Wijesoma, nation-watcher with the soft brush and acute perception

amita.jpg (176072 bytes)by Malinda Seneviratne
Human beings are political animals. Therefore, political commentary is second nature to them. I have found that anyone who has a modicum of analytical skills and a reasonable command of language can easily become a political columnist. The difficult thing, whether it is a political speech, newspaper column, a question-answer session or debate, is to be concise without killing the idea. This requires sharp perception, an ability to distill the essence from political ferment and an exceptional creativity. A poet who is sufficiently enamoured with the movement within power equations might come up with rare gems. But even such a person would be hard pressed if he/she was required to churn out brief commentary on a daily basis, for it is certainly a tall order to resist repetition, be fresh and always come up with insights that provoke discussion or reflection. It is against this that one has to judge and appreciate a political cartoonist.

Anyone who is acquainted with the political satire that Wijerupage Wijesoma churns out would without exception marvel at the man’s wit, perception and ability to constantly surprise. In fact it is possible that the general public have got too much of a good thing, so much so that we have come to take him for granted. This is easy for me to forgive, being someone who been in the practice of opening The Island to take in Wijesoma’s cartoon, first thing in the morning for the last 20 years or so.

It is said that in any occupation/profession, talent counts for 1%, the rest depending on hard work. I am not sure how the percentages work out in the case of Wijesoma, but talking to him made me realise the role played by determination, discipline, attitude towards life and patience, in moulding an exceptionally creative artist. Where did this quiet, unassuming man whose gentle wit nudges us towards deeper reflection on our social and political reality, come from, what paths has he walked and what principles does he refer to in his work and life?

He was born as Wijerupage Wijesoma in 1925 to parents who hailed from the South. His mother died when he was still a child, and his father, for reasons best known to him, had taken off with his older brother soon afterwards. The rest of the family had been looked after by kind-hearted relatives, Wijesoma and his older sister growing up under the tender care of his mother’s younger sister and for some time by their grandmother, who had been very fond of the little boy. The family had reunited only in the nineteen forties. During those early years, he was in the practice of going to the Kuppiyawatte temple every day with his brother, and chatting with the chief monk before going home. "Those conversations deeply influenced my thinking," he said.

Needless to say, his "growing" up had not been a smooth process. His aunt had to work hard to make ends meet. "She was an excellent seamstress, and we lived off her income". He had started his education at the Maligakande Government School and then moved to Mahabodhi. Then, when he was around 10, the family had moved to Thimbirigasyaya. Moving to a new place translated into a period of three years without schooling. Once things had settled down somewhat, he had enrolled in the Colombo Industrial School where the education included instruction and practical training in various crafts. Young Wijesoma had taken up tailoring.

According to Wijesoma, the greater part of his education was obtained from the public library and the national museum. "I learnt everything there. At that time the zoo was located near the museum. I would go there on Saturday morning and in the afternoon I would go to the museum. This is how I grew to love wildlife and nature. During the war years, I would go to the public library and read the magazines to keep myself updated about what was happening in the world. This grew to be a habit with me. I would read everything and this helped me develop a sense of what was happening."

Later, during the war years, he made it a habit of reading the papers every day. He would even read the newspapers in which the sugar was wrapped. Such exercises have obviously gone a long way in developing an amazing memory in the man, a faculty that has clearly held him in good stead over the years. In fact the story was that if Wijesoma is given a newspaper in the morning and asked about a story in the evening, he would give the headline, the story, the page and even the column!"

Wijesoma recalls that it was when he was at Maligakande that his drawing ability was first recognised. "One day a teacher saw me drawing in the sand-tray and in appreciation took me to a function at a school in Kurunegala". Later, one Mr. Peiris, seeing his work, had suggested that he produce a newspaper. He had been about 12 or 13 at that time. His "newspaper" was simple, and in fact hinted at the man he would become. Wijesoma would pick headlines from newspapers and illustrate them.

