Smriti Daniel

Nayomi Munaweera: ‘I couldn’t have written those hard scenes if I’d had a natural child in my life’

In Scroll.In, Writers on August 28, 2016 at 6:12 am

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Though she had been to many book clubs since the publication of her novel What Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera found her heart sinking when faced with the newest group. Sitting around in a circle, waiting to discuss her novel were nearly 50 women, all mothers with children who attended the local elementary school. She braced herself for a barrage of criticism.

Before the book even appeared on shelves, Munaweera and her publisher had had a frank conversation about what to expect in terms of fallout. They thought it quite likely that people would find the crime at the heart of the novel – “the very worst thing a woman could do,” as Nayomi describes it – thoroughly objectionable. “My publisher told me, ‘You are going to get a lot of hate mail. People are going to be upset,’” Munaweera remembers.

Hearing this didn’t come as a complete surprise to the Sri Lankan-American writer. She knew the protagonist of her novel, who remains unnamed till the very end, wasn’t going to take home any prizes. We can guess, almost from the first page, the crime this woman has committed. You read on simply to know why and how, a pursuit that takes up most of the 300 pages of What Lies Between Us. The author had deliberately set out to wring sympathy from her readers for an unsympathetic character and now, in a book club, surrounded by readers who were also mothers, she was about to find out if she had succeeded.

The women loved the novel.

“You’ve got this completely right,” one reader told her; she remembers another saying, “You are talking about stuff that most people don’t want to talk about.” The conversation that followed was for Munaweera a kind of validation. The things she was writing about were grim and emotionally weighted but her readers were drawn to the book despite, no, because of her willingness to wade into murky waters.

By now, Munaweera is used to surprising everyone, herself included. Her debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, made the rounds of several US publishers and was rejected multiple times before a chance encounter with an old friend led to Perera-Hussein Publishing House launching the book in Sri Lanka in 2012. Island was subsequently a nominee for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It took home the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Asia in 2013.

By then, good reviews had earned Munaweera a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press. The author, by now at work on her second and third books, could rest easy that her next novel already had a publisher.

Munaweera’s confidence, on page and in person, has grown visibly since her debut. Her style, though eliciting comparisons with the lyricism of Michael Ondaatje, is very recognizably her own. The pages are thick with metaphor and simile; every other paragraph seems to launch a kind of sensory assault – taste, touch, sight, sound – on the reader. Her attention to visual detail reminds you she once considered a career in painting. Her plots, which lean toward the dramatic, are fuelled by deep emotion. Certainly, her work is not to everyone’s taste, but that doesn’t seem to bother Munaweera in the least – she lives by the dictum that she writes the kind of book she would want to read.

Since she frequently ventures far beyond the experiences of her own relatively privileged life, writing remains for her a kind of leap into the unknown, an inseparable blend of “imagination and research, dreams and overheard conversations.” Munaweera does not subscribe to the notion that writing is meant to be easy. She describes an approach that sounds almost painful in its emphasis on writing and rewriting a piece until all those re-workings produce the illusion of ease and effortless flow. Experience has taught her not to show her manuscript to anyone early on, and so she is largely a solitary writer.

Despite the emphasis on technique, she is far from detached. The novel’s interest in motherhood had Munaweera wondering whether her own decision not to have a child would come under scrutiny (it hasn’t, so far). But she is honestly sceptical about whether she would have attempted this book if she and her husband Whit had had a family, or even if her niece, who she adores, had been born then. “I don’t think I could have written those hard scenes if I had natural child in my life,” she confesses. Even though the character of the girl Bodhi had no real counterpart, Munaweera says the life of her protagonist sometimes felt too painful to inhabit for long stretches of time.

The author is currently listening to an audio book of Moby Dick, and in Herman Melville’s iconic work she sees an odd concurrence of philosophies. For her Moby Dick is all about the ocean, and Melville, she says with frank admiration, has “considered every piece of it.” She strives toward something very similar, building novels that revolve around a single theme. “The way that I think about a book is that there is a central idea or a question. For the first book, the central idea was about the civil war [in Sri Lanka], and in this book it was about maternity. I end up looking at that idea from every angle that I can.”

