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Midweek Review

The life and works of Leo Tolstoy

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By Dr. SIRI
GALHENAGE
Retired Psychiatrist

[The following is an abbreviated and a modified version of a presentation to the History, Philosophy and Ethics Section of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – WA Branch, on 15 June 2021]

“Tolstoy serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature”

– Anton Chekov [1860 -1904]

 

The Russian literary artist, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy [1828–1910], better known in the world over as Leo Tolstoy, is generally regarded as one of the most potent creative forces of world literature. He was primarily a novelist and a short-story writer, and was considered to be the master of realism – having written ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Ana Karenina’, the high peaks of realist fiction occupying the foreground of his rich literary landscape. Tolstoy was also a philosopher, social reformer and a religious activist who blended his ideology into prose fiction.

Through this essay, I wish to track the journey of self discovery of the great novelist that shaped his personal philosophy and in turn his literary artistry.

 

JOURNEY of SELF DISCOVERY

The story of the great story teller is as enthralling as the stories he wrote. It was so dramatic that a Tolstoy biographer, referred to his life as ‘more war than peace!’ As the drama of his life unfolded, he wore, consecutively, the mask of aristocrat, land owner, soldier, social reformer, religious activist, moral crusader, pacifist and wandering ascetic, against a backdrop of Imperial [Tsarist] Russia in transition from a feudal to an industrial society. His life is intricately linked to the evolving socio-cultural and political developments of his era.

Tolstoy was born in 1828 to an aristocratic family of landowners in the ancestral property of Yasnaya Polyana, hundred kilometres south west of Moscow.

Death was a regular visitor throughout his formative years. He lost his mother at the age of two years, followed by his father and his grandmother when he was nine. He was then taken away [along with his sister and his three brothers] to Kazan, a regional city to live with his aunt, who too died when he was fourteen. The emotional impact of the series of losses on young Leo is not clearly known.

What is known is that, due to a lack of structure and guidance, Leo entered a life of youthful debauchery during his adolescence and early adulthood. He was attracted to the brothels and gypsy cabarets of Moscow, and ‘sowed his wild oats on peasant and gypsy women’. He abused alcohol, gambled and fell into debt, and was forced to sell off some of his inherited property to pay his gambling debts.

But Leo’s intellectual potential was never in doubt. He joined the University of Kazan to study Law and Languages. He read Oriental as well as Arabo-Turkic languages and was also conversant with French, German and English. Unfortunately, his restlessness made him leave the University, before graduating.

Tolstoy was strongly influenced by the philosophical concepts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712-78], the French-Swiss thinker and social reformer. Rousseau believed in an inherent goodness in man which is corrupted as he gathers power and wealth in a so-called sophisticated society, leading to unhappiness. Man’s salvation is to be found in returning to a primary culture and leading a life of simplicity and selflessness. Rousseau’s thoughts on greater social equality, rejection of organised religions in favour personal conscience, promotion of child-based education etc. had a particular impact on moulding Tolstoy’s personal philosophy and in turn his literary offerings.

In an attempt at reforming himself Tolstoy had a shot at being a model farmer and a scholar, at the same time, but failed miserably in his endeavour.

Perhaps needing external control, he headed off to the Caucasus to join his brother who was posted as an officer with the Russian army in a Cossack village, bordering Chechnya, fighting the local rebels. After a period of idling, gambling and sexual misdemeanours, he joined the army as a cadet and started writing! It was during this period, recuperating from Venereal Disease, that he wrote his first literary piece, ‘Childhood, Boyhood and Youth‘– semiautobiographical – gaining a reputation as a writer of promise.

Tolstoy then joined the Russian forces in Crimea defending the strategic Black Sea port of Sevastopol against an invasion of allied forces of the British, French and the Ottomans [1854-55]. Here he adopted a dual role as combatant and war reporter. In his latter role, accompanying the reader to the theatre of war, he portrayed a plethora of emotions in the faces and in the hearts of civilians and combatants alike – sadness, cowardice, terror, hatred and even an admiration for the enemy. He gained acclaim as the first war correspondent and was credited for his descriptive precision. ‘At Sevastopol…. there was a camera with intelligence called Tolstoy’. His dispatches to the Journal, ‘The Contemporary’, which came to be known as the ‘Sevastopol Sketches’ became part of his literary canon. He wrote, “The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has been, is, and always will be most beautiful, is – The Truth”.

