When one hears a single bell toll, the message become clear. Someone within your community has passed. In the last few weeks, we have been hearing the bell toll over and over again with increasing rapidity until it reached a deafening crescendo this morning, Mangala is no more!
“Stop all the clocks – cut off the telephone – pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
Many in Sri Lanka looked up to him and referred to him as a “True Patriot”. They pinned their hopes on him, eager to see him lead a country they all love to a better future. Those hopes now lie in shreds, like the smithereens of a coconut that has been dashed to appease a god who remains – just stone.
The Mangala I knew was a friend devoid of politics. He entered that hell the year that I left the hell that is Sri Lanka now! I knew him when he lived in a tiny government owned flat in Dehiwala. Fresh from his days at Central St. Martin’s School of Fashion, London, it was here that we spent many a day and night planning his first fashion show “The Post Nuclear Floor Show,” which I choreographed and presented.I have many memories of and with him; Kinross beach for midday swims when he used to pretend to be a crocodile, lunch packets of rice and curry from the shop around the corner bought just so as to flirt with the shop keeper, and wild nights that started at the Art Centre Club which rolled on and on (with Jagath, Ranjith, Feroze, Prasad, Boodhi, Vasantha, Kukka et al). He had this unforgettable sewing shop in Favela in Colpetty, where film stars from the silver screen used to come and get measured while we hid behind bales of tartan cloth and giggled. We both made shirts out of Batticaloa sarongs and thought we looked rather dashing! He had a wonderful sense of colour which I did my best to learn from and even copied. We laughed a lot in those days when none of us had any money. It was indeed the age of innocence!
I knew him when he was Mangala Innocence. Innocence being his fashion label. His talent for design was what got him a first from St Martin’s he was at the top of his batch every consecutive year that he studied there. He had made connections into the world of fashion that was not only pioneering but it kept Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan fabrics at the centre of all his designs. Many a fashion designer (then and now) raised their eyebrow and used that derogatory term ‘gode’ until he slapped them in the face with his design as the Pugoda Fashion Design Competition where he did just that, used ONLY local fabrics! The idiotic judges at that competition did not even realise that the hand embroidered jacket modelled by Akushala was very much a product of hours of hard work on a local fabric with local thread. They though it was it was made with a foreign lace and nearly disqualified him! I recall him saying, “If Gandhi could promote the use of Indian fabric of the betterment of Indians and to overthrow an empire, I could do the same here!”
Soon after this he launched his unique and inimitable collection for Barefoot. Who could forget the sight of such iconic models like Naomi Rajaratnam, Caryll Tozer and Otara Gunewardene, gliding down the ramp (to the strains of Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”) wearing body-fitting midi length white dresses with multi coloured and Black and White Dumbara overcoats? It was his vision that created winter coats with Dumbara fabrics which are so synonymous with our national identity and it was he who introduced crop tops and tied up baggy trousers that are still making money for this shop.
A long time before London Fashion week became politically correct Mangala introduced plus sized models on the runway! You could be pregnant, out of shape or even disabled, Mangala only saw the potential in it, while I screamed silently!
At a time when most fashion designers in Sri Lanka had the habit of buying all their fabrics abroad (which they still do) whilst looking down on our local produce, Mangala was working with Buddhi Batiks, the brilliant Chandra Thenuwera and lecturing at the institute of Aesthetic studies. He did all this with the intention of giving back, taking from, and encouraging those involved in the grassroots of our country to recognise their potential through fashion.
And then he went into politics and our ways parted, not for any other reason but I was here in London and he was a busy politician. Strangely, we rarely met when he was a Minister. We always met and continued to laugh when he was out of the frame of ministerial power. I never discussed politics with him, and he respected that. Our discussion on Brexit lasted one minute. “Do you agree?” he asked me. “I am thrilled” I replied. And we continued to chat about friends, books, films and the possibility of a debauched holiday in Marrakesh.
I am sure that he was aware (as most of you are) that I disagreed with him on several issues but that did not deter our friendship, we were above that. I will never forget a Christmas that I spent with him and Former President Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaranathunga, in a bedsit in Knightsbridge, UK. She was seated majestically on a large sofa. Mangala (wearing an apron and oven gloves, whilst baking and serving pies that he had ordered from Partridges in Sloane Square) and I were sprawled on the carpet, watching Downton Abbey and discussing the fall of the nobility when there is no one to pass the reigns on to. Apt it seems, now that I think of it.
I think what John Donne says sums up everything Mangala stood for:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main. Any man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Any therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Farewell dear friend – may you find the peace that you fought so hard for.