20 April 2018

Prisons and (educated) prisoners: the ‘human’ factor

Prisons are not exactly city attractions. They are somber edifices with high walls and barbed wire.  We might see them as we pass but are eyes don’t tarry, they move to other and more pleasant objects for perusal.  The word prison anyway is uninviting. If the Welikada Prison is an exception to all this it is because of the impressive mural that adorns the wall that faces Base Line Road and especially the bold trilingual affirmation, ‘Prisoners are human beings.’

Yes, they are, although they are not viewed with adoration. They are there because they’ve broken rules and are considered to be threats to society’s general well-being. They are there because they have to pay a price for wrongs they have done. They have to do time. And once society has exacted adequate compensation or rather when society deems that they’ve repented, reformed and are rehabilitated enough they get to go home, they get to re-enter society.

It takes years for the past to be erased from society’s memory and of course the memory of the wrongdoer. Or never, one might add. Of course there are some crimes that are harder than others to forget or forgive, but then again, there are many, many cases where infringement not only brings a prison sentence but also (further) criminalizes the perpetrator in addition to compromising mental well being of the inmates.  

That’s not all. As Albert Camus observed in his celebrated essay against capital punishment for society to pass judgment (through the courts) on anyone, society has to be fundamentally good. That might be taken to be a bit extreme, but if you think about it, in an imperfect society where rules are bent by the powerful, there are probably as many criminals outside prisons than inside them.

But let’s keep ‘society’ out of it. There are no perfect societies, after all.  The question is, are there perfect justice systems and are there prisons which can truly claim to treat each and every inmate as human beings? 

I remember vividly a ‘court moment’ in 25 years ago. It was at the Panadura High Court. A group of around 15 young people were on trial for sedition and were locked up the court cell (or whatever it is called) until their case came up. In that same ‘waiting facility’ there was a young couple. The woman had been working as a domestic aide in a house. The man of the house, according to her story, had tried to sexually molest her. At that very moment her husband had arrived (for whatever reason). Livid (according to his story), he had attacked the would-be rapist and had killed him.  

Their case came up. The state-appointed lawyer arrived and claimed he had a bad stomach and pleaded for a different date. The judge obliged; the case was postponed for six months. Just like that, six months were taken from the lives of two individuals who, we are told, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

That’s just a simple story that illustrates just one element of a whole gamut of problems with the justice system. The arbitrariness of releasing suspects on bail, inconsistency in sentencing, privileging of the powerful and not least of all the frivolous nature of pardons leave much to be desired.

Let’s get back to prisons. It is not that prisoners are treated like animals. We need to take into account the lack of adequate resources, outdated regulations and rank corruption, all of which are of course not the preserve of the Department of Prisons. National-stink, if you may, wafts all over and prisons, for all their security measures are not impervious. 

So yes, things are not easy for the authorities. There are all kinds of programs in prisons which draw from the assertion on the Welikada wall.  Prisoner education is an important part of the process, for example.  And yet, there’s a lot that can be done despite the constraints.

The state and therefore the people pay for prison costs. Sri Lanka does not have private prisons and the state cannot be described as yet in terms of a prison-industrial complex. The costs cannot be fully recovered by value extracted from prisoners. However, if every rupee counts, then prisoners could be seen not just as human beings but as human resources.

Is the human capital that’s within prison walls being used effectively, is a question that needs to be asked. While prisoners can be categorized in terms of the nature of the crime, the severity of sentence, race, religion, age etc., they can also be divided in terms of educational attainment and the skills they possess, all of which are meticulously documented.  

There are literally thousands of prisoners who have passed their A/Ls. A significant proportion are probably endowed with specialized skills.  While it is not possible, obviously, to turn prisons into ‘economic units’ it is nevertheless worth exploring areas where the quantum of skills can be deployed effectively. There’s value that can be obtained and most importantly such measures would invariably have a positive impact on the mental wellbeing of the inmates.

One cannot but recall how ex-combatants were rehabilitated, given opportunities to further their education and acquire skills, and then reintegrated into society. In many instances their ‘crimes’ were far more serious than those of thousands who languish in the prison system. 

If it was ok for ‘terrorists,’ why not for others, one might ask. And it’s not just people with A/L qualifications. There are graduates even inmates who had post-graduate qualifications.  

One is reminded of the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ where the expertise of a banker, wrongfully convicted of murder, is used by the prison warden for money laundering operations. That’s fiction and the deployment of the relevant expertise was for unlawful activity. However, what the movie also tells us is that there are inmates with exceptional skills that are either not fully used or ill-used or even ignored altogether.  

There’s utter inefficiency, randomness and possibly even corruption in the parole process. Prisoners are interviewed, judgement passed and when committees change the entire process is started from scratch. There should be a way to fast-track things. There should be a way to monitor the progress of each and every prisoner in the rehabilitation process that has been encrypted into the prison system. Good behavior, proven efforts to better oneself in terms of skill and knowledge acquisition etc., should be factored in systematically. This does not of course mean that the educated prisoner is somehow of a higher moral worth than the rest, but that’s not what we are talking about. It’s about resource-waste. 

In any event, ’Ad hoc’ is never good enough, even if resources are lacking.

