A Pervasive Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security
By Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
Biosphere is a common heritage of the mankind. The free flow of fauna and flora is a natural process. The natural flow of fauna and flora does not take in to account the man-made political boundaries in their natural dispersion. In the past, this dispersion has served human kind greatly. Tea and rubber in Sri Lanka can be cited as a good example. These two plants came to Sri Lankan soil from far and dominated the Sri Lankan economy for years. In terms of nature’s systemic flow of fauna and flora around the world, any attempt to have exclusive right or monopoly contradict the the nature. The relationship between the humans and their surrounding is complex and multifaceted. History of human kind is a story of how they made use of their environment, natural and otherwise, for the benefit and progress. Cultures and Knowledge systems evolved as result of this human endeavor. With the advancement of science, their ability to make use of fauna and flora has enhanced rapidly. This has created serious challenges to the biodiversity, which is a cardinal principle of nature of dynamics. The issue of bio-piracy came to the forefront in this context. The use of modern technology and science goes to the extent of exploiting biodiversity and becomes a manipulated act, bio-piracy. Within this complicated process, traditional and indigenous knowledge get misappropriated and exploited. Using the power of science and technology, combined with political and economic might corporates and other actors commits acts of bio piracy, by monopolizing the use of fauna and flora and exploiting the traditional knowledge marginalizing the local and traditional communities who initially owned the knowledge and who were entitled to biodiversity in their locality.
In this context, the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) organized a webinar on the topic “Bio Piracy: Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security”, on Thursday 25th March 2021. Three world renowned Sri Lankan scholars: Prof. Siril Wijesundara, Research Professor (Plant Taxonomy and Conservation) at National Institute of Fundamental Studies and Former Director General at the Department of National Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya; Prof. Veranja Karunarathne, Senior Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Peradeniya and Former Vice Chancellor of SLINTEC ACADEMY, Homagama; and Prof. Sarath Kotagama, Professor Emeritus, Department of Zoology and Environment Science, University of Colombo, presented and shared their views on the topic at the webinar. Prof. Gamini Keerawella, Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Peradeniya and the Executive Director of Regional Centre for Strategic Studies moderated the webinar.
Introduction to Bio-Piracy and the formation of Convention on Biological Diversity
Primary thought of bio-piracy comes into being when knowledge becomes livelihood. Knowledge became a livelihood, built on traditional knowledge of indigenous people. With this came the desire to come up with an international agreement of some sorts and there came into being the Convention of Biological Diversity in 1993. This convention came into existence with the idea that biological material need to be considered a resource highlighted Prof. Sarath Kotagama.
Prof. Sarath Kotagama remarked that the word “Biodiversity” was coined in 1986 and put into use in the 1980s, but the discussion about bio-piracy did not start until the recent past. Any piracy or pirate action of bio items is known as bio-piracy. Bio piracy is the practice of commercially exploiting naturally occurring biochemical or genetic material especially by obtaining patents that restrict its future use, while by failing to pay fair compensation to the community for which it originates. According to him, the illegal appropriation of life, micro-organisms, plants and animals (including humans) and the traditional knowledge that accompanies it, which then gets commercialized is known as bio-piracy. Doing something “any effort to find biological resources and the related indigenous knowledge for commercial exploitation” is called Bioprospecting. But, until recently, there has been no mention of bio-piracy or bioprospecting even though this had been occurring since the colonial times.
Prof. Kotagama highlighted the fact that biological diversity was a common heritage in the past. It didn’t matter where it originated. But in 1992, after the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the developing countries said traditional knowledge is a sovereign resource that should not be common heritage. By this time, the traditional knowledge and knowledge inherent to indigenous communities was identified as common heritage. Later, in a battle (between the meetings in cities of Washington D.C and Rio De Janeiro) they claimed that the traditional knowledge is not common heritage and it is a sovereign right of the country that owns the bio items and traditional knowledge. According to Prof. Kotagama, even if the ownership was established and the countries secure the sovereign right for bio-items exported from their countries and their traditional knowledge, it was declared that if there is a humanitarian purpose and if it is for the use of humanity, the substance needs to be shared with the rest of the world.
