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Sirisena Cooray at 90: Still Premadasa’s Man

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by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“And I think I did not disappoint him. I did not bring disrepute on him or embarrass him. Whatever I did brought credit to him. That was how I became his chief supporter. Soon I became known as Premadasa’s man.

We were friends.”

Sirisena Cooray (President Premadasa and I: Our Story)

As boy and youth, Sirisena Cooray wanted to be many things, a policeman, a journalist, a sailor and an actor, never a politician. But there was one constant which existed side-by-side with these varying dreams – a commitment to Ranasinghe Premadasa, his vision and his particular brand of politics.

Premadasa became Cooray’s hero long before they met. Premadasa was the rising star in Central Colombo, and a friend of Cooray’s older brother Nandisena. In that village-like urban centre, everyone knew and talked about Premadasa. Sirisena Cooray was barely twelve when he gathered his friends and set up an organisation modelled on Premadasa’s Sucharitha Movement. He called it Sri Sucharita Vaag Vardana Lama Samajaaya (Sri Sucharita Children’s Society for the Promotion of Speaking Arts). The same way other boys play at war and try to emulate the exploits of their favourite military heroes, Cooray and his friends played at politics, making speeches and engaging in debates.

But not politics as usual. That was what Cooray’s older brother was doing, and for young Sirisena it held no attraction. Premadasa’s brand of politics was different. He was a ‘reformer’ and it was this determination and commitment to improve things which turned into a siren song for Cooray.

In his book, President Premadasa and I: Our story, Cooray recounts how he used to listen to the discussions between his brother and Ranasinghe Premadasa. Premadasa would have known about young Sirisena’s admiration and the boyish attempts to emulate him. Premadasa would have been both touched and flattered. When he talked and argued politics with his friend, Nandisena, was he also indirectly addressing young Sirisena? Perhaps. In any case, Sirisena’s admiration for Premadasa, formed from afar, became intensified through these close encounters. “Mr. Premadasa had new ideas,” Cooray would recall; he was a ‘far more serious’ man than those around him, a man who ‘spoke sense.’ It wasn’t just the impression of a starry eyed boy. Cooray’s eminently sensible father told his young son to follow not his brother but Premadasa if he wanted to do politics. When Premadasa and Nandisena Cooray fell out, Srisiena chose not his brother, but Premadasa.

It is not only in military battlefields that trust and loyalty become the greatest virtues. It is also so in political battlefields. Premadasa, who had already planned his journey, understood that it would entail an endless struggle, no less ferocious for its non-use of physical weapons. In Cooray he found the ideal companion, a friend in whose company he could relax, a follower whose loyalty was beyond question, and a comrade who was both trustworthy and competent.

The trust was not merely political, but also personal, including life-and-death decisions. In the late 1980’s Premadasa developed a health complication and the doctors in the San Francisco hospital he was being treated at advised an immediate operation. His personal physician Dr, Nanayakkara disagreed. The argument went back and forth with no conclusion. In his book Cooray wrote about what happened next. “Finally Mr. Premadasa got up and said, ‘I leave everything to Mr. Sirisena Cooray. Whatever decision he takes I will go with it.’ Then he left the room.”

The Premadasa-Cooray partnership lasted almost four decades; in terms of longevity and intensity, it was singular in Lankan politics and rare even in the global context. It was a bond breakable only by death. And the death came sooner than either of them thought possible, when a Tiger suicide bomber killed Premadasa on the May Day of 1993.

 

A friendship for the books

Bromance is a Twenty First Century word for a human-relationship which is timeless. Not friendship or comradeship alone, but both together, mixed with brotherly love and something else which is indefinable and indescribable, a non-physical but intensely emotional bond between two men with shared beliefs and goals.

The first literary rendition of bromance goes back several millennia, to the great epic Gilgamesh (considered world’s first piece of literature). The bond between the poem’s eponymous hero and his friend/companion Enkidu forms the main channel along which the story flows. And in Homer’s Iliad, the relationship which drives the story to its tragic end doesn’t belong to the divinely beautiful Helen, but to ‘fleet-footed’ Achilles and ‘his own, his dear, his beloved companion’ Patroklus.

“I know I’m going to lose a part of myself,” 1 Ranasinghe Premadasa said in 1978, about Sirisena Cooray’s imminent departure to Malaysia. Cooray had been appointed as the new High Commissioner at his own request. Premadasa made the remark at a felicitation ceremony he organised for his departing friend at Temple Trees. The separation was of very short duration, rather less than a year. Premadasa wanted Cooray to be the UNP’s mayoral candidate for Colombo. Cooray dithered at first and then agreed, even though he had sold his house in Colombo and all his household items prior to his departure.

