In defence of Provincial Councils
By Dr. Nrmala Chandrahasan
The Provincial Councils, like the windmills in Cervante’s Don Quixote, are having brickbats thrown at, and cantankerous knights tilting at them. In this piece I would like to answer some of the criticisms made against the Provincial Councils. But before I do so I note that the Prime Minister has announced that the Provincial Council elections will be held once the ground situation is ready for it. This welcome statement puts paid to all the critics, it being generally acknowledged that the Prime Minister as an experienced and consummate politician would know the political climate in the country and act accordingly.
One of the frequent criticisms is that the Provincial Councils were imposed upon the Sri Lankan polity by the Government of India. To recapitulate the sequence of events, following upon the July 1983 pogrom (riots) against the Tamil citizens of the Country and the outbreak of civil unrest in Sri Lanka, the then Prime minister of India, Shrimathi Indhira Gandhi sent an envoy as part of a diplomatic initiative to find ways of bringing the country back to normalcy. A process of negotiations was begun between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka with India playing the role of an interlocutor bringing the Tamil parties and the Government of Sri Lanka to the negotiating table, in order to solve the ongoing insurgency by Tamil militants and the ethnic problem in the island through Constitutional proposals. The outcome of these negotiations were the India –Sri Lanka: Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, i. e. the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987, and the drawing up of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act no: 42 of November 1987. By virtue of these two Acts Provincial Councils were set up. The opponents of the Provincial Councils argue that it is not a homegrown institution but one imposed by a foreign power. In this connection I would refer the readers to a very informative and well-researched article by Professor Gamini Keerawella in The Island newspaper of 16th September 2020 titled “Genealogy of Concept and Genesis of 13th Amendment”, in which he traces the genesis of Provincial Councils from the Donoughmore Commission Recommendations in 1931 ,through the Regional Councils of the Bandaranaike –Chelvanayakam pact 1956 , the Dudley Senanayake –Chelvanayakam agreement, and even the promised but not forthcoming Devolution proposals made by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government before the 1974 bye-elections in Kankesanthurai. This proves that the matter of devolution and provincial councils has been on the political anvil in this country for a long time and is not a foreign imposition but a home grown one.
In fact the 13th Amendment came out of extensive discussions between the J. R .Jayewardene government and the TULF the Tamil party led by Mr. Amithalingam, in July- August 1986. Secretary to the discussion was Felix Dias Abeysinghe retired Commissioner of Elections. The indo-Sri Lanka treaty was signed one year later in July 1987. The 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act were passed in November 1987. One might say that the leverage for the passing of the 13th Amendment was the Treaty between India and Sri Lanka which provided for devolution. In the negotiations the TULF negotiating team were no match for the astute Mr. Jayewardene who outmanoeuvred them. It was only subsequently that they came to realise that the Bills as framed were below their expectations and they distanced themselves from the whole exercise. Mr Amirthalingam in a letter to Shri Rajiv Gandhi in October 1987, set out his disappointment with the two Bills, saying that contrary to the belief that the Chapter pertaining to Provincial Councils would confer on the Provinces a measure of credible autonomy,the present Bills enabled Parliament and the Central Executive to continue to exercise its authority even in respect of those powers conferred on the Province . In my view the problem lay with the Provincial Councils Act which negates many of the powers given under the 13th Amendment. This could have been, and can still be remedied by a few amendments to the Provincial Councils Act. I will return to this later.
Although the Provincial Councils and the devolution proposals were meant for the North East which were the Tamil speaking part of the country and intended to settle the ongoing armed conflict, the Jayewardene government extended the Provincial Council system to all the provinces of the country. Hence the present Provincial Council system is based not on any specific regional or ethnic criteria but is directed to all the people of the country and seeks to empower the people in their own localities be it in Jaffna or Matara. This system allows for decisions pertaining to the Provinces to be taken closer to the local people and communities and not only by politicians and bureaucrats in Colombo, i. e. the ‘Colombites’ to use a phrase coined by Gomin Dayasri. In hindsight this was a good move as it made it an all island system. Thus, we might say that the Indian intervention brought something that was beneficial to the country and to all the communities. However, foreign intervention may not always bring good results. A lesson to be learnt from this episode is that when you do not keep your house in order and there is dissension and disaffection, the neighbours and not so near neighbours will certainly want to look in, seeking to interfere and usually it is for their own benefit. If at the behest of a few people, i. e. ultranationalists and authoritarian oriented elements, we start to upset the existing political system and cause the minority communities to feel insecure and agitated it can once again lead to a situation where third parties intervene. The best policy is to keep the ship afloat, particularly in the context of the grim economic situation without destabilising the political structure by abolishing the Provincial Councils, as is being suggested in some quarters.
