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Yes things have been a bit slow but...

I'm NOT the most rapid fire poster these days. Life demands more of my time. However the words still swirl in the brain and I do have to vomit them out here for the sake of sanity.

So far the record is 2 posts a month. I'm working on breaking that. Till then enjoy the archives or check out a random post.

Sri Lankan New Year Gathering’s Realisations

Wed, 23 Apr, 14

Sri Lankan New Year traditions are about renewal and continuity. But I feel an undertow of something cracking that illusion. It hard to notice or realise initially. There are children of cousins gleefully tearing through the house. A happy shrieking gaggle of British, American, Australian and Sri Lankan accents. Elders too senile or physically delicate are parked serenely in the shade of the veranda. Grateful to sit in peace next to their walkers and canes. From the main room, the din of reunion chatter. The ladies are the loudest. So much gossip so little time.

The newest infant is passed around like a cute foot ball. He is heart meltingly adorable in his little sarong, singlet with mosquito repellent patch, and drooling grin. High on a wall the sepia poker face of the common ancestor surveys the festivities. According to our elders, he would have approved.

The men circulate quietly due to a lack of alcohol. Slightly louder are the wrinkled relatives who migrated long ago. They have the confidence for silver chains, shorts and T-shirts of prosperous visiting first world relatives. A contrast to the formal tropical shirts, slacks and sarongs on those who stayed behind to survive.

The new British in-law (thankfully un sunburnt) is inclusively chatted with. He’s a nice chap and they make a good pair is the unspoken consensus. If the elders frowned on a her for marrying a suddha it doesn’t show in the mood. Acceptance has long sunk in. The grip of our generation is complete. Yet I am still taken aback when the younger non adult generation offers me betel and worships on all fours. Even with offspring it takes a mental leap to think that I am an uncle now.

Finally the food is ready. It’s stupefyingly good. Some people are eating where they can. On their feet, sofas, and the steps of the staircase — the dining table reserved for the revered elders. An expat relative tries using knife and fork with the plate on his lap. Thankfully he has the sanity to give up and use his hands as per section 36k of the 1953 Ceylon Food Consumption Act. Rice and curry this good shouldn’t be eaten any other way. Desert is rapidly reduced to splatters of melted Elephant House ice cream and destroyed cake. The heat is killing the barely touched cheese cake which wasn’t a hit. People slowly trickle out. There are other in-laws to visit.

In a few days most of the people in the room will be scattered across four continents. Those manic moments frozen into photos flashing by on Facebook feeds. Then washed away in the avalanche of frantically recorded social media lives. Quiet will return to the house.

Even amidst the frenzy I feel the unmistakable sense of an unraveling. The old family tree is dissolving. During my childhood such gatherings were cemented at the grandparental house. Now long demolished and replaced by an apartment building.

Current children of cousins won’t share the same bonds forged in family “outstation” trips. No informal chats in the fringes of alms givings. No joint mischief at temple functions. Regular gatherings are too far apart in time. They will not share the multi layered connections soaked in the peculiarities of Sri Lankan social rhythms. Birthdays, spend the days (do those things still happen?). The shared overlaps of school and tuition class friendships, pets, annual sports events. Random drop ins that go on and on through weekend afternoons.

Such things are now diluted into the superficialities of social media likes. They’ll grow up apart. No different from the tectonic plates they live on.

Change is the only constant. It’s one thing to philosophise about it. Its another to feel the tug of its undertow at a gut level. To finally know that human traditions, formal or not, are transient. Suddenly gone. Faster than an ice cube in the sun. Leaving behind a damp patch of fast fading memory. Something new to realise this year.

Have you felt anything like this as well? It can’t be just me.

9 Essential Contacts You Need in Sri Lanka

Thu, 10 Apr, 14

The Sri Lankan New Year is a time of renewal. A good time to look your extended network and ensure its links are strong. In a feudal society like ours, formal laws and norms are merely barriers of entry. To survive, let alone thrive, we need the right network of relationships. Even lesser beings like you and me need such connections. Hopefully you would have inherited these “aunties” and “uncles” in the right places from your family network. Here are a few that I think are valuable.

1. Uncle in the defence establishment

This contact MUST be an officer, preferably somewhere in the area of Colonels, Brigadiers, Commodores, Air Commodores, etc. Basically Ranks between OF-6 and OF-5 in the NATO ranking codes. If one of your relatives was in a cadet platoon from the mid 1960s to 1990s you are fine. During the war days such connections would mean the ability to get curfew passes in a hurry and other life saving conveniences. If the contact has retired, hopefully he has strong ties to serving comrades and/or proteges who could help.

