Cops, criminals, and cultural contours
By Uditha Devapriya
In Michael Mann’s Heat, one of the best heist thrillers ever made, the protagonist is a cop called Hanna, played by Al Pacino. The other character, a thief called McCauley, is played by Robert de Niro. Hanna and McCauley meet for the first time at the end of the first half of the movie. Hanna, who works for the LAPD, has been investigating a series of high-profile crimes for days. He guesses McCauley is the culprit, but has no real proof.
Convinced that he is the man they are looking for, Hanna tails him one night and gets him to pull over. Instead of arresting him, though, he offers to buy McCauley coffee. They then go over to a diner, where the two of them sit in front of each other.
What unfolds thereafter is not a conversation, but a charade. The detective and the thief start talking at cross-purposes. Weary, numbed, and tempered by the weight of their work, they engage in casual banter. Like countless conversations from a Jean-Luc Godard film, this doesn’t make sense; they ramble on and on, and then suddenly stop.
It is when we step back and reflect on these two that we realise what the scene is trying to tell us: the detective has come to a point in his career where he depends on the thieves he tails. It’s the same story with the other guy: he’s been involved in so many crimes that he’s almost relieved to talk to a man of the law. Their meeting is thus marked out less by hostility than by empathy. It’s a meeting of the minds.
The face-off is intriguing to me because it reminds me of a similar conversation from a film made 25 years earlier, in Sri Lanka. D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara also pits a police-officer against a criminal, this time a drug kingpin. In the scene I am talking about, that officer, like Al Pacino’s detective, encounters the kingpin in full form at his office. By this point each of them has realised what the other wants: like the lawyer and his ex-client in Cape Fear, each knows only too well that the other is seeking the upper hand.
The sequence at the police station establishes this relationship. As one salty witticism gives way to another, we sense the revulsion underlying the conversation; the two are talking at cross-purposes, only barely concealing their contempt for each other.
Yet while the scene serves a different function from the diner episode in Heat – whereas the latter sequence shows how dependent the cop has become on the thief, here it reveals the hostility between the two men – it stands out almost like the other does. That has much to do, I think, with the acting: neither Al Pacino nor Robert de Niro had made much of a name for themselves when Welikathara came out, but seeing Gamini Fonseka play the cop and Joe Abeywickrama the criminal, you do tend to compare. To make such a comparison is to acknowledge that Welikathara represented a high point for our cinema.
may well be the most Americanised Sinhala film ever made. Whereas most Sinhala films had been distinctly continental until then, hardly any director had ventured into Hollywood territory. What makes Nihalsinghe’s film fascinating, in that sense, is how far he conceived its story along the lines of a typical American thriller.
My interest in the movie as a critic, however, has less to do with its cinematic merit than the spotlight it throws on an era when such cosmopolitan objets d’art were more the norm than the exception. Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Nihalsinghe’s film, I felt it apt to ponder why, from achieving such heights then, we have slid down so badly now.
Perhaps it’s best that we restate the problem: how could the kind of acting exemplified in a movie like Heat become the norm there today, whereas the sort exemplified in Welikathara has turned out to be the dismal exception here? I am not just suggesting that our art forms have deteriorated in quality – though this is exactly what has happened – but that there are many reasons that can explain such a decline. Where have our arts gone? Why hasn’t it still realised its potential? What can revive it? Who can revive it?
The importance of these questions cannot be emphasised enough. A society’s popular culture is a fairly accurate gauge of its intellectual achievements. It is true that this remains a function of economic position; hence rich countries have more potential for high cultural achievements, whereas poorer countries do not. Yet that is not necessarily the case all the time: the Indian film industry, to give one example, is considerably more diverse, and much richer, than its counterparts in countries like Singapore.
India is a case in point for the view that the greater the size of the population, the more sophisticated a country’s popular culture will be. But that also is not always the case: as the recent resurgence in African cinema shows, a big population does not in itself contribute to the upliftment of a culture to the exclusion of more pertinent factors.
This is not to say that issues of economic development or population are secondary to those other factors. Affluent countries can afford superior works of art, while poorer countries (of which India is a prime example) are able to do so with a public that patronises commercial works of art, which helps subsidise more serious ventures. In that sense, the US enjoys the twin advantage of a powerful economy and a large audience.
But to acknowledge these points is not to deny the relevance of other reasons for the growth or decline of artistic standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, any attempt at diagnosing the problems of its culture must hence start from an appraisal of the post-1980 decline in the arts: a phenomenon reducible to neither economics nor demographics.
