28 January 2018

The frilling of emptiness

On the 26th of March, 1979, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka issued a new series of currency notes.  It was called the ‘fauna and flora series’ and looked prettier than the previously issued notes which were in comparison sombre.  Whereas the old notes felt heavier and seemed serious, these new notes were light and delightful in appearance.  The notes featured fish, butterflies, lizards, birds, frogs, monkeys and reptiles in addition to trees, vines and flowers.

The new notes when they were first encountered were also fresh, naturally.  It was exciting to see and touch them.  My excitement was probably very visible.  My father must have noticed.  I don’t think he wanted to dampen my enthusiasm but perhaps he felt it was a moment to offer an insight to things and processes.  

‘When the value of things depreciate, typically, they get embellished one way or another,’ he said.  To illustrate he told me how he worked with several ministers and key officials in the United Front Government in his capacity as an officer of what was then called the Ceylon Administrative Service.

‘NM, Colvin, Leslie, Doric and I worked in one room and around a single table.  And That’s where key policy decisions were made.  That’s one way to do it.  Start small and grow.’


‘NM’ was of course Dr N.M. Perera, Minister of Finance.  Colvin R De Silva was the Minister of Plantation Industries and Constitutional Affiars. Leslie Goonewardena was the Minister of Communications and Transport.  Doric De Souza was Colvin’s Permanent Secretary. My father, Gamini Seneviratne, was Secretary, Ministry of Plantation Industries. 

What they did and what was later undone would make an interesting story, but let’s leave that for some other time, some other chronicler.  What’s pertinent is embellishment.  What’s pertinent is pretension.  

There was less one could buy with those lovely currency notes than what you could have purchased with the less fancy ones a few years before.  Of course there was less to buy in the 1970-1977 period.  Rations helped people with low incomes survive.  Inflation, anyway, is not easily controlled and one cannot really conclude that those who designed the notes or briefed the artist were determined to conceal ‘less value’ using pretty pictures.


Let’s leave such things aside and return to frill.  I remember the 29th of April 1982.  That’s when the new parliamentary designed by Geoffrey Bawa and constructed by a Japanese consortium was ceremoniously opened by the then President, J.R. Jayewardena.  It was pretty. Just like those new currency notes.  Prettier than the old Parliament at Galle Face which had been opened 52 years before by the then British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Herbert Stanley, and designed for the Legislative Council.  


The old building was sober, seemed more robust.  This new one was grand but somehow lacked the stature of the old Parliament building.  Prettier, though.  Frilled.  

We all know that things weren’t that bad in April 1982.  The referendum and presidential elections would be held in October and December that year.  

That story is known, as is the story of July 1983, the killing of two university students in June 184, and of course the bloodbath towards the end of that decade.  

Things weren’t bad, comparatively speaking, but they weren’t great.  After all, there was the strike of July 1980.  Sirimavo Bandaranaike was stripped of her civil rights the same year.  The signs were there to be seen.  If democracy was the word written on the wall, then it was getting erased.  And who knows, erasure may have prompted an unconscious frilling in the form of a brand new Parliament, one might argue.

To be fair, the plans for that building were made long before 1982.  Some, like NM and Colvin, did see the new constitution of 1978 and the creation of an all-powerful executive president as a constitutional measure made for authoritarianism.  They saw dangers, therefore, to the democratic character of the state.  The vast majority didn’t seem to mind.  Ranasinghe Premadasa sought and obtained sanction from Parliament to construct a new building on the 12 acre island in Kotte on July 4, 1979.  The new government was still basking in the post-election honeymoon period.  In the eyes of the people they could do no wrong.

So we would have to think that the blueprint was predictive as per the theory of the inverse relationship between worth and appearance. 

Politics is a wide canvas from which lots of examples can be drawn, but if we look around carefully we might be able to test the truth of the claim.  What do we attach value to?  Here are some descriptives that tell us about ourselves: bigger, taller, better, richer, faster and smarter.  Worth is directly related to magnitude of one kind or another (or assumed to be so).  That’s inflation of a different kind.  The problem is that when the outer covering expands (or is packaged better) if there isn’t a corresponding qualitative enhancement of what’s within, it probably amounts to the frilling of emptiness.   

Like those currency notes.  We’ve moved past them.  There are no more currency notes for two, five, ten or twenty rupees.  We have moved from fauna and flora to historical and archaeological sites and from these to development.  We’ve depicted heritage, culture and prosperity.  We’ve even issued commemorative currency notes.  

Are we better now than before on all counts?   Nicer currency notes, yes.  More wholesome lives?  I am not sure. 


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