The experience of living through the horrors of the hostilities in Crimea made him change his attitude towards war, as reflected in his writing – from a patriotic fervour to futility, leading to a lifelong doctrine of ‘pacifism’.

On returning home from Crimea, Tolstoy identified himself with the peasants, developed an affinity for the rural landscape and felt deeply about the social inequity that existed between aristocracy and peasantry – attitudes strongly reflected in his later writing. He wore peasant clothes, grew a beard and ‘gave up the pen for the plough’. He fell in love with a peasant woman, Axinya, who bore him a son, Timofei, in 1858 – a matter that haunted him for the rest of his life.

At this stage there was increasing pressure from the family for him to get married and settle down. In 1862, having reached the age of 34, he married Sofia Behrs – half his age – the daughter of a respected doctor. Few days before the wedding, in an act which could be described as brutal, Tolstoy forced his fiancé, young and tender, to read his diaries with sordid details about his past – his drunken episodes, sexual encounters, gambling sessions, venereal disease and his relationship with the peasant woman who bore him a son. In return, he demanded the truth about her past. Nevertheless, the marriage went ahead with a grand ceremony at the Kremlin as he was seen as a promising young man – a wealthy, land-owning aristocrat with literary potential. A suitable boy!

There was relative harmony during the first decade of marriage. It was during this period that Tolstoy wrote his masterpiece ‘War and Peace”. But there was not much intimacy between husband and wife: they communicated their feelings through each other’s diaries! He believed that sexual intercourse was purely for procreation. Sofia bore 13 children in all; four of them died during childhood. He did not believe in the emancipation of women. This was in marked contrast to the sensitivity he has shown towards the female sex in his literary expression, exemplified in the characterisation of Marsha in the novella, ‘Family Happiness’ [in which he occupies the role of Marsha, the protagonist, and narrates the story in the first person] and in other great works such as ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Kreutzer Sonata’.

Despite the tenuous relationship, Sofia remained loyal to her husband. She was unable to pursue her own intellectual development she longed for. Instead she performed the thankless task of copying and recopying voluminous manuscripts in preparation for publication, in addition to attending to her husband’s needs, looking after the children, running the estate and keeping accounts.

But with the escalation of domestic unhappiness, Sofia became preoccupied with physical ailments and death, entertained thoughts of suicide, with a wish to join her dead children. She started abusing opium, at times was incoherent in her speech, became suspicious of her husband and harboured thoughts of killing Axinya, the peasant woman who bore him the illegitimate child. But she persevered!

There was a fundamental change in the life of Tolstoy in the final quarter of the 19th century with a spiritual awakening. He challenged what he thought was the hypocrisy of the Russian Orthodox Church for moving away from the central tenets of Christianity, aligning itself with the authoritative administrative machine. His religious activism resulted in his excommunication from the church. He was influenced by the eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, and advocated a synthesis of all faiths, highlighting man’s desire for love as reflected in all religions.

Embarking on a spiritual quest, he campaigned for universal love and pacifism, gave up hunting and alcohol and stopped eating meat. He advocated celibacy, stating that he had no pity for the extinction of the human race. He depicted celibacy as the central theme in his novella, ‘Father Sergius’.

Tolstoy protested against the continuing gulf between the land-owning aristocracy and the peasantry, acting as a catalyst for the revolutionary change taking place – harbingers of the Russian Revolution [1917 – 23]. The Tsar imposed a ban on his writings. The Bolsheviks saw him as a guide.

Tolstoy brought about a synthesis of thoughts on spirituality, morality, social justice and art, a form of Christian Socialism, in an attempt at establishing a new social order. His doctrine came to be known as Tolstoysm. He was held in high regard as a sage and a prophet, and his cult attracted a large following. His pacifist ideology influenced the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi [1869 – 1948] and Martin Luther King Jr. [1929-68]. Gandhi came across a letter written by Tolstoy to Taraknath Das, a Bengali scholar and anti-colonial activist, based in Vancouver, supporting his struggle for independence. The letter which was called ‘A Letter to a Hindu’ made a deep impression on Gandhi who considered Tolstoy as a mentor, and adopted his principle of non-violent resistance in the struggle for independence from British colonial rule. Gandhi communicated with Tolstoy until the latter’s death and set up an institution called the Tolstoy Farm [in South Africa where Gandhi was living at the time] to propagate the doctrine of the Russian philosopher.

