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Rolling out holistic solution to perennial problem of laws’ delays



Speech delivered by

M.U.M. Ali Sabry, PC 

Minister of Justice

at the 47th Annual Convocation of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka on the 27t March 2021 at the BMICH.

Your Lordship the Chief Justice, Hon. Attorney General, Your Lordships the judges of the superior courts, the President of the Bar Association and outgoing President, Committee members and my learned friends.

It is a pleasure to be here today, amongst the familiar faces I am used to seeing across the bar table for many years.

Firstly, I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to Mr. Saliya Peiris, President’s Counsel who won the election as well as the newly appointed members of the Exco. The bar has chosen you as its leader, and I wish you the strength and the determination in performing this important task. You carry on your shoulders the responsibility of guiding this noble profession in the years to come, and I have no doubt that you will continue to maintain the traditions of the bar whilst ensuring that the bar remains apolitical and stands up for the rule of law without fear or favour.

The last year has been a tough one, to say the least, and it is commendable that the BASL throughout this period was actively involved in finding solutions to ongoing problems, and was supportive of its members, the judicial administrative staff and litigants. You have done a great job, and I hope to see the good work continue.

The legal profession is one which has no equal. I say this because, there rests on the profession and with it the Bar Association a heavy responsibility to the citizens of this country, and to the country itself. It has a vital role in protecting the rule of law, maintaining the independence of the judiciary and protecting the sovereignty of the country. This responsibility is not a passive one, it is a positive one where there is a need for the legal profession to be at the forefront of positive social change.

To put this in context, as Judge Sanji Monageng, the First Vice-President of the International Criminal Court, in a speech delivered at the The Hague, on 20 November 2012 stated that:

“…the rule of law and the proper administration of justice, of which an independent judiciary and legal profession are prerequisites, play a central role in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

This role has been universally recognized even by the United Nations as enunciated in Principle 16 of the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

Lawyers therefore form a core part of the judicial arm of the state. It would be easy to assume by its very wording that the judicial arm consists of judges and courts, but that assumption would be far from the truth. After all, what would be the use of the biggest courthouses or the best judges if the parties can’t be heard? Lawyers are by their very nature officers of court and on many levels the gatekeepers to justice.

The journal article titled “ABA Canons of Professional Ethics” published by the American Bar Association, addressed this very important point. It stated that:

“the stability of Courts and of all departments of government rests upon the approval of the people, it is peculiarly essential that the system for establishing and dispensing Justice be developed to a high point of efficiency and so maintained that the public shall have absolute confidence in the integrity and impartiality of its administration. The future of the Republic, to a great extent, depends upon our maintenance of Justice pure and unsullied.

Thus, the role of a lawyer is not merely one of representing or advising clients for payment. It comes with a high level of responsibility, an overriding need for ethical behaviour, a sense of justice and a national duty. There is an overarching need for the public to have confidence and trust that justice is dispensed from the justice system. In this context, the legal profession has a duty of instilling and maintaining this public confidence and trust in the system.

Looking at the rich history of the legal profession in Sri Lanka, we can be proud of its independence, its contribution to legal jurisprudence and the persons who have come from it over the decades. We have produced world-class lawyers, jurists and judges and have contributed at a disproportionately high level to international law considering the size of our profession.

It would be easy to rest on these laurels and reminisce, and also to be content with the legal profession and the justice administration system as it currently stands, but I believe we need to have a serious reality check. I wasn’t certain that today would be the most suitable place to bring this up, but this is the first opportunity I am getting to talk to my colleagues, the representatives of the judiciary and the official and unofficial bar at the same forum. Therefore, I did not want to miss this opportunity to discuss what, in my opinion, should be front and centre of our journey over the next few years.

As I have mentioned before,

-the average time to enforce a contract in Sri Lanka is 1318 days

-We have been ranked 161 out of 189 countries for the enforcement of contracts

-Our legal system is ranked 5th out of 8 in South Asia.

-Land, Partition and Testamentary cases on average take a generation to be settled.

-A criminal trial takes on average 9 ½ years to conclude in the High Court.