The film has a scene where a prisoner goes before a parole committee. The stress is on the arbitrary nature of arriving at a decision. Just like in the Panadura court. Months are taken away from people’s lives, years too.

What all this calls for is complete review of the prison system. There are good officers. There are excellent programs concerning prisoner welfare and rehabilitation. There’s a lot of good work being done. It’s not enough.

Prisoners, let us repeat, are human beings. They constitute part of the nation’s complement of human resources. They are in prison for a reason, and the state weighs opportunity costs against opportunity benefits when determining to sustain them in prisons over letting them loose on society. All this is understandable. But if it is about ‘understanding’ then what needs to be taken cognizance of is the fact that people can become better just as they can become worse; and those who fall into the former category should be treated differently, encouraged, and employed in ways that make sense given their knowledge and skills.

Perhaps the ministers overseeing the subjects of justice and prisons can do something to streamline things, to rationalize the entire system and to give more credence to the dictum scrawled on the wall of the Welikada Prison. 


19 April 2018

Where's the ‘National’ in this National Government?

Just the other day, this Government appointed four new Provincial Governors. Almost immediately one of them, who used to be a Governor in a different province, was removed and reappointed to his earlier post.   

What is it with this Government and Governors? Not too long ago, the Government appointed a man with a less than glorious track record as the Governor of the Central Bank. When he came under a cloud, the Prime Minister defended him. When he was effectively sacked, he was given ‘other employment’. When he was charged with wrongdoing and ordered to appear in court, those who guaranteed the man would submit to such an order, went silent. 

When the above was pointed out, someone quipped, ‘they are good at sacking and appointing judges, though’.  That entire process was quite sordid, though.

Anyway, if all this was bad, the circus that the much talked of cabinet reshuffle has turned into is far worse joke.  First of all, following the rout of all constituent parties in the Government at the local government elections, the Ministry of Law and Order changed hands not once, but twice!  After the vote on the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a bunch of ministers who have resigned. 

Then we had the entire Parliamentary Group of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party wanting to quit the Government, followed by the party leader and president, Maithripala Sirisena, urging the bunch to re-think. Now we have the General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), a coalition led by the SLFP, saying that even those who supported the no-confidence motion will remain with the Government.  Mahinda Amaraweera in an elaboration says that this is ‘to support and strengthen the President’.  Note, it’s the President and not the Government whose strengthening is sought here! 

Meanwhile, a section of the UNP wants to punish those SLFP ministers who ‘betrayed’ by bringing a no-confidence motion against them. Some of these ‘betrayers’ have decided to sit in the Opposition. In other words, the marriage between the UNP and the SLFP is strained (to be generous).  

Let us not forget that the President arbitrarily relieved certain key institutions from certain ministries and vested them in others. Let us also take note of whispers that ex-ministers Ravi Karunanayake and Wijedasa Rajapaksa are to be rewarded with cabinet slots for support shown during the no-confidence motion. Most importantly let us remember that the Prime Minister or the President or both (most likely the former) have been shuffling the cabinet pack for more than two months now. It looks like their general incompetence is finding expression even in this simple exercise of naming a new cabinet and it’s gravity is made even greater considering the chest-beating assertions about a new government being formed. ‘New’ in terms of a new cabinet.  

They key issue here is not coherence, it’s not restructuring or rationalizing. It’s about rewarding friends and buying off enemies. The problem is that retaining a parliamentary majority (note: the government in effect has lost its two-thirds majority) is about holding together 113 individuals whereas ‘holding’ has been reduced to an exercise in appeasement by way of portfolios, if not  cabinet minister then at least state or deputy minister posts. 

This is where we get to the thorny issue of the ‘national government’.  The 19th Amendment had two major flaws; first, the composition of the Constitutional Council which effectively compromises the ‘regaining’ of the independent institutions abrogated by the 18th Amendment, and secondly the caveats pertaining to the size of the cabinet. 

The 19th limited cabinet size to 30 ministers. The 19th  however allows for unlimited expansion where there is a ‘national government’. The architects of the amendment and those who voted for it (only one MP voted against it while one abstained and seven were absent) were complicit in keeping ‘national government’ undefined.  

It left us with an as yet unanswered question: what is a ‘national government’? It is ‘national’ if ALL PARTIES REPRESENTED IN PARLIAMENT are part of the government?  Is it ‘national’ if the two parties with the largest number of seats form a government? Would it be ‘national’ if one party (say, the UNP) forms a government with a few from the third largest political group in Parliament (in this case, the SLFP)? Would the word be valid for a ‘UNP + one or a few others’ that form a government?  

The key issue right now is that this is no longer a SLFP-UNP coalition. It is at best a government made of the UNP, a few SLFP stragglers (note, ‘UNP’ means all those who contested under the elephant symbol at the last General Election).  As such this cabinet would be illegal unless we use a very loose and even silly definition for the term ‘national’.  If common sense definitions are used, then the size of the cabinet as of today is unconstitutional.

