07 October 2011

When Milinda opened a box and found himself

Years ago, during the time when a lot of people in Colombo were going ga-ga about the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), I wrote (in both the Sunday Island and the Irida Divaina) very critical articles about negotiations/talks between the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and the LTTE.  Naturally, G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda (now with the present government), both key players in Wickremesinghe’s government and in the so-called ‘peace process’ were mentioned and not in complimentary ways either. 
At some point, Milinda invited myself, Rajpal Abeynayake (now Editor, Sunday Lakbima News) and Bandula Jayasekera (Director General, Presidential Media) for a chit-chat.  All smiles.
‘So you think I am a kattaya?’ he asked.  I replied in the affirmative and explained why I thought he was a shrewd operator.  He kept smiling.  Not one of those have-to-show-equanimity kinds of grins, but a good spirited response.  We had our say. He had his.  All cordial. 
The next time I saw him was at an exhibition.  It was called ‘The Other Side’ and was held at Barefoot.  It showcased the non-advertising creative work of people at Phoenix-Ogilvy and was not limited to those in the Creative Department.  There were paintings, photographs and sculptures.  There was installation art.  I can’t remember all the exhibits now, but I remember one item that made me laugh. 
Harith Gunawardena (now at Grants), who wrote the extremely popular ‘King Barnette’ column in the Irida Divaina, had a box with a label: ‘Norway raajyayen milinda moragodata thaeggak’ (A gift to Milinda Moragoda from the Norwegian Government’.  There was an invitation to open the box and take a look inside.  It contained some ropes, all of them old and frayed. ‘Dead ropes’ or as we say in Sinhala ‘dirachcha (decayed) lanu’. 
This was when Norway played a ‘facilitating’ role between the Government and the LTTE.  To me, it was amazing copy.  It was a neat and powerful political statement.  It didn’t take long thereafter for everyone, including the most ardent (if naïve) supporters of the CFA to realize that the CFA was a road to nowhere, that it was a flawed, in word and in operation and most importantly that the LTTE (as we who had been vilified as ‘war mongers’ argued) was never interested in negotiations.  The exhibit, therefore, also had prophetic value. 
Milinda, at the time and as pointed above, was a key player.  Harith knew that Milinda would come.  It was therefore an in-your-face objection.  He came. He saw.  He was amused.  He offered to buy the exhibit. 
I can think of countless politicians who would have been livid, and many who might have kicked the box or worse, assaulted the box-maker.  I can think of one politician who might have wanted to strangle Harith with the rope, frayed though it was.    Milinda, on the other hand, was amused.  That’s rare, I still think. 
Politicians are kapati people.  It is a goes-without-saying thing.  I still think Milinda Moragoda is an accomplished strategist.  He plans. He calculates.  He does his thing.  Like any other politician.  He is not one to hold a grudge, that much I figured. Doesn’t mean he agrees of course.  It is easy to agree to disagree, easy to criticize and even in the most brutal way.  He doesn’t seem to mind. That’s a first step to taking criticism seriously.  That’s something.  Something rare, in fact. 
Harith was Harith.  Milinda was Milinda.  Milinda changed his political position and Harith can claim victory.  Milinda was Milinda and that made Harith re-assess the man.  I had forgotten exhibition, exhibit and incident. Milinda may have too. Harith had not.  It was a simple political exchange but one with profound outcomes that were not as apparent then as they are now.  It took a sharp critic and a crafty but nevertheless humble recipient of criticism to get both to where they are now, politically and in terms of how they view one another.  That’s something. Something rare, in fact. 


Dulan said...

From what I've seen (which is not much) Mr Milinda Moragoda comes across as a politician from a western country. The way he conducts his campaign, his strategies & behavior, everything reminds me of the western political culture. The problem with that sort of approach is that most of our people (about 60%-70%) are unfamiliar with it, hence his methods are more likely to be misunderstood.

Loved the bit about "dirachcha lanu". Wonderfully creative.

Anonymous said...

Once a shady charactor, always is..
Wouldn't trust Pinto with a mile long cross.

Gayathri Fernando said...

Very interesting read. I know Harith well and enjoyed another piece of satirical humour the guy excels in. By the way he also wrote the script for "Always Breakdown, Always" the funny tv series on Chandrika's govt in which that Lady also appeared amused and did not attempt to main or strangle Harith to my knowledge.

Geeth said...

I thought Dominic Sansoni of Barefoot only welcomed works that glorified the truce of Ranil at that time. It is very good news to know that Dominic being able to maintain independence and balance among highly opinionated circle that was hanging around Barefoot who were diehard supporters of the truce of 2005.

I knew Harith Gunawardhana very well since 1990 until he worked for Ravaya when their office was located on Greenpath Colombo 3. He and I got University entrance together in 1990 and took our initial English course together at Isipathana Vidyalaya. He envisioned this idea of King-barnet for the handout of jokes we planned to distribute among students on the final day of classes to share our laughs with each other. I drew all cartoons for this handout of jokes. That was the occasion he envisioned the idea of Kingbarnet for the first time. But he had developed it later on.

I still remember a cartoon I created for this hand-out that was aimed to laugh at a student who sung an English poem one day in the class that said…
Hole in the bucket- Hole in the bucket…//

So I created a cartoon depicting this student running toward the toilet holding a bucket with a hole that leaks water while singing this poem “Hole in the bucket.” This joke however made this innocent student almost to cry.

I don’t know where Harith lives or works now since I haven’t seen him for last fifteen years.


Malinda Seneviratne said...

Geeth, Barefoot hires out the premises to all kinds of organizations to hold all kinds of events. I don't think Dominic really cares about the content. In any case this was one of many exhibits. Interesting story though about King Barnett! (and of course the hole-in-the-bucket!)