12 December 2019

S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds




‘A walk in the clouds’ is a 1995 American romantic drama based on the 1942 Italian film ‘Four steps in the clouds’. As the title suggests, the script and even the set is dreamy and even a tad unreal. It’s a feel-good flick nevertheless and if you are not an incurable cynic you might even celebrate the kindness and decency woven into a sweetness that does seem overdone. Keanu Reeves portrays the chief protagonist well while Anthony Quinn keeps things sober, ironically.

We’ve all walked in clouds at one time or another. Metaphorically, of course. ‘Not often enough,’ I told myself last Sunday morning, when an old friend took me along those unnamed and unmapped roads of nostalgia and metaphor to astral destinations unvisited in years.  

Charitha Dissanayake is an old friend. Although few years junior to me in school, Charitha is probably 15 years senior to me in the media field. Now domiciled in Australia, Charitha had come to Sri Lanka for his father’s funeral. 

We spoke about the things that are of common interest, as old friends do. And we spoke of our fathers. 

S.A. Dissanayake. That’s Somapala Alwis Dissanayake. I hadn’t known that name until a few years ago when I wrote about one of my most cherished childhood memories: the Mihira paththare (newspaper) and in particular the cartoon stories, ‘Boo, baba saha thulsi’ and that inimitable character, Batakola Aachchi . I posted the story on my blog and shared it on Facebook (Memories of Mihira and days when life was so much sweeter). Several people commented, sharing their memories of Mihira. Charitha was one of them.

‘That's my Thaththa. I told him about your comment and you. He was delighted as he felt he had done something for society. He is very old now (me too), but he is still drawing for “Mihira”; 50 not out at the same newspaper. Never heard of such an achievement.’

I wanted to meet him. It never happened. And I forgot. And then he died. And there were lots of posts in social media about him. 

Charitha spoke about his father. We talked for more than four hours and I realized that in every minute he spoke there was material for an article. The story of clouds, however, was special. 

‘He would make us look at cloud formations. He would point to “mouths” and “legs” for example. Sometimes my sister and I could “see” these figures, sometimes we didn’t.’ Charitha believes that this helped him see things differently. He told me how he saw ‘figures’ in the decaying wooden door of the toilet in their house. 

Extrapolation is inevitable. We begin to see things in different light. We shed received definitions and descriptions. We inscribe on things traces of our imagination. We dream. We walk in clouds. We create anew. 

And I remembered a conversation that took place near the short parapet wall outside the Arts Theatre of the Peradeniya University. It was evening. The sun was setting over the WUS canteen and had sprayed wonderful colors over a cloud formation that I no longer remember. Except that it was beautiful. I was with my friend Kanishka Goonewardena, at the time studying Architecture at Moratuwa University. I drew his attention to the sky.

‘Infinite poetry,’ he simply said.

S.A. Dissanayake is not the first parent who took his children for a walk in the clouds. However, not many who did so translated cloud into words and images to delight children of other parents. 

He drew his life, Charitha mused, explaining that the characters were based on real people. 

‘A few years ago, someone posted in social media that the character Yodaya (Giant) was a copy of Obelix in Goscinny and Uderzo’s famous Asterix series. The truth is that while we had Tintin books at home, my father had never heard or seen Asterix until the late nineties when I bought him one of those books. Yodaya does resemble Obelix, but my father’s character was based on his own father.’ In both appearance and ways, he added. 

Apparently, S.A. Dissanayake was actually named ‘Lesley Alwis’ by his parents and that’s how he signed his early illustrations. In the nationalist surge of 1956, he had dropped Lesley and taken on ‘Somapala’ and, perhaps as a further symbolic shedding, had dropped the ‘Alwis’ part when Charitha’s sister was named.  

He had consistently spoken of color balance. Key word, balance, and this Charitha had applied to his work in radio in later years. Another example of re-naming, re-configuring. Another outcome of having walked in clouds, one might say.

He’s gone now. And when I heard he was no more, I wrote to Charitha. 

‘We owe so much to your father, whose name I never knew as a child and as an adult did not know you were his son. He goes well because he gave so many of us so much wellness.’

He walks in the clouds, as he always did. And that’s where he took us as children, holding our hands and inviting us to explore and experience wonderment.  




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