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Midweek Review

A liberal arts education



by Usvatte-aratchi

There has been an exchange of some notes on ‘a liberal arts education’ and these are further to them. Universities are an output of the society in which they grew, except in countries which were colonies of various imperial powers, where they were implants (a la Ralph Peiris) from metropolitan countries and have been hot house plants in the new hot and humid environments. Universities (universitas generale) started their life in the Middle Ages in Lombardy but institutions of ‘higher education’ have been universal in well settled societies from Japan and China in the East to Egypt and Mali in Africa. (Of education in pre-Columbian Americas, I know nothing).

In the 16th century education was liberated from two bondages: first from bondage to the Roman Catholic Church; second from bondage to scholasticism built on Aristotelean logic and syllogisms. So was born humanism in place of concentration on theology and God. So was born the new method, Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (New Instrument) replacing Aristotle’s Organum coming from the -4th century, as the new paradigm of knowledge (a distinctly Kuhnian revolution). These brought back the pursuit of pagan Greek knowledge and their methods of inquiry, throwing out the trivium and the quadrivium of medieval university. The consequences were the enormous expansion of knowledge which continues to date when the book of nature was read using the language in which it is written: mathematics (Bacon). Hence, humanism and humanist education as well as a liberal arts education. It was a shift from God to man and from the study of texts to the study of man and nature. Education had been liberated from both. Humanism in earlier usages included both arts and sciences but as the 20th progressed, usage has tended to differentiate between the humanities and the sciences, to which now has been added technology, its meaning itself having shifted over time. (A striking instance is the rise of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] in place of knowledge of languages, especially Greek and Latin.) Liberal Arts Colleges were where this new knowledge was pursued using Bacon’s Novum Organum. Dartmouth in New York, William and Mary in Massachusetts, Swarthmore in Pennsylvania and Pomona in California are outstanding examples. Oxford University was a collection of excellent liberal arts colleges (none of them competent to award degrees but capable of electing its own Fellows) comprising the university (which alone had authority to award degrees), until sciences began to become prominent. It was home of the courses that went to form the literae humaniores, where they studied not only Greek, Latin and Hebrew but also Greek and Roman Civilizations. In Cambridge, the equivalent was the Classical Tripos. In Britain in mid-19th century, after the appointment of the First Royal Commission on Oxford, the case for a liberal arts education was put forward strongly two Oxford scholars: John Henry Newman, a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church and Mark Pattison, rector of Lincoln. They saw the aim of a liberal arts education as that of cultivating the mind, as Mark Pattison put it, from where it could venture into whatever profession it wished. So learning the practice of law, medicine, engineering, architecture was built on a foundation of liberal arts education. A Medical Sciences Tripos was not established in Cambridge until 1966.

Sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) were added to the liberal arts curriculum much later, at the end of the 19th century but beginnings so far back as the 18th century. The first professor of science, appointed in 1758, was John Winthrop at Harvard College in New England, which is now the Liberal Arts College of Harvard University. It was a hard and long battle to establish science as a part of undergraduate education on both sides of the Atlantic. At Harvard, the moving figure for curriculum reform was President Charles Eliot and at Cornell, President Andrew White. There were many who opposed.

The new education was liberal in another sense. The new education liberated people from the craft guild system, where a man was trained to craft or a profession in some instances, in which he stayed for his life. Young men normally started working life as apprentices. A liberal arts education left a young man free to follow any profession he chose. Graduates from these universities learnt law, medicine, architecture and later management and other professions. In the US, a first degree is necessary even now to take up entrance examinations in professional schools. The most marked departure was in the US with the establishment of Land Grant colleges after the passage of the Morrill Acts. The immediate need was to apply scientific knowledge to the development of huge expanses of land opened as people moved west. The Federal Government granted large extents of land which could be used to set Agricultural and Machinery Colleges which formed the basis of many now first-rate State Colleges and universities. (The best known now is perhaps Texas A & M University in College Station.) At the same time the development of large business enterprises required new forms of knowledge to manage them. The two leading businesses were railways and telephones which developed features unknown heretofore. In 1889, Andrew Carnegie bitterly complained ‘While the college student has been learning a little about the barbarous and petty squabbles of a far distant past, … the future captain of industry is hotly engaged in the school of experience, obtaining the very knowledge required for his future triumphs’. Consequently, we have Kellogg Business School in Northwestern, Booth in Chicago and Sloan in MIT. So was born the need for business management schools, which now form a part of many universities. Among first rate universities in the West, only Princeton has withstood pressure to run business schools. Universities in Germany in the 19th century were closer to industry than anywhere else. Many good scholars both in Europe and the US did not fail to study or otherwise make themselves familiar with universities in Germany. After Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876 and named after a businessman, the idea of a German university caught on and the teaching of and research in the sciences became more acceptable in US. In ironic contrast, in 2018, a President of a university remarked on the absence of critical thinking because of the decay in education in liberal arts.