At home, Sofia resented what she thought was the hypocrisy of her husband’s transformation – preaching universal brotherhood while showing no empathy towards her! In the meantime, Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s main proponent, confidant and secretary, in a sinister move, planned to alter Tolstoy’s will in his favour with the intention of gaining copyright of his literary wealth. He encouraged Tolstoy to leave Sofia at a time when his leader was considering moving on and letting go of his material and literary wealth and his family.

In an autobiographical essay, titled, ‘A Confession’, Tolstoy revealed his vulnerability – that he had undergone a ‘spiritual crisis’ and that he had entertained thoughts of suicide ‘by means of a noose or a bullet’. Rational thinking, he wrote, made him realise that life had no meaning, and that he had wanted to do away with his self, but faith provided the meaning of life and the possibility of living – in psycho-social terminology he was facing an ‘Existential Crisis’.

In 1910, aged 82, Tolstoy left home accompanied by his youngest daughter, Sasha, and his doctor, intending never to return. He was forced to break journey at a remote station – Astopovo – with a severe bout of pneumonia, and took refuge at the station master’s lodge. He died, few days later, on 7th November 1910, surrounded by some of his followers, few family members, government officials and the world’s press. Sofia rushed to her husband’s death bed but was prevented from seeing him by Chertkov, until the legendary author lapsed into a coma. This final episode has been brilliantly presented in the movie, ‘The Last Station’, featuring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren.

LITERARY ARTISTRY

There are several distinctive features of Tolstoy’s literary artistry that have contributed to its potency.

Tolstoy, as stated above, was a master of Realism with an exceptional ability to incorporate real life into his imaginative construct. He presented reality in a lyrical art form. He incorporated real life figures of his era and representations of individuals in his community, and projected his own biographical experiences in his art of characterisation. He was skilful in depicting the evolving inner life of a character in its depth and paradox. Tolstoy’s powers of creativity were borne out of his intuitive grasp of human nature with a remarkable ability to investigate conscious and unconscious states and their behavioural correlates, ‘by creeping into the deep crevices of the human psyche’, unearthing psychological insights. To echo the words of the French novelist, Gustave Flaubert [1821-1880] about Tolstoy: “What an Artist and what a Psychologist!”

Tolstoy is renowned for his descriptive precision based on his deep penetrating powers of observation. He created ‘word pictures’ of characters, situations such as war, landscape and nature with clarity and exactitude, not to diminish his skill in aesthetics.

The aesthetic features of his work are not limited to a mere exposition of beauty but to the deployment of a wide array of literary devices that evoke a range of emotional and critical responses – imagery, irony, symbolism, metaphor, simile, satire, to mention a few.

Tolstoy was an inspiring moral thinker. In a monograph titled, ‘What is Art?’ [1898], he asserted that Art, including literary art, should carry a moral message, transcending any aesthetic value, for it to be of benefit to mankind. His moral wisdom was based on his deep social conscience and his spiritual awakening developed throughout the latter part of his life.

Tolstoy’s writing carries a historical critique of his era by targeting several aspects of society such as social inequity [between the aristocracy and the peasantry], depravity and falsity of the aristocracy and the ruling elite, the church’s complicity with the state and the ineptitude and corruption of the administrative machine.

Above all, as reflected in his clever manipulation of plot and the vitality of his narratives, Tolstoy was a gifted story-teller with extraordinary narrative skill.

His power of creativity, built out of the above ingredients along with his intuitive grasp of human nature, has appealed directly to the sensibilities of the reader, resulting in works of enduring value.

“When you read Tolstoy, you read because you cannot stop”….”He was the greatest artist in Russian prose”

—Vladimir Nabokov [1899-1977, renowned Russian literary critic.

