An online commemoration event was held last week, organised by the Sociology Alumni Association of the Colombo University, in association with the Department of Sociology there, to appreciate the contribution that Professor A.J. Weeramunda, who passed away three months ago, made to the Department, training of undergraduate and graduate students and sociological and anthropological research over three decades, since the early 1980s. The well attended event showed the wide ranging impact that his presence and work at the University of Colombo has had on his students and colleagues there, over several decades. What I attempt in this short narrative is to highlight a few significant contributions he made to promote critical social science research in Sri Lanka, based on my own observations, over three decades, when I had the opportunity of closely interacting with him as one of his colleagues in the Department.
Professor Weeramunda became a regular staff member in the Department of Sociology, in the early 1980s, and was already the Head of Department when I moved in there, in 1985 as a young lecturer. Though he was much senior to me, at the time, I immediately felt that he did not worry about his seniority in dealing with his colleagues. He began to address me affectionately as Siri, giving me the tacit understanding that I should reciprocate by addressing him by his first name, Joe. No doubt our graduate studies for several years, in two broadly similar western countries, made the above interpersonal adjustment that much easier. But, then it did not take long for me to realise that he was a kind, unassuming, friendly, informal, humorous and down to earth person who did not worry about hierarchical values.
Joe Weeramunda was not just another academic. While his commitment to serious academic research and dissemination of knowledge was quite clear throughout, his personality has been multifaceted from his undergraduate days. Though his main area of study at Peradeniya was English, he also had an interest in the Sinhala language, performing arts, drama, and even religious activities in the area of his own faith. Exposed to the work of such well established, eminent academics, like Edmond Leach, S.J. Thambiah, Gananath Obeyesekere and Ralph Peiris, already as an undergraduate, his interest in Anthropology and Sociology no doubt grew rapidly. His decision to pursue his post graduate studies in Anthropology at Washington University, in the United States, was no doubt a reflection of the above interest. On the other hand, his subsequent research interests that he pursued after his post-graduate studies indicated an influence of even a wider spectrum of scholars.
Several years prior to joining the Colombo Sociology Department, as a permanent staff member, in 1985, I was a visiting lecturer there for several years. It was during this period, in 1984, Joe worked with several Sri Lankan and foreign academics, notably James Brow, Mick Moore and Gananath Obeyesekere, to organise a landmark conference at Anuradhapura on Symbolic and Material Dimensions of Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka. ‘This conference brought together many Sri Lankan and overseas scholars with diverse theoretical orientations. This was necessary given the longstanding theoretical controversy over symbolic versus materialist orientations among anthropologists and sociologists at the time. In the Colombo Department of Sociology itself, this division was evident. While Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, another well known academic there at the time represented the Materialist school, as was evident from his research and writings on agrarian relations in Sri Lanka, while Joe was more tilted towards the symbolic. When a good selection of papers presented at the above conference was published by Sage India in 1992 as a collection of essays edited by James Brow and Joe Weeramunda under the title: Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, it immediately attracted the attention of many scholars and students alike, in both Sri Lanka and overseas. I was fortunate enough as a younger academic to have had the opportunity of contributing to both the conference and the publication.
As a well trained liberal arts scholar and an Anthropologist, Joe displayed a keen interest throughout in conducting field research on diverse themes over several decades. He was convinced that undergraduate students should not only be exposed to theoretical discourses within the subject but also undergo practical training in conducting ethnographic research in the field. This would have been been at least partly due to his own exposure to field research conducted by senior scholars there with the involvement of undergraduate students at Peradeniya. So, he naturally tended to encourage students to spend time in the field, both in rural and urban areas. For instance, even the academic curriculum was modified to some extent to accommodate this aspect of undergraduate education in sociology in Colombo.
The Department of Sociology in Colombo was fortunate to establish an academic exchange programme with Leiden University in the Netherlands, in 1985, when Joe was still the Head of Department. This programme opened up many possibilities for promoting sociological and anthropological research on a range of themes, including the growing phenomenon of labour migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East. Many academic visitors from the Netherlands actively took part in research activities for a number of years in collaboration with members of the academic staff and students in the Department. These research activities no doubt pleased Joe as he could see his students playing an active role in field research as part of their studies.
Joe Weeramunda served the University of Colombo for about three decades. He made a highly significant contribution to the development of the academic and research programmes in the University’s Department of Sociology. He took an active interest in the development of research and other skills of the students. His very friendly and informal ways of dealing with his students helped him to develop a good rapport with students. As many of his former students attested at the commemoration event, he was not just another university professor for them. It is no doubt his multifaceted personality that appealed to them, turning their experiences as undergraduate and postgraduate students into lifelong memories.