This probably explains why both the UNP and the SLFP are laboring with the cabinet reshuffle.  The UNP needs to please more than 30 and it cannot do this if the SLFP doesn’t play ball.  Even if the SLFP decides to play ball, the term ‘national government’ would be hilarious if it weren’t an absolutely pernicious twist of the term since the there are at least 70 MPs who are not listening to Sirisena as of now.  At the last count (i.e. at the vote on the no-confidence motion), the Prime Minister had only the support of his party and the Tamil National Alliance. A government led by a Prime Minister who is not backed by over 100 MPs is not ‘national’ and not even a perversion of ‘national’. 

It is clear that a ‘National Government’ is no longer tenable and perforce cabinet size has to be cut down to 30. 

Wickremesinghe’s ardent fan club believes the man is a democrat (despite all evidence to the contrary) and a decent politician; yes, some say he’s a statesman. Let’s call the bluff.  Let him show that he is. Let him prune the cabinet down to 30.  

What he does (or probably will not do) is less important than getting the constitutional flaw corrected. ‘National Government’ needs to be defined so that political machinations by crooks, thugs and self-serving ego maniacs are stumped at every turn, including cabinet reshuffles.  That’s more important than seeing some two-bit politician stumble.  Agreed?

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com

සිංහල අවුරුද්ද කියන 'මළඉලව්ව' ගැන කෙටි සටහනක්

සිංහල අලුත් අවුරුද්ද ගැන සාමාන්‍යයෙන් ඇහෙන කෝචොක් වලට අජිනමොටෝ ටිකක් එකතු කරන්න මේ පාර පුළුවන් වුනේ අර මුස්ලිම් කොල්ලෙක් අවුරුදු කුමාරයා වුන සිද්ධිය නිසයි. 

මුස්ලිම් කොල්ලෙක් ඒ වගේ තරඟයකට ඉදිරිපත් වෙන එක සදාචාර විරෝධීයි කියල සමහරු කියනවා.  මේ අලුත් අවුරුද්ද මුස්ලිම් අයට අදාලම නැතිලු.  ඔය වගේ කතා ගොඩාක් තිබුනා මුහුණුපොතේ.

මුලින්ම කිවයුතු දෙයක් තියෙනවා:

අවුරුදු කුමාරයා තේරුවේ කව්ද, කොහොමද කියල මම දන්නේ නෑ. අදාලත් නෑ. සිංහල කියන දේ සහ අවුරුද්ද කියන දේ මම තේරුම් ගන්න විදිහක් තියෙනවා. ඒ අනුව, සිංහලකම කියන්නේ වෙන්වීම හුදෙකලා වීම හරහා අනන්‍යතාවය තහවුරු කරගන්න දෙයක් නෙවෙයි. හරයක් තියාගෙන වැළඳගන්න අවශෝෂණය කරගන්න සූදානමක් තියෙන දෙයක්. අවුරුද්ද කියන්නේ එකතු වෙන තැනක්, පරණ කෝන්තර අමතක කරන මොහොතක්. ඒ අනුව අවුරුදු කුමාරයාගේ ජාතිය ආගම අදාලම නෑ.

දැන් අජිනමොටෝ කතාවට යමු. මුහුණුපොතේ මේ කාරණය ගැන දිග සටහනකින් අවසන් කොටස මෙයයි:

"උන්ට මතක නෑ බෙග් මසේටර්, එම්.ජේ කරීම් වගේ මිනිස්සු තමා වෙසක් එකට සින්දු කියන්නෙ කියල..! එකෙක්ට වත් මතක නෑ මේ තියෙන ලපයිසිපයි බුද්ධාගම මේ රටේ මෙහෙම හරි තහවුරු කළේ හෙන්රි ඕල්කොට් කියලත්.. වෙසක් දින නිවාඩුවක් දෙන්න කියල ඉල්ලීම ජාත්‍යන්තරයට මුලින්ම කළේ කදිරගාමර්ය කියලත්.. එක සිංහල බෞද්ධ කියන මොනම **යෙක්වත් කිසිම දෙයක් කරල නෑ කියල දන්නෑ..අර ධර්මපාල කියල මනුස්සයෙක් හිටියා මිනිහ මලෙත් මම දඹදිවම උපදිනව කියල.. ආයේ ලංකාවට කරපු දෙයක්නෑ..!"

මෙතන ඇත්තක් තියෙනවා මුල් කොටසේ.  මුස්ලිම් කොල්ලා අවුරුදු කුමාරයා වුන එක ගැන උරණ වෙලා ඉන්න 'සිංහල බෞද්ධයින්' මේවා දන්නේ නෑ. නැත්තම් නොදන්නවා වගේ නැත්තම් අදාළ නෑ වගේ තමයි කරුණු කාරණා කියන්නේ. එහෙම නොවන සිංහල බෞද්ධයින් ඉන්න බවත් කියන්න ඕන. අනික 'සිංහල බෞද්ධ' කියන 'මොනම මොකෙක්වත්' කිසිම දෙයක් කොරල නෑ කියන එක වැරදියි.  බුද්ධාගම ගැනත්, බෞද්ධ සංකෘතිය ගැනත්, රට ගැනත්, ඉතිහාසය ගැනත් එහෙන් මෙහෙන් අහුලගත්ත දේවල් කලවම් කරලා මොනවාද කියන්න බැරි? මට එහෙමයි හිතුනේ.

