The Merril. J Fernando autobiography
Excerpted from The Story of the Ceylon Teamaker
Ninety-three years ago – in 1930 – I was born to a middle class family in the village of Pallansena, as the youngest of the six children of Harry and Lucy Fernando. My sister, Agnes, was the eldest and then came brothers Lennie and Pius, followed by sisters Doreen and Rita. My family roots can be traced back to this village where, from the time of my great-grandparents, ours had been a leading family.
Pallansena is situated about 15 kilometres north of the Colombo International Airport. Many decades ago, long before the airport was even thought of, it was a small village of about 100 closely-knit families. As common to such villages then, most of the families were connected to each other, either through blood or marriage. Irrespective of such connections, all those who lived in the village comprised one large family, held together by religious and cultural commonalities, shared responsibilities, and concern for one another.
Pallansena is no longer a village though, having gradually been overwhelmed by the urbanization and commercialization that is changing the charming landscape of this country, all over. That once-serene rural community is now a crowded suburb of the more densely-populated Kochchikade. The land on either side of the road that I, as a child, used to walk along on my way to the Pallansena village school, was lined with coconut plantations. Today, only a few scattered patches of coconut remain.
Much of the old plantation land is now built over, with modern residences, shops, hotels, and guest houses. In the village of Pallansena itself, most of the graceful old houses with wide verandahs and central courtyards, set deep in large, tree-laden gardens, have disappeared. Instead, unlovely facades of brick, glass, and concrete with barred windows line the roads on both sides.
Many of the houses then, large and small, had intricate wooden trellis frontages, which gave privacy but did not hinder ventilation. These have now been replaced by featureless iron and masonry grills. The very few old houses that remain still evoke memories of a vanished appeal. However, unlike in my youth, they too are now surrounded by high parapet walls and, therefore, rarely seen.
The Maha Oya and the Hamilton Canal which flows into it, in my youth clearly visible through the trees, and the houses which lined the gravel road running past the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church, have been obscured by row upon row of buildings. The once-pristine surface of the water and the clean, sandy banks, lined with rushes and other water plants, are today littered with imperishable plastic debris.
Instead of the weathered, light wooden canoes and rafts which used to be drawn up on the banks, far apart from each other, hundreds of garishly-coloured fibre-glass motor boats are anchored, shoulder to shoulder and bow to stern, at the edge of the water. The muted splash of wooden oars has been replaced by the clatter of high-powered outboard motors, rudely cleaving the surface. The broad-beamed padda boats with sloping cadjan canopies, steered by weather-beaten boatmen wielding long wooden poles, transporting both cargo and people, were another common feature along the canal in my early youth. They too disappeared many decades ago.
In my youth the community co-existed in gentle harmony with its surroundings. But, today, the unforgiving influence of commercial prosperity has been imposed on a once-tranquil society. Signs of affluence are visible and numerous, but they have come at a heavy price, which has been paid by a vulnerable environment.
Pallansena, like most villages on the western coast then, especially north of Colombo, was almost entirely Catholic, the result of the Portuguese influence, which first made its presence felt in Ceylon at the beginning of the 16th century. Religion was both a powerful unifying and guiding force and all families were raised on the strict spiritual principles of the faith. The Parish Priest was a man of great authority in the community, a sort of a benevolent dictator, a feature common to all such societies.
The village church used to be the centre of both religious and social activity. As a youth I was an altar boy in the church, then considered a proud distinction. Despite the many developments that have changed the face of Pallansena over the years, the church continues to be a powerful influence in the community. In a society which has evolved almost beyond recognition, that one feature has remained a constant in the nine decades since my birth.
My parents, especially my mother, raised me strictly according to sound, time-tested values, centred around the family and our faith. She was very religious and civic-minded and from my childhood, instilled in me the need to help our less-affluent neighbours. She visited other families regularly and, despite my vocal protests, quite often shared with the children of these families the prized goodies that I received, such as cakes, chocolates, and sweets.
In that era, in communities such as Pallansena, whilst there was no significant poverty, there were still a few underprivileged families. To my mother, helping such people was a serious moral obligation. She was a woman of great generosity and humility and was truly loved by the people of the village. She is still spoken of with much affection and gratitude by the older folk of the village, especially those who benefited from her compassion.