The contest for the sovereign right was more of an effort after the blunder in bio-diplomacy between the United States and Nicaragua. Prof. Kotagama pointed out that when in Nicaragua potato blight occurred and potato started dying, North America had the solution, they had the original gene from the type of potato that Nicaragua was losing. Nicaragua wanted to get the original material the genetic production from the US as a solution to the issue at hand. But because of the political differences the US did not agree to send their genetic production to Nicaragua. Biodiversity issue became a matter of concern with this diplomatic occurrence. Prof. Kotagama highlighted that, with such issues amounting to tensed diplomacy between the countries, after the Convention, how resources must be used sustainably and equitably and how it should be conserved became a point of debate.
According to Prof. Kotagama, when biodiversity came into the picture, animal and plants were looked at differently, more of a resource with a commercial value. Coming to grips of the fact that livelihood is built on the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people (of traditional people) by them mattered most. Still the ongoing destruction of resources and nature in the word of development has not stopped and it is another fact that generated discussion on bio-piracy. What is traditional knowledge is important to know. In-situations – found in the ecosystems natural environment and ex-situation in gardens and home gardens, brought and planted in commercial and non-commercial situation, have an end product, a very good genetic production. Both non-commercial uses, taxonomy and conservation and commercial uses – biotechnology, horticulture, pharmaceutical, ultimately can achieve genetic production. All these together are considered traditional knowledge. This knowledge base was what has been in use and data were collected from the availability of such information. Taking substances from traditional knowledge it will be brought to a commercial platform and look at in benefiting from monetary way. Prof. Kotagama highlighted that giving it a commercial value is the issue. It comes to a point where some countries make money out of somebody else’s knowledge and possessions mercilessly.
Historical background of Bio-Piracy
Prof. Keerawella in his introduction highlighted that Patenting system as a form of blatant colonialism as it monopolizes the ownership of bio items of other countries and vested the power and authority in using the items and knowledge related to them with others other than the indigenous communities who owns the knowledge. He stated that one dimension of early colonialism was gathering information and data of fauna and flora from colonized countries and this has been a practice since many decades ago since the colonial times. When colonialism started, Alexander Johnston collected many books that contained information of fauna and flora and they were collected from Sri Lanka and India and he took them to London. Later Sir James Emerson Tennent (1804-1869) in his book “Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical, and Torpographical with Notices of Natural History, Antiquity and Production” recorded all the information gathered on fauna and flora from Sri Lanka. And there is one Williams Johnes who was not only interested in language but culture, plants and animals in Bengal and India. These are the evidence that shows that the knowledge system was the most important aspect in Colonial domination.
The legitimate governments have motivated individuals to do various bio piracy activities, from gathering information to establishing gardens that will enable information gathering of fauna and flora in colonized countries. According to Prof. Siril Wijesundara, some of the historical events of bio-piracy shaped agriculture, forestry and even the economies of recipient countries. According to him, early explorers played a major role in expeditions where plants were involved. In terms of plant expeditions, even in the distanced past 3500 years ago, plants were taken from places they originated by the Egyptian rulers during their military expeditions. Passage of plants across geographical borders, aided by man became prominent about five centuries ago.
In recorded history, Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer and navigator, is the first person to sail directly from Europe to India in 1498. Prof. Wijesundara remarked that the first man to come to India was Da Gama and then lot of other people followed him. Therefore, the Portuguese played a major role in global dissemination of plants. They were the carriers of plants from temperate to tropics areas and vice versa. Some were to become major crops in their new habitats. In terms of introduction of new plants and crops, the Potato, the world’s fourth largest food crop, was introduced to Europe by Spanish conquerors from Peru in the 16th Century.
According to Prof. Wijesundara, the greatest bio-piracy in the 19th century occurred with Sir Henry Alexander Wickham falsely declared 70,000 live seeds of a valuable tree as “academic specimens” and smuggled those out from Brazil to England. Today. It is known as rubber. 27,000 of those germinated and on 12th August 1876, the Colonial Office, sent 38 cases containing 1919 rubber seedlings from Kew Gardens to Ceylon. The seedlings were planted at the Henarathgoda Botanical Gardens in Sri Lanka. In 1877 twenty-two of these young trees were sent to Singapore from Sri Lanka, and seedlings from those trees were distributed throughout Malaysia and Borneo. This is known to be an experimental station. That is how the Asian rubber industry began. In 1848, the British East India Company sent a Scottish Botanist, Robert Fortune on a trip to China to steal the secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. Prof. Wijesundara mentioned that the book “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History” by Sarah Rose discloses the information on how tea became the most favourite drink of the entire world. Robert Fortune has travelled from China to India and then to Ceylon bringing his stolen knowledge to these countries. These are the very known cases of bio-piracy in the colonial times.
