Here’s looking at you, kid

Tuesday, 18 February 2020 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

CLARION CALL: In a marketplace crowded with jingoistic voices, the sweet flow of reason that was once national integration is bound to be drowned out 

– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


A cabbie in the Colombo suburbs leads a double life. He has a wife in Kadawatha, and another in Kaduwela. One day, an altercation in Kahathuduwa leaves him concussed in hospital first and then confused at the police station. This leads to two addresses being recorded, as many police sergeants running round in circles and a brace of bemused housewives demanding that ‘the real Mr. Ramanayaka’ please step up. (Not that MP – no!) Chaos, confusion, consternation reigns. There are lies, deception, hysterics, fisticuffs, shenanigans, and plot twists more byzantine than a bond scammer’s brief.    

No, this isn’t another horror story about Uber or U-know-who. It’s the plot of a rather comic skit – Dharmapriya Dias’ ‘Mama Nemei, Wena Kenek’ (It’s Not Me) – which I saw over a weekend’s well-spent two-plus-hours. Its protagonist is a conniving taxi driver who sends everyone’s blood pressure sky-high with his dual carriageway approach to marriage. In it, the trail of false premises and broken promises never ends… because the bigamist scoundrel must stay true to his duplicitous nature – while keeping one step ahead of the long arm of law, and two ahead of his wives’ loving arms!

If that isn’t a metaphor for parts of political life today, I’m Robert DeNiro and I’ll be your Taxi Driver. Of course, the errant cabbie is your average politico. With law and order in the pompous personage of PC Plod and Mr Goon being almost incidental to the plot. And the cheated-on wives represent the twin polities between which the vote swings: Sinhalese or Tamil, majority or minority, urban/suburban or rural/peripheral – however you cut the poll cake. 

Picks: The play is the thing 

First, a word about the play: An adaptation into Sinhala of Ray Cooney’s ‘Run For Your Wife’, this welcome production on a threadbare theatre stage was well-received by a small but appreciative audience on the one day it ran. 

And more is the pity that the wilting English-language drama scene won’t take a leaf from its vernacular sister’s book. With a stellar cast who are professionals from their trembling thighs to heaving breasts (what with all the tension and excitement, I mean!), local thespian outfits far outshine their fellows in posher productions. All they need now is a tad more money, better marketing and discerning fans among aficionados of dramaturgy. A word to the wise… If you are in town when Dias’s oeuvre is on, don’t hesitate to go and egg him and his players on – they’re truly a treat. 

But back to the res. Art imitates life. When that spirit skirts the hem of politics, it can be especially satisfying.

Pans (1): Shadowing the state 

Taxi drivers are not the only bigamists in the polity. Our elected representatives are notorious for running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Not to traduce Dias, but did he have Sajith Premadasa in mind when he directed the cabbie caught in bigamy? And “are you talking to me”?

How is it that the opposition leader – of late, at least – is sounding more like a government spokesperson than a statesman? In the case of the US imposing a travel embargo on Sri Lanka’s army commander, the young pretender to the UNP throne comes across as more of a ‘Pohottuwa’ propagandist. So which electorate is he really wooing? 

The state apparatus has already indicated in no uncertain terms to Uncle Sam its displeasure at the diplomatic slap in the face. The American Ambassador has been summoned to give an account. A government statement has expressed its displeasure etc. Only to have its alter ego, the green alliance’s blue-eyed boy, echo its sentiments if not shadow its steps.

Here is what the state said: “It is disappointing that a foreign government should question the prerogative of a democratically elected president to call upon persons of proven expertise to hold key positions on national security related matters.” And it added about the travel ban that it “unnecessarily complicates the US-Sri Lanka relationship.”

Compare and contrast that with the opposition leader’s tweet: “Imposition of a travel ban on army commander Shavendra Silva and his immediate family is regrettable and unfortunate. … As a country we shall always stand with the war heroes that brought about an end to 30 years of terrorism.” 

Pans (2): Following the father

Of course, all of this should come as no surprise to those who remember that Premadasa Jr. is as much an ardent nationalist as his pater once was. That worthy was not above undercutting his party leader and president J. R. Jayewardene’s attempts to bring ethnically loaded and politically unpopular devolution in by the front door, by overtly opposing the IPKF and allegedly arming the LTTE against it through the back. Nor is his scion going to lose much sleep over all the handwringing among Colombo liberals who clearly misread Sajith’s modus operandi and credentials on national integration. Or mind too much the older green oligarchs who are now looking the other way, or for a place to hide their faces after a political faux pas.

So is Sajith being savvy in the run-up to the impending showdown at islandwide polls soon to be held in our sharply divided polity? Is this a political savant playing the numbers game in advance of a battle that’s bound to be contested along an ethnic as well as religious divide? Or is the punditry merely his apologists’ excuse for a mask that slipped; and let’s be done with Ranil’s short-lived experiment with national reconciliation, transitional justice et al.?

Pans (3): Egging the ethos 

As with that bigamist cabbie, I’d bet that it’s a bit of both. The greens’ electoral machine must be eyeing Gotabaya’s enviable majority at the indicative presidential election of 2019 with both apprehension and aspiration. They’d like such a fat mandate for themselves in the legislature – if only to erode a Rajapaksa juggernaut that even currently is not hanging about or behaving like a typically cautious caretaker government. Fat chance at beating the pastmasters at their own game, the way the greens keep fannying about! 

Although it may seem that Sajith is seconding the state’s disapproval of America’s double-standard policing of the world (who remembers Soleimani or Saddam or the Shah for that matter?), in fact it might be more the case that he’s firing a warning shot. And if it’s across the bows of the minorities that gave him his muscle in the executive poll, so be it. Or so the thinking (if that is what it is, and not a knee-jerk reaction) goes… So, where’s the beef?

Bigamist cabbies (“you talking to me?”) might applaud this two-facedness (“who you lookin’ at?”). Colombo liberals will remain bemused at the volte face by their pet UNP until the polls are done and dusted, and then the rest of the masks will drop. Sajith isn’t Ranil and Ranil wasn’t JR and JR wasn’t quite the Old Fox but often outfoxed by Big Brother; but perhaps Robert DeNiro said it best in Taxi Driver: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets…” – The rest of us, maybe bar the incumbent regime, are waiting for a real leader who won’t take it lying down any more. And be a monogamist – Sri Lanka first above race, creed, ethnic divides, party lies (er, lines) and pre-election propaganda to boot…


(Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer | Son of a small island. Scion of a larger destiny)

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