Neighbours reciprocated my mother’s many acts of kindness by frequently bringing her their home-grown fruits, vegetables, and traditional home-made sweets. As she sat in her verandah, always with rosary in hand, passing neighbours would stop and talk to her. They would also offer to buy her groceries and run other little errands for her. Sharing and caring were endearing features of our village, undoubtedly mirrored across many similar communities then, unlike in the highly-urbanized and commercialized age we live in now.
The principles that I still live by were articulated for me, very early, by role model example by my parents, especially my mother. They were conditioned largely by the teachings of my religion and the decent ethics of life, which are common to all great religions and principled societies. Since moving out of that somewhat-cloistered community and into the larger world of industry and international commerce eventually, I have been exposed constantly to different learnings and varied influences. However, the strength of that early indoctrination is such that I have remained true to those principles of conduct and interaction. On reflection, I feel comfortable with myself today because my basic values have not changed.
In the environment I was brought up, people took time and effort to care for each other. The concern that people of the village had for each other was clearly demonstrated, in times of both grief and joy. For example, when there was a funeral in the village, neighbours would send the mourning family meals for three days. Similarly, when there was a wedding, neighbours would send dinner to the wedding house on the pre-nuptial night. These traditions were of great practical benefit, intended to reduce pressure on the family concerned, enabling them to concentrate on the event.
For generations my ancestors had worshipped at the Pallansena, Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church. My maternal great-grandparents, Petrus Perera and Anna Marie Perera, passing on in 1881 and 1901 respectively, are interred within the southern wing of the church, their final resting places marked by two stone tablets set into the church floor. Despite the many feet of worshippers which have trod on them for over a century, the dedications etched into the slabs are still very clear. Apparently, this unusual distinction had been extended to these two ancestors of mine, on account of their generosity to the church.
The spacious grounds on which the church now stands had been gifted by these two, whilst they had also contributed generously towards the construction of the church itself. The incumbent priest’s residence, a beautiful, heavily-timbered, two-storeyed, Dutch-styled house, still elegant despite some indelicate, subsequently introduced modern flourishes, had also been built by them.
They had both been well-reputed Ayurveda physicians, especially known for the treatment of cataract and other eye diseases. My grandmother and grand-aunts continued this healing tradition. I recall that there would be many patients consulting them every day, with the numbers increasing on weekends.
They also made a very special herbal oil which, apparently, was guaranteed to keep hair black, well into old age.
My brothers and sisters used that oil and retained black heads of hair, well into their seventies. I used it in my teens. It had a very strong, highly-aromatic scent, but in my view, not unpleasant. However, since my schoolmates objected to the smell, I stopped using it very early. This wonder oil was distilled from a mixture of rare herbs and ghee, all the ingredients being boiled together in copper cauldrons, over wood fires, for three weeks.
Sadly, none of our younger family members learned the formula for this healing oil. I still have a thick head of hair, but it has been silver for a long time. Perhaps, instead of yielding to my schoolmates, I should have continued to use the oil!
The medicines for the treatment of eye diseases were distilled from a variety of herbs, which were crushed and mixed with other ingredients, including mothers’ breast milk. Often, in my youth, I was frequently given the embarrassing assignment of approaching breast feeding mothers in the village and asking for spoonsful of milk. It was always readily given, though.
My grandmother was a heavily-built lady who spent most of her time in a comfortable chair, with her walking stick beside her. As a playful little boy, I used to tease her by hiding it frequently and my aunts had to retrieve it repeatedly, scolding me all the time. In her annoyance at my harassment she used to threaten me. It was then fun for me, but I realized later how irritating I would have been to her.
My two aunts were very religious, always praying to God for the welfare of the family. I would ask them if they were praying for me, too. The answer was always a very firm NO, because I used to annoy my grandmother all the time. No one knew my grandmother’s exact age, but she lived a comfortable life for over 100 years.
I truly miss the village life of my early youth, the transparently genuine values of simple people — kindness, cordiality, love, and concern for one another and especially the needy were the virtues that held such societies together. Those values are unknown in big cities today. I miss the fresh air, the clean rivers and canals, sea bathing, and the furtive swimming outings with friends of my age in the Maha Oya, which flowed behind my home. My pet dog, Beauty, a Golden Retriever, would also jump into the water with us and stay at my side as long as I was in the water. Such faithfulness is still seen amongst animals but rarely with people.