අර මුස්ලිම් කොල්ලා අවුරුදු කුමාරයා වුන එක ගැන තරහ ගිය සිංහල බෞද්ධයින් සහ මේ සටහන ලියපු කෙනා අතර මට නම් ලොකු වෙනසක් පෙනෙන්නේ නෑ. දෙගොල්ලන්වම මෙහෙයවන පොදු සාධකය වෛරය. දෙගොල්ලම පාවිච්චි කරන්නේ එකම ක්‍රමවේදය. ඒ කියන්නේ තමන්ගේ තර්කයට වාසි දේවල් තියාගෙන අවාසි දේවල් බැහැර කරලා අඩි හප්පමින් හූ තියන එක. 

මුහුනුපොතේ සටහනේ අපට අදාළ වෙන්නේ මේවා නෙවෙයි.  මෙහෙම දෙයක් ලියල තියෙනවා පොඩි 'පෙරවදනක්' හැටියට:

"අර මුස්ලිම් කොලුවෙක් අවුරුදු කුමාරයා වෙලා. ඉතිං ඒක කොච්චර හොඳද? ඌ චීනෙක් හරි ඉන්දියන් කාරායක් හරි නං තමා අවුල. ඌ නියම ලාංකිකයෙක්. මේ බොරුවට අටෝගත්තු 'සිංහල අවුරුද්ද' කියන මළඉලව්වෙ තියෙන උතුම් දෙයක්ද අවුරුදු කුමාරයා තේරීම..?"

මුල් කොටසට එකඟයි. අවසන් කොටස අවුල්.  අවුල් වෙන්නේ 'සිංහල අවුරුද්ද උතුම් නෑ' කියපු නිසා නෙවෙයි.  එක් කෙනෙකුට උතුම් දේ තව කෙනෙක් ට පහත් නැත්තම් නොවැදගත් වෙන්න පුළුවන්. කව්රු හරි උතුම් කියල හිතාගෙන ඉන්නවනම් හිතපුවාවේ. ඒකට ගරහන එක අශිෂ්ටයි.

ප්‍රශ්නේ මේකයි: 'සිංහල අවුරුද්ද' කියන්නේ 'අටවගත්ත මළ ඉලව්වක්' කියන අයට වෙන ජාතීන් සහ ආගමිකයින් (සිංහල නොවන සහ බෞද්ධ නොවන) අටවගන්න දේවල් ගැන මීක් නෑ. ඒවාට 'මළ ඉලව්' කියල කියන්නෙත් නෑ.  ඒ ඇයි? නොකියන එක තුල ඇති සංස්කෘතික දේශපාලනය මොකද්ද? සිංහල බෞද්ධයින්ගේ 'අටවගත්ත මළඉලව්' ගැන විතරක් දොඩන එක හරහා දිනාගන්නේ මොකද්ද? 

මේ තත්ත්වය සිංහල අවුරුද්ද ට සීමා වුන දෙයක් නෙවෙයි. වෙසක් පොසොන් කාලෙත් සමහර අයට මේ 'මළ ඉලව්' ලෙඩේ හැදෙනවා.  වෙන ආගම් වලට සුවිශේෂ දින වල ඒ ලෙඩේ ඉබේටම වගේ සුව වෙනවා. 

කතාවේ අනිත් පැත්තත් සිද්ද වෙනවා.  අන්‍යාගම් වල වෙනත් ජාති වල අය කරන කියන දේවල් වල 'අතාර්තිකකම්' සහ 'අවිද්‍යාව' ගැන දොඩවන සිංහල බෞද්ධයින් 'සිංහල බෞද්ධ' ලේබලය යටතේ කරන කියන අතාර්කික දේවල් ගැන නිහඬයි. 

මේවා ගැන හිතනවා මදි කියලමයි හිතෙන්නේ.  කොහොම වුනත් අර මුස්ලිම් කුමාරයාටත්, එයාව කුමාරයා කරපු අයටත්, එයාට ගරහන අයටත් ගරහන අයට ගරහන අයටත් සුභම සුභ අලුත් අවුරුද්දක් පතමු. හද පතුලෙන්ම.     

"මගේ ඇස අග" තීරුවේ තවත් ලිපි

ගම සුජීලගේ, ගම හදන්නෙත් සුජීලා හොඳේ?
ලාස්ට් මෑන් හැව් චාන්ස්
සඳට නොලියූ කවියක් 
අහඹු පොතක අහඹු පිටුවක හමුවිය කවියක් අහඹුම නොවන'
මේවා මොන ජීවිත ද බං?'     

17 April 2018

Good Governance, Democracy and the Opposition Leader

What’s the worst thing this Government has done? Well, one could make a long list and shake it many times. One could do a compare-and-contrast exercise with the first three years of previous regimes going back to Independence and play that familiar game of suppressing the bad, inflating the good and so on.  It would be hard to deny however that however long the list is and whatever it may contain, among the worst things this Government has done is to turn ‘Good Governance’ into a cuss word.

How Yahapalanaya became a bad word would be an excellent thesis topic for an political science undergraduate in any university.  That unwritten thesis is known. The results of the recently concluded local government election proves it. The verdict was clear: ‘not only are you people not serious about good governance, you are also utterly incompetent.’ It was a vote of no confidence if ever there was one.

