By Indrawansa de Silva
It is fair to say that the fight against corruption is one of the drivers, if not the driver, of the current protest movement. We are all quite familiar with protesters’ claim that the present regime is corrupt to the core and the massive scale corruption and incompetency brought the country to a bankruptcy. Corruption charges, however, are not just directed at Rajapaksas and the governing party alone. As this newspaper reported recently, the JVP leadership gleefully announced that they are in possession of over 500 files containing corruption charges against politicians (including the Opposition leader), ministry secretaries and other government officers. The same news item named the corruption case against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cousin Jaliya Wickramasuriya, who reportedly pocketed US$3.32 million (at today’s rate a person making Rs.100,000 a month has to work more than 100 years to make that much money) on a US$ 6.25 million real estate deal, pertinent to the Sri Lankan Embassy, when he served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States. That is a commission exceeding 50 percent! Jaliya seems to put ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ to shame. As staggering as these numbers may, we all know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you dig a little deeper, the numbers are astounding. If you listen to the protesters, and read the banners and placards, no parliamentarian is exempted from corruption charges. Claims that the entire treasury has been looted seems not that exaggerated after all.
This, however, is not the first time the words corruption and politicians appeared in the same sentence. Corruption and corrupt politicians have been in the mix at every election I can recall and I pretty much remember all the elections since 1965. I remember the then trade minister T.B. Ilangarathne being nicknamed “Dry-fish Prince” (Karola Kumaraya) for allegedly securing a commission – a miniscule sum in today’s standard – importing dry-fish. Interestingly, in all those elections Sri Lankans kicked one corrupt regime only to elect another corrupt one. Corruption actually intensified at each successive regime and getting elected to public office, even at the local level, has become the most lucrative profession one can seek in Sri Lanka today. The amount of personal funds contestants spend on election campaigns cannot be justified in any other way than an investment with guaranteed returns. This maybe the reason the protesters are not willing to settle with any current parliamentarian and calling for a total cleansing of the House (the call behind “Gota and the entire 225 must Go!”).
How realistic is the hope that we can find a set of uncorrupted politicians to run the country this time? Or, what guarantee do we have that once in power, power would not corrupt the new crop? I think we should give some serious considerations to these questions as we are at an unconventional juncture in Sri Lankan politics. To do so I suggest that we start with an understanding of what corruption is and how hard-wired corruption is within us. Such an understanding is necessary to find those who do not possess corruptive traits, if that is ever possible, at all.
We tend to concentrate largely on the outright stealing of public funds and commissions when we talk about corruption because they make juicy headlines and media love it. Just take the story of Jaliya Wickramasuriya, I cited earlier, for example. The story was centered on the amount of money he was able to pocket at the cost of overlooking the larger issue, that is how a tea trader by profession landed on the most consequential ambassadorship of the country? Besides being a cousin of the President at the time, what other qualifications did he have to hold such a position? What sort of a price did the country pay by having an unqualified person in that very important job? So, while theft of public funds and embezzlement are rightfully in the forefront of the corruption locomotive and create flashy headlines, we should not turn a blind eye to the other elements of corruption: influence peddling, nepotism, bribery, cronyism and patronage. Take nepotism, for example, what sort of a price tag can we put to the fact that over 70 percent of the country’s budget is under the Rajapaksa family?
Corruption is in our DNA
Evidence suggests that corruption is as old as we, humans, are. Who could say for sure that nepotism did not exist in tribal societies or that the tribal leader got the lion’s share of the hunt or the gatherings for himself and his loved ones? If we go to the recorded history we can find reference to corruption in religious literature. And in Republic, Plato has acknowledged the corrupt nature of political institutions. So, it is not just that individuals who are corrupt. So are the institutions. How about nations? Are nations corrupt too? Well, doesn’t the sheer existence of Transparency International, whose motto is “the global coalition against corruption,” is proof that nations are corrupt too, and it is the degree or the magnitude of corruption that put them in their respective ranks. Corruption is so prevalent amongst us, our institutions and the nations that reasonable people are no longer talking about elimination of corruption. Instead they talk about curbing or reining in corruption rather than upending the bar to an unreachable setting.