My mother was very protective of me and terrified of my swimming. She did not allow me to swim either in the river or the sea. Invariably, even on our secret swimming escapades, she would appear on the bank within minutes of us entering the water and scold my friends for having persuaded me to get in, although it was actually on my invitation that we were in the water. My friends were always in awe of my mother. Despite her naturally kindly nature, when angry she could be formidable.
On weekends I used to get together with a few of the village boys and play cricket, football and ‘elle’ on the road. The latter game, a simplified version of American baseball, would attract others from the village and soon we would have as many as 20 people competing. It was great fun, with the winners eventually treating the losers with king coconut plucked from a nearby tree.
Those were wonderful times in a simple village society, where we all treated each other in a spirit of equal friendliness and sharing. Many of my friends were from poor homes in the village, but such differences did not matter. Very few of my village friends are alive today.
My mother was my role model in my early years and became a defining influence in my development as an adult as well. She always represented an uncompromising moral power. Her devotion to the family was the driving force and purpose of her life. As a typical old-fashioned housewife, she did most of the cooking, producing outstanding food of our preference.
She had a very efficient woman, Isabel, to assist her in both housework and in the kitchen, but she insisted on doing much of the cooking herself. To this day, I try to prevail on my cooks to use the ingredients she relied on. She roasted and prepared all the spices and other ingredients at home. The tempting flavours and the heady fragrance of spices, which Ceylon is famous for, were ever present in our home.
Isabel was a middle-aged lady who had been working in my parents’ home for many years and was very much part of the family. In ensuring that the children of the family, especially I, conducted ourselves well, she exerted almost as much authority as my mother did. In our household there was no visible master-servant distinction. That was another lesson I learnt at a very early age from my mother: irrespective of station in life, mutual respect was a condition to be observed in all exchanges, transactions, and relationships.
When she was about 80 years of age, my mother had a serious fall and fractured her hip. I was holidaying in Nuwara Eliya at that time and rushed back on hearing the news. She was admitted to hospital in severe pain and I contacted my friend, Dr. Rienzie Pieris, Senior Orthopaedic Surgeon, who operated on her immediately. Three weeks after the surgery she was released from hospital and with some difficulty I persuaded her to stay in my home in Colombo, for her convalescence before returning to the village.
My mother occupied the guest room in my house and was provided full-time professional nursing care, with my domestic staff also dancing attendance on her. I was delighted that she was now in my home. However, after a few days, my mother pleaded to be sent back to her Pallansena home. Despite the special attention and comforts I provided, she was unhappy away from her familiar environment and her friends. I understood her need and reluctantly took her back to the village, though she was deeply apologetic for disappointing me by her refusal to stay with me.
She refused to undergo physiotherapy after she returned to the village. No amount of persuasion regarding the importance of post surgical therapy could change her mind. As a result, despite the corrective surgery, she was unable to walk unaided and for the rest of her life was compelled to use a wheelchair. However, my widowed sister Doreen took great care of her.
I used to visit regularly, taking with me things which she enjoyed. Despite her condition, she continued to share these with others. Even the tea that I provided her from my company was parceled and shared with neighbours. Since she was now unable to do any housework, she used to spend most of her time in a special chair placed in the verandah, quite often with the holy rosary and reciting her prayers. Whenever I visited her, the first words to me would be, “Son, I am praying for you all the time; God will always bless you.”
In her last year, though she would greet me affectionately whenever I visited, my mother failed to recognize me, which distressed me deeply. She acknowledged only Doreen, her constant companion and carer. I realized then that her end was near and prayed to God for his blessings. On April 6, 1988, at the age of 98-years, 17 years after my father’s death, she passed into the arms of Jesus Christ. I had lost my great treasure.
During her funeral, which was held at the Pallansena church, there was a torrential downpour lasting about 15 minutes. It was so unexpected and so intense that it seemed to me to be symbolic of the occasion.
