Unfortunately, much of history is written by journalists. And Gota’s War is no different. If you’re looking for a military history of Sri Lanka’s war, this is not the book for you. In fact, that book has yet to be written. CA Chandraprema looks at the conflict through the lens of the media — the incidents and events that drew the newspaperman’s eye; albeit a rather right-of-centre Sinhalese nationalist newspaperman. Make no mistake, this is an important book; if for no other reason than that it is the first since the end of the war to cover the conflict in its entirety.
Chandraprema’s use of Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s truncated name in the title, and the description, The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, is slightly misleading, giving the impression that the book is simply about the Defense Secretary’s role in the final few years of the war. In fact, what Chandraprema does is to use Gotabhaya as both a counterpoint and a parallel to the narrative, particularly in the early stages of the war, when Gotabhaya was a young SL Army officer. Gota’s War is both history and biography, but it is not a natural coupling, and Chandraprema’s attempt to do both in one piece, cripples the scope of the book as a historical work.
In order to keep Gotabhaya central to the narrative, Chandraprema is forced to keep the trench-level view of the war narrow, while looking at some events – the JVP uprisings, the political infighting between the Rajapakses and their opponents – with a detail that is superfluous to the war against the Tamil separatists. Naturally, because of this, the early military confrontations between the Armed Forces and the separatists is confined to descriptions of operations carried out by the Gajaba Regiment, the unit Gotabhaya served most of his military career with. Similarly, this focus on Gotabhaya naturally prevents him examining some of the other influential characters that a true history should have. This is particularly clear in the almost non-existence of Gen Sarath Fonseka in Gota’s War. When he does make a rare appearance, he is depicted, at best, to be a rather passive figure and, often, as a hindrance to the dynamic and practical defense secretary. Fonseka, in Chandraprema’s view, is a Montgomery to Gotabhaya’s Patton, plodding and rigid, petty and selfish. In this, the author has done both Fonseka and his book a great disservice, and is akin to writing the history of the Second World War and leaving out Eisenhower or MacArthur. Similarly, many of the other military officers examined – senior to Gotabhaya the soldier and subordinate to Gotabhaya the defense secretary – are largely those who had the most influence on him. While this is acceptable in a biography, it is certainly not in a history.
The converse of this is that Gotabhaya often disappears from the narrative for long periods, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when his character isn’t central to events. We have very little indication of Gotabhaya’s personality, or the motivations that drove him; almost nothing of Gotabhaya Rajapakse the man; beyond the most superficial of sketches. This too is a deep flaw in Chandraprema’s book. At the end of Gota’s War, we know hardly more of the defense secretary than we knew at the beginning.
Chandraprema has also come under criticism, both from within the SL Army and without, for playing favourites in his book; for focusing on the feats of certain military officers, unfairly criticizing others, and completely ignoring still others. I will not dwell on this because every author has his own slant and viewpoint, and is entitled to it. To examine motive would be to review CA Chandraprema rather than his writing, and that is not the point of this article. I have mentioned the treatment of Fonseka simply because it is so glaring and obvious a failing.
One thing Chandraprema can be certainly complimented on is his writing style. Gota’s War is 504 pages long, and looks rather daunting when first picked up. However, it is very readable even if you’re not a history buff. The prose is smooth and conversational, the chapters no more than half a dozen pages in length, as fast paced as a novel, and devoid of the stuffiness, cliché, and archaic language many Sri Lankan authors of histories and memoirs feel obliged to write in. Chandraprema even manages to infuse a certain amount of sardonic humour to his writing. The book is solidly bound, and the cover is attractive, if rather unimaginative. The book could do with some better maps, however, in place of the hand-drawn ones at the back, which give no indication of the frontlines, the Tiger- and government-held areas, or the direction of offensives described by Chandraprema. Continue reading
Two weeks ago, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), on the instigation of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), called for a boycott of the fifth Galle Literary Festival. They sent a petition around, and Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy signed up. So did a bunch of other idiots. In it, they called on international authors who had agreed to travel to Sri Lanka to abort their journeys, claiming that it was wrong for literature to be celebrated in a country that killed its journalists. Three authors did; South African Commonwealth Writers Prize winner Damon Galgut, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, and Indian Man Booker winner Kiran Desai. The rest came.