This brings me to the fundamental proposition of this writing: are there uncorrupted leaders to be found? Unfortunately, the answer is it is a near impossibility. Throughout history humans have shown that they are so prone to corruption and it is the power, no matter how miniscule that power is, that corrupts. Look around us. Let’s take a very recent example. How did you manage to secure the last gas cylinder you got? Everyone in Sri Lanka I talked with over the past few weeks answered that question and you all know the answer. Let’s expand our boundaries a bit. How did you or your children get into the school either you or your children ended up going? Did you lie about your residential address for the purpose of scoring points to a “good” school for your children? If you did not, don’t you know someone who did? What options remains for you or your children to find a job solely based on what you know, not who you know? Did you end up going to the courts and paid the legal price when you got caught during your last traffic violation or did you “settle” that on the spot? What strings did you have to pull to get this approval or that? Just this morning a friend of mine said a very higher up civil servant friend of his in the eastern part of the country assured him a tank full of petrol without any hassle. Well, I can go on and on, but you get the point. So, if you or I answered affirmatively to any of the above presumptive situations, what right do we have to ask the crooks who run the country to go home without being hypocrite? Let anyone of you who without sin be the first to cast a stone (John 8:7). (By the way, this is in no way to defend or justify a corrupt regime, with Rajapaksa or any other name attached to it.) I know what you are thinking: getting a gas cylinder or a tankful of petrol by peddling influence is not as grave as embezzling three million dollars or cutting a billion-rupee commission deal, right? Well, now we are applying moral relativism to corruption. Allow me to remind what is crucial to corruption or what drives corruption: Power! Our level of corruption is positively correlated with the power we have. Higher the power, greater the corruption. I bet those insanely corrupt politicians we know were either clean or less corrupt when they were getting into politics decades ago. Because they simply didn’t have the power to be corrupted. I know this by experience because some of the notoriously corrupt politicians currently in the parliament were my university contemporaries in the 1970s. This, again, brings me back to the early story I cited. As Anura Kumara Dissanayake gleefully presented those 500+ files the underlying assumption is that they are clean. They maybe clean now because they do not have power. It is just a matter of time. History has proven it. To support my point let’s take a look at those who were with the JVP and hitched themselves to the powers that be and became ministers or landed on other rungs of the power ladder. Aren’t their files on those 500+ too? If not, the public knows that those files are incomplete.
I know it is a very gloomy picture that I have painted here and there appears to be nothing but hopelessness. Not so fast. There is hope. When it comes to figure out how to rein in corruption our own history is our north star.
In the absence of a better indicator let’s take a look at the ranking of countries by Transparency International. The nations on the top of the list – the least corrupt – did not become less corrupt because they are home to honest people or some all-powerful god blessed those countries with uncorrupted people. Honesty has nothing to do with where you are born. It is a randomly distributed variable, meaning there are very honest people in notoriously corrupted societies and there are super corrupt people in those countries that top the Transparency International list. What’s the trick, then?
Stop looking for uncorrupt people. They are in very short supply. Start building democratic institutions with checks and balances that can rein in corrupt people; make corruption a hard end to reach; and, when institutional order is broken make sure punishments are swift and painful. Build self-correcting agencies with teeth that no culprit got off scot-free and impunity is just a word that can only be found in a dictionary.
Allow me to conclude with an example from the country I currently live, the United States, that shows the resilience of institutional power and the power of the law. Our last President, Donald J. Trump, was one of the most corrupt presidents we had in our 245-year history. He tried, with not much success, to use the independent agencies of the US government as institutions to serve him. He blatantly tried to use the fiercely independent Attorney General’s office as his personal law office and the Attorney General as his personal lawyer. Most tellingly, and so unprecedentedly, when he finally lost the election he plotted, in vain, to use the government institutions to reverse the loss and even personally called some secretaries of states (in his own party) to “come up with votes” to secure his victory. His own Vice President refused to do what he was asked to do by saying that the Constitution does not allow him to do what his boss asked him to do. Why did he fail? The founders of the US created a governing system that didn’t count on “honest people” to run it. They drafted a set of rules, a very resilient Constitution, that bestowed power to institutions that were, for a large extent, kept corrupt people at bay. Yet it is still a work in progress as shown by Trump.
