18 February 2020

You can always go to GOAT Mountain

There are shortcuts to success but none that take you to greatness. Success is often taken to be a matter of being name-recognized or face-recognized, but that’s only for a while. A reasonable enough goal, certainly, and many are more than happy to get there. They are more likely than not to be ready to adopt the limited wisdom of the adage ‘by any means necessary’. Greatness is something else though. 

Bernadus Carnotensis, a twelfth-century French Neo-Platonist philosopher, better known as Bernard of Chartres, once spoke of discovering truth by building on previous discoveries. Isaac Newton’s version is the most quoted, ‘if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Greats. 

The late Kobe Bryant worked hard and relentlessly to get to where he got in basketball. If he hit airballs he tried to find out the reason. Weak legs, he figured. He worked hard to strengthen his legs. No airballs thereafter. Done. 

That was not all. There were times when he couldn’t get around something. Then he visited, in his words, GOAT Mountain. GOAT as in ‘Greatest of All Time.’  Obviously that implies just one individual, but there’s always a debate about the GOAT of any sport. Bryant covered all the bases. He went to all the available peaks in the mountain range: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Jerry West, Oscar Robinson and Bill Russell.

Sure, he wanted to be better than MJ and was dismissed as an arrogant kid when he said so at the age of 17. And yet, there was utmost respect and that respect was returned by MJ and others. 

The greats are almost always generous with advice and like all true greats they recognize and nurture potential greats. Like Kobe Bryant. They would respond, of course, to the not-so-great or even the pedestrian, but there’s particular delight in offering tips to those who had it in them not just to be great but to surpass the advising great. 

Kobe visited GOAT Mountain. Now that alone won’t do, obviously. You need focus. Discipline. Exercise. Fellow travelers on the path to greatness. Great teachers. The GOATS are there, but there are not hands-on teachers. They inspire and spending time with them or even being in their presence can fuel the determination to become better at what you do. However, for a variety of reasons it’s not everyone who pencils in ‘Visit GOAT Mountain’ in the must-do notebook.  Kobe did.  It must have helped. 

It’s not a basketball story. It’s a soccer story. It’s a tennis story too. Name a sport and you’ll find there’s always a GOAT Mountain. There are GOATs. Name a field of science and you’ll find scientific GOATs. It’s the same in the social sciences. The arts. Literature. Politics. Even party politics. Specific fields of business. Manufacturing. Advertising. Services. Agriculture. 

GOATs are libraries. Archives. Repositories of secrets gathered through handwork, discipline, engagement and years. AND the GOATs who came before. 

Kobe always figures in discussions about the GOAT in basketball. Is it Jordan or LeBron, someone will ask and immediately the audience will divide into pro-MJ and pro-Bron. However, someone might chip in, ‘how about Kobe?’  The debate never ends and the true greats really don’t care about such things. 

MJ scored 32,292 points in his NBA career. When LeBron passed him in May 2019, he did it in a pair of Nikes with ‘Thank you M.J.’ written on the side. ‘MJ was like lightning in a bottle for me, because I wanted to be like him,’ Bron said. MJ congratulated him. 

On January 26, 2020, LeBron passed Kobe and moved to third place (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone) and Kobe tweeted, ‘Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.’

A few hours later Kobe Bryant was dead. And the basketball world wept. 

That’s another story. All that we need to understand is that there are mountains. GOAT mountains. The GOATS are down to earth folk, but you have to go to GOAT Mountain to meet them, climb on their shoulders and see further than they could see. They will not mind.

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [February 17, 2020]

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News' on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week]

The Eldest: a story written on face and in eyes

16 February 2020

The USA has made a case against SOFA, so there!

US TROOPS: An idiot's choice, absolutely!

The United States of America and her agents in Colombo which include but is not restricted to people in the diplomatic mission did their best to get a highly unpopular government clearly on its way out to sign two controversial agreements: SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact. In the last days of the Yahapalana Government all manner of pressure was put on the then President, Prime Minister and Cabinet to get these matters done. 