Three schools of thought have attempted to explain this decline. The first school views 1956 as the reason: by empowering everyone to enter our schools and universities, so their logic goes, cultural and artistic standards were compromised. That is another way of saying that if schools and universities remained shut to poorer classes, those standards would have been protected and fostered by an elite minority.
The second school argues that with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1978, the government’s hold over artistic quality was loosened, thereby debasing cultural yardsticks, transforming lowbrow into middlebrow art, and raising the latter to the status of highbrow art. To invert Marx’s dictum, what was once profane now became sacred.
I personally think this argument holds more water than the first – not least because the first school tries to frame 1956 as avoidable, which it was not, and fails to distinguish between its progressive and regressive aspects, which should not be done – but it does not explain a point the third school dwells on: the debasement of our education system because of, and paradoxically in spite of, various reforms enacted after 1956.
This is where the line between the progressive and regressive aspects of what transpired that year must be drawn: though there was a need to democratise schools and universities and they were democratised, barring crucial reforms in the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike government (pioneered by a set of brilliant educationists and scholars like Neil Kuruppu and Douglas Walatara) no attempts were made to maintain quality in them.
The results are there for all to see today: while certain schools and universities produce better thinkers than others, one does not come across such thinkers as often as one would want. That these trends have spilled over to the performing arts is a no-brainer: we don’t produce original artists too often either. “Manike Mage Hithe” offers the promise of what Sri Lanka’s popular culture should be, but such ventures are rare.
The third school consolidates the arguments of the first and the second: it acknowledges concerns over the negative aftershocks of 1956, as the first school does, while tracing the trajectory of cultural decline to the period after 1980, when the abandonment of the United Front education reforms multiplied those aftershocks, as the second school does.
Any critique of the country’s less than brilliant cultural scene today should take into account these factors when proposing viable solutions. In particular, it should identify exactly quality has come down and how best we can go about improving it.
It is fashionable to say that Sri Lanka’s cultural standards remained high until 1956. To me though, this is a deeply fallacious argument: a comprador society, which is what prevailed before 1956, does not produce a genuine culture. A culture must dig deep in search of roots. The problem is not that such a search stunted artistic development in the country, as those who idealise the pre-1956 status quo think, but rather that it did not go deep enough. That paved way for a massive flaw in our education system: the delinking of the performing arts from their literary roots, slowly since 1956 and more rapidly since 1980.
What I am arguing here is that as actors, directors, and even scriptwriters, we don’t read as much as we used to. In saying that, I am not denying there are other problems we have to look into with respect to Sri Lanka’s popular culture. But as the central issue, this problem requires immediate resolution. The sooner we realise our priorities there, the sooner we will be able to address a deplorable, though no less reversible, decline in artistic standards. All it takes to confirm the reality of such a decline, of course, is to see Welikathara, see Heat, and then ask why we used to have it so good, and how far back we have fallen today.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
UNESCO, the Cultural Triangle and some forunate contacts in Paris
Excerpted from volume ii of the
Sarath Amunugama autobiography
UNESCO’s involvement with the Sri Lankan Cultural Triangle project was a milestone in our mutual relationship. It focused attention on the Sinhala cultural heritage, brought substantial funding from UN agencies to our culture sector, hastened the restoration of ancient monuments and conserved the visual heritage of the country.
The single most important official in this monumental endeavour was Roland Silva, Commissioner of Archeology and a member of the high level UNESCO committee on cultural conservation. While there was direct UN investment in this project it, also attracted bi-lateral support from countries likeIndia, France and China. This project must be recognized as a singular achievement of the JRJ regime though many tend to overlook it now.
It gave me the opportunity to meet some of the, best international journalists who covered this story when I was the Secretary of the media ministry. The most memorable was my interaction with Sir Denis Hamilton, editor of the London Times and the Chairman of Reuters. Our High Commissioner in London at that time was Noel Wimalasena, a leading Kandy politician and a longtime friend of my father. Wimalasena wrote to me personally stressing the importance of Hamilton’s visit as he was a top class `mandarin’ in the British establishment.
After discussing Wimalasena’s letter with JRJ I decided to personally accompany Denis and his wife Olive on their Sri Lankan tour. Denis Hamilton was a pillar of the British establishment. During the second world war he had served as ADC to General (later, Field Marshall) Montgomery. He was the executor of Monty’s will and the custodian of his papers. Denis was recuperating from a bruising trade union battle with his print workers over changes introduced in the Times which was earlier a hidebound paper of the establishment.
