by Sanjeewa Jayaweera
“No Chutta, I don’t need your help today. I will let you know when I need it.” were the last words that Aiya spoke to me. Usually, his tone was brusque and matter of fact. That day it was soft and endearing. I was a bit surprised but happy. I often wish I had the intuition to guess something was amiss.
It is now three months since my brother passed away. The intense grief and the sense of tragic loss that my three sisters and I feel have not abated. The heaviness in our hearts is still there.
As in most cases of suicide, many have posed the question “Why did he do this?” Many of his closest friends were bewildered. They did not detect any sign of depression or unhappiness. Neither did I. He was not depressed but indeed weary of life.
His letter to me, which unfortunately found its way to media outlets, websites and social media conveyed his apprehension about a couple of health issues that might impact the quality of his life in the future.
As his brother and closest confidant, I believe his following comments reveal his mindset. In his letter to me, he said, “In the final analysis, I have lived my life in full. I now see little or no reason to continue as the many negatives far outweigh few positives left. Therefore, I look forward to my departure.” In another post he said, “Left in my own time, achieving most if not all I wanted, now tired of it all and with no further reasons to stay on”. He did not elaborate as to why he felt “tired of it all” but followed the motto of Michelle Obama “When others go low, we go high”.
When I recently visited his grave, I saw a post in the cemetery that said, “Death is a delightful hiding place for men who are weary of life”. Many who desperately try to prolong their life in this world despite various challenges would find it hard to understand this. However, I do not.
Aiya was the second of five children, was born in 1956, a few days before the eighth-independence celebration day of Sri Lanka (Ceylon then). My sisters often used to tease my mother saying Aiya was her favourite! He was fortunate to get overseas exposure in his early years in Singapore and then India.
When the family returned to Sri Lanka in 1962, he and I were admitted to Nalanda Vidyalaya. Despite returning Foreign Service Officers having the option of choosing any school, my father had wanted us to be exposed to children from different backgrounds and not just the elite. Although Aiya was at Nalanda only for eight years before proceeding overseas, I believe his thinking on social issues impacting our country was somewhat fashioned by the value system that prevailed in schools such as Nalanda and Ananda at that time.
Our family proceeded overseas in 1970 and experienced the biting winter in Russia. After just one year, our father sought and got a transfer to the warmer climate of Pakistan.
After passing his GCE Ordinary Level exam in Islamabad, Rajeewa wanted to move to Karachi to do his Advanced Level exam. The reason was that Islamabad despite being the capital city, was a sleepy little town with no social life! Despite Ammi’s reluctance as he was only 17 years, he prevailed. Even then, Aiya was his own man!
In 1975 he moved with the rest of the family to West Germany. In 1980 he Graduated from the School of Economics specializing in the Catering and Hotel Trade in Dortmund. Only a few weeks before his death, he fondly reminisced on challenges he faced in having to learn the German language and maintain his grades. He said that in the first two years, several students left, but he persevered although he had to study twice as hard to ensure continuance at the institute because of the language problem. But he did it! He worked at several hotels in West Germany as part of his internship, and his stint at the Steinberger Hotel in Bonn from 1975 to 1977 exposed him to hosting of State Banquets for dignitaries like the Shah of Iran and other world figures. The disciplines he learnt were to stand him in good stead even in later years of his life when organizing official functions and dinners. All his life, he was able to know good wines from mediocre ones. He well understood the art of perfect entertaining.
He returned to Sri Lanka in 1980 and worked in the hotel trade till 1986 when he went to work in Mosul in Iraq. On his return, he decided to switch careers and joined Air Lanka in 1989 as a Marketing Executive. He quickly proved his capabilities and was appointed as the Manager of Marketing Communications in 1992. After that, he did stints in Oman, Chennai and then France as the Country Manager. In Chennai, he was Manager of the whole of Southern India.
He returned from France in 2005 and after resigning from Sri Lankan Airlines he joined Qatar Airlines as the Regional Manager for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, and Myanmar. In 2010 he rejoined Sri Lankan Airlines on a two-year contract and was appointed as the Country Manager for Germany. However, his contract was prematurely terminated by the Sri Lankan Board in May 2011.
The reason was that Rajeewa refused a request by a VVIP who had a penchant for the welfare of airline flight attendants! He was told to arrange for an officer of the Sri Lankan Airlines Frankfurt office to meet two flight attendants who were returning by train from Berlin. They were then to be assisted and placed on board the train going to the Frankfurt airport.
