By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
It was 14th January 1982. I, together with my family, was making slow progress from Colombo to Matara in the pre-expressway era, when we heard on the car radio, the noon news bulletin of SLBC announcing the death of my father. There were no mobile phones then for me to receive the sad news from the family. My sister Mali, the only other medic in the family, very kindly undertook the onerous task of looking after our father in the intimate environs of our traditional family home ‘Wijaya Giri”‘ in Godagama rather than allowing him to wither away on a hospital bed. Having visited my father a few days earlier and persuaded Mali against active treatment in an inevitable situation, I was not surprised to learn the end of his multifaceted life but was sad that I could not be there, holding his hand that penned millions of words, when he left this world after decades of selfless service.
Standing at the foot of the bed and looking at his majestic face darkened by death, I thought to myself, “What have I done, compared to what you achieved in so many spheres?” I am still reading about his unmatchable achievements and learning more and more about him from others who write about him. has taken 40 long years for me to pen this tribute although my admiration of him has grown exponentially over the years. In fact, I wondered whether I could be tarnishing his image posthumously by referring to him as a politician because he had so many other significant achievements. I am doing so purposefully to emphasis that our country was once blessed with politicians whose mission was to serve.
First to represent the UNP from Matara District
Communism took root in the Matara district because the leader of the Communist Party Dr S A Wickramasinghe was from there and also a very caring general practitioner. In fact, my father started social service in the early 1930s with Dr Wickramasinghe, forming the Matara Youth Society with him as secretary and Dr Wickramasinghe as the president. Although they parted ways due to ideological differences, they remained friends, and Dr W was gracious enough to offer him the nomination from the Communist Party on more than one occasion. In spite of certainty of success, my father refused and stood by the UNP. The Matara branch of the UNP proposed him as the candidate for the 1952 and 1956 general elections, but the hierarchy of the UNP parachuted outsiders encouraging caste-based politics.
In 1960, the UNP high-command was forced to relent and my father successfully contested Matara seat becoming the first UNP MP for Matara and the first to do so from the whole district. He was chosen to propose the vote of thanks to the throne speech of the Dudley Senanayake government enabling him to demonstrate his much-recognised oratory in the parliament too. His old friend, Dr W retorted cynically from the Opposition benches, “My good friend has made an excellent speech, as usual, but it may well be the funeral oration of this government”, which was prophetic! Unfortunately, my father lost in July, the seat he gained in March. One reason for the loss was malicious stories spread by his opponents alleging he had said, that he needed to wash the seat in the parliament before sitting on it. I know well this was more hurtful to him than losing the election as he was one of the pioneers in the South to stand against caste divisions. In fact, in early 1940s, when caste discrimination was rampant in the South, he organised, as the Secretary of the Matara branch, a Sinhala New Year Celebration which commenced with many from different castes eating Kiri Bath, sitting on mats with the leader of the Sinhala Maha Sabha, S W R D Bandaranaike.
S W R D’s offer
The SLFP government people elected in 1956 with high hopes also started faltering. Sensing the imminent danger, SWRD started planning a revamp. He wanted to go to the UN to display his masterful oratory and reconstitute the Cabinet on his return. He sent an emissary to my father with the offer of appointment to the Senate as the Junior Minister of Education straightaway to be made the Minister with the planned reshuffle. According to my mother, who overheard the conversation, he did not take even a second to refuse the offer.
Betrayal by UNP
Undaunted by the loss, my father continued to teach and do social work. The crossover of C P De Silva caused Mahanama Samaraweera to be nominated the UNP candidate for Matara. J R Jayewardene persuaded my father to contest the Kamburupitiya seat saying, “Justin, don’t worry. Even if you lose, we will look after you. After all, there is the Senate”. My father lost, the UNP forgot the promises, but he enabled my cousin, Chandrakaumara and my brother, Ranjan to represent that constituency subsequently.
George Rajapaksa once told me, “The UNP does not know how to treat the faithful, the best example being your father. If he had done for us what he did for the UNP, we would place him on a high pedestal”.
Even during his era, my father perhaps was too soft and remained with the UNP till his death. Would any other person have refused such offers?
Maybe, to overcome their guilt, the UNP government issued a stamp in the memory of my father in 1990.
Teacher, par excellence
Born on 18 November 1904, Kotawila Withanage Don Charlis Justin Wijayawardhana attended the missionary school in the village before joining to St. Thomas College in Matara. Don Juvanis Wijayawardhana, a notary’s clerk, decided to send his son to Mahinda College, Galle in view of the brilliant performance of his son, Justin at the Junior School Certificate Examination. More than the easy success in the Cambridge Senior examination, what Mahinda College gave my father was the inspiration to fight for independence and the preservation of Buddhism. Though he could have got a more rewarding government position with his qualifications, he opted to be a teacher and joined Rahula College in Matara.