Obviously, there are no tangible benefits for Sri Lanka from the first, SOFA. The MCC Compact was pushed using two arguments. They said, ’it’s free bucks machang!’ Well, it is strange isn’t it that it is the giver and not intended receiver that is so anxious about it? They also said, sotto voce, ‘We are your main trading partner, machang. Saying without saying it, ‘sign it or else!’ 

It was supposed to be a Sri Lanka driven exercise. Not true. It was the US that pushed it. And the pushers they pushed operated from Temple Trees. We all know that Mangala Samaraweera, a senior minister of the Yahapalana regime, was in charge of two key subjects, foreign affairs and finance. We know also that he was and probably still is Uncle Sam’s darling.  So, yes, they could say ‘it’s a Sri Lankan baby!’ No one is being fooled though. 

What was even more interesting is that Sri Lanka, by dint of achieving Upper Middle Income Status was on the brink of becoming ineligible for the ‘grant’. If it was intended to help the ‘needy’ and if the formerly ‘needy’ are no longer in want, why on earth was the USA so determined to arm-twist Sri Lanka into signing the agreement? 

The President has appointed a Committee to review the draft agreement (which, by the way, was suspiciously kept under covers for a long, long time). Better to review than not, of course, but given the pernicious nature of the entire process and the absolutely untenable arguments for such an agreement given stated criteria he probably should have said ‘sorry dude, no can do.’ Maybe he was being diplomatic, having just assumed office and not wanting to rub anyone the wrong way from the beginning itself, but then again why waste time and money? 

The Committee has solicited public representations regarding the MCC Compact. Many probably have done so already. Some objections are in the public domain. They include a sharp piece by former Permanent Representative to the UN, Tamara Kunanayagam and a comprehensive and damning review by the Sri Lanka Geo-Political Study Circle.

It is hard to see these arguments being countered. The pro-MCC noises made by the neoliberal nati beholden and servile to US interests are in comparison sophomoric. Anyway, the Lalith Gunaruwan Committee will soon deliver a verdict of a kind. It would be interesting to see what it will be since it might end up defining the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, one way or another.

SOFA. That’s what this is about. Status of Forces. Military, in other words. It would essentially give immunity from prosecution to US service personnel while on Sri Lankan soil. To put it crudely, they can and will get away with murder and of course lesser crimes. That’s just one part of it. History has shown that the US has never come in peace and has never come without intention to plunder and/or control. Just the other day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that his country had formally delivered a notice to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement to the United States. That’s the Philippine version of SOFA, by the way. It took them 22 years to reach this decision. We don’t need to wait that long. We don’t have to sign it at all. Period.  

But why not?  Well, Duterte’s decision has been prompted by the US refusing visas to one of its congress members. Peeved, one supposed. Seems frivolous. Perhaps there were more compelling reasons and this refusal was a convenient excuse. Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We don’t know. 

But here in Sri Lanka we have the USA wanting to station troops (whose track record for decades has been genocidal, nothing less) even as that country rubbishes Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, refusing to grant him a visa. 

So, in essence, if SOFA is signed, any US military official, from Commander to foot soldier to clerk, can step into Sri Lanka without a by-your-leave, hello brother, how machang and so on, but the most senior officer of the Sri Lankan Army cannot step on US soil.

The United States of America has made it very easy for President Gotabaya Rajapakasa. This decision is too much an insult to be withdrawn as part of a deal (e.g. ‘ok, we will give Shavendra a visa, but you better get on with SOFA and MCC, dude!). The President must decide who he stands with: the Commander of his Army or some two-bit political appointee in the US State Department. 

The US has showed her ugly mug. Hard to respond with a smile, handshake, shrug of shoulders and an inking that would be an absolute act of treachery. Now the US-lovers/slaves in Colombo will no doubt talk about beggars not being able to choose. Sure, we are not rich, but neither are we destitute. Even if we were destitute, there’s pride. And if we’ve survived the wounds and scars of half a millennium of brutal colonial rule, it’s because of that very same pride. Maybe this is another opportunity to stand up rather than lay down and be walked roughshod over. 

The US was wringing hands not too long ago to get the documents signed. Why? Well, they probably believed it would be tougher to get things done their way under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. Maybe they even thought it would be impossible. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This is your moment, sir. The USA has killed SOFA. Do the honors: bury it. Along with the MCC. 