Role of Botanic Gardens in plant introduction
According to Prof. Wijesundara, in the 17th and 18th centuries botanic gardens became key players in the plant introduction process. This continued through to the 19th and early 20th centuries although responsibility for introductions gradually transferred to agricultural stations or Departments of Agriculture. In Sri Lanka, Chief Justice at the time Aleander Johnston, suggested Sir Josehph Banks to have a botanical garden. Then he assigned the task to William Cur to set up a botanical garden. William Cur set up the first Botanical garden in Sri Lanka, in Slave Island. Since the place did not match the occasion, it was going to be moved to somewhere else and the first Botanic Garden Director, an opium addict dies and perished with the idea. In the last century, the British Empire instituted regular plant collections. Some plant collections were not done with the consent of the owners and this is true to many plant collection occurred in the colonized countries.
Bio-Piracy in the Modern Times: The Cases of Neem, Basmati and Turmeric
Both Prof. Sarath Kotagama and Prof. Siril Wijesuriya highlighted how in the modern times bio-piracy is happening citing the cases of Neem, Basmati and Turmeric as classic examples of modern bio-piracy and how the developing countries took action to overturn this trend of unfair patenting – or rather legalizing theft of bio items.
To be continued
India Forges ahead even arts-wise; Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy (?)
Hope springs eternal in the human breast, it is said, but if the breast is of a national-minded Sri Lankan, hope cannot rise; it is stifled by fear, worry, frustration and stark disappointment. Government persons are flapping their upper limbs and crowing about improvement in the economy; nothing much for us Ordinaries to experience or savour.
The President has announced the thuttu deke Sri Lankan rupee has risen against the dollar as if he had achieved the fall in the price of the dollar himself with his great economic expertise. Yes, the value of the dollar has declined from its 360 plus worth but if anyone has to be thanked, Cass boldly affirms, it is the Governor of the Central Bank, bless him, our Saviour at this moment. He works cleverly we have to presume, with dedication and loyalty to the nation, gaining nothing himself except his remuneration which we believe he could very well have done without as he was recalled from retirement in Australia to haul the nation out of the economic blackhole it had been pushed into by its own bigwigs – a past Prez, a former PM who, when he was Prez, borrowed mostly from the Chinaman to build his Ozymandias constructions to have his name emblazoned on them. Assisting these two, pulling the strings and side driving in government, was a former Minister of Finance who absented himself often from Parliament when the budget he presented was being discussed. Then there were ministry secretaries and CB high ups and a Gov himself who helped in pushing the rupee to near worthlessness and the country firmly into bankruptcy. This they did in brotherhood, three of them, and unitedly, willfully and most insanely with glaring mismanagement and mistakes.
And we sit and mourn and suffer on account of their mistakes. Some rose in unison and protested and we saw drastic changes in top positions but not in structures and systems. Naturally, and to be accepted, is the fact that recovery will be very slow and very painful. Those who rise up in protest now – chief among them being the IUSF and persons like Stalin whoever – are only a menace and obstacle to whatever economic progress is underway. We see and hear some of the earlier bootlickers of the R clan, or their kith and kin, pontificating again. Cass mentioned three such in her last week’s column. Add to them a horizontally gifted Minister who is guilty of and charged in court for soliciting payment to do some job he had to do; and another who is associated, wrongly or rightly Cass knows not, in the drug trade. He came to the limelight when rescued in a VVIP power driven helicopter with the said power as an actual presence. Only blood relatives are thus treated!
This is miserable Sri Lanka’s side of the picture. Cass cannot help but create the analogy of a beautiful damsel who pleases in every way, being raped by greed and lack of any sense of decency or humanity but totally for selfish gain by rapacious persons to gain power and enjoy the perks accompanying. Thus, she is grievously harmed and injured both physically and mentally. A brave person comes along and rescues her and attempts giving her the chance to recapture her charms. Cass supposes this could be the present Gov of the CB and not the IMF which organization has its own agenda.