He had to oversee the transfer of its printing works to Canary Wharf on the orders of Rupert Murdoch the owner of the newspaper. It was a bruising battle with the Trade Unions which had sapped his strength. A sackful of the latest literary offerings from London accompanied him on the holiday which began with a week’s relaxation at Bentota Beach hotel. At that time John Keells was the leading hotelier in the country and a tour was arranged through them.
After a week I went to Bentota and with Denis and his wife went on to Kandy. From there we went to Wilpattu circuit bungalow and were lucky to see many leopards. In Wilpattu while sleeping Denis had nightmares about the war and the killings in El Alamein. So we slept late and left for Anuradhapura where the work on the Cultural triangle was to be inaugurated by President JRJ.
It was an impressive ceremony and Denis was also invited to participate, by the UNESCO bigwigs who were overawed by the presence of the Editor of the London Times being on hand to launch the project. We had dinner with JRJ that night. The President after a discussion about his admiration for the Times asked Denis whether he wanted to know anything about the country from him. The answer amused him no end. Denis replied, “No, Sarath has told us everything”.
JRJ laughingly replied, “Surely there must be something more that the President of the country can tell you?” We all laughed and I was amazed at the civility and generosity of all concerned which was a characteristic of their cultured upbringing. It was ti memorable visit by two of the finest and gentlest human being I have ever encountered. On their returning to London I received the following cable; “Back in London and my office first time today. Most grateful thanks to you all from us both for a memorable stay and the friendship formed. Have written to your President and your Minister and looking forward seeing you in the spring; Denis Hamilton”.
When I next went to London they picked me up from my hotel and took me to dinner in the Cafe Royal. It was a wonderful friendship. They are both dead now, Denis from a stomach cancer, but I cherish the memory of them and the happy times we spent together both here and in London. The restoration of the Abhayagiriya or Jetawana dagoba which was inaugurated that day stands as a monument to all those who participated in the Cultural Triangle project which has given new life to our beliefs about the great ancient civilization of Anuradhapura which in its time influenced the whole of Asia and beyond.
It is a solid achievement of the JRJ administration which his successors have not had the imagination to improve upon and publicize to the world. When I was Secretary in charge of tourism I initiated a project with Japanese investors to build a hotel in Anuradhapura for Japanese reli
gious tourists. Land was earmarked for it but after July 1983 there were no takers for this project.
Both Bhikkus Walpola Rahula and Kosgoda Sobhita had good relations with the Buddhist scholars of the Sorbonne. Among these savants were Andre Bareau and Jean Filliozat who were well renowned scholars of Theravada Buddhism. Most other Buddhist scholars had concerned themselves with Mahayana. This is not surprising since the French colonies in the east [‘Extreme Orient’ in their writings] like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were Mahayanistic in religion.
Many of the scholars I associated with in the Sorbonne had spent time in the French colonies as teachers, librarians and archivists. They were Sanskritists since Mahayanist literature was mostly in Sanskrit or in the local languages. The French colonial system encouraged research into archaeology and religion in their outposts.
For instance Andre Malreaux, the celebrated French writer and de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, lived in China and the French colonies in the ‘Extreme Orient’ and wrote his early novels with an Asian background. Jacques Soustelle, de Gaulle’s first Minister of Information was an archaeologist who wrote the famous book ‘The Voice of Silence’. The Musee Guimet in the Trocadero which displays a fabulous collection of art and sculptures from the Extreme Orient was setup by two French brothers who did business in Cambodia and Vietnam.
One day I was visited in my home by Collette Caillart, the Sanskritist and other scholars from the Extreme Orient Department of the Sorbonne. The French educational bureaucrats had proposed the reduction of funds to their division in order to strengthen Arabic studies for which there was a great demand at that time. My visitors wanted me to intervene with UNESCO and the Sri Lankan government to save their field of study from emasculation.
I did take it up and just like in London University where the Sinhala department was saved, we managed to stave off trouble at least in the short term much to the satisfaction of my friends in academia. While the French University system is generally referred to as being related to the Sorbonne by the general public, in reality after the student riots in the time of de Gaulle it underwent drastic
angel. These reforms which are attributed to de Gaulle’s Prime Minister, and later successor, Georges Pompidou broke up the University of Paris into five successor Universities.
Thus students were attached to one of the five new Universities of Paris. This allowed for the absorption of a larger number of students and teachers who were earlier deprived of a stable engagement and were therefore violence prone. After the Pompidou reforms there have been no student riots for over half a century. Rahula and Sobhita were Sorbonne professors who with UNESCO and the CNRS formed an admired and respected academia on Buddhist studies which made Paris a center of interest in the Western world.