This article was first published in the SUNDAY MORNING [February 16, 2020]


A political reading of the US Ambassador's angst

14 February 2020

Let’s learn the art of embracing damage

The universe is made of breaks. Broken things and things breaking. That’s one way to think of it. It’s made of making too. Things put together. Things coming together. Grand or minute design or even just doing what needs to be done, the act alone suturing that which has been torn apart. 

It’s a half full and half empty glass kind of thing. We inscribe on things and processes the colors of our anxieties or our excitement. Sometimes despair overwhelms but then again human history is replete with countless examples of the human spirit rising above discontent to create magnificent edifices upon the rubble of destroyed cities. 

Such things came to mind perusing a recent Facebook post by Asela Abeywardene. Asela is a sculptor, painter, poet, activist, teacher and a student of everything she engages with. She’s very good at all these things.

“Today's 'Say it with Art' session: Broken but Beautiful - learning from Kintsugi: the art of embracing damage.” That’s the note she wrote for the photographs she had posted of the work of some students. 

Kintsugi. Apparently it is derived from ‘kin’ which means ‘golden’ and ‘tsugi’ which is Japanese for ‘repair’. So it’s a Japanese art tradition which uses precious metals such as gold or silver in liquid form or else lacquer dusted with powdered gold to bring together broken pieces of pottery. Embrace as opposed to discard. How lovely! 

Just the other day I read about roads made of recycled plastic. Of course if we didn’t use plastic in the first place it would have been much better. What has happened is that the true pollution generators such as soft drink manufacturers have neatly shelved guilt by passing it on to consumers who, for their part, have not really objected nor done what perhaps they ought to do, boycott. There's something irresponsible and unfair in a world which some  are determined to break while others are forced to heal. 

However, Kintsugi is certainly an idea that probably draws from all this and yields a message about all broken things, big and small, tangible and intangible. There are things we can pour into cracks which not only repair and hide but heal tired eyes, dispel despair and generate spark and delight. 

Seeds take up residence in the most imperceptible of fissures in the hardest of rocks. They take root. They break through. And landscapes hard and barren become green without envy. Some seeds are planted by birds. Some are carried by the elements. And then, there are teachers who give out secrets of healing that are never labeled as such. 

This world is made not just of fissures, but massive fractures separating human bring from human being, nation from nation, one mad and burning idea from waters that can quench. There’s gold and silver and even lacquer that can be dusted with precious metal. There are instruments such as a brush or a line of poetry that can make the broken beautiful. There are ways to embrace rather than curse damage. 

And it happens. At workshops and elsewhere. In a nation and a household. A community scarred by conflict and multiple communities distanced by distrust. There are histories buried by historiography. There’s unearthing that must happen and sometimes the raising is done not so much by the archaeologist but the artist. 

Asela’s students learn Kintsugi. The implications and applications are unlikely to be lost on them. Or on those who chance to gaze upon what they create. Maybe the world with all its many, deep and tragic wounds have survived because there have been enough people who realized the importance of embracing the hurt. With equanimity. Maybe we have as a species survived because there were gentle people who understood intimately that ‘broken’ does not forbid ‘beauty’.  

Years ago, when my father was very young he wrote a love poem about breaking. It was about how in innocence ‘they’ had squandered beauty. In a Kintsugi kind of moment he spoke about picking pieces and putting them together to produce something ‘closer to the heart’s desire.’ 

Of course none of this should be taken as a theory of sanctioning wrongdoing. It is often necessary to resist things that damage or can potentially hurt. On the other hand, we can choose to abandon desecrated lands or turn them into temples of art, meaning and life. Kintsugi. Maybe this is what will see us through in times of breaking and darkness. Embrace births incredibly beautiful poetry. Heals.

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [February 14, 2020]

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':
[published in the 'Daily News' on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week]

Devanee vs Sanath: who do you want to back, Citizen?

A YouTube video going viral on social media has a state official going one-on-one with a politician.  Well, not exactly one-on-one because the politician had in his corner what could be assumed was a section of his constituency. Not exactly in the corner. They were in the ring, so to speak. 

