Comment : Nihal Seneviratne’s ‘Gaalumuwadorin Diyawannawata’–

Sinhala translation of ‘A Clerk Reminisces’


by Nanda P Wanasundera

The Sinhala translation of Nihal Seneviratne’s short memoir A Clerk Reminisces is just out titled ‘Gaalumuwadorin Diyawannawata’ with the subtitle ‘Parlimenthu maha lekhamvarayakuge atheetha varjanaava’ which to me in the language I am more familiar with means ’From Galle Face to the Diyawanna’ and the sub title: ‘Parliament’s Secretary-General’s reminiscences.’ I feel we all need to applaud Nihal Seneviratne and the translator for this commendable achievement. Nihal made a contribution of value to the history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka writing a piece categorized as microhistory which is a branch of the study of history, first developed in the 1970s.

He was Clerk to the Parliament of Sri Lanka from 1961 to1994 when he voluntarily retired after reaching retirement age though the then President, D B Wijetunge, urged him to stay on with an approved-by-all extension of service given him. His book covers a very significant period of this island’s more recent history under Governor Gopallawa (one year) and Presidents J R Jayewardene, R Premadasa and Wijetunge. The congratulations that the valuable book has been translated into the language used by the majority of Sri Lankans need not be stressed; it is so obvious. Thus more would get to know what Nihal had to say about Parliamentary proceedings with attendant rituals; troubles that occurred; honourables who served the country. All this and more can now be read by the majority of Sri Lankans and appreciated as the author wrote simply with honesty, modesty and sincerity, and the translator has captured that style and transmitted it to the translation.

In writing a comment on the English version when it was launched in July 2017, I noted:

"Nihal has given us a skeleton of the history of the Sri Lankan Parliament from the time of independence from British rule to the Presidency of D B Wijetunge. It is not as a mere history or just a tracing of its narrative from its Fort site to the new one on the Diyawanna Oya in Pelawatte, Battaramulla.

He has put down well known anecdotes and lesser known incidents, but all in bare bone style. Maybe that style suits a mere narration but not a lively string of incidents on VIP men and matters.

I wish he had fleshed out the incidents narrated and made them richer with detail… So since we value the comparatively slim volume that Nihal has published in 2017, and say it adds to the written history of our land, we expect, even demand a fleshed out version of his reminisces of how governments ruled and how important politicians acted and spoke." Nihal is still to ‘flesh out’ his reminiscences, valuable as they are, but a step forward has been taken: translating the original to Sinhala.

Nihal has picked out twelve of the most striking and interesting incidents that occurred within his period of service in Parliament of 33 years, These include the hand grenade lobbed in a Committee Room of the Parliamentary complex at 9.00 a m two days after the signing of the Indo–Lanka Pact on 29 July 1987. It was thrown by JVP sympathizer Ajith Kumara who Nihal Senviratne had interviewed and recruited to the Parliamentary staff a couple of months previous. He gives other incidents like Mrs Bandaranaike losing control of government by just one vote and the attempted impeachment of President Premadasa. The chapter containing witty sayings of parliamentarians and resistance of some when ordered by the Speaker to leave the House on more than one occasion are illuminating.

He steps aside to deal with a topical question that crop up often. In Chapter 21 in the original and translation, he poses the question Why have Parliamentary standards dropped? Nihal, as is his way, says with modesty that he will try to answer the question posed. He is most qualified to comment since he has straddled Parliament, three decades and more, supervising everyday activities of administration and facilitating sittings and session. He is too polite to call a black pot really black but he does give reasons for the deterioration of standards of debate and sessions. Using examples of exemplary MPs of the past he blames the prevalent rot on the lack of dignity, independence, statesman-like qualities and values and ethics beyond reproach. Also lack of a reasonable standard of education of many MPs and wrong choices made by Party leaders when selecting candidates.

All these are more relevant, I dare say, to those who read mostly that which is published in Sinhala. A Sinhala speaking present Member of Parliament may not read the book under discussion. S/He should, but knowing who they are, reading books may be alien to them. However, the general public will read this book and they would think twice before voting for riff raff that come forward, propelled by having money and clout with like riff raff. Strong sentiment but isn’t this how matters worked specially with regard to elections in the recent past? There seems to be an awakening of sorts; the public is becoming more conscious. Nihal’s book in Sinhala will definitely create resonance in readers’ minds.

Three chapters are given to his personal story (13-15), incorporating anecdotes, and tasty stories of local men and women in power. To me what is commendable is that more people would be made to realize how honourable men behave and act. Nihal Seneviratne certainly is an example of a gentleman – a fast disappearing kind in the recent past but with revival possible and probable.

Nihal ends the book with his retirement and leaving Parliament in 1994. Here again a lesson for lesser mortals, that might strike home with the Sinhala translation since many defaulting MPs and others who stay too long in places of importance are more Sinhala readers. Also we find civil society and its voice getting louder and taken more notice of. Thus more readers of Nihal’s book and about his retirement soon after 60, strictly following rules and tradition and being honest to himself even more than to these done things may set people thinking and acting better. To people like Nihal, a fast disappearing kind, rules were rules and applicable to all. Making such known may have a salutary effect.

I reiterate what I wrote in my comment on the original English book soon after it was out for sale, as it is even more relevant now. Also a wider readership is now ensured with the Sinhala translation. "Again the lament, repeated more frequently of late. Nihal Seneviratne of the old school of quiet, efficient persons, utterly lacking in brashness and self importance, truly national minded, temperate with no religious or racial bias, is of a fast declining kind. There are mercifully those young and similar even in the public sector and a sprinkling of them in politics. The fear however is that they will be swamped by the pugnacious with little conscience who strut on stage publicly from the very precincts that Nihal served so diligently." Maybe a couple of persons who read the Sinhala translation of Nihal’s will think again when voting time comes around. The translation is well timed, not deliberately by the author and translator, but fortuitously, as elections to the House by the Diyawanna are on the horizon.


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