It was a pattern which ran throughout their relationship. Cooray would go away; Premadasa would let him go, knowing that he would be back, soon. Premadasa, who was known for his unforgiving attitude towards anyone who left him in the lurch, accepted Cooray’s not infrequent departures as pro forma. He didn’t regard these leavings as abandonment. He knew Cooray would never abandon him. In an untrustworthy world, Cooray was the one man, the only man, Premadasa could trust, to tell him the unpalatable truth, to turn his ideas into reality, and to always, always return.

The departures served as preludes to renewed affirmation of the importance of the relationship. Cooray, the younger partner, needed that affirmation, and Premadasa, an impatient man in all other respects, was willing to go along. A telling example was Cooray’s sudden resignation as the Minister of Housing in September 1990. In his letter of resignation, he indicates that he wants some time away from politics. The letter, at first glance, is a formal one, from a minister to the president. But allusions to the emotional connection between the two are scattered throughout the missive, hints that Premadasa, a man of unusual intelligence, would not have missed. In the last paragraph, what is hitherto implied is made explicit: “Dear Sir, you are aware after the death of my parents, there is only one person who is everything to me.”

Premadasa, reportedly read the letter three times but refused to accept the resignation; “Tell Sirisena to come back whenever he can,” he told the bearer of that letter, T Mahalingam. And Sirisena did, within weeks. He had the affirmation he was looking for, again. “What I was trying to do was to remind him that he needed me. I knew that he wouldn’t let me go… When everyone else wanted to leave he would say go to hell. I knew I was the only exception.”

He was. But that status had to be earned, and was earned, through decades of total commitment and unswerving loyalty. Perhaps this was never more in evidence than during the presidential election of 1988. A memorandum sent by Cooray to Premadasa analysing the problems faced during the campaign reveals the titanic nature of that challenge. Problems were galore, from transport (…many persons who promised us vehicles evaded us…) and propaganda (“the grass roots organisation was paralysed and no effective poster pasting campaign was carried out in many parts) to a not very cooperative party headquarters. All this was on top of a violent boycott campaign by the JVP. As Cooray wrote, “Usually you do not have to motivate your own people; they vote for you anyway; in this election we had to try and motivate our own people to at least go out and vote. Without a candidate like Mr. Premadasa we would not have been able to pull it off.” It actually required two – a candidate of the calibre of Ranasinghe Premadasa and an organiser like Cooray with his competence and commitment. It was that dual act which pulled off the most difficult win in the history of Lankan presidential elections.

 

Till death and beyond

Cooray was in politics not for himself but for Premadasa and Premadasa knew that. Premadasa was the reason Cooray entered politics and stayed in it. When he wrote, “The day I lost him was the end of the story,” he was not exaggerating. It was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It was also the explanation for much of what Cooray did (or didn’t do) afterwards, starting with resigning from the post of UNP Secretary General.

President Wijetunga had asked for Cooray’s resignation and when Cooray told a newspaper that he will not resign nor can he be kicked out, it seemed as if he would dig in and fight the anti-Premadasa forces then rapidly gaining ascendance within the UNP. Many who wished the UNP well wanted him to stay on, notably President Jayewardene. But all Cooray wanted was to remain General Secretary until the unveiling of the Premasasa statue at Hulftsdorf on Premadasa’s first death anniversary. Once the ceremony was over, he came home, wrote his letter of resignation and sent it to Wijetunga.

Sirisena Cooray was not an ambitious man, a crucial factor which cemented his bond with Premadasa. The struggle belonged to Premadasa. So long as Premadasa was alive, Cooray would stay at his side. But when Premadasa died, the main reason for Cooray’s involvement in politics vanished. Post-Premadasa, it was a drama bereft of its main actor. Cooray could have stepped into that role. Objectively he had the capacity. But the subjective factors were not present; he had no desire for the job.

Ranasinghe Premadasa was as an outsider, a man from the ‘wrong side’ of Colombo and of a non-Goigama caste. He incurred the hate and fear of those who believed that political leadership should remain an upper-class/caste monopoly, the prerogative of a few families rather than the right of any Lankan-born man or woman. When Premadasa was killed, this fear and this hate were transferred onto his political other-half, Sirisena Cooray. Every crime Premadasa had been accused of was now thrown at Cooray, plus one addition – that of causing Premadasa’s death.