LITERARY ENDOWMENT

With his creative activity spanning over half his lifetime, Tolstoy endowed the world with an abundance of literary wealth. It includes 3 novels – War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection, the least known and the last to be written by Tolstoy; half a dozen ‘provests’ [Russian equivalents of novellas], for example, The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Cossacks, Kreutzer Sonata etc; and a multitude of short stories.

NOVELS

‘War and Peace’, the magnum opus of Leo Tolstoy, written over a period of seven years, runs into 587,000 words. It is a novel that many people aspire to read but only a few get round to reading it due to its enormity and complexity. It is more than a novel: an embodiment of a socio-political landscape, historical critique, philosophical reflections, moral teaching and psychological insights, with different readers viewing it from their own vantage points. It is a powerful and complex narrative set against the broad canvas of the French Invasion of Russia at the dawn of the 19th century, depicting its impact on contemporary Russian life, with myriads of characters – real and fictional – entering and leaving the pages.

From my perspective, Tolstoy, by a clever manipulation of plot, takes five prominent families of the Moscow aristocracy through the ravages of war. He recounts the challenges they face, the coping strategies they adopt, resolve their crises and consolidate their psychological and spiritual gains – individually and collectively – in building inner peace. Those who survive the crises are brought together, symbolically, in a country residence, getting them to reflect on issues such as developing a moral relationship with their peasants, family unity, a simple way of life, generosity and love. Pardon me for my impertinence in offering a simple formulation to an extremely complex narrative!

‘Anna Karenina’, considered by many to be one of the best novels ever written, is an epitome of realistic fiction. Skilfully crafted with two parallel plots with pleating strands of narrative, it is set against a background of Tsarist Russia, tying up at the end with a moral message. It provides a contrast between aristocracy and peasantry, city and country life, and between happy and unhappy families with a memorable stating line, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.

The main plot represents decadence, decline and death, while the parallel plot illustrates stability, harmony and progress. The main plot depicts the inner struggle of a woman who takes up a challenge at her own peril against the prevailing social norms and succumbs to the forces within and outside her soul. Tolstoy demonstrates his deep understanding of the female psyche through the character of Anna Karenina. The parallel plot that grows out as an offshoot of the main narrative is the shoot that bears the blossoms of love, humanity and spirituality. Tolstoy’s philosophy of life is represented through the characters of Levin and Kitty in this plot.

NOVELLAS

I have chosen three of Tolstoy’s popular novellas for a brief overview.

‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ depicts the ascent, descent and death of a fiercely ambitious lawyer preoccupied with climbing the social ladder. In a masterly display of character construction Tolstoy takes his protagonist to the top of the social ladder, and makes him fall off it, both literally and metaphorically. The crisis that leads to a terminal illness makes him re-evaluate his life: that he has lived a life of falsity [‘a huge deception that had hidden both life and death’]; that life is a series of escalating suffering with no escape. Realisation of that truth about life brings Ivan the freedom to face death. [‘In place of death there was light’].

In this popular novella, apart from its spiritual theme, Tolstoy raises interesting issues regarding ‘the doctor-patient relationship’ and the ‘illness behaviour’ of patients, which may be of interest to the medical profession.

The theme of ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ resonates with what the German Psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer [1888-1964] postulated regarding the aetiology of paranoia: the cumulative influence of a noxious social environment, sensitivity of personality and an experience meaningful to the individual. The novella tracks the motivational path and the psychological processes leading to paranoia [morbid jealousy] with a disastrous consequence, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Othello.

“Trukhachevski’s talent for music; the nearness that came of playing together; the impressionable nature of music, especially of the violin and his apparent lustful gaze towards his wife; tormented Pozdnychev and heightened his suspicion and jealousy. He began to suspect that the sound of the piano was purposely made to drown their voices and probably their kisses, as they practiced”.

Pozdnychev’s paranoia was brought to a head at a concert when Trukhachevski and his wife played Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. During a surprise appearance at a subsequent practice session, Pozdnychev stabs his wife to death. The court decided that the accused was a wronged husband who killed his wife defending his outraged honour! Tolstoy raises awareness of a range of contemporary societal values and of the criminal justice system.