This was a far from the Sinhala Buddhist Vihare which tended to cater to the immediate ritualistic needs of the growing Sinhala expatriate community in Paris, especially their womenfolk and children. It a link in a chain of similar temples in all parts of Western Europe and the US. The monks themselves had established networks which allowed them to travel all over Europe and the US. So for every celebration like Wesak we played host several young monks who went sightseeing in Paris.
They we entertained by their kinsmen from their native villages who we now well settled in Paris. Time and again I was introduced to monks who had come from my friends’ respective villages. Both Rahula and Sobhita gave them a wide berth. One unfortunate aspect was that many of these young monks did not bother to learn western languages or the manner of delivering sermons that their seniors practiced. They were content to function as the did in their villages and often created conflicts in the expatriated community.
Of course this was not true of a few young monks who studied the dhamma and were held in high regard both by their worshippers and the academic community. However the respect that Rahula and Sobhita earned through their erudition has been lost and monks get by with local community services and seeking political patronage from home – a tendency which would have, horrified Walpola Rahula and those Sorbonne savants who did so much to profile Buddhism in Paris as an outstanding philosophic quest. Of late hardly any new works on Theravada has come from France which was once its European epicenter.
Ecole Des Hautes Etudes En Sciences Sociale
Another aspect of the French higher educational system was the establishment of ‘Ecoles’ of Advanced Studies. For the social sciences the most prestigious was the EHESS which was located in Boulevard Raspail. The Director of the EHESS when I enrolled in it for a doctorate in social anthropology was Louis Dumont who was one of the world’s outstanding anthropologists specializing in South Asian society and religion. The only other world class French anthropologist at that time was Claude Levi Strauss who was teaching at the College de France. By a strange coincidence I had become a friend of Louis Dumont even before I came to Paris and the EHESS.
When I was the Director of Information in Sri Lanka in about 1970, Dumont walked into my office in Colombo with a request. He was on an Asian tour on behalf of the fledgling EHESS, to collect fugitive material for its library in Paris. Since I was the officer responsible for the Government Publications Bureau he needed my consent to buy a stock of publications available in the Bureau. Dumont must have got a pleasant shock when I immediately recognized him as one of my academic heroes and quickly arranged to have the books sold to him.
It must have been a busy day for our sleepy Publications Bureau. He was staying at the Samudra Hotel and I invited him for drinks and dinner. We had a pleasant evening discussing academic matters and particularly talking about my teacher Tambiah whose essay on kinship and marriage was used by Dumont in support of his theory of ‘marriage alliances’. We became friends and I would visit him in his small apartment in Rue de Bac in the Latin Quarter when visiting Paris for UNESCO meetings.
He supported my application to register for a doctorate at his ‘Ecole’ and exempted me from some preliminary steps as I had a Master of Arts degree from the University of Regina. He helped me to get around the academic bureaucracy of the EHESS. When I met him last in his apartment he had retired and was getting ready to leave for his country residence away from Paris. Before that he introduced me to his chief disciple Jean-Claude Galay, a brilliant young anthropologist, who was to be my supervisor, together with Eric Meyer, the economic historian whose area of specialization was Sri Lanka.
My three year academic odyssey at the EHESS with its gathering of brilliant Young scholars of South Asia, is an unforgettable and pleasant episode in my life. By this time my family had arrived in Paris and I moved house from north Paris to Rue Jean Daudin in the most fashionable district of Paris which was only a stone’s throw away from my office in Rue Miollis. It saved me hours of travel time to office and EHESS.
My friend Dilip Padgoankar and wife Lotika were going back to India and their flat fell vacant. Dilip – a ‘bon vivant’ who later became the Editor of the Times of India and advisor to the Indian Government on Kashmir, had chosen well. As M’Bow’s media spokesman he was on call all, the time and had to live close to his boss’s office. Thanks to his recommendation I managed to secure that flat. It was spacious,,- enough to accommodate me, my wife and two children, and was close to good restaurants, cinemas and theatres.
Many children of UNESCO staff lived in the vicinity and they all went to the same schools so that the neighborhood was congenial. For instance, Varuni had a friend who was the daughter of a sister of the Shah of Iran who was in exile, living in a mansion close by. Another friend Mohammed Musa was the son of M’Bow’s advisor from Nigeria. Ramanika’s best friend was the daughter of a senior Indian professional in the science sector of UNESCO. All in all it was a stress free life wherein I could easily handle my official duties as well as academic pursuits with ease. From our Metro station Segur, it took me less than ten minutes to get to EHESS on the Boulevard Raspail.
