My new look

Its been a while. Which in itself, justifies the change. Nearly 5 years since I last did it. Perhaps I should have waited another month. But I’m tired of anniversaries and impatient.

As you can see, the progression to the minimal continues. The emphasis is now squarely on what is written. Though the “meta” stuff is still available in the footer. Perhaps its bit too austere? As I fold into my decaying years I prefer it that way. The only look that matters now is readability. So I chose Syntax.

I must admit I will miss the old Vigilance theme (pictured in this post).. has “retired” it. I too need to get with the times. At the time I thought it too was a foray into the minimal. Looking back I feel it has a lot of of “sidebar” fluff.

Picking the new theme took an annoying long time. Time I really don’t have. Forcing the neglect of so many important things. As was well as non essential urges like actually finishing this month’s post quota. I thought a good old “I’ve changed my WordPress theme” post would be easy to write. But picking the theme became an exercise in thinking too much about trivialities. What fun it was. Futile escape in the most frivolous indulgent ways.

Any way, here’s my parting shot at Vigilance.
Vigilance theme screen shot

To add to the look down history, its predecessor
Cerno with the old Garland wordpress theme

and Cerno’s baby picture from 2008

Cerno - the pre marital look

Get your green card and go! Leave this god forsaken country

“Get your green card and go! Leave this god forsaken country”. A verbal punch in the face from my father. Before I can react: “I have lived my life. You have to think about those wonderful children..”. It trails into a familiar muttered “kiyala va-duck-na” (no point talking about it). Then deflates to a sigh. Then a long unseeing gaze at a plant by the wall.

I sipped my coffee, deciding not to react. My best at keeping a pleasant Sunday afternoon unruffled. I had dropped in on an errand. Stayed for coffee in the cool veranda’s shade. Looking out over the small lush garden. A plate of Amma’s divine Thala Guli between us.

What sparked the eruption ? I may have commented on the latest insanity of our rulers. Or a recent blatancy of their skin head goons. My try at sounding witty and informed (polished retweetable remarks require constant practice). I should have known better. Such comments sours his mood. Once it was a sage retort wrapped in a morsel of insight. Then it eroded to a dismissive snort and disgusted epithet. Now it’s a retreat into silent despair. Punctuated by the occasional hurl of angry words.

I understand his dismay at Sri Lanka’s hidden decay. Old friends from his government service days keep him updated on its details. Thankfully most of us are spared such horrors. We see the clean pavements, highways and Vesak lanterns that no Instagramer can resist. He sees the shaky props holding up the scenery. It’s a contraption of dangerously bungling ignorant arrogance driven by greed. Dependent ever more on the teat of foreign loans. A tumour drunk with easy power. Poisoning the future with hate and fear. Making public violence an evil we accept with another shrug. We are on the Titanic. The sinking is slower (for now). He knows just how few the life boats are.

He wants me to get his grand kids outside the reach of bad things getting worse. Even the essential types of contacts you need in Sri Lanka, are less reliable. We both know that I can never build wall of such contacts against the rising madness of daily life. Time may come when even a Sinhala name on your ID card or reciting the right lines of Pali to prove you Buddhism will not help.

So he is willing to join many in his generation as Skype grand parents. Waving at babies on pixelated video feeds. Multiple clocks on the walls marking the time zones of various offspring. Waiting for a few precious hugs on rushed holiday visits. Yet a few more chips off an already globally fragmented extended family. Linked by increasingly occasional family reunions.

All this he accepts with a resigned conviction. The same conviction with which he put me on a plane out of the country long ago. A flight with a lot of boys my age being sent off by similarly minded fathers. For me, the start of a long exile. I still remember that pre dawn drive to the airport. Coasting through checkpoints with military curfew passes.

The world did not fall apart as he feared. Yet his confidence in his judgements remain unshaken. In violent times you make choices as a parent on available information. Not with the luxury of hindsight. Will I wait till I have to take similar desperate acts for my kids? We both know that the world now is a crueler place. Sudden departures are as good as leaps into darkness. Better to make plans now in the face of looming uncertainties. He’s annoyed perhaps angry I am not doing this for my kids.

Part of me thinks I should argue against such fears. Point out that the first world isn’t what he thinks it is. The Asian century, it’s awakening giants and all that sort if thing. Besides the war is over, no? The economy is growing (what ever that means beyond slick restaurants).