My love and admiration for her have been constant. She taught me a great lesson in life – to love my neighbour as myself and to share with those in need. She instilled in me, at a very early age, the concept that moral values cannot be compromised, irrespective of circumstances or the nature of temptation. Not until I started working and earning did I realize the value of her personal ethic, which was reflected in her everyday life. I absorbed from her the principle that a man had a responsibility to his community. And, later, as I shared with the less fortunate, my earnings increased, my business prospered, and God’s blessings flowed in abundance.
My father, Harry, was a simple, humble, and extremely hardworking man. He worked a long day, leaving home at early dawn and returning very late in the evening. His last business was the manufacture and supply of building materials, red bricks and tiles especially, for construction companies and other customers, mainly in Negombo, which was about 10 kilometres away.
The material he produced was collected and delivered by both lorries and bullock carts. Often there were delays in the settlement of his dues and collection would require many visits to customers. He would make all such journeys either on foot or by bullock cart.
He was a man of reasonable means. I realized that because people regularly borrowed money from him. Collection of such debts was often a problem, with debtors constantly trying to evade him. Those who were spotted by him on his collection trips would then feel the rough edge of his tongue. My father was a stern man who never forgot the due dates of settlement and insisted on the timely discharge of obligations and responsibilities. It occurred to me then itself that money-lending was not a pleasant business.
My father sent us all to good schools and, within his means, provided for us well. That was quite sufficient to give us decent starts in life and all his six children did well for themselves. If he were alive today, he would be a very proud and happy man. Whilst my siblings were generally obedient, I think I was the only trouble-maker, especially in my early years. Though my somewhat erratic educational progress would have disappointed him, he ungrudgingly paid all my school and boarding fees.
In his final years he lived at home with my mother and my widowed sister Doreen and I were able to care for them in every way. As he grew older and dependent on others for his daily needs, he became a little difficult and would complain about Doreen, who was under great stress but managing very well under the circumstances. I used to console Doreen with the assurance that since she was looking after our parents, when the time came I would look after her as well.
My father passed away on February 11, 1971 at the age of 84 years. He lived a good, responsible life. I thank God that I was able to show him my love and gratitude for all he did for the family. I deeply miss my parents and the others of my family who have passed on. I believe that our family will reunite at the second coming of Jesus Christ.
In December every year I visit my village for an almsgiving ceremony, in memory of my parents and family members who have passed away. I give away a couple of hundred packs of dry rations, each sufficient to last a family during Christmas and New Year. A few remaining friends and their siblings show up and say, “Sir, can you remember, my brother used to play cricket and ‘elle’ with you?” I do recall them and feel blessed that I am now in a position to help them in various ways. The Parish Priest at Pallansena has been very useful in identifying such people in need and I have been able to channel my assistance through him.
Understanding policy of neutrality
by Neville Ladduwahetty
In order to assuage the apprehensions of India regarding the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel Shi Yang 6 to Sri Lanka, an informed source of the National Aquatic Resources Research Agency (NARA) is reported to have said “a team of officials from the NARA would board Shi Yang 6 to observe research activities”. This act is “widely seen by Sri Lankan interlocutors as an attempt by the Government to signal to the countries which are at loggerheads with China that Sri Lanka is privy to what is transpiring in the whole process and to make sure that it will pose no security threat to any third country” (Daily Mirror, September 19, 2023).
Continuing the above DM report states: “Sri Lanka advocates a neutral foreign policy. However, India, Japan and the United States are skeptical about Chinese maritime activities in the Sri Lankan territorial waters since they fear that it is part of a major effort by China to systematically map the seabed across the vast swath of the Indian Ocean. They fear hydrographic data, collected in the process, can be used for security related purposes later …. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka insists that it is a neutral venue to all countries, and won’t allow its territory, be it sea, air space or land to be used against the security interests of another country, particularly India” (Ibid).
EXERCISING SOVEREIGN RIGHTS
Sri Lanka is indeed encouraged and heartened by the stand the country has taken to exercise its rights in keeping with its stated policy of Neutrality backed up by provisions of Internationally accepted Customary Law relating to entitlements, such as exploring within Exclusive Economic Zones of Coastal states. However, this stand could be strengthened by incorporating provisions of International Law as stated in Part V of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea presented below.
By incorporating these provisions into the Corpus of Domestic Law, Sri Lanka would be in a much stronger position to exercise its sovereign rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone by way of imposing penalties on those who violate its provisions and in particular those who engage in illegal fishing and destroying natural resources by the fishing crafts of India and other countries.