Munaweera admits to a kind of necessary obsession with the subject she chooses, because it is one she will live with for the many years it takes to write, publish and publicize a book. “I just attune my life to answering that one question, to attacking it from every single angle I can.”

Her use of the word “attacking” is reflective of Munaweera’s surprising tenacity, a trait that might initially seem at odds with her cheerful, easy-going personality. The 43-year old has a predilection for difficult, dark subjects – the question at the heart of her unpublished third book is the nature of evil – but running through all her writing so far is a concern with women’s bodies, how they are circumscribed by the patriarchy, and policed by society. “Women live in a world in which we don’t even fully realize the ways in which we are oppressed,” she says. Referring to the dominance of male voices in literature, Munaweera declares her interest in being a writer who writes about women, their relationships to themselves, to each other and to the world.

This ambition demands that as a writer she switch constantly between the private and the public. In What Lies Between Us, a young girl grows up to become a mother herself. We see her life filtered through the lenses of family, society and tradition. Trauma is a seed whose roots run ever deeper over time. It does not seem to matter that our protagonist has long since left everything behind; fleeing her attacker, her homeland and every expectation of who she should be. She is still haunted.

This plot, which flows in a relentless circle, will undoubtedly leave some readers feeling leaden. Munaweera, not being immune herself, says she has always tried to find room for humour and beauty. “I wanted to have moments of respite,” she says. One of the most charming segments comes early in the book, when she describes a typical Sri Lankan party, complete with a feast (silver-skinned fish, fried beetroot, red chicken curry, fried potatoes, coconut sambol, crackling papadams and rice), music (a heady mix of Abba, Boney M and baila) and a full complement of aunties and arrack-soaked uncles whiling the night away.

“That one was straight from my memory. That was absolutely what childhood parties were like,” she says of the chapter, adding “Boney M – ah, no matter where Sri Lankans go in the world, they take Boney M with them.” I think it revealing that Munaweera – who is by now used to people coming up to her to talk about how her handling of ethnicity, violence or trauma had a personal resonance for them – takes particular pride in a very different kind of compliment. “It’s amazing when people say to me, ‘I really want to try Sri Lankan food now.’ I really love that.”

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Published in Scroll.in on 27 August, 2016. By Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Nayomi Munaweera. 

Highrise

In Activists, Adda, Businesspeople, Commonwealth Writers, Researchers on August 3, 2016 at 8:28 am

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Let me begin with this apartment, where a grocery store and six people are all crammed into 400 square feet in the Methsara Uyana high-rise.

The people fit themselves around the groceries, which occupy all of the living room and most of the kitchen. Sleeping arrangements are flexible, and visitors and wet laundry must both be relegated to the corridor – there is room for neither in the apartment.

Neela Kalyani used to own a successful grocery store, established with savings accumulated over years working in the Middle East as a maid. But her relocation to a high-rise apartment block by the urban authorities has gutted her business, entrenched her in debt and left her family floundering. The building is in fact crowded with small businesses like hers; seemingly every floor has its own grocery store in a living room. Kalyani’s former business was registered, and she says she was entitled to another apartment on relocation. But despite repeated queries it hasn’t materialised and Kalyani suspects it never will.

At a time when she expected to be planning for her retirement, Kalyani is contemplating returning to domestic work in Dubai. Her hands twist anxiously in her lap. “I am 51 now. I do not think I could do the hard labour I used to, but what choice do I have?” She is separated from her husband (“We never quarrelled, but what to do, he is a gambler”) and does not want to leave her children in his care. But there is no one else.

“We have faced so much injustice, and now for the next generation, this will be an inherited injustice,” says Samaradeera Samankanthi, Neela Kalyani’s neighbour across the corridor. Samankanthi lives on her own in this apartment. She is famously tough and outspoken. The story goes that all it takes is the sight of her for Urban Development Authority (UDA) officials to turn tail and flee.

Still, Samankanthi is not immune to fear. Just last week she came back to find someone had tampered with the lock on her door. It only added to her unease; her feeling that she is not safe in this place. “When you are single and you are alone, there is a lot to be afraid of,” she says. She says some of her neighbours have rented out or sold their homes, despite this being illegal. She is all but certain brothel owners and drug dealers have taken up residence. There are strangers in the corridor all the time. Residents fear there would be reprisals if they were to lodge official complaints.