Liberty, to which liberal arts education contributed mightily, has been the central driving force in political and political thought in modern times. Of the three battle cry words of the French Revolution, none has persistently driven thought and action in politics as liberty. Equality among citizens is essential that everyone is at liberty. The abolition of slavery made all men (and women) free, though not equally. 800 or so millions of Chinese enjoyed greater liberty as they arose above abject poverty. Even casual observation would demonstrate the large mass of Chinese who travel overseas compared to the very few who did before 2000 and that is another signification of the greater liberty (opportunity to make choices) enjoyed by people of that country. The effort by successive governments in India to raise levels of living constitutes a massive contribution to liberty of individuals. In 2019 (2018?), Prime Minister Modi opened his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations with ‘We have built 112 million latrines in India’. In that achievement 112 households were liberated from the high risk of infectious bowel diseases. The trade union movement, a magnificent embodiment of fraternity that gave employees much desired greater power in bargaining with their employers won for them liberties that they never had enjoyed earlier.

The recent decline in their power in capitalist economies and their total impotence in communist economies has reduced the degree of liberty they enjoyed for about a century. Rising inequality in incomes and the ownership of wealth in all societies, including those in Russia and China is a march away from liberty. In university education, it is, among other things, a retreat from greater liberty. These features are best documented in the US and the UK. An American academic remarked recently that those educated and are in high income brackets have ‘stolen the dreams’ of young bright but poor students to go to elite schools and colleges, from where they could learn their way in the income and social ladder.

A most interesting experience in these matters is that of India. Under strict caste rules, untouchables, now called dalits had no access to conditions conducive to liberty. They were born into a caste and there was no escape from it. They had no access to education and were prescribed to do no other work than that of their parents. By tradition a chamar remained a chamar; and a mahar a mahar. Growth and industrialisation and access to education have liberated many in these castes to participate in the larger society as equals. Some who belong in lowest untouchable castes have achieved high success in many fields, but only too few. Perhaps, the best known is a mahar B. R. Ambedkar, who went on to write the constitution of the Republic of India. The present President of India is another. Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies of industrialisation and state education contributed to bring about these changes. They are continuing, though not without huge setbacks. The spread of the knowledge of English has helped these processes very much, though that knowledge has become a marker of a ‘new caste’, though not prescriptive. In contrast, some knowledge of Samskrt which was a prescriptive privilege of Brahmins set apart other castes beyond the pale of higher learning. Learning English has been way forward to liberty for people in scheduled castes.

Universities, the world over, have been avenues through which poor but talented students have sought education that led to higher paid professions and higher income and better social recognition. We read often about sizars in medieval Cambridge where a boy could become sizar to a Fellow and perform menial work in the college and over the years graduate and even be elected a Fellow. Thomas Nash (1567-1601) was a sizar at St. John’s. The land-owning gentry in 17th century England (e. g. Thockmortons of Gloucester), not infrequently, paid for bright boys to be educated at university. Several of the brightest Puritan preachers were boys who came to Cambridge in this fashion. A variant of this that one reads of is in Nigeria, where a whole village would put together their resources for a young man to go to Ibadan. There are poignant stories about poor Chinese students who became scholars living hand to mouth and even entered imperial service, after competing successfully in examinations. The gurukula system in India exhibits similar features. But in general university education has been a privilege enjoyed by the rich until the 20th century. Government policies to support education at all levels and the development of capital markets to finance higher education have all changed the picture totally.

In the 20th Century despite widespread education in liberal arts in Western Europe there did spring up terrible tyrannical despotisms: in Spain, in Italy, in Germany and in the USSR. Later in the century, there was Pol Pot in Cambodia, Sargent Idi Amin in Uganda, Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, Emperor Bokassa of CAR and several more West Asia and in other countries. It is not unlikely that Covid-19 will not be the only persistent pestilence that will plague us in the 21st century.