I, as one of his colleagues in the Department for three decades, would remember him not only as a brilliant scholar but also as a good friend and a humble, down-to-earth person.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology,
University of Colombo
In Memorium: Daya and Alfred Wijewardena
Daya Wijewardena was many things to many people. These included, but were not limited to, being: a wife to her husband, Alfred; a surrogate mother to her nephew, Dayananda; a grandmother/great-aunt to Dayananda’s children; a teacher to countless students at Anula Vidyalaya; a trusted confidante to my mother; and a beloved aunt to my brother and me. In her later years, she greatly supported the work of her husband, spending many countless hours, being a sort of unpaid personal assistant charged with doing, things, like taking down dictation for his planned workshops. Her one complaint was about her own handwriting, which she didn’t consider to be very good since she had been forced in school to write right-handed, despite being a natural left-hander. It’s been a decade since her passing, but the void left by her absence has not diminished.
Alfred Wijewardena – or D.A. Wijewardena, as he was professionally known – was a multi-hyphenate Renaissance man, who lived by the motto ‘plan your work and work your plan’. A qualified Attorney-at-Law, with a Degree in Laws and a B.Sc. in Logic, he was also a Justice of the Peace, but in his early days he’d done a variety of jobs, including being the Game Ranger at Yala National Park and a teacher at Ananda College. He subsequently focused on administrative matters, becoming the first Secretary of the then newly-formed State Services Disciplinary Board (which had replaced the Public Service Commission, where he was an Assistant Secretary). He ultimately set up his own institution known as The Centre for Studies in Disciplinary Management. An avowed workaholic, he worked well past retirement, only stopping in the last two or three years of his life. When he had some free time, he enjoyed playing tennis at the SSC, where he was a Vice President for many years. He left us three years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by when we don’t think of or talk about him.
My brother and I called Alfred’s wife ‘Daya Aunty’, although in reality those two words tended to morph into one, creating a brand new descriptor specific to her: ‘Dayaunty’. She loved us abundantly, with that love even extending to our childhood puppy, Shiny, who similarly adored Dayaunty, particularly as she often brought Shiny a succulent bone to chew on when she came to visit. Dayaunty was kind, caring, nurturing and she loved to laugh, albeit very softly… She didn’t ever have a cross word for us.
We never referred to Dayaunty’s husband as ‘Alfred Uncle’, despite our multi-generational age gap. To us he was ‘Alfie’, because he was our pal: someone who was always on our level, someone we could relate to. For years he drove a Volkswagen Beetle, which we referred to as the ‘Alfie Car’. He was such a character that he constantly had us in stitches, giggling until our sides hurt, thanks to the yarns that he spun. Picture the perfect babysitter (or, from our perspective, a best buddy) and that was Alfie. He set the bar very high when it came to fun uncles.
Our childhood was enriched beyond measure for having Dayaunty and Alfie in it. When Alfie (often distracted by other thoughts but still wanting to be a part of the ongoing conversation) would say something grammatically correct but factually unfeasible — like his infamous “You spoke to him when he was dead?” line of inquiry — Dayaunty would titter almost silently, which naturally made us crack up even more.
Dayaunty had a sense of adventure and would have happily travelled the world if only Alfie wasn’t tethered to work. (“Inquiries, baba, inquiries” is how he explained his professional life to us.) So, a solitary trip to India on pilgrimage notwithstanding, Dayaunty had to make do with escapades in-country. These included one memorable visit to Yala during which her quiet chuckling threatened to actually form sound when someone, on seeing a herd of elephants, queried incredulously: “Why does that elephant have five legs?!” Dayaunty was much quicker on the uptake than the rest of us, but when the penny finally dropped, it was a wonder that all the wildlife in our immediate vicinity didn’t run for the hills, such was the laughter emanating from our vehicle!
On the singular occasion that our parents were unable to have us join them when they went abroad for a conference, they entrusted us into the care of Alfie and Dayaunty — and we had a ball. Even though we loved and were used to spending time together, and they treated us like their own children, both Dayaunty and Alfie must have felt the weight of responsibility that came with such a serious undertaking; however, we never saw any hints of anxiety from either.
When Dayaunty unexpectedly had a stroke 10 years ago, I thought she would soon recover. So, when Alfie called me to convey the news of her passing with the words “the firecracker has gone”, it took a long time for the reality of the situation to sink in. Dayaunty’s departure was a seismic event and it felt as though she took a part of our childhood with her when she went.