He contributed immensely to the upliftment of Rahula College by the renowned principal Mr D J Kumarage, to be one of the best schools in the country. Rahula was an assisted school, which meant only teachers’ salaries were paid by the government. To meet the increasing demand for admissions, my father went round with Mr Kumarage and persuaded philanthropists in the area to build four buildings which were ceremoniously opened by Prime Ministers DS, Dudley, Sir John and Sir Oliver, the Governor General.
In addition, he was in charge of Sinhala and English debating teams, Arts and Drama society. He wrote many plays for students to stage of which one stands out; Matara Batha, a comedy which was so hilarious, it is said that even Mr Kumarage, who seldom smiled, burst into laughter.
My father taught Buddhism, Sinhala and art. He taught me too and I managed to fail in art, the only subject that I have ever failed! After teaching and inspiring many generations of students, he retired in 1964 having devoted his entire teaching career to Rahula.
He was a live-wire of the co-operative movement and headed the village co-operative till a few years before his death. He masterminded village development projects like roads and culverts through the Village Development programme.
When Buddhism was threatened by a fanatic sect, Thapasa Nikaya and , defended Bhikkhus threatened by misguided villagers. With the support of Chandraratna Manawasinghe, who was on the editorial staff of Lankadeepa, my father was able to dispel the falsehoods, helping save Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
He reserved his best for Community Centres Praja Mandala, which were established in Matara and surrounding areas. They were the meeting places where villagers could listen to the radio for the very first time. He obtained radios from the government for these centres. Those huge primitive devices needed a massive aerial across the tallest of coconut trees to get a rattly short-wave reception and were powered by car batteries, needing a fortnightly replacement by the post office. When they got late, the radio fell silent and the whole village missed the ‘Radio bana’.
The crowning glory was the annual congress of Community Centres, which lasted a couple of days with many competitions; that was the only opportunity for people to display their talents, unlike today, when we have too many talent shows. One of the highlights was the Kavi Maduwa, the poet’s corner where reputed guest poets gave lectures, in addition to recitals. That was the biggest event in the cultural calendar of the South.
Pioneer translator and writer
A visit to India in the late 1930s changed my father’s life forever as he was able to meet the leaders of the Indian Independence Movement but the most important was his meeting Rabindranath Tagore, whose works he had already translated to Sinhala. He recalled with great fondness the unexpectedly long meeting wherein Tagore granted him permission to translate any of his works.
Sivumal Motagedara, who studied the life and literary works of my father for his research project for the M A degree from Colombo University, has published his dissertation “Justin Wijayawardhana: Jeewithya ha Sastriya Sevaya (Godage, ISBN 978-955-30-9644-9). He argues, very convincingly that it is a great injustice that Justin Wijayawardhana has not been accorded a much more prominent place in Sinhala literature and takes to task the academia for not doing so. He rates Justin Wijayawardhana as the pioneer translator who introduced the works not only of Eastern writers like Tagore but also Western writers like Leo Tolstoy, Hall Caine, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman and H G Wells to Sinhala readers. He also mentions Wijayawardhana’s ability to change the style of writing to fit the original for translation and contends that it is rare.
Perhaps, the main reason why my father’s writings have not received the attention it deserves is they were published in newspapers and magazines––not as books due to lack of facilities like agents for writers and the monopoly held by only a few publishers.
I know the great difficulties he had in getting his first book, “Nasthikara Puthraya”, the translation of Sir Hall Caine’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ published in 1964. He had to give up royalty for a tiny sum and the publisher did not even notify how many copies were sold!
Although he had many manuscripts ready, unfortunately, only two more books were published during his lifetime.
One was a translation of a book on the invasion of Tibet “Tibbethaye Bauddha Manava Sanharaya”, which was extensively used by the UNP during the 1965 election campaign. The other was “Tom Mamage Kutiya”, a translation Of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s masterpiece ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, which was published by Marga in 1976.
The Ministry of Cultural Affairs, acceding to our request, published “Seeliyage Lokaya” in January 1983 to coincide with the first death anniversary and “Samawa Deema” in January 1984 to coincide with the second death anniversary. The latter, a collection of translations of ten short stories by Russian writers Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and Hungarian writers Geza Gardonyi, Kalman Mikszath, Karoly Kisfaludy, was completed in September 1975 and dedicated to JRJ, the then leader of the Opposition. The dedication in my father’s handwriting, in his trademark violet ink, written with his beloved ‘Swan’ pen is reprinted in this book.
is an original work written in a novel genre. It is an exploration of village life, a synthesis of events and people in their respective villages of birth as seen by my parents. However, he has titled it ‘Seeliya’s world’, as he called my mother, Jinaseeli Jayawardana ‘Seeliya’ affectionately. The cover was drawn by my youngest brother Kamal. During one of my visits to President JRJ, when I presented a copy, he went through the chapter titles carefully and said “Upul, you must translate this to English as it is a mirror, showing the world what our village life is. It will be the opposite of ‘Grass for My Feet’ by J Vijayatunga”. I tried but, unfortunately, I do not seem to have inherited the translator gene!