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Midweek Review

Japanese literature and Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna’s translations



by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya

During these COVID-19 days, stories pop up everywhere describing how each country and its people are coping with the pandemic. It is said that the Japanese people are behaving in the most responsible manner; they have changed their behaviour in conformity with the health regulations related to the pandemic. The Japanese are known to turn laws into culture. In others words, they absorb laws into culture; and thereafter, laws do not look laws. When laws are made with the participation of the people, they easily blend with the public culture. This is in stark contrast to Singapore, where laws remain laws, strict, punitive and statist: obey the law or pay the penalty! In Japan even state power takes beautiful cultural shapes.

Such idealisation of Japan is part of our middle-class culture. For many of us, Japan is the ideal land: elegantly cultured; adequately Buddhist; appropriately non-Western; seemingly anti-Western; not too religious; obviously modern yet visibly Asian; moderate yet powerful; culturally traditional yet developed and so on. For us, Japan is perhaps the easiest country to love – love openly. We love the West secretly and Japan openly.

Our love of Japan may have many origins. One key source of that love is Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s two novels: Malagiya Attho and Malavunge Avurudu Da. After those two novels we have been a bit too romantic about anything Japanese. In the making of our first modern indigenous play, Saracchandra, ‘the father of modern’ Sinhala drama, was significantly influenced by Japan, and loved to overemphasise that Japanese connection. In my latest novel, Rathu Iri Andina Atha, I created a character who shrewdly manipulates our love of Japan. In order to enter the conscious of educated Sinhala middleclass, he acts as a professor returning from a long stay in Japan. To make the story believable, he carves out a story of his Japanese wife – a fiction within a fiction! Sri Lankan middle class is ready to be deceived even by an underworld imposter as long as he presents himself as a person refined in Japan. Irony, to be sure, allows us to see the extent to which Japan has become one of our national fantasies.

This essay, however, is about a real scholar who has enriched modern Sinhala literature almost singlehandedly by translating Japanese literature into Sinhala. He is Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. Several translators such as Jayantha Wimalasena, Tadashi Noguchi, and Wimaladasa Samarasinghe introduced Japanese literature to the Sinhala readers. But they translated them from English. Professor Rajakaruna translated directly from Japanese. Now in his eighties, the professor continues to translate Japanese literature into Sinhala.

Translated Literature and Sinhala Fiction

The story of modern Sinhala literature is one of the many influences. Modern Sinhala fiction in particular was primarily influenced by Russian and French fiction. From the 1940s onwards the key classics of those languages were translated into Sinhala. Edirivira Saracchandra, A. P. Gunarathne, David Karunarathne, Cyril C. Perera, K.G. Karunathilaka, Boby G. Botheju and numerous others translated those books. Among the present-day literary translators, Gamini Viyangoda, Chulananda Samaranayake, Ananda Amarasiri and many others have continued to translate contemporary world classics into Sinhala. And the Pragathi Publishers, a literary wing of the Soviet Union, made Russian classics, along with some Soviet ones, available in Sinhala at affordable prices. It must be stressed that they did not translate just Stalinist propaganda. So, we could read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy, who were not Bolsheviks. Those books were nicely printed as well. Some of those books came out in adorable pocket editions that we could carry around showing off our ‘refined taste’ to Sri Lankan Sonyas, Annas, Laras or Altynais – those unforgettable heroines of Russian classics. Dedigama V. Rodrigo, Padma Harsha Kuranage and Piyasena Manilgama are still in our minds as the translators of those classics. Some works of fiction from other national literature such as American, British, German, and Indian were translated here and there, but not in any systematic way. The United States did everything it could to rival the USSR during the cold war but never spent any money on translating its literature into other languages. In other words, it did not have an organ equivalent to The Progressive Publishers of the USSR. Thus, we are still to have any translation of the masterpieces of Henry James, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald, or Saul Bellow. At the moment, our regional superpower, China, is also not interested in cultural stuff. They are into giving us colossal loans, cutting deals, and behind-the scene political games, getting ministers in the loop, and so on – very much like the US in that sense.

Japanese Influence on Sinhala literature

In addition to Russian and French literature, Japanese literature is perhaps the single most influential literary tradition to shape contemporary Sinhala literature. To account for literary influences is a difficult task. Yet, the influence of Japanese Haiku is quite visible and ubiquitous in Sinhala literature. After Ariyawansa Ranavira, one of the most senior poets, translated a collection Haiku by Japanese masters in 1980s, many Sinhala poets began writing Haiku like poems. Today, younger poets such as Lakshantha Athukorla, Palitha Senarathne, Piyankarage Bandula Jayaweera, Ven. Aparekke Sirisudhamma and others regularly write shorter poems that reflect a heavy influence of Haiku. Professor Rajakaruna himself translated a collection of Haiku directly from Japanese. His book figures prominently in the ‘Haiku dialogue’ taking place in Sinhala.

