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Dharmasena Pathiraja as peacemaker

It is only a sense of politeness that keeps members of the two major communities accepting, even with a degree of genuine regret, that they are now more polarised than ever before.

More sadly, the chasm between the influential elite in the two communities have become wider with the passage of time and dreadful events.

In a multi-ethnic society that has enjoyed generations of racial tranquillity such an unwelcome development is always a matter of deep concern.

Though both communities continue to interact with each other courteously, there is mutual suspicion and

GIFT OF PEACE: Jaffna Public Library being rebuilt, with partly burned right wing. At the front is a statue of Godess Saraswati the Hindu God of Learning. The restoration work cost approximately US $ 1 million and the library was opened to the public in 2003. Picture courtesy: Wikipedia.com

 prejudice below the surface.

In this poisoned atmosphere raising hope are players and activists in both communities continuing a struggle against great odds to recapture society to her earlier accommodative past.

Dharmasena Pathiraja’s cinematic effort “A Road to Nowhere” - that was shown to a packed audience of academics and professionals at the small ICES Auditorium on May 10 - falls within this domain.

Pathiraja goes back to 1905 when the 200 plus miles dividing the Tamil-dominated Northern Peninsula from the Sinhala-dominated South, and - particularly Colombo; when time and distance were made closer by the then British colonialists.

Admittedly, to serve their own economic and political interest as well as a link to the massive Indian Sub-Continent “the Jewel of the Crown” also under their sphere of influence. The railroad went out to enrich both Sinhala and Tamil societies - perched as they were at each extreme.

The Tamil and Sinhala communities who remained virtually separate during the pre-British colonial period and before were brought closer by this rail link.

Larger and more frequent movement of people to and fro, their economic and other social interests were no longer parochially district-centred but assumed a national-centric character.

Pathiraja, like many contemporary historians, chooses to suggest post-1956 majoritarian political events grievously ruptured this welcome link between the two ancient communities.

Pathiraja poignantly points out the rail and the A9 road link from Kandy to Jaffna brought in the two communities closer.

In a supremely convincing endeavour - apparently supported by high-profile peaceniks at both ends - Tissa Abayasekera, Sumathi Sivamohan (sister of the late Rajini Tiranagama) and many others. Interestingly, the LTTE is not left.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the movie the name of LTTE’s Daya Master was given prominent place.

In trying to present the main actors on both sides of this tragic human drama Pathiraja does well to bring in the Tamil-speaking Sinhala Bakery mudalali settled in Jaffna who happily refers to himself “as part of Jaffna society” - accepted by Jaffna Tamils as such.

LIFE GOES ON:Smiling girls of Jaffna

And there is a Tamil Clerk boarded in a Sinhala home in Colombo who tearfully bids goodbye to his landlord couple “with the introduction of Sinhala only, I am on the verge of losing my job because I do not read and write Sinhala.”

On the other side of the spectrum, the Sinhala clerk who says “I enjoyed being part of the Jaffna family but the post-1956 events make my Tamil friends now look at me strangely.”

Alas! While it takes generations to build bridges of friendship between two communities, political chicanery can destroy such wonderful relationships in a matter of months. The typical Sinhala middle class parents in Anuradhapura were bidding farewell to their teenage son in the railway station.

The boy was going to a high-school in Jaffna - a famed Christian educational institution.

The father says “Some of the best Sinhala families in the Anuradhapura District send their children to Jaffna. All of them eventually become successful in life.” The parents were hoping for such an eventuality to their son.

This takes one’s memory back and brings to mind such names as Senior SLFP Minister Maithripala Sirisena, Speaker K.B. Ratnayake, UNP Minister E.L.B. Hurulle et al - all of whom students of distinguished Jaffna Educational Institutions. All three reportedly were fluent Tamil speakers.

The scene then shifts to a young lady expatriate Tamil (from where else but Toronto?) who drives via the A9 from Kandy to Jaffna and suffers two ‘Customs and Immigration’ points in one country. She is here to persuade her father to leave this war-ravaged land and come to the safer climes in Canada. The father has many friends in the Sinhala community.

He sees the Sinhalese, landmarks in the South and the North as symbols of his own being and refuses to be cut off from all of this heritage. He pleads with his daughter “Magal, these are our symbols and without them, what are we?”

Then the other man from Jaffna who had returned to the town after many years overseas. He cannot recognise his beloved town and when he enquires about “Subhas Hotel” he engages a laugh. The Jaffna he knew and its historic landmarks - the railway station, the Kachcheri and the GA’s Bungalow all lay in ruins.

The sudden demand of the LTTE ordering the eviction of a half a million people from their homes in a matter of hours is captured effectively by Pathiraja.

The pain of this mass of humanity moving miles on feet carrying their meagre belongings, the deep anguish in

PEACEMAKER: Dharmasena Pathiraja

 their faces speaks adequately of man’s inhumanity to man and the depths to which man can descend in the pursuit of political power.

The 28-year-old young Muslim girl was visiting after 14 years and is anxious to see what was once her home.

Her once beautiful and comfortable home is unrecognisable, in ruins and rubble having received regular shell-attacks. In the empty space she encounters another Tamil girl of similar age and enquires of Malarvalli, who was a neighbour.

The girl answers “I don’t know. We are strangers to this area ourselves. I am from Vallikamam. Our homes there were destroyed by air-attacks. To escape from the shelling and the fighting we moved aimlessly and are now here. We do not know when we will go and where we will go?”

The old Peradeniya Professor is pleased to meet his former young Sinhala student and despite the gloom and deprivation around him, he has not lost his sense of courtesy. He enquires about the well-being of other Sinhala friends and students. The Professor says “I came to Jaffna to help the students here and to be with my family.

But everything remains destroyed. Now I do my work with the little we have. Whatever is left of the Kerosene that is available.

The frightened, teenage girl in the bunker with a candle in her hand trying to protect her from regular aerial attacks reminds one, in today’s context, the scene can shift to Colombo anytime, God forbid! to our dismay. Pathiraja proves that everyone in this sordid game of political-military adventure has lost.

There are no victors on either side. The net result is, it has destroyed what was once two peaceful, friendly, educated ancient societies - who sometimes even inter-married breaching the racial, religious and caste barrier factors.

The characters and events incorporated in the film in many ways have some relevance to many of us and thus makes the exercise that much more relevant.

It is the good fortune of our society we have talented men and women like Pathiraja struggling against odds to rebuild our fractured society. To the outside world, who might think Sri Lanka’s racial division is irrevocably beyond reconcilitation, artistes like Pathiraja bring in a fresh breath of hope.

The enterprise can be fraught with danger to them. They can be labelled “traitors’ “unpatriotic” or even be classified as “Sinhala Kotiyas” - a sobriquet now in vogue that can destroy any Sinhala perceived enemy. And, the sad saga goes on. The vanity of both warring sides to win at any cost gathers momentum - the huge human cost in its wake is not given hardly any worthwhile thought. That the country is at the brink of disintegration and total anarchy is nobody’s concern.

It is poetic justice that such a powerful cinematic endeavour at

reconciliation should be screened in an institution whose name is synonymous with one of Sri Lanka’s most beloved of peace builders who made the supreme sacrifice in its quest - the late Neelan Thiruchelvam. His beautiful thoughts to make “Life - a celebration” to all of us Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims is carried forward many miles by Dharmasena Pathiraja by this singularly triumphant work of art.


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