Towards necessary exercise in discursive disentanglement?
(Prof. Sasanka Perera’s recent speech as guest speaker to the National Academy of Sciences)
In present times, there is an intriguing, but at times seemingly dangerous entanglement between science, belief and state policy or government action. This kind of phenomena range from the government’s sudden ban of Glyphosate in 2015; the state sponsorship of a conference on the air power of the mythical king Ravana to the layers of stories surrounding the advent of what is now popularly known as the Dammika Peniya. These are merely three well-known phenomena from a whole series of such phenomena in the country with varying impacts on social life, politics and commerce. As a collective of occurrences with their own structure of associated events, these phenomena have not been reckoned with seriously. We have not carefully reflected upon them and asked ourselves why they are more evident now, and what their broader consequences and reasons for manifestation might be. As a result, we do not have credible sociological explanations for these phenomena that goes beyond popular rhetoric. These phenomena are seemingly dangerous too, because many of them defy what we might think of as commonsense and leads in the direction of collective chaos and counter-productive action on the part of the state. And in this journey, ‘science’ is one of the most obvious casualties.
To me, all this points to a contradictory entanglement involving science, belief, and state policy when ideally such contradictory entanglements should not take place. By ‘science’ I do not merely mean the vast systems of knowledge that originated in the west, which now have global hegemony including in our country. Instead, science is any system of knowledge “concerned with the physical world” and phenomena emanating from this world along with formal “observations and systematic experimentation.”i In other words, a “science involves a pursuit of knowledge” that covers “general truths” as well as “the operations of fundamental laws.”ii In this sense, Ayurveda, Unnani, present day engineering, allopathic medicine or any other system of formal knowledge are mostly matters of science though the bases for their fundamentals would vary considerably from the more dominant post-enlightenment sciences to much older systems of knowledge.
Similarly, by ‘belief’, I mean not only matters of faith rooted in religion and tradition but also contemporary beliefs that are created by the repetitive circulation of ideas across media whether they are based on fact and science or not. Often, these ideas address contemporary issues and politics though they might be camouflaged in a rhetoric of the past, resort to specific conventions, and identity politics. And these associations are quite important today given the propensity for fake news and the enhanced ability of people to accept these ideas easily without being formally countered.
In the same sense, ‘state policy’ and actions linked to such policies are expected to be based on formal legal principles and empirical facts, and ideally should have nothing to do with matters of faith or untested assumptions and should benefit the polity.
Generally, I consider science, belief, and state policy to be independent discourses with their own epistemological routes and purposes though there will be close and necessary interactions among these such as between science and state policy. At other times, as we are seeing now, this association can be between belief and state policy where science might be eclipsed.
My intention today is to simply place in context three recent phenomena of this kind that are structurally very similar but contextually very different, which I think would explain to some extent how this amalgamation of discourses function, and the ways in which their politics manifest. As far as I am concerned, what I have to say today are simply preliminary thoughts about which I would like to think further and theorize.
Phenomenon 1: Glyphosate Ban
The use of the weedicide glyphosate was banned by presidential order in 2015. In a paper published in the same year, Jayasumana, Gunatilake and Siribaddana note that people in areas where kidney disease has become endemic have been exposed to multiple heavy metals and glyphosate.iii Their conclusion as far as I could see as a non-expert, was very vague, which amounted to the following observation: “Although we could not localize a single nephrotoxin as the culprit” “multiple heavy metals and glyphosates may play a role in the pathogenesis.”iv This is one of several public articulations related to this matter that has some semblance of what I may call scientific noise, but clearly inconclusive.
The ban was quite sudden and was implemented following on the heels of intense lobbying by Member of Parliament and Presidential Advisor, Reverend Athuraliye Rathana. He argued along with his supporters that this chemical caused chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) in the North Central and Uva Provinces. But what is clear is no reliable and specific scientific evidence was offered by him or the President’s Office as the basis for the ban. In this overall process, it does not seem that the Registrar of Pesticides; Fertilizer Secretariat; Medical Research Institute and Tea Research Institute, all of whom could have presented valuable and more formal input into the decision were consulted. It almost seems that the ban found its genesis in the popular belief that chemicals are bad.