Yes, I know “The War” is over and that we won. However, you may have noticed that the Sri Lankan military has not gone back to the days of focusing only on the Independence Day parade.

2. Uncle in the Police

Unlike the defence contact, this link can even be a lowly Inspector – if he’s the OIC (Officer In Charge) of an important police station and/or he has a good patronage structure. Not the sort of contact to use to wiggle out if a traffic fine. But if you get robbed or have to deal with a law and order type situation this is the person to call. He could have the clout to smooth out uncomfortable situations on the ground with a gruff phone call. Naturally an ASP (Assistant Superintendent of Police) is nice but not for calling at 2am.

3. Uncle with the distant underworld contact

For safety and the sake of keeping one’s paws legally clean, you need to have at least 2 or 3 degrees of separation with the underworld. These days such a contact also means someone in the shade of demonically powerful political deities. A world where a lot of blood is unpredictably shed so this is a last ditch call.

You’ll need this connection for those unfortunate situations when the law cannot protect you. Classic example is a property dispute where the other party is immune to the courts and have their own muscle. Or when someone in the greater family network is informed of a contract on their head. The killer will need to be bought off. His clients will need firm yet gentle “convincing” that violence is a regrettable choice.

4. Uncle or Aunty in the medical profession

For medical emergencies requiring complex procedures that cannot be delayed. Ideally you’ll need a specialist with personal relationships connections to ensure other aspects of say a hospital stay is well taken care of. If you are a Child of a Sri Lankan Doctor (CoSLD) you know what I’m talking about. Hopefully you have gained access to your medical parent’s student network who are now doctors in their own right. Old colleagues who are still practicing are also a plus. Access to both types can include extended family, domestics and even the extended family of domestics.

5. Uncle or Aunty in the travel industry

When you need to go outside the country with the misfortune called a Sri Lankan passport. The essentialness of this contact is his/her knowledge of the arcane web of getting visas without the inevitable unexpected hassle (missing paper work, yet another form, medical checks, bank statements etc). Another big one is getting seats on supposedly “overbooked” flights. At the airport, someone to stamp a special exemption for a few more kilos on your baggage. Or give you an on the spot upgrade from cattle class. You might think this is trivial in the age of online air tickets. I urge you to think again before you have any rough journeys.

6. Uncle or Aunty of the occult

Essential when there are offspring to be married off. Someone has to get all those proposal horror scopes read accurately (what ever “accurately” means). Finding the “right” astrologer is always a murky business. These characters don’t have star ratings and their work isn’t vetted laws like doctors or lawyers. Thankfully every family has/knows some “aunty” with a nose for the local occult service providers.

Another case you’ll need them is when things are grim and not working out. The uncle/aunty of the occult will tap into a vast network of katadiyas, chanters, speakers to the undead, beseechers of minor deities, priests who run occult consultancies, and monks with powers to chant particularly potent pirith. They will take you to isolated temples or houses of mediums in the chill of the deep night and even have a flask of steaming sweet Nescafé ready. More crucially, they will negotiate the awkward subject of money with these spiritual people.

7. Uncle living abroad

Practically everyone seems to have a relative in the first world. Very handy if they are well established by the time you send your offspring over for their first world degree. Such contacts will help the offspring started on the migration process to a first world passport. As the declining west cranks up the draw bridge against migrants, these links are as good as gold. Such people also need you. Especially when they hope to get their (fair and slim or with sober habits) offspring married to a Kandiayn Govi Buddhist from a good family without low caste stains.

A mundane but still almost essential service of such contacts is to bring stuff from abroad. Computer accessories, auto parts, online purchases and booze from duty free. Basically the things that are small, impossible to find locally, and too important/expensive to trust to some commercial delivery service.

8. Uncle in the civil service

The “benefits” of this type of connection can be hard to detect. The most obvious advantage is adding the element of movement to any interaction with a government bureaucracy (not having to pay a bribe to people to do their jobs).

Less obvious advantages include clarifying some contradictory regulation. Meaning you won’t suffer a cycles of mystifying redirection. To other offices for forms that cannot be found which need to be approved by people who are never there. “Lost” files are nearly always found after a phone call to the right person. A similar call can make clerks unbelievably polite when the unfortunate need to go to a government office arises. At the broadest level you have a better chance to avoid becoming a character from a Kafka novel).