Some of those who levelled these preposterous charges knew enough of Cooray to know that he was a decent human being incapable of committing such crimes; others had no knowledge of him and feared what they didn’t know. A retired judge who was brought by a mutual friend for a policy discussion said at the end of the meeting that he was so nervous about meeting this ‘notorious character’ he left instructions about what to do in case he didn’t return. Most of Cooray’s first time visitors would stare at his collection of books – which ranged from Goethe to Agatha Christie – as if they believed him to be not just a killer but an illiterate one.

Cooray would try to see humour in the horrendous accusations made against him. Their political consequences he could deal with (though they included three presidential commissions against him – and the dead Premadasa – and a spell of incarceration during CBK presidency). What was harder to handle was the personal hurt. Had there been a Premadasa to fight for, he would have borne that pain and continued. But there wasn’t, and he just didn’t see the point of going on. Had he been the man his enemies feared, he wouldn’t have refused the premiership offered to him by the party in the immediate aftermath of Premadasa’s death; nor would he have given away the two great Premadasa political legacies, the Sucharitha Movement and Colombo Central. He would have used the three to get to the top, and he could have done it. He didn’t because he wasn’t the hard, driven, and power-obsessed colossus his enemies feared, but someone much softer and kinder, someone whose political motivation came not from personal ambition or greed, not from anger or hate, but from the love he had for his leader and friend, Premadasa.

In his book, Cooray wrote, “Without me, he too would have been alone.” True, had Cooray died first, there would have been a political and a personal void in Preamdasa’s life that no other could fill. But Premadasa would have gone on, because the struggle to transform Sri Lanka was his life. Cooray couldn’t, Premadasa was his political life.

Sans

Premadasa, Cooray would dabble in politics, because he didn’t want to let down those who stayed with him, especially the activists from Colombo Central. He appreciated their loyalty, understood their utter sense of loss and was loath to abandon them. But his heart was not in it. What truly motivated him was keeping Premadas’s memory alive and defending his name from the mendacious charges levelled at him (something his family failed to do, daughter Dulanjalee being the occasional exception).

Many saw the Premadasa Centre as Cooray’s vehicle for power, but for Cooray it was a platform to defend Premadasa from the calumnies and to save his memory for posterity. It was also a kind of a time bubble where members of the political tribe of Premadasa loyalists could gather and remember. Though its activities included such forward looking measures as preparing a comprehensive national plan, informed by inputs from experts from various fields, it was more epilogue than new chapter, let alone a new book.

When Sirisena Cooray was planning some event to commemorate Ranasinghe Premadasa, one could catch a glimpse of the peerless organiser who led the presidential election battle of 1988, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, the brilliant worker who headed the 1.5 Million Housing Programme, the doer who handled the reconstruction of the Mirisawetiya Chaitya and the raising of the Maligawila Buddha statue. In those moments he seemed inspired and was inspiring. In those moments he was the man Premadasa chose.



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Hobson’s Choice

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

The television images and media reports from India are both heart-wrenching and frightening. Visuals of people dying whilst gasping for oxygen, desperately ill patients unable to gain admission to hospitals, and dead bodies floating in rivers were previously associated with movies created by directors with great imagination. But, unfortunately, those visuals and reports are authentic and affirm what can happen due to poor decision making by the Government and the people.

There is no doubt that the Indian Government has to bear the bulk of the responsibility for this humanitarian crisis, resulting in a daily death toll of over 4,000 people. However, the consensus is that this figure is significantly understated.

The relaxation of rules around the holding of election gatherings, religious festivals and attending cricket matches where there were no social distancing nor mask-wearing is now rightly held to be the reasons for the second wave in India. Despite warnings about the risk of these types of superspreader events, the Government allowed them to occur. I recall in February 2021 watching with concern the TV broadcast of the India and England test matches from India, where spectators gathered in thousands without masks. In contrast, in Sri Lanka, we played behind closed doors against the same opposition.

The Madras High Court recently castigated the Indian Election Commission (EC) for having allowed election rallies and even said that there might be probable cause for charging the Election Commission members for murder. The Supreme Court refused an application by the EC to expunge the comments of the Madras High Court. The EC petitioned, saying their standing in the country had been severely eroded due to the tongue lashing they received! It seems the death of thousands due to their irresponsible actions should be subservient to their ego.

I believe the Madras High Court should have extended its comments to the Central Government as well. Just before the second wave started, the Indian Minister of Health Harsh Vardhan had declared that India was in the “endgame” of the epidemic. There were also misguided reports that India had even reached “herd immunity” despite a raging second/third wave in the USA, UK and Europe.

Many in India will blame the Indian Government for having donated and exported millions of AstraZeneca vaccines to foreign governments resulting in a shortage for the local population. There will be a debate whether donations of vaccines by India and China are for political reasons. The people of the recipient countries are no doubt grateful to the donors. However, the many thousands succumbing to the dreaded disease and their loved ones in India will resent that priority was not to Indian citizens. History will record that neither the United States of America nor the United Kingdom donated any dosages and deemed their priority to their citizens.