"Whenever the Art Inspector, Mr. Beling, came around, he always took one of my pictures to critique. I remember submitting a drawing for a poster competition on the evils of drinking. The drawing was of a bottle of Haig, beneath which I drew a ‘devil’. The caption was ‘Don’t be vague, ask for Haig; the devil of Haig is not vague’," he said with his inimitable soft chuckle. He had won the first prize, although he reflects that he could have been sued. After that he had entered many competitions, always being placed among the first three.

"We played the fool in the Sinhala class. The teacher once asked me to talk about ‘sandi’ in the grammar lesson and I said, ‘maradana handiya, borella handiya...etc.’ and he said ‘indaganna, indaganna, indaganna’." Even at that early stage, Wijesoma had demonstrated a keen appreciation of word play, again something that adds that extra punch to his cartoons.

He recalled that scouting had been one of the most influential things in his life. He revelled in all the scout activities such as camping and hiking, and had been one of three King’s Scouts of his troop, winning in addition the coveted "Bushman’s Thong". "During the war years, ‘Troop Rooms’ consisting of about 30 scouts each were set up to operate a messenger service. I was the Troop Leader in one of these, located near Maligakande Park." Apparently he had been more qualified that those who were overseeing the messenger service and this had led to some differences of opinion, which resulted in an ‘inquiry’ after which he was moved to Troop Room 2 as Assistant Scout Master. C. T. Fernando (of the ‘Golden Voice’) had been his quartermaster. Still later, Wijesoma was asked to set up a new Troop Room, which he quickly developed into the most efficient among the lot.

Naturally he fully employed his creative talents in scout activities. "I set up a notice board on a ‘leopard skin’ that I had drawn. It was so life-like that it fooled a lot of people. I also produced several short plays, designing ‘sound effects’ to simulate thunder.

"I heard that the Times was hiring proof readers. Frank Moraes was the editor at that time. I sent in my application, and during the interview he asked me to spell some jaw-breaking words. I managed to get everything right. Then he said ‘I will let you know’. I thought this meant a rejection, but as I was about to leave, he asked ‘Can you come from tomorrow?’ So, on the 17th of September 1947 I started working at the Times."

He had learnt a lot in the "Reading Room". "We got to see news from all over; good copy, bad copy, everything. The practice was to recruit reporters from the reading room, so new reporters were already well trained by the time they were sent out to gather news."

Wijesoma’s determination to become a cartoonist had its roots in the Observer rejecting a submission he had sent about the CEB and the power supply, titled "missing the bus". He had vowed to himself that he would some day become a cartoonist. At the Times, he had given himself three years to move into the editorial.

His career as a cartoonist was launched when Ben Alwis, a sub-editor had walked in to the reading department and asked who Wijesoma was. Apparently he had won some poster competition. Since he was on the staff, Ben had carried the story in the newspaper. "Aubrey Collette went over to the Observer, and G. S. Fernando who was a fine artist was recruited to do the cartoon. He did the daily cartoon, so I drew a series titled ‘Politicians of Lanka’ for the Sunday edition."

At that time there had been no "pocket cartoonist" in the Times. One day, inspired by a headline in the Observer which read "Sir John waits in London for his clothes from Bombay," Wijesoma had drawn a pocket cartoon of Sir John standing in front of the Big Ben, covering his nudity with a copy of the Observer. He had submitted this with a couple of other drawings, and the editor, Tory de Souza, had asked him if he could do three cartoons a week. Wijesoma had said yes, and had promptly been asked to join the editorial. When the cartoon appeared, he had been asked if he could do it daily. This was the beginning of his "What a life" series. D. B. Dhanapala had asked him to draw for the Sunday Lankadeepa, and so the readership was treated to "Wijesomage siththara pati" and the pocket cartoon "Tikiri Tokka".