JAYANTHA DHANAPALA (1938 – 2023)
by Tissa Jayatilaka
The splendid career and the many glittering prizes won by Jayantha Dhanapala is common knowledge and does not require reiteration here. Rather I wish to focus on the man himself in this tribute to an exceptional person whom I had the privilege of getting to know personally at the tail end of the 1980s – I had of course heard of Jayantha and his many accomplishments long before our first meeting. Having read a newspaper review of North-South Perspectives, an international affairs journal that I edited, which focused on the promotion of greater understanding between the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing’ world, Jayantha telephoned me to ask if we could meet. I readily agreed and thus began a friendship that lasted until his death a few days ago.
Although I had not known at the time of that first meeting of ours, I soon learnt that encouraging those of the younger generation to contribute their mite to the betterment of Sri Lanka and the world outside of her shores was a priority for Jayantha. In the process, he enabled those of us who came into contact with him to better ourselves in order to continue to give of our best. In his appreciation of Jayantha ‘s life and career, former diplomat A.L.A. Azeez (who joined the Sri Lanka foreign service in 1992) talks at length of the marvellous role of guide and mentor of younger colleagues, including himself, that Jayantha played throughout his days in the foreign service.
In the same spirit, after his retirement from the UN and upon his return to Sri Lanka, he served as a Trustee and member of the Board of Advisers of Sri Lanka Unites, mentoring a local youth movement dedicated to the transformation of Sri Lanka to a land free of religious and ethnic strife. He was involved from the inception in the establishment of the Friday Forum, an informal and self- financed group of older citizens dedicated to democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law.
Our friendship grew over the years, I happen to think, because we shared much in common. We both schooled and spent our formative years in Kandy– he at Trinity in the 1950s and I at Kingswood in the 1960s. Later he and I both entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya at different times, given that he was a decade older, where we both read for the Special Degree in English. His extra-curricular activities at Peradeniya, like mine, included sports– rugger in his case and cricket in mine– and theatre. We both took part in plays, held office and were participants in the diverse activities of the University Drama Society (DramSoc).
Jayantha and I shared a fondness for the spoken and written word and combined our resources in this area. We jointly edited A Garland for Ashley: Glimpses of a life celebrating the life of Ashley Halpe and His 50 Years of University Teaching (2008). He was instrumental in making me the editor of SIRIMAVO – Honouring the world’s first woman prime minister (2010) for which publication he wrote an excellent essay on The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. He contributed a chapter titled, A City Upon a Hill for Excursions and Explorations Cultural Encounters Between Sri Lanka and the United States that I put together in 2002. He reviewed Peradeniya: Memories of a University (1997) that I jointly edited with Silva.
Jayantha served as keynote speaker while I introduced the publication at the launch of the late Tissa Abeysekera’s collection of essays on culture and the arts titled, Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences (2007). A couple of years ago, Jayantha and I teamed up one more time to write an essay titled, A Study in ‘Creative Compassion’ for The Fourth Lion – Essays for Gopalkrishna GANDHI (2021) edited by Venu Madhav Govindu and Srinath Raghavan.
In the 1990s, when our friendship had matured to an extent that I could ask the Dhanapalas for a personal favour, I would on certain of my regular visits to the United States, stay with Maureen and Jayantha whenever they were free of pressing official commitments. I stayed with them in Washington while he was our ambassador (1995-1997) and later in New York when he was serving as Under-Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003). In New York, they would book tickets in advance for plays on Broadway to make my visits even more enjoyable. Their friendship and warm hospitality knew no bounds. I also recall a visit to the UN with my wife Lilani and our daughter Lara when Jayantha hosted us to lunch at a restaurant in the premises of the UN headquarters.
No account of Jayantha would be complete without a reference to the solid and sensitive supporting role played by Maureen in his life and career. She was a superb fellow-traveller who had known Jayantha from a very young age and were fellow undergraduates at Peradeniya as well. If marriages, as we are told, are indeed made in heaven, then theirs undoubtedly would be one of them. They were an extremely compatible and congenial pair to the very end. After their return to Sri Lanka, we had the opportunity to meet Jayantha and Maureen in more relaxed settings over food and drink, either at our home or theirs or in the homes of common friends.