It’s wrong to do many things in a country that kills its journalists. It’s wrong to laugh, it’s wrong to be happy, it’s wrong to have celebrations of any sort. Christmas, Avurudhu, and Valentine’s should be boycotted. But what is right is to celebrate literature. How could the RSF and JDS get this so wrong?
Supporters of the boycott variously claim that the Galle Literary Festival has failed to speak out against the Big Bad Wolf from Madamulana who likes to eat journalists for lunch. Him and his wolfpack of brothers. They say that participants at the festival haven’t done their bit to call attention to the disappearance of cartoonist and columnist Pradeep Eknaligoda, or the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, or even the killing of that Tiger, Dharmaratnam Sivaram. Last June, Sri Lanka hosted the International Surfing Association’s Pro 2010 event at Arugam Bay on the island’s east coast, in an area once dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Well, to paraphrase Colonel Kilgore, Tiger don’t surf, and he’s history now. Over a hundred and twenty international competitors from New Zealand to Germany and from the USA to South Africa participated. No one boycotted that. Next month sees the start of the Cricket World Cup, with Sri Lanka hosting several matches which will be watched by at least a billion fans worldwide. No one has boycotted that either. Perhaps the RSF and JDS think that surfers and cricket fans are too dumb to care about media rights. Continue reading
So. Tagged again by DD. This time it’s love; something I’ve been told lately that I know very little about. And to avoid the usual barrage of “how come I’m not mentioned” and “who’s that one about” that these things usually spark, I’ll avoid the whole whole thing and treat you to some of my favourite quotations on love, by people who can write way better than me.
Though it be broken–
broken again — still it is there:
the moon on the water.
“True love is boring,” Roland repeated. “As boring as any other strong and addictive drug. And as with any other strong drug…”
— Stephen King. Wizard and Glass
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let that be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
— Oscar Wilde. The Ballad of Reading Gaol
…She turned to me and said, “Philsan, I will spend two days with you and you will not have to pay me. I will love you for two days and then I will not love you.”
— Philip Caputo. A Rumor of War
“Do you know that until I met thee I have never asked for anything? Nor wanted anything? Nor thought of anything except the moment and the winning of this war? Truly I have been very pure in my ambitions. I have worked much and now I love thee and,” he said it now in a complete embracing of all that would not be, “I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more. I love thee very much, rabbit. More than I can tell thee. But I say this now to tell thee a little…”
— Ernest Hemmingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls
Don’t tell me it’s not worth dying for
I can’t help it, there’s nothing I want more.
— From the Bryan Adams song Everything I do I do it for You
The heart is an organ of fire.
— Michael Ondaatje. The English Patient
It is better to love many things a little than one thing too much.
— Daniel Carney. The Whispering Death
I vow to thee, my country — all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love…
— Sir Cecil Spring-Rice. I Vow to Thee My Country
She smiled and closed her eyes again. “Bird and bear and hare and fish…”
Smiling, Roland finished, “Give my love her fondest wish.”
Her eyes opened. She smiled. “You,” she said again, and kissed him. “Still you, Roland. Still you, my love.”
— Stephen King. Wizard and Glass
And my all-time favourite:
“My life is very monotonous,” he said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all others. Other steps send me scurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Little Prince
When a war ends, it is a time for rebuilding, and a time for reflection, both for the victorious and the defeated. A time to take stock of what has been won and lost in terms of economy, life, opportunity, and even culture. The effect of the 25-year war on the psyche of the population is obviously noticeable; a general aversion towards long-term plans, a breakdown of respect for law and order, and lately, refuge in a newfound nationalism.
Is this also apparent among Sri Lanka’s creative thinkers — the writers, film makers, and artists? Wars often spark a surge in creativity, a catharsis that often invades popular culture and occasionally reaches an audience untouched by the original war and its passions. The films, books, and music that retold the Vietnam War created emotions for a global generation that hadn’t even been born in the ’60s. Sri Lankan culture certainly hasn’t a comparable reach, but what is interesting is that such an influence is hardly noticeable even within the country.