-A criminal matter on average will take a year to be fixed for appeal and 3-4 years for the said appeal to be completed.

We are all very aware that the underlying issues in delay, amongst other matters, is the sheer number of cases before court, and the massive backlog which in turn has resulted in litigation stagnating.

At the end of 2019, there were a total of 766,784 cases pending in our courts, and we had approximately 350 judges to hear these cases. Let us ask ourselves the obvious question – how on earth is an individual judge supposed to manage such a caseload? Even if they were to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week there would be no logical way to get through this backlog within any reasonable period of time. The outdated laws and the lack of appetite for innovative steps and technological advancement has only served to make matters worse.

This overburdening of judges is reflected in our score on the ‘judges per 1 million population’ index. Countries such as Russia have 242 judges per 1 million population, Germany has 230 and Thailand has 68. India which has been relentlessly criticized for its low number of judges has 20 per million. And our number? 15. Just 15 judges per million population. A reflection of how much of a monumental and humanly impossible task we are expecting our current judiciary to achieve.

These indicators are not just an academic exercise – they reflect the ground reality of the current state of the administration of justice in our country. On a domestic level, the results are quite obvious – how many times have we advised clients at consultations that they need to be ready for a ‘long-haul’ case, and in response to the question ‘how long?’ we have replied ‘years.’ We have been within this system for as long as we can remember, the fact that a case takes years, or the fact that the dates between two trial dates is months does not seem the least bit abnormal to us. We have become desensitized to the plight of our litigants and we do not feel the sting unless it’s one of our own personal cases.


This level of delay and inefficiency are not only inconvenient and unfair to the citizens, they have far reaching implications for the future of this Country. Investors are apprehensive about trusting their money in a place with high risk of loss in case of a dispute. Market research of the region prior to any investment would result in investors flocking to the countries high on these indexes, thus we are losing in the long term and we are losing big. Our neighbours understood this early on and started their own competitive drive to rank higher on these indexes and bring the issue of delay and inefficiency of the justice system under control. Take Pakistan for example – in 2018, they were ranked 147 in the ease of doing business index. By 2019, they managed to get to 136. However, from 2019 to 2020 they jumped a staggering 28 places and were ranked 108. This is a clear display of how commitment, focus and drive towards fixing the legal system can result in unthinkable results within a short period of time.

India too has been taking some dynamic strides in its modernization drive. It adopted e-filing earlier on during the pandemic and has commenced a push for digitization of its judicial administration system. In terms of corporate or connected litigation, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs has digitized its entire process and database to the extent that certified copies of Company documents can be obtained through an online process which is admissible evidence in Court.

The United Kingdom is establishing Online Courts which initially was due to the pandemic but will most certainly continue to develop and grow. They also started night sessions for Court hearings to clear the backlog.

In the last few years, Chinese courts have seen rapid developments in online dispute resolution platforms, specialized Internet courts, and the wide use of Artificial Intelligence across the case management and adjudication process in civil and criminal proceedings. They have also adopted other new technologies such as distributed ledgers, blockchain and smart contracts solutions which have been developed and rolled out in specialized courts.

Over the course of 2019, the Estonian Ministry of Justice developed and piloted an artificial intelligence software to hear and decide on small claims disputes less than €7,000.

This is the rapid level at which the other countries have progressed whilst we are still at a stage where cases in the District Court get postponed on multiple occasions, sometimes over a year because summons had not been served on the Post Office so that an employee can give evidence on one postal article receipt to establish that the letter of demand had been sent. Is that not, for lack of a better word, absurd?

Ever since I have taken over the office of the Minister of Justice one common issue is that most of who I meet, across the social and economic spectrum has a complaint about a case which has been pending for years. The Ministry is inundated almost every day with letters by litigants from all over the country complaining about laws’ delays.

We have been comfortable with the status quo for decades, and it’s time we realized that the status quo is just not working. Not only is it not giving any positive results, its actually dragging us backwards by destroying the public trust and confidence that is a pre-requisite for the judicial administration system of the country to function.