Before she was evicted, Samankanthi lived in a spacious, well-appointed home and had deeds that dated back to 1979. Now she says her heart is not full in this new place. She resists the thought that she will grow old here. As she speaks I wonder how many other residents share Samankanthi’s feeling?

Ajith Kumarasiri and his wife Shanthini live on the 5th floor of Sirisara Uyana, just across from Methsara Uyana. It has been three months since I last saw their infant son. He now has a name – Akisha – and a bold black pottu on his forehead to ward off the evil eye. “It is the first time in years we have not been flooded,” Kumarasiri tells me. “In our old house, we used to stay as long as the water level was one we could live with. If it became higher, we went to a shelter.” How high was too high? “Five feet,” he says “until then we would climb on our furniture. The water would usually subside again in a day or two.”

Ajith Kumarasiri and Shanthini share this new apartment with his mother Kumari Manel and his 81-year-old grandmother, Raigamage Emaline Peiris. Emaline, he says, benefits the most from having an indoor toilet. There were no toilets in their previous home, and every time she wanted to use the facilities, Kumarasiri or his father would have to lift Emaline and carry her over to the next watta where they would join the queue. And there were always people waiting –four small blocks of toilets were used by over 300 homes, easily over 1000 people, Kumarasiri estimates.

Listening to his story, I am struck by how differently he feels from his neighbours about being resettled here. I ask if he has ever been to a meeting or tried to campaign for change. He says no, but he understands the divisions running through the high-rises. He thinks those unhappy with the resettlement programme were not given a choice about moving here or already had the deeds to their former homes, whereas he did not and was not coerced in any way.  Among the others would have been people who had toilets and tiled floors, he says. But for Kumarasiri and many of the others formerly at Cotta Road, these apartments are a step up and so he will pay Rs. 2650/- a month (roughly $18) over 30 years so he can get his deeds.

*

The uppermost storeys of Methsara Uyana feel like another building altogether. Bad weather greets us as we step out of the elevator onto the 12th floor. A rough wind catches doors, slamming them shut, sharp bangs ricocheting like gunshots down the corridor. Then the rain starts, a tropical thunderstorm that sets the fiberglass roof drumming loudly.

While the women rush to batten down the windows, the children, unperturbed, continue to cycle wildly down the corridor. An old woman who sits on her doorstep frying up snacks, efficiently sets about protecting her cook stove’s flame and preventing assorted pans of hot oil from tipping over.

Nona Fareena, a grandmother many times over, finds me in the corridor and takes me on a tour of her home. Soon after they moved in, they heard a crash from the bedroom, she says. A window had simply fallen through, the glass pane and its frame lay in pieces on her floor. Such incidents are taken as proof that this new building will age badly. There are already cracks in the walls, and water seeps into homes from the floors above. Some residents report multiple water pipes bursting and say the authorities are slow to respond on maintenance issues. “This building feels like it might fall down around our ears,” says Fareena.

Other tensions are in the social fabric of Methsara Uyana. The majority Muslim group occupying the topmost floors of the building lived along Saint Sebastian’s Canal before they were relocated to the high-rise. This part of Dematagoda in which the new building is located, used to be a majority Sinhala Buddhist area, and now locals will not hear of a mosque being built nearby. Women on this floor say going out in a hijab invites harassment. They also speak of petty theft and vandalism targeted at Muslim owned vehicles, chain snatching and a garbage problem that leaves a stink in the air.

The tensions within these buildings are reflected in the national conversation. Post-war Sri Lanka is striving to establish itself as a tempting prospect for tourists and international investors. It has grand ambitions for Colombo, its de facto capital. Yet as the cost of living soars, this much-hailed development seems to leave behind more and more people who already live in the city. Thousands were promised a better quality of life in these high-rises, but will they feel that?

As one might expect, how residents respond to this place is shaped by how they came to be here and what they left behind. But crucially, it also derives from the details of daily life: garbage disposal, parking space and security, proximity to places of worship, schools and jobs. It seems these things will determine if the high-rises fail or succeed. Right now, they appear to be failing.

As evening falls over Methsara Uyana, the storm thunders on. Nervous that a power cut will affect the elevators, we opt to take the stairs eleven floors down. They are awash in water and from the odour it’s clear they have been used as a urinal more than once. The walls are stained red with betel-spit. We fold our pants up to our knees, take care not to touch the railings and pray we won’t slip.