And, so we have secured IMF emergency funding. We hear congratulations to Prez Ranil W being extended by SLPP MPs in Parliament. The SLPP may gloat but the Prez has wisely warned our troubles are far from over. TV1 in its news broadcast on W ednesday night had an accurate recalling of how the IMF loan came to be granted.
Hearing the loan was approved and the first tranche would soon be released had the immediate image crossing Cass’ mind of some in power salivating with selfish greed to get their hands on bits of it. But to her great delight she finds that one superb condition, loudly greeted, of granting relief through the IMF is that corruption must be reduced and eradicated. Tall order but it is there in black and white so maybe ticking minds will slow down and seeking/grabbing hands held back.
My title speaks of India. Yes, it is outstandingly clear how far India has progressed in its development and position it now holds in the world. She was burdened with a huge and ever bloating population; widespread poverty; a high percent of illiteracy and lack of education; internecine strife between races and religions and the ever-bubbling Kashmir problem. But just see how far she has progressed, outpacing some developed countries, almost on par with China and courted by the US and EU. I remember vividly a cartoon seen when she entered the Nuclear Club which had just five members. The cartoon showed a bare-bodied man in a dhoti entering a posh club with its wide chairs and bar. India now hopes to join the outer space travellers’ club. There was rampant corruption but laws and the right for the public to report and even bring to Court malpractices of bureaucrats and politicians has reduced the prevalence of this canker. Vigilante groups rendered great service.
I mentioned the arts in my title. This because India has bagged two Oscars this year, one for best short documentary and the other for best song. I watched both films: Elephant whisperers and RRR. The first was of an elephant nursery in South India. I thought our Uda Walawe elephant orphanage where abandoned infant animals are nurtured and rehabilitated to go back to their jungle living could have been filmed to an even better documentary. RRR had the rousing song Naatu, Naatu. Goodness! It was a typical South Indian, though Hindi film of impossible feats of bravery, blood drenched and insanely melodramatic. But the songs were superb.
It was said three conditions held the vast subcontinent as one country – after Pakistan broke away. They were: the continuation of democracy and the efficient bureaucracy the British left; the widespread use of English and it being the main language of communication between the centre and states; and communication in the way of a wide web of railways. Cass feels the most important positive that not only held the country as one vast collection of states but also aided its development and march forward to be one of the VIP countries of the world is that Indians are first and last Indians, whether of the south, east, north or west; and their ardent patriotism.
We Sri Lankans lack these great and good qualities.
We invariably intoned “poor Bangladesh”, considering it would always be battered by tidal waves and floods and continually poverty stricken with two widows clawing for power. Look at her now! She lent us money; she is moving upwards as a self-sufficient country looking after its population. While our GMOA and universities acted strong against private medical education, a college in Chittagong earned plenty forex from just our students alone among its international student body.
A radical change in systems, mass and individual behaviours and mostly in those who rule the country is urgently needed. We are in another debt, this time to the IMF. We need to get back on our feet. We stood firm a couple of decades back. With our positives, mainly of clever, educated people, and potential of the country we can get out of the dire straits we are in. Will we even now wake up and work unitedly while getting rid of the dregs of society that wield power?
The Box of Delights
Seeing through testing times and the future
Text of the Keynote address By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.
At the beginning of this year I read again, after well over half a century, a delightful book by John Masefield, called The Box of Delights. A feature of this box was that it allowed one to travel swiftly, and to make oneself very small. It struck me then that these magical properties were what is needed for us to do better in the field of English Language Teaching. Those making the running as it were must move very quickly, and they must be able to think like the young do, the very young but also all those students who need to be motivated to learn.
Unfortunately, all efforts to take things forward have to contend with the blockages imposed by the equivalent of Masefield’s coven of witches in an earlier novel, The Midnight Folk, now turned sanctimonious as potential churchmen in The Box of Delights. Who these are in real life varies from generation to generation, but what they have in common is slowness of thought and execution, and an incapacity to think except as adults, and sometimes not even that!
At the end of last year, I came to this university to celebrate a welcome initiative on the part of your Library, together with Madhbhashini Ratnayake of the English Language Teaching Department, the first major contribution to English Language Teaching – or Learning as I prefer to term it – since the nineties. In that decade too personnel at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura played a major role in taking things forward, and I was happy to learn that now too those in authority have given unstinting support to the innovations your colleagues are trying to introduce nationwide. But remember that the midnight folk are always waiting to pounce, the negative ones, though I should note that Masefield also thinks of the little people who help as midnight folk, working with their lights under a bushel.