Avant Garde Films and Drama

Professor Rajakaruna translated Japanese classics into English as well. Two film scripts included in A Crazy Page and Crossroads were translated into English for the first time. Our Professor has helped some Japanese authors to reach international readership! On reading these two film scripts, I was amazed at the kind of modernism and experimentalism in those texts written in 1920s. A Crazy Page is about a man who returns to his abandoned wife and daughter some thirty years to find wife insane and hospitalized. He tries to make up for all those lost years by finding a job as an attendant at the hospital where the wife awaits her death. The film script has been written breaking the linearity in time and space. Avant Garde nature of the film is so much that I couldn’t believe that it was written nearly a century ago.

Some of the plays Professor Rajakaruna translated from Japanese to Sinhala also belong to what we conventionally call “absurd theatre.” Unfortunately, his translations were never produced as plays. But one can safely assume that at least of the younger playwrights in Sinhala have read these translated plays.


And some universities regularly use them as their required texts.

As a literary critic, Professor Rajakaruna is not known to defend experimentalism in Sinhala literature. His recent critical essays on Sinhala fiction fail to appreciate post realist fiction written by new writers, who have made some significant achievements by writing short stories and novels that transcend naturalist realism. But as a translator, the professor has been particularly keen on translating Japanese texts that are experimental in nature.

Although he looks rather conventional as a critic in his recent writing, Prof. Rajakaruna, I must say, was one of the fearless defenders of the literary modernism of Peradeniya School (1950s to 60s). As a young lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Rajakaruna was one of the most vocal supporters of ‘free verses’ of Siri Gunasinghe, the greatest modernist of the so-called ‘Peradeniya School.’ Interestingly, Professor Rajakaruna continued to side himself with modernist experimentalism in his translations from Japanese to Sinhala.

Professor Rajakaurna translated so many short stories by celebrated Japanese writers. He also supervised two projects of translations that introduced nearly all key writers of Japanese literature into Sinhala. Two volumes of short stories, Ishtartha Siddiya and Asaliya Mal, have gone into several prints already and they include Japanese short stories representing a wide variety of styles and themes. And those stories have been translated from English by leading scholars in the field. It must be mentioned with a sense of gratitude that Japanese agencies such as Toyota Foundation have provided him with financial support to carry out those projects. But in recent times, even those funding agencies have not paid any attention to helping us make such cultural products with lasting effects. And there has not been another Ariya Rajakaruna, passionate about Japanese arts and enthusiastic about what we can learn from Japan. Now, China is all over the place. From kitchen to the cabinet – yes, I mean the Cabinet of ministers. We are likely to be indebted to China for several generations to come. But China has no Toyota Foundations that will help you translate literature. Perhaps, China knows that its best writers are not with the Chinese oligarchy, and to translate them will make no contribution to China’s geopolitical project.

Heir to his Work

Professor Rajakaruna, like many others of his generation, failed to produce inspired students who can continue his work on Japanese literature. After him, no one learned Japanese and entered into ever vibrant Japanese literary scene. Therefore, we do not have anyone translating renowned writers such as Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogava, Hiromi Kawakami, Junji Ito, Hiroko Oyamada and so on directly from Japanese. Murakami comes to us through English. His work has been translated from English into Sinhala. Professor Rajakaruna learned his Japanese in three years (1962-5) at the Tokyo School of Japanese Language. I wonder why no one after him followed his path. Many after him went to Japan for higher studies but nearly all of them ended up being wealthy car importers instead of translators. Perhaps, new Japan itself needs someone selling its cars rather than someone translating literature!

During the last 40 some years, anyone educated in Japan failed to make a lasting impact on the field of the humanities in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally wrong with those who go there or in those who teach them there. Or perhaps, after all, this is a different age. Well, the age of Rajakaruna, too, only produced just a single Rajakaruna. Literary and scholarly achievements have a lot to do with individual passion and commitment. The art of making scholarly passions contagious is still to be discovered.