*

Vijay K Nagaraj – currently head of research at The Law & Society Trust and previously affiliated with the Centre for Poverty Analysis – first heard of what was happening from domestic workers employed in the homes of his friends. They told him of how entire swathes of low-income neighbourhoods in the city were being cleared by the authorities. Around 30 high-rise apartment blocks, each with 12 floors, were to be provided as alternate housing for thousands upon thousands of affected families in the city and its suburbs.

Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war had come to an end in 2009, and all eyes were still on the former war-torn areas in the North and East of the country. There were controversies around land grabs and forced evictions there, but Nagaraj suspected that something similar was happening in the island’s largest city and no one, not even local human rights activists, were paying attention.

It was clear that some families went willingly, even gratefully, to their new apartments in the high-rises, but that others preferred to remain in their old homes. But in a context of growing militarisation – of the country and specifically of the Urban Development Authority – whether or not you were willing mattered little in the end. In the most controversial evictions under a former government, the armed forces, backed by bulldozers, were deployed to ensure no room for protest. Community leaders who objected were abducted and threatened; homes were sometimes demolished with people’s belongings still inside.

For communities and activists, the Urban Regeneration Project has often seemed both relentless and inscrutable. As recently as 2014, Iromi Perera, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, says she was almost entirely reliant on speeches made by officials of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) to figure out what was going on. For her reports, she would take the numbers mentioned, compare them with census data and extrapolate figures.  ‘280,000 to over 500,000 people’ was the closest they could come to knowing the number of people who were going to be resettled.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government was voted out of power in the January of 2015, there was much hope. Perera says: “Ranil Wickramasinghe [Sri Lanka’s current Prime Minister] and Harsha de Silva [currently, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs] had made very public statements that things would change. You have Ranil on video saying ‘this is a land grab’ and ‘you should not have to pay rent.’ But now these people are in power and the community still sees no change.”

The activists say it’s a somewhat more complicated story behind the scenes: the UDA is more open to criticism than it used to be, and far more willing to engage with both civil society activists and the people in the high-rises. But change unfolds at a frustrating pace, and the government appears to be handicapped by problems both inherited and new.

Once a well-known banker, Ranjit Fernando now has what may be one of the toughest jobs in the new government. He stepped into his post as the chairman of the Urban Development Authority* in January 2015. The controversial Urban Regeneration Project he inherited had already resettled some 5,000 families. “10 of those [high-rises] had been completed and there are 18 under construction. So that is the good side of it, because we had actually relocated those people from the hell holes they were in to a better facility,” he says, adding “but we also saw some weaknesses in the scheme.”

Financing was an immediate and pressing concern. Each individual apartment cost 3.5 million (approx. $23,660) of which new residents were expected to pay back Rs. 1 million (approx. $6,760) over 20 or 30 years. However, the government had to bear the cost right away, which it did by borrowing money and diverting funds from other programmes.

It also quickly became clear that many of the new tenants of the high-rises could not or did not want to make the monthly payments. “There is widespread default,” says Fernando. Some people are illegally renting out homes and pocketing the profits, others have suffered calamitous upheavals in their livelihoods and can’t scrape together the cash. In any case, says Vijay Nagaraj, “there was no proper assessment done of people’s ability to pay. When these people were moved, it was assumed that the biggest problem, the only problem, was housing.”

The UDA chairman says that that the original financial rationale of the scheme was simple – “we would relocate these people to release the land they were occupying. Then we would sell it because it was prime land that would recoup the money we had spent.” The UDA’s surveys estimated that low income communities were living on some 884 acres but while the evictions were carried out in haste, many of the cleared lands are yet to be sold. This is because of those 884 acres, Fernando estimates the UDA only owns some 67 – the rest is tied up with different state agencies like the housing authorities or the railways. Transferring the land is proving a time consuming process.

“So now we are cash stuck, our cash flow is negative,” reveals Fernando. The UDA is in the position of being a broke, reluctant landlord to thousands of tenants, having to pour cash into things like paying the electricity bills of elevators and fixing leaking walls. There is a pressing need to improve the general maintenance of the buildings as well, and it is still not clear who will bear the cost in the long term. It is likely to be well beyond the capacities of communities themselves.

