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My girls make dramatic entrances

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by Sumi Moonesinghe narrated to Savithri Rodrigo

When Susil and I returned to Sri Lanka for good, we rented a three-bedroomed flat behind the petrol shed in Thimbirigasyaya for Rs. 600 a month. This is the home we prepared for the arrival of our firstborn. But Susil and I were both of one mind that being on rent was not the answer and so began our quest for the purchase of a house.

Upali Wijewardene was getting married to Seevali Ratwatte’s daughter Lakmani, and being very close friends of Seevali and Cuckoo, we were on the invitee list. It was a gathering of the near and dear and there we met Susil’s cousin Lalith Hewavitarane, the CEO of Don Carolis, who always had his ear to the ground. He mentioned that the official residence of the Ceylon Match Company Chairman on Jawatte Road was for sale and asked us to take a look at it.

Another commonality between Susil and me is that we know when we like something. It’s an instant decision. This house was one of those. It was lovely and we both felt in our hearts that it was a good investment. The house stood on 70 perches of land and the asking price was Rs. 350,000. Neither Susil nor I had that kind of money.

The advice I was given before I left for England – ‘Save your money, buy a car and it has to be Peugeot 504 because it has good resale value’ came in handy. We sold the Peugeot 504 for Rs. 200,000 which was a good price and Susil suggested we get a loan for the balance payment.

I had been in academics and never had a reason to venture into a bank to request a loan. So this was completely new to me. Susil decided to show me the ropes. He took me to see his friend Mohamed Moheed, who was the General Manager of the Bank of Ceylon. They started off talking niceties and my initial thought was, “This is never going to end. When is he going to ask about the loan?” Just when the conversation was about to end, Susil said, “I need a loan from BOC to purchase our house.”

The unhesitating reply was, “Ah, no problem. Consider it done.” That’s the importance of having a good network and Susil had cultivated that network to perfection. We now had the full payment for the Jawatte Road house.

Thus far, everything had been bought and paid for by me. The cars in Singapore, the furniture we had and now, the loan for the house will be my responsibility. When the deed was to be written however, Susil asked me if we could write the property in Tara’s name. Even though the property was being purchased with my money and the request may have been strange in the circumstances, I never questioned Susil and did as he wanted me to do.

The deed was not important to me; what was important was that we had our first home. In order to meet the payments of the Rs. 150,000 loan however, we decided to give the house on rent. This was a sensible decision as otherwise, I would have to find money for yet another payment that fell on my shoulders. We rented the house out to an expatriate, while continuing to stay in the flat at Thimbirigasyaya.

This was about the time that Tara was leaving for Essex University. I had never met her or spoken with her but from the time I started working in Singapore, I had saved for her education. Hence, all expenses were sorted out, including the air tickets for Susil and her to go to London, because I wanted Susil to drop her off at the university. These are those moment which parents cherish, especially fathers and their daughters and I didn’t want him to miss out on that.

Even though my initial relationship with Ganga and Tara was quite frosty, I always made sure they were looked after and Susil’s responsibilities were always met. Rents were paid, household expenses met, schooling was looked after and the car was always sent for them whenever Ganga or Tara requested for it.

I finally met Tara only in 1977, long after she was settled at university in England. Susil would always visit her whenever we got into London and on one of these visits, she asked Susil if she could meet me. I was naturally a little nervous but it turned out to be a very friendly meeting. I took her shopping and bought her dinner before she returned to Essex. It was only after this meeting that it struck me that I was just 10 years older than Tara.

While Susil was in England dropping Tara at university, my delivery date for the baby was also close at hand. My mother and Roni had moved into the flat with us in preparation for the big day. The baby’s arrival date was yet some time away but one day, I was feeling particularly uncomfortable and called Dr. Siva (Chinnatamby) who sent me immediately to St. Michael’s Nursing Home at Alfred House Gardens.

I was admitted and was settled into a room. There was strict ‘No Visitors’ policy those days and only the father of child was given access to the room. Susil was abroad but the nursing home personnel were not aware of that. Along came Susil’s brother, Anil, claiming he was the father of my child. When he needed a break, Susil’s other brother, Nimal, would walk in confidently declaring himself as the father. Subsequently, our friend, Senaka Amarasinghe, would stride in maintaining paternity. The security guard in charge of letting people through the gates was utterly confused and after seeing parade of ‘fathers’ is known to have asked, “How many fathers has this child got?”