Technical Japan and Literary Japan

While Japan was being reduced to electronic gadgets and auto mobiles in the economic atmosphere of post 1977 neo-liberal era, people like Ariya Rajakaruna helped us see that Japan was more than those cute technical and mechanical devices. They showed us the richness of Japanese literature. A fairly well-read person in my generation, by reading even only in Sinhala, can recite a long list of Japanese authors. And the stories of those authors might have already entered the deep crevices of our collective consciousness, and the memories of such literary work might one day influence our literature in ways that we cannot really predict or explain. Literary influences are such that one cannot really see where they come from. But our literary achievements will have the fragrance of the wonderful things their creators were exposed to during their formative years. Any serious writer writing in Sinhala today must have been introduced to some Japanese classics through the work of translators such as Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. As the most prolific translator from Japanese to Sinhala, he has been a wonderful cultural ambassador for us. It is said that his ‘embassy’ will be closed forever after him unless we, Sri Lankan literati, and our counterparts in Japan give some serious thoughts to continuing this enriching intercultural engagement. To continue that cross-fertilisation would be the best tribute to the pioneers such as Professor Rajakaruna.

(This essay is a part of longer research paper the writer is working on. He can be contacted at

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Midweek Review

Experts-Only Club



By Lynn Ockersz

There’s to be a gathering,

Of the most curious kind,

In the Nodding Isle,

Renowned for its sleights-of-hand,

Made-up of high-brow types,

Whose brief it’ll be,

To spell out the prime law of the land,

But the question being asked,

By those scrambling for scraps,

Especially in the Covid’s vicious clutch,

Is whether this heads’ only club,

Knows ‘the agony of the stomach’…

So essential an ingredient,

For creating a state most fair,

Where an ample morsel,

Would at all times be on offer for all.



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Midweek Review

Women in Power



The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva, Doreen, Vivi and Sirima

By Kusum Wijetilleke ( and
Rienzie Wijetilleke

(Continued from yesterday)

The events leading up to her removal began in 1933 when she published an article titled “The Battle of the Flowers” in the Ceylon Daily News that questioned the sale of the Poppy on Armistice Day in the British Colonies. At the time, funds from the sale of poppies went towards British ex-servicemen and not to help the Ceylonese officers. The resulting Suriya Mal Movement sold local sunflowers (suriya) instead of poppies with proceeds going to local benefactors. This movement was an early rallying cry for independence and Ms. Doreen would go on to become a symbol of Ceylonese anti-imperialism; winning the parliamentary seat for Akuressa in 1952 under the Communist Party. However in the period leading up to Independence, leftism in Ceylon was very much under threat.

Dr. Wickramasinghe would be arrested in 1939 for sedition, and many others, including Dr. N.M. Perera would follow. The response to the arrests would be one of the largest protest marches ever seen in Ceylon, organized by the LSSP and quelled by the British with a baton charge.

Leading the march was the wife of Dr. N.M. Perera; Ms. Selina Perera who was also one of Ceylon’s leading Trotskyites and a founding member of the LSSP. Ms Perera would also shelter the Anglo-Australian Marxist Mark Bracegirdle when the Governor of Ceylon ordered his arrest and deportation, for the crime of organizing plantation labourers to agitate for better living conditions. Ms. Perera herself had to flee Ceylon to India following a brief arrest in 1940 and even joined the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma along with her husband. When India took the decision to deport them, she escaped to Calcutta, where she adopted a new identity and taught English, disillusioned with the independence politics of India and Ceylon.


At the outbreak of World War II, Colvin R De Silva, N.M. Perera and many others of the LSSP were declared ‘persona non grata’ due to their anti-Stalinism and the insistence that the war was an imperialist venture. One of the co-founders of the LSSP, Mr. Leslie Goonewardene, was able to evade arrest and escape to India along with Selina Perera and others. Hailing from a prominent political family, Mr. Goonewardene had intended to become a Methodist Priest but was influenced by Marxist teachings while in the UK, ending up at the London School of Economics under the tutelage of the famous Marxist Professor, Harold Laski.

Mr. Goonewardene’s political affiliations would lead to a meeting with his future wife, Vivienne, at a socialist rally. Vivienne Goonatilleka also hailed from aristocracy but was blessed with a rebellious streak which would mark her as one of the most important and accomplished women in Sri Lanka’s political history. Despite being the Head Girl at Musaeus College Colombo, ‘Vivi’ was noted for her defiance of authority which became evident with her involvement in the aforementioned Suriya Mal Movement. On Remembrance Day 1934, when as per tradition there would be a ceremonial gun salute at 11 am, Vivienne organized a protest whereby students would leave their boxes of instruments on the blackboards. The blackboards were then toppled at exactly 11 am to make a sound loud enough to drown out the gun salute. Despite her work with the poor and needy, Vivienne’s father was not best pleased with her political pursuits and did not want his young daughter engaged in further education, preferring that she marry and start a family of her own. Without her father’s knowledge and with the assistance of her maternal uncles, the famous socialists Philip and Robert Gunawardena, she gained entry into University College Colombo.