“The math is all false,” says Nagaraj, clearly frustrated, “This was all based on false assumptions.”

The researchers currently work with a small group of families, some 50 in number, but their greatest hope for change is in contributing to policy at a national level. “The larger political economic context is very important,” says Nagaraj, explaining that the government’s current policies “privilege value of land over use value of land.” He cautions this will inevitably lead to a state where low income communities don’t occupy land, they occupy real estate. “We can already see these buildings becoming vertical slums,” says Perera, matter-of-fact.

She goes through a list of issues, citing overcrowding in apartments, flooding and bad maintenance, no security of tenure, harassment by authorities, security concerns and an increase in illegal activities such as drug peddling and robbery. She concludes: “These conditions have started to take place in two years of occupancy – imagine how it will be in ten years.”

*

Trust in the government is scarce among most of the newly resettled communities. Those who live in the Lakmuthu Sevana high-rise in Colombo 6, for example, may have only been there a few years but have, as a community, spent decades negotiating one housing crisis after another.

Where community meetings at Methsara Uyana tend to disintegrate into chaos and loud disagreements, most of the families living in Lakmuthu Sevana have known each other for generations. The Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills, which once stood in the same place, were the largest in the island, and the site of a long and storied fight for labour rights. Labourers were initially housed in tenements and struggled to see them maintained and upgraded. Though the Mills no longer exist, the community remains knit together. They are seasoned, if weary, campaigners.

Among the most experienced is S. Saga Nalini, one of a handful of women who are part of the informal committee at Lakmuthu Sevana. She prides herself on her reputation for straight talking, and says she was known to politicians in the United National Party as a great mobiliser in the area. She counted on her party to change things once they came into power, but she has been disappointed. She still has the enormous posters she used to drum up support for Rosie Senanayake, then the Minister for Child Development and the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, both of whom have visited the high-rise.  One poster is tucked under her bed, the other so large it takes up an entire wall in her kitchen. “I have their mobile phone numbers,” she tells me, of the people on the posters, “but they no longer pick up when I call.”

Like Nalini, Mohammed Razik Rizwan is also on the apartment’s informal committee, but unlike her he seems satisfied with his lot. He says he feels lucky that here at Lakmuthu Sevana, they have a church, a mosque and a temple in close proximity to their building. Their committee is very engaged, each member chosen according to votes cast by every family living in the building.

Their address in central Colombo is an enviable one, he says pragmatically. At 500 square feet, the apartments are larger than those at Methsara Uyana. Rizwan and his family no longer have to crowd around the communal toilets in the morning. He takes me out on to the balcony, just to share his view of the sea. Dusk is falling and Colombo is laid out in front of us. Just beyond, the ocean is a band of silver.

The Lakmuthu Sevana committee is now lobbying hard for a long-promised playground for the children and for additional shop spaces. There is a list of concerns and one of the most pressing is the challenge of getting their children into good local schools. A point system which includes how long a child’s family has lived at the same address has left people scrabbling to qualify. “These are problems created by the government and only they can solve them,” says Rizwan.

*

With plans for an ambitious new ‘megapolis’ underway, Colombo is busy imagining the kind of city it wants to be.  Even as work on the high-rise blocks continues, Vijay Nagaraj asks if this is really the most affordable, most sustainable solution to the city’s housing challenges.

The Colombo Municipal Council has enjoyed successes with in-situ improvements such as new public toilets and new drains. However, while this might improve the quality of life in an under-served settlement, it does not solve the problem of people squatting on land that does not belong to them, says the UDA chairman.

“Colombo has some 60,000 odd [low income] families,” explains Fernando, adding “valuable land is scarce…you can’t have shanties on that land. You must have buildings on that land which reflect the value of that land.”  He contests the notion that these will be elite spaces, saying middle-class housing will also come up, and that it is simply the “logical move.”

His statement highlights a very basic disagreement of values and politics between the activists and the state. Based on official estimates, nearly 50 per of Colombo city’s population lives in so-called underserved settlements and these settlements occupy under 10 per cent of its area. Says Nagaraj: “now we are told that even that is too much for the poor – they must be ‘densified,’ and pushed into these high-rises.”