ARTICLE 56: EXCLUSIVE ECONOMIC ZONE
Rights, jurisdiction and duties of the coastal State in the exclusive economic zone
1. In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:
(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting conserving and managing the natural resources» whether living or non-living» of the waters superjacent to the sea-bed and of the sea-bed and its subsoil» and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone such as the production of energy from the water currents and winds
(b) jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:
(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures:
(ii) marine scientific research:
(iii) the protection and preservation of the marine environment:
(c) other rights and duties provided for in this Convention.
2. In exercising its rights and performing its duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone the coastal State shall have due regard to the rights and duties of other States and shall act in a manner compatible with the provisions of this Convention.
3. The rights set out in this article with respect to the sea-bed and subsoil shall be exercised in accordance with Part VI.
CAPACITY to EXERCISE SOVEREIGN RIGHTS
A top source that is considered to be familiar with Indian affairs is reported to have stated: “Sri Lanka’s neutral position is acceptable but it is doubtful for India whether Sri Lanka being economically weak, has the strength to maintain such an approach” (Ibid), and cited the example of India purchasing fuel from Russia despite objections by the United States. That top source has forgotten that India despite its power, once “invaded” Sri Lanka hoping to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka and was compelled to return in shame having failed to fulfill its mission.
According to him “India can act in this way because it is powerful enough to resist any pressure…”. For India to buy oil from Russia despite objections from the U.S. means that these objections are relatively benign because the U.S. needs India as part of QUAD to counter China. However, this being a commercial arrangement, it cannot be compared with the legacy of despicable acts repeatedly committed against humanity of weaker States by so called “powerful states” in the pursuit of their interests.
It is evident that the “top source” is unaware that the International Order does not make a difference between “powerful states” and the rest, because one of the principal pillars on which the United Nations Charter rests states in Article 2 (1) that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.
Furthermore, Principles and Duties of a Neutral State are based on International Customary Law, which in its Introduction states: “The sources of the international law of neutrality are customary international law and, for certain questions, international treaties, in particular the Paris Declaration of 1856, the 1907 Hague Convention No. V respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land, the 1907 Hague Convention No. XIII concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I of 1977 (ICRC Publication June 2022).
Despite the existence of such International provisions “powerful states” have not hesitated to brazenly flout its provisions in the pursuit of their interests most of which are warped imaginations.
For instance, it was India that imposed its will on Sri Lanka when it forced Sri Lanka to accept the 13th Amendment; an act that denied Sri Lanka the fundamental right of self-determination enshrined in Article 1 (2) of the Charter of the United Nations that state:
“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. This Amendment crafted by India compels Sri Lanka to adopt devolution to Provinces as a form of internal government to satisfy the imaginations of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. This was violently rejected by the People when it was first introduced and ironically even after more than three decades continues to be rejected not only by the majority but also by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Despite such rejections, India keeps insisting the Sri Lanka should live by its provisions; the latest being at the ongoing General Assembly Secessions in New York.
Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka has to come up with an innovative strategy within the provisions of the Constitution to get free of 13A because its entrenched contradictions hinder peripheral development. What is most objectionable about devolution as a concept is that it fosters the operation of Central Government and Provincial Government functions simultaneously that often are at variance thus perpetuating disparities within and among Provinces amounting to entrenching discrimination among the Peoples; a fact that is starkly evident among the States in India and other countries that have divested Central power.
Another practice adopted by “powerful” India is to overlook the violations committed by the Fishing community in Tamil Nadu at the expense of the Fishing community in Sri Lanka, by robbing the maritime resources and vandalizing the marine environment by resorting to bottom trawling within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone notwithstanding the fact that it is a violation of Article 56 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead of raising such issues at bilateral meetings, despite the presence of the Minister of Fisheries, Sri Lanka has been trapped into commitment to issues of connectivity that bolster India’s influence over Sri Lanka.
While Sri Lanka appreciates and is proud of the position taken by NARA and the Government in respect of the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel, Sri Lanka has to exploit all International safeguards to overcome potential threats from the so called “powerful states”. In a background where “powerful states” would not miss an opportunity to exploit the circumstances in other States, countries such as Sri Lanka have to depend on the shield or weapon of international law to protect their interests.