Depicting the ideology of Rousseau, that man’s salvation is to be found in returning to a primary culture and leading a life of simplicity and selflessness, and drawing heavily on his experience in the scenic Caucus Mountains and its inhabitants, Tolstoy wrote the novella, ‘The Cossacks’, which gained acclaim as his ‘mini-masterpiece’. Tolstoy re-lives his experience by sending his fictional representative, Olenin, a young nobleman of the Moscow elite, disillusioned by the falsity and depravity of his urban lifestyle, on a journey of self-discovery, seeking contentment among the Cossacks who inhabit the foothills of the scenic Caucasus. The Cossacks, renowned for their military prowess, sustain themselves by farming, fishing and hunting. Olenin befriends Eroshka, a stereotypical wise old man, who engages him on enthralling conversations; narrates folk tales and rhymes; introduces him to nature; and instils in him a sense of social conscience. The young aristocrat falls in love with a Cossack girl but his affection towards her is not reciprocated as she is betrothed to an injured Cossack warrior giving him an opportunity to re-evaluate love, in contrast to the carnal pleasures he indulged in Moscow. He returns home with a wealth of experience.

SHORT STORIES

The following is a sample of the many Tolstoyan short stories: ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ is about a man driven by greed that leads him to his downfall. ‘The Coffee House of Surat’ reflects the need for mankind to unite in one faith under a universal temple. ‘The Bear Hunt’: [semiautobiographical] the protagonist on a hunting expedition shoots a bear which falls at his feet resulting in a major emotional impact on him. He gives up hunting and becomes a vegetarian. ‘Little Girls Wiser than Men’ depicts the innocence of childhood: a children’s story that should be read by adults! ‘Three Deaths’ is a portrayal of our common humanity with a brilliant display of symbolism.

CONCLUSION

Leo Tolstoy, the Great Russian Novelist, has endowed us with an enormous literary wealth replete with philosophical concepts, moral wisdom, psychological insights and historical critique; and not without aesthetic value. With his extraordinary literary skill and descriptive precision he has turned real life into an art form with the development of characters in all their complexity, against a contemporary socio-political background. The life of one of the greatest storytellers of all time is an extraordinary story in itself that outshines the stories he wrote. His contribution to humanity has been made at a great cost to himself and his family, especially to his wife sofia, whose commitment towards his work has remained sadly unrecognised.

[sirigalhenage@gmail.com]



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Midweek Review

Crossmatch: A moral mirror

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by Santhushya Fernando

Blossoming somewhere between a Chinaman and a Jam Fruit Tree is a Lotus. An unusual place to bloom, but there it is, anyway, Crossmatch. Crossmatch is Carmel Miranda’s debut novel that won the Gratiaen Prize 2020. Here’s what isn’t there in Crossmatch: steamy sex, profanity, harsh political commentary, preaching, flowery similes, structured ‘tools of literary writing’, boring descriptions. Probably uninfected by formal literary training, Miranda writes a provocative story with the acumen of a skillful doctor documenting on a patient’s bedhead ticket with some hardcore suspense thrown in. Crossmatch, for its entire 261 pages is captivating in its heart race potential.

Is she for real?

About 20 pages into Crossmatch, I phoned a senior friend who has spent the better part of his life at the Faculty of Medicine and the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL). “Seriously, you had a colleague called Dr Carmel Miranda? She writes like a hawk observing it all- is this a real name?” He’s was entertained, and replied “Carmel Miranda is for real. She spoke very little, did very much. Never spoke an unnecessary word: serious, committed, all about the patient, precise, not attention seeking, you know, the kind of person you miss when they are not there”. Oh, so I figure. Like Lotus. In Crossmatch.

