Rajpal's Column

26th August 2001

Come here, dance, and don't take off the mask

By Rajpal Abeynayake
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Cricket highlights talk shows and power cuts punctuate the nights of the average Sri Lankan this month of August. The JVP's crisp and politically just-browned young boys vie for honours with Sanath Jayasuriya, Rahul Dravid and Muralithran.

Come here, dance, and don't take off the maskThe talk shows and the cricket mask a Sri Lankan condition. A condition of malaise and crisis is sought to be dissembled by the talk shows and the replays of hooks pulls and square -cuts. But, as George Orwell wrote once, "the mask makes the man.'' 

In towns and in suburbia, in the lobbies as well as the housewives' conclaves, the village well and the watering-hole, the "mask'' has become the "man.'' 

The man, the "Sri Lankan'' is supposed to be in crisis. This includes political leaders, social activists, labour leaders, artistes, intelligentsia,the Mahila Samithi workers and the lot. But for the whole bunch, the crisis seems like a drama being done to someone else. All the talk shows are about who is doing what to whom.

J. R. P. Sooriyapperuma talks of "management'' and "the lack of raw materials for management,'' Wimal Weerawansa talks of an "interim government'', Wickramabahu talks of the "JVP and the ethnic crisis.' The entire teledrama is episodic, almost spasmodic, and when an airport attack happens, it's like the nonsensical advertisement that interrupted the long running national soap.

The national leaders out there seem to be masters of the motions. If their wives were gang raped and daughters sodomised one night by crazed and depraved maniacs, they'd still come on TV and analyze the "manomoola thathva'' (subjective factors) and the "vishyamoola thatthva'' (objective factors) that led to the "arbudaya'' (crisis.)

Sans any emotions, they haven't been able to convey that there is any immediacy in the national crisis. But, the average Sri Lankan knows the immediacy of the national crisis. 

It's not through the talk shows either, but it's via his wallet, the power crisis, and the increasing cost of transport that the national crisis assaults him.

But, the emotionless coteries of national leaders have not been able to channel this collective discontent and direct it towards anything that is even remotely useful. On the other hand, the national leadership has been prattling on television, competing with the cricket highlights to grab some of the attention remaining in the ennui-filled atmosphere of the nation's semi-darkened households.

So, their natural dissenting energies stifled and retarded, the people have been increasingly trying on the "mask''. It consists of watching cricket highlights, even in a jaded sort of way, talking of the enormity of the crisis, talking about 'leaving all of this and going abroad because the coming colours are no good,'' abusing politicians, and generally wallowing in the malaise.

Then, all of a sudden _ Orwell take a bow _ the "mask'' has become the "man.'' It is almost as if it is not the crisis anymore that is important - it is taking about it. 

All masked dances hold the reality in a state of suspended animation, and the national reality is not an exception here. There is something very unreal about people talking on TV about numbers in parliament and the relative merits of "thanathoroos'' (cabinet posts) when the airport explodes, the cost of living goes through the roof and the growth rate is less than one per cent.

So, the masked dance goes on. Let Gananath Obeysekera do the anthropological study about it, but the masked dance is enacted at every cocktail, every drawing room conversation, every tea-boutique debate where people say sizable nothings like "referendum eka thiyeyda?"" ( will they have a Referendum?), and "Chandrika Ranil dennama J R copy kannawa ne?.'' (..both Chandrika and Ranil are trying to copy JR, no?.) Or, Australia wala api second-class citizens vunath kala beela inna puluang ne (..even if we are second class citizens in Australia, we can "eat, drink and live'' no?)

The mask almost comes off when the people get trash-compacted in public transport, narrowly survive a bomb blast directed at a VIP, and find they can only buy ten wax candles loose instead of a packet. But then, nobody really likes to vocalize being hit either - they have to somehow save up for the sausages. Those commercials between the talk shows and the cricket, they contribute in no mean way in forming this vast national mask.

So when the mask dance is unreal, and Sri Lankan-ness is itself a surreal condition, people become accident prone road hogs, trains crash into buses and buses into trains, scores perish in derailments, planes crash into TV rooms where Weerawansa holds forth _ but people think it's all part of the dance. In their daze, they want the yakkadura (the exorcist) to call it off, but ask Gannath, it all goes on and on, in a numbing daze. There is a thin line between barbarians yakkos and yakas and ordinary people these days, and it's as if Kuveni and Prince Vijaya's band of brigands have just met in this island, and certainly don't want to get organized leave alone civilized. If rains don't come and accidents happen, it's all okay, because the people are having their mask on, and the thovil is throbbing in it's eleventh hour of hooting and sashaying progress.

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