Therefore, for them, it is the codified rule of the Rights and Duties of a Neutral State and the incorporation of the relevant provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea into Domestic Law or the fact that its provisions are part of Customary Law to protect its sovereign rights and enforce its interests in the Exclusive Economic Zone.
Such material should form the framework of a Standard Operating Procedure as suggested in a previous article (Neutral Foreign Policy in Practice, August 22, 2023). A strengthened Sri Lanka would then be in a position to avail itself of the resources of the International Court of justice, as other countries have done to seek redress. Furthermore, since they are numerically greater, their strength lies in a Rules based World Order and not on “power”, irrespective of its source.
Some buildings with their attributes gone forever
Rest houses were places we grew up with and most had existed during the later years of British rule in Ceylon. Counterpart in India was called a dakh bungalow, or so Cass remembers from staying overnight long ago in one in Sanchi. Rest houses were really what their name implied: places to rest in; mostly for government administrators when they travelled on government business termed circuits. There were the circuit bungalows too but they were in remote areas and with much less amenities.
The best-known rest houses were Nuwara Wewa and Tisa Wewa in Anuradhapura, the one jutting into the Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa, in Belihuloya, Ella, Hambantota Tissamaharama, Kankesanturai and Elephant Pass, and in Peradeniya, opposite the Botanical Gardens. They were well known for their gentlemanly keepers, most dressed in cloth and shirt, and the food served: excellent lunches with the invariable fried karola or hal messo; the wonderful coconut sambol and the fried red chillies which was not a usual homemade appetizer.
Now, most of these wonderful places of staying in comparatively cheap, are called resorts and expanded, losing the old-world charm, the warm welcoming ambience, and the spacious one storey roominess. They were tossed aside by hotels being constructed and so they too changed ‘shape’. One or two deteriorated – the Hambantota RH accompanied by the deterioration in standard of clientele too becoming more a water hole than temporary stay-in place. Some surpassed their previous selves like the Ella RH which was transformed to a high-end inn.
We often lunched and stayed in several times and remembered was the Peradeniya RH with its wide veranda with tables to lunch or dine at, looking across at the trees in the Gardens, particularly that variety which had red drooping down flowers bordered by bright red spathes which we called kukul kakul and even ate, delighting in its sour flavour. No more. None of the view of glorious nature; none of the almost al fresco lunching; none of the old-world charm and particular ambience of the old rest house. It has been rebuilt and ‘developed’ to a horrible state.
Change – for better, for worse
On a recent visit to Kandy after many years the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens was walked through, with plenty others, both local and foreign. One small niggle of doubt was the fee charged from foreigners Rs 3,500, Cass believes. Too excessive is her opinion particularly in comparison to what locals pay. We should not fleece foreigners though they are with dollars, pounds sterling, euros or whatever.
The gardens are excellently maintained; the orchid house glorious in its blooms and the banning of vehicular traffic very wise. Unlike many of our Buddhist places; visitors who found it difficult to walk much and toddlers were amply catered for by frequently running motorised open vehicles. The layout of the Gardens is almost the same as it was for many decades previous, but improved and maintained sprucely clean.
In sharp contrast was the Peradeniya Rest house. Cass forgot to note its name. The old building was so stately yet with a comforting, welcoming air about it. You usually parked yourself in the wide quarter-walled verandah at a table or in a comfy, un-upholstered chair. Now you are led to the first floor to a fully curtained room. Tall windows were all closed and the drawn curtains obliterated even a glimpse of the outside. Cass ordered rice and curry since she did not want a buffet lunch. Not possible to serve rice and curry a la carte was the waiter’s reply. Only Chinese dishes could be ordered. Cass was aghast.
Imagine not being able to order our basic meal in a restaurant that was a rest house previously with the reputation of serving the best rice ’n curry. You had to have the buffet if you wanted rice and curry; if you ordered your lunch it would be Chinese – fried rice, chopsuey, etc. Isn’t that a travesty? You are enclosed claustrophobically in a heavily curtained room with fans; cut off from fresh air and all the greenery around, and dictated to on what you eat. That is development for you!! Cass calls it mudalali aberration. The buffet was simple enough with a couple of additions like soup to a rice and curry meal costing 1800. Chinese was 1200.