The plot

Lotus, the protagonist is a third year medical student at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. She’s requested to pay a social visit to a hospitalised patient by her aunt, as all aunts of all medical students do. Like all medical students up to their eyes in real or imaginary stress, Lotus, grudgingly obliges visiting Anil Kumara only to find him dead. Events take Lotus to Lionel, the NHSL mortuary attendant with one glass eye, who convinces her to safe keep the dead boy’s mobile phone wrapped in a newspaper. Something about the numbers in the phone that includes the namesake Lotus Hospital, the NHSL ENT unit number and the contents of the newspaper drives Lotus to dig in deep. She uncovers, quite accidentally, the dangerous underbelly of organ trafficking mafia, poverty, inequality and the heart wrenching plight of the poor in our so called free healthcare system. Was it an accident that killed Anil? If not, who then is the killer? Finally Lotus finds answers and also confronts a devastating personal truth about her umbilical linkage to the Lotus Hospital. Even at the helm of her shatter, Lotus retains her characteristic objectivity and dignity. Throughout Crossmatch Miranda displays a true gift at maintaining the fidelity to her characterisation in personality, lingo, and mannerism.

The moral mirror

If you have read the captivating Gratiaen winner Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, you would know that one need not be a cricket fan to fall in love with that book. Miranda shows similar skill and humility in telling a “medical story” without medical jargon interfering with storytelling. She has labored well to tell a story about the holes of a medical system in effortless lay language. Never does she matronizingly “explain” medical terms down to the reader, weaving it all in, silkily.

Miranda holds a moral mirror on to our conscience with Crossmatch. It’s a grand mirror with one in center in front of which the reader is stands. That mirror is hinged with two mirrors on the side: the moral mirror of medical education and the moral mirror of medical practice. Both the hinged mirrors reflect unto the main mirror creating an ‘n’ number of reflections.

The moral mirror of medical education in Crossmatch touch on teaching via humiliation, linguism, unjust hierarchies, lack of cohesion in medical education, doctors past their medical fitness ‘expiry date’ continuing to practice medicine. But the beauty of Miranda’s moral mirror is that it does not discuss this in a malicious spirit. All is written with astounding tenderness and sensitivity towards human fallibility. It’s a mirror that every teacher must consider standing before.

The more serious moral mirror in Crossmatch is the territory that few would dare to tread: the kidney mafia, organ trafficking, bending the law, exploitation of the poor in kidney transplantation, lack of a transparent registry for organ donation, the legal and moral dilemma of compensation for organ donation. Importantly, this moral mirror in Crossmatch shines blindingly in our eye asking us questions: do you know what it means to be poor? The desolation beneath the label of poor? How many times do the rich donate kidneys to the poor? Is there ever a free lunch at a private hospital?

Our collective crime: poverty

Miranda reflects the moral mirrors on us for the sole purpose of telling her story. Her tender observations about how people live, talk, move, rationalize, love and sacrifice are all for the purpose of storytelling. Her power of observation is consistent across the slums of Wanathamulla to the bungalows down Rosmead place. After reading Crossmatch you cannot afford to be Sri Lankan and be divorced from the collective social crime called poverty that we all contribute to, by commission or omission. For poverty is the one crime that has the direct or indirect consent of society. The crisp humorful language, sharp precise observation, humane narration without judgment- all these make it a good read. Noteworthy is Miranda’s security as a writer who doesn’t feel the need to climb on top of her story.

Perhaps the only anti-climax of Crossmatch is its epilogue. In an uncharacteristic bout of a need to tie up too many ends, Miranda writes an epilogue reminiscent of last minute commentary over movie credits in a Hollywood or Bollywood movie stating how each character ended up happily. The last line of the main novel (prior to epilogue) “But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming “is disappointing and reminiscent more of a line out of a Hallmark card. Miranda could have written a killer last line. The epilogue takes her matter of fact story telling a bit too far and negotiates a mediocre “happily ever after” to a thought provoking , disturbing story meant to induce a bit of reader- insomnia.

Yes, Crossmatch makes us stand in front of a difficult moral mirror.

To Carmel Miranda I say: “You. Go. Girl!!!!”

(Dr Santhushya Fernando is a senior lecturer in Medical Humanities at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo)

 

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Midweek Review

Proposed Plantation University and its economic benefits

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by Dr L M K Tillekeratne
Former Director of the RRI and UNIDO consultant in Rubber Processing

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent address to the nation made an emphatic reference to the establishment of a Plantation University by amalgamating all major crop research institutes, such as Tea Research Institute (TRI), the Rubber Research Institute (RRI), Coconut Research Institute (CRI), Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI). Of these four research institutes, two were established by British rulers over a century ago. The core mandate of the research institutes was to develop the respective agricultural crops, as the plantation crops generated the highest amount of foreign exchange for almost four decades.