We must find a way out of this. It is time that we in Sri Lanka take a page out the books of these countries. It is encouraging that over the last few months we have taken steps towards achieving this. The E-hearing rules issued by the Supreme Court, the provisions made for E-filing as well as the adoption of giving bail online by the Magistrate’s Court are important steps in the right direction. This, however, is not going to be enough. It is vital that we look at a complete structural change from end to end and roll it out in a targeted and efficient way. We have to stop looking at the legal profession as one which exists solely for the sustenance of its members, but as one which plays a much more important role as a public centric body which is driving the justice system forward – one which is ready to innovate, to evolve and to take the right decisions at the right time to create a paradigm shift in the administration of justice. This shift should not be merely one which is a marginal improvement of numbers and statistics – it should be a shift which is felt at the ground level. One where litigants feel that litigation will bring them justice, and it will bring it to them faster than before.

Hence, it is a priority of the government to roll out a holistic solution to this perennial problem of laws’ delays and to resolve this issue.

One which would be a game-changer is to put in motion a practical strategy to take a massive leap in the efficiency of hearing cases. Sri Lanka has close to 800,000 pending cases at the moment and there is no strategy for them in terms of time to conclude. We have to bring in a practical timeline for a disposal of a case and work backwards and put the pieces of the puzzle together to achieve that goal. The future of litigation is in smaller smart courts which can parallelly hear a multitude of cases in a single location, whilst also allocating specific time slots for cases to avoid unnecessary delay to the litigant and lawyer.

In pursuance of this, we are determined to double the number of judges within the next 5 years. As you are aware, the House of Justice project was launched a few weeks ago, and we hope to have the first tower constructed within a short period of time. Pre-trial procedure is to be streamlined and revamped so that it would serve a key factor in cutting down litigation time. The establishment of a ‘Small Claims Court’ is being planned and Debt Conciliation and mediation are being considered as mainstream solutions working in tandem with the courts. One of the vital reforms that are coming in is Digitization and Court automation which is currently at the procurement stage.

There has also been key progress made over the last few months. The increase of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges was the first such increase in over 40 years. Justice sector reform has been allocated a record 20 billion from the budget which reflects the largest ever commitment by a government towards the reform of the justice sector. Just earlier this week I was informed by the Government Analyst’s Department that the backlog of outstanding reports numbering approximately 8000 had been cleared in the four months even in the midst of the pandemic due to a multi-pronged approach which we have introduced since then. The measures taken include increasing the cadre, working on two shifts, digitizing the expertise from other institutions and dedicated supervision by a sector specialist.

What this shows is that with commitment, a steel will and the ability to get out of your comfort zone unthinkable results can be achieved within very short periods of time. We should no longer think of fixing this system as a long drawn out, arduous process for our successors to deal with – we have to think of it as something we are capable of doing here and now.

It’s time we looked at moving away from our all too familiar 9.30 or 10.00 am start in Court where everyone sits around waiting for the case to be taken up. This is just not sustainable anymore, and it seriously cuts into the lawyers’ and litigants’ productivity. We should not be afraid to innovate and think out-of-the-box in terms of how we can solve the issues that are being faced – its time we look at case management and allocation of time slots for hearings. Its time we that we hear cases online and embrace technology to shorten delays in matters such as serving of summons and the proving of documents. We must think about reforming our legal system as a whole to be more technological – from sharing calendars to determine the dates of a hearing to the maintenance of records, we need to reduce the dependency on manual processes. Its time we adopted procedures and techniques such as skeleton arguments to cut down the time taken for a hearing. These are all steps that other countries have taken, for which they have been rewarded with judicial administration systems that have pushed their countries forward. My question to you is, If Singapore, Malaysia, Korea and so many others can reinvent themselves, why can’t we?

These reforms will be far reaching, and if they are seen through will permanently change the landscape of the profession and this country. We need to make this happen, and for that we need to work together towards this common goal. The process may not be a walk in the park, and it would certainly have some initial creases that to be ironed out, but if we can commit to what is needed to be done, I am certain we can pull this off. I am aware that the best of ideas and progress can fall to abeyance if you have to swim against the tide, which is why I hope that the bar and its members will cooperate with us to achieve this.