I won’t mention the real reasons. That I feel utterly at home even when stuck in Thimbirigasyaya traffic. My sanity questioning love of the weather. Colombo sunsets and morning light through banana leaves. All insane little things that trigger the primordial instinct that I am home.

Such selfishly sentimental appeals can’t argue against his decades of experience and knowledge. They are cowardly dodges of hard questions facing one as a parent. The state of the economy and where it’s heading. Your chances before the forces of law, disorder, and the courts should misfortune strike. Your chances at getting the kids into a “good” school in a crumbling education system. Then there are the accepted inhumanities of society. From rape to the mentalities behind the smaller interactions of the daily grind. Looming over it all, the consequences of what the politicians are doing. Our children will have to face these even if we don’t.

My father no longer has time for placard holders and “champions of change”. Going back to the Titanic metaphor, we struck the ice berg long ago. The compartments below are flooded. The poor in third class are drowning. The captain is mad. Why are you not running for a life boat while you still can?

It all boils down to a guilt trip. Yet something in the pit of my stomach is telling me he is right. A bad gut feeling that’s been growing even before the tragedy at Aluthgama. Now snowballing into a despairing feeling that something has died.

Have you felt it? Are you trying to ignore it by comparing prawn curry reviews? Meanwhile, people who have a lot to gain by staying, have got their green cards/pee-arrs and already left.

Yamu! : Sri Lankan cinema’s exciting new journey

The definitive Sri Lankan road film (“movie” for American speakers) has finally arrived. “Yamu!” is a critical and box office success because it manages the impossible. It lets the viewer experience the layered contradictions of being Sri Lankan in a very entertaining way. The “local” audience, irrespective of their language will “get it”. So will global audiences clueless about Sri Lanka.

The film’s strengths are solid fundamentals. A script light on dialogue. A cinematography driven storyline. A diverse ensemble cast that work well together. All packaged into an uncomplicated narrative vehicle

The “plot” is simple. Three friends travel from Kurunegala to Elephant Pass. Their goal: to watch the first test match at the newly built Veeragamunu stadium. They have a cargo of alcohol to sell illegally at the match in their guise of being a papare band.

They hire a van (white) and take on other passengers to cover the costs of the hire, the journey, and the booze. Their other passengers add up to an interesting mix. A cricket and photography loving advertising executive who fought at Elephant Pass. An Oxbridge trained Sri Lankan anthropologist sent by her NGO to report on aid to the Jaffna library. A returning refugee from Toronto, determined to claim her ancestral home in Chavakachcheri.

During the journey they give rides to people along the road. Naturally all have pasts that interweave symbolically and perhaps a bit too neatly. We get front seats in an entertaining and enlightening spread of interactions. The sensation is of a satisfying rice and curry feed. Diverse dishes in a harmony that is greater than just being a big meal.

The restrained cinematography does more to move the story than the script. In true Sri Lankan style, the unsaid and the avoided conversations are the stuff that really matter. These are wordlessly clear in empathic visuals that cut through the usual barriers of language.

On the surface, the cinematography appears casual. It has the informality of a social media phone camera and the gritty focus of an investigative documentary. Yet it frames poignant visuals often enough that a close observer will realise that the casualness is an act. An act of skill, timing, and a gut level understanding of the story’s essence. It pulls all this off without giving into the temptation of becoming arty or overtly “cinematic”.

The visuals are strong because the story is an adaptation of Romesh Gunasekara‘s powerful book Noon Tide Toll. Readers will notice that Writer/Director Indica Mendis has cut out much of the original story. Instead he has folded the book’s themes and details to work on film. He creates his own vocabulary of the “telling visual detail” that makes for powerful cinema.

One example of this is the narrative voice of the van driver. It is the “voice” of the book. A lesser director would have resorted to a cliche of a voice over when “adapting” the book to film. Yamu avoids this pitfall. Instead the driver’s inner voice is woven into the dialogue. Or made silently clear with the camera.

Another visual narrative device is the windows of the van. The framing of the passing landscape becomes poetic. Sometimes all it takes is a perfectly timed (a credit to the cast) muttered phrase word to make a shot carry a powerful emotional punch. The looming monstrosity of the stadium amidst the desolation of Elephant Pass is a memorable example of this touch.