Lilani and I went up to Kandy to spend a long- promised weekend with our senior colleagues and intimate friends Gananath and Ranjini Obeyesekere at April’s end. Knowing of our strong desire to meet Jayantha and Maureen during our visit and, as all of us were close mutual friends, our kind and thoughtful hosts invited the Dhanapalas to lunch at their lovely home. It was when we sat to lunch that it struck me that all six of us around the table, belonging to different eras, had been through the Department of English and read for the Special Degree in English at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya which later became the University of Peradeniya. Little did we know that one of us would be gone in less than a month and not be around for another meeting over lunch! Impermanence is all.
My one time teacher (he taught Lilani too, in later years), senior colleague in Peradeniya’s Department of English and close friend, Professor Thiru Kandiah, and his wife Indranee, have shared a friendship of much longer standing with the Dhanapalas. Thiru was a year senior to Jayantha at Peradeniya while Indranee and Maureen who had been schoolmates and close friends at Girl’s High School, Kandy, resumed their friendship at a later date at Peradeniya. Their fathers had been members of the Trinity College staff, very close friends and neighbours. Trinity’s Lemuel House was founded when Jayantha was a student at the school with Indranee’s father, the illustrious teacher and Head Master Mr. R.L Kannangara in charge. Jayantha was one of the most outstanding of Lemuel and Indranee’s father soon came to respect and, also like him very much.
The Kandiahs now live in Perth, Australia and realising that they may be unaware of Jayantha’s passing, I wrote to inform them of the sad event. Soon there was a rapid exchange of emails amongst us and I found myself in total agreement with their assessment of the Dhanapalas.
Here is Thiru on Jayantha:
Jayantha was held in especially high esteem and regard by absolutely everybody. This was not least for the obvious brilliance of his mind. But closely allied with that, there was in addition this very distinctive way in which he tended to come across to people in his interactions with them- as of his very nature a signally intellectual sort of person: always impeccably reasoned, and very definitely and firmly so, if in an unostentatious and quietly unassertive, also exemplarily courteous, manner that lent him great dignity; with the unmistakable integrity of the positions he adopted on matters and what he stood for adding considerable power to the strikingly impressive impact he had on people.
Indranee’s pertinent observation is that Maureen is as good natured as she is beautiful and gentle and that the school, “could not have found a better head prefect than her”. She goes on to say that Maureen’s father was a very caring and helpful person and her mother, a gentle and gracious lady. These are sentiments that deserve to be widely shared and hence my doing so.
All in all, Jayantha Dhanapala was a formidable personality, though, never aggressive or unapproachable. He was friendly and unfailingly courteous at all times. I wish to end this tribute with another most appropriate quote from Thiru Kandiah:
Much will, I am sure, be said and written of Jayantha at this time of his leaving us. But the man we were fortunate know and whom we had such affection and respect for will remain in our hearts and minds as long as we are around.
Royal-Thomian dance nearly cost me job of Secretary of Prohibition Commission
Excerpted from A Cabinet Secretaries Memoirs by BP Pieris
(Continued from last week)
In July, 1950, I was asked to be, in addition to my own duties, Secretary-General to the Standing Committee of the Commonwealth Consultative Committee, which went on till September. This was a follow up of the Colombo Plan. The Secretariat was housed in the Cabinet office and work went on each day till about midnight. The Police were on duty to prevent access by strangers, and they were kind enough to provide a van to take the members of my staff to their homes after the day’s work was over as no public transport was available at that time.
The Ceylon Delegation consisted of A. G. Ranasinha, K. Williams, R. Coomaraswamy and N. J. Jansz. All the other Commonwealth countries were represented and they worked out the details of implementing the Colombo Plan. It was at one of these meetings that two of the delegates nearly came to blows. An afternoon meeting had been adjourned at 5 p.m. to resume at 9 p.m. to enable delegates to attend a cocktail party.
On resumption, some of the delegates appeared not to be in a mood to carry on a “sober” and level-headed discussion. In vino, the most innocent observation can be misunderstood. And it was unfortunate that the exchange of words took place between the two senior delegates of two of the most senior Dominions of the Commonwealth. “What did you mean by that?” asked one delegate of the other. The other said “I have used plain English words and, if you don’t know the meaning, look up a dictionary.”
The first, grabbing the arms of his chair and going red in his already very tomato face, said “Will you repeat that?” and then the meeting heard the cool, calm voice of the Chairman, A. G. Ranasinha, saying “Gentlemen, we are all very tired. I am sleepy. Hadn’t we better adjourn now and meet tomorrow morning?” The next day, one of the other delegates asked me “Why do you Ceylonese chaps make, such good Chairmen?”