The road to make these changes may test our will, may require us to get out of our comfort zone, to go that extra mile and to commit to breaking the status quo.

Let us be remembered as the generation of lawyers and judges that took this country to the next level and the ones that put our justice system on the map. We have the opportunity to make the paradigm shift, and we must go for it with our heart and soul.

Let’s get this done.

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India Forges ahead even arts-wise; Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy (?)



Hope springs eternal in the human breast, it is said, but if the breast is of a national-minded Sri Lankan, hope cannot rise; it is stifled by fear, worry, frustration and stark disappointment. Government persons are flapping their upper limbs and crowing about improvement in the economy; nothing much for us Ordinaries to experience or savour.

The President has announced the thuttu deke Sri Lankan rupee has risen against the dollar as if he had achieved the fall in the price of the dollar himself with his great economic expertise. Yes, the value of the dollar has declined from its 360 plus worth but if anyone has to be thanked, Cass boldly affirms, it is the Governor of the Central Bank, bless him, our Saviour at this moment. He works cleverly we have to presume, with dedication and loyalty to the nation, gaining nothing himself except his remuneration which we believe he could very well have done without as he was recalled from retirement in Australia to haul the nation out of the economic blackhole it had been pushed into by its own bigwigs – a past Prez, a former PM who, when he was Prez, borrowed mostly from the Chinaman to build his Ozymandias constructions to have his name emblazoned on them. Assisting these two, pulling the strings and side driving in government, was a former Minister of Finance who absented himself often from Parliament when the budget he presented was being discussed. Then there were ministry secretaries and CB high ups and a Gov himself who helped in pushing the rupee to near worthlessness and the country firmly into bankruptcy. This they did in brotherhood, three of them, and unitedly, willfully and most insanely with glaring mismanagement and mistakes.

And we sit and mourn and suffer on account of their mistakes. Some rose in unison and protested and we saw drastic changes in top positions but not in structures and systems. Naturally, and to be accepted, is the fact that recovery will be very slow and very painful. Those who rise up in protest now – chief among them being the IUSF and persons like Stalin whoever – are only a menace and obstacle to whatever economic progress is underway. We see and hear some of the earlier bootlickers of the R clan, or their kith and kin, pontificating again. Cass mentioned three such in her last week’s column. Add to them a horizontally gifted Minister who is guilty of and charged in court for soliciting payment to do some job he had to do; and another who is associated, wrongly or rightly Cass knows not, in the drug trade. He came to the limelight when rescued in a VVIP power driven helicopter with the said power as an actual presence. Only blood relatives are thus treated!

This is miserable Sri Lanka’s side of the picture. Cass cannot help but create the analogy of a beautiful damsel who pleases in every way, being raped by greed and lack of any sense of decency or humanity but totally for selfish gain by rapacious persons to gain power and enjoy the perks accompanying. Thus, she is grievously harmed and injured both physically and mentally. A brave person comes along and rescues her and attempts giving her the chance to recapture her charms. Cass supposes this could be the present Gov of the CB and not the IMF which organization has its own agenda.

And, so we have secured IMF emergency funding. We hear congratulations to Prez Ranil W being extended by SLPP MPs in Parliament. The SLPP may gloat but the Prez has wisely warned our troubles are far from over. TV1 in its news broadcast on W  ednesday night had an accurate recalling of how the IMF loan came to be granted.

Hearing the loan was approved and the first tranche would soon be released had the immediate image crossing Cass’ mind of some in power salivating with selfish greed to get their hands on bits of it. But to her great delight she finds that one superb condition, loudly greeted, of granting relief through the IMF is that corruption must be reduced and eradicated. Tall order but it is there in black and white so maybe ticking minds will slow down and seeking/grabbing hands held back.

