Long Live Siribiris – and his creator Camillus Perera!

Nalaka Gunawardene (L) with cartoonist Camillus Perera - photo by Malaka Rodrigo

In January 2009, writing a tearful farewell to the slain newspaper editor and investigative journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga, I invoked the memory of Siribiris. I wrote: Goodbye, Lasantha – and long live Siribiris!

Last weekend, I finally met the ‘father of Siribiris’ and was delighted to salute him in public.

Let me explain. Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character well known to two generations of Lankan newspaper readers. He is a creation of Camillus Perera, a veteran Lankan political cartoonist who has been in this uncommon profession for nearly 45 years.

Camillus started drawing cartoons in newspapers in 1966 with the Observer newspaper and the film magazine of the same publishing group, Lake House (then privately owned and under state control since 1973). He draws pocket cartoons, political cartoons as well as satirical comic strips. His most enduring accomplishment has been the creation of a set of regular characters who have developed a loyal following over the years. Among them are the wily Siribiris, prankster Gajaman, fashionable young lady Dekkoth Pathmawathie, smart alec kid Tikka and sporty Sellan Sena.

These and other characters are very ordinary and very real, and they inhabit an undefined yet familiar place in the cartoon universe that most Lankan newspaper readers can easily relate to — it’s a bit like R K Narayan’s fictitious village of Malgudi.

puncturing egos for 40 years
Siribiris (left): puncturing egos for 40 years
My own favourite, Siribiris, is really Everyman personified: long-suffering, taken for granted by politicians, exploited by businessmen, hoodwinked by corrupt officials, and always struggling to simply stay alive. He is down but not yet out. The only way that poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at all those who take advantage of him is to puncture their inflated egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!

I grew up enjoying Camillus cartoons in various newspapers meant for children, youth and general readers. I had occasionally seen him being interviewed on TV. But I’d never seen or met him in person — until now. It happened when the British Council Sri Lanka invited Camillus as chief guest at their awards ceremony in the climate change cartoon contest they organised, which I helped judge with three others.

As the master of ceremonies, I announced: “It’s a great pleasure and honour for me to introduce Camillus Perera, the senior-most cartoonist in Sri Lanka who is still professionally active. Indeed, he has been drawing cartoons for as long as I have been alive — for he started his long innings in the same year I was born!”

Cartoon universe of Camillus Perera
Camillus, a small made and pleasant man, spoke briefly and thoughtfully. (As I keep saying, we writers just can’t beat cartoonists in the economy of words!). He recalled how he’d used the British Council Library for visual references for years before the web made it much easier to search. He congratulated all those who won prizes or commendations in the contest.

Many years ago, I privileged to count senior cartoonist W R Wijesoma as a senior colleague when we both worked for The Island newspaper. Now I have finally met Camillus Perera, another hero of mine still practising his craft and drawing regularly for Rivira Sunday newspaper, as well as The Catholic Messenger and Gnanartha Pradeepaya. My only regret is that I don’t follow any of these newspapers on a regular basis, even though I try hard to keep up with Siribiris on the web…

There is a bit more than childhood idol worship involved here. Satire is one of the last domains we are left with when freedom of expression comes under siege.

As I wrote in July 2009in a blog post on news wrapped up in laughter: “There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter.“

Taken in that light, Camillus Perera is not just a popular and entertaining cartoonist adorning Sri Lanka’s newspaper industry. He is a gentle giant in the world of journalism — a man of few words whose sharp wit and keystrokes are more piercing than any number of words that we writers and journalists can churn out. He is a living cultural treasure.

So long live both Siribiris — and Camillus Perera!

Goodbye, Lasantha Wickramatunga – and long live Siribiris!

No discussion or debate...
Colombo General Cemetery: No discussion or debate...

This is a view of Colombo’s main cemetery, the final resting place for many residents of Sri Lanka’s capital and its suburbs. I took this photo less than a month ago, when I visited a grave on a quiet morning.