These under-served communities could not be left to fend for themselves in their original settlements either. The issues around health, sanitation and other basic facilities are serious. Many can never hope to own the land they live on, no matter how much of their savings they pour into their temporary homes.

On the other hand, life in a high-rise takes some getting used to. Arbitrarily moving people into them, with little thought or planning for what comes after, has left everyone a little worse off. “The high-rises represent a completely new environment for the poor,” says K. A. Jayaratne, President of the Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre.

His organisation is currently at the end of a three-month-long action research project that has been focused on improving the lives of some 820 low income families that were being resettled at the Muwadora Uyana high-rise in Colombo 14.  As part of their project, they arranged it so that while people still had to draw lots to be assigned their apartment, old neighbours could form groups that would ensure they were placed on the same floor of the building. The hope is that people will adjust better because they know and trust those around them and that eventually a cross-building committee will be in place to address any issues that arise.

To think along these lines is to accept that the social cohesion which would allow people to claim these spaces, and work together to maintain and protect them, is something that has deliberately to be nurtured. Building these networks has to be as much a priority as sorting out the finances, maintenance and security of these buildings. “The UDA must create a mechanism where people can participate,” says H.M.U Chularathna, Sevanatha’s Executive Director. He adds: “people will also have to play their role in preventing the buildings from becoming vertical slums – for instance by paying the maintenance fee on time, participating in environment clean-ups and getting organized in floor level community groups.”

For his part, Ranjit Fernando says the UDA is doing what it can to address the communities’ most pressing needs. Where possible, alterations are being made to the architectural plans so that all the apartments occupy at least 500 square feet. He says they are building new community halls and hiring people to work on education and sports programmes for youngsters. Documents being circulated in the buildings are now trilingual, to lessen confusion. But the high-rises themselves still seem like the best option to him. He will do his best to make them work.

*

It is an easy walk from Samankanthi’s new home to the place where her old one stood. The land is cleared, but lies empty. She knows many of her neighbours live in hope, pegging their optimism on an expedited transfer of deeds or improvements to the building. But Samankanthi’s heart is still with a home she will never be able to reclaim. She is practical though, and hopes that somehow her loss will be someone else’s gain. Currently there are some 77, 643 families still waiting in under-served settlements, and with them the government has a rare second chance to repair a troubled programme.

“At least, I hope they will learn from this, and others will be spared what we went through,” says Samankanthi. But even as she says it, she doesn’t sound at all convinced.

 

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*We understand that since time of writing, Ranjit Fernando has resigned as Chairman of the Urban Development Authority.

Published in Adda on 14 July, 2016. By Smriti Daniel. Pix Abdul Halik Azeez/ Centre for Policy Alternatives

 

Chandraguptha Thenuwara: The End of Fear

In Activists, Artists, Open Magazine on August 3, 2016 at 8:22 am

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It was 33 years ago, but Chandraguptha Thenuwara still remembers the group of men stopping the bus and clambering on. They had a seemingly bizarre demand, going from passenger to passenger, insisting that he or she say the Sinhalese words for pen and bucket – pǣna, bāldiya. Tamil tongues twisted different around these syllables, making it easy for the assailants to sort members of one of Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities from the other. Thenuwara, who is Sinhalese, was passed over. Others who struggled with the pronunciation were dragged off the bus to meet uncertain ends. The vehicle was waved on.

An ambush by Tamil insurgents had blown up a truck carrying 13 Sri Lankan army soldiers a few days back. There were immediate retaliations on civilians in the North. The unrest had spread, and now smoke was rising over Colombo as rampaging mobs set homes and business alight. Thenuwara decided he wanted to see what was happening for himself, and he set out to walk from Colpetty to the predominantly Tamil neighbourhood of Wellawatte, a distance of some 5km along Galle Road. “It happened in front of me. I can’t forget what I saw,” he says now. “Wellawatte was burning.” All seemed to be anarchy, but the police stood by as the mobs wrecked their vengeance, and the leaders were seen to be directing their attacks with the aid of electoral registers.

In the weeks and months that followed, the riots of Black July would loom in Sri Lanka’s national consciousness as an event that sparked an exodus of Tamil people from these shores and made open conflict between the state and Tamil militant groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam LTTE seem inevitable. Hundreds were killed, many thousands displaced, and millions of rupees lost as a result of arson and looting.