The incompetence, nepotism, corruption, abuse of state resources and buttressing of the system of political patronage is all too evident. It has come to a point where it is utterly hilarious when diehard loyalists defend the regime. 

Some talk about the dark days of the previous regime, as though they don’t know that many in this government were part of that regime or that some were part of regimes as bad or worse. It is also funny when some of those who take issue with the way things were before January 2015 were quite supportive of Velupillai Prabhakaran and even wanted to let him and his bunch of terrorists to rule one third of the island and control two thirds of the coastline.  

It is funny when they take umbrage at certain ministers supporting the vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister and invoke the notion of collective responsibility when the entire cabinet by omission or commission is guilty of criminal irresponsibility on multiple counts.  

They could put it all down to ‘political culture’ and the lack of human resources, but they would be hard pressed to deny that it was deliberate, irresponsible and pernicious to script a clause into the 19th Amendment to get around the limit to cabinet size promised in manifesto and preambled in the amendment itself.  All illusions about good governance from this lot died that day.  Some however are in denial, naturally.

Let’s consider the business of the Opposition Leader. ‘Business’ not in the sense of his/her responsibilities but the post itself. 

It was strange when Nimal Siripala Silva was made Opposition Leader because he was a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was officially part of the Government. It was less strange when R Sampanthan was made Opposition because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had the most number of MPs outside of the parties that made the Government. It is strange that he remained the Leader of the Opposition after some 50 MPs of the SLFP decided and made it known to the Speaker that they are not part of the Government and would function as a separate group in the Opposition.  Sampanthan’s position looks even more politically grotesque considering that he has sided with the Government on a key no-confidence motion. That the Speaker, in all his wisdom, appears to be absolutely ignorant about parliamentary arithmetic and political realities, especially considering the fact that parliamentary composition is at odds with general voter sentiment, is itself strange. 

If any proof was necessary that this Government has no clue about ‘good governance’ or ‘democracy’ and probably never really cared about either, we need look no further than the recent response of Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne to a question posed to him regarding the post of Opposition Leader. This was the question: ‘If the UNP forms a government on its own, shouldn’t the post of Opposition Leader go to the SLFP?’  

First of all, whether or not the UNP can form a government on its own is a moot point, given that the President is not from that party but would be a part of the Government and thereby fulfill the ‘National Government Escape Clause to Inflate the Cabinet’.  Senaratne did not mention any of that. He ignored completely basic arithmetic. One might say he dodged the question.

He simply said that it’s good to have a Tamil as Opposition Leader. He then compared apples with oranges, talking about J.R. Jayewardene removing A. Amirthalingam as the Leader of the Opposition. J.R. Jayewardene did a lot of cunning things. He orchestrated the removal of Amirthalingam through the 6th Amendment to the Constitution (J.R. Jayewardene was an UNPer, by the way, a fact that Senaratne might have forgotten). J.R. Jayewardene was not, however, arithmetically challenged the way Senaratne obvious is.  

Senaratne went on to say ‘as a result Prabhakaran became the Leader of the Opposition.’ Clever twist, but still dodgy, for Prabhakaran was not a product of a single piece of political manipulation.

In any event, short-sighted legislators (of all parties, including those in the Joint Opposition) gave us a constitutional bind that prevents the correction of the representational anomaly that the February 10th election revealed. That said, there’s nothing to prevent the correction of the obvious travesty of the group that has the most numbers among the parties in the Opposition from having the right to select the Opposition Leader.

It is convenient for Senaratne and others to dodge the issue and talk political nonsense. In fact one might even say that Senaratne, in this, is the ideal spokesperson for this cabinet. However, those who swore and swear on good governance and democracy need to rethink or shut up, for silence on this is telling.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com

දුක අදේශපාලනික ද?

'අනේ පව්'.  දුක හිතෙන දේවල් ගැන අහද්දී, කියවද්දී ඉබේටම වගේ කියවෙන වචන දෙකක්.  ඒ එක්කම අදාළ අයගේ දුක නිවන්න නොයෙකුත් යෝජනා ඉදිරිපත් වෙනවා.  පුංචි උදාහරණයක් ගමු.

මීට සති  කිහිපයකට කලින් උතුරු පළාත්සභාවේ මහ ඇමති සී.වී. විග්නේස්වරන් මහතා ජනාධිපති මෛත්‍රිපාල සිරිසේන ට දුක හිතෙන කතාවක් ගැන ලියුමක් ලියල තිබුනා.  මරණයක් ගැන. අවසන් ගමන් ගිහින් තිබුනේ යෝගරානී. යෝගරානී ගේ සැමියා සචිතානන්දම් ආනන්ද සුදාකරන්. එයාල  කුඩා දරුවෝ දෙන්නෙක් එක්ක ජීවත් වෙලා හිටියේ කිලිනොච්චි යේ. 