The writer can be reached at: email@example.com
Duty of Parliament vis-a-vis Article 42 of Constitution
By Dhara Wijayatilake
Attorney-at-Law and former
Is our Parliament worth the taxpayers’ money? In the light of recent happenings, the conduct of Parliamentarians has received much focus. The general sentiment articulated after observing Parliament sessions is one of disgust at the bickering that goes on, the lack of intelligent discourse on any subject, the lack of civility and respect for each other and the overall lack of discipline. Is there any justification for the colossal sums of the taxpayers’ money spent on sittings which yield no results that benefit the people?
The Prime Minister spoke in Parliament (17 May) of the need for a new culture. I believe what he desires to inspire is a non-adversarial, nonconfrontational culture focused on decision- making based on merit. Yes, Prime Minister, we the people are sick of what is happening in there. We the people are no longer interested in petty political bickering that adds no value to solving the current problems of this country. The Code of Conduct for MPs (2018) stands violated in many aspects, and with impunity. Some of the provisions of the Code are worth quoting to note the level of noncompliance –
Rule 30 – The Members shall exercise civility and use appropriate language in political discourse and specially in Parliamentary debate.
Rule 31 – No Member shall assault, harass or intimidate any persons.
Rule 32 – Every Member shall act in a manner that is respectful of his fellow Members and the Parliamentary staff and people of the country with dignity, courtesy and without diminishing the dignity of the Parliament.While the recent incidents of arson, looting and destruction deserve the highest and strongest condemnation, it is time to reflect on why such vengeance was considered justified by the perpetrators. Member Dullas Alahapperuma spoke with great wisdom when he called for retrospection consequent to recent events. It is one of the most useful contributions in the Parliament of recent times that I’ve listened to. As a student, I used to often sit in the gallery of the Parliament and listen to the debates. What quality! What wisdom! What intellect! Colvin, NM, JR, Ananda Tissa de Alwis …. and even the angry exchanges amongst and between them were rich in quality. What a treat it was to listen to them and what learning! And now … it’s just mayhem with a few good contributions for which we have to be thankful.
All of this begs another question. What focus has there been by the Members of Parliament on their responsibilities as Parliamentarians? This brings me also to the essence of Article 42 of the Constitution.
Article 42 of the Constitution states, “The President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions under the Constitution and any written law, including the law for the time being relating to public security.”
In simple language, this means not only that the President has a fundamental obligation to ensure that his powers, duties and functions are duly discharged but also that he is responsible to Parliament in that regard. When discussing the obligation of due discharge of powers, duties and functions several principles kick in. Some of these are that a holder of this office must ensure that national interest is upheld; power is exercised only for public good; the principle of public trust is upheld; the resources of the nation are utilised only for the benefit of the people, and … the list goes on.The purpose of this article, however, is not to examine the nature and scope of all that must be upheld by the office holder in discharging powers and duties of office, but to discuss the reciprocal duty of Parliament to ensure the due discharge of powers. It cannot be that Parliament has no role to play until things go sour. That would be tantamount to arguing that Parliament only has a disciplinary role, i. e., impeachment. It is difficult to accept that the role and responsibility of Parliament is merely of a disciplinary nature just because the holder of the office is the head of state.
Being “responsible to Parliament” means many things. Being “responsible and answerable to Parliament” also means many things. Parliament has adopted many devices to exercise its responsibility of surveillance including the oversight committee system, the Questions for Answer, Consultative Committee system, adjournment debates on special subjects, etc. Other functionaries and entities that are responsible and answerable to Parliament are required to appear before Parliament oversight Committees such as the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE), the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Finance (COPF). These Committees are established in terms of Standing Orders of Parliament. Officials can be called to present themselves before these Committees to be questioned on the due discharge of their responsibilities. The officials are bound to appear and to respond to questions and to submit information that is called for.
How does the Parliament carry out its responsibility with regard to the principle recognised in Article 42? A process that is specific to Article 42 does not appear to be in the Standing Orders currently in force. It is observed however that Parliament does have the power to provide for the necessary mechanism and process in terms of Article 74(1)(ii) of the Constitution, which provides that “subject to the provisions of the Constitution, Parliament may by resolution or Standing Order provide for the regulation of its business, the preservation of order at its sittings and any other matter for which provision is required or authorized to be so made by the Constitution.”