My title speaks of India. Yes, it is outstandingly clear how far India has progressed in its development and position it now holds in the world. She was burdened with a huge and ever bloating population; widespread poverty; a high percent of illiteracy and lack of education; internecine strife between races and religions and the ever-bubbling Kashmir problem. But just see how far she has progressed, outpacing some developed countries, almost on par with China and courted by the US and EU. I remember vividly a cartoon seen when she entered the Nuclear Club which had just five members. The cartoon showed a bare-bodied man in a dhoti entering a posh club with its wide chairs and bar. India now hopes to join the outer space travellers’ club. There was rampant corruption but laws and the right for the public to report and even bring to Court malpractices of bureaucrats and politicians has reduced the prevalence of this canker. Vigilante groups rendered great service.

I mentioned the arts in my title. This because India has bagged two Oscars this year, one for best short documentary and the other for best song. I watched both films: Elephant whisperers and RRR. The first was of an elephant nursery in South India. I thought our Uda Walawe elephant orphanage where abandoned infant animals are nurtured and rehabilitated to go back to their jungle living could have been filmed to an even better documentary. RRR had the rousing song Naatu, Naatu. Goodness! It was a typical South Indian, though Hindi film of impossible feats of bravery, blood drenched and insanely melodramatic. But the songs were superb.

It was said three conditions held the vast subcontinent as one country – after Pakistan broke away. They were: the continuation of democracy and the efficient bureaucracy the British left; the widespread use of English and it being the main language of communication between the centre and states; and communication in the way of a wide web of railways. Cass feels the most important positive that not only held the country as one vast collection of states but also aided its development and march forward to be one of the VIP countries of the world is that Indians are first and last Indians, whether of the south, east, north or west; and their ardent patriotism.

We Sri Lankans lack these great and good qualities.

We invariably intoned “poor Bangladesh”, considering it would always be battered by tidal waves and floods and continually poverty stricken with two widows clawing for power. Look at her now! She lent us money; she is moving upwards as a self-sufficient country looking after its population. While our GMOA and universities acted strong against private medical education, a college in Chittagong earned plenty forex from just our students alone among its international student body.

A radical change in systems, mass and individual behaviours and mostly in those who rule the country is urgently needed. We are in another debt, this time to the IMF. We need to get back on our feet. We stood firm a couple of decades back. With our positives, mainly of clever, educated people, and potential of the country we can get out of the dire straits we are in. Will we even now wake up and work unitedly while getting rid of the dregs of society that wield power?

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The Box of Delights



Seeing through testing times and the future

Text of the Keynote address By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.

At the beginning of this year I read again, after well over half a century, a delightful book by John Masefield, called The Box of Delights. A feature of this box was that it allowed one to travel swiftly, and to make oneself very small. It struck me then that these magical properties were what is needed for us to do better in the field of English Language Teaching. Those making the running as it were must move very quickly, and they must be able to think like the young do, the very young but also all those students who need to be motivated to learn.

Unfortunately, all efforts to take things forward have to contend with the blockages imposed by the equivalent of Masefield’s coven of witches in an earlier novel, The Midnight Folk, now turned sanctimonious as potential churchmen in The Box of Delights. Who these are in real life varies from generation to generation, but what they have in common is slowness of thought and execution, and an incapacity to think except as adults, and sometimes not even that!

At the end of last year, I came to this university to celebrate a welcome initiative on the part of your Library, together with Madhbhashini Ratnayake of the English Language Teaching Department, the first major contribution to English Language Teaching – or Learning as I prefer to term it – since the nineties. In that decade too personnel at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura played a major role in taking things forward, and I was happy to learn that now too those in authority have given unstinting support to the innovations your colleagues are trying to introduce nationwide. But remember that the midnight folk are always waiting to pounce, the negative ones, though I should note that Masefield also thinks of the little people who help as midnight folk, working with their lights under a bushel.

Let me now speak briefly of those initiatives of the nineties, even though this may seem an arrogant move, given how central I was to all the developments of those days. But I should make it clear that none of this would have been possible without not just strong but also imaginative support from many others, including two fantastic practitioners of English Language Teaching at this University, Parvathi Nagasunderam and Oranee Jansz. Interestingly, the latter was not initially enthusiastic about the former joining the university, because she was a strong proponent of autonomy for the English Language Teaching Unit, and resented what she thought was potential interference by a recruit to what was then the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies. The then Vice-Chancellor had expressed the view that Paru should be appointed to head the ELTU, but there was such opposition to this that the incumbent who had resigned reassumed the position.