Thenuwara himself would leave the country to pursue a Masters in Fine Art in Russia. He watched helplessly from a distance as Sri Lanka drowned in a bloodbath. As the violence escalated in the North and East of the island, insurrections by the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇa (JVP), a Marxist and Sinhalese nationalist political party, brought chaos and death to the South. When Thenuwara returned home in the 1990s, he found a country at war with itself, being transformed by encroaching militarisation. Thenuwara’s response was to mount a challenge. In 1997, he held his first exhibition to commemorate Black July.

Today, the exhibition is a long-running tradition. This July will mark the 18th time he has held it, only having missed one year in the middle. It is a singular event in many ways, not least because of Thenuwara himself.

Among Sri Lanka’s foremost contemporary artists, Thenuwara is unique among his peers. He is an inherently political animal, as comfortable in front of a canvas as he is out at a street protest. He has often been invited to speak at rallies and on talk shows on national television.

“Thenuwara is widely recognized as both an artist and a political activist,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in Colombo. “His exhibition every year commemorating July 83 attests to his uncompromising belief that uncomfortable truths have to be confronted if reconciliation is to have any meaning, unity any value.” Saravanamuttu is frank about the risks Thenuwara has taken in being a vocal critic of the state, even in times when such outspokenness has led to people being threatened, disappeared or assassinated.

Having seen him in action many times, Saravanamuttu says also that Thenuwara is a particularly compelling speaker. “He does not make political speeches like a politician, instead he is charming and articulate. He has a biting sense of humour. He is in every way a political artist.”

Thenuwara has always drawn strength from time spent outside the studio, in the thick of the crowd. The last time he received a death threat before a rally, he went anyway, hiding his face under an umbrella as a friend smuggled him past the men waiting with rods and batons. His sculpture ‘Monotony’ could be inspired by the experience – it features a hulking, faceless soldier crouching behind a shield. From his back cascade arms like tentacles, each clutching a long rod. The figure polices a series of others; the incarcerated are trapped in solid brick, only their heads are left vulnerable and bare; their mouths are sealed shut. The black metal figure is oppression and violence given physical form.

When he is not hiding under umbrellas, Thenuwara’s face, framed by those bristling white sideburns, is familiar to many.

At a time when the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) was leading a huge protest demanding the state allocate more resources to education, Thenuwara was in the limelight throughout the year he served as its President. His was a prominent voice in the Platform for Freedom and he remains active in the organisation Purawesi Balaya or citizens’ power that served to mobilise opposition and dissent against the Mahinda Rajapakse Government, which culminated with a dramatic electoral defeat for the incumbent president in January 2015.

Thenuwara is the founder of the Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts (VAFA), and a senior lecturer at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo. In 2015 he was appointed President of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka.

Seemingly fearless, this artist’s outspoken critique of war, human rights abuses, militarisation, censorship and authoritarianism has seen him cast by his critics as unpatriotic and anti-national. Yet every year, he produces a new collection of work that engages critically with contemporary politics. He has consistently kept his finger on the pulse of the national conversation, one year marking our grief over the masses of disappeared civilians and the next confronting militarization through a series inspired by camouflage.

For ‘Chandraguptha Thenuwara: A Retrospective’ (Saskia Fernando Gallery, 2009) Qadri Ismail would write that ‘the force of Thenuwara’s work isn’t only political and aesthetic, but intellectual and ethical…It insists that art cannot be concerned only with the formal, the beautiful, but must also say something, be responsible (to the other).’

Anchored in this approach, Thenuwara has produced a new artistic vocabulary, rich in symbol and motif. He is perhaps best known for ‘barrelism,’ a series of paintings and installations, inspired by the streets of Colombo when they were thick with military checkpoints. The tar barrels of his childhood had been repainted in camouflage colours of green and black, with yellow highlights, and used to delineate the boundaries of army checkpoints. To Thenuwara, the colours were speaking – “those colours were both intended to camouflage and be visible at the same time,” he says, explaining the checkpoints would be situated only in neighbourhoods of some strategic importance. “I wanted to know who they were protecting. It was not the normal people. They were stopped and questioned, and lived life outside the protection of the barrels.”