Then, in 2018, after bemoaning his loss of productivity and his perceived lack of usefulness to society as a result of stopping work, Alfie decided to follow suit. Never again would we hear him recite ‘Inky, Pinky, Polly’ incorrectly, just to make us laughingly (and somewhat exasperatedly) exclaim: “Oh, Alfie, you don’t know anything!” Gone were the tales of his exploits on the tennis court (“I have bad knees now because my doubles partner used to make me run for all the drop shots!”) and his adventures in emailing (“I was worried about writing to you too much because I thought I’d fill up the computer!”). If part of our childhood went with Dayaunty, the rest accompanied Alfie.
How does anyone recover from — or at least mitigate — such grief, devastation and loss? One step is to remember the good times and focus on all the positive things that Daya and Alfred Wijewardena brought to so many people — in their immediate and extended families, amongst their friends, in their lives and in their careers.
As we mark, on successive days, what would have been Alfie’s 100th birthday (7th December) and 10 years since Dayaunty’s passing (8th December), we pause to reflect on two extraordinary lives that touched so many others in a multitude of ways. We will always love Alfie and Dayaunty, and we’ll be forever grateful for the roles that they played in our lives, particularly our childhood. We hope their sansaric journey is short. May they both attain Nibbana!
Dr. Mihirinie Wijayawardene
Need for traffic lights at Pamankada junction
Now that the Havelock Road is open to traffic on both sides up to the Pamankada bridge, the Pamankada T-junction has become a real bottleneck, especially during the rush hours in the morning and again in the evening. There were no problems when it was one way. With unruly drivers manning private buses and three wheelers and the motor cyclists, it is indeed a hassle for the law-abiding drivers to manipulate their vehicles in a melee.
As Havelock Road has been opened to vehicular traffic both ways, there is a large number of buses belonging to the CTB as well as private buses on route numbers 120( Horana and Kesbewa to Pettah) ,162 (Bandaragama to Pettah), 135(Kelaniya to Kohuwala) and 141 (Wellawatte to Narahenpita) that ply up and down passing this T- junction.
It would be good before some serious motor accident takes place to install traffic lights at this junction. Every driver tries to get out of the melee as quickly as possible and ultimately all vehicles get stuck and take a longer time to move on. Installing the lghts would instill some discipline to the reckless drivers especially during the time that school children are transported.
HM Nissanka Warakaulle
Lessons learnt from outrageous power outage
The countrywide power outage that took place on Friday 03 November, 2021, shook the nation.
As everyone is suspicious of everyone else in this country, most people suspected that it was sabotage masterminded by the Engineers of the CEB Unions. The engineers have threatened the government that they will resort to a strike if their demands, particularly on the subject of the New Fortress Energy agreement are not met.
It became quite clear that the 21 million Sri Lankans living in this country could be held hostage by the union leaders, even if, in this instance, they had not been responsible for it. Public spiritedness which has to be the basis of any national action had in any case been ignored by the CEB Unions when they threatened the government a few days back.
The situation has shown how delicate our predicament is. A small group of people could hold the entire country to ransom if they disagreed with the authorities. Both the country and the Government has now taken cognizance of this. This can also be a massive security risk.
Continuation of the outage could have even led to a violent uprising of the public against the Union officials who would have been targeted. Fortunately, the government held its nerve and better judgment prevailed on the side of the Engineers to correct the situation.
However, like with all adversities, several new opportunities have surfaced. One is how to diminish the monopoly that the CEB, which is a bane of the country. Here one option could be to decentralize the generation and supply of power to the districts. A study should be undertaken to enable every District to control it’s electricity supply and, over a period of ten years make it into a viable profit-making undertaking. This will be particularly endorsed and greeted by those of the Northern and Eastern Provinces who are agitating for more decentralised powers. Also, the other Districts will support this proposition. Engineers from the Districts will be able to use their ingenuity in working out techniques for cheaper and more cost-effective generation of electricity and giving assistance to the multiple industries that will commence in the future.
With regard to the security dimension of electricity supply it is imperative that the armed forces are made conversant with every aspect connected with the running of the Electricity facilities. In this way, the country can never be held to ransom by any group. The armed forces will be trained to move and take over the operations in case of sabotage or even if one day an attack takes place by external forces.
In all this it seems evident that the New Fortress Energy Agreement is not acceptable to the general public and not only to the Unions. The Government has to take this into account and if necessary call for a plebiscite on this issue. If Parliament and the people of this country want the government to proceed with it so be it. However, if the people reject it the government has a valid justification to withdraw from the agreement.
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