Another criticism made is that the province is not the appropriate unit of devolution. As a counter to this I would refer to the Majority Report of the Experts Committee appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006 to advise on the constitutional changes, and of which i was myself a member. I cite from the Report as follows, “Unit of Devolution. The group held extensive discussions on the various options and the different aspects of the options. We are of the view that a unit of devolution should as far as practicable consist of geographically contiguous territory, be conducive to balanced regional development and be designed to enhance administrative efficiency. Differences in endowments are to be expected among units. In this context, the group is of the view that the appropriate Unit of Devolution would be the Province”. I might mention that there were no members of any political party in the Experts panel which included lawyers, academics and experienced members of the judicial and administrative services and the discussions were based on factual and spatial considerations.
Another criticism made is that the Provincial Councils are like white elephants and have not been effective in delivering any services to the people while the State incurs additional expenses in keeping them running. This criticism has some substance to it and the reasons for its inability to deliver have to be examined while comparing it to similar bodies in other countries. In the United Kingdom which is a Unitary state similar powers have been devolved on the different ethnic regional units, i. e. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, (which is the Province of Ulster). All these units have their own legislative assemblies, and in the case of Scotland a Parliament while at the same time they are represented in the Parliament in West Minster. In India too which has a quasi-federal Constitution the States have a Governor and Legislative Assemblies exercising powers not very different from those set out in the 13th Amendment. In all the above instances devolution has worked efficiently and the regional/ provincial units have been able to work efficiently and deliver the required services to the people. So we have to see why Provincial Councils in Lanka have not worked so well.
To begin with in order to work efficiently adequate financial funding is required. Under the provisions of the Provincial Councils Act the Governor of the Province is given a controlling power over the finances of the province. The Provincial Council cannot pass any Statue imposing or abolishing any taxes without the consent of the Governor. Governors have not been cooperative in this regard. Hence the Councils have to depend largely on Central grants. The report of the Parliamentary Sub – Committee on Centre –Periphery Relations, November 2016, points out that in addition to the limited tax raising power vested in the Provinces are the limitations placed on obtaining loans and investments, and on seeking or at least administering projects financed by foreign aid and investments. The Committee concluded that “the corrosive effect of inadequate or unprincipled financing arrangements is that they impair Provincial and local service delivery, leading to an erosion of confidence in what are constitutionally established democratic institutions”.
The Provincial Councils Act gives the Governor control of the Provincial Public service and the provincial Public Service Commission. These are powers which even the President does not exercise over the National Public service. In Provinces where the ruling party at the Centre is also the party in control of a Provincial Council, Governors have been less assertive of their prerogatives and the Chief Ministers have been better able to operate efficiently. However, the Provincial Councils of the North and the East have had less leeway. In India on the other hand the Governors of the States act like constitutional heads and do not take over executive functions.
Another area which needs re-organization is the administrative service in the Province. The Majority Report of the Experts Committee 2006, recommended that for devolution of power to be effective it should be devoid of duality and hence there should be a restructuring of the administration in the Provincial. Another matter of concern is that of the allocation of subjects. Although the 13th Amendment sets out the allocation of subjects between the Province and the Centre in two lists and a third concurrent list, there are overlapping powers and the Provincial area of competence has come to be circumscribed. In order to function efficiently there has to be clarity in the allocation of subjects and this too is a matter which has to be looked into. I have outlined the shortcomings of the Provincial Council system which have impeded their efficient functioning. Most of these stem from the Provincial Councils Act . This Act can be amended by a simple majority in Parliament. The administrative changes and restructuring of the administrative services in the Province can be done by gazette notifications by the President as provided for in the 13th Amendment itself. This will not need any major constitutional changes.
Despite its shortcomings and the restrictions and encroachments by the Central Government, the Provincial Council system has taken root in the Country. It provides for people to enter into and engage in political activity at the Provincial level. Persons who have gained experience of political issues at the local level can thereafter gravitate to the national level. The minorities Tamil and Muslim are able to feel that they have some say in the management of their own affairs and within their localities. This is a safety valve which is necessary in any multi- ethnic state, as we see in the United Kingdom (UK) where the ethnic Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have devolution of powers in respect of their local areas. Without attempting to do away with the Provincial Council System it should be implemented in full while making the necessary changes through amendments and administrative action, so as to make them more efficient in the delivery of services to the people in their localities.
Provincial Councils have been part of the Sri Lankan Constitution for over 30 years. It is time the bureaucrats in Colombo and the government ministers stopped viewing them with suspicion or antipathy, and saw them as supportive institutions in the governance of the country, making for a more efficient administration and a more democratic form of governance for the whole country. The Tamil parties could, by working towards meaningful devolution and further empowered systems of Provincial Councils and Local Authorities, become engaged in a process that is in the national interest while promoting the aspirations and interests of the Tamil speaking people. It is to be hoped that the Provincial Council elections will be held early in the coming year and the continuity of the existing political system maintained.
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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