After twenty-one years in the Times group, things had changed. There had been problems about payments in addition to other differences between Wijesoma and the editors. "At that time I was offered a position in the Janatha, for twice the salary. In 1968, he had told De Souza, that he was leaving. "He just nodded his head, but later that day he said ‘When you said you were leaving, I couldn’t talk,’ and wished me well. He left the Times one month later."

He succeeded Collette at Lake House. "I managed to keep my independence even after the famous ‘take over’. Around that time, one of my cartoons was not published. The Chairman, A. K. Premadasa had asked Phillip Cooray to tell me that he wanted to see me. So we went. After putting me on the murunga aththa, he expressed displeasure about the particular cartoon, saying that he couldn’t publish it as it was. It depicted ‘Punchi Singho’ with the heavy COL burden on his back, with the World Bank official saying ‘Put some more’ and NM looking helpless. The caption was ‘Doctor’s Dilemma’. I told him that he probably hadn’t seen the entire cartoon, but only a part of it (I saw it sticking out under a sheaf of papers). Finally it was carried.

"Around that time I drew a series called ‘Drawn and quartered by Wijesoma’, which consisted of four boxes. The Chairman would occasionally drop one of the boxes, so I told them to leave the fourth box empty. My colleagues asked me why I did this, and I said ‘These days the cartoons are drawn by Wijesoma and quartered by Premadasa!’" Premadasa asked me why I always had to have double meanings in my work and I told him that a cartoon can have even 3 or 4 meanings."

Political interference had got worse after the UNP took over in 1977, according to Wijesoma. So, when Upali Wijewardena started The Island, he moved over. "Upali was very appreciative of my work, and has on one occasion even stopped the press because he had seen me drawing a particular cartoon and wanted to include it somehow. I have only had minor disagreements at Upali Newspapers."

I asked Wijesoma if he had ever been threatened by anyone on account of his work. "A few times, but I believe nothing was done because they probably thought that the consequences of hurting me would be worse."

Wijesoma is not just a cartoonist. While at the Times, he played cricket and soccer. He is also a writer, having authored several articles in a series called "Tracks and Trails" for the Sunday Island, and its Sinhala version for the Divaina, called "Vana gaman". During the bi-centennial celebrations of the USA, he had been one of 5 people selected to spend two months in that country. "We went from East to West, and I wrote about 18 articles for the newspaper about our travels and experiences". He is also a family man, and has raised 6 children with his wife, Mallica Gunatilleke, whom he describes as a wonderful woman, who was always very supportive. "She was a good sport, and was willing to drop all her work and take off with me if I suggested some out of the ordinary expedition such as going to Horton Plains." She had passed away some 16 years ago. "A long time," I said. "It is not long for me," he said softly.

Out of the cartoon, Wijesoma, to me, is The Senior Citizen of Upali Newspapers. He moves around unobtrusively, his eagle eyes missing nothing. A man of few words, his conversations are like his cartoons, brief, precise, pregnant with several layers of meaning and bubbling with wit. Perhaps Ajith Samaranayake, who has known the man for much much longer than I have, describes him best, "An eminently earthy man with an unerring ear for the nuances of the mass mood, he has the uncanny knack of capturing and crystallising a situation with a wonderful economy of lines. In his political insights and his quiet humour, Wijesoma is quite unlike any other political cartoonist in Sri Lanka and ranks with the best in the world."

Wijesoma believes that a cartoonist has to have political substance. "It is not enough to be able to draw well. One must be able to cater to different types of people and different levels of appreciation in the same cartoon. A cartoon must make people think." Perhaps what separated him from other promising cartoonists around is the fact that he has remained aloof from political parties. His loyalties are to the Punchi Singhos of our country, our natural resources and way of life. More than fifty years as a cartoonist and an honourable citizen I am sure no one will disagree that Wijesoma stands among the very few in this country who have resolved to do their utmost to make sure that ordinary people are not short-changed by anyone.

I believe his greatest contribution to our political and social life is to keep alive the ability to laugh at ourselves. He keeps hope alive. For this alone, we as a nation are greatly indebted to this gentle and endearing human being.