මරණය හැමෝටම පොදුයි. අඩු වයසේ මැරෙන අය බොහෝයි. ඒත් මෙතන විශේෂයක් තිබුනා. සචිතානන්දම් සිරකරුවෙක්. බිරිඳගේ මළගෙදරට සහභාගී වෙන්න එයාට ලැබුනේ පැය තුනයි.  සෑයට ගිනි තියන අවස්ථාවේ සචිතානන්දම්ට බන්ධනාගාර වෑන් රථයට නගින්න සිද්ද වුනා. අම්මාඅහිමි වුන චූටි දුව දුව ගෙන ගිහින් බන්ධනාගාර වෑන් එකට ගොඩ වුනේ තාත්ත එක්ක යන තැනකට යන්න වෙන්න ඕන.  විග්නේස්වරන් මහත්තයා කියන විදිහට බලාගෙන හිටපු පොලීස් නිලධාරීන්ගේ ඇස් වලට පවා කඳුළු ඉනුවලු.

විග්නේස්වරන් ලිපියේ මෙහෙම සඳහන් කරනවා: 'මේ සිරකරුවා ගැන විස්තර මම දන්නේ නැත.  ජීවිතාන්තය දක්වා සිර දඬුවමක් ලැබුණු අයෙක් කියල (සමහරු) කියනවා.  මේ අසරණ දරුවන්ගේ වයස් ගැන කල්පනා කොට මානවවාදී පදනම මත ඔහුට සමාව දී නිදහස් කරනු  මැනවි.'

දුක හිතුනෙ විග්නේස්වරන්ට විතරක් නෙවෙයි. සචිතානන්දම් නිදහස් කල යුතුයි කිව්වේ විග්නේස්වරන් විතරක් නෙවෙයි. 'අනේ පව්' කිව්වේ විග්නේස්වරන් විතරක් නෙවෙයි.  මුහුණු පොතේ ඇති තරම් ලයික් වැටුණු ෂෙයාර් වුන කතාවක් මේක. 

කතාව මෙතනින් නවත්තමු දැනට.  වෙන කතාවකට යමු.

සිද්ධිය වුනේ 88-89 භීෂණ සමයේ.  දිවයිනේ විවිධ ස්ථාන වල වධකාගාර සහ නීති විරෝධී රැඳවුම් කඳවුරු තිබුණ කාලයක් එය. 'ජාතික කම්කරු සටන් මධ්‍යස්ථානය' කියන සංවිධානයේ සාමාජික කම්කරුවෙක් ඉන් එක කඳවුරක රඳවා සිටියා. විවිධ පහරදීම් වලට ලක් වුන මේ සිරකරුවාගේ ඇඟ පුරා තුවාල. සමහර තුවාල වල පණුවෝ. ඔහු සමග එකම කුටියක සිටිය අනෙක් සිරකරුව ඊට අවුරුදු 3 කට පමණ පසුව මෙහෙම කිව්වා.

'ඒ මනුස්සයා ට අවුරුදු 3 ක දුවක් හිටිය. තුවාල වල වේදනාව නිසා නැත්තම් අසරණ කම නිසා මනුස්සයාට පිස්සු හැදිලයි හිටියේ. චූටි දුව මතක් කරලා මනුස්සයා නිතර නිතර කෙඳිරි ගෑවා. නිතරම කිව්වේ "චූටි දූ තාත්තට ජෝ ටිකක් දෙන්න" කියලයි. පස්සේ ඒ මනුස්සයා මලා."

කතාව අහගෙන හිටිය සමහර අය 'අනේ පව්' කියල කිව්වා.  ඒ මනුස්සයාගේ නම කව්රුවත් දන්නේ නෑ. දුවගේ නම දන්නෙත් නෑ. ඒ කාලේ 'අනේ පව්' කියල 'අනේ මානවවාදය අවදි කරලා ඒ මනුස්සයා නිදහස් කරන්න' කියල ඉල්ලන්න කෙනෙක් හිටියෙත් නෑ.

අහන්න සූදානම් නම්, හොයල කියන්න ඔය වගේ කතා දහස් ගනනක් ඇති. හැම සිරකරුවටම වගේ ඥාතීන් ඉන්නවා. චූටි දුවල නැත්තම් ආදරණීය අම්මලා තාත්තලා ඉන්නවා, එයාල ගැන දුක් වෙන. එයාලගේ කතා අහද්දී 'අනේ පව්' කියවෙයි කියල හිතෙනවා මට.

නීතිය සාධාරණ නෑ, ඇත්ත. යුක්තිය විසඳෙන්නේ බල ව්‍යුහයන් තුල. හොරු, මිනීමරුවෝ එළියේ.  ඇතුලේ ඉන්න අය අතරේ අහිංසක මිනිස්සුත් ඇති. නීතිය, යුක්තිය සමතල නෑ. මේ හැම දෙයක් ම අපි දන්නේ නැතුව නෙවෙයි. සචිතානන්දම් සමහරවිට අහිංසක වෙන්න පුළුවන්. අහිංසක නොවෙන්නත් පුළුවන්.

සචිතානන්දම්ගේ දුව ගැන දුක හිතෙන එක සාධාරණයි.  'අනේ පව්' කියල සචිතානන්දම්ව නිදහස් කරන්න කියල ඉල්ලන එක තුල 'මනුස්සකමක්' නැත්තේ නෑ. ඒවා හොඳ දේවල්. ඒ වුනාට 'අනේ පව්' ඉල්ලීම ඉෂ්ට කලොත් ඒ පූර්වාදර්ශය මත දිවයිනේ ඇති බන්ධනාගාර වල ඉන්න බහුතරයක් සිරකරුවන් නිදහස් කරන්න වෙන එක ගැන හිතන්න සූදානමක් පෙනෙන්නේ නෑ. විග්නේස්වරන් මහත්තයා හිටපු ශ්‍රේෂ්ටාධිකරණ විනිසුරුවෙක්. එතුමටවත් මෙතන තියෙන අවුල පෙනිලා නෑ වගේ. එක්කෝ දැකලා නොදැක්කා වගේ ඉන්නවා වෙන්න පුළුවන්.