Let me now speak briefly of those initiatives of the nineties, even though this may seem an arrogant move, given how central I was to all the developments of those days. But I should make it clear that none of this would have been possible without not just strong but also imaginative support from many others, including two fantastic practitioners of English Language Teaching at this University, Parvathi Nagasunderam and Oranee Jansz. Interestingly, the latter was not initially enthusiastic about the former joining the university, because she was a strong proponent of autonomy for the English Language Teaching Unit, and resented what she thought was potential interference by a recruit to what was then the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies. The then Vice-Chancellor had expressed the view that Paru should be appointed to head the ELTU, but there was such opposition to this that the incumbent who had resigned reassumed the position.
Oranee herelf changed completely when there was opposition on racist grounds to Paru by other members of the ELTU, and not only supported Paru thereafter, but took another Tamil recruit whom the other ladies were attacking to work with her in the Medical Faculty. Her imaginative approach there meant that USJP medical students were accepted much sooner by the medical hierarchy than graduates from other new medical faculties – since as you know the establishment in this country belittled any new medical faculty, and in turn, when that faculty gained wider acceptance, it joined the old guard in belittling new ones. Kelaniya and Ruhuna and Sri Jayewardenepura and Rajarata have suffered such persecution in turn, though perhaps that mentality has now changed for the Sabaragamuwa Medical Faculty has not had to face similar belittling.
My return to the state system was because of an initiative by Prof Arjuna Aluvihare to extend opportunities in tertiary education, and to do this in particular with regard to English. Typically, the Midnight Folk sniffed at this, anguished by the thought of English being made available at tertiary level to students who had not studied English at the GCE Advanced Level, in short, to students outside the charmed circle of Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna. After all, as one professor put it, when earlier I had suggested syllabus revision to incorporate Sri Lankan writing in English, her students could go to Cambridge for postgraduate work, though in actual fact no one from that university or indeed any other in Sri Lanka had gone there for postgraduate work for two decades.
So, it was USJP that took up the challenge, through the then Dean of Arts, Mahinda Palihawadana, whose erudition too I see has been honoured by the republication of a seminal work on the Vedas. Given his wide-ranging sense of commitment to students as well as books, he roped me in, and persuaded me to join the university, which seemed essential to keep things going, for he himself was on the verge of retirement. So, I not only took charge of the English Diploma course at six Affiliated University Colleges and of General English at five others but also transformed English at this university, introducing an English Language component in addition to English Literature. And this was available also in the External Degree we started, which rapidly became the most popular external degree in the whole university system.
I was able to do all this because of the wonderful support I had in the Department, and in time Paru expanded on this, when, finally, an English Department was established here. She also when we requested this from the Ministry introduced English Language Teaching as a component of the external degree, which was a great boon to teachers nationwide. Again, in those days, at the turn of the century, the other universities refused, for they still believed pedagogical skills had nothing to do with academia.
That situation has now changed, and all universities I believe understand the need for this, though I fear the idea has not penetrated into other skulls, whereas we also need for instance components of teaching mathematics in university mathematics degrees, if we are to develop STEM education. But while successive ministers of education talk about this, they will not ensure the elementary measures needed to promote such education, namely to produce better teachers – and swiftly, as I started by saying we must ensure with regard to all positive measures.
I have spoken thus far of the colleagues I worked with in the university system to change things so swiftly in the nineties, after half a century of moribundity as to tertiary level English. But there were also other tools essential to take things forward. The most important of these were materials, and materials that could be made readily available, for students to be able to own them and work with them on their own.
This was an area in which The Midnight Folk had a particularly baneful impact. They did not believe in materials which students could use on their own, and instead thought that education demanded power in the hands of the teacher. Thus materials were not easy to understand, and had to be explicated further, and all this meant enormous profits for those who produced materials, books prepared by teams whose members vied to impress each other rather than produce what students could readily understand, and then teachers’ guides which also had to be studied, and only by the teacher. The fact that these did not always reach students and teachers in time – the more remote the area, the greater the delay in transmission – meant nothing in a context in which the production of materials, and the money made on them, through allowances for preparation and contracts for printing, was an end in itself, with little thought for the use that was to be made of them.
