10 May 2016

If all Brown Sahibs unite would they finally lose their skin-tone?

A man called William married a woman called Kate recently. I was at Phoenix Advertising around that time. The TV was on. My daughters were with me. Some were watching the ceremony and my girls wanted to watch it too. The older girl explained, ‘tomorrow, all my friends will be talking about it, so I want to see it’. The younger was worried that this might be the last ‘Royal Wedding’ and didn’t want to miss it. I told them that we had to pay for many centuries so they could marry as they did. 

‘You are indoctrinating them!’ Irvin Weerakkody, who was passing, accused with a grin. I am pretty sure that these two girls, 10 and 7, will learn what ‘royalty’ is all about when they are old enough. I just planted a seed of doubt. Life will water it I am sure. I was not worried. I was, however, amused by the fact that this was spectacle enough for people to blow off work. So I thought that I might as well get a laugh out of it. I made an announcement (in Sinhala):

‘Listen everyone! The world’s first wedding is taking place, and it’s being shown live on TV. Don’t miss it. Most importantly, it is a white man who is getting married.’

Now there are many writers, poets and lyricists who work at Phoenix. In fact Irvin Weerakkody laments often that they can write songs, poems and novels but they can’t write decent copy for an ad. Among them is Udayasiri Wickramaratne, who actually does write brilliant advertising copy. Udayasiri is, to my mind, the voice of Sinhala literature as far as my generation is concerned.


His accomplishments include several novels, short story collections and volumes of poetry. In addition, he is one of the foremost columnists of our time. 

‘Aadaraye Shabdhakoshaya’ (Dictionary of Love) and ‘Arthika Vihilu’ (Economic Jokes, written under the pseudonym ‘Andare Smith, Adam Smith’s Grandson’) were two of the most read and looked forward to columns in the Irida Divaina. He used to translate into Sinhala the late Jayantha Kelegama’s column for the Sunday Island (Dr. Kelegama wrote as ‘Kanes’) and right now he translates pieces from Dostoyevsky’s ‘Diary of a Writer’ for the Irida Divaina even as he contributes a weekly column under the name ‘International Reporter’. Earlier he had translated all of ‘Confessions of Tolstoy’ to the same paper.

All this while running around organizing rehearsals and performances of his latest play ‘Suddek Oba Amathai’ (A White Man Addresses You) and attending to responsibilities related to his regular 9-5 job as copywriter at Phoenix.

I had seen Udayasiri somewhere a few minutes earlier, so I shouted (in Sinhala): ‘A White Man is getting married!’

The next moment, Udayasiri sends me a text message (obviously copied to a lot of people; he takes the Ogilvy slogan ‘360 degree brand stewardship’ seriously): ‘Ada suddek kasaada bandiy; 11venida suddek oba amathai’ (Today a white man is getting married; on the 11th a white man will address you’). Yes, he knows how to write advertising copy and has a keen sense of ‘moment’, that crucial element in establishing relationship between brand and potential consumer.

A few days ago, I saw a poster. A red poster with three photographs neatly boxed in the centre. It was, at first glance, a May Day poster and I expected the figures to be Marx, Lenin and perhaps Wijeweera. The line at the top was not ‘sakala desha vaasi nirdhanayani ekvau’ (The Proletariat of All Countries Unite!). It was a play on those well-known words: ‘sakala desha vaasi kalu suddani ekvau’ (translatable as ‘Brown Sahibs of the World Unite’).

I expected a twist on the follow up line from the Communist Manifesto, ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains’. Something like, ‘you have nothing to lose but your skin tone’. It would have been over-kill, I later concluded.

Udayasiri had followed up his text-ad based on the Kate-William wedding fixation. Priceless. Made me want to see the play again.

The figures on the poster were the incomparable Jayalath Manoratne, the award-winning Madhani Malwattage and Nuwan Pradeep Uduwela, who deliver three brilliant soliloquys, Ithihaasaya Oba Amathai (History addresses you), Sthriyak Oba Amathai (A woman addresses you) and Suddek Oba Amathai (A white man addresses you) respectively. Adding the fourth, Bhayavunu minisek oba amathai (A terrified man addresses you) would have messed up the layout of the poster perhaps.

We live in interesting and confused times. We don’t easily recognize that the people we vilify are actually resident within us one way or another. It is good to have a mirror held in front of us now and then. Udayasiri does this in the kindest manner possible.

He makes us think about who we are. He makes us laugh. He silences us.

And he even provokes us to raise voice at the appropriate moment. That’s a necessary precondition for exploring who we can be.

Important, in these times, I think. I realized this the first time I saw the play, April 1, 2010 (Udayasiri’s poster for the maiden performance was ‘A white man addresses you on April Fool’s Day’).

My daughters like drama. They like song. They like history. They might miss the political nuances, but I am sure they’ll enjoy the show and have hundreds of questions to ask, many of which will no doubt floor me.

Small price to pay. I am going to the Elphinstone on Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 3.30 or at 6.30, depending on what their after-school programme for that day is like.

I am not sure if I’ll come across any Brown Sahibs at the 50th performance of the play, but if such a creature still lurks inside me, I am sure I will be able to get hold of the dude and do something to it.
Like patting it on the head and sending it along its way to its true traditional homeland, wherever the hell that may be. 

This article was first published on May 10, 2011 in the 'Daily News'.  
 
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