The youngest of our six sisters, Champa is doing a tremendous job in keeping our father’s literary heritage going. She had been able to get “Nasthikara Putrya” and “Seeliyage Lokaya” republished. “Samawa Deema” has also been republished with a new title “Idama ha Thanhawa”. In addition, she has got the following in print: “Punarjeewanaya”, a translation of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection, “Lo Pathala Keti Katha”, a collection of short stories by world famous authors including Tagore, Mulkraj Anand, Guy de Maupassant, Oscar Wild” and “Minis Angaharu Yuddaya”, a translation of H G Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’.
‘Sai Baba: Man of Miracles’ by Howard Murphet was translated at the request of the Sai Baba Society, which was made in late 1974. Although my father finished the translation in a matter of two months, a unique achievement for a book running to 400 pages, it did not come out in print till a year after his death, in spite of Sai Baba’s blessings!
Matara C Justin Wijayawardhana started writing to Sinhala newspapers and magazines from his late teens and continued for six decades. In addition to articles on Buddhism and current affairs, there are many more translations that have been serialised. Champa is engaged in this monumental task of gathering them so that more books may be published.
My father, who initially put service over marriage, changed his mind the moment he saw a new lady teacher who joined Rahula staff. The marriage of Justin Wijayawardhana and Jinaseeli Jayawardana from Ransegoda took place on 17 May 1940, during the biggest flood ever recorded in the Southern Province. We were under the impression that the bridegroom encountered the flooding on his way to the bride’s but two books by Hewamadduma brothers give a different story. The Hewamadduma family from Lenaduwa was one of the closest families to ours. Till his untimely death in 2013, Amare, the well-known administrator, historian and writer used to write regularly about my father. After that his younger brother Dharme has taken over. In Amare’s book “Amara Samara-1”, as well as his elder brother Upatissa’s book “Ma Dutu Maha Purushaya: Justin Wijayawardhana” give detailed accounts, as recounted by their father. Every time a flood occurred, their father Sinnno Appuhamy used to say, “This is nothing compared to the flooding when Wijayawardhana mahattaya got married” and had gone on to relate how my father directed the preparation of boats the previous evening and how they paddled the 15 miles in floodwaters and brought back the couple, disregarding all warnings, safely to Godagama at 3 am, the following day! Apparently, my father having settled the new bride in bed had gone immediately to help flood victims. That shows his character and that my mother was solidly behind him. By the way, Thilakasena Sahabandu, who was married to Hewamadduma sister Karuna, wrote a beautiful anthology of poems titled ‘Sevaye Suwanda (Fragrance of service) which helped a great deal in my father’s election victory.
Unfortunately, what should have been Justin Wijayawardhana’s greatest legacy was not to be. Seeing how the poor got into difficulty with lavish funerals, he campaigned for simple funerals but his pleas fell on deaf ears. However, he ensured his funeral was simple and my mother did even better, ensuring that we handed over her body to the Galle Medical Faculty when she died on 24 February 1986.
Detailed written instructions were left about the funeral but true to his considered manner, he stated we could make changes if circumstances demanded. He also stated that if we felt bad for not spending on the funeral, to build a house for a poor family, which we did. The day after death, he was cremated in a coffin made from cheap wood and painted white, on a simple pyre made from locally collected wood. Though his voice was heard at almost every local funeral, he did not want funeral orations and as stipulated there was one anusasana. Although we did not inform any VIPs, Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel turned up and as he was representing the government, we allowed him to speak. The only thing beyond our control was the massive crowd.
As we watched, a great man who had rendered selfless service for almost eight decades, gradually turned into ashes. As requested, his ashes were thrown in Nilawala Ganga.
May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!
The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level
The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.
Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.
The Ambassador’s vehicle
Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.
Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.
Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.
Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.
The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.
In Sri Lanka
Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.
The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.
Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.
Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait
ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.
The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.
The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.
Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.
“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.
The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.
“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”
According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.
“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.
The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.
Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.
“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.
“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”
Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.
Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.
“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”
The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.
“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”
The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.
Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”
Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”
Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”
Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.
“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.
Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.
The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.
HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)
by Chandra Arulpragasam
I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.
My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.
On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!
Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!
To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.
On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!
The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.
I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.
Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!
I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.
“Foreign bond holders more important to govt. than hard-pressed people”
The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level
Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait
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