There have only been two mainstream Sinhalese “war” films on the subject — both directed by, and starring, the late Gamini Fonseka. Both depicted a popularized (if naive) view of the war, and were extremely successful locally. The nineties saw some Sinhalese movies dealing with the war; art house productions that received mixed reactions from Sri Lankan audiences. Some, by directors such as Prasanna Vithanage and Cannes Film Festival winner Vimukthi Jayasundara, have been banned for content that was seen as either culturally objectionable, critical of the armed forces, or just generally unpatriotic. Continue reading
That’s what gay British journalist Matthew Parris says. According to him, it’s pretty obvious that Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi (aka Herge) created his most famous character to be homosexual. Parris’ indisputable logic is hard to argue with — sort of like that guy who claimed Tamils invented crepes.
Check out his article, but these are the basic reasons:
Tintin never talks about his parents — how gay is that?
Herge suggests Tintin was a Boy Scout — obviously gay then.
Tintin first appeared in 1929 in a Roman Catholic paper — Catholics are obviously gay, no? Continue reading
The house smelled damp as he walked in. She was in the bedroom, reading. Though it was getting dark, she was still wearing the tinted, rimless, Bolle glasses. She had a pretty, sharp-featured face and was wearing a short cotton skirt and a sleeveless linen blouse. Everything about her – the tasteful, expensive clothes, her calm dark eyes, shaded by the glasses, her slow quiet voice and easy logic – reflected a life in which there had always been enough money and time and room to move away from anything unpleasant. She had spent three months of the previous year in Cambodia and Laos, where a Montagnard shaman had read her aura.
“You will always have young lovers,” the shaman had told her.
A month after he had left the Army, they had decided to move in together and had rented the house by the beach in Wadduwa three weeks ago, at the beginning of December. Now it was the 31st — New Year’s eve.
The money he had saved in the Army was gone. He had drunk it up, given it away, spent it on taxis and trishaws. The house in Wadduwa had been good at first. He had been glad to be away from Colombo, where there was too much noise, too many people who didn’t pay attention, who talked too much and got in the way. In Colombo, he had provoked fights with strangers whose faces he couldn’t remember, and found himself sobering up in a bus or trishaw, trying to remember what he had done. He would finger the cuts on his faces or suck his skinned knuckles, and try to remember, bruised and hungover. When it did come back to him, he would try to forget again, glad to have got away and not be in jail. Two assault charges, one in the Fort, and the other in Mount Lavinia, were gathering dust in the inactive files of the two police stations, the ‘Suspect Information’ boxes empty except for the words “Male, 5’7″, 150-lbs, blk hair, dk t-shirt, blu jeans”. Another box on the forms queried ‘Weapons/force used’, and was filled in, “Hands & feet”. Continue reading
He stands at the sink and does the washing up, but his mind is on her. There’s still time. She hasn’t called or SMS’d, so there’s no rush. The apartment is strangely familiar, though he knows it’s not his. He’s been living here awhile now, but he knows it’s not his. It’s dark outside, and the street below is hidden from his view, even though the sink faces the window.
He hasn’t seen her for so long, but her image is perfectly available in his mind’s eye; pictures that span their history together. The strongest images are, however, the most recent. Flash. She stands in the dark-light of the street, looking up at him, dressed in baggy trackies and hoody that hide her perfect body. She stares stonily up at him, resisting him like a little girl, her exquisite lips tight in a determined pout, her eyes reflecting a pain he still hasn’t understood. Flash. Her smile makes his heart race as she reaches across the table at the club, curious about a bracelet he’s wearing. Flash. She leans into his car, refusing to get in, her short skirt tight against those amazing legs, waiting for him to stop talking, so that she can walk away. He does finally, and she does too, and he watches her climb the steps to the building, not looking back, deaf to his impotent pleas. Flash. The white of her teeth in the darkness of her bedroom as she bites hard into his ribs. He resists the pain as long as he can, then pushes her indignantly away, rising to his feet. Continue reading
Jungle clearings attract both prey and predator. Nothing, however, moved on the pre-dawn streets of this clearing in Borella, an eastern suburb of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo. An unseasonal November rain, pushed by the winds of the northeastern monsoon soaking the far side of the island, had crossed the Central Highlands and slicked down the dark streets of the city. Rain dripped from the leaves of the huge old trees that dotted the clearing. A few sleepy crows cawed in annoyance at the wetness. The intersection of Baseline, Kynsey, and Bullers roads, next to the Kanatte General Cemetery was an open expanse of a hundred and fifty metres across, a clearing in the manmade jungle of the city. Beyond its landscaped roundabout and trimmed islands, the concrete, brick, and tin of the jungle crept in, topped by the tangled vines of telephone and power cables. And like any jungle, it stank. Of man, and other animals. Of garbage, urine, and oil. Of rotting food, dead animals, betel juice, and crow droppings. But most of all, it stank of fear.