The situation in Sri Lanka, too, is dire, with a record number of covid-19 positive cases detected daily and the increasing death toll. During the second wave, both government politicians and a few health authorities were adamant that there was no community spread. Thankfully, no such comments this time around. The need of the hour is to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and take urgent action to minimize the death toll.

In Sri Lanka, the third wave is undoubtedly due to poor discipline amongst the public in adhering to recommended guidelines approaching and during the Sinhala and Hindu New Year. No one can argue against that.

In my view, the Government before the New Year should have prohibited the movement of people between provinces. Of course, it might have been difficult to enforce this rule strictly, but those caught breaking it should have been arrested, fined, and even sent to jail. The decision may not have been popular amongst the public, but governments are elected to make tough decisions in the people’s interest. The argument put forward that people were wary of Covid restrictions and needed some space to celebrate the new year is utter nonsense.

When a rule might impinge on an individual’s freedom but benefit the majority, commonsense dictates that such decisions should prevail, overriding the unhappiness of a few. In the USA and Europe, there has been too much emphasis on individual freedom. The propensity of our people to have a good time despite hard times is aptly described in the pithy “Nava Gilunath Ban Chun.” Had the Government decided to prevent people from travelling between provinces during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, in all probability, the resulting loss of life and economic hardship that we are now facing could have been minimized.

There is no doubt that several key elements are essential in arriving at decisions taken as a team that results in a good outcome. This is applicable whether it is in running a country, a company or even a cricket team. A few prerequisites would be that the team should have intelligent members, have the necessary expertise, be selfless, honest, and walk the talk.

It has been proven all over the world that in managing this pandemic, the predominant decision making voice with regards to public health should be with the medical professionals. They are the experts in this area, and as such, they should prevail. Those who manage the economy should indeed have a say, especially in a country like ours. However, short term restrictions and lockdowns that curtail and minimize the spread of the disease is a far better tool than resorting to action after the horse has bolted. The economic repercussions are far more significant. The strategy of China, New Zealand and Australia has been “go hard and go early.” The success of that strategy is all too evident.

The reported episode of Minister Lokuge getting the lockdown of the district of Pliyandala lifted within hours speaks volumes as to what is wrong with the decision making process in our country. That he remains a member of the cabinet is a damning indictment of the lack of accountability for wrongful actions by those who wield authority. Others should also be held accountable for rescinding the order made by the Director-General of Health. The Director-General of Health would have tendered his resignation in some countries because of his authority being usurped by those not empowered to do so; it is futile to hold a position where one’s authority is usurped.

The other decision that made no sense whatsoever was to allow weddings of up to 150 guests. Given that these gatherings are primarily held in airconditioned function halls with poor ventilation, and attendees do not practice social distancing or mask-wearing, the commonsense approach was to ban all weddings immediately. As par for the course in our country, social media was agog with why the restriction was not announced. In the absence of verifiable information such as written confirmation from the hotel that hosted the particular wedding, we should confine such speculations to the dust bin. There is far too much fake news on social media.

The decision not to ban the immediate arrivals from India is also perplexing. It always seems that the Government is a few weeks behind making decisions that seem obvious to the public. These delays result in immense damage to the public and the economy.

Several Government decisions in the last few months, the reduction of duty on sugar when there were several months of stocks available, the overnight ban on the import of palm oil, the prohibition of chemical fertilizers, appear to have been made hastily without thinking through the consequences. One can only assume that the advice of the experts has not been sought or ignored. On the contrary, it all seems arbitrary.

The aggressive vaccination programs in the USA and UK are now being acknowledged as the most critical tool in managing the pandemic. In that regard, too, the various statements made by some Government Ministers seem to be inaccurate. In early March, a newspaper report stated that they had seen a letter from Serum Institute informing the Government of its inability to supply the AstraZeneca doses as per the original schedule. However, the following day the State Minister denied this report and said that we would receive the doses previously agreed. I believe the newspaper report was correct, although the onset of a ferocious second wave in India resulting in a ban on all vaccines exporting will forever cloud the issue. Whether the agreed-upon doses of Sputnik V will arrive in the country in quantities stated and on time is questionable. Every day we hear various figures announced by different Ministers. Given the demand for vaccines worldwide, and the single biggest manufacturer is not exporting vaccines for several months, it will be challenging.