The late Bernard Soysa, a leading leftist politician and one time Minister of Science and Technology, once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion or debate’.

This afternoon, family, friends and many sorrowful admirers of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the courageous Sri Lankan newspaper editor who was brutally slain last week in broad daylight, took him there — and left him behind amidst the quiet company.

But not before making a solemn pledge. All thinking and freedom-loving people would continue to resist sinister attempts to turn the rest of Sri Lanka into a sterile zombieland where there is no discussion and debate. In other words, rolling out the cemetery to cover the rest of the island.

The last laugh?
The last laugh?
Silencing Lasantha was the clear aim of cowardly gunmen who intercepted him on his way to work and shot him at pointblank. Tarzie Vittachi, the first Lankan newspaper editor to be forced into exile 50 years ago for freely expressing his views on politically sensitive issues, once called such attacks ‘censorship by murder’. (Alas, since Tarzie uttered those words in 1990, shooting the messenger has become increasingly common in Sri Lanka.)

Rex de Silva, the first editor that Lasantha worked for (at the now defunct Sun newspaper) in the late 1970s, has just cautioned that Lasantha’s murder is the beginning of ‘the sound of silence’ for the press in Sri Lanka. Can this sound of silence be shattered by the silent, unarmed majority of liberal, peace-loving Lankans who were represented at the funeral service and the Colombo cemetery today?

And would they remember for all time Edmund Burke’s timeless words: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”?

How many would actually read, absorb and heed the deeply moving words of Lasantha’s one last editorial, copies of which were distributed at the cemetery and the religious service before that?

That editorial, which appeared in The Sunday Leader on 11 January 2009, embodies the best of Lasantha Wickrematunga’s liberal, secular and democratic views.

As I wrote in another tribute published today by Himal Southasian and Media Helping Media: “I have no idea which one – or several – of his team members actually penned this ‘Last Editorial’, but it reads authentic Lasantha all over: passionate and accommodating, liberal yet uncompromising on what he held dear. I can’t discern the slightest difference in style.”

“And there lies our hope: while Lasantha at 51 lies fallen by bullets, his spirit and passion are out there, continuing his life’s mission. That seems a good measure of the institutional legacy he leaves behind. If investigative journalism were a bug, the man has already infected at least a few of his team members…”

Read the full story of The Sunday Leader team’s courage under fire

Read The Sunday Leader‘s tribute to its founding editor on 11 January 2009: Goodbye Lasantha

Much has been written and broadcast in the past 100 or so hours since Lasantha’s journey was brutally cut short by as-yet-unidentified goons who have no respect for the public interest or have no clue how democracies sustain public discussion and debate. I’m sure more will be written – some in outrage and others in reflection – in the coming days and weeks.

puncturing egos for 40 years
Siribiris (left): puncturing egos for 40 years
As we leave Lasantha to his rest, I remember Siribiris. For those unfamiliar with the name, Siribiris is an iconic cartoon character created by Camillus Perera, a veteran Sri Lankan political cartoonist who has been in the business as long as I have been alive.
Siribiris represents Everyman, who is repeatedly hoodwinked and taken for granted by assorted politicians and businessmen who prosper at the common man’s expense. The only way poor, unempowered Siribiris can get back at them is to puncture their egos and ridicule them at every turn. And boy, does he excel in that!

It’s no surprise that Lasantha – the bête noire of shady politicians and crooked tycoons – was very fond of Siribiris. Perhaps he saw his own life’s work as extending that of Siribiris in the complex world of the 21st century. That he did it with aplomb and gusto – and had great fun doing it, sometimes tongue stuck out at his adversaries – will be part of Lasantha’s enduring legacy. (As his last editorial reminded us, in 15 years of investigative journalism on a weekly basis, no one has successfully sued the newspaper for defamation or damages.)

So Goodbye, Lasantha. And Long live Siribiris!

Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka
Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka