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Midweek Review

Call of the sea From Navy to maritime archaeologist, Somasiri Devendra comes full circle



‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon” by Somasiri Devendra now available in all leading bookshops

By Sajitha Prematunge

The title ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon” derives from the sea-faring days of his maternal grandfather, Lloyd Aswald, who was referred to as ‘Ceylon’ by his shipmates in whichever ship he sailed in, because he was always the only Ceylonese on board. In fact, his penchant for all things water-related, from sunken archaeological treasures to vernacular watercraft, Somasiri Devendra admits, may have been inspired by his grandfather.

Although a book about watercraft, ‘A man called ‘Ceylon” does not run the risk of reading like a research paper, and as the writer himself admits in one chapter, is rather a narrative. It is by no means heady with technical jargon, and is quite readable even for those who haven’t the slightest interest in ships.

His ‘Yesterday is Another Country’ is a collection of autobiographical short stories and he edited his father’s notes about his childhood into ‘The Way We Grew’. But his personal favourite is ‘Two to Tango’, because it is intensely personal, being about his first time living in a village between age 11 and 14. ‘We must have a Navy’ never hit the bookshops because the publishing was undertaken by SL Navy and was sold out within the navy itself. He admits that ‘From Wooden Walls to Ironclads’ was a labour of love.


The book

The articles he wrote to various newspapers between books have been collected in his latest ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”. According to the Forward, the reminiscences, investigations and fantasies had been written, at different times for readers of different ages. Most of the chapters being individual articles previously published, are standalone stories in their own right and could easily be enjoyed even out of context. The book is divided roughly into two parts. The first half, ‘Waterways and Watercraft’, draws upon Devendra’s mother’s awakening of ‘the watery element’ in him. The second half of the book ‘Heritage and History’ is his father’s legacy. “Some of them are serious, some great adventures,” said Devendra, the passage titled VVT Tahiti & The Ghost of the Bounty for example. Devendra admits that the voyage of discovery took many years to put together.

VVT Tahiti & The Ghost of the Bounty is about a ship built in Jaffna, originally named ‘Annapooranymal’ and later renamed Florence C. Robinson known as a ‘tidy little vessel, built of honest workmanship and good hard-wood’ that withstood hurricanes and doldrums, fire in the galley, shredded sails, broken bilge pumps and a malfunctioning auxiliary engine. And where’s the adventure without a ‘man overboard’ scare! She was sailed by an all Jaffna crew from Valvettithurai to Boston, US. “It is the longest voyage made by a sailing ship at the time. It was last recorded to have been used in the copra trade and no further information has surfaced since then,” said Devendra.

It is all the more intriguing due to the fact that it was quite similar in design to HMS Bounty of the Mutiny on the Bounty fame. According to Devendra, it was not entirely home-grown and may also have been heavily influenced by South Indian ship building technology at the time. “There were Indo-Arab boats as well.” The fully home-grown version was the Yathra Dhoni or Maha Oruwa, last of which was Amugoda Oruwa, which perished on a reef off Male, according to the chapter ‘The Mansions of the Sea’. Each of these watercraft types have been meticulously detailed in the book. Devendra surmised that the vernacular tradition was pre-Vijayan, which originated in the forested region with large rivers in the South-West of the country.

His expertise of the watercraft is evident throughout the narrative peppered with nautical lingo such as ”Seventy-five to hundred foot freighters…rigged with jib, main and mizzen sails, rudder and a sturdy outrigger’, ‘…schooner-rigged two-master, 89′ on deck, with a 33′ jib boom…beam of 19′ and a draught of only 8’, ‘greater beam and draft…fully rigged…not a Frigate but a converted Collier…fitted with an auxiliary (50 HP Belinda Marine) engine’, so on and so forth. It may sound like gibberish to the layman, but all this talk of sunken, marooned and altogether missing ships is strangely reminiscent of the ‘The Ghost from the Grand Banks’, the 1990 science fiction novel by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. It makes one wonder if Devendra and the underwater explorer in Clarke would have hit it off instantly, had they been acquainted.

The book as a whole is a pleasurable read, notwithstanding a few typos. Even the little anecdotes that deviate completely from the main story, such as that of one-time skipper of Florence C, Sterling Hayden, who went from being a high school drop out, fisherman, ship mate, Hollywood sweetheart, to decorated war hero and finally writer, is quite intriguing. The Gujarati lore about the Ceylonese bride and the Gujarati prince is another interesting anecdote, retold in ‘The Other Princess Padma’. As the Gujarati saying goes, ‘Like a bride from Ceylon and a groom from Gujarat’, a Ceylonese princess winds up marrying a Gujarati prince, despite the Princess’ father’s best efforts to prevent it. The old WW II story, ‘The Surrender’, of how an Italian warship surrendered to Ceylonese Navy, has been sourced from an old Navy veteran. The Italian government had decided to surrender by then and all its naval units have been ordered to turn themselves into the nearest Allied Forces. It was a historic event, despite the uneventful surrender.

In ‘The Island of Fate’ Devendra explores the irksome possibility that disciplining in the colonial era depended on colour. The Cocos Island mutineers, the only dissenters who were executed, who all happened to be Ceylonese, was a case in point. A contingent of Ceylon Garrison Artillery was posted to Cocos Island off Australia in September 1939, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. They mutinied and were duly executed. The investigation undertaken by journalist Noel Crusz culminated in 2001 in the book ‘The Cocos Islands Mutiny’. Devendra has placed it in the socio-economic context of Sri Lanka at the time.

Devendra retired from the Navy in 1976, but duty called 20 years later during the war. The Chapter ‘The Forests of the Night’ is the culmination of his service in the Navy during Operation Riviresa as the Deputy Commandant of a volunteer force with a very specific goal. “Riviresa was launched with the objective of retaking Jaffna.” Devendra, et al, were tasked with raising a corps of approximately 10,000 volunteers to send to the Eastern Front, to relieve regular troops so they could be retasked in the North, a quixotic scheme he admits, with more gung-ho than common sense. After much cajoling and promises of honour, they ended up with half the number of volunteers they needed. With only three weeks left for training, the only guns available to them to train with were World War II .303 rifles and factory rejects for uniforms. But the quixotic operation, held together by a ‘string and a prayer’ actually worked and in six months Jaffna was retaken, all without losing a single volunteer.

Devendra hypothesises that the local sense of respect for trees derives from our pre-Buddhist animistic culture and an impetus was provided by the gratitude the Buddha expressed to the Bo tree. The passage ‘Caring for a tree’ explores this symbiotic relationship with trees. In it he describes how his inquisitiveness led him to discover a tombstone-like upright stone slab by the Wellawatta bridge, with indiscernible writing. As it turned out, the slab had been erected by one Sophia Marshall in 1820, before Ceylon was even a crown colony, in gratitude of a banyan tree. Perhaps she was an earlier day ‘ruk rekaganna’, mused Devendra. “What’s amazing is that someone went to the trouble of getting it carved and erected there.”

Sophia nee Brooke, daughter of St. Helena Governor, Col. Robert Brooke, married Henry Augustus Marshall and moved to Ceylon in 1798. The Banyan tree as well as Sophia is long gone but it is rather ironic that her ‘so human act of caring’ is etched in lifeless stone thus;

“To him whose gracious aim in mercy bends,

And light and shade to all alike extends,

Who guards the traveler of his weary way,

Shelters from storm and shades from solar ray,

Breathe one kind wish for her, one Pious prayer,

Who made this sheltering tree her guardian care,

Fenced in from rude attacks the pendent shoots,

Nourished and framed its tender, infant shoots,

Traveler, if from milder climes you rove

How dearly will you prize this Indian grove.