It was a discussion about encroachments. The politician, Sanath Nishantha Perera (MP, Puttalam DIstrict, United People’s Freedom Alliance) is the State Minister of Fisheries and Inland Fisheries Industry. He sided with the complainants who were wanted laws and regulations swept aside and mangroves destroyed.

The official, Devanee Jayathilaka is an Assistant Conservator of Forests. She spoke of the law. The minister wasn’t confrontational. He did not, as many other politicians do, berate the official. He was cordial throughout, quite in keeping with the reputation he has built for himself, having come through the ranks, local government to provincial council and parliament. He was playing ‘representative’ which is of course legitimate. He however urged the official to be flexible. Interesting word, there. He was essentially acknowledging the importance of the law but was suggesting that relevant laws could be bent and indeed encouraging her to do so. As he certainly should not have. The Assistant Conservator stood her ground. As she certainly should. 

Then there were the agitated. When the official spoke her piece, they screamed at her. The minister let them spew their anger. The official stood her ground. She insisted, again and again, that laws should be upheld and science should drive decision-making, implying of course that emotion neither helps nor should be deferred to in such matters. The ‘aggrieved’ tried to shout her down. Not nice, but then it is the aggrieved who feels most their grief. Understandable, but not nice. 

Now how did this become ‘news’? Why did the clip go viral on YouTube? In all likelihood it is because it is atypical. A long history, that’s decades long by the way, has created a culture where politicians simply ride roughshod over official and citizen. An equally long history of enforced servility has seen the rise of officials marked by a tenacious resolve to maintain silence. There are benefits that silence yield, this should also be kept in mind. It is against such a history and in such a political culture that the official’s decision to stand up and speak her mind, well, stands out.  

The commentary that followed is interesting. ‘She will be transferred, just wait and see!’ That was a common comment. ‘It looks like there’s a culture that’s taking root which allows officials to stand up to politician, defend the law and do justice to their position.’ That’s another way of looking at it.  However, one swallow, as they said, does not make a summer. A single incident does not indicate culture. One individual is not a front.  Nevertheless, the ‘virality’ does indicate a wish that indeed this should be norm and not exception. 

If all the excitement is peeled off, we are left with three individuals representing three segments of the population: a citizen, a politician and an official. The politician represents or is supposed to represent the citizen. The official is mandated to serve the people. The citizen can make representation and is well within his/her rights to expect efficient and fair service from the official. 

Now let’s take this case. The citizen speaks to the politician who in turn conveys sentiments to the official. The official points out established rules and regulations. Citizen wants rules ignored. Politician wants rules bent. Official says ‘no’.  If laws are made on behalf of the people by their representatives as per expressed sentiments then the citizen is required to uphold the law. However, laws are not cast in stone. Situations change. Laws at times need to be amended. There is provision for this. There are mechanisms. It may take time, but then again, that’s the nature of proper and established procedures. Many factors need to be taken into account. A quick amendment may sort out a problem that seems to be in need of an urgent intervention, but such measures amount of precedents that could have seriously negative repercussions. They could generate bigger problems which, typically, the formerly aggrieved but now relieved segments don’t have to worry about. They will necessarily burden the official and to a lesser extent the politician.

It is good for the citizen to express himself or herself. It is good for a politician to listen. It is good for the politician to convey the sentiment to the relevant state authority. It is good for the official to advise a politician about what’s possible within the law and to point out what is out of order. It is good that there are forums where all stakeholders can meet, discuss and look for common ground. It is sad that all things considered we have a weak and docile citizenry, weak and docile officials and a strong, arrogant, ignorant and corrupt political class. In the main. 

So it is not a simple matter of picking Devanee over Sanath or vice versa. It’s not a matter of a citizen’s demand should be met, regardless. It is not as simple as that. 

Instead, it ought to be a matter where public interest gets articulated and is heard with the intention to find sustainable solutions without compromising the regulatory apparatus. In this instance, perhaps the citizen will not get what he or she wants. The solution, if there is one, may not be ideal, but there must be an honest effort to obtain an optimal resolution. Typically it ends up with an official empowered by integrity being seen as an obstacle and therefore removed. Typically, laws and bent. Typically the solution is framed by political expedience. Typically self interest triumphs. That should change. If this issue is taken as a litmus test for a more rational approach to solving problems, we would be moving in the right direction. If not, it would be same old, same old. 

