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2nd May 1999

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He went against the flow

Richard Boyle recalls one of Colombo's most colourful characters
Mahen Vaithianathan

A bold, uncompromis ing, but wise voice was stilled two years ago on April 22, 1997 with the death of one of Colombo's most colourful characters, Mahen Vaithianathan. I use the word "voice" purposely, because Mahen Vaithianathan's voice, whether it was its distinctive physical manifestation, its unusual shade of opinion, or occasional stridency, was one of the most striking aspects of a particularly striking personality.

Mahen VaithianathanHis was a voice that could on the one hand wax eloquently and persuasively on subjects such as the perennial philosophy and comparative religion: a voice that always struck a resonant chord in receptive minds. On the other hand, under certain circumstances and with sensitive subjects such as ethnicity, politics and sociology, his voice could become stentorian and combative - yet it always remained lucid and principled. At these times, his frankness and forthrightness, especially in a town where such qualities in general go unappreciated, would strike fear in the uninitiated, the fainthearted, and those who live by cant and hypocrisy.

Mahen Vaithianathan had the advantage - and, of course, the disadvantage - of having a distinguished father. Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan (1896-1965) was one of the most enlightened civil servants and politicians of his era. Among other distinctions, he became independent Cey-lon's first Foreign Secretary. He was a respected member of the Tamil aristocracy and a worthy benefactor of Hinduism as well.

This last virtue manifested itself in particular in Sir Kanthiah's personal commitment to the renovation of Tiruketisvaram, the famous Shiva shrine at Mannar. As Mahen was always proud to relate, his father, after retiring from public duties, devoted the rest of his life to the rebuilding programme that he had initiated. Mahen would often describe how his father acted as a labourer if the need arose.

In 1960, Sir Kanthiah had met Leonard Woolf at the Anuradhapura Rest House and had invited him to travel to Mannar to see the renovations. Woolf, who was on his first and only return visit to the island since his stint there as a civil servant way back in the opening decade of the century, accepted the invitation willingly. He knew the Mannar area well, as he had been stationed in Jaffna and had helped conduct several pearl fisheries.

Sir Kanthiah showed Woolf around the Tiruketisvaram temple and explained the symbolism in detail, which prompted the Englishman to declare in the volume of his autobiography titled Growing (London: 1960): "In his very clear and sincere exposition I got for the first time some idea of what higher Hinduism meant to a civilised man like my host.... This esoteric Hinduism was a metaphysic rather than a religion."

Mahen assimilated and survived this privileged but restrictive background, and eventually emerged from it to create his own unique identity. It was an identity that encompassed being a man-of-letters, an intellectual and a philosopher, among other things. In the end, however, what is important is that this identity did not stop Mahen from being the kind, compassionate, fair-minded and decent specimen of the human race that he was.

One of the earliest, non-family memories of Mahen has been provided by H.A.I. (Ian) Goonetileke, who tells me that he remembers meeting him in 1947 as a 17-year-old student. Ian was giving private tuition to one of Mahen's Royal College classmates at the time. He recalls that Mahen was one of a quartet of close friends, the others being Shirley Gunatillake, Sena Perera and Gamini Gunawardene. The other three are also dead, so Ian tells me.

My memories of Mahen, the memories of others, and his own recollections, collide and coalesce in my mind. There is Mahen the university student in England, as interested in cinema and film theory as the pontifications of his famous professor; Mahen, driving his old Ford Consul like Mr. Toad on one of his favourite trips - a visit to Tiruketisvaram; Mahen, obsessed with playing The Eagles' song "Hotel California" during the 1970s; Mahen, in an advanced state of inebriation at a blur of parties, performing an impromptu pas-de-deux with Chitrasena or outraging some narrow-minded fellow guest with his caustic talk.