Oranee herelf changed completely when there was opposition on racist grounds to Paru by other members of the ELTU, and not only supported Paru thereafter, but took another Tamil recruit whom the other ladies were attacking to work with her in the Medical Faculty. Her imaginative approach there meant that USJP medical students were accepted much sooner by the medical hierarchy than graduates from other new medical faculties – since as you know the establishment in this country belittled any new medical faculty, and in turn, when that faculty gained wider acceptance, it joined the old guard in belittling new ones. Kelaniya and Ruhuna and Sri Jayewardenepura and Rajarata have suffered such persecution in turn, though perhaps that mentality has now changed for the Sabaragamuwa Medical Faculty has not had to face similar belittling.

My return to the state system was because of an initiative by Prof Arjuna Aluvihare to extend opportunities in tertiary education, and to do this in particular with regard to English. Typically, the Midnight Folk sniffed at this, anguished by the thought of English being made available at tertiary level to students who had not studied English at the GCE Advanced Level, in short, to students outside the charmed circle of Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna. After all, as one professor put it, when earlier I had suggested syllabus revision to incorporate Sri Lankan writing in English, her students could go to Cambridge for postgraduate work, though in actual fact no one from that university or indeed any other in Sri Lanka had gone there for postgraduate work for two decades.

So, it was USJP that took up the challenge, through the then Dean of Arts, Mahinda Palihawadana, whose erudition too I see has been honoured by the republication of a seminal work on the Vedas. Given his wide-ranging sense of commitment to students as well as books, he roped me in, and persuaded me to join the university, which seemed essential to keep things going, for he himself was on the verge of retirement. So, I not only took charge of the English Diploma course at six Affiliated University Colleges and of General English at five others but also transformed English at this university, introducing an English Language component in addition to English Literature. And this was available also in the External Degree we started, which rapidly became the most popular external degree in the whole university system.

I was able to do all this because of the wonderful support I had in the Department, and in time Paru expanded on this, when, finally, an English Department was established here. She also when we requested this from the Ministry introduced English Language Teaching as a component of the external degree, which was a great boon to teachers nationwide. Again, in those days, at the turn of the century, the other universities refused, for they still believed pedagogical skills had nothing to do with academia.

That situation has now changed, and all universities I believe understand the need for this, though I fear the idea has not penetrated into other skulls, whereas we also need for instance components of teaching mathematics in university mathematics degrees, if we are to develop STEM education. But while successive ministers of education talk about this, they will not ensure the elementary measures needed to promote such education, namely to produce better teachers – and swiftly, as I started by saying we must ensure with regard to all positive measures.

I have spoken thus far of the colleagues I worked with in the university system to change things so swiftly in the nineties, after half a century of moribundity as to tertiary level English. But there were also other tools essential to take things forward. The most important of these were materials, and materials that could be made readily available, for students to be able to own them and work with them on their own.

This was an area in which The Midnight Folk had a particularly baneful impact. They did not believe in materials which students could use on their own, and instead thought that education demanded power in the hands of the teacher. Thus materials were not easy to understand, and had to be explicated further, and all this meant enormous profits for those who produced materials, books prepared by teams whose members vied to impress each other rather than produce what students could readily understand, and then teachers’ guides which also had to be studied, and only by the teacher. The fact that these did not always reach students and teachers in time – the more remote the area, the greater the delay in transmission – meant nothing in a context in which the production of materials, and the money made on them, through allowances for preparation and contracts for printing, was an end in itself, with little thought for the use that was to be made of them.

I transformed this, using a system I had instituted while at the British Council, where fortunately those in charge accepted my argument that we needed to develop the reading habit, and we could best do this by producing low cost readers. A stream of these were produced, initially costing Rs. 5 each, which meant they were snapped up by students all over the country. And thus we could reprint without further subsidy.