Sure, there’ll be cheers and jeers. Some of it would be informed by political preference. Some by even misplaced belief that official, politician or citizen cannot be wrong, ever. Once the noise dies down, there’ll be space for sobriety.  Hopefully reason will prevail over emotion.

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [February 13, 2020]

malindasenei@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.

12 February 2020

Kandy Lake is lined with poetry

Beautiful places make memories, inspire poetry. Things familiar also do of course. Very often that which makes places most memorable quite apart from what’s spectacular or exquisitely nuanced, are incidents, conversations, people, and moments. As such there could theoretically be thousands of poems about Peradeniya University, for example. Thousands about any university or school or place of work or city for that matter. 

There could be a verse for every drop of water that ever took up residence in the Kandy Lake. I am sure there are many written and many more that swirled in mind and heart and are lost forever. Here’s one that is particularly beautiful. Titled පොරි අහුරක් [pori aurak or a handful of popcorn], it was written by one of the best contemporary Sinhala poets, Ruwan Bandujeewa. 

ජින් බෝතල් තුනෙන්
නුවර වැවට
ඉතිරි ටික මට

වැව, නුඹ
වෙරි විය යුතුය

කතා කළ හැක

මතකද ඇය
පොරි අහුරක්
විසිකළ මොහොත
නුඹ මතට.

This poem, included in a wonderful collection titled මීළඟ මීවිත [meelanga meevitha or ‘The Next Wine’] could be translated as follows: 

Into the Kandy Lake
emptied I
of three bottles of gin
two and a half
the rest
for me.

You, lake
must get drunk
this day

For then
can we talk

Of that moment
when for the first time
a handful of popcorn
onto your waves
she tossed.

Not a trace of the pathetic fallacy that often marks place-related love poetry. Says so much. Such poetry abounds in, around and about the Kandy Lake. Some I’ve heard but most I will never know. But here’s a note for one yet to be written, inspired in part by Lakdasa Wikkramasinha’s poem titled ‘Nossa Senhora dos Chingalas,’ about which I once wrote, ‘for lyrical finesse, emotional control, narrative ease, simplicity of metaphor, and for informed and astute political commentary this was Lakdasa at his best.’ Simply, for me, in this poem Lakdasa restored to the human being her lost or rather stolen divinity.  

This story, a short one, is about love, sweat, faith and in the end respect for those who toil. 

It happened last Friday (January 31, 2020). A resident of Alawatugoda got off from a bus near the Kandy Lake. He was to meet old friends at the Kandy Garden Club. He could have bussed or ‘tukked’ it. He had considered these options because he was carrying a heavy bag and is not as young as he looks. 

‘I figured that if Jesus Christ could walk up a hill carrying a heavy cross, it can’t be impossible for me to go by foot. I stopped several times. It was all good. I felt good. It felt nice.’

Naturally. You can stop anywhere along the road that skirts Kandy Lake and be touched deeply by the beauty of the lake, the city, the hills, the Dalada Maligawa and of course history and heritage if such things matter or are known. All the more sweet and beautiful when carrying a heavy bag or a cross (metaphorically speaking). 

Dhammika has spent half his life in the USA. He ‘retired’ early so he can attend to the various needs of his parents, both in their eighties. He does all that and finds time now and then to meet old friends. He hasn’t emptied alcohol into the Kandy Lake, he has had no compelling reason to do so, literally or metaphorically, but his has been a life made of reflection. Carries more crosses than I have seldom seen people burdened with and yet is moved to tears at anyone loaded with the weight of circumstances, memory and responsibility. 

Who or what among the multitude that must have traveled on that road thought of poetry in that hour approaching dusk? I don’t know. A thought, a decision and a simple man of simple ways did, this I know. It was a drop of poetry, a handful of popcorn and timeless commerce with the Kandy Lake. If you want a name, Dhammika Amarakoon.

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [February 10, 2020]

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News' on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week]