For more background on this type of contact, see my earlier blog post about my father’s friends in the civil service.

9. Uncle with a powerful political contact

Hopefully a contact you will never have to use. The price of paying such pipers are said to be very high. These days they are indistinguishable from organised crime figures yet far more deadly. Such danger calls for the highest degrees of separation. When this contact suddenly falls from favour with the higher powers (as they inevitably do) you won’t be part of the collateral damage. Thankfully, no one in the extended family has ever had to call for such favours. May it stay that way in the coming year.

I’m sure I have missed a few other essential contacts to keep alive. Please feel free to use the comment box below to fill me in.

I wish you and your network have happy and prosperous Sri Lankan/Sinhala/Tamil/Astrological) new year. May you live in boring times, avoid the glare of powerful people, and have the wisdom to realise what you are wishing for.

Uncles in the Palace

Wed, 19 Mar, 14

Cheers around the table lifts him to his feet. Years later I will remember the moments that followed. First for what happened. Later for what it symbolised about Sri Lankan history. About what that history did to a certain generation. To all of us. Time will blur some details. Yet the symbolism will gel into a shorthand that cuts through many Sri Lankan complications.

Such things are beyond me when he finally stands, swaying. A cigarette in limp fingers. Thin lined face already far way. The small room folds into an expectant hush. A fly hops among the table’s forest of empty Lion Lager and arrack bottles. The ceiling fan beats hopelessly against the afternoon heat. Further out, you can just hear the musical toots of traffic.

He takes a slight breath, and fills the room with a song from Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Maname. I had heard the song too many times. Yet the voice turns the words into the most beautiful flow of sound and meaning I had ever heard. An audio perfume smothering the table’s reek of a hot rice and curry lunch. His singing freezes time into a long happy moment. A refuge that lifts you lotus like above the mud of daily life. Then the song ends. The singer drops to his chair. His audience fall from their moment in heaven to thump applause on the formica.

I am the stunned kid across the table. Sucking on a lukewarm Necto next to my father. Until the song I was bored out of my mind. Lost and ignored in this company of uncles. My father’s friends from his government service days. Practically all had met at university – the golden age of their lives. This is a long postponed reunion. Talk lurching from how old everyone looks to recollections. Tales of obscure events, antics and people in ways I was too young to understand. It was the last time I saw them all together.

They looked quite old even then. Hair (if any) thinned to strands and going white. A few valiant comb-overs despite postures slumped by invisible burdens. These I would later over hear in a trickle of eavesdropped conversations. When they used to “drop by” on my father as a form of refuge. To unload the latest tale of woe. The things the minister’s appointed goons are doing to the department/ministry/corporation.

Shocking tales of indignities. Election thuggery in the once hushed realms of departmental offices. A politician’s favoured brute hauling a respected senior engineer out of his chair by his shirt collars. The rest of the staff cowed in shock and horror. Promotions of clueless yes men. Research swatted away because the resulting policy was inconvenient to the minister’s family business. After all you don’t get into politics to go broke.

The most dispiriting of all is when lazy ignorance or vested interests of the powerful become policy. Leaving talented minds to rot reading newspapers at their desks. Expensive machinery rusting in the weeds, and institutions fading into irrelevance. Tales of waste, neglect, missed opportunities and vicious office politics of increasing pettiness. All told with too many sighs, emphasised by the body language of despair. Kiyala Vaduck Na (no point talking about it).

Not a world for these scholars of Pali, Statistics, Sanskrit, History, Economics. They can move easily between Kālidāsa, Keynes, Irrigation Policy and Chaucer. Calmly analyse things in the methodical manner expected of true civil servants. These are the kinds of people Jack Point says should keep the country running. But they are hopeless in the cesspit of patronage politics.

Yet they some-how managed to rise. After all, someone still had to do the work. A rung below the deputy director of this or the assistant commissioner of that. They were the people who actually read the horrifying details and crafted palatable compromises. Disaster was unavoidable. They just did what they could to soften the catastrophe. Often while keeping one’s integrity above the sewage of politics flowing through government bureaucracies. Some splatter was unavoidable.