The events of recent times have highlighted the need to design a mechanism to have regular oversight in pursuance of its reciprocal duty, just as it does in the case of other functionaries. The mechanism would obviously have to be designed considering the constitutional limitations that apply when dealing with the head of state. Perhaps, if such a mechanism was in place, and if Parliament had exercised its duty with seriousness of purpose, this country may not have had to face the current situation which is widely accepted to be the result of unfortunate and meritless decision-making, albeit triggered by advice from others, rather than due to events that were beyond the control of the repository of power.
Ranil-Rajapaksa Interim Government and Cabinet are a betrayal of the People
by Rajan Philips
Whatever may have been the subjective intentions of Ranil Wickremesinghe in becoming Prime Minister for a beleaguered President, the objective outcomes of the new diarchic arrangement are now clearly in evidence. The desired political response to the protest movement that began in Mirihana, would have been the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the setting up of an ‘interim government.’ The interim government would not only provide urgent economic management but implement constitutional and electoral reforms.
One clear objective of the interim government is to reform the presidential system by doing away with the direct election of an executive president and providing for the Head of State to be elected (from among qualified citizens) as President by parliament, and for the Head of Government to be located in parliament as Prime Minister. In this new arrangement, the powers of the President could have been defined to address any implications that the removal of the current system might have for the functioning of the Provincial Councils system.
Specifically for the purpose of economic crisis management, the interim government was expected to bring in experts and professionals as cabinet ministers by first admitting them as MPs through the National List. This idea was widely popular and would have required the SLPP and even the SJB to sacrifice some of its current National List MPs to make way for new and better replacements. But neither party showed any willingness to do this, only the JVP did. Finally, the interim government was expected to achieve its objectives in a period of 12 to 18 months, and set the stage for general elections and for the people to elect a new parliament under a reformed presidency.
It is now clear that the events of May 9 and the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe have scuppered the interim government route to economic recovery and political reform. The appointment of nine more (there is nothing new about any of them) cabinet ministers on Friday further confirms that this is all the change that can be expected under the Ranil-Rajapaksa administration. There is no need to pick and parse individual cabinet ministers. The whole thing is a betrayal of the people. On top of all the economic hardships they have been forced to bear.
It is remarkable how the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe has changed the political dynamic from what it was before May 9 to what it is today. On the economic front, RW has brought more than a semblance of ministerial competence, where incompetence has been the rule not only for the last one and a half months but for the whole two and a half years under the current President. While there are furlongs to climb before the economy is out of the hole, the political consequences of RW’s intervention are quite immediate.
First, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s handling of the economic crisis would seem to have had a sedating influence on protest politics. This is possibly due to a general acknowledgement that the ‘new government’ should be given some time and space to implement its economic relief measures. There are and there will be protests over scarcity and prices, but they may not have the same political edge calling for resignations, as they very much were before May 9. This is not to say that that the dynamic will not change quite dramatically without even a moment’s notice. In fact, it can.
Second, there is a new dynamic in parliament, with almost unanimous support from all political parties, alliances and MPs for the Prime Minister’s economic initiatives. There is also reported parliamentary consensus that the Finance portfolio should stay with the Prime Minister, perhaps a recognition of his abilities and not his office. But on political and procedural issues, MPs, especially SLPP MPs, are content to stick with party-line voting. This was quite evident in the quite ridiculous votes for the election (yet again) of a Deputy Speaker and for suspending Standing Orders to debate a Motion of Displeasure on the President, and the even more ridiculous divisions they produced.
At the same time, SLPP MPs have openly started showing their internal cracks in providing multiple and conflicting versions of the background to the morning violence that spilled over from Temple Trees on Monday, May 9, and the afternoon rejoinders to it in other parts of the country. SLPP MPs and (former) Ministers are not only criticizing the police and the Secretaries but also one another for what transpired on that day. The recent spat in parliament between Ramesh Pathirana, former Plantations Minister, and his colleague Chandima Weerakkody MP, is quite indicative of the level of political interference that has been going on in the transfers and OIC appointments creating police incompetence and indiscipline in police stations.