My discomfort continued through the night and the following morning, when Dr. Siva arrived at the hospital, she decided to induce labour. Susil was also due that day from the UK and arrived at the hospital about 1 pm. He was introduced as the fourth father of my child!

Anarkali Kumari Moonesinghe was born on September 28, 1975 with little drama beyond the claim of having multiple fathers. After having been through labour and the birth, my mother and Susil both went home to catch up on some much-needed sleep. I had hired a nanny who was very helpful in getting everything organized and ready – from pre-departure to the nursing home, to being with me while I was in labour and after the baby was born.

After everything turned quiet and only the nanny and I were in the hospital room, the house doctor doing his rounds lifted the sheets for a routine check and found me in a bath of blood. There was immediate pandemonium as I apparently had a cervical tear. He feared I was bleeding to death. With my blood pressure alarmingly low, I was immediately sedated and rushed to the theatre. But as the doctors tried to stitch one side of the tear, the other side would open up. They fought tooth and nail to save my life and later told me, it was touch and go.

Susil had been informed and came rushing back to hospital and was met by Dr. Siva who had come out of the theatre. “We have done everything we can,” she told him. If she lives, it’s her destiny.” Meanwhile, on hearing the gravity of the situation, our friends had got activated as well. Killi, the trustee pf Captain Gardens Hindu Kovil opened for prayers and Bri Ponnambalam kept shuttling to the Blood Bank to get me the five pints of blood I needed to keep me alive.

Many years later, Prof. Henry Nanayakkara said, “I came into the hospital and heard there was a really bad case. I did know it was you. But we don’t interfere with another doctor’s patient due to professional ethics.”

With all this drama surrounding me, my newborn daughter had been thoroughly neglected. She was in her crib but shoved into a corner as the medical personnel needed the space to attend to me. Back in the room, Dr. Siva stayed by my side and the nanny attended to the baby. I was in hospital for a month but survived to tell the tale.

So it was that my will to live saved me, but not before damaging my insides. There was always a threat that I may abort, which eventuality did come to pass. I miscarried my second child shortly after.

During Christmas of 1978, Susil, Anarkali and I were on holiday in Madras with Thanchi and Vasanta Coomaraswamy, Sivali and Cuckoo Ratwatte and the children – nine of us in all.

In those days, there were no restrictions on how many people could travel in a car and the Ambassador was the most popular car in India. So we would all pile into the Ambassador and roam all over Madras.

Cuckoo habitually takes her horoscope with her wherever she went. She wanted to see an Indian astrologer and inveigled Susil to accompany her. While reading Cuckoo’s horoscope, the astrologer looked at Susil and said, “You will have a child before the end of next year.”

Somewhat taken aback with this revelation and knowing my medical condition at the time, Susil broke the news to me as soon as he returned. The moment he told me the astrologer’s prediction, those long-held-back feelings of wanting another child came pouring out of me. Even though I had always harboured the dream of having another child, the complications of Anarkali’s birth were too fresh in my mind, in fact frightening Susil even more than me.

We returned to Colombo a few months later, the prediction came to pass. I was pregnant. I was coerced by Susil to consult Prof. Henry Nanayakkara, whom I had steered clear from when I was pregnant with Anarkali due to the large numbers I saw in his consulting room. Cuckoo and I went to see Prof. Nanayakkara but given his rather flippant bedside manner, I returned from the consultation, rather annoyed.

I told Susil that Prof. Nanayakkara was very rude and I wasn’t going to see him again. But Susil took on a new mission – to make sure that Prof. Henry Nanayakkara and I would become good friends. So, much to my chagrin, we made another appointment and this time, Susil accompanied me. Susil was allowed to sit in a chair. I was was absolutely charming when we met Henry and from then on, the ice thawed.