They could have made a killing. Got the children into better universities. Driven something flashier than a battered Lancers and Corolla. At least keep the office car and driver for “personal use”. They wouldn’t have any of that. Another chat with my father on the road while they waited for a taxi home. Another feeble act of defiance against the “reality” of the times. Which took its toll. Recorded in hair loss, rumpled faces and poor health.

So where does that after lunch song come into all this?

Songs from any of Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s plays have a special place in their generation. It brings back the idealism of their youth. A cultured, happy time, full of hope. The kind of world view created by a civilised university life. Marked by open air theatre performances that celebrated a heady mix of optimism and possibility.

A time when contributing to one’s country was a palpable reality. They worked diligently at it. Put in late nights in government offices. Their reward: front row seats in the country’s decline into tragedy during the last half of the 20th century.

These songs are this generation’s shorthand to the hopes their life’s work were not in vain. That the ideas they dedicated their lives were not a mirage. The songs are links to a time that still perks them up. After an evening of familiar sad tales, my father would steer the conversation to recollections of the old days. I would catch a laugh. Then a reference about one of those performances. Friends who met and got married after performing in one of those plays. He in the chorus, she a first time supporting role. How good they were…

Now these uncles have managed to reach the shores of retirement. They keep in touch with the protégés they left behind to plug the cracks in the dam. The tales of woe are now told with the air of “lucky it is not my nightmare anymore”.

These nocturnal visits have had their practical uses. Part of a web of relationships that got things done quickly without a bribe. Clarify some contradictory regulation. An application form processed at giddying speeds. “Lost” files found after a phone call to the right person. Clerks who are unbelievably polite when the unfortunate need to go to a government office arose.

I wouldn’t call them heroes. But there is something heroic in their response to tragedy. Along with a measure of naïveté that the cynic in me cannot understand. It is too complicated for words at the moment. Writing about it without even hinting at specifics is particularly hard. But that complexity gives way into some sort of wordless empathy. Whenever I remember those battered faces in that dining room, lost in a song of their youth.

The title of this post comes an Ottoman phrase: “barba sto palati” (uncle in the palace). It refers to the benefits of having an older benefactor close to the centre of power. An essential relationship particularly in a feudal society like ours. I picked up the reference in the Allan Furst masterpiece “Spies of the Balkans“. Well worth the read.

Unexpected gift from 7 years of blogging

Thu, 6 Feb, 14

I started this blog seven years ago today. It has only had one profound change on my life. A change I see as an unexpected gift. Perhaps it is a reward of developing a regular writing habit without really trying.

Read more…

Rajapakse govt overthrow had deeper causes reveals ground breaking book

Mon, 20 Jan, 14

Few foresaw the overthrow of Sri Lanka’s seemingly omnipotent Rajapaksa government. Its popularity had won it a resounding victory in the last election without depending on traditional Sri Lankan election fraud. Such factors compounded the shock and disbelief over the events of “Red Thursday”. Never before has regime change in Sri Lanka been so unexpected, swift, final and graphically public. Why this well entrenched power structure collapsed with such rapid ease has become 21st century Sri Lanka’s biggest political mystery.

“Cracks in the Steel: the Roots of the Rajapaksa Regime’s Spectacular Collapse” by Indica Samarapura and Dr J.C Dellthuduwa takes on this mystery. The result is more than just a successful demolition of existing “theories” and “analysis” on the overthrow. It is a work of groundbreaking insight into deeply rooted complexities of Sri Lanka’s political and social ecosystems. Additionally, rigorous research and cutting edge analytical methods makes the book a seminal work in computational political analysis.

The book focuses on the central questions of the overthrow. Why did very different demographic groups with traditional aversions to politics, join forces for such a risky act? How did they forge previously non existent inter-demographic links? What motivated regime insiders with everything to loose (particularly within the security apparatus), to allow events to unfold as they did? How significant were the roles of foreign intelligence services ? What considerations made the Peoples Republic to act as they did? Most importantly, what cascade of factors caused the regime’s core support base to make an enraged u-turn? The answers, as the book demonstrates, are quite complicated.

Yet thankfully the authors deftly guide the reader through that maze of complexity into the light of comprehension. The authors use good writing and an orchestra of “big data” computational political analysis methods to make this happen. Their methodologies rigorously test all aspects of the research — not just the conclusions. For the layman reader this will mean pages of detailed probability calculations, two chapters closely examining social network analytics, as well as some intimidating looking link modelling and clustering coefficient studies.