My next assignment, in 1951, was more important. It was as Secretary-General to the Consultative Committee on Economic Development in South and South-East Asia. Ranasinha was again unani-
mously elected Chairman and the following countries were represented: Australia 2, Burma 2, Cambodia 2, Canada 4, Ceylon 2, India 4, Indonesia 2, New Zealand 2, Pakistan 3, Philippines 2, Thailand 1, United Kingdom 6, United States of America 2, Vietnam 2, International Bank 1 and the Technical Bureau 1.
I was given two assistants, Mrs Imogen Kannangara and Miss Canakaratne, who knew shorthand, a daughter of Mr Justice Canakaratne. My assistants found great difficulty in taking down what the American delegate said because we were not used to the American way of speaking English. I therefore asked Miss Canakaratne to sit with her notebook immediately behind the American delegate’s chair and take down in shorthand all that he said. The other lady made a note in longhand and naturally there were discrepancies in the two versions which I, as Secretary-General, had to reconcile.
The proceedings were in English which language the Cambodian delegate did not understand. He spoke only French and refused to attend the meetings after the first as there was no French translator at the meeting. I wonder what would have happened if the Ceylonese delegate had insisted on addressing the meeting in our official language.
A number of proposals for a continuing organization was placed before the meeting, but it was considered premature to determine precise arrangements until the size and scope of the external finance available to the countries were better known. The meeting agreed that the representatives of the various countries should meet by mutual consent, at least once a year, and that a small secretariat should be established.
The President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, by letter, informed the meeting that the Bank welcomed the opportunity to cooperate with the Governments in the preparation of their development programmes and in financing as large a part of those programmes as each country’s creditworthiness would allow. All the richer countries were willing to help. I reproduce an extract of a speech made in the Canadian Parliament by Mr Lester Pearson:
“We must also do what we can to improve the economic conditions and human welfare in Free Asia. We must try to work with, rather than against, the forces struggling for a better life in that part of the world. Such cooperation may in the long run become as important for the defence of freedom – and therefore for the defence of Canada – as sending and army to Europe, in the present immediate emergency.
“Many members in the House will have read the Colombo Plan for cooperative economic development in South-East Asia. This imaginative and, I think, well-founded report, which was published last November, as a result of the work of the Commonwealth Consultative Committee, points the way to the kind of effective assistance which we in the West can offer to the free peoples of Asia. They stand in very great need of capital for economic development and of technical assistance.
“For Canada to supply either the capital or the technical assistance in any substantive volume would mean considerable sacrifice, now that the demands of our defence programme are imposing new strains on our economy. On the other hand, I personally have been struck by the modesty and good sense which such countries as India and Pakistan have shown in drawing up plans for their own development for the next six years.
“The countries of South and South-East Asia which have drawn up programmes for inclusion in the report with populations involved including nearly one quarter of the population of the world state that they require, over the six year period, external finance to the amount of three billion dollars, the greater part of which will be supplied by the release of sterling balances in London.
“I believe that a Canadian contribution to these programmes, even if it has to be smaller than we might be able to make if we were not bearing other and heavy burdens, would have a great effect, not only in doing something to improve the standard of living in that part of the world, but also in convincing the people there of our sympathy and our interest. It is for these reasons, Mr Speaker, that the Government has decided to seek the approval of the House for an appropriate Canadian contribution to the Colombo Plan.”
The Conference ended, after the customary farewell speeches, with a cocktail party at the Chairman’s house.
I was next appointed as Secretary to the Prohibition Commission. It happened at one of Sir John’s Cabinet meetings. I, as Secretary, sat on the right of the Prime Minister, and next to me was the Home Minister, A. Ratnayake, who was in charge of Excise. Without presenting a Cabinet Paper, the Minister asked orally that a commission be appointed to inquire into the question of Prohibition and Gambling, including Racing.
The Prime Minister, addressing Ratnayake, and patting me on the back, said “Yes, Ratty, I’ll give you the most efficient secretary you can have”. Ratnayake, who was taken completely by surprise when a matter of such importance was decided so quickly, inquired – who the secretary was to be, and, Sir John, again patting my back said “Our friend here, man”. Ratnayake protested and said that as Excise was his subject, he surely should be allowed to select the secretary.
It was obvious that he had something to say against me, and one Minister suggested that I should leave the room for a moment. When I was recalled a few minutes later, the Prime Minister said “Well, Peiris, you are the Secretary. Carry on and do a good job.”
