by Gamini Weerakoon
The uprooting of the Bandaranaike colossus that towered over Galle Face and its environs brought to our mind a poem we learned in the Fifth Form more than half century ago on the fickleness of immortality – Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said –
“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone, Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Shelly, it is said, was inspired by the arrival in the London Museum of the colossal wrecked statue of the Pharaoh Ramses 11 in 1816.
We apologise to our readers for coming back to this poem once again in these columns but the attempts at immortality by some of our Sri Lankan leaders have compelled us to do so.
Bandaranaike was too educated and cultivated a person to have attempted immortality by erecting a statue of himself or naming an edifice built with public funds after him.
He had a wry sense of humour. Immediately after his 1956 victory the New Kelani Bridge built by the UNP Government was to be ceremonially opened. Instead of creating ‘history’ by ceremonially declaring open projects built with public funds – as is done so often these days – he got a humble worker (those days called a labourer) involved in the construction of the bridge to ceremonially declare it open!
The statue of Bandaranaike was cast in the Soviet Union as a gift to Sri Lanka and erected on Galle Face Green around 18 years after his death.
Much political mileage, it was thought, could be gained by exploiting the ‘Bandaranaike name’. The statute, it was presumed, would resuscitate memories for the impending 1977 election by the then party leader Sirima Bandaranaike and her party cohorts.
The location of the statue was probably motivated because the intention of the SLFP was to build a new parliament in the area now occupied by the Defence Ministry after their victory at the polls which was not to be.
The best laid plans of mice and men go awry, as the saying goes. J. R. Jayewardene on winning the 1977 elections constructed a new parliament in Kotte.
He couldn’t have called it the ‘Jayewardene Parliament’ nor did he erect his own statue but instead Jayewardene, the historian, renamed Kotte with its historic name:
Jayewardenepura! There could be no accusations against him seeking immortality! There are only a few statues of post- Independence political leaders standing about.
D. S. Senanayake has two statues in Colombo and one overlooking the Gal Oya reservoir, Dudley Senanayake has one in Colombo, there is a statue of the first Sri Lankan Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and none for the others including Sirima Bandaranaike and J. R. Jayewardene who had long interregnums.
During Sirima Bandaranaike’s rule, particularly in the early years there was a craze to perpetuate the Bandaranaike name. Much of it was politically motivated as well as a genuine welling of sympathy for the slain prime minister.
Popular names for the new born were: Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura. Mercifully the family dog was spared and named Laika, after the first dog in space sent by the Soviets. Main trunk roads, avenues, byways and bylanes were named Bandaranaike mostly by the enthusiastic public.
Sirima B had the gift of the Chinese built conference centre named Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall and later the Katunayake International Airport as the Bandaranaike International Airport.
A rare feature in aviation is that if you are on plane returning home, you can know if there has been a change of government. The airport’s name will change from Bandaranaike to Katunayake International Airport or vice-versa. However, soon you may be landing at the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport.
‘Where the hell is Mattala?’ you may ask. You will be told it’s quite a nice place—‘the hub’ of many things to come.
The desire for immortality is not essentially Sri Lankan. The Pharaohs, Persian, Greek, Roman, French and German conquerors, Senanayakes, Bandaranaikes desired it as the Rajapaksas do now. Only some very rare people have shunned it.
Cato the Elder. a well civilised and highly respected Roman statesman is attributed with the saying: ‘After I am dead I would rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one’.
Some of the aspirants of immortality want to be remembered and honoured even before their death. Today there are monuments built at the expense of public funds by ‘servant s of the public’ and are often declared open by them.
In contrast Sri Lankan monarchs of yore neither had statues built for them before or after their deaths and neither did they have dagobas or massive reservoirs they constructed named after them.
Kalawewa, Balalu wewa, Tissa Wewa, Yodha Wewa etc. are such massive reservoirs. Perhaps Parakrama Samudra may be an exception but that may have been named by grateful people after the death of the king.
In times past, monuments built by monarchs were dagobas and irrigation reservoirs. Today’s trend appears to be to build cricket stadiums.
There is the Sugathadasa stadium built by a former sports minister V. A. Sugathadasa, mostly from voluntary contributions made by the public. His arch political rival R. Premadasa followed at the first opportunity he got by building the Khettarama Stadium which was named after him on his death.
Gamini Dissanayake rebuilt his old school grounds, Asgiriya, into an international cricket stadium but neither the Trinitians nor he wanted it named after him.
Tyronne Fernando took over the De Soya stadium donated to the Moratuwa people by a well known philanthropist and named it the Tyronne Fernando Stadium.
Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa has outdone them all. There is the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium built at a cost of Rs. 700 million, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Pavilion at the Galle International Cricket grounds, a Mahinda Rajapaksa International Sports Complex at Maharagama, Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port costing billions of dollars, Mahinda Rajapaksa Mattala International Airport, a Mahinda Rajapaksa Telecinema at Hambantota estimated to have cost two billion rupees and the magnificent Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) Mahinda Rajapaksa Performing Arts Theatre which President Chandrika Kumaratunga initiated and pushed through during her tenure as President.
We were ruminating in our haansi puttuwa on a sleepy afternoon about all this when a traveller from an antique land came to us and said:
I was roaming through the land of Lotus Eaters Who once at cricket were world beaters, But all the cricket stadiums were overgrown with shrubs With roaring lions prowling around, In the distance I saw a score board stand And it gave the score of the mighty hero, To my surprise it was double zero.
I guffawed aloud and nearly fell out of my chair My factotum came running and said Your dreams, dear, caused quite a scare.
The Ozymandias Complex is spreading far and wide, we said. But the poor lady could not understand what we mumbled. courtesy: The Sunday Leader