Then there is Mahen, the warm-hearted, thoughtful, sensitive friend, who insisted on hitting the town with me the night my eldest son was born, but who ended up instead by hitting the floor and so left me to celebrate on my own; and Mahen, the fellow bibliophile, always anxious to produce for inspection the latest addition to his admirable but possessively-guarded library.

However, the most persistent memory of all is that of Mahen, the lord of Charles Circus. Here, among the familiar surroundings of his tastefully furnished but distinctly bachelor-run residence, Mahen was at his very best. From the moment his roguish, walrus-mustachioed face with its Dravidian nose peered around the front door to let one in, one entered his world on his terms.

Once inside his sitting room, one became simultaneously a player and spectator in whatever intellectual exercise he was currently involved. While seated in a chair, fumbling incessantly with cigarette packet and lighter, or making a shuffling circumnavigation of the room with one hand in his pocket while the other ran through the unkempt strands of his hair, Mahen's voice would shower one with his wit, perception and wisdom.

Charles Circus can never be the same again. As Manik Sandrasagra wrote in his appreciation, Mahen Vaithianathan: Social Terrorist (Lanka Guardian Vol. 20 No.2 May 15, 1997): "A strange silence grips the Circus. The sound of mirth and laughter is no more. The chief clown passed away. We have lost our finest iconoclast, who suffered pseudo intellectuals badly and lived life practising a sort of social terrorism on Colombo's intellectual circuit".

Manik makes some important observations about our mutual friend that bear repetition. Mahen, as Manik stresses, was a lover of everything 'female' - a Shakta - and so women were spared his "vitriolic sarcasm." He had transcended such things as race and class. He was acutely sensitive to the suffering he saw around him - a 'softy,' as Manik affectionately describes him. In particular, he found it unbearable to witness the decline in society and culture.

Finally, to cite Manik's summing-up: "Mahen spoke for a small but important elite. To all those lost in the confusion of trying to interpret ancient cultures in terms of the modern world, Mahen was an eternal guide. Had he lived in an earlier age, he would have been treated like a Rishi, but in Colombo, Mahen was a lonely man, very often isolated with his vast intellect, except when a fellow traveller walked in."

There has been a suggestion that, influenced as he was by the most impressive representatives of the perennial philosophy, Mahen did not somehow fulfil his intellectual potential for the interpretation of the world around us. Perhaps this misconception has arisen because Mahen left behind no philosophical or other writings of his own, or because he is perceived as a self-destructive character.

It has to be understood that one of Mahen's main roles was as a catalyst and facilitator. A dazzling international collection of highly reputed archaeologists, sociologists, anthropologists and the like, together with writers and visual artists of all types, benefited over the years from having Mahen to turn to both professionally and personally - for Mahen befriended them all.

To give an early, documented example: the Canadian photographer, Roloff Beny, and the American art historian, John Lindsay Opie, visited the island in the late 1960s to work on their complex book project that was published under the title Island Ceylon (London: 1970). In the Foreword and Acknowledgements, "Mahend-ran Vaithianathan" receives Roloff Beny's gratitude for being "a friend who had furthered the project".

Mahen makes an appearance in William McGowan's often sensationalised account of the island's social and ethnic conflict, Only Man is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka (New York: 1992). All the many real-life Sri Lankan characters that McGowan documented in order to make his book more convincing were given fictitious names. In Mahen's case it was "N" and he was described by McGowan as "my articulate Tamil friend."

In the Acknowledgements, McGowan justifies his action by claiming that "considering the repression that continues in their country, some of them are probably best left unidentified." Now that Mahen is no longer with us, and as he has already been connected with Only Man is Vile in an appreciation published shortly after his death, I see no reason why his unwitting contribution to the book, small though it is, should go unnoticed.

In any case, Mahen's appearance in the book provides an affirmation of his viewpoint on several important issues. It is possibly the only instance where Mahen's speech has been written down, and is, therefore, of considerable value, even if it is not entirely representative. The words in question were part of a conversation Mahen had with Swami Siva Kalki (Mike Wilson). Having known both men well, I can vouch that the conversation (I am being diplomatic, it was essentially an altercation) sounds very credible.