With the advent of the free market economy in late 1970s, though the remittances from migrant workers and revenue from the garment industry surpassed the foreign exchange earnings of the plantation sector, the plantation industry continues to play a dominant role in terms of foreign exchange and employment.

Hence, the President’s thinking that the creation of a national university exclusive for the plantation sector is a far-reaching vision that could transform the plantation sector by increasing land productivity and by developing the value-added products manufacture particularly in the case of rubber that the country desperately needed at this juncture. In this context, that the article written by J. A. A. S. Ranasinghe, Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant in a leading English newspaper was a comprehensive analysis of the justification of the creation of a national university for the plantation sector. Such an incisive analysis should have come from a scientist initially.

Dearth of Scientists in the Research Institutes

I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Ranasinghe on his assertion that research institutes are functioning today in isolation without trained staff to carry out research projects. As he has very correctly identified the dearth of scientists of all the research institutes has hampered the research programmes, and that in turn has led to the deterioration of the productivity of all the sectors during the last two decades. Thus, bringing all the scientists and resources under one umbrella is the need of the hour and that could be accomplished relatively at a short time by establishing an exclusive university for the plantation sector.

The President’s far-reaching vision will be a turning point in producing scientists to run the plantation industry. At a time when most of the other countries in Asia and Africa are increasing their productivity levels of the plantation crops, it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka is far behind in terms of research during last two decades, though its Tea and Rubber research institutes are internationally known.

Downfall of the Rubber Industry

It is sad that in Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to have a rubber plantation established outside Brazil and distributed planting material to other countries mainly in Asia to grow rubber, rubber production has plummeted significantly for the last 25 years. The countries that learnt rubber planting technology from the scientists of Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka, such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, have already been able to overtake us both in terms of production and land productivity over the past two decades pushing Sri Lanka down to the 12th place as a NR producer at present. I strongly believe that the situation regarding tea is either the same or even worse.

As Ranasinghe has correctly pointed out in his article, our productivity has fallen to 50% of what we produced a decade ago while countries like Myanmar and Cambodia have been able to double their annual production during this period.

Dearth of Plantation Technologists

It is true that we have agricultural universities producing agriculture graduates. But they do not specifically focus on crops like Tea and Rubber, and cannot undertake the task of increasing productivity by means of applying new technology introduced regularly to overcome issues related to agronomy and tapping. Fresh Agriculture and Science graduates who joined the plantation sector lack the skills and knowledge the plantation industry demands and this mismatch has resulted in a shortage of plantation technologists with required competency levels.

Distinctive Advantages of Plantation University

The agricultural graduates of Sri Lankan universities, however, would be in a very authoritative position in that they can cover a wide variety of other crops better than the graduates getting their agricultural degrees overseas. Agriculture and science graduates should necessarily possess the required field exposure and experience to find gainful employment in plantation sector. Hence, fresh graduates who join the plantation sector will have to work for at least 10 years to be an expert who can identify problems and sort them out on them individually. The industry can ill-afford to wait for such a long period to produce talented plantation expert or qualified scientists, given the dearth of scientists in the country. As Ranasinghe has correctly mentioned, there is a severe shortage of scientists virtually in all departments of research institutes to tackle problems in the industry, which will badly affect the research institutes, if the present system is allowed to continue. More than 50% of the raw rubber and latex end products industry is imported at competitive prices. The coconut production is sufficient for the local consumption and there is no surplus for export in the form of oil or DC.

Exodus of Research Scientists to join Universities

Most of the scientists trained for special mandates in the research institutes have already joined the national universities purely due to better salaries and perks. However, according to the situation existed in early 1960s, those who joined research institutes for developing the agriculture sector were paid higher salaries than those who joined universities, considering their contribution to the development of the economy and the difficult conditions under which they work in remote areas.

Hence, the science graduates’ first choice was research institutions. Today, it is the other way around, and only those who cannot find employment in universities and with low merits join research institutes to get post graduate training utilising the limited number of foreign training scholarships offered to research institutes and get qualified to join universities. Empirical studies have shown that trained researchers with special skills to tackle problems in the plantations have become misfits as academics.