The fact that there is considerable prevalence of kidney disease in parts of the country is a fact, which needs to be more rigorously studied to work out its causes. Personally, I am not a supporter of excessive use of chemicals for anything including agriculture, and to the extent possible, I have made changes in my personal lifestyle to address this anxiety. But that kind of personal, emotional or popular anxieties cannot be the foundation for state level decision-making, particularly if the government and the people both subscribe to the idea of commercial agriculture and the eradication of hunger.
The consequences of the ban have been substantial in monetary terms. It caused production costs to increase substantially and the industry, particularly the tea sector, incurred losses up to 10-20 billion rupees annually while the ban lasted. Though the ban was eventually partially lifted, even at that time, no credible and conclusive data supporting the ban existed. So, it appears, that the ban was solely based on a popular and largely correct general belief of the negative impacts of chemicals, tempered by political rhetoric emanating from matters of faith and popular beliefs. I am sure we can all agree, while we can entertain popular beliefs or even conspiracy theories among people, if they are injected into broader politics and formation of state policy, that would have serious consequences as this event has shown. Part of the problem here is not only the undue credence given to freely circulating popular notions without situating them in the context of formal and reliable knowledge, information and science, but the ability of popular political leaders to convert untested ideas into practices of state policy and action without facing consequences.
Phenomenon 2: The State’s Embrace of Ravana
People of my generation will know that Ravana and his flying machine were merely elements in an interesting story in our youth while in some parts of the country specific local stories linked to this myth circulated. Unlike India and elsewhere in South Asia and in the east right up to Bali, there is no evidence of Ramayana performances which may have included a dramatization of the Ravana narrative in Sinhala cultural lore. But this situation has dramatically changed in recent times where Ravana’s popularity has rapidly increased among a cross section of the people, while his name and alleged historicity have also been openly embraced by the state.
By 2019, the story of Ravana had been directly appropriated by the Sri Lankan state and engrossed in a highly superficial but allegedly scientific discourse on aviation. In July 2019, Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lankan organized a “conference of civil aviation experts, historians, archaeologists, scientists and geologists” in Katunayake.v The Authority’s Vice Chairman at the time, Shashi Danatunge told Indian media, “King Ravana was a genius. He was the first person to fly. He was an aviator. This is not mythology; it’s a fact. There needs to be a detailed research on this. In the next five years, we will prove this.”vi He further noted, “they had irrefutable facts to prove that Ravana was the pioneer and the first to fly using an aircraft.”vii The conference’s main conclusion was “that Ravana first flew from Sri Lanka to today’s India 5,000 years ago and came back.”viii Many conference participants in their own peculiar wisdom, dismissed the powerful stories narrating Ravana’s kidnapping of Lord Rama’s wife Sita, as a mere “Indian version.”ix For them, this was not possible because Ravana was a noble king.”x
Intriguingly, one part of the myth cluster became a fact while another became fiction based simply on nothing more concrete than emotional and nationalist appeal. The ideas expressed in public on this matter were not private articulations of individuals. Particularly the Vice Chairman of Civil Aviation was speaking as a representative of a state agency. Also, the general conclusions of the conference and the acceptance of the Ravana story as historical fact could simply not be entrained by formal historiography and archaeology.
By 2020, the same agency took its sense of scientificity of these claims even further by launching a research project looking for evidence of Ravana’s flying and his “aviation routes.”xi The theme of the project was, “King Ravana and the ancient domination of aerial routes now lost.”xii Towards this, the Civil Aviation Authority placed advertisements in national newspapers asking people to send in evidence they may have. The purported scientific objective and the reason for the Civil Aviation Authority’ central involvement in this state-sponsored effort was explained as follows: 1) Because the Civil Aviation Authority was “the main aviation regulatory authority in Sri Lanka,” it was the most logical entity to host such and effort, and 2) Because “there are multiple stories over the years about Ravana flying aircrafts and covering these routes” there was a necessity “to study this matter.”xiii
Though there are seemingly rational and seemingly scientific ‘noises’ in this episode, the entire exercise is enveloped in taking myth as fact, and that too, with the direct participation of the state.