We had produced well over 50 titles at different levels by the time I joined USJP, and we then produced dozens more which were made available to students, some at just Rs. 10. Needless to say I was accused of making money on this, though the students themselves, who had initially objected to paying for materials – provoked by The Midnight Folk who did not like the successful impact of my programmes – agreed that Rs 10 simply covered costs and that, having got money, from the Canadians who were very supportive, to publish the first copies, I was not going to go begging again to them.

Unfortunately, this very simple principle, that we cannot live for ever on handouts, is very far from the minds of our decision makers, for as you can now see, when we are hopelessly in debt, the only answer they can think of is more debt. The idea of generating income, of using borrowed money only to promote productivity that can pay for itself, the horror of sinking further and further into debt that future generations will have to repay at the cost of their own productivity, is not something that occurs to the unimaginative Midnight Folk.

To return to the idea of producing our own, I believe that over the years I have been responsible for well over a million books for language learning, which were snapped up by students all over the country. I had wonderful collaborators in this project, Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Sybil Wettasinghe and Madhubhashini Dissanayake as she then was for primary and secondary level, Madhu again and also Nirmali and then Janaki Galappatti (and a team of university scientists) and Goolbai Gunasekara and Oranee and the ELTU head Damayanthi Ahangama for tertiary level, Paru and Dinali Fernando – who was at USJP for several years – and Rapti de Silva, later of Moratuwa University, for pedagogical input.

We used these materials, refined further, when Oranee and I were also asked to take charge of the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) project, where we changed the term teaching to training, for we were also concerned to introduce soft skills, the first time in this country, long before they became fashionable – and still with no proper system to develop them nationwide. Sadly the Life Skills curriculum developed when I headed the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education was perverted to exclude this, with a change of Minister and another of the Midnight Folk appointed in my stead. Entertainingly that same Minister is now in charge of education, and tertiary education and vocational education too, for the umpteenth time, with nothing to show for his many periods in office, only sanctimonious pronouncements.

(to be continued)

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Happy Birthday dearest Mrs. Peries !



Dear Mrs. Peries,

So you would have turned 88 today, 24th March 2023. On a day like this, my mind goes back many, many years, to all those birthday parties and celebrations at the old Dickman’s Road (Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha) house.

Birthday month at No 24 residence spanned both March and April and usually kicked off today, when in the morning you would offer dane to the Bellanwila Temple.The floors were polished, as was the gleaming brassware. The prized crystal ware would sparkle from inside the glass cabinets and the vases would brim with flowers. The birthday mood was all pervasive.

That faithful telephone, the much memorised 011.2588822, would ring incessantly right through the day and this was perhaps the only day in the year when LJP would not volunteer to answer, since the calls were invariably all for the Missus.The evening was generally a subdued quiet affair with family from both the Peries and Gunawardene sides, and a few very close friends, and even fewer from the big screen.

I remember Mrs. Paddy Mendis, a regular birthday visitor. After all it was during her husband Dr. Vernon Mendis’ tenure as Ceylon’s Charge d’Affaires in Paris in the late 1950s that LJP first met you, when en route to Cannes with Rekawa.Remember how you carefully chose your short eats. Getting pride of place were your favourite delicate asparagus sandwiches. Coming a close second would be those cheese and chicken bouchees, and the ginger beer and the iced coffee.

There would be Nuran Gomez, the great-grand-nephew from the Peries side, at the piano, tickling the ivories and entertaining everyone with music from the Peries’ films and old world continental hits much to LJP’s delectation. Aaahhh such lovely soirees those were.

Today would also begin the countdown to 05th April, when No 24 literally overflowed with humanity and when the maestro would blow the increasing numbers of candles on his cake. Oh 04th April is another story altogether !

Yes No 24 overflowed with humanity from the film industry. But then as I sadly observed over the years, as the both of you made fewer and fewer films, those crowds decreased. When the both of you finally stopped making movies, he with Ammawarune (2006) and you with Vaishnavee (2018), those numbers dwindled down to a mere handful from the film industry. You were left with family and a few very close friends.

I remember one of your birthdays a few years ago when you and I decided to go on a “loaf” one evening. We drove around, loafing around, I actually forget where, and when we finally got hungry it was past 10.30 pm when most of the restaurants were closed. We were hungry, very hungry and there was no place open.