Pause then, awhile, and ere you ass it by,

Give to Sophia’s name one grateful sigh.

A.D. 1820″

The intensely visual imagery in the narrative of ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”, ‘full bellied sails’, for example, is reminiscent of his brother, Tissa Devendra’s accounts of a bygone age in ‘On Horseshoe Street: More Tales from the Provinces’, although the junior Devendra admits considerable differences in their writing style. Literary talents obviously run in the family and everyone concedes that Ransiri Menike Silva, the younger sister is by far the most prolific. Although the Devendras were, as they say, ‘English educated’, had a good taste of the village life. This is evident in their collective writings, in the authenticity of descriptions on village life, from Tissa’s ‘On Horseshoe Street’, Ransiri Menike Silva’s Worm’s Eye View to Somasiri Devendra’s ‘A man called ‘Ceylon” itself.


The man

Devendra, in his own words, is the ‘proverbial rolling stone’, a man of many talents who cannot seem to sit idle. A graduate of the first batch of University of Ceylon, now Peradeniya University, in 1955, he was a school teacher before being commissioned an Instructor Officer in the then Royal Ceylon Navy in 1960 and wound up a Commandant, Naval & Maritime Academy, Trincomalee.

Much like his brother, Tissa and sister, Ransiri Menike, who started taking writing seriously only in her 40s but went on to clinch the State Literary Award, Somasiri Devendra found his calling, archaeology, after retirement, first from the Navy, after 17 years of service, then an illustrious career as a company director. Soon after leaving the Navy and joining Somerville & Co. Ltd., Sri Lanka’s oldest firm of Share and Produce Brokers, Devendra climbed up the corporate ladder to make director. He was also a founding Director of the then fledgling Colombo Stock Exchange. “The adventures of the mercantile forest ultimately gave me heart trouble,” said Devendra.

The resourceful man that he is, Devendra did not want to spend the rest of his life idling. Consequently, he decided to take up the investigation of local maritime heritage as a full-time occupation. Few would believe that a career change at 55 is feasible, but not for Devendra, who, as a child, used to tag along with his archaeologist father, D.T. Devendra, on his excursions in search of ruins in the jungle. He defines the period after retirement, as the most fruitful period of his life. In addition to dabbling with archaeology for the first time, he wrote prolifically, anything from books to feature article to the paper.

“I started attending international conferences on archaeology of my own volition and meeting people from different parts of the world was interesting.” Devendra noted that, unlike people from most other countries, as a people, Sri Lankans were more aware of our own heritage. A pariah in the field of archaeology, notwithstanding his father’s legacy, Devendra wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. All the government institutions wanted him, because they recognised the fact that he could get things done, but couldn’t technically offer him a job, because he was over 55.

“I didn’t represent any university department, and funding restrictions were to be expected,” said Devendra. Luckily foreign institutions took note and invited him to more conferences, some even offering funding. His fascination with archaeology lead him to the most unexpected places such as Jamaica, Mozambique, Hawaii, Taiwan and Germany.

But he caught his biggest break while training a student group for the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology on underwater archaeology, in Galle, with the help of an Australian maritime museum. “The Australian trainers, who happened to have a lot of time on their hands, discovered that the Galle harbour was strewn with shipwrecks, so why not investigate they suggested,” said Devendra. He readily complied. Between 1992 and 1994, the project continued on a shoestring budget, until Minister of Cultural Affairs Lakshman Jayakody visited Galle, was impressed with the project, asked around for a point man, was directed to Devendra and later called in with an offer of funding. “It was several millions and a lot more than we could hope to squeeze out of any government department’s accounts division!” chuckled Devendra. A project plan was drawn up by Devendra and by the time the money was passed, they already had a team in place, and the money was utilised to buy much needed equipment.

From the Navy to corporate director and finally maritime archaeologist read how this multifaceted man came full circle, in ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”.


Pics by Kamal Wanniarachchi

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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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