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.


Typical Tropical Woman in Berlin

So it’s Berlin 2010. It’s the fall. The maples are caught in the Autumn fire. The sun mellowed down and sentimental. My  German colleagues tell me I’ve brought the sun with me, since it’s out again after weeks of rain and meek weather.

And this time, as I was walking through the clean streets, with polite traffic, across city squares with guitarists and lovers and children engrossed with their ice-creams, I felt truly peaceful inside. Unlike last summer, I wasn’t haunted by a heartbreak or an unresovled past in Europe. No guilty feelings. Just me and the summer. I admit, every moment did include a parallel moment, in which I was sharing that moment with G. It was magical. But still, I was not homesick or lovesick, and I was truly present in the moment, fully awake and conscious and absorbing what Berlin had to offer. What a GREAT feeling!

So, the first thing I step into, right after the airport, is a taxi, with a driver who fled Baghdad 30 years ago, for political reasons which he doesn’t want to share with me. But ofcourse, he’s mad about Hindi films. He’s seen Arzoo and Ai Milan Ki Bela. He loves Sholay. And Vaijayanthi Mala is his favourite.

Tumse mohobethain…he crooned as he drove, overenthusiastic to find an audience who knew the same songs. And knew what they meant, as well.

Thanks to globalisation, I was thoroughly entertained all the way to Movenpick Hotel.

And I recollect the same feeling I had, coming to Europe the first time in my life. Just getting out of the train in to the city square, and strangely feeling at home. Surprise! Surprise!

Sunday afternoon; Alexander Platz with Kristin. I take the subway, and momentarily held by this subway singer…

And another one in Alexaner Platz…

Ask me what I appreciate most about the European cities…yes, there are many things a typical tropical woman could appreciate, but what strikes me most is this ‘Love is in the air’ mood. You know the lovers, walking hand in hand, kissing in public, cuddling in the sun and all. (ya, it’s a couple kissing in the background!) It’s this freedom to love, and to express love in public. And I can’t help remembering how wonderful it was to be in love in summer europe, and how dismal it is now, by comparison, to be in love in my tropical isle sometimes…

To generalise, if I may take the liberty to, our men are a bit paralysed in this department. I mean, they are fantastic in bed. They can compete there, at an international level, in terms of technical perfection of the art. But in the art of affection…oh dear…I wish I had never experienced love in Europe now that I have to live with this permanent Rebecca syndrome. I don’t wish to look down on the men in my country. I’m a tropical woman. I want to love one of my own kind. But I couldn’t escape globalisation. So I had to go through all these experiences. And I can’t help these philosophical observations! It’s not criticism, so if you are a tropical man reading this, don’t take it personal.

OK, you’ll say it’s not our culture to display affection in public. But then, do our men display affection in private? Or do they just do it because they are expected to. Some times I feel they do, simply because it’s what our sentimental women kind want. Something just to get over with. Like an obligation.

Life is an obligation. To be faithful to your wife, to love your mother, to fight for your country!

Ha! Ha! Ha! That’s my only reaction!

Of course, I am not saying all our men are like this. I have indeed met a few wonderfully affectionate men in Sri Lanka. But overall, when I listen to my friends and observe the world around me, I feel that our society has crippled our men, hip upwards, I mean. They are denied the right to express themselves. They are denied the right to feel, to be emotional. And I often find them uneasy, when a bit of affection is expressed in public.

I don’t know why people only talk about liberating the woman in this part of the world, because the men, oh them poor souls, they so need to be liberated themselves. Being a man and being human must be difficult, come to think of it.

In Sri Lanka when a bit of affection is displayed in public, the public scoffs right back at it. It’s considered ugly, uncultured and vulgar. What’s ugly, uncultured and vulgar about a man loving a woman, and expressing that in public? I don’t get it. I think it’s at the core of the sexual frustration and violence of this society – the big secret everybody knows but nobody talks about. Without allowing the men to be human, to be affectionate, we will never liberate our women. (That’s my ‘loud and clear’ to the feminists!) It’s not just enough to talk about sexual harassment in public transport, you see – something I have never experienced in Europe and experience daily in Sri Lanka.

I mean, it’s simple right?