I transformed this, using a system I had instituted while at the British Council, where fortunately those in charge accepted my argument that we needed to develop the reading habit, and we could best do this by producing low cost readers. A stream of these were produced, initially costing Rs. 5 each, which meant they were snapped up by students all over the country. And thus we could reprint without further subsidy.
We had produced well over 50 titles at different levels by the time I joined USJP, and we then produced dozens more which were made available to students, some at just Rs. 10. Needless to say I was accused of making money on this, though the students themselves, who had initially objected to paying for materials – provoked by The Midnight Folk who did not like the successful impact of my programmes – agreed that Rs 10 simply covered costs and that, having got money, from the Canadians who were very supportive, to publish the first copies, I was not going to go begging again to them.
Unfortunately, this very simple principle, that we cannot live for ever on handouts, is very far from the minds of our decision makers, for as you can now see, when we are hopelessly in debt, the only answer they can think of is more debt. The idea of generating income, of using borrowed money only to promote productivity that can pay for itself, the horror of sinking further and further into debt that future generations will have to repay at the cost of their own productivity, is not something that occurs to the unimaginative Midnight Folk.
To return to the idea of producing our own, I believe that over the years I have been responsible for well over a million books for language learning, which were snapped up by students all over the country. I had wonderful collaborators in this project, Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Sybil Wettasinghe and Madhubhashini Dissanayake as she then was for primary and secondary level, Madhu again and also Nirmali and then Janaki Galappatti (and a team of university scientists) and Goolbai Gunasekara and Oranee and the ELTU head Damayanthi Ahangama for tertiary level, Paru and Dinali Fernando – who was at USJP for several years – and Rapti de Silva, later of Moratuwa University, for pedagogical input.
We used these materials, refined further, when Oranee and I were also asked to take charge of the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) project, where we changed the term teaching to training, for we were also concerned to introduce soft skills, the first time in this country, long before they became fashionable – and still with no proper system to develop them nationwide. Sadly the Life Skills curriculum developed when I headed the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education was perverted to exclude this, with a change of Minister and another of the Midnight Folk appointed in my stead. Entertainingly that same Minister is now in charge of education, and tertiary education and vocational education too, for the umpteenth time, with nothing to show for his many periods in office, only sanctimonious pronouncements.
(to be continued)
Happy Birthday dearest Mrs. Peries !
Dear Mrs. Peries,
So you would have turned 88 today, 24th March 2023. On a day like this, my mind goes back many, many years, to all those birthday parties and celebrations at the old Dickman’s Road (Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha) house.
Birthday month at No 24 residence spanned both March and April and usually kicked off today, when in the morning you would offer dane to the Bellanwila Temple.The floors were polished, as was the gleaming brassware. The prized crystal ware would sparkle from inside the glass cabinets and the vases would brim with flowers. The birthday mood was all pervasive.
That faithful telephone, the much memorised 011.2588822, would ring incessantly right through the day and this was perhaps the only day in the year when LJP would not volunteer to answer, since the calls were invariably all for the Missus.The evening was generally a subdued quiet affair with family from both the Peries and Gunawardene sides, and a few very close friends, and even fewer from the big screen.
I remember Mrs. Paddy Mendis, a regular birthday visitor. After all it was during her husband Dr. Vernon Mendis’ tenure as Ceylon’s Charge d’Affaires in Paris in the late 1950s that LJP first met you, when en route to Cannes with Rekawa.Remember how you carefully chose your short eats. Getting pride of place were your favourite delicate asparagus sandwiches. Coming a close second would be those cheese and chicken bouchees, and the ginger beer and the iced coffee.
There would be Nuran Gomez, the great-grand-nephew from the Peries side, at the piano, tickling the ivories and entertaining everyone with music from the Peries’ films and old world continental hits much to LJP’s delectation. Aaahhh such lovely soirees those were.
Today would also begin the countdown to 05th April, when No 24 literally overflowed with humanity and when the maestro would blow the increasing numbers of candles on his cake. Oh 04th April is another story altogether !
Yes No 24 overflowed with humanity from the film industry. But then as I sadly observed over the years, as the both of you made fewer and fewer films, those crowds decreased. When the both of you finally stopped making movies, he with Ammawarune (2006) and you with Vaishnavee (2018), those numbers dwindled down to a mere handful from the film industry. You were left with family and a few very close friends.