I am sure all adults of Sri Lanka object to President RW’s promise to set up a Parliamentary Committee to look into and report on the Easter Sunday suicide bombs in April 2019. A comment people make is that RW’s solution to any problem/matter is to appoint a committee; never mind the report and taking action.
You can bet your last thousand rupees that if a Parliamentary Committee is set up to report on the C4 documentary and its repercussions etc., all politicians will be exonerated and the ones who are pointed at as the accused, would be pronounced lily white. Zahran did it all by himself with ISIS control. We millions of Ordinaries too cry out against a fully local panel of investigators, and never a group of MPS.
A boxed news item on page 1 of The Island of Tuesday September 19 had this heading: CID takes over probe into gun attack on MP. The car with Anuradhapura District MP Uddika Premarathne was shot at. No one was injured. But quick as lightning, the Police handed over the hunt for perpetrators to the CID. They too will work overtime and catch the miscreants.
Good! But what happens over the several motorbike shootings and those guilty of distributing dangerous drugs and making this lovely island rotten with drug importers, peddlers and takers? Oh, those can be taken time over and never nail the guilty and punish them. Rather assist those caught and jailed to get out or at least attempt escape.
An Indian friend sent me this story which so gladdened my maternal heart. It is shared here so more mothers could feel appreciated.
Ninth Grader Ajunath Sindhu Vinayala of Trissur (Kerala), often heard his father brush his mother aside as “just a housewife. She does not work.” Ajunath was surprised because he never saw his mother not busy so he painted this picture (published with this article) depicting all the chores she did. His teacher sent it to the State govt office where it got selected as the cover for the 2021 gender budget document. The appreciative son with more of his pictures can be accessed on the Internet.
Almost all Sri Lankan mothers will agree with Cass that our sons and daughters are wonderfully grateful and caring people, with many living overseas but still visiting, transferring money and sending parcels of goodies and necessities. Bless them, we mothers/grandmothers chorus.
Amunugama on Anagarika: A partial review
By Uditha Devapriya
In the course of his study of myths and legends, Bruce Kapferer observes that those who attempt to rationalise myths are as much in error as those who believe in their literal meaning. There are several points in his book with which I beg to differ, but I agree with this specific point. Myths have a logic and a life of their own, and any external compulsion to alter or rationalise them will be met with hostility. Kapferer’s other contention, that myths are continually being renewed and reborn, is also tenable. The narrative around which these myths revolve may stay the same, but the implications of such stories change from era to era. Millenarian platitudes about glorious pasts and histories, of utopic Edens before the Fall, whether in Buddhist or Christian societies, fall into that category.
I reflected on Kapferer when I reread Sarath Amunugama’s impressive book on Anagarika Dharmapala, The Lion’s Roar, the other day. Dharmapala has gone down as perhaps the most misunderstood national figure or figurehead in our history. For close to two centuries if not more, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe got a bad press as well, but thanks to recent forays by Gananath Obeyesekere, we have come to understand and, as a nation, identify with the tragic figure that he was. Dharmapala, however, is more complex, because his writings and speeches lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations: out of necessity, he made it a point to speak differently to different people. Ultimately, I believe all national figures end up being misunderstood. Dharmapala was no different.
What Amunugama tries to do in The Lion’s Roar is to present Dharmapala in a new light. As one reads through his book, one realises how predictably he has been presented until now. Most contemporary assessments of Anagarika Dharmapala place him at the forefront of the Buddhist Revival of the late 19th century. Though, in later years, he broke ranks with the organisation which gave the revival its impetus, the Theosophical Society, he nevertheless maintained contacts with it. Sociologists and anthropologists have presented the Revival as having been led by an emergent, nascent Buddhist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The latter were constantly frustrated in their efforts to join the ranks of the former, a point which more or less pitted them against foreign traders and minority groups.