Given my medical history, Prof. Nanayakkara made it quite clear that he would not tolerate any nonsense. I was directed to stay in bed the full nine months and not even allowed to sit in a chair. I was fully absorbed in my work at Jones Overseas by this time and running a business while being horizontal is no joke. But unusual circumstances call for unusual solutions.

I moved my office into my bedroom and each day my Secretary, June, would sit in front of me and take down various instructions and dictation. I must say, we managed very well. In my seventh month, I couldn’t handle the inactivity anymore. Belng in bed was boring me to tears and I pressured Susil to allow me to meet the Chairman of the CWE (Cooperative Wholesale Establishment) Razik Zarook. A worried Susil tried to talk me out of it, but given my obstinacy when I wanted my way, he finally gave in and took me for my meeting.

After the meeting I decided on another detour, which again, Susil was powerless to refute. I wanted to meet Maha and apprise him of the operations at Jones Overseas. We stopped by for lunch. Susil was relieved when we got home and quickly put me to bed. But his relief was short-lived. I started bleeding and Henry was summoned. A rather infuriated Henry assured me the baby was fine, but berated me for not following his instructions, “Because it is for your own safety,” he said with finality.

As a reward for all those months of lying flat on my back, it was time for the baby’s arrival. I had made known that I desperately wanted a son, so just before I was anesthetized, I remember telling the anaesthetist, “Only wake me up if it’s a boy. If it’s a girl, give me another dose and put me back to sleep.”

But then Aushinari Moonesinghe arrived on the September 7, 1979, smiling and gurgling, pushing aside all my wishes for a boy. She completed the beautiful picture of our family. There were no complications and Henry’s excellent care made sure I got back to work very quickly too.

And just before Aushi’s birth, we created yet another milestone for our family. We divided the 70 perches of land on Jawatte Road, writing 35 perches in Anarkali’s name and the other in Tara’s, together with the house.



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Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective

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by Harshana Rambukwella

Very little in Sri Lanka at the moment inspires hope. We are facing an existential crisis that was inconceivable just six months ago. Sri Lanka is also, ironically, just a year away from marking the 75th year of its independence. As we reflect on these seven decades of postcolonial nation building, and as we confront a future of extreme precarity, our scorecard as a country is not a proud one. Much blood has been spilt in the name of postcolonial nation building and the ethno-nationalist conflict that shaped almost three decades of that history and two youth rebellions against the state speak to a history of division and enmity. While our current predicament cannot be entirely attributed to this conflictual history alone, it surely played more than a small role in shaping our present misery. It is within this context that I want to offer this brief set of reflections on what I feel is an unprecedented form of solidarity that has emerged in Sri Lanka as the aragalaya took shape. While I do not want to romanticize this solidarity because it is a highly contingent phenomenon and is shaped by the extreme nature of the current political and economic conditions, it offers us as a society, but more specifically as educators, something to reflect on as we try to imagine our role in a society that faces a painful process of rebuilding and recovery (though my hope is that such rebuilding and recovery does not mean the repetition of the tired old neo-liberal script we have followed for decades).

Before I explore what I mean by solidarity within the aragalaya, let me briefly reflect on solidarity as a concept. Solidarity is a term sometimes deployed in geopolitics. Particularly in this time of global turmoil where not just Sri Lanka, but many other countries are experiencing serious economic challenges, we see nations expressing solidarity with or towards other nations. However, such solidarity is almost always shaped by instrumental motives. This is what we might call a form of ‘vertical’ solidarity where more powerful and wealthy nations extend a ‘helping hand’ to their more unfortunate counterparts. Therefore, when India says ‘neighbourhood first’ and expresses solidarity with Sri Lanka in this time of trouble one can easily discern this as a hierarchical gesture shaped by instrumental motives. It is in reality, India’s strategic geopolitical interests that largely dominate this narrative of solidarity though one cannot disregard the critical importance of the assistance extended by India and other such ‘powerful’ nations in this time of national distress.