As the day concerned was a Sunday, Rajeewa said that in Germany it was not possible to ask staff to work and as such he could not accede to the request. He also believed the ladies concerned were seasoned travellers and that there was no reason for them to be met and assisted. The net result was that his contract was terminated shortly after.
He was not a person who suffered fools gladly. He was known to be a firm administrator who discharged his responsibilities diligently and efficiently. A former boss of his at Sri Lankan Airlines told me recently that most of Rajeewa’s overseas postings were to places where contentious issues had to be resolved and that there was no better person than him to be assigned.
He always got the job done. He was forthright and not a “YES” man. He said what he had to say quite openly irrespective of the consequences. This forthrightness, at times, negatively impacted his career as well as his personal relationships. At times because of this, people did not always see the softer side of him.
His devotion to his parents was exemplary. He checked all their requirements and attended to them even, from overseas. When he was in France, my parents spent every summer with him and despite his hectic schedule he would take them sightseeing during the weekends to various locations. Both my parents were of the view that the time spent in Paris with Aiya were some of the happiest they have had.
When Ammi passed away, we soon realized that Thathi was neglecting himself. The cooked meals sent by Rajeewa were not being consumed. He, soon took charge and employed two attendants to look after him and spent about four to five hours every day, ensuring that Thathi was shaved, bathed, exercised and fed. All this was done diligently under his supervision. He ran the household with military precision! The menu for 21 meals for the week was on a magi board! I remember him telling me “Chutta, with your workload at JKH you don’t have the time. I will do the needful.”
My brother has written three articles about the different phases of his relationship with our father. As a teenager, he rebelled and was at odds with Thathi’s thinking. However, he was the one who was the proudest of our father’s achievements and personal attributes.
When visiting Germany during Thathi’s tenure as Ambassador, Rajeewa discovered that he was planning to order a Volkswagen Golf as his private vehicle to be brought back to Sri Lanka at the end of his assignment. Vainly he protested telling Thathi that most returning Ambassadors brought back Mercedes Benzes or BMWs from stints abroad as they could be brought in duty-free. Thathi’s reply was that he was buying a car to take him and Ammi from point A to point B and a small car was more than adequate. Rajeewa found such attitudes challenging and did not always understand such actions!
Twenty-seven years later, when Rajeewa retired from full-time work and relocated to Sri Lanka, he had to decide on a car and opted for a small Toyota Aqua despite being financially able to afford a higher-grade car. Chatting over a drink about the choice of the vehicle, and he said that he now understood Thathi’s thinking and principled way of life. He also said that he now fully appreciated one of our father’s often-repeated phrases “Class is something that you are born with and not what you acquire. It is not based on how much money you have in your bank accounts or the assets you own.”
As a brother, he was my friend, confidant, mentor, and comrade in arms! He was never intrusive. The advice given was on a take it or leave it basis and nearly always only when sought. I always knew that he was there for me and likewise, that I was there for him. When I look back it was, he who always helped me, and my greatest regret is that I did not have the opportunity to reciprocate. He rarely asked for any help.
He took great pleasure in my success at John Keells. I still recall how, after three years working as an accountant, a senior director, decided to join a competitor. He offered me a job at his new place of employment and promised a two-fold salary increase and a fully maintained official vehicle! I was delighted. However, before accepting the offer, I sought Aiya’s guidance over a drink. When I mentioned the job offer and details of the prospective employer, his reaction was “Chutta, you are an idiot if you don’t know the difference between the JKH brand and that of the other!”. That was the end of the discussion. When I was appointed a director at JKH four years later, Aiya jokingly asked me “Hope you remember our conversation”!
When I returned to Sri Lanka from London, I was a bachelor living near to Aiya’s. He used to provide me with meals and pick me up and drop me at work until I got my car six months later. When I got married, he told my wife, “Deepthi, you don’t need to cook lunch as you are working. I will continue to provide meals for both of you”. Such was the amazingly soft and considerate side of him.
Rajeewa was a proud Sri Lankan. In several articles, he expressed his displeasure as to how certain western countries were attempting to hold Sri Lanka to account to standards which they themselves do not adhere to. He was also critical of the role played by India in the late 1970s and 1980s in promoting terrorism in our country.