High degree of sexual freedom, acceptance of affection, flexible gender roles – low levels of sexual frustration, harassment and violence (summer Berlin or Sweden, to quote an example I know better)

Low degree of sexual freedom, acceptance of affection, strict Victorian mores and gender roles – high level of sexual frustration, harassment and violence (our tropical paradise)

And I don’t know how to change this society around me; or to liberate a man, (or myself for that matter), but I know I can love. Not in a possessive way – not to hunt a man down and put him in chains of lifetime bondage (aka marriage) but in a way that redeems. In a way that supports both individuals to grow, to explore, to be more affectionate beings, not just unto themselves, but to others as well. One could also do all these things within a marriage, or without it. The choice is personal.

I feel this is the key to the politeness, the gentleness, the ‘culturedness’ that I sense in the European public life. Now don’t call me a post-colonial Eurocentric rootless bastard of globalisation. I’m just expressing my opinion. I’m entitled to one.

So to get back to Berlin – Tacheles. I want to talk about Tacheles. It’s this run down building which belonged to East Berlin before. Now, the area is transformed. The Big Bad Banks have come in. So have Gucci and Prada. And the government wants to pull down Tacheles because it’s an eyesore in the middle of a chic commercial district.

And the artists resist!!!!!!!!! The very next day there was a peaceful public demonstration, not devoid of music and dance.

So the call to rally goes:

To enforce art piece Tacheles

We save the creative centre of Berlin – We build a city

The pillage of Berlin by banks, investors and neo-liberal pseudo-politicians must stop!!!


Monday 20th September 2010

And they’ve been successful in resisting the demolishing of the building since the 1990s.

For more on Tacheles go to the Wikipedia entry

and then walking through the graffiti covered walls, exuding an anti-capitalist verve, I come across this great poster shop. The work is bold and gripping. (Btw, that’s Kristin in the photo thanks to whom I visited Tacheles)

So why do I feel like this is another important element missing in Colombo. Just the space to have ‘honest straightforward talk, purpose’ (that’s the meaning of the yiddish word ‘tacheles’). Now where’s that space in Colombo, or anywhere in Sri Lanka? Ours is a society of stifled emotion, come to think of it. There is no space to come together and to have a dialogue. No public space for people to meet and talk (leave alone kissing!). In Colombo, the Galle Face Greene is the only ‘public space’ and in the evenings no wonder it is overcrowded. And still, it is NOT a public place. Because, people don’t come there to meet new people and to have a chat, they just come there with their families to fly kites! It’s just an escape from the four walls of an urban home. Nothing more.

So, our civil society  – sorry, but there is no ‘society’ in that sense. It’s only a collective of individuals, families and organisations, struggling in their own small worlds. And that lonely struggle embitter them. No wonder, when there is no space, like or unlike Tachales, to bring people together to share things that are common. And our pseudo coffee houses like Commons (which has nothing in common with the common of our country), or Barefoot which has nobody who ever had to go barefoot, offer no ‘public space’. In fact, they form status hierarchies that the middle class has to struggle to access, in order to be ‘cultured’. (Btw, this also makes me a pseudo-intellectual, because I also grace these places despite my criticism.)

So in that sense,  we need to pay attention to these words like ‘civil society’ and ‘public space’, because I am not sure that we have these in the true sense of the word.

So, no wonder we are crippled, not only in terms of showing affection in public but also resisting power in public. There’s no culture of peaceful public protest. And our protests, forgive me for being brutal here, but they are soooo boring. And sometimes even sponsored by organisations (like the one I work for, so I am not innocent here, you see!) I mean I do have a soft corner for some genuine individuals who repeatedly take to the streets and I do respect them sincerely. But the truth is it is not in our ‘culture’ to protest peacefully.

We deny the issues till they brim over the top and every 10 year cycle we have a violent revolution or a guerilla war of some sort that can only be countered by terror and suppression only.

And the only way I see out is to work systematically to build these ‘public space’ to be affectionate, to create, to express and to protest!

Ok, this is getting too long. And beginning to sound like a sermon, so I’ll have to skip the rest of the travelogue, in which I visit Fusion Street, a creative organisation working with marginalised and immigrant kids in Berlin, the visit to the New National Gallery of Modern Art, the Pergamon Mueseum…maybe some other day…

At Colombo duty-free I bought a Bailys, a Semmilon Chardonnay, a Chivas Rose and a French Brandy. They are all locked up in my grand ma’s closet right now, which is full of duty-free spirits! You see, my family culture is not one that encourages drinking. Like my mom asks ‘who on earth are you going to go drinking with?’

So you see, if I want to  promote dialogue, I can start at home!

Nevertheless, let me raise my glass!

To Love, Art and Politics!