Phenomenon 3: The Advent of the Dammika Peniya
Now we come to the advent of the Dammika Peniya which is formally known as ‘ශ්රී වීර භද්රධම්ම කොරෝනා නිවාරණ ප්රතිශක්ති ජීව පානය’ (Shri Vira Bhdradhamma Corona Nivaranana Prathishakthi Jiva Panaya). According to its inventor, Mr Dammika Bandara, the formula for the syrup was given to him by Goddess Kali in a dream. This is a crucial point in which the genesis of this syrup differs from the more formal discourses of knowledge in Ayurveda and Sinhala medicine, within which this claim is located.
It was a claim protected by rhetoric of local medical superiority, power of ancient knowledge and very loud articulations of cultural and political nationalism. But certain things need to be understood clearly. Even within the structure of faith and belief in Sinhala culture, goddess Kali, the alleged ultimate progenitor of the syrup is not known for healing. She is seen more as a powerful deity but with considerable destructive potential. More typically associated with healing is goddess Pattini. So, the claim seems to be out of place even in the context of conventional Sinhala myth and belief. Second, though Ayurveda and Sinhala medicine have associations with faith and ritual, the bulk of their formal discourses on medicine are based on experimentation, repetitive practice and fine-tuning and formally scripted knowledge or that which is handed over word of mouth across generations. My maternal grandfather wrote two books in the early 1970s after he had retired from his Ayurvedic practice and teaching. The first was called Rasayana saha Vajikarana (රසායන සහ වාජිකරණ) in which he presented a specific body of knowledge already known to his field, but with fine-tuning offered by his own practice and studies. The second, called Avinishchitha Aushada (අවිනිශ්චිත ඖෂධ) was very different. It dealt with a series of plants whose medical utility was unknown or unsure. In it, he dealt with the unknown, based on both generations of institutionalized uncertainty as well as conjecture on his part, but based on his long years of practice and observation. Both these point to the nature of the scientific discourse of contemporary Ayurveda.
Compared to this kind of background, Mr Bandara offers a set of contradictions. He is not a medical practitioner, but a mason by profession who runs a small Kali shrine in his neighborhood. However, his claim over having invented a treatment for Corona received massive publicity via media outlets supportive of the state and unreserved public support from numerous local and national political leaders including the Minister of Health and the Speaker of Parliament all of whom consumed the concoction in public along with some of their colleagues. This does not tantamount to formal state support as in the other two cases. But such open adulation and support by senior members of the government is a public performance of confidence for an untested medication with a dubious claim. These actions played a major role in ensuring large numbers of people flocking to Mr Bandara’s house in Kegalle in search of this ‘miracle’ drug – in the midst of a pandemic. This is not a general condemnation of traditional medicine. In the 1950s, the establishment of the Ayurvedic Research Institute was to offer traditional medicine a sound research and dissemination base and bring it on par with formal understanding of science. But Dammika Peniya has no such provenance; it simply came from a dream according to its inventor himself, and such provenance simply cannot be the basis for its public adulation by political leaders. Most criticisms of the concoction and its provenance were vociferously put down in public as acts of anti-nationalism and lack of respect for traditional culture. A dubious study involving several colleagues of the Wathupitiwala Hospital and a handful of test cases had taken place though it is not clear to me if this exercise even had ethical clearance. A committee consisting of medical professionals has now been appointed to undertake a clinical study of the concoction using acceptable clinical trial criteria and practices. Its results have not yet been published.
What does all this mean?
All these three incidents have several obvious things in common:
the core notions in all stories are based on popular assumptions and untested ideas;
they all have powerful political and state support directly or indirectly;
their main arguments are governed by belief whether tempered by faith or by the mere repetition of mass circulating non-facts; and
in all cases, science in the formal sense – from allopathic medicine, Ayurveda and natural sciences to archaeology and history – have been dispelled even though such input could have more sensibly impacted these discourses if they were formally made available.
