( January 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) While Sri Lanka’s literati were paying their ‘salaams’ to the visiting literati and glitterati at the Galle Lit festival, our ‘Salaams’ go to a group of intrepid schoolboy actors of a school at Labuduwa, not far from Galle town, where the international literary festival was held.
| by Gamini Weerakoon
The school, Labuduwa Sri Dhamma Vidyalaya a ‘national school’ with around 3000 students on roll was drawing close to end of term and the teachers were busy correcting term examination answer scripts while students were asked to engage themselves in productive activities such as staging of dramas. The plays were being enacted by different groups and the grand finale was to be the end of term concert. The principal of the school E. K. Premasiri who has been its head for the past five years had not known anything about the contents of the dramas—he was busy engaged with his principal’s duties and on the final day he was invited as the chief guest for the event. A weekend report quoted the principal: ‘One of the items on the programme was a short drama. I saw a student dressed in a national costume with a satakaya (the red band wrapped around the neck of President Rajapaksa and his brothers) coming on stage and kissing the floor. He was addressed as the ‘nayakathuma’ (honourable leader).
The scene enacted on stage needed no interpretation to any man, woman or child on this island. All channels on local TV, front pages of newspapers had it and radios blared when President Rajapaksa returning from abroad after the ‘historic victory’ came down the gangway of his plane, went down on his knees and worshiped the soil.
The principal being the son of the soil got the message that would be carried about the play and his prompt reaction was to resort to what the Sinhalese recommend in moments of danger, ‘Soodanang Sareere’ (Save your skin). He felt that the President may have been insulted and promptly informed the Provincial Director of Education Kithsiri Gamage about the incident and on the instructions of the Director of Education informed the Akmeemana Police asking for an inquiry into the incident. All this shows that a joke can be a very serious thing – even end of term frolics of schoolboys. True dramatists would say that these students deserve a special award for their daring and their sense of political realism quite in contrast to those bakthigee singers called to perform before VIPs.
The Plot thickens
According to the newspaper report a teacher in the same school who was against the principal had coached the students to enact a play mimicking the president, got it videoed and sent it to higher authorities.
The job of a school principal is no longer the pleasant one it once was, educating the young to be responsible citizens. The principal had also made an enemy when he refused a government MP’s attempts to have 11 children nominated by him admitted to the school, However the Sinhala principle of ‘Soodanang Sareere’ had come into play, once again.
The President had been mimicked and the safest thing in these circumstances for others concerned was ‘Soodanang Sareere’—‘save your own skin’ What a tragi-comedy this schoolboy comedy has been. Sri Lanka’s dramatists should move to protect the principal whose students have shown bravado and social realism not go punish them. It would detract from the intellectual airs that Galle town is attempting to clothe itself with.
The sensible thing to do in this instance would have been to find out whether President Rajapaksa had indeed taken the cameo of the schoolboys’ as an insult. Quite unlikely. The other day the front pages of daily newspapers – as usual – there was a blown up picture of the president. This time he was attempting to smother his laughter while watching the comedy Pus Vedilla at the Lionel Wendt. The play is the talk of the town where on this rare occasion the playwright had taken quite a lot of pot shots at His Excellency and His Excellency appeared to have enjoyed himself thoroughly. Whether the wily Rajapaksa was guffawing at shots taken at his political opponents, Ranil, Sajith etc., or not we give him the benefit of the doubt because it was well known that he was under heavy fire in Pus Vedilla and he braved the occasion. Political leaders being satirised in the media every week and even every day is a common feature in most democratic countries. India’s NDTV has a devastating political satire where Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and BJP leaders are torn to shreds but there appears to be much rapport between this TV channel and these Indian leaders because they do not shy away from this channel.
In this country political satire in drama, literature and even journalism is rare. The president has been taken off the only TV satire which featured him, (for the sake of survival of the dramatists?) and only some minions of the ruling party and most of the Opposition leaders are lampooned. Tolerance of humour confers credibility. If the Rajapaksa government lacks credibility in the shores beyond us, a primary reason is the lack of a sense of humour among our political leaders. Vicious and uncouth attacks are the order of the day rather than good hearted banter.
In the days before TV, politicians were less exposed to the public but they did convey their humorous disposition to the people. D. S. Senanayake’s confessions of his foibles were widely appreciated.
As a young boy at S. Thomas’ when he went home from his boarding school, his father had asked for his position in class. ‘Third’ he had said quite proudly but when his father perused the report further he had found that there were only three boys on roll in the class!
In the late sixties when this writer joined the Observer, DS, had died but journalists had amusing stories of their encounters with the Father of the Nation. On a morning when only two reporters had turned up, the News Editor wanted to check on some matter regarding the prime minister’s schedule for the day and asked a reporter—the horse racing correspondent to check with the PM’s office but since the office had not yet opened, the racing correspondent was told to ring up Temple Trees.
The racing correspondent was unfamiliar with making such official inquiries and asked someone who picked up the phone: ‘I say, what are the Old Bugger’s movements today?’ A deep-husky voice had answered: ‘Old Bugger speaking’. The racing correspondent dropped the phone and fled but the Father of the Nation had not minded him being called ‘old bugger’ Another anecdote still recalled at the Orient Club is about the newly elected Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike walking into the washroom of the club and seen Sir John Kotelawala whom he had resoundingly trounced, buttoning up. On seeing the PM Sir John had in an exaggerated hurry buttoned up, when the PM had said: ‘I say Lionel’ (Sir John was Lionel to his friends) ‘you appear to be scared’. Sir John had replied; ‘Why not, you nationalise everything big you see!’ (It will be recalled that soon after his victory Bandaranaike commenced his socialist programme by nationalising the biggest business establishments, the bus companies). W. Dahanayake who also became the prime minister was a lovable politician with a tremendous sense of humour. This former school teacher’s memorable limerick about Solomon Bandaranaike is still recalled; I do not love thee Banda dear, The reason why is very clear, I do not love thee Banda dear, Because you change from year to year.
Space does not permit us to write about the humour, wit and tolerance of human foibles of J. R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake. A good sense of humour is a part of the Sri Lankan political heritage. The wit and satire of Tamil leaders like G. G. Ponnambalam and E. M. V. Naganathan are still passed down generations by oral tradition.
The words of Erica Jong, America writer and poet is good advice for all politicians in power: Humour is the most serious tool we have to deal with impossible situations. We wish the young thespians of Sri Dhamma Vidyalaya and its principal, the very best.