Despite the rich visuals the dialogue is not neglected. It’s sparse and tightly written. Yet its puns and dry humour is home to the film’s comedy. The format seems almost like skits built around the central theme of a journey. Even the small parts get at least one good line.

Yamu is a musical film. Yet there is no “cinematic” music. In an almost purist Dogme 95 style, all music occurs within the world of the story. So there is a lot of well played papare using a simple drum and horn. YFM plays a lot on the van’s radio. Its chirpy news briefs adds an ominous layer of meaning to the world outside the van. The ad executive whistles a riveting “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. While the three friends take a leak on a bleak roadside outside Killinochi. Standing in a line facing a landscape dotted by bombastic hoardings of empty government promises.

The ability of the cast to work together is an obvious strength. It’s a mix of veterans (Goliath White) and newcomers (Vinitha Laphantasmagorie). Yet this diversity produces restrained even acting that places the story first. Managing such a collaborative feat is another mark of Mendis’s directorial flare. As with any ensemble cast film, the swarth of characters seems unwieldy. It’s hard to decide who the main character is until you realise that it is the journey.

At its core, the journey is a quest for understanding. Between people and places kept apart by a generation of war. The audience too will stumble along towards that understanding. On the way, we get to absorb the mundane, real life human difficulties of such a process. A process that chips away at political power built on centuries of well cultivated tribal fears. Something that committees in Geneva have no patience for.

If this sounds like abstract stuff don’t worry. You’ll never see on screen. Yet the ideas just under the screen will stick to the back of your mind long after you have left the theatre. Discuss the film with anyone who has seen it. Your conversation will go in directions that make politicians squirm.

At another level, “Yamu!” opens the world’s eyes to a different Sri Lanka. A place more complicated than the caricature in the news, travel media, activists’ rants. It makes the film a journey like no other. One that is worth treasuring.

Year without television

It’s been nearly 10 months since I stopped watching TV. May be turned it on once for a DVD. Perhaps twice to check some now forgotten “breaking news”. Otherwise the the demon box is unplugged. I hope it stays that way. Or at least I manage a year of this bliss.

The sensation is the relief of not having a headache. Yet this post is not a rant against TV. Or those who stare at it (religiously or otherwise). Personal media consumption choices cover a wide spectrum. Abstinence is a logical part of it.

I don’t feel the need to justify my choice. It’s neither irrational nor ideological. It’s certainly not a “life style” choice but a choice dictated by the demands of life. Avoiding TV gives me time to get things done. It also lets me salvage whatever mental energy that survived past the sunset.

Behind these two simple facts is a brutal one. Raising offspring without slaves or relatives in the house is hard. It shrivels your free time and saps your energy. If unmarrieds or the offspring-less REALLY knew what this involved, population growth would crawl. The demands of the day makes not watching TV happen effortlessly. For once its a solution that works.

It reminds me of what I hate the most about TV. Evenings slopped on the couch staring at that thing. I would feel it suck some part of life out of me. Dracula could never match such efficiency. I was burning time being “entertained” or “informed”. Then scrambling to get other things done. I certainly don’t miss the relentless pounding of “news” and advertising. The first is always bad and shallow. The second involved things I neither want nor need.

The bliss of not having to process all those audio visual inputs after a long day is wonderful. Now the mind (or what’s left of it) can rest with the body. Its free. No pills, booze or other expensive relaxants needed. Imagine how much you’ll save from bingeing on Veuve Clicquot and cocaine.

Despite the clean relief of abstinence I miss nothing. The internet is a quieter, convenient medium for information. I get my news with better context. Rather than wasting my life watching “popular” shows I get overviews of them in short online articles. Often as streaming internet audio or read to me during boring tasks like driving. These let me get a feel of a show with some dollops of detail. More than enough to hold a conversation about it and avoid sounding like I live under a rock.

The blessing of “free” time is a chance to actually chill with Mrs C. Or produce something of my own. Pathetic little doodles or word drivels such as this. Lately it’s the urge to get what sleep I can.

Like most other things, including the present regime, this too will pass. Mrs C likes to “relax” “watching” TV. It feels heartless to leave her alone on the couch (specially since I serve as a customisable cushion). As a result I’ll end up getting exposed to the life sapping glow of that screen. By then, it will be a conscious sacrifice for a greater purpose. Not a change of mind for a vampiric medium. At least when that happens it will mean a slightly slower pace of life. A small mercy, accepted with gratitude.