Dr. Pathirana does not seem to have responded to Mr. Weerakkody’s and others’ criticisms over his interference in police matters. He doesn’t have to, because he has been reinstated to his same plantations portfolio in the Ranil-Rajapaksa cabinet. May be that is reward for his standing for the President and criticizing the police for the mayhem that spun out of Temple Trees on May 9. In fairness to him, his is not the only controversial appointment to the cabinet on Friday. In fact, every appointment is a disgrace and an insult to the people who have been protesting for positive changes in government.
The third consequence of Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming Prime Minister is that he has rescued the Rajapkasas even before he could do anything for the economy. The immediate upshot for the family is that they have had a week of respite since RW became PM. For President Rajapaksa, last week must have been the calmest week since the protests against him began in Mirihana on March 31. And after a week of sojourning in a naval safe house in Trincomalee, ex-PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and scion Namal Rajapakse are back in Colombo and even attended parliament.
For all this and more, the President and the rest of the Rajapaksa family, whether they are now a house divided or not, owe a mountain of gratitude to Ranil Wickremesinghe for stepping in so chivalrously and sedating the political situation that was toxically antagonistic towards the whole Rajapaksa family. Without Ranil Wickremesinghe’s intervention the Rajapaksas would not have had the reprieve they are having now. No one knows what their immediate political plans are, and no one knows what plans the police and Attorney General have to question the former Prime Minister on the background to the violence that spilled over from Temple Trees on May 9. Especially since other MPs have been questions, and some even arrested.
The political question of the day, however, is the future of the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Is the protest against him still strong enough to force an early resignation? Or has he weathered the storm to survive till his single term is over, or will he leave prematurely but when the political dust settles and in a more dignified manner than his brother? A second related question is what prospects are now left for achieving the political and constitutional reforms that seemed to be so within grasp before May 9?
Speaking reflectively in Parliament last week, Chamal Rajapaksa, the oldest of the brothers saw wisdom in hindsight and said that Mahinda Rajapaksa should have retired from politics when his second term as President ended. “One should be prepared to give up positions,” Mr. Rajapaksa, the elder, said. Shouldn’t this apply to Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well? It should and perhaps it would have but for the intervention of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Friday’s cabinet appointments have destroyed whatever economic goodwill that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may have mustered in the few days he has been Prime Minister. There is already bad blood in parliament over the co-option of SLFP and SJP MPs as cabinet ministers ignoring the decision of the two parties not to accept cabinet positions while supporting the economic initiatives of the Ranil-Rajapaksa government. Maithripala Sirisena has warned in parliament that the people will “lose confidence in the government too.”
The fact of the matter is that there is no new government and it has no confidence to lose. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have given some semblance of newness to the government based on his approach to handling the economic crisis. But if he had thought that he could handle the economy independent of politics, that has proved itself to be a gross miscalculation. In a well circulated tweet explaining why he could not accept a cabinet position in the current situation, SJB (ex-UNP) MP, and Economist, Harsha de Silva said that the Sri Lankan crisis “is a toxic combination of economics and politics. The resolution depends on both and my joining Cabinet as an ‘independent MP’ will only worsen the political crisis.” Ranil Wickremesinghe, the more experienced of the two, has just done that.
War at close quarters– oh, how unlovely !
by ECB Wijeyesinghe
When I was a schoolboy of eight at St. Benedict’s College, Colombo, I was made to stand on a platform and recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” With great gusto I rendered the passage, “Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them, Cannon behind them volleyed and thundered,” with fingers pointing to the appropriate points in the compass. I thought war was grand, especially when the audience began to cheer like mad.
Many years later when I with three others, stood on a hill barely 1,800 yards from the Japanese positions on the Arakan Front and watched the real stuff – the Allied guns and dive-bombers blasting the enemy strongholds all round us – our blood nearly froze in our veins.
As I told you last Sunday there were four of us: A.C. Stewart, Editor of “The Times of Ceylon,” G.J. Padmanabha, Deputy Editor of the “Ceylon Daily News,” K.V.S. Vas, Editor of “The Virakesari,” and myself representing “The Ceylon Observer.” Stewart was the most affluent of the Four Musketeers invited by Lord Mountbatten to see the last stages of World War II in Burma.