Another form in which solidarity manifests is through what some scholars have termed ‘enchanted’ solidarities. This is literally and metaphorically a distant form of solidarity where intellectuals, activists and others extend solidarity towards a struggle they perceive as deserving their support but without truly understanding the context in which they are intervening. This has often happened with ‘first world’ academics and intellectuals expressing solidarity towards ‘third world’ struggles which they felt were ideologically aligned with their beliefs. One example is how many liberal and leftist intellectuals supported the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, believing it to be an anti-imperial liberation movement, only to become disillusioned with the movement as they began to see the full horror of the repression and violence unleashed by the Khmer regime. I think if we reflect on Sri Lanka’s postcolonial history, we can also find many such moments where enchanted solidarities were expressed towards various movements from people in the ‘metropolitan’ center with little understanding of the nuances of the politics on the ground.

Premised against both vertical and enchanted solidarities, scholars have also proposed what is called ‘disenchanted solidarity’. By this they mean a situation where diverse groups, sometimes with very different political and ideological agendas, come together to fight for a common cause. They are often critically conscious of their differences but face a common precarity that pushes them together to struggle and align in ways that were not possible before. Often such moments are also underwritten by anger, though the sources of anger or the objects towards which the anger is directed could be different. I would like to read the aragalaya through this lens of disenchanted solidarity. Particularly at the height of the Galle Face ‘Gota go gama’ protests – before the brutish May 9th attack symbolically ‘killed’ something of the ‘innocence’ of the struggle – there was a sense in which the different groups represented in that space were expressing solidarity towards a singular goal – getting rid of the Rajapakasas and a political system they saw as deeply corrupt – there was anger and a gathering of disenchanted solidarities. For many middle-class people, the aragalaya was a way in which to express their frustration at the lack of the basic necessities of life – be it gas, electricity and fuel – and how a corrupt political class had robbed them of their future. For those with longer histories of political activism such as the IUSF (the Inter University Students Federation) or youth activists from the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVPs youth wing or the many trade unions that supported the aragalaya, this moment in some ways represented the culmination, and perhaps even a vindication, of their longstanding struggles against a political, social and economic order that they consider fundamentally unfair and exploitative. Of course, within this larger narrative, there were and continue to be pragmatic political calculations, particularly from groups affiliated with political parties. At the same time, we also witnessed ethnic and religious minorities, often historically marginalized in Sri Lanka’s social and political mainstream finding a rare space to express their anger at the ways in which they have been discriminated against. However, the argalaya gave them a rare space to do so by channeling their anger as a form of solidarity towards the common goal of getting rid of the Rajapaksa dynasty and the corrupt political system as a whole.

But at the same time, we also saw the tenuous nature of these disenchanted solidarities in the aftermath of the 9th May attack on ‘Gota go gama’. Initially we saw another spectacular display of organic and spontaneous solidarity when health workers and office workers abandoned their workstations and rushed to ‘Gota go gama’ when news of the attack broke. But by the evening of that day the story had turned more insidious with a wave of attacks against the properties of politicians and others thought to have been involved in the attack against the peaceful aragayala participants. While we may understand and even empathize with this backlash, its violent nature and what appeared to be other instrumental motives driving it, such as the looting and revenge attacks, made it difficult to associate it with the moral principles that had animated the aragalaya thus far.

Thereafter, at the current moment I am writing, the aragalaya also appears to have lost some of its vital energy as the political configuration has shifted and the tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s realpolitik with its underhand deals and political mechanizations seems to have regained the upper hand.

However, what does this mean? Does it mean post May 9th the aragalaya has lost its meaning and purpose or can we push our analysis a little deeper. At this point I would like to introduce one final way in which scholars have discussed solidarity which I feel is appropriate to understand the aragalaya and the spirit that underwrote it and continues to underwrite it. This is what some scholars have called ‘deep solidarity’ – a situation where in today’s neo-liberal context where the vast majority of the population come to a realization of their common social and economic predicament and realize their common enemy is the symbolic ‘one percent’ or an insidious nexus between crony capital and political power that disempowers them. This is of course an idealistic conception but one which I feel holds true at least partially to this moment in Sri Lanka. People from widely varying social and economic strata, from different religious persuasions and people with wildly different ideological and political beliefs have been suddenly pushed together. They are all standing in the never-ending petrol and diesel queues, they are desperately hunting for the next cylinder of gas and increasingly many of them are going hungry. The privileges and the divisions that once defined them, no longer seem to be so ‘real’ and the one stark reality confronting them is a form of existential annihilation. I believe within the aragalaya we can glimpse traces of this deep solidarity and as an educationist I think it is our vital task to think of creative ways in which we might sustain this solidarity, grow it and nurture it, so that we can at least ‘imagine’ a better future. These are idealistic sentiments, but at least for me, such hope, is a political and pedagogical necessity of the current moment.