Until now, social scientists have been content in casting Dharmapala as a messiah, of sorts, of this petty bourgeoisie. Dharmapala’s actions certainly did not endear him to the up-and-coming Sinhala bourgeoisie. Unlike his brothers Edmund and Charles, he was alienated from the many elite and bourgeois groups which formed the basis of later political associations, of which the most prominent would have to be the Ceylon National Congress. That may have been because of Dharmapala’s own background, which stood a tier or two below that of the Senanayakes and the Attygalles. Sarath Amunugama goes as far as to contend that the death of F. R. Senanayake in India closed the possibility of an open conflict between Dharmapala and these families. Yet even Senanayake’s death did not wholly foreclose these possibilities, as the many press campaigns against Dharmapala shows.
Is it accurate, then, to locate Dharmapala at that crucial juncture between the formation of the Theosophical Society, the beginning of the Buddhist Revival in the late 19th century, and the emergence of a weak but aspirant Buddhist petty bourgeoisie in the early 20th? This is how social scientists have generally viewed him, so far.
Dharmapala himself may not have been conscious of his role here. Yet as Regi Siriwardena eloquently put it once, “[t]o say that any thinker or leader served the interests of a particular class is not necessarily to say that he was conscious of doing so, still less that he was hired or commanded by that class.” The ultimatum of social scientists and anthropologists, hence, seems to be that he became the ideological vehicle of these groups, that as the latter’s attitudes to foreigners and minorities hardened, they saw in him a definitive “ancestor from antiquity.”
Amunugama attempts to shed new light on Dharmapala’s followers and acolytes by bringing to the foreground groups which have been excluded from most contemporary assessments of Dharmapala’s life. Prime among them are what Amunugama sees as “subaltern” groups, among whom he includes the Sinhala working class. This working class, he contends rather convincingly, were swept away from their roots into the cities, where they confronted a new and different social order.
As they became more aware of the conditions of their existence and sought to transform them, they began to encounter foreign traders and minority groups, hired by the colonial government to counter the growing tide of trade unionism and Sinhala proletarian discontent. It is against this backdrop that they saw Dharmapala as a saviour, and not just a saviour, but someone they could call their own.
This is, to be sure, an intriguing point. Yet how “subaltern” were these classes Amunugama associates with Dharmapala? Without splitting hairs too much, I think we must bear two points in mind. The first is that, until the formation of a Left movement in the 1930s, no political association, however radical, envisioned a Ceylon falling outside of the orbit of the British Empire. This was as true of bourgeois reformist associations as it was of nationalist ideologues. Whatever “subaltern group” in Sri Lanka at this juncture saw things differently, in contrast to their mobilisation by the Left after 1935. In that sense Dharmapala fulfilled a role, however limited, for these groups. The Marxists could not have been more different to his ideology, as their struggles on behalf of Indian Tamil plantation workers showed. But then Dharmapala was no Marxist, even if a scion of his family – Anil Moonesinghe – made a seminal contribution to the Left movement of the country.
The second point recalls an observation Gananath Obeyesekere once made in relation to Dharmapala and his disciples: namely, that their attitudes to the Other – which Amunugama dwells on at considerable length in his remarkable study – were paradoxically activated by their alienation from their social and kinship groups. In their quest for “identity affirmation”, the Dharmapalists sought a negative identity for themselves, in relation to the Other.
I think that more or less explains the Sinhala working class’s affinity for Dharmapala, at a time of rising anger against foreign traders and minority groups, including the Malayalis. Such anger cannot be condoned, especially when it transforms into racialist feelings. But it helps explain why, in the absence of an anti-imperialist Left movement in the country, these groups could gravitate to nationalist figures – and why even as key a representative of the Sinhala working class movement as A. E. Gunasinha could invoke him in his struggles.
Does this necessarily mean Dharmapala’s politics were not anti-imperialist, or in the least radical? I think the jury is still out there, though I believe that Dharmapala’s emphasis on industrialisation has been missed out by those who see only his ranting against other social groups and ethnicities. Dharmapala once counted among his defenders a highly unlikely figure: Yohan Devananda.
Writing in the Lanka Guardian, in response to Regi Siriwardena, Devananda contended that Dharmapala “did perform an essential historical function in rousing the national consciousness against the foreigner.” I do not know what to make of this assertion, given that for Dharmapala’s followers, “the foreigner” has come to include all groups deemed “alien” in the country. But there is no doubt that he did, at the end of the day, serve a function. The question that countless scholars have raised, which Amunugama tries to answer, is exactly in whose interests he served that function.
The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at email@example.com.
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