'අනේ පව්' කියන වචන දෙක තුල, ඒ වචන කියන ස්වරය තුල ශිෂ්ටත්වයක් තියෙනවා.  'දුව ගැන හිතල තාත්තව නිදහස් කරන්න' කියනකොට කියන කෙනා ගැන පැහැදීමකුත් ඇති වෙන්න පුළුවන්.  මේ කතා සමග අනිවාර්යයෙන්ම බැඳෙන 'නීති එපා, සිරකුටි එපා, බන්ධනාගාර එපා, යුක්තිය එපා' කියන කතාව කව්රුවත් කියන්නේ නෑ.  එතන පොඩි අවුලක් තියෙනවා. මිනීමරුවා මනුස්සයෙක්. මිනීමරුවන්ට දරුවෝ ඉන්න පුළුවන්, අර සචිතානන්දම්ට වගේ. එයාලගේ දුවල ගැන හිතල මිනීමරුවෝ නීතියේ රැහැනට ගන්න එපා කියල කව්රුවත් යෝජනා කරන්නේ නෑ.

'අනේ පව්'.  සුන්දරයි. තෙතමනයක් සහිතයි.  අසම්පූර්ණයි. මට හිතෙන්නේ එහෙමයි. 

"මගේ ඇස අග" තීරුවේ තවත් ලිපි

ගම සුජීලගේ, ගම හදන්නෙත් සුජීලා හොඳේ?
ලාස්ට් මෑන් හැව් චාන්ස්
සඳට නොලියූ කවියක් 
අහඹු පොතක අහඹු පිටුවක හමුවිය කවියක් අහඹුම නොවන'
මේවා මොන ජීවිත ද බං?'     

06 April 2018

Kavi Alexander: a poet of sound

“The alchemy of the masters moving molecules of air, 
we capture by moving particles of iron, 
so that the poetry of the ancients will echo into the future.”

I’ve seen Kavi Alexander seated under the coccolaba tree at Sooriya Village, apparently one of the only two such trees in Sri Lanka, the other being at Peradeniya.  With long hair and a longer beard, greying, Kavi looked quite ascetic. Except he’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts.  

Sooriya Village attracts a lot of people who either in appearance or life are sadhu-like, so seeing Kavi seated there did not pique my curiosity, not even when he would stand up to greet people with hands clasped in the form of worship. 

Udena Wickramasooriya had told me about him months before. I couldn’t remember what he told me. That’s because I am not into music the way Udena is. However, when Udena says ‘you must meet this guy’ about anyone, I make a mental note of it.

So Kavi Alexander was there. He had been there for more than a week. He even had a press conference which I was not too keen to attend. There are auspicious times for certain things and they can’t be forced, I firmly believe.

One auspicious morning, I said ‘hello’ to Kavi. He duly stood up and greeted me. And then we talked for what seemed like hours.  

Kavi Alexander was born in 1949 and spent his early years in Ratmalana and Mt Lavinia. He attended St Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia.  Perhaps it was all there already in his genes for his mother played the Karnatic violin, but apart from that first memory Kavi distinctly remembers going to church with her and listening to the radio: ‘I was glued to Radio Ceylon; I wanted to put up antennas all over to improve reception.’

Improving reception or rather obtaining the best reproduction of sound turned out to be his lifelong passion, but he didn’t know it back then.  

Kavi left Sri Lanka in 1968 and went to Paris. He was a hippie, he says. In Paris, he realized that his life would be in the arts. Perhaps in poetry or in sculpture or something else, he wasn’t quite sure.

‘I got an opportunity to play in the cast of the “Hair” production in Paris. As it turned out I was the only one who didn’t take the clothes off. I was very Asian in that way. I wore a traditional white Indian outfit. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France at the time, Tissa Wijeratne, came for one of the performances with his wife and complimented me on this. He said “Kavi, you are the only one who has not lost it!”’

‘Hair’ had been running for a year by the time he joined the cast. All the dressing rooms had been taken by that time but two musicians, one French and one American, had invited Kavi to share their dressing room.  

Wherever he went he made friends, apparently.  He moved again, this time to Brussels. Maybe he was restless but in all likelihood, he followed his heart. That’s what took him to ‘Mudra’ an experimental school run by the French choreographer Maurice Béjart.  Béjart, the son of a French philosopher has spent some time in India where he had encountered Yoga and had been, in Kavi’s words, ‘flipped out by Bharata Natyam’ which had later inspired him to produce the ballet ‘Bhakthi’.

The six months he spent at Mudra was a life-changer for Kavi. He had turned up in jeans and believes that Béjart had probably felt that Kavi was passionate and deserved to be given a chance.