Harshana Rambukwella is attached to the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University of Sri Lanka

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies

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No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment

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by jehan perera

The three-wheel taxi driver did not need much encouragement to talk about the hardships in his life, starting with spending two days in the petrol queue to get his quota. He said that he had a practice of giving his three children a small packet of biscuits and a small carton of milk every morning. But now with the cost tripling, he could only buy one packet of biscuits and his three children had to share it. This is because their beloved country is facing one debacle after another for no fault of those kids or the larger nation. The latest is the failure of the government to make headway in accessing either IMF funding or other funding on any significant scale. Several countries have made donations, but these are in the millions whereas Sri Lanka requires billions if it is to come out of its vicious cycle of a dollar shortage.

There was much anticipation that the appointment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would bring in the billions that are desperately needed by the country if it is to obtain the fuel, food and medicines to keep the people healthy and the economy moving. But things have not worked out in this manner. The pickings have been slim and sparse. The IMF has given the reasons after the ten day visit by its staff to Sri Lanka. They have specifically referred to “reducing corruption vulnerabilities” in their concluding statement at the end of their visit. The international community in the form of multilateral donors and Western governments have prioritized political stability and a corruption-free administration prior to providing Sri Lanka with the financial assistance it requires.

The pressing need in the country is for the government to show there is political stability and zero tolerance for corruption in dealing with the prevailing crisis. It is not enough for government leaders to give verbal assurances on these matters. There needs to be political arrangements that convince the international community, and the people of Sri Lanka, that the government is committed to this cause. Several foreign governments have said that they will consider larger scale assistance to Sri Lanka, once the IMF agreement is operational. So far the government has not been successful in convincing the international community that its own accountability systems are reliable. This is the main reason why the country is only obtaining millions in aid and not billions.

INDEPENDENT COMMISSIONS

The draft 22nd Amendment that is now before the parliament (which will become the 21st Amendment should it be passed) would be a good place for the government to show its commitment. The cabinet has approved the draft which has three main sections, impacting upon the establishment of the constitutional council, the powers of the president and dual citizenship. However, the cabinet-approved draft is a far cry from what is proposed by the opposition political parties and civil society groups. It is watered down to the point of being ineffective. Indeed, it appears to be designed to fail as it is unlikely to gain the support of different political parties and factions within those parties whose support is necessary if the 2/3 majority is to be obtained.

In the first place, the draft constitutional amendment does not reduce the president’s power in any significant manner. The amendment is drafted in a way that the reduction of presidential powers will only occur with the next president. The president now in office, who has publicly admitted failure on his part, continues to be empowered to appoint and sack the prime minister and cabinet ministers at his arbitrary discretion. He is also empowered to appoint and dismiss the secretaries to ministries, who are the highest-ranking public service officials. In short, the executive arms of the government are obliged to do the president’s bidding or risk their jobs. This indicates the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose party has only a single seat in parliament, has no independent strength, but is there at the will and pleasure of the president.

In the second instance, the draft amendment was expected to set up a system of checks and balances for accountability and anti-corruption purposes. The pioneering effort in this regard was the 17th Amendment of 2001 that made provisions for a constitutional council and independent commissions. According to it, the members of all state bodies tasked with accountability and anti-corruption functions, such as the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Police Commission, the Public Service Commission and the appointees to the higher judiciary were to be appointed through the constitutional council. The 17th Amendment made provision for seven of the ten members of the constitutional council to be from civil society.

DEATH BLOW

Unfortunately, in a manner designed to deal a death blow to the concept of checks and balances, the draft amendment sets up a constitutional council with the proportions in reverse to that of the 17th Amendment. It reveals a mindset in the political leadership that fears de-politicisation of decision making. Seven of the ten members will be appointed by the political parties and the president in a way in which the majority of members will be government appointees. Only three will be from civil society. This ensures a majority representation in the Council for government politicians, and the ensures government dominance over the political members. The composition of the constitutional council proposed in the Bill undermines the independence of the institutions to which appointments are made through the Council who will be unable to stem the wildly growing tide of corruption in the country.

