Colombo Colombo!

Last Wednesday evening, after a tiring day, my soul needed a bit of art-therapy. Jumped into a tuk-tuk and got myself to John de Silva where the final round of State Drama Festival was taking place. Colombo Colombo, a play by Indika Ferdinando was on. There were many who liked it and disliked it and naturally I wanted to form my own opinion.

I walked into a full-house and found a seat on the row before the last. I must say, my heart balloons up every time I see such a crowd at a theatre. Somehow, I feel like it’s a personal achievement. (I confess, I have no connections to anyone in Colombo Colombo or the State Drama Panel.) But still, I am proud to see a full house. And I’m a lucky woman to have witnessed crowded theatres here in capitol Colombo as well as in remote Thambuththegama. Hope is an amazing thing, when you can actually feel it. Even amidst the terrible heat, with no fans working in John de Silva and people fanning themselves, with what ever they could shake the air around them. I repeat, Hope is an amazing thing.

I switched my mobile phones to silent mode before the play began.

And so the play began. And perhaps it went on for 20 minutes, I couldn’t say. The rain started pouring down from heaven right on to the tin roof of John de Silva. The wind started blowing the black blinds up and the lightning outside fused with the stage lights and suddenly transported the audience to some sort of horror-flick. Amidst thunder and lightning the crew battled on the stage for a few more minutes, their voices completely drowned out and the disappointment so bitter on their faces. I could see how desperate Indika Ferdinando was when he finally got on stage and called off the play.

After calling a cab, I found my way to Sunil at the front row. He was mournful. Indeed he has told me before that this has happened several times. State drama fes usually takes place this time of the year during the monsoon season and this happens all the time. Apparently, the first day of this year’s festival got cancelled, since the lights weren’t up on time. Rumour has it that the president of the drama panel asked the casts of the short plays to perform under fluorescent lights. I hope it’s only a rumour.

“This is the state-of-our-art” Sunil shook his head. I gave a pat on his shoulder. He seemed heart-broken. He has been saying the same thing for the last 20 years. What would I feel if what I have fought for, for 20 years end fruitlessly, as on an evening like this. I felt miserably sorry for the cast of Colombo Colombo (despite the fact that they could hardly grip me in the first 20 minutes of the performance). I felt sorry for Sunil. I felt sorry for Tilak, who wasn’t there that day, but had told me how it used to rain right on the stage at John de Silva some time back. Those who know, know how he walked out of Art Council sometime back.

I felt sorry for all artists and individuals who had fought hard to right the system.

I waded my way into the cab and the cab waded its way out of Colombo after three hours and many moments of near drowning.

The next day they said it’s the hardest downpour we’ve had after 18 years, as if it’s some kind of an excuse. The truth is it doesn’t take a storm  to drown Colombo. And it is only another testimony among a zillion how we lack governance and state structures that puts the welfare of people first.

Yesterday evening, I was at this forum that discussed the role of civil society in post-war context. There was the opinion that the space was shrinking. There was the counter-opinion that we don’t demand space. There was the counter-counter opinion that there was no space to demand for space. Someone I respect said that we had over-estimated the role of civil society, that the concept did not exist in 1940s and still there was much better activism among people at the time. A representative from the donor community said civil society was drowning in its own juices. Whatever!

I love dialogue. And I loved this one. But I still cannot understand why we do not discuss the obvious. Which, in fact is the problem. (Maybe no one wants to state the obvious, thinking its a stupid thing to do.) Since I didn’t mind being taken for stupid, I finally said it.

Of course, civil society is more than our odd motley of NGOs, but to focus on them, I do not think the structures and the culture of our NGOs are any different to the government or any other institutional structures we have in the country. They are equally festered with nepotism and power-politics. They are as bureaucratic and unprofessional. Since they are dependent on mainly foreign donors, they are less accountable to the people they serve, though they may write the sort of reports the donors want in their filing cabinets. (Oh, c’mon, do you really believe they read it?) I’ve never heard of German civil society organisations receiving funds from, China or France. The objectives they pursue are indeed very German, as they should be.

Besides, how can NGOs respond to a changing context? Their projects are either 1 year, 2 year or 3 year ‘quick-fix’ formula. They have done their context analysis, defined their objectives and outcomes and outputs and indicators and means of verification of measurable impact and then they go about ticking the list. How can they respond to a changing context? How can they respond to human need?

As professionals engaged in development, why do we not discuss the fact that the whole aid industry by itself is another industry in a functional capitalist order? As much as we advocate changing the structures of the governments we criticise, should we not advocate changes within our own structures and organisations to become more democratic and transparent entities answerable to people, not only to where the funds come from?

For a long time, I’ve been wondering how to go about changing the system. What is a system really? Where is this system? Isn’t a system something we live in? But does not the system live inside us? Inside out head? For instance, if the call of the day is to suck up and shut up, if this is a part of the system we want to change, how do we go about changing it?

I’d say it starts with me. Myself, speaking up. Standing my ground. Fighting for something I believe is right passionately. I don’t want to give it lofty labels like ‘deshanuragaya‘; it is simply part of professional integrity that most of us lack, including our civil society activists. If we just do our job right, I mean, really think through it and do it, and do it because it is the right thing, the needed thing to do that moment and do it creatively, and not because it is an obligation, I feel things could be different. From the Art Council to the Met Department to the RDA to the rest. Then, plays wouldn’t have to be called off in the middle and Colombo wouldn’t flood every monsoon season and people loose lives drowning in potholes in Colombo 7.

We crib there’s no space, but why can’t we write an article to a paper, or a blog about something we feel passionate about, rather than write an obligatory report? I see this happening all the time in my office. Just senseless, obligatory reports, reports, reports that doesn’t convince anybody!

I know you are laughing at me. All poppy-cock! It’s not practical.

No, I think it is practical. Because I just made that choice right now. And instead of writing a report that nobody would read, I write this. And I am sure that SOMEBODY would read it. And here. I’ve created a space for myself to express.

I know, maybe it is risky. I’m told that chinese IT guys are devising blog surveillance mechanisms. But then, not only soldiers are required to be brave, ne?

If it’s hard to right the system, write over the system.

For a start.


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