I remember calling my good friend Harpo Guneratne who, in turn, immediately called the staff at Harpos Pizza Pasta Parlour on Mirihana Road, Nugegoda and told them to keep the shutters open despite it being way past closing time. The boys were there, all smiles, to greet and serve the celebrity Birthday Girl guest.

I remember, very, very vaguely, another birthday soiree in the late 1990s in Paris when you were our Ambassador. It was just LJP and You and I in that beautiful salon at your Ambassadorial apartment on the Avenue de Longchamps with the French cheeses and the wines, and Coq-au-Vin for mains, and as the champagne popped we sang Joyeux Anniversaire in French. Quelle nostalgie !!!

‘Carols for LJP’ at Christmastime was yet another looked forward to event at the old Dickman’s Road House with Nuran Gomez once again at the piano and everyone joining in lustily. What absolutely memorable and joyous soirées those were.

There were also those New Year’s Eves when you lit sparklers in the garden with Kumudu Casie Chetty, Surangani Wijewickrama and Lalinka Mutukumarana and much to LJP’s fretting and concern, those after-dinner chats that went on beyond midnight, the impulsive drives we went out on for iced-cream and those occasional dinners out. Those were the simple pleasures of life you also rejoiced in.If I were to go back in time, the both of you came into my life that morning in 1986 when I walked into your Dickmans Road sitting room and we shot my first ever interview with you for “Bonsoir” for the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka. I was in great awe and felt terribly small and insignificant in your presence.

Little did the three of us ever realise that this was to be the beginning of our private lifelong bond … sealed by France and the French culture and language. Yes it was our very private “Club Français”. In it we regaled. In it we journeyed through French history, gastronomy and culture through our innumerable chats. In it we constantly celebrated the francophones and francophiles in us. LJP was the first to leave us and our little Club got empty. Mrs. Peries now you, and our Club is emptier than before.

Seated in the audience at the BMICH that afternoon in January 2022 with Nadeeka Gunasekare and Yashoda Wimaladharma, I vividly remember the joy jubilantly splashed across your face when the University of Kelaniya conferred on you an Honorary Doctorate (Sahithya Chakrawarthi). Your portfolio of honours and achievements was finally complete. You were now Dr. Mrs. Sumitra Peries.

And exactly one year later you’re gone. Mrs. Peries, as I write this piece I don’t think even you realised, two months ago, that you would go, go just like that, in literally a flash. Yes you were ailing but you were ok too. And then suddenly you were gone.

That evening at the Independence Square was sad and overcast as the flames consumed all that was mortal of you, at almost the identical spot they did to LJP five years ago in 2018. And as I did with LJP too, I patiently sat there by your pyre, in the intermittent drizzle that evening, and stayed with you way past midnight, until you were finally gone, until all that was you turned into soft, burning hot ash. Those images still haunt me.

My dear Mrs. Peries, it’s already two months and a week for today, since you’re gone … gone on your journey in Samsara. The inescapable humdrum of life has overtaken us all, yet the grief still persists, thick, viscous and heavy. It sits like glue at the bottom of my heart.

The nation mourns. The film industry mourns. Family, friends and colleagues still mourn. I too grieve my very personal loss, yet celebrating the memory of two wonderful people who lit up my personal and professional lives and who were also my ‘alternate’ Father and Mother. You often referred to me as “the son we both never had”. The feeling was absolutely mutual.

Yet … just as a rainbow slowly appears after a torrential downpour, there is also a very strange sense of joy … joy as we now celebrate your life and everything you meant to a lot of people.As you journey on … what more can I say but “Thank You / Merci Beaucoup” for the memories, those warm, cheerful, nostalgic and indelible memories. May your journeys through Samsara be speedy my dearest LJP and Mrs Peries, my ‘adopted foster mother and father’. Love you both from the depths of my heart … always … and beyond always.

Joyeux Anniversaire
– Happy Birthday Mrs. Peries.

Kumar de Silva
Trustee – Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation

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