It was Bastille Day, November 13th 1989; but if the date was the celebration of the birth of revolution, it would never be that again in Sri Lanka. This was how a revolution died – not with heroic words and brave last stands, but with betrayal, corruption, and murder in the dark. Continue reading
United States Republican Representative Paul Broun of Georgia is set to introduce legislation that will force the Department of Defense to ban the sale of “nudie” magazines on US military bases worldwide.
The loss of revenue these publications will incur if the new law comes into place will be fairly significant — sales of magazines such as Penthouse, Playboy, and Playgirl on US bases brought in $231,000 in Europe alone in 2007. This proposed ban isn’t that surprising, given the increasing prudishness and religious conservatism that the US Christian Right is imposing on the civil populace, thinly disguised as political correctness. More and more restrictions are placed on US military personnel, particularly those serving overseas, with sexual fraternization being frowned on, even amongst troops of similar rank. Things have deteriorated to the point that female soldiers serving in the Middle East were threatened with court martial just for some harmless mud-wrestling. What is shocking, however, is that people still read Playboy in this day and age. I guess it’s just Americans reading it, and if that’s true, then the mag is pretty much going down now that it’s about to lose this significant readership group. At first, I explained away the stats about Playboy sales as a result of US soldiers serving in the arse-end of the world not having access to quality porn, but almost a quarter of a million dollars of sales in Europe? Haven’t these dumb Yanks seen the porn available in Germany and Holland? You can buy hardcore stuff in the supermarket, for God’s sake. But apparently it’s not all about the pictures.
“Playboy is good entertainment while you are on the can,” said US Army Pfc Greg Smith, 21, based at Grafenwohr in Germany. “They have jokes and good stories.” Right.
“We all read ’em,” said Pfc. Paul Rubio, 31, “There are times we just read ’em for the technological parts like the new gadgets that come out. They have good stories sometimes too.” OK, gadgets. Continue reading
I can still remember the first piece of real science fiction writing I ever read. It was an excerpt that appeared in a Christian mag called Campus Life, and it was nothing like the usual stuff that appeared in the mag, and was about the discovery of a dead star by the members of a space mission from Earth. What struck me to the core of my nine-year-old being at the time wasn’t the ruins of civilizations that the astronauts discovered on a burned out rock orbiting the dead star, and it wasn’t their realization that millions — possibly billions — of intelligent creatures had perished by fire, and it wasn’t even their discovery that such beings had existed. What rocked my young mind was the astronauts’ calculation of when the star had gone super nova, and when exactly the light of the explosion had reached earth, many light years away. They deduced that the super nova would have been visible as a bright star on Earth
two-thousand and thirty-four years previously, on the day of the birth of the Christian Messiah. It completely dumbfounded me that a supreme and loving being could have destroyed an entire world to mark the birth of his Son. It was the first time I ever questioned the beliefs that my upbringing was steeped in, the first time I realized that all was not perfect in God’s world, and that the long walk out of Eden had made the road back unclear.
That was also the first time I heard that there were people known as atheists, and that the author of that excerpt proclaimed himself to be one. My father also told me, to my astonishment, that the man who’d written it lived right here in Sri Lanka. The excerpt had been taken from
2001: A Space Odyssey The Star, and the author was Arthur C. Clarke. The work was, of course, fiction, but it left a lasting impression on me. So much so, that I still remember the picture that illustrated the excerpt — a spectacular spacescape of drifting gases and burned rocks, all drifting towards the black hole of the dead star, while in the foreground hovered the clumsy but gigantic craft that the humans had used to travel across the galaxy. Continue reading