‘It was an amazing experience. This is where I learned that if one wants to succeed one has to have an iron will and be incredibly disciplined. The idea behind Mudra was that it was not just dance but everything associated with dance; lighting, make-up, carpentry, everything. The first lesson actually was yoga! Anyway, I found my purpose there. I wanted to start a record company. I wanted to record the music I love. And I decided that it had to be in the USA and no Europe.’

Interestingly, Kavi, while still a schoolboy had written to John F Kennedy, volunteering to be an astronaut.  

‘The story got distorted of course. There are friends from that time who still tell me “you are the bugger who wrote to Kennedy and got a reply!” That’s not true. Kennedy never replied.’  

Kavi set up his record company, Water Lily Acoustics, in 1984.  Not surprisingly it was an uphill battle.  

‘I was scraping by. The company was always undercapitalized. Maybe the turning point was when I went to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in California. I went to his school and said I wanted to record his concert.  He looked me up and down. He agreed. So the next day I went, set things up, and recorded. He wanted me to put it out. That was the first record. It was a gift, in fact. Now I could say ‘I recorded Ali Akbar Khan!’

Today Water Lily Acoustics is a Grammy Award winning record label and has recorded theg reat masters of both the West and East. Kavi is a purist, a perfectionist. He wanted and succeeded in capturing the music he loved in its purest form, especially the music of the Eastern world. 

‘I realized that the great Eastern musicians had seldom been recorded properly, with care and attention on sound quality. The recordings that existed were of poor quality. 

Kavi has to date recorded Indian greats such as Padmavibushan Ustad Dr. Ali Akbar Khan, Padmabushan Professor V.G. Jog, Padmavibushan Pandit Jesraj, Padmabushan Dr. N. Ramani, Ustad Imrat Khan, Ustad Zia Fariddudin Dagar, Padmashri Dr. L Subramaniam, Padmashri V. M. Bhatt, Padmashri Kadri Gopalnath, Padmashri Ustad Rashid Khan, Chitravina N. Ravikiran, Swapan Chaudhuri, Guruvayur Dorai and T. H. Subashchandran. He’s also recorded the younger artists, for example Dr. V. Balaji, Pandit Ronu Majumdar, Sukhvinder Singh Namdari, Abhijit Banerjee, Druba Ghosh, J.G.R. Krishnan, Thiagarajan Ramani, Shweta Jhaveri, Viji Krishnan and Sangeetha Shankar.

He has also recorded South American, Asian and African musicians, symphony orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, and the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, in addition to prominent North American and European musicians, many of whom are multiple Grammy Award winners.

Music from recordings released by Water Lily Acoustics have been featured in the sound tracks of six major Hollywood films: Dead Man Walking, Two Days in the Valley, Primary Colors, Angel Eyes, One Hour Photo and Meet the Fockers, and also the Bon Jovi documentary ‘The Circle.’

He has also paired musicians from diverse cultures, and the very first to pair and record Indian musicians of both the Karnatic and Hindustani schools with their Persian, Arab and Chinese counterparts, a trend copied by others much later.

Kavi, for all his success, has pretty much the persona one is likely to assume when seeing him for the first time, seated under a tree, minding his own business, but quick to get on his feet and greet with hands clasped whoever says ‘hello’ to him.

‘I live a hermit’s life. I live in the USA but I didn’t know about 9/11 until two weeks later.’

He’s been away for decades but he’s still very much rooted in Sri Lanka.  

‘I eat red rice imported from Sri Lanka, so I get all the minerals from my country.’

And yet, there’s one dream that remains unfulfilled, he says.  Kavi has for years wanted to record pirith.  

Manik Sandrasagara came up with the idea around 2005. This was during the war. We corresponded. Manik told me that it was all insane. He felt that as a Tamil and the first Sri Lankan to win a Grammy, if I recorded the Buddhist chants it would have some impact.  I had already recorded Quranic recitations and wanted to go to Ethiopia to record the Coptic liturgical chants. I found sense in what Manik said. I knew about the different Nikayas, but wanted to bring them together in some way, record them all, put the records together in a single box with four compartments. Something like that. CD’s, booklets.’

It never happened. Official sanction was hard to get. Kavi realized that it was a minefield and that one needed to be a politician to get things done. Manik died. Kavi gave up.

Kavi has been in Sri Lanka for almost a month now. He stays at Sooriya Village, upon Udena’s invitation. He conducts workshops, talks about music and recording, traveling once to Batticaloa which is due to circumstances his ‘ancestral place.’

My parents were from Jaffna. They came to Trincomalee by sailboat. It had taken them three weeks. Then they took a bullock cart to Batticaloa. Unfortunately they both died in the cyclone of 1978. Batticaloa is beautiful. I love the place. I visited my parents’ grave.’

He’s happy being here, this hermit who travels the world looking for great music which he can record for posterity, this sound-man who ironically is as much about silence as he is about music, this archivist of musical alchemy.  He’s all about love, a different kind of love one might say. 

Water Lily Acoustics has a website and the home page has a verse from Rumi which says a lot about the idea, the work and the man.  It’s an appropriate ‘end point’ to this piece about this timeless man. 

Love is that which never sleeps,
nor even rests, nor stays
for long with those that do.
Love is language
that cannot be said,
or heard.