However the authors’ skilled data presentation enables the lay reader to skip such details without feeling left out. By contrast, the role of the Peoples Republic of China is not as clear cut. Its complexity defies easy summarising. Only a careful read of the relevant chapters can do justice to this vital historical tipping point.

Academic readers will find the “research methodologies” section a powerful toolset for further study. Some of the secondary findings in the book will prove to be a gold mine for future researchers. A typical example is a comprehensive map of Sri Lankan patronage structures. These data models uncovers previously undiscovered network links among Sri Lanka’s ethnic, class and caste structures.

Thankfully the text isn’t all academic. There is an extensive discussion into the roles of the Canadian Office of Overseas Operations and the Norwegian Secret Service. The fight between the Colombo and Delhi CIA stations over control of the Canadian operations make for a hilarious read. The narrative of events leading up to the fateful day, such as the Kinsey Road check point incident (triggered by bumbling Norwegian operatives), bring to mind the style of Fredrick Forsyth’s “Day of the Jackal”.

No doubt these chapters will propel the book up the best seller lists. However the involvement of western intelligence agencies were peripheral to deeper political processes already underway. The underlying shifts within Sri Lanka’s socio-political ecosystem had by then made the overthrow inevitable. The sheer weight of the authors’ evidence and analysis will convince all but the most fanatical conspiracy theorists.

The book has one major ethical grey area. The authors had access to vast quantities of communications data intercepted by the now defunct National Security Signals Intelligence Directorate’s (NSSID) Lihini program. Lihini was a next generation NSA surveillance program supplied by the Peoples Liberation Army cyber warfare command and localised by Ravana Defence Industries.

The authors reveal that the NSSID data contains searchable content of phone, email, SMS and other digital communications. They are at pains to stress that individual communications we not examined. They claim to merely have used AI algorithms to discern patterns and cross reference findings with NSSID analytics. Data from long term NSSID dissident tracking operations such as the Groundviews website were not used — or so we are assured.

One of the most surprising findings of this research is the minor role of social media. Unlike the uprisings in the middle east, it was merely a spectator. According to the author’s data, malfunctioning police water cannon ha greater significance as a tipping point in the early demonstrations. The data also proves that social media hardly played a role creating relationships between the different crucial demographics involved.

The overthrow defied predictions of the few local experts who dared to discuss such a possibility. To paraphrase a giant of Sri Lankan thought, “We didn’t know what we didn’t know”.

Yet it happened, leaving a nation barely able to comprehend the result. There in lies the historical significance of the book’s findings. It will help a bewildered Sri Lanka comprehend an earthquake of history. With that understanding, the country can move on, hopefully as a gentler, wiser democracy. Currently such an outcome appears very unlikely. A position clearly stated by supreme leader Mervil Silva’s recent speech inaugurating public executions of former regime supporters at Galleface.

Review of Imaginary Books, Edited by the Voices in Cerno’s Head.

2013 for Cerno’s blog in numbers

Mon, 13 Jan, 14

This is one of those vanity posts using stats decked out in a wordpress.com generated layout. Not too bad I suppose for a blog that’s been doing a post a month for most of the year.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 29,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 11 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

How I used to plan blog posts

Thu, 9 Jan, 14

The image at the end of this post is from a different reality. A time when I actually had chunks of time to sit back, reflect and sketch out blog posts. A sharp contrast to the now. Where sentences are born in random moments and mentally strung together in the show over months. Typically when ever some minutes can be stolen from life’s practical priorities: in the shower, on the throne, at red lights, when put on hold.

The same process applies to pecking out the words out of the head and into the phone. Again a few sentences at a time spaceed across months. Editing is a combination of tedium and a nightmare. Such are the demands of the voices that must be obeyed. What amazes me is that anything vaguely coherent is excreted from this process. Writing is indeed a mysterious process.

Incidentally, the sketch below was for the post on Sri Lankan coffee culture back in 2008. The sketch book is the same one used for the hand written blog posts post. Note the contrast between the “public” and “private” foul scratch.

There is a satisfying difference between then and now. Now I actually enjoy reading them my own writing. Even with those cringe inducing typos and proof reading errors. Amazing no?Such is the flow of life. What is created in the latrine trench of desperation feels like an accomplishment no matter how crude and silly it is.

Has the way you write/blog changed in the last few years?

Mind Map of Blog Post

Mind Map of a Blog Post

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