His flask of brandy, like the bottomless well at Puttur, never ran dry. So we huddled close to him, especially one cold night at a God-forsaken place called Comilla, on our way from Calcutta to Chittagong. It was not the low temperature alone that made us shiver. The Japanese were flying too close to us for our comfort, and the spotless white banian and cloth of Vas, the Brahmin, made us a sort of sitting target for the enemy snipers, who were all over the place.
Regarding that assignment it was not the rigours of the actual battle-front that have stuck in my mind so much as the amusing interludes at Chandpur, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and Maungdaw and finally the adventures in the streets of Calcutta.
If ever you travel from Calcutta to Chittagong I would advise you not to do the whole trip by train. Do part of it along the placid waters of the River Meghna, one of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The Chittagong-bound train from Calcutta leaves the city just before dawn and as one moves eastward the glory of the sunrise seen from the train, can only be compared to the view one gets on a clear day from Adam’s Peak.
After about six hours the train reaches a little station called Goulanda. It is on the banks of the Meghna and anchored by the side of a floating book-office is a steamer, flat-bottomed and paddle-wheeled. Probably the show-boats on the Mississippi, made famous in Negro song and history, were bigger models of these picturesque craft.
Padmanabha, who appeared to be in the mood for a little chanson about the black man’s burden, could not obey that impulse, owing to the noise made by a gang of labourers who were bearing their burdens accompanied by a chant resembling, the Volga boatman’s song. Some men were loading mysterious parcels probably with lethal potentialities, while others were engaged in the more mundane task of shovelling the silt with spades and pick-axes from the river’s edge.
We embarked on the boat just about noon, after an eight-hour train journey. In the little dining room red-turbaned waiters were busy laying the table. The smell of cooked food assailed the nostrils sharpening the appetites already made keen by swigs off Stewart’s flask of brandy. As the boat’s whistle went off, the romantic little craft was released from her moorings and somebody said it was time for lunch.
Not more that 20 people could sit at one and the same time, but that was quite enough, as there were not more than 20 on the upper deck, though there were many more in other parts of the boat. The soup tasted good. The fish, caught in the very waters in which were chugging along, was better. The next item was Irish stew, and Stewart, the Scotsman attacked it with fierce intensity.
To the three men from Ceylon, it was however the rice and curry that appealed most. Over little mounds of snow-white, thin, long-grained Delhi rice large chunks of chicken, curried in Indian fashion, were placed. There was dhal in abundance and papadams, which greatly pleased our Brahmin companion.
Next to me sat a strapping big Borah contractor from Dacca. He went through every course with a zeal worthy of a better cause. When it came to the curry he thought he should say a few words. “This is done in our Bengal style,” he said, smacking his lips after consuming two platefuls of rice. He helped himself to two more pieces of chicken and asked me whether I liked it, but there was no more to be had.
My Borah neighbour, in a loud voice then called for the pudding. One could close one’s eyes and say that he liked that, too. He did not care for the coffee. The cups were too small for his taste.
The siesta in the two-berth cabin was disturbed by the call for tea. As we emerged on deck again, we were told we were passing the birth-place of C.R. Das, the great Indian nationalist. So through the silence of the waters, broken only by the cacophonous calls of kites and sea-gulls, we reached Chandpur the last port of call on the road to Chittagong.
I was glad in one way that the Japanese had bombed Chittagong. The very look of the place at that time created a violent prejudice. Going through the main street was like going through Reclamation Road and coming out at Sea Street. It was dusty, dirty and unhealthy. I slept there under a mosquito net. In the morning, when I rose I thought I had disturbed a hive of bees.
There they were, thousands of big fat mosquitoes trying to force, like big fat rugger forwards, an entrance through the narrow apertures of the curtain. Had the net not covered me while I slept, I am afraid I would not have been alive to tell this tale.
