An Alec Guinness Anecdote on Elephant Dung

by Sachi Sri Kantha

Some facets are better presented in a mini-story or a thought-provoking humorous anecdote.  And if such a mini-story or an anecdote comes from the real life observations of eminent actors, these are more charming.  First, I present such a gem from Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000), the star of many movie classics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Star Wars (1977) and A Passage to India (1984).  Then, I annotate its metaphorical relevance to the current Colombo scene.

In his last memoir, A Positively Final Appearance; A Journal 1996-98 (1999), Sir Alec Guinness had this paragraph about what he watched in Kandy in the mid 1950s.

"In Sri Lanka, during the filming of The Bridge on the River Kwai, I watched an elephant lead a Buddhist procession.  He had a bare electric light-bulb flickering on his forehead, spangles and flower paintings all over him and carried on his back his mahout and a cumbersome battery.  Immediately behind him marched a boy of about twelve, with eyes fixed on the elephant’s tail.  There followed a bevy of Singhalese dancing girls and a chanting crowd.  I asked someone what the boy was doing and was told that, if the elephant defecated, it was the boy’s job to jump immediately on the ball of dung, to make all smooth for the dancers.  At the very moment this was explained to me the elephant obliged by releasing a cannonball which thudded to the ground.  The boy leapt on it with both feet and the dancers progressed, fancy-free, ankles jingling, wrists and fingers at work, casting wild oeillades from side to side as they passed, dry-footed, over a potential Turner Prize palette." [pages 151-152]

Guess who is performing such a political dung-catching boy’s job in Colombo?  When I read the news report which appeared in the Ceylon Daily Mirror (May 23, 2005) under the byline of Sajeewan Wijewardena and Gihan de Chikera with the titillating caption, "Prabhakaran a ‘war criminal’ says Douglas Devananda," it struck me that Minister Devananda would not disappoint me.

One can make three inferences from his foolish utterances in the parliamentary pit.  First, Minister Devananda serves well in his ‘dung-catching’ job to the current President Chandrika Kumaratunga.  Secondly, he lives in a fool’s paradise; though only an year ago his party was demolished by the Eelam Tamil voters in the 2004 General Election, he has prattled that "the EPDP was willing to face the LTTE on the Democratic platform.  We will respectfully accept the verdict of the people.  We are ready to face the people democratically."  Third, poet Kannadasan wrote poignantly in his lyric, ‘Uriththu paarthaal venkaayathil Onrum irukkaathu; Ulari thiripavan vaarthaiyile oru Urupadi theraathu’ [An onion peeled would turn out empty; The words of a fool aren’t worth even a penny].

The less said the better on the current plight of Minister Devananda’s political patron, President Chandrika Kumaratunga.  Almost every line in one of Donna Summer’s hit songs rings well to her now.  Just check it below.

"She works hard for the money.  So hard for it, honey.

She works hard for the money.  So you better treat her right.


Onetta here in the corner stand and wonders where she is.

And it’s strange to her, some people seem to have everything.

9 am on the hour hand and she’s waiting for the bell.

And she’s looking real pretty.


Twenty eight years have come and gone.

And she’s seen a lot of tears of the ones who came in.

They really seem to need her there.

It’s a sacrifice working day to day.

For little money just tips for pay.

But it’s worth it all just to hear them say that they care.


She already knows she’s seen her bad times.

She already knows these are the good times.

She’ll never sell out, she never will, not for a dollar bill.

She works haaaaard…."


Posted June 1, 2005