Vivienne’s father was completely against her marriage to Leslie Goonewardene on the basis of caste and religion but also due to the latter’s revolutionary politics which clashed with his pro-monarchy views. ‘Vivi’ was virtually imprisoned at their residence and Mr. Goonewardene was forced to file legal action against his future father-in-law by claiming unlawful detention (habeas corpus). The lawyer that successfully argued the case was a young attorney by the name of J.R. Jayawardene. Having married Leslie, Ms. Goonewardene had to escape to India under a false name along with her husband when the LSSP was proscribed for its anti-war stance. While in India Mr. and Mrs. Goonewardene immersed themselves in the Quit India Movement. After the end of World War II the LSSP began activities once again in Ceylon but ideological differences between leading members of the party led to a split based on their socialist ideologies. Vivienne joined the Bolshevik Sama Samaja Party (BSP), successfully campaigning for the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) in 1950. As a member of the CMC, she focused on the poor residing in the ‘shanty towns’ by widening the roads, providing lighting and sanitation as well as organising sewing classes for single mothers. During this time she befriended a young politician from the Ceylon Labour Movement and regularly gave him a lift from near the shanty towns to the CMC; his name was Ranasinghe Premadasa. Her work as part of Dr. N.M. Perera’s All Ceylon Local Government Workers Union led to the granting of ‘Permanent’ Status to workers and the right to pensions as well as extending pensions to widows and orphans.

Through the decades between the 1940s and the 1970s, the LSSP, its various factions and other leftist aligned parties enjoyed great success in bringing about a political awakening amongst the youth and the working class of the country. The 1953 ‘Ceylon Hartal’ was the brainchild of the radicals that witnessed the success of similar organised protests during the Quit India Movement. Ceylon had never before witnessed such well-organised mass scale demonstrations and campaigns of civil disobedience, which brought much of Ceylon to a standstill. The Government of Dudley Senanayake had become unpopular for increasing the price of rice, reneging on a key election promise by the UNP. The hartal was so fierce that the entire cabinet of the government boarded a Royal Navy warship to secure itself against potential violence.


On the wave of leftist movements across the country, Ms. Goonewardene was elected to Parliament in 1956 and again in 1964, she only lost the 1960 election by some 150 votes to Mr. M.H. Mohamed; who was appointed Cabinet Minister of Labour, Housing and Employment. She joined a leftist newspaper and began reporting on parliamentary proceedings. M.H. Mohamed was unhappy at some of the articles written by Vivienne on the labour and housing policies of the UNP and during a session of parliament he made a remark directed at Vivienne referring to her election defeat; whilst she was seated in the press gallery. An enraged Vivienne reportedly waved a slipper in a threatening manner at Mohamed and despite the Speaker banning her from the press gallery for two weeks, she proceeded to the entrance of the chamber after the session with a crowd of supporters to confront the MP. The Minister of State at that time, J.R. Jayawardene, had to escort Mohamed through a separate exit and it was left to party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike to pacify Vivienne. She was posthumously designated a ‘National Hero of Sri Lanka’, the highest civilian honour alongside the ‘Sri Lankabhimanya’.

It is true that most of the high watermarks of female representation in Sri Lankan politics featured women that ‘inherited’ political positions through ‘pedigree’, but this may be an oversimplification of sorts. Yes, many were from well-established political families but the use of the word pedigree is interesting. One of the definitions of the noun pedigree is the provenance of a person especially as conferring ‘distinction’; which in itself is a noun that defines excellence that sets someone apart from others. The closer we study the careers of some of Ceylon’s most prominent female politicians, the more simplistic the argument about inheriting power and position appears.

Perhaps our curriculum should be adjusted to shine more light on the many women that not only attained positions of power, but also possessed the knowledge and skills to thrive in these positions. The next time we rename a street or build a statue, perhaps we should honour some of the country’s famous foremothers. Far from being entitled heirs to political dynasties, these women were prodigious powerhouses in their own right and should be respected as such. A more intense spotlight on the achievements of the many women in our history may help inspire the next generation of women to make some history of their own.

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