It is almost impossible to compress within the narrow compass of this column, what happened during the two or three weeks on a battle-port. Or, to describe the things we saw or the people we met. For example, the quaint sight of attractive Burmese women carrying small children, but smoking big black cheroots, the vast plains near Cox’s bazaar over-run by snipe and teal, the transit military camps where one had to walk about one hundred yards from the dormitory to the latrines – which incidentally had no doors – the bully beef diet, the marvellous physiques of the Indian soldiers nourished on chappatis and a little ghee and the spirit of camaraderie of all the Allied military personnel.
But I must get back to Calcutta and tell you an interesting story about a foreigner who made a strange request. We were in the Grand Hotel and after breakfast, while the others were spending their last few pice in the Hogg market where you can buy anything you can think of, I was ruminating awhile, watching the passing pageant on the pavement.
The hotel is situated in Chowringhee. the main street of Calcutta, which every school boy knows is about five times the size of Colombo. I was in deep thought when I was suddenly accosted by a man dressed in grey flannels and a white shirt. His eyes were red, his feet were unsteady and every time he exhaled the air was filled with the aroma of some potent liquor.
As he looked up at me I noticed that something was worrying him. Discontent was written on his face. He grabbed me by the shoulder. My heart went out to him. Here was a man, I thought, a Stranger in a strange land, needing help. Obviously he believed I was an Indian and I asked him what I could do for him. “Do ?” he growled and spat out. I was about to leave him and allow him to enjoy the headache he had acquired at that early hour — it was about eight-thirty — when he spoke again.
“Do you know I come from Ceylon?” he blurted out in a thick Scottish brogue. Until then I knew he was a European but could not identify his nationality. Of course, the going was bound to be good after that. The magic word Ceylon made me prick up my ears. While he clung to my shoulders I clutched at his elbow. It must have been a moving sight.
Smartly dressed Anglo-Indian girls on their way to work giggled as they passed by. A British officer who seemed to sum up the situation at a glance gave a sympathetic wink and walked on. The usual crowd was beginning to collect. I suggested moving up. He assented. We stopped at a popular joint called Firpo’s and then he poured forth his soul.
He was a seaman. He had been to many lands and visited strange countries. Forty years he had spent on the ocean wave. Born and bred among the distilleries in the Highlands, he had acquired a penchant for the strong brew that comes from Scotland. But his heart was in Ceylon. He told me how beautiful it was. He spoke of Colombo with a gulp in his throat and of the little hotel in Chatham Street, named after a famous Admiral, where he used to stay. I was silent. He went on talking. Time was marching on. I could have listened to him till dusk. Finally as he bade me good-bye he said: “You must visit Ceylon some day.”
“I suppose I must,” I murmured, and passed on.
There was one disappointment on this otherwise most instructive and entertaining trip. I wonder whether you remember reading about the Black Hole of Calcutta. It happened about 220 years ago when a fellow called Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the Nawab of Bengal, suddenly lost his temper and attacked the British East India Co.
The Nawab collared 146 Empire builders, all Englishmen of course, and in order to test certain theories he had about space, he shoved them into a dungeon less than 20 feet square. Naturally, there was not enough air to go round and 123 British bodies were discovered the following morning. The other 23, who were half dead managed to tell their tale of woe to Lord Clive, who naturally took a serious view of the Nawab’s cruel joke.
Three thousand British troops were summoned and English history books tell us that they made mince-meat of the Nawab’s force of 50,000. Clive’s men were probably armed with guns while the Nawab’s men must have had lovely swords and axes. Anyhow, this was one little hole in Calcutta that I wished to see but our guide pretended not to have heard of it. He was a Bengali.
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Sunday Island 27 December – Headlines
News3 days ago
Canadian declaration of ‘Tamil genocide’ may influence European parliaments, EU – Maj. Gen. (retd.) Gallage
News6 days ago
Unprovoked attacks: AG asked to consider taking legal action against MR, others under ICCPR
News1 day ago
Two views on Gota going, food crisis threat by August: Ranil
News2 days ago
PM blames ‘last administration’ for country’s current crisis
News4 days ago
Wimal asks for PSC probe into top officials’ complicity in violence
News2 days ago
SJB, FSP agree on common agenda
News5 days ago
IGP, Public Security Ministry Secy. allowed SLPP goon attacks – Wimal
Editorial5 days ago
Grusha, Ranil and divided House