Moreover, the public manifestation and power of these discourses became possible due to the very clear inability of the public services directly associated with these contexts to be guided by formally collected data and scientific conclusions and their inability to advise their political Masters, and withstand the pressures of political interference. Such political interference is obviously not based on advice from subject experts or from a clear political vision, but from short-term political agendas for popular mobilization. This main conditionality allowed these unstable claims to become part of national politics and in some cases become policy or in the very least lead to actions sanctioned by the state.
But how does one explain the massive public support especially for the last two incidents. I have noticed for many years that people in our country, and particularly the Sinhalas seem to have a desperate urge to be part of grand historical claims and narratives. But I have not yet been able to gather adequate data or theorize what might be going on. But one can tentatively make some observations. The rediscovery of Ravana and brining him from the pages of myth and epic narrative of the Ramayana to state-sponsored formal discourses of populist and non-empirical historicization, and therefore formal reiteration of myth itself shows the urge to control what might be thought of as a popular and powerful narrative of the past. The way in which Sinhalas have reinvented Ravana over the last decade or so is not only as an aviator, but also as an engineer, medical expert, inventor, scientist and scholar. And this is done within an idiom of nationalist discourse that insists a pre-Vijayan and wholly Sri Lankan civilization once existed in which Ravana is a central attraction. These claims also assert this civilization was somehow superior to the cultural landscape across the ocean in the rest of South Asia. This seems to me to be more like what anthropologists would call millenarian mythmaking where Ravana appears at least in part as a millenarian hero. Generally, millenarian stories, beliefs and heroes have to do with delivering a society from danger, introduction of new ideas and technologies to ensure the safety of a collective, and so on. Such stories generally manifest in times of crisis. In the case of the Ravana story, the preoccupation is to recreate an important place for Lanka in the broader political history of South Asia in the context of a politically unstable present.
Even the story of the Dammika Peniya has some of these millenarian features. After all, it was presented as a very local remedy for COVID 19 based on a lost Sri Lankan body of scientific knowledge delivered directly by a goddess in a dream. And that too at a time when people were desperate to be safe and keen to protect their livelihoods from the vagaries of Corona virus at a time the state’s effort at controlling it appeared to be faltering. The Peniya seemed to be a sign of miraculous deliverance from the island’s past glory emerging in the midst of its chaotic present.
To end this preliminary sketch let me refer to a final comment. It seems to me, these kinds of stories emerge in times of crises – be these emotional, social, or political crises. This is not unique to Sri Lanka, and can also be seen in many other parts of the world in structurally similar circumstances. These stories have their genesis in realms of conjecture. I am not objecting to the deployment of conjecture as such. Most good ideas in all our disciplines would often begin with conjecture. As we know, the philosophy of science has shown us the importance of “assumptions, foundations, methods” and “implications of science.”xiv Reflections in philosophy of science also indicate the efforts to distinguish between what is considered science and what is thought of as non-science.xv It is in the latter domain where untested conjecture would generally be located until they can be given a basis in science or dispelled.
In this general context, it seems to me, these stories allow people to be part of a more powerful and often a winning idea of history and hyper-real present even though that domain of belief might have very little or nothing to do with lived reality as such. Partly, these can also be seen as coping mechanisms in difficult and turbulent times. But these are clearly not remedies for very real socio-political or public health issues that can be utilized brazenly by the state as long as their core ideas remain in domains of belief and conjecture.
The collective failure that typifies our situation is the inability of many people to understand this commonsense and as a result, become dangerously entangled in the internal logic of these stories, which have no external empirical foundations except for the real-life calamities some of them might generate. It is also likely our political leaders consciously and deliberately promote these stories and phenomena to divert people’s attention from evolving crises.
In this situation, I find it unfortunate that Sri Lankan social sciences have not yet spent the time to collect these stories and study them more carefully in their border social and political contexts and offer a more coherent, empirically-based, and nuanced theoretical explanation.
(Sasanka Perera is a trained anthropologist and is a professor at South Asian University in New Delhi. This is the text of a guest lecture delivered at the Induction Ceremony of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka on 22 January 2021)
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?
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)
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.
– Happy Birthday Mrs. Peries.
Kumar de Silva
Trustee – Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation
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