truths are often beautiful caskets in which to smuggle dominant ideologies. This is not something new.

It happens everywhere, and it only grew into epic proportions with the origin of mass media. People like Noam Chomskey have written a good deal about this. The task of the true artist is to see through these ideologies and hold them at bay without letting them make the entire nation blind.Sinhala artistes, however, hardly pay attention to how dominant truths are made and presented as the Truth.Dissanayake’s play takes a peek behind the closed doors of institutions that make truths. It also attempts look into the inner lives of the makers of such truths. And the play becomes a microcosm of Sri Lanka’s South and its middle class life. While the entire South is embedded in bipolar discourse on war and peace, many middle class opportunists masquerade as saviours of the nation and make tons of quick cash. We all know how often the big chairs of state media are rearranged: they kill each other to be best to please their bosses by producing truths that make least harm to the status quo.

In Dissanayake’s play a young intellectual, a PhD from an American university, comes home to serve the nation. He joins the media monitoring centre only to learn his intellectual ideals and integrity have no place there. When he tries to breathe some dignity into the centre he is called “Western”, “anti-nationalist”, “traitor”, “pro-American”, “NGO” and the like. In fact, Dissanayake shows us that those who call those names are the real traitors of the nation.

Obsessed with the war and other popular rhetoric, the nation has no time to look back at itself. Great is the time for opportunists and they are after money, houses from government housing schemes, nice cars and, of course, women.Dissanayake started out as ‘an artistic’ playwright valuing the aesthetic over the political and social. In his last couple of plays, he attempted to be an interventionist, and this play, No Return, is a severe indictment of Sri Lanka’s South and its inability for self- criticism. The play is not necessarily a critique of the state; it is a critique all of us in the South. When the war ends in the North, South needs to critically understand itself. In contrast to many recent Sinhala language novels, movies and dramas, which took to self-aggrandisement and self-veneration, No Return returns to true prowess of art. Its minor infelicities aside, Dissanayake’s new play, the sixth in his career, deserves our attention because it is timely and attempts to get all of us into a kind of critical mode which is essential when we reorganise ourselves in a post-LTTE and post-Sinhala supremacist world.

(The writer Liyanage Amarakeerthi has a PhD in Literary Studies from University of Wisconsin, USA. Until recently he was a lecturer at Cornell University USA and now teaches at the Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya)

(Courtesy : The Island)


How about a ‘leeeetle’ bit of integrity, people?


I just finished reading an excellent article by Gamini Gunawardane, Retired Senior DIG, in The Island of November 12, 2009: ‘How men of integrity saved Sri Lanka’. He was paying tribute to all the individuals whose contributions, especially their commitment and integrity, paved the way for the nation’s most glorious post-Independence moment, the historic victory over terrorism that few believed was possible.

In this excellent exposition of the term ‘integrity’ in terms of this overall effort of utmost national interest, the following paragraph caught my attention and provoked deep reflection.

“Rather than eulogizing personalities, the purpose, is to illustrate how even a few people could make a huge difference with a modicum of integrity in a fleeting situation despite flourishing corruption, which could produce such astonishing achievements for a nation.’

He hopes such fleeting moments be more frequent and that there will be more people of such courage. That’s a wish that many would share, I believe. We know that there are serious flaws in our institutional arrangement and there’s a woeful lack of integrity all around, not just among politicians and public servants, but in the private sector, the informal sector, religious orders of all faiths and also the public.

Last evening I went to see Rajitha Dissanayake’s award-winning play, ‘Veeraya Merila’ (the hero is dead). Rajitha explores, with characteristic wit, humour and amazing insight, the issue of integrity in the media, its political economy and in the process enumerates the numerous booby traps that make for easy purchase of well-intentioned journalists.

Having been in this field for almost a decade, I have enough reason to endorse what the late Ajith Samaranayake once said: ‘when you read newspapers you might think journalists are people with a strong sense of justice and they embody the virtue of integrity, but we who work in newspaper officers know this is not true’. Rajitha elaborates extremely well and does it with theatrical finesse for the most part. The fact that he can provoke more than a few laughs indicates that the public is not unaware. Indeed he has shown a lot of courage in saying out loud that which people in the media industry pretend does not exist or that it is an affliction someone else suffers.

The truth, however, is that we all have a price. Some go cheap, some are expensive. Some cannot be purchased and they are killed or die, metaphorically and sometimes even literally. The truth is that all journalists have to operate within more or less clearly defined frameworks. The truth is that in most cases, journalists operate at a considerable distance from these limiting lines. The truth is that in most cases, journalists fight shy of stating bias, trying to show the world that they are ‘neutral’ and somehow ‘objective’, both untenable propositions when you come to think of it. And sometimes, there is ‘virtue’ in the written word but in life it is absent and this is probably what Ajith alluded to.

On the other hand, one never gets integrity in a nation-wide sense and even in an individual it is a ‘now and then’ thing, predicated on issue, moment and location. What Gunawardena points out is this reality does not rule out the intersection of integrities at key moment/situations and that when this happens, it is not an issue of whether there is majority-integrity, so to say, but that there is critical-integrity. The coming together of key personalities with shared vision, commitment and unrelenting purpose can produce wonders and compensates in a way for decades of compromise and servility.

Integrity, it must be understood, is not something that one calls upon only in terms of crisis, although at such moments its absence or presence will produce tragedy and triumph respectively. I believe that it is in the ‘micro’ that integrity is possible and also lacking. I am thinking of trade union action in particular. Someone referring to the current work-to-rule campaign launched by some unions, made this witty observation yesterday: ‘productivity levels might have gone up because it means they are actually working!’

What is he saying? He is saying that in the general we have a labour force that does not do justice to contractual agreement. This is why the public views unions in unfavourable terms and even curse them for the inconveniences they cause. On the other hand, this ‘public’ also works. The public is made of a millions of working people, all with some form of contract with employer. Do they ask themselves if they have the moral authority to question the absence of a decent work ethic in a striking worker? Do they possess that modicum of integrity Gunawardena speaks of to have the write to point fingers at those who lack integrity? Aren’t these questions we need to ask ourselves? Can those who show a gap between rhetoric and practice find fault with others who are similarly ‘gapped’?

Rajitha’s play reminded me of that telling exchange between Galileo and his student Andrea Sarti in Brecht’s play. Galileo, having recanted the truths he had discovered under pressure from the Vatican which included the threat of torture, is taunted by his student: ‘unhappy is the land that has no hero’. Galileo’s reply is a classic: ‘no Andrea, unhappy is that land that needs a hero’.

The truth is everyone can be a hero, not necessarily in ways that are nationally recognized, but in the everyday. Having integrity, in these time and circumstances, one can argue therefore is heroic. There is heroism then in being honest to job contract, in practicing that which one preaches, in making such that one doesn’t find fault with someone for doing or not doing something that one does or does not do as the case may be.

We have moved from the ‘mega’ to the ‘micro’. The world has rebelled against ‘big’ and brought it down to size. These then are ‘micro’ days. We have microfinance as the new mantra of development and poverty alleviation. There’s talk of ‘micro justice’. ‘Micro integrity’, then, is perhaps a remedy for the ills of our times.

(Courtesy : Daily News)



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