In the post-war context, Thenu would incorporate barbed wire into his work, a reference to the way internally displaced civilians fleeing the warzone were fenced in in places like Menik Farm. For his exhibition on Urban Regeneration Program which had seen thousands from Colombo’s low income settlements evicted, Thenuwara created a mosaic you had to walk over. Embedded in the floor, it mimicked the new walking paths springing up all over the city. Inscribed on his tiles were the dates of riots and massacres, and in a particularly visceral piece, bone fragments were mixed in among the jumble of building materials.

“Thenu, as an artist working in a community, manages to confront us with images, motifs from our everyday, sometimes before we have identified them ourselves,” says Jake Oorloff, founder and artistic director of the Floating Space Theatre Company. Explaining that Thenuwara’s art has often provided inspiration to his company, Oorloff adds, “His work challenges the status quo, the narrative; he subverts the power of the motifs and complicates the narrative, sometimes to the point of mockery. In this way he has contributed to an artistic vocabulary, something that is not limited to one artist or one practice but influences the way other artists and artistic communities start communicating.”

Thenuwara and his wife, the activist Kumudini Samuel, live with their son Charu in a lovely, airy home. Their living room looks out over a narrow canal studded with lotus flowers which forms the border of an adjacent bird sanctuary. Sitting at her dining table, Samuel tells me: “Each year Thenuwara’s exhibition is a critique of what is happening at that time. I can see the way his politics have evolved, and that evolution is the story of our lives.”

She recalls there was a time in the years immediately after the war when dissent was a particularly dangerous thing. With journalists and activists targeted, Samuel found strangers who recognized them in supermarkets and doctors’ waiting rooms coming up to Thenuwara just to say, “Thank you for your courage, but please be careful.” Samuel, who had herself been questioned by the CID because of her human rights activism, says she began to worry that Thenuwara’s life was at risk. But he would not agree to be more cautious – “Now is the time I need to speak,” he told her.

Both this courage, and the ideology that underpins it, are strongly rooted in his childhood.  Thenuwara grew up primarily in Ampara, the son of two teachers. His father Gunatilaka’s strong socialist politics led him to lose his job, along with 123 other teachers in a controversial incident in 1956. But that was not the last blow. Thenuwara and his elder brother Rohana both came down with diphtheria. Rohana did not survive. Soon after, Thenu who was still very young, lost his mother Yasawathie to complications resulting from childbirth.

That tragedy, deeply felt, continues to haunt his work. Mothers are treated with a particular reverence, and the Madonna is a recurring icon. “It is because of my childhood that I learned to take risks,” says Thenuwara now. “Life is risk. That is why I am not afraid. Knowing that, I don’t want to be passive. I want to be active, looking forward, trying to change things instead of accepting the status quo.”

Over the years, his work has drifted far from the colourful, beautifully detailed portraiture that he originally made his name with, moving instead to installations and sculpture and featuring more sketches and paintings in black and white. His friend and fellow artist T. Shanaathanan points out that this commitment to producing an exhibition every July has had a mixed impact on Thenuwara’s body of work: “Sticking to an exhibition calendar and its focus on that previous year, has become a kind of possibility, and also a kind of limitation. It confines him to a certain kind of palette and a certain kind of imagery. The colour palette is not in his hand, it is in the country, it is in the calendar.”

For his part, Thenuwara embraces this. With this year’s series titled ‘Glitch’ he meditates both on the realisation of this country’s hope when it voted for Maithripala Sirisena in that historic 2015 election, and the ways in which the new government has disappointed the electorate since it came to power. The paintings are bursting with colour but distorted by noise, static proliferating through what was once a perfect image. The exhibition which opens on July 23 will run for a month at the Saskia Fernando Gallery.

Though he is so celebrated in some circles, Thenuwara also knows that this comes at a price. Yet it is one he has willing paid for decades. “You are doing work that usually cannot sell. People do not want to carry these tragedies back to their homes,” he says. But then, with a glint in his eye, he points out that even an unhappy viewer is an engaged viewer, and that is what he wants above all. He is content if he can make people question, even if what they are questioning is him. “People would love to forget everything easily, but I love to remind them,” he says.

Published in Open on 22 July, 2016. By Smriti Daniel. 

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