It is no wonder that the furious people in the endless queues for petrol and diesel should believe that there is corruption at play in the continuing shortage of basic commodities. The government promised that ships would come in laden with fuel a week ago. Then, inexplicably, the information was disseminated that no ships were on the horizon. In any other country, except in a country like no other, the concerned leaders would have resigned. Due to the lack of fuel, perishable farm produce rots in rural farmhouses and markets in urban centres are empty and prices are rocketing up. In the meantime, the media has exposed rackets where the privileged, politically powerful and super rich, are given special access to fuel. It is patently clear that the government has failed to deliver on the results that were expected. The situation is getting worse in terms of corrupt practices.

To the credit of the Sri Lankan people, they are being patient. The bonds of social solidarity still prevail. But the anger at the self-seeking and incompetent political leaders is reaching the boiling point, as it did on 09 May. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government. The president’s pledge, made in the aftermath of the cataclysmic and unexpected violence that took place that day, was to reduce his presidential powers, transfer those powers to parliament and to appoint an all-party and interim government of no more than 15 ministers. These pledges remain unfulfilled and need to be implemented to be followed by elections as soon as the situation stabilises.

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Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity

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By Hema Arachi

T.B. Kehelgamuwa, the cricketer who needs no plaudits from anyone, is well known. He represented then Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka as a fearsome fast bowler during the pre-Test era. His contemporaries still talk about Kehel with great respect. Once S Skanda Kumar, the well-known cricketer, cricket commentator and former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, proudly told me about his playing cricket with Kehelgamuwa. Bandu Samarasinghe, a Sri Lanka film star, on a TV programme vividly demonstrated how he faced Kehelgamuwa in a Sara Trophy game. That was the top-level tournament in the country.

This note is to share my watching Kehelgamuwa playing soccer when he was not so young. Then, though his grey hair was visible, he ran fast and played hard like a teenager. This was during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure. Returning from The Netherlands, after my postgraduate studies, I lived in Pelawatta, near the Sri Lanka Parliament and my workplace – International Irrigation Management Institute headquarters. I used to enjoy walking on Parliament grounds. That day was unique because the game between the President’s soccer team, comprising parliamentarians, and the Sri Lanka Police team, was played there.

President Premadasa was well known for his political sagacity, especially in manipulating any situation in his favour. For instance, the day Anura Bandaranayake became the Opposition Leader, Premadasa, praised Anura stating, “Anura is the best Opposition Leader we have.” He further requested that Anura join the ruling party and become a minister and also marry a girl from a prominent ruling party family. But within weeks, he was critical of Anura. One day an Opposition member asked him, “You said Anura was our best Opposition leader a few weeks ago but now criticise.” His reply was this: “Yes, I said so because Anura is the best Opposition leader for us, the ruling party, not for the Opposition. For the Opposition, the best leader is Sarath Muththetuwegama!”

A few weeks before the scheduled encounter between the Parliamentarians and the Police football team, there was a game between the Parliamentarians and the Colombo Municipality team. Premadasa captained the Parliamentarians and kicked the winning goal. I remember a cartoon in a newspaper where the Municipality team goalkeeper withdrew so that Premadasa could score the goal at his will.

During the game against the Police, Premadasa did not play but visibly played the role of the coach of the Parliamentarian team. Unlike the Municipality players, the Police played the game seriously. Kehelgamuwa represented the Police team that scored five goals by halftime, and the Parliamentarian team was nil. At halftime, Premadasa replaced the Parliamentarian goalkeeper with Jayawickerama Perera. Yet, the Police team recorded a sound victory.

I thought Premadasa was upset due to this defeat for his team. But no. Premadasa claimed victory: “I am happy that my team won the game by beating the Parliamentarians today! Being the Executive President, I do not belong to the Parliament. However, as the Commander-in-Chief, the Police come under my purview, so my team won today!”

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