In one of the boxes, he left behind for me is a personal letter from The Rt. Hon. The Lord Naseby PC to Rajeewa. The letter was enclosed in the copy of Lord Naseby’s book “Sri Lanka – Paradise Lost Paradise Regained.”
The final paragraph of the letter reads as follows “I hope you enjoy the read: maybe if I am lucky it will turn out in itself to be the match to light the lamp that takes Sri Lanka forward to be better understood by the West and admired by others. I look forward to reading your review in due course.” It was unfortunate that he did not have the time to review the book written by a person whom he admired greatly and felt indebted for having spoken passionately on behalf of our country.
The decision to gift Rs. 1 million to the domestic as well as Rs. 500,000 to the Presidential Fund for COVID are examples of his generosity and his sense of duty. In the covering letter sent to the President’s Fund, he had stated that as a beneficiary of free education received, he felt that it was his duty to donate despite having paid Income tax for several decades.
He paid his Income Tax for the year 2019/20 just a few weeks before his death. He wanted me to compute the income tax payment for quarter 1 of 2020/21. He got annoyed when I told him that it was too early to calculate and in any case the payment is due only in August. Upon enquiry, I found that he had settled all his credit card dues. He wanted to ensure that he owed neither the state nor anyone else anything.
I believe that it was as a regular contributor to the Sunday Island and the Island from 2013 onwards that he found his niche in life. It gave him a purpose as all his articles were well researched and supported by facts. He was a fearless and a non-partisan writer in a country where most hide and use non de plumes when expressing opinions on controversial issues impacting the country.
He had contributed over 325 articles since 2013. I reproduce below some of the tributes paid to him by fellow scribes and readers of his articles.
“A trenchant, well-informed writer, his contributions that included incisive political analysis, were without fear or favour. He was the most knowledgeable writer on Sri Lankan Airlines in the Sri Lankan press drawing from an information bank in his head and using his ability to dig deep into the affairs of the airline which he had served long” – Manik Silva – Editor of Sunday Island
“Of course, Rajeewa Jayaweera was not my friend. I never saw him in person, nor heard him, but I had once seen his picture in a web publication. However, I saw him well enough through his writings as a fellow contributor to The Island, and experienced a latent relationship with him as a person whose intellectual grasp of our country’s burning issues, and whose concerns and attitudes relating to them generally matched mine; I felt as if I had known him closely as a friend for some time. I was impressed by the meticulous attention he paid to his language in expressing his ideas precisely (a characteristic in truth-tellers)”. –Rohana Wasala
“The well-researched analysis, on many topics, too numerous to list were factual, objectively composed and fair to everyone. He was a prolific writer on matters of public interest, providing knowledge and insights to inform and enrich our lives. His writings were always non-partisan. He wrote on all sorts of public issues, ranging from corruption, in public places, to civil aviation. He was at his best on diplomatic issues, and foreign affairs, given his family background”. – Dr D Chandrarathna
“He will be remembered by many as a courageous writer who put vital and scandalous information of Sri Lankan Airlines into the public domain, through the media. I always remember this impeccably dressed handsome marketeer who turned to be a prolific writer, placing his authority in a topic he knew like the back of his hand” – Ranjith Samaranayake
“The unbroken thread that ran through his essays was impartiality. Political angles did not influence his writings. He offered no respect to the dishonest, and those professionals who failed to preserve the national interest and dignity in office. He was fearless in the expression of his beliefs, convictions and conclusions, and was undaunted by reaction and reproach. He wrote without fear and prejudice. There was much to learn and absorb from his writings, particularly because intense research underpinned his analyses and conclusions. Reading him was a process of enlightenment, enrichment and education” – SDIG (Retired) Merril Gunaratne
“I genuinely miss Rajeewa. I probably saw the best in his incisive mind and greatly talented personality. I always looked forward to reading whatever he wrote, and we had lively discussions on topics of the day.”
I think the tributes encapsulate Rajeewa’s contribution as a journalist and the respect with which others of similar ilk held him.
Many have asked me why he chose the Independence Square? It was a close friend of his who explained that it was symbolic. It was his “independence” from a life of which he was truly weary.
Solidarity and Aragalaya: A few thoughts from an educationist’s perspective
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
No solutions to nation’s problems from draft constitutional amendment
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.
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.
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.
Kehelgamuwa’s football skills and President Premadasa’s political sagacity
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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