The Sinopharm vaccine has finally been approved for emergency use in Sri Lanka. The vaccine was approved by the WHO the previous day. It seems the WHO has got its approval process to be in line with the urgent demand for vaccines. Within a week, it approved the Moderna and Sinopharm vaccines. The FDA approved the Moderna vaccine on the 18th of December 2020, and why it took the WHO four months to approve a vaccine after the FDA is puzzling.

As to how many deaths could have been prevented had these vaccines been approved earlier, it might need the appointment of another independent panel. It now seems almost criminal that 600,000 doses of Sinopharm remained in storage for over a month. I am not suggesting any shortcuts. However, time is of the essence in these desperate times.

For the people of Sri Lanka and its Government, it’s the “Hobson’s” choice. It seems that we need a nationwide lockdown to minimize the spread of the virus and reduce the number of fatalities. A panel in India has said that lockdowns need be in the range of six to eight weeks to be truly effective. The question is, can our struggling economy and the people with multiple challenges afford a lengthy lockdown, or will we encounter a daily death toll as predicted by a research agency in Washington?

In its editorial, Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, has stated, “India must now restructure its response while the crisis rages. The success of that effort will depend on the Government owning up to its mistakes, providing responsible leadership and transparency, and implementing a public health response that has science at its heart.”

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Remembering Professor Ashley Halpe

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by Tissa Jayatilaka

As we mark the fifth anniversary of Professor Halpe’s passing, we remember him with gratitude and continue to celebrate his life and work. He was a teacher for over 50 years both at home and overseas. He also enriched us by his research, poetry, paintings and translations; as well as by his labours as a chorister, actor, director of plays and administrator. In addition, he was a guide, philosopher and friend to generations of students, many of whom have distinguished themselves in diverse fields of activity.

Whilst giving of himself, unstintingly, to the world around him in his characteristically understated style, Ashley Halpe’ remained the exemplary family man, a devoted husband and caring parent. So much so that it is impossible to speak or write about him without in the same breath mentioning his wife Bridget and children Mantha (Guy), Hassinee and Aparna.

Ashley Halpe’ was the quintessential Peradeniya man. He belonged to the very first batch of undergraduates who went up to the spanking new University of Ceylon on the banks of the Mahaweli Ganga in 1952 and remained there for almost his entire career except for a brief period in the early 1970s when he was unjustly compelled by the political authorities of the time to move to the then Vidyalankara Campus of the University of Sri Lanka.

In a chapter he contributed to a book on the Peradeniya University, Ashley Halpe’ has written enthusiastically and evocatively of the origins of his alma mater:

 

The whole concept was tremendous. This was no Oxford or Cambridge

growing at its own sweet pace over the centuries and evolving a visual

splendour of dreaming spires or of colleges by the Cam by imperceptible

increments. Peradeniya was all planning, its variations of Kandyan

architecture daringly blended with elements from Anuradhapura

and Polonnaruwa, the whole huge flower ” fragrant with shadow”

intricately balancing formal landscaping and chaste permitted wilderness

Complete with winding walks and warbling stream

Designed to breed debate and poetry. . .

 

[Peradeniya: Memories of a University. Eds. K.M de Silva and Tissa Jayatilaka]

 

Jean Arasanayagam, in a poetic tribute to Ashley Halpe’ has captured effectively this magic of Peradeniya:

 

That was the month I remember

When the trees were wreathed with coronets of flowers

Bougainvilleas bloomed in the ornamental park

Breathing in the excess of their own flamboyancy

We pushed aside their thorns

Crushed their tissue flowers like broken kites

Against our fingers.

 

It is this institution that nurtured Ashley Halpe’ and to which he gave back in ample measure. He did not hold back as did that miserly son who figures in that well known Sinhala folk poem. Peradeniya University did not ever have to pose to this distinguished son of hers the sad question that the distraught mother posed to her ungrateful son —manalada puthey kiri dunney ma nubata? Ashley Halpe’s giving was abundant and fulsome.

In addition to his appointment to the enormously prestigious and much-prized Chair of English at Peradeniya in 1965, at the young of 32, (he was one of the youngest to hold a University Chair in Ceylon), he served two terms as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, was the University Proctor, and head of the University Drama Society (DramSoc). Perhaps the only administrative responsibility he did not shoulder in his time is that of a Warden of a Hall of Residence.

Despite the load he carried as an administrator, Professor Halpe’ found the time for his academic and extra- curricular interests. His scholarly publication record which focused on aspects of Shakespearean drama and Shakespeare criticism and South Asian Creative Writing in English speaks for itself. Aside from several poems published in anthologies, three collections of Ashley Halpe’s poems are available. These are Silent Arbiters, Homing and other poems and Sigiri Verses, an adaptation of the 6th-9th Century Sinhala poems with an introduction and notes.