I remember one of your birthdays a few years ago when you and I decided to go on a “loaf” one evening. We drove around, loafing around, I actually forget where, and when we finally got hungry it was past 10.30 pm when most of the restaurants were closed. We were hungry, very hungry and there was no place open.
I remember calling my good friend Harpo Guneratne who, in turn, immediately called the staff at Harpos Pizza Pasta Parlour on Mirihana Road, Nugegoda and told them to keep the shutters open despite it being way past closing time. The boys were there, all smiles, to greet and serve the celebrity Birthday Girl guest.
I remember, very, very vaguely, another birthday soiree in the late 1990s in Paris when you were our Ambassador. It was just LJP and You and I in that beautiful salon at your Ambassadorial apartment on the Avenue de Longchamps with the French cheeses and the wines, and Coq-au-Vin for mains, and as the champagne popped we sang Joyeux Anniversaire in French. Quelle nostalgie !!!
‘Carols for LJP’ at Christmastime was yet another looked forward to event at the old Dickman’s Road House with Nuran Gomez once again at the piano and everyone joining in lustily. What absolutely memorable and joyous soirées those were.
There were also those New Year’s Eves when you lit sparklers in the garden with Kumudu Casie Chetty, Surangani Wijewickrama and Lalinka Mutukumarana and much to LJP’s fretting and concern, those after-dinner chats that went on beyond midnight, the impulsive drives we went out on for iced-cream and those occasional dinners out. Those were the simple pleasures of life you also rejoiced in.If I were to go back in time, the both of you came into my life that morning in 1986 when I walked into your Dickmans Road sitting room and we shot my first ever interview with you for “Bonsoir” for the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka. I was in great awe and felt terribly small and insignificant in your presence.
Little did the three of us ever realise that this was to be the beginning of our private lifelong bond … sealed by France and the French culture and language. Yes it was our very private “Club Français”. In it we regaled. In it we journeyed through French history, gastronomy and culture through our innumerable chats. In it we constantly celebrated the francophones and francophiles in us. LJP was the first to leave us and our little Club got empty. Mrs. Peries now you, and our Club is emptier than before.
Seated in the audience at the BMICH that afternoon in January 2022 with Nadeeka Gunasekare and Yashoda Wimaladharma, I vividly remember the joy jubilantly splashed across your face when the University of Kelaniya conferred on you an Honorary Doctorate (Sahithya Chakrawarthi). Your portfolio of honours and achievements was finally complete. You were now Dr. Mrs. Sumitra Peries.
And exactly one year later you’re gone. Mrs. Peries, as I write this piece I don’t think even you realised, two months ago, that you would go, go just like that, in literally a flash. Yes you were ailing but you were ok too. And then suddenly you were gone.
That evening at the Independence Square was sad and overcast as the flames consumed all that was mortal of you, at almost the identical spot they did to LJP five years ago in 2018. And as I did with LJP too, I patiently sat there by your pyre, in the intermittent drizzle that evening, and stayed with you way past midnight, until you were finally gone, until all that was you turned into soft, burning hot ash. Those images still haunt me.
My dear Mrs. Peries, it’s already two months and a week for today, since you’re gone … gone on your journey in Samsara. The inescapable humdrum of life has overtaken us all, yet the grief still persists, thick, viscous and heavy. It sits like glue at the bottom of my heart.
The nation mourns. The film industry mourns. Family, friends and colleagues still mourn. I too grieve my very personal loss, yet celebrating the memory of two wonderful people who lit up my personal and professional lives and who were also my ‘alternate’ Father and Mother. You often referred to me as “the son we both never had”. The feeling was absolutely mutual.
Yet … just as a rainbow slowly appears after a torrential downpour, there is also a very strange sense of joy … joy as we now celebrate your life and everything you meant to a lot of people.As you journey on … what more can I say but “Thank You / Merci Beaucoup” for the memories, those warm, cheerful, nostalgic and indelible memories. May your journeys through Samsara be speedy my dearest LJP and Mrs Peries, my ‘adopted foster mother and father’. Love you both from the depths of my heart … always … and beyond always.
– Happy Birthday Mrs. Peries.
Kumar de Silva
Trustee – Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation
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