30 November 2013

‘Dammika’ was hardly an omission



Three years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about a ‘get-together’.  It was a sending-off party to a friend who was going overseas and also a celebration of friendships that had lasted twenty years and survived political disagreements, loyalty-shifts and the trajectories that personal lives take, sometimes dragging the relevant persons far away from the world of power and intrigue, betrayal and sacrifice, rhetoric and white lie.  I gave that article the title ‘A Janatha Mithuro moment’ and referred in passing to an organization by that name which those who gathered that night had helped form or were part of. 

I got an email from a friend from my university days, who, after reading the article made the following observation: ‘Malinda, you’ve forgotten one great name of the founders of Janatha Mithuro: Dammika Amarakoon.’ 

I replied that he was not at the little party we had that night.  No one deserves to have his/her life written in a line where name and life are embedded in the midst of so many other names and lives that they become invisible.  I was not writing biography and am not doing so now; just wanted to say that Dammika, most than any of those who gathered that night, was and is still my closest political associate. 

Political associates remain good friends if the relevant politics coincide or the trajectories of political transformation run parallel to one another.  Friendships that remain strong regardless of the political differences are precious (at least when it comes to politically-associated friendships).

Dammika is unforgettable for many reasons.  He was one year junior to me at Dumbara Campus, University of Peradeniya.  He had excelled at badminton while at Dharmaraja College and was in the National Junior Pool, I believe.  He was a sportsman and a sports fan.  Followed all sports. Played most of them.  I still remember going for a Kandy-Police rugger match at Nittawela with Dhammika.  Kandy were leading right up to the final minute.  Two goals, on in the last minute and one in injury time, saw the cops trip the hosts and left the Kandy supporters stunned.  This was in the early nineties.  We still talk about that match.  Dammika recalls: ‘the spectators hung around as though there had to be more minutes left to play’. 

It was, admittedly, the politics that generated most conversations between us.  We were Marxists then, he and I, and of the ‘Old Left’ tradition.  We were anti-JVP, therefore.  And yet, we could identify with the student movement and its objections to the UNP regime of the time.  We were both horrified by the fascism of both UNP and JVP and would both object later to the complicity of the Old Left in the bloodbath that took 60,000 lives in just two years.  Dammika complained that the LSSP never opened the party office in Kandy for him to tender his resignation. 

We were both inspired by the writings of Gunadasa Amarasekera and Nalin De Silva of ‘Jathika Chinthanaya’ fame and they helped rescue us from the determinism, reductionism and overall inadequacy of Marxism.  It was natural, then, for us to gravitate to the Janatha Mithuro brand of green socialism and the nationalisms that just could not suffer the pandering to Eelamism by way of myth-mongering of the Old Left and their new avatar The NGO Lobby (well, key sections of it anyway) and their thinly veiled anti-Buddhist politics. 

Dammika stood up to the JVP in the early nineties. Single-handedly.  He worked tirelessly.  He started a magazine called ‘Sanvaada’ (‘Debate’) and created the ground conditions for political debate to take place and eventually for the JVP monopoly of student politics to be seriously challenged throughout the nineties.  His contributions to various political magazines constitute to my mind the most articulate, theoretically profound, philosophically deep and intellectually honest contributions in the Sinhala language during the past two decades.  If he were to collect and publish his essays they would put to shame most academics in his field of specialization, political science.  His essay on friendship, published in the ‘London’ I think, is a classic, a wonderful exposition where philosophy, politics and literature blend in ways that make it impossible to extricate any of these threads from the tapestry.

He was funny.  I asked him, a few years ago, when he was visiting Sri Lanka (he lives in the USA, where he was once an award-winning cook and now teaches in a university) what he thought of marriage: ‘Marriage, my friend, is a sinful institution!’.  He claimed, at the age of 42, that he had never been in love, but a year previously, he had written to me claiming, ‘Machan…Dammika here…I think I am in love.’  The subject line of the email read ‘Touched for the very first time at the age of 43!’ Yes, he loves music. Old music.  And films too. He gives me ‘must watch’ lists every now and then. 

He could marry her for her voice alone, he said.  He was becoming dysfunctional, he confessed, reporting that he had spent a weekend in bed doing nothing.  He asked if this is what they call ‘love’.  He believed it was a karmic thunderbolt hitting him for laughing at those who claimed to be madly in love.: ‘I do not care if I have to wait for another 10 years; if that day comes I want to marry her in the traditional Sri Lankan way, covering her with jewelry from head to toe. And you will be my best man.’  I’ve seen him weep over other things, man’s inhumanity, social injustice, poverties and tragedies that are so preventable that they challenge us to examine the worth of our existences.  He had no tears for women.  Or so I had thought!

It is more than a quarter of a century since I met Dammika Amarakoon.  Whenever he’s here we meet up. He meets all his friends, organizes cricket matches and picnics.  And we talk. For hours.  About all kinds of things.  And he knew how to laugh too.

He once sent me an email with the following on the subject line: ‘inspected enough’.  There was a request: ‘Machan, can you please take me off your ‘morning inspection’; your name is all over my account…it is like a curse.’  He was referring to an everyday column I wrote for the Daily News, ‘The Morning Inspection’.  I obliged.  He likes to insult me. He praises me too.  He once said he’s writing a sequel to Plato’s ‘The Republic’ and that he will dedicate it to me because, in his words, ‘you will be forced to read it and you more than anyone I know deserve it’.  

We laugh so much together.  We discuss sitcoms we will someday write together and produce together.  The characters are all drawn from people we know, close friends and relatives. Our fathers, his and mine, are 'main characters'.  We will, we promise ourselves, write in the ridiculously funny moments we have shared. Every now and again a word, an incident or encounter will make one of us or both exclaim, 'we have to put that into the sitcom!'  

He’s the purest political associate I’ve known.  I’ve always felt stronger with him by my side. Felt privileged to stand with him.  We were not many then.  He is the most adorable of friends.  Someone to die for, without hesitation.  

msenevira@gmail.com
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