I should probably insert a stock photo of a smashed TV set here but won’t.

Sri Lanka’s Unsung Heroes : Undetected Mission Critical Personnel

Mission critical processes of large Sri Lankan organisations are often dependent on invisible people. Invisible to the planners, HR managers, executives and common sense. Yet they are essential for getting things done in the complicated chaos of daily Sri Lankan life. The seemingly unrelated support services of Undetected Mission Critical Personnel (UMCP) are often the only thing preventing disaster in many large Sri Lankan organisations. An UMCP’s significance is realised only in the catastrophe of their absence. When the screws of usually smooth operations come off leaving everyone helpless as slaughterhouse cattle.

I had a front row seat in the drama caused by a missing UMCP. The story illustrates the complicated role that UMCP play in an organisation’s heartbeat. It also shows how hard it is for Human Resources Managers to identify such roles within an organisation.

The drama occurred when I used to end up at my father’s office after school. I noticed something odd was going on. The usual hum of efficiency was gone. The few people at there desks were on the verge of passing out in curry lunch stupors. Phones rang in empty offices. Their occupants were said to be prowling street side eateries.

The lunch room was a mess. Splattered with tea and dusted in milk powder. Ants swarmed around puddles of condensed milk, carrying off sugar crystals. The mess was a result of make-the-tea-yourself failures by men who had never made a cup in their lives.

Meanwhile voices on the intercom kept demanding for matter X or Y to be dealt with immediately and where is my tea? Distractedly filed paper work was causing further organisational dishevelment. Management was desperately feather smoothing irate clients over the phone.

It was a barely perceivable crisis to an outsider. Yet it was significant for an investigation – prompted by a cloud of executive fuming. The findings were brutally simple and shocked everyone.

The guy who made the office tea had gone on leave to his village. Without a backup tea maker, the entire afternoon and the days that followed were wrecked.

To understand the magnitude of the situation we must meditate on the essential role of the office tea in the Sri Lankan workplace.

The optimal Sri Lankan office tea is a boiling mix of full cream milk, condensed milk, and multiple megatons of sugar flavoured with tea. The result is a Hiroshima of a sugar rush. It holds back the anaesthetising effects of a rice and curry lunch. This makes the office Tea a major (some might say the only) factor that makes productivity possible in the blaze of the Sri Lankan afternoon. Many require more than one blast of “tea” to function till traffic jam time.

An optimised productivity sustaining office tea has 2 essential elements. It is

  1. configured exactly to each individual’s unvocalised preferences
  2. delivered when the drinker’s body chemistry actually needs it (not when he/she asks for it)

This essential knowledge makes a skilled tea “boy” critical to post lunch mission delivery. However the “tea boy” role is too low for appearing on the org chart. Specially for those who wear ties or at least trousers with shoes.

As a result appearance of a perfectly configured cup of tea at one’s desk is considered an act of nature. Similar to gravity, rain or farts. It is seen as part of office geology unrelated to the day to day operations of the business.

A similar blindness point to factors that might help detect UMCP roles.

  • The untrained guy who knows how to resuscitate the generator so fast the no one knows its dying
  • The poorly paid driver whose knowledge of secret short cuts is the only reason time sensitive deliveries actually make it on time
  • The spacial genius of a parking attendant who prevents the car park from becoming a chaotic log jam.
  • The machinist who saves an unknowing company millions by reducing wear and tear with small undocumented modifications.

When such people fall ill, die, go on leave, or to Dubai, the consequences are devastating. Sadly, when the chaos subsides, the priorities of post debacle office politics overshadow any lessons that could be learnt. The focus is on finding a scape goat and appearing to have heroically averted disaster. The situation if well played, using your connections, can be a critical career elevating opportunity.

Any lessons learned are filtered from third hand horror stories. Embellished over Bircadi-Cokes and bites in the cigarette smoke gas chamber of a sport club bar. Something to entertain your machans with displays of your office politics savvy. They will fear and respect you as a smart bugger. Life as usual will go on.

Granted its been a while since the story happened. Do you think that 21st century organisations in Sri Lanka (businesses mainly) do better?