15 July 2023

Character theft and the perennial question 'Who am I?'

There’s a classic scene in the popular mob movie ‘Analyze this’ where Billy Crystal, playing Ben Sobel, a psychiatrist forced into treating the mafia boss Paul Vitti (played by Robert De Niro), is arm-twisted into representing Vitti at a gathering of all major mafia outfits. Out of place and out of sorts, he spouts out drivel absolutely unrelated to the proceedings.

‘Who is this guy?’ asks Primo Sidone (played by Chazz Palminteri) and Nobel seizes the opportunity to ramble on about the question of identity.

‘Who I am or who am I? “Who am I?” is a question for the ages.’

That, Sobel explains, ‘is the question we are all searching to find out.’

Now ‘Analyze this’ is a comedy and this particular scene is hilarious. Crystal himself is a comedian in addition to being an accomplished actor. Perfect. Comedies, however, often have humour and laughter layered over serious stuff, even things that are deeply philosophical.

This was apparent in Ravindra Ariyaratne’s ‘Charithe horu aran (the character has been stolen [by thieves]),’ which I watched a few days ago.

Two key characters, the mayor (played by Gihan Fernando) and the leader of the opposition (played by Chinthaka Peiris) in the unnamed municipal council, are both sleepwalkers who, in addition, suffer from memory loss. They don’t know who they are, they don’t know where they live or anything about their personal lives. Ravindra has scripted in the mayor’s wife (Ferni Roshini), a the mayor’s doctor (Wasantha Vittachchi), a random single woman who is oblivious to the political intrigue embedded in the play (Chamila Peiris) and a nosey journalist (Sarath Karunaratne). It is a cleverly woven story with no loose ends, plenty of laughs caused by multiple confusion caused by both memory-loss and delusion.    

Udayasiri Wickramaratne, another accomplished playwright who too uses the comic element to examine identity issues has written an excellent review in Sinhala (published in the ‘Silumina,’ March 31, 2018) which I need not replicate/translate here.

The title reminded me of identity theft, which is not the same thing. Identity theft would be ‘ananyatha sorakama.’  In the case of identity theft the person ‘robbed’ does not have agency. It happens often. A ‘character’ is not the same thing as ‘identity’ for it refers to all kinds of traits, preferences, flaws, strengths and even thoughts, aspirations and dreams.

In this instance, on the face of it, the ‘thief’ is a medical condition, but memory having been erased, the particular character has to reconstruct his identity and in the process the true character emerges but without any of the filters people usually use so as to ‘show the best face,’ so to speak.

On the surface, this ‘revelation’ is funny because it confirms what is suspected of politicians and of course the near and dear as well as those who associate politicians seeking personal gain. The confusion caused in the process drags people out of comfort zones and scripted lives: they slip, they reveal. And we laugh because we know that all is is part of the ‘everyday’ of all lives, ours included. Life writes in lines we have not read, rehearsed or anticipated, and we are forced out of the script. Masks thus shed, we have to show our real faces.

And just like the characters on stage we are encouraged to consider the perennial question referred to by Ben Sobel in the mob meeting scene: ‘who am I?’ Extrapolate: ‘who are we?’

What kind of citizens are we, really?  What kind of citizenship are we comfortable with? What do we do or refuse to do when confronted with citizenship-slivers that prick up, cut, disempower, insult and humiliate us? What do we do with politicians who we know are not what they make themselves out to be? Why do we indulge, if indeed that is what we do?

And how about ‘self’ outside the domains of the political?  How much of who we are do we own? How much of our ‘characters’ are scripted by others? How much of who we are is composed of what we believe we should show the world? How long have we worn masks? What kind of masks do we wear? At what point did pieces of mask become part of our skin?

Did someone steal our characters? Did we, knowingly or unknowingly, allow our characters to be robbed? Did we steal other people's characters and what did we do with the stolen goods? Are they aware? When last did we peer into a mirror and assess the nature and volume of theft? And are we planning on recovering what has been lost? Are we comfortably numb?

Ravindra Ariyaratne, I feel, is asking a bunch of questions. Serious stuff. He’s made it all palatable by sugar-coating with humour. The underlying question however is unmistakable and, come to think of it, hardly sweet. Needs to be swallowed though. It’s a pill that is also a question that the singer/lyricist Senaka Batagoda also asks. A pill that is a question ‘for the ages’ as Sobel puts it: ‘Who am I?’


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

Other articles in this series: 


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road