In a later publication Waiting for the Bells (2013), he brought together the poems that originally appeared in the two volumes, Silent Arbitersand Homing and other poems,a selection from his Sigiri Poems and other Sinhala translations, the complete Pasan,parts of which had appeared separately from time to time in various journals, and several other later poems. His labours as translator have yielded notable English versions of the novels and short stories of Martin Wickremasinghe.

That painting was one of Ashley Halpe’s varied talents and that he had held exhibitions of his paintings in Bristol, UK, in Sao Palo, Brazil and in Colombo and Peradeniya is not widely known. The energy and enthusiasm he invested in the Peradeniya University Dramatic Society (DramSoc) resulted in more than a dozen play productions designed and directed by him. Among these, my favourite is Strindberg’s The Father the 1966 offering of the DramSoc with the late Osmund Jayaratne in a memorable lead role. His contribution to education and literary activities outside the university is equally notable.

For the extensive and invaluable services detailed above, Professor Halpe’ was honoured both nationally and internationally. The Government of Sri Lanka conferred on him the Kalakeerthi and the Vishvaprasadini titles. The Governments of Sri Lanka and the United States awarded him two Fulbright Senior Fellowships while the Government of France made him Chevalier dans l’ordre Palmes Academique. He was an Honorary Fellow of Claire Hall, University of Cambridge, Resident Fellow at the Literary Criterion Centre for Indigenous Arts and Literature, Dhvanyaloka, Mysore, India, and Visiting Fellow at the American Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad, India.

All of these achievements and honours sat lightly on Ashley Halpe’ the man. His was an understated personality, with the humanity, humility and modesty of the truly educated person at its core. As a teacher, he did not mesmerize his students as some of his predecessors, notably Lyn Ludowyk and Doric de Souza, are reputed to have done. Not having had the good fortune of sitting at the feet of the former, the magister magistrorum, I shall accept the word of my predecessors at Peradeniya for this evaluation, but I certainly am able to vouch for the latter’s virtuosity having heard and watched him perform within the four walls of a classroom.

Ashley Halpe’ the teacher was calm and collected at all times and without histrionics of any kind. His knowledge and erudition were never on obvious display in or outside the classroom. He did not seek to talk at us. Rather his pedagogic labours were directed at ferreting out what we knew, thought and felt about literature and life. He never tried to poke us in the eye to make us see how much he knew! His disarming simplicity and unobtrusiveness was a crucial part of Ashley Halpe’s immense civility.

It was this Socratic teaching style combined with his respect for the students’ innate ability to chase leads that were offered that enabled him to reveal to us the inner depths plumbed by great men and women of letters as they (and we) grappled with the eternal verities. My own understanding of Shakespearean drama and the fiction of George Eliot in particular is due mostly to the manner and style with which Professor Halpe’ led me into discovering for myself those ‘spots of commonness’ of a Lydgate or the terrifying ambition of a Macbeth. That the hautboys one comes across in Macbeth are musical instruments and not arrogant young males is something I learnt thanks to Professor Halpe’s insistence on close reading and careful scrutiny of literary texts.

I wish to touch on certain personal recollections in conclusion. My freshman year at Peradeniya was suffused with boisterous antics as I revelled in ‘uncivilized fooling’ as most new entrants are wont to do. With the advantage of hindsight I am now aware that my unruly behaviour must have embarrassed Professor Halpe’ as he happened to be the University Proctor at the time. Besides the frolic and madness, there were other encounters of a serious nature during my early Peradeniya days that brought me unexpectedly close to Professor Halpe’. One such occurred during the insurgency of April 1971 when I was unwittingly in the way of possible grave harm. Without realizing that all student hostels except Hilda Obeyesekere Hall had been declared out of bounds for all male undergraduates by the authorities, I was yet at Arunachalam Hall after the new emergency arrangements had been enforced. It is more than likely that I would have been a victim of the ‘shoot to kill’ orders in force given especially the fact that my physical appearance at the time, replete with long hair and flourishing beard, qualified me to be thought of as a ‘Che Guevarist’ student revolutionary by the uniformed men in charge of crushing the insurgency.

I sought refuge at Professor and Mrs.Halpe’s house and was promptly thereafter placed under house arrest at the Lower Hantane residence of the Halpes. To keep me from landing in any further danger, with a little help from Fr.Augustine, the Catholic Chaplain of the University, the Halpes introduced me to the blessed game of Bridge. It was only after the coast was quite clear that I was eventually allowed to leave. I later came to know that Professor Halpe’ had taken even greater care of those undergraduates taken into custody under the hurriedly promulgated emergency regulations to deal with the insurgency.

