10 February 2015

Saatakakaranaya: the right and wrong way

Five years ago, a few days after Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected President, the following article was published in the 'Daily News' (February 5, 2010).  It refers to another article on the same lines published in the 'Daily Mirror' in December 2005, a few weeks after he was first elected President, 'In search of the kurahan saatakaya'.  Today, a few weeks after Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated, it would be good to revisit by way of assessing what went wrong, what needed to be done but was not, what had to be avoided but was embraced etc. For those who don't know the term, 'Saatakaya' is a long piece of cloth draped around the neck and one which came to be associated with the Rajapaksa presidency.  

No girl is like her father and I know girls whose lifestyles are quite unlike like those of their fathers nor in tune with the kind of lifestyles their fathers’ advocated or championed.  I know a girl whose father was a lyricist, a self-confessed godaya who took pride in the fact. She, on the other hand, was educated in Colombo and is quite the sophisticated young urbanite and in dress, manner and language very different to her father.  I have heard a few disparaging comments consequently but she told me one day that they had got it all wrong and had never understood her father

‘He may have liked a particular kind of lifestyle but there was one thing that was important to him: he wanted to be who he was and he was proud of who he was.  This is what I learnt from him and his life.’ 

If there is anything that has acquired iconic status in Sri Lanka over the past 5 years it is the kurahan saatakaya.  Today this simple matter of a piece of cloth around the neck is symbol of loyalty to the President and the Government as well as a wardrobe accessory that has become quite popular.  This morning (February 4, 2010), watching briefly the Independence Day celebrations on television, I wondered whether we as a nation have missed the point of the kurahan saatakaya and the point made by its most visible icon-bearer, Mahinda Rajapaksa by the very fact of wearing it.

This is what I saw.  I saw two presenters, on Rupavahini, one speaking in Sinhala and one in Tamil, in full national costume but draped in saatakas.  It smacked more of loyalty to party and Mahinda Rajapaksa than to country or President for party is not state and person is not president.  It made me recall a far more incongruous usage of the saataka.  This was just after S.B. Dissanayake was thrown in jail for contempt of court by Sarath N Silva.  His supporters organized a demonstration and satyagraha in protest at Town Hall.  The organizers had made the participants, especially those on the ‘satyagrahing’ stage, wear saatakas.  They were not kurahan-coloured of course; yellow and black if I remember right.  The logic escaped me then and I still cannot put a finger on it.  It seemed incongruous then and seems so now as well. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa is not Mr. Perfect.  He is in many ways Mr. Ordinary and that’s not an insult but a compliment.  There is one ‘extraordinary’ aspect to the man, though.  He is not only aware of where he came from he is proud of the fact and draws strength from it.  And this, more than anything else, is what his detractors just cannot suffer.  Had he been the nobody who became a somebody in the manner in which the nobody-Senanayakes became somebody-Senanayakes or the nobody-Wijewardenas became somebody-Wijewardenas few would find fault with him, but alas, he was Mahinda Rajapaksa from Medamulana in 1970 and is more or less the same Medamulane Mahinda Rajapaksa 40 years later. 

The challenge is two-fold for the nation and those who admire the President. First, the need to resist being his clones and instead being themselves, conscious of who they are, where they come from, who their parents are, what their values are etc etc and being proud and not ashamed of all that, preferably not because it is impossible to become a Senanayake-somebody, for instance, but because that is possible but not desired.

The second and more important challenge is to understand that the kurahan saatakaya is not wardrobe accessory but metaphor. This means that the important thing is not to wear it in the manner of mimicry, but to internalize all the important things it symbolizes (yes, there are unimportant and not very laudatory things it represents, we must acknowledge). 

In early December 2005, a couple of weeks after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President for the first time, I wrote a piece to the Daily Mirror titled ‘In search of the kurahan saatakaya’ (you can google the title along with my name and find it on the internet).

I argued then in the following manner: The kurahan saatakaya is and was essentially defined by what it is not, namely the tie-coat world as one would put it in “Sinhala”. It was the perfect “other” to everything represented by the (adopted) children of the colonial project, the privileges they enjoyed and the elitism they fostered and fought for tooth and nail 
perhaps never as ferociously as in this election.

The project, then, I agued, was to ‘establish the validity and practicality of the kurahan saatakaya in all things subject to the caveat that there is nothing to say that the tie-coat universe has nothing to offer to us.’

What I said then is still valid and if we haven’t come too far part of the reason is that we’ve been a nation under subjugation for over 500 years and part of the reason is we have been lazy and intellectually and ideologically slow. 

There are I think two kinds of saatakafication or saatakakaranaya. The first, the kind of cloning exemplified by the two TV presenters (the fault of sycophantic producers and other superiors, I am sure). It doesn’t take us anywhere.  The second is that of the lyricist’s daughter.  This is how I wrote the difference 4 years ago and I believe it is still valid.

If there comes a day where every single institution insists that all employees wear a kurahan saatakaya we would still not have won if they continue to have tie-coat heads. On the other hand, if these institutions continue to insist that employees wear Western attire, replete with tie and coat, but the people inside these clothes have a kurahan saatakaya frame of mind, then the November 17 decision would most certainly have produced something we can be proud of as a nation. I humbly submit that this is not impossible.

Here’s the question for the nation and the citizens in the coming months and years (and their entire lifetimes, why not!): ‘Do you want to wear a saatakaya and if so how would you like to wear it?’

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.


Anonymous said...

Mahinda Rajapaksha perhaps was our last given chance at being an independent nation. He made mistakes, he made some bad choices, true. But, what we lost as a nation by voting him out at a juncture in history where there's no one in sight as replacement, is far far greater than the things we may or may not have won. Sad.

sajic said...

MR lost credibility because he condoned and ignored so much that was evil and in the public face. The buck really stopped with him. The people had been incredibly patient for a long time. He forgot that no one is indispensable.

SHYAM said...

Mahinda Rajapaksa's legacy is yet to be detailed. However, he holds a unique position in history that no present leader accomplished. He was able to stop the war by being able to stand up to pressures which showcases true leadership in trying times! He did make mistakes down the road, but he had a vision for the country, implementation of it is questionable no doubt, but it is indeed sad to see a man who gave the country freedom from terrorism being made out to be a villaneous character overnight who did nothing but plunder the country for his benefit!

It shows our inherent cruelty and cussardity in society, though we preach about good we do not practice it! We are quick to judge people and condemn and find them guilty of crimes based on mere allegations! We have become opportunistic to the point that we do not care if the other person is eliminated in an unjust manner so long as we achieve our aim.

My hope for Sri Lanka is that the citizenary is able to grasp the fundamental human qualities expected in a just society, be able to distinguish right and wrong and accordingly commend or condemn same!

future shall be the judge of the present, that's how history is made it keeps evolving history shall record the feats of men and their achievements. At that point in time none of us will be around, if history is recorded in an accurate and impartial manner Mahinda Rajapaksa would earn his rightful place along with other present day leaders!

Politics aside, Give him due credit for the good that he did condemn him for the follies that he committed. See which way the scales would tip and accordingly give him your personal judgement.