I was curious to find out what Ratnayake had against me, but I did not like to ask any of the Ministers. When the meeting was over and I had got back to my room, my telephone rang. Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan, Minister of Housing, who retired from the public service as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, and whom I knew very well, was at the other end of the line.
He said “Now, Percy, that you are the Prohibition Secretary, remember not to dance in public on Royal-Thomian nights.” I was amazed. I asked him whether t that was all that Ratnayake had to say against me, and he said “Yes”.
Which leads me to the story of my dance. My only child, a daughter who passed her Senior School Certificate Examination at the age of 15 decided to follow a course in agriculture and animal husbandry at the Girls’ Farm School at Kundasale. When the vacation was due, she asked me whether she might invite about six other girls home for the holidays and I readily agreed.
The girls were trained and used to a fairly rough life; – they could cook, run a house, sleep on mats on the floor, and were not likely to cause us any inconvenience. They came. In the evenings, I used to sit at the piano and play for them while they did a sowing and reaping dance. I watched them carefully for some days, got the e hang of the dance, and used to practice the steps and the body movements in the privacy of the bathroom.
Soon I was confident that I could perform the dance in public and bought a set of foot-bells. A niece of mine gave me a full length green skirt and a black blouse into which I used to stuff about a dozen handkerchiefs at the appropriate places.
On the night preceding the opening day of the Royal-Thomian match, there has always been a stag party in the College grounds, attended by about 600 old boys. That year, there was a large bar which was well patronized. There was no hired orchestra. Music was supplied by the old boys in turn. One would sit at the piano, another would take up a fiddle, a third a saxophone and someone else would sit at the drums.
The drink had to be carefully looked after because, if it was left unattended for a moment, it was pinched. On the night in question, I wanted to go with my skirt, blouse and handkerchiefs, but my daughter advised against it as the skirt needed a lot of fixing with safety pins and there would be no one to fix it for me. I therefore carried the foot-bells in my pocket.
Suddenly I heard what I call “my piece” being played. I threw my shoes, tied the bells, mounted the platform, and danced. It was appreciated by all. There were eight ministers, including Ratnayake, in the hall waiting for dinner. After my dance, I walked up to their table with my drink in my hand to show them that it was not an excess of alcohol that made me perform. The Minister of Justice, Wikramanayake said “B. P., I am going to move in the next Cabinet that your salary be enhanced in view of your added qualifications.” Minister of Lands Bulankulama. Dissawe said that he did not know that I had such a supple body. That was the spirit in which my act was taken, and it nearly cost me my Prohibition Secretaryship.
One of the first things the Prohibition Commissioners did was to address the Governor-General requesting that the remuneration payable to them should be regarded as a nontaxable allowance for meeting out of pocket expenses. I advised against the move because it gave the impression that the Commissioners were more concerned about the safeguarding of their financial interests than sitting down to the task which had been entrusted to them.
The question was one which they should have raised before they accepted their appointments. In the second place, if the request had been granted, it would have necessitated an amendment of the Income Tax Ordinance, and the same concession would have had to be extended to other Commissions then sitting, and which would be appointed in the future.
The principle that payment to members of Commissions should be regarded as remuneration and therefore taxable had been accepted for several years. I had to point all these matters out when the Governor-General referred the Commissioners’ letter to the Cabinet for advice: the advice was that the request should not be granted.
As I was also, at this time, the Secretary to the Cabinet, the Commissions found it difficult to fix the days for its sittings. Cabinet meetings are summoned at short notice. The Commission’s sittings had to be fixed well in advance because witnesses giving evidence had to be notified in time. If both meetings fell on the same day, the Commission would have been without a Secretary, as I would have had to attend the Cabinet. The Commission, therefore, asked for a full-time Secretary to attend to their work.
Sir John did not agree to this; he wanted me to continue as Secretary, and gave them a full-time Assistant, Shantikumar Tampoe Phillips, a young Civil Servant and an English Honours man. Between the two of us, we wrote a ‘suitable’ report, I writing the legal chapters and he the rest, which amounted to about three-quarters of the whole. I am not too shy to say that it is a well-written report but the credit and praise for it must go to Phillips.
We examined the history of nearly every country in which total or partial prohibition had been tried: the United States of America, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, even Russia under the Czarist regime, and an Islamic country like Turkey. Everywhere, it had been a sorry record of failure. The story of prohibition in India is known to all. With this world picture before us, the Commission came to the conclusion that prohibition could not be successfully enforced in Ceylon.
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