It must surely have taken much courage for him to pursue this course as members of the university academic community were under suspicion and at the receiving end of the hostility of the military personnel because there were some dons who themselves were either involved in the uprising or were among those who empathized with the political convictions of the youthful insurgents. Bearing books, sympathy and understanding, Professor Halpe’ regularly visited the detained undergraduates. Later on, he was among the university authorities who assisted those of the detainees desirous of sitting their university examinations from prison.

The Halpe’ residence at Lower Hantane was also our not infrequent venue for DramSoc rehearsals, Music Society socials and several other memorable undergraduate activities. It was at these extra-curricular encounters that students and lecturers mingled informally. Looking down at us from his vantage point, Sir Ivor Jennings would doubtless have blessed the Halpes for keeping alive one of the finest aspects of a residential university like Peradeniya, viz,- that of fostering close intellectual and social interaction between the teachers and the taught. Professor and Mrs. Halpe’ were exemplary in upholding this wonderful Peradeniya tradition.

Of those with an education in the humanities that I have known and know personally, there indeed are only a handful who actually live by or reflect the virtues of and values of such an education. Indeed of only a few humanities specialists can it truly be said that all that’s best of literature and the arts meets in his aspect and his eyes. Professor Halpe’ was indisputably one of the very distinguished members of this wee tribe. I have never heard or seen in print harsh and disparaging words from him about anyone. His concern for family, friends and colleagues was sincere and heartfelt.

Two examples are offered in illustration of his inherent goodness as a person. The first of these is his taking care of his former teacher and later senior colleague Professor Hector Passe’ during the latter’s difficult and lonely last several months of post-retirement existence, subsequent to the early deaths of his wife and only child. He not only provided Professor Passe’ a home but also kept him gainfully occupied by inviting him to teach part-time. During this period, Professor Passe’ once more became a participant in all of the English Department social activities as well. In fact it was while enjoying himself in the company of his students and colleagues at a Going Down dinner that Professor Passe’ fell ill and passed away soon thereafter. Thus it was Professor Halpe’ who made it possible for Professor Passe’ to die with his boots on so to speak- – a consummation any teacher would devoutly wish for.

The other example is a very personal experience. At an extremely vulnerable early stage in my career as a young Assistant Lecturer at Peradeniya, I had occasion to turn to Professor Halpe’ for succour. Having laid bare my inner turmoil, I asked Professor Halpe’ for advice and direction. I qualified my request for assistance by saying ‘Sir, to a non-believer like myself, you are my God on earth.’ He did offer me ‘sentence and solace.’ Before he left me to ponder over his response, however, he said, ‘thank you for your deep faith in me, but, please, for my sake, let me remain human.’

Ashley Halpe’ may have on occasion revealed the clay in his feet. In so doing, he has offered proof of his human fallibity and vulnerability. If any amongst us has found him wanting in this respect, it is perhaps his or her fault for expecting Professor Halpe’ to be infinitely more than human as I did in my callow youth. For all of his human frailties or despite them, Ashley Halpe’ was a very true, near perfect, gentle human being. It is indeed a privilege to pay this public tribute to him on the fifth anniversary of his passing.

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Remembering Sir Lalita Rajapakse, LLD, QC

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by Vineetha Gunasekera

Forty five years ago, in May, Sir Lalita passed away at his residence in Horton Place Colombo 7, a property inherited from his mother’s mother, who built and presented to the Sasana, Abeysingharamaya (Kolonnawa).

Born in 1900,under a lucky star, in Galmangoda Maha Walauwa to an “old family” rooted in the South, he was a direct descendant of Maha Mudaliyar Louis de Zoysa, the famous scholar who deciphered ancient rock inscriptions.

Sir Lalita was an Anandian as a child, and developed in to a well rounded student at St Joseph’s College, Darley Rd. when Fr Le Goc was Rector. He excelled both in studies and sports, playing cricket for the College and winning most of the athletic events. It was here that the foreign Rev Fathers inculcated in him to attain every goal he set himself, with perseverance and energy.

He set sail to England at age 20 to read for the LLB at London University. Eventually, at the age of 25 years he obtained the LLD, to become the first and youngest (still) Doctor of Laws of Sri Lanka. He also became a Barrister from Lincolns Inn. His portrait has been unveiled both at the University and the Inn.

On his return in 1926, out of patriotic zeal he legally changed his original names of Louis Alexander to Lalita Abaya and commenced a successful practice in the Appeal Court. His contemporaries were H V Perera QC, N E Weerasooria QC, M T de S Amarasekera QC and Francis de Zoysa QC. Sir Lalita also lectured at Law College. Being the first Sri Lankan to obtain the LLD, a beautiful portrait of him in the crimson robes of a Doctor of Laws, hangs in the premises. The largest cash prize to a student at the Annual Prize giving is awarded in his memory.