It all happened one day when McGowan went over to Charles Circus to see Mahen - only to find that he already had a visitor, Swami Siva Kalki. Although Mahen and Swami were good friends until death and had a healthy respect for each other, they were both liable to become belligerent and strident when contentious subjects were under discussion. According to McGowan, he arrived to find them arguing over the legacy of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the consequences of 1956.

"There was something to be proud of, something to exalt. I will grant you that, Swami. But we never saw the great capacity for destruction within the tradition we were enshrining. No one would ever admit how much of an enemy institutional Buddhism has been to intellectual life, how much it has suppressed critical inquiry," Mahen suggested with his usual directness.

Swami, as was typical of him, defended Bandarana-ike's policies and expressed the view that the Sinhalese still have to fear the Tamils. Mahen countered that Swami was only responding to myths about cultural engulfment. At this, Swami grew angry, insulted his host even further by sneering at his liberal views and stormed out of the house, no doubt in part to avoid receiving one of Mahen's dreaded verbal 'throwing-outs'. To be so ejected from Charles Circus was the ultimate, although not necessarily permanent, disgrace.

"If someone like him, someone with spiritual aspirations and intellectual training, can fall over it into the pit of myth and propaganda, imagine what can happen to others with less awareness and less critical detachment", Mahen ruefully explained to McGowan after Swami's petulant exit. "Intellectual scepticism has no place anymore. To be in favour of detached inquiry and intellectual freedom, to be in favour of fundamental political rights regardless of ethnic background or to support the accurate writing of history has become an unpatriotic act.

"My friends all tell me to avoid confrontations like that, that I'll suffer for them," Mahen continued by lamenting. "But I am the kind of person who wants to discuss ideas, who can't stop doing so. How can you not discuss ideas if you are an intellectual? But that is the attitude of ninety percent of the intellectuals in this country now: Don't talk. Don't talk."

Just as Mahen was brave in the fullness of his life in going against the flow, dancing to the beat of a different drum, kicking over the traces, or however one wishes to term it, so was he near the close when he had to contend with his impending death due to his own excesses. He was the valiant Vaithianathan to the very end.

Dr. Jane Russell, the English academic, author and long-term resident, who was forced to leave Sri Lanka under unfortunate circumstances several years ago, was one of Mahen's legion of friends. From exile in England she has written a stark and haunting poem titled Death On The Iron Guitar: The Song of a Date with Death (For Mahen Vaithianathan - In Memoriam), which was published in Pravada Vol. 5 No. 7 1998. To conclude this appreciation, I reproduce just four verses that best convey the poem's flavour and tone:

There are corpses in the dried-up paddy fields,
bits of bodies burning on tyres by the roadsides,
You're coughing more than laughing now;
I'm humming "Death on the Iron Guitar" -
But surely you won't die yet?
Though soldiers on both sides
Always think they're winning -
They're all living in a dream world,
Singing "Death on the Iron Guitar"
We're dropping you off at Charles Circus
In the old Morris Oxford estate car;
We're on our way to a death-bed;
I'm humming "Death on the Iron Guitar"
But I still think you won't die yet
Though you're drunker than a stand-up comic:
I'm living in a dream world
It's the last time I'll see you (in this life).
You died on a darkening Bak poya
(death on the iron guitar)
Your mother's wall-clock must have chimed a carillon
From the house behind:
The incessant rains filled up the reservoirs -
There'll be power enough now to drive
The whole nation's dream world:
Death on the Iron Guitar.
In twenty-four hours you were cremated,
The Hindu way.
Not much in your case -
A sunken body, some bones, a moustache,
A set of black teeth, a stout heart;
But this refrain must have sounded somewhere in
Kanatte -
"Death on the Iron Guitar".

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