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M. CHANDRASOMA, CCS

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by Parakrama Chandrasoma

Tissa Chandrasoma lived a wonderfully eventful life. He was the epitome of the generation of children who began schooling in their small villages and sought higher education in Colombo. The post-independence leaders of the country were mostly born from this group.

The first part of this transition was magnificent for Tissa. He met and married my mother in University College, Colombo and entered the elite Ceylon Civil Service. After service in Kandy, Badulla, Kegalle, Puttalam and Gampaha, he returned to Colombo to work under Sir John Kotelawala in the Ministry of Communications. He replaced the departing British head of the Customs and Port Commission, the first Sri Lankan after Independence to hold a job vital to the economy of a country then dependent on the export of one product. There, he reached the pinnacle of his career, very much in the public eye, living in splendour and traveling the world.

I treasure a picture of him in his naval uniform introducing his staff to Queen Elizabeth at the opening of the new pier in the Colombo port, dedicated to Her Majesty during her Royal visit to Ceylon in 1952. Sadly, Tissa’s life in public service came to an abrupt end soon after the election of Mr. Bandaranaike in 1956. After a conflict with the new Prime Minister, a political disagreement strangely at odds for a man who didn’t have a political bone in his body, Tissa resigned from his beloved Civil Service. While this completely justifiable action was based on principle, it is something my father regretted all his life.

The above paragraph describes what most people know about Tissa Chandrasoma. It is largely irrelevant in the big scheme of things. The wonder of my father’s life can never be measured by his achievements, powerful as they may have been. It must be measured by who he was within his brain and his soul. That is the man I knew and will try to describe.

In the first decade of my life, which began one month after Independence, I did not know my father very well. His life was too hectic. His time at home was always rushed. While every memory I had of him during my early life was positive, one remains indelibly fixed in my mind. I must have been eight years old. I had done something wrong; I do not remember what it was. When confronted by my mother, I lied, denying that I was the culprit. My father was watching. He called me and told me to sit next to him. He asked me: “Son, tell me, did you lie?”. I knew I was caught. I nodded my head with my eyes cast down to the floor. He gently lifted my face and made me look at him. He said, “Son, lying is in itself a bad thing. But that is not the real problem about a lie. When you lie, you are admitting that you are frightened of the person to whom you are lying. You are being a coward. There is no reason in the world for you to be frightened of your family. But you must also learn to never be frightened of anyone else in the world. Do you understand?” I nodded my head. He ruffled my hair in the usual manner he expressed affection, smiled, and dismissed me. That single lesson I have tried to follow all my life. I have tried to live my life without lying or fear of anyone. Lying, as my father always said, is the primary sin. If one can lie, one can do anything.

However, white lies to preserve domestic peace are perhaps the exception that prove this rule.

After Tissa left public service, he joined Shell Company as its Operations Manager. This required him to travel for management training in England. Our whole family joined him to England a few months after his departure. At the end of the year of his training, my father and I came back to Ceylon. My mother and three brothers stayed in London, two to pursue higher education and, in the case of our beloved youngest brother Mahen, to desperately find an impossible cure for his cerebral palsy.

I had nearly three years during which I lived with my aunt Viji and had my father all to myself. His life was still busy but I was the focus of his attention. Every morning, he would drive to his office in the Fort and then give the wheel over to the driver to take me to Royal College. School was over at 3:45 and I got to his office around 4. As I walked in, my father was invariably lounged in his chair with his feet on the desk, his brow furrowed by a particularly difficult clue in the London Times cryptic crossword puzzle. He would acknowledge me with a wave and I would sprawl on the floor to finish my homework. I would watch his face turn from puzzlement to delight as he found answers. He never left the office till the crossword was done. I used to gather the Times look at the completed puzzle. I could never figure it out. Many decades later, I was at an airport with a long flight ahead of me. Browsing in the bookstore, I saw a book of London Times Crossword puzzles. I immediately bought it, resolved to solve many puzzles. During the next seven hours, my brow never displayed happiness. I could not figure out a single clue. I realized then that to be called smart in my father’s time was infinitely more difficult than when I reached his age.

Again, one conversation with my father during this time stands out in my memory. My mother and father were from different castes and we grew up in a home where caste was never discussed. When a discussion around caste arose at school among my second form friends, I had no clue. Driving back home after work that day, I asked my father to which caste I belonged. He smiled knowingly and, without batting an eye, said: “Tell your friends that your father and mother are of different castes, and that makes you a proud member of the Jarawa caste!” His disdain for the caste system was profound.

Weekends were father-son times during these three years. We took body-surfing beach trips to Mount Lavinia followed by lime juice with soda at the Sinhalese Sports Club. Regular trips back to his home in Arachikande that always consisted of fast and spine-tingling driving on narrow roads, a sea bath in the pristine beach at Hikkaduwa, king coconut water and a well bath, followed by lunch and a long siesta.

But the most vivid image I have of our weekend trips were the ones to Nuwara Eliya. The Shell Company had a vacation home on Upper Lake Road called Craig Var. After driving dangerously over the winding mountainous roads, we would have a quick bath and go to the Grand Hotel for dinner. The hurry to get there was so that my father could play billiards with Wilson, the billiards marker. After that it was my turn when they tried to teach me the game. This was a thrill as I improved, slowly evolving into a decent player over the years.

After dinner, we drove back to Craig Var to hang out in the living room. With a log fire roaring and creating a delightfully warm room, I still see my father sitting on an oversized armchair with his books and crosswords, and me sprawled on the carpet trying to figure out the answers to problems in a book of complicated mathematical puzzles that he had bought for me. Few words were spoken or necessary as we just lounged till close to midnight.

I saw and understood Tissa Chandrasoma’s real self on our short sojourns during this magical time of my life. The world may have seen a jet set fast living man. But to me, he was an incredibly simple man whose ethical code was impeccable and incorruptible. He remained throughout his life the child that he describes in his first book “Five to Eight” about his childhood in his village on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka. All the pomp and pageantry that surrounded him in his later years never touched his basic simplicity and goodness.

He visited our home in Pasadena once. He did not like the American way of life that we lived. It was too complicated, even though he did not realize that it was much simpler than the life he lived when he was my age. He was sad that my children did not know Buddhism sufficiently. Upon leaving, he promised to write about Buddhism for my children. His book about the Buddha’s life (“Siddhartha Gotama of the Sakya Clan”) is written as a letter to his grandson Pradip, my youngest son. It is one of our family’s greatest treasures. He left us with the firm statement that he would never again go to a place where he did not have his bed in his room in his house in Sri Lanka. He never did.

He died in the last week of December 2004. He was sitting in front of the television, having breakfast. His heart and brain simply stopped when he saw the first images of the tsunami devastate the coastline around his beloved Hikkaduwa.

May he have attained Nibbana.



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Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

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Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

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ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

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HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

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