By 1935 he had built a school named Revatha on his lands in his birth village, ( Welitara, Balapitiya)), and commenced managing it out of his personal wealth, when free education was not yet available in the country. Today it is a Maha Vidyalaya with over 3,000 students, producing highly educated professionals and well placed individuals, who adorn and contribute to the wellbeing of our motherland. Every morning, the students sing a verse composed by a former Principal wishing Sir Lalita the bliss of Nibbana. A statue of him has been donated to the school by the grateful past pupils.

At this time, he donated a 10 acre block of land belonging to him in scenic Okadawatte, for the Government to set up a Teacher Training College. For the moral upliftment of the community he set up a branch of the YMBA in Balapitiya, around the same time. He thus believed, that he had done what he could to enhance the lives of the people of the area. Sir Lalita always attended to the needs of the temple his father’s mother built, just behind the Walauwa. It is today a beneficiary of the Cultural Triangle.

In 1944, because of his outstanding practice, Sir Lalita was conferred Silk, i.e. made a King’s Counsel (KC), which after the death of King George VI was renamed Queen’s Counsel (QC). By 1948, on the invitation of Rt Hon D S Senanayake he became the first Minister of Justice of Independent Ceylon. It was then that he handed over Revatha Vidyalaya to the Government. At this time, he was the Leader of the Senate. In the same year, he was appointed to the seven member Flag Committee, to design the new National Flag.

Dr. L A Rajapakse as he was then known, opened many courts in the outstations. The exciting issue of his tenure was the “Battle of the Shifting of Courts from Hulftsdorp”, because of a useless objection brought about by the Private Bar, which really had no say in the matter. The two Prime Ministers under whom Dr. Rajapakse served (D S and Dudley) did not give into the pressure of the Private Bar (with its personal agenda of having an unfair lucrative practice), but backed their Justice Minister. It was after Dudley gave up the reins to Sir John Kotelawala, and the appointment of a new Justice Minister, that the Private Bar was able to have its way.

He was Knighted after he successfully lead a delegation of the Colombo Plan to Australia. By then there was already a Knight in his extended family; Sir Frank Gunasekera, Physician to the Governor General. After Sir Lalita, another relative received a Knighthood – Sir Cyril de Zoysa of Kalutara Bodhi fame.

All three of his brothers in law shone in their chosen professions. He was happy that his only son, became a Barrister from his own Inn and obtained the LLB from his own University. Had he lived, he would have rejoiced that his son in law excelling as a Defense Lawyer in the criminal field, was conferred Silk (President’s Counsel) by J R Jayewardene in 1988.

In the 1960s he was appointed, Ambassador to France; thereafter, as High Commissioner to the UK. Though of high education and intelligence, and coupled with vast experience, he never took snap decisions. Sir Lalita consulted all officials relevant to a problem before arriving at a solution. This was greatly appreciated by everyone at the Chancery. In the late 60s he was unanimously elected President of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress. His thoughtfully crafted annual speeches were made into booklets by the Committee, and distributed to enhance the lifestyle of the readers.

He was the only lay person in both Senates of the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas, his advice sought after by the erudite Vice Chancellor monks.

Sir Lalita enjoyed a private life with his wife and family, and his nieces and nephews in his estate where he had some exotic pets including two elephants. A bath at the well was a must there for his visitors, even the foreigners! It was the same when he stayed at his Walauwa, with a trip on the Madu Ganga being an added highlight. During Sinhala New Year, crowds of villagers were entertained by him on the Walauwa grounds, partaking of traditional food, and competitive games. Off season, he would delight in a long vacation in his bungalow and well maintained garden in Nuwara Eliya, always taking along a few relatives with his family, to add to the pleasure.

His was a well-rounded life, bringing fame to himself and country. A good Buddhist and a philanthropist whose deeds uplifted the needy. A teetotaler, and a family man devoid of vices. An affectionate son and dutiful brother. A gentleman of sartorial elegance and excellent manners. A Trust created in his name handles exclusively Charitable Endowments.

But bad karma also affected his life. For about seven years before his death, Sir Lalita suffered from Parkinson’s – a disease which debilitated his nervous system. Although medically treated, gradually he deteriorated both mentally and physically, with bouts of depression plaguing him.

With Sir Lalita’s demise on the night of May 26, 1976, a noble life with many facets to be admired and emulated, passed away from our midst.

 

 

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