Ad hoc recruitment criteria

The situation that existed prior to the late 1980s was totally different even with regard to recruitment criteria. It is due to the shortage of graduates produced by local universities due to closure of the university education for almost three years, due to the insurrection. There was a severe shortage of special degree holders and hence a decision was taken by the government to allow general degree holders in places where previously only special degree graduates with a class were recruited as research assistants in research institutes. Since then the quality of research produced by the research institutes has suffered.

The distinctive benefit in the President’s proposal is that in the future we might be able to produce graduates capable of tackling problems in the plantation sector with their adequate field exposure and hands on experience during their undergraduate studies.

In addition, there will be a good opportunity for institutions like TRI and RRI with international reputation to attract foreign students for training in Sri lanka thereby earning additional revenue to the country as the UK, India and Malaysia do even without having such recognition. If the proposed national plantation university is properly run, it will be quite possible for them to sustain adequate revenue from foreign students without depending purely on annual Treasury grant. Even now trainees from countries like Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia and even from Malaysia have got their research assistants trained at these two crop institutes under international grants.

Contribution to the national economy by way of enhanced production

On a hypothetical basis, if the production of rubber in the country is increased to 135,000 Mt, which was the amount produced years ago, purely by increasing the land productivity, without even increasing the planted area, the country can reap maximum benefits from the fast-increasing rubber prices in the world market. Rubber was selling at around Rs 100 to 150 per kg during the last half a decade. Surprisingly, it has gone up to almost Rs 450 per kg now and the situation is expected to increase further with time to come owing to the demand for NR on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the production is increased to 135,000 Mt, additional revenue the country can enjoy would be (Rs 450 x 50000 x1000) Rs 22.5 billion annually.

We should not lose sight of the fact that due to the shortfall in the supply of rubber, a considerable amount of NR and latex is imported by our rubber products manufacturers for value added products manufacture at a cost of over Rs 30 billion.

If this extra production is used to produce goods such as surgical/examination gloves for which the demand is fast increasing due to Covid-19 spread, the additional revenue country can gain is over 200%. It will be possible to create more employment opportunities as well.

Arduous task for the new Minister

The task before Economic Development Minister is to consider how best to improve the economy in bad state. This objective can be achieved in less than a year by getting the neglected rubber farms into tapping and by using techniques like lightly stimulated low frequency tapping and by utilising proven new techniques like rain guards to minimise crop losses due to rain. The additional cost involvement for these developments is insignificant and the time taken is less than a year.

New planting and replanting are two other ways of increasing the crop; they are costly and take nearly a decade to give a reasonable crop increase. Further, there is no guarantee that the improved rubber prices will remain high until then. However, replanting, and new planting should be continued according to the RDD targets.

Another factor that caused a drop in the rubber production was the removal of the extension services from the research wing and its attachment to the subsidiary function of the Rubber Development Department owing to an illogical decision taken by the then government almost 25 years ago. Today, the RDD is functioning in isolation ignoring the recommendations of the RRI. This has been the main cause for the drop in productivity of rubber farms in Sri Lanka. For example, the population of low yielding clones like PB 86 are still distributed and the clone population in the country is an utter mess.

Undoubtedly, everyone looks forward to the establishment of the plantation university.

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Midweek Review

“Madam” and her Wards

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By Lynn Ockersz

Six anxious, awkward teenage girls,

Are following their “Madam” close at heel,

To the rundown Spa hardly seen in the busy street,

But sought by restless men when darkness sets in,

But in the Isle fabled for its charity,

No one looks askance at this sight,

No one dare asks questions that matter;

Nor is accountability exacted from office holders;

But posers like the following may be asked,

By those who choose to care for the ‘nation’,

Now that Ishalini too has brought things into focus:

Isn’t this an induction into prostitution?

What lured the girls away from school,

And made them walk footloose on the streets?

Would the “Madam” be ever taken to task?

Or would she be allowed to go, with no questions asked,

When a swoop by the uniformed gentry,

Thrusts the girls into a police lockup,

And makes them wilt there sadly,

Though into primal youth they are about to bloom.

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