Dr Sarala Fernando
Sri Lankans are familiar with the character of the village money lender who appears in most local films and teledramas. Money is lent to villagers in dire need without any philanthropic intent or sympathy and recovery is invariably through charging excessive interest. At first the relationship between lender and debtor is cordial and when repayments stall, gradually it turns to pressure and demands for favours outside the money transaction, the story finally ending up in the grabbing and selling off of the borrower’s collateral, his house, lands etc.
Recent developments in India-Sri Lanka relations reflect some of these elements although the terminology used is different. There is diplomatic talk of a “confidence building” phase which will lead to closer “integration” particularly in the defence area. As part of this”confidence building”, India has made commitments to the Sri Lanka government of upto $1.9 billion in loans, credit lines and currency swaps with another $500 million credit line for fuel . However the irony is that instead of appreciation India has harvested a lot of public criticism in Sri Lanka particularly after the signing of defence agreements on March 16 without due notification to Sri Lanka parliament or public scrutiny.
The Sri Lanka defence ministry subsequently confirmed the agreements to include ” receipt of Floating Dock Facility from the Government of India at no cost” and the provision of “Dornier Reconnaissance Aircraft” by India to Sri Lanka “free of charge”, (however no mention is made of the understanding that Sri Lanka would subsequently purchase another Dornier reconnaissance aircraft). Even more controversial will be the fact that Indian airforce and naval personnel will be stationed at these facilities during the construction and training periods. Meanwhile, a third maritime security pact was signed subsequently when visiting External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris which found specific mention in the Indian High Commission’s press release, listing the “MOU for providing Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC)” among agreements signed. According to Indian press reports, the MRCC’s network, to be set up by Bharat Electronics Ltd, will span seven sub-unit naval bases across the Sri Lankan coast, including in the southern port town of Hambantota, where China runs a large port.
These agreements are in stark contrast to China’s major projects in Sri Lanka which did not encompass stationing its troops for training or providing security for their personnel. After scuttling the Chinese power project in the Northern Islands on the suspicion that it could be used for spying and intelligence activities against India’s interests, one might well ask whether the proposed new Indian electronic intelligence system could be used to spy on Chinese port operations in Sri Lanka?
The new Indian security arrangements with Sri Lanka, coming on the heels of the agreement to jointly operate the entire oil tank farm in Trincomalee ( which is unlikely to happen given the huge resources required but will more likely block any other offer) and to set up a solar power park in Sampur, are in line with India’s leadership to enhance Indian Ocean security, regional cooperation and intelligence sharing as well as to secure their traditional interest in the North and East of Sri Lanka. The question is how do they impact on Sri Lanka’s own national interests?
One of the major areas of bilateral controversy has been the long standing poaching by Indian fishermen in the Northern seas of Sri Lanka; especially their use of bottom trawling (which is forbidden in their own coastal waters) as it is destructive to the marine environment. A recent press release following a bilateral meeting of coast guard and navy raised some questions in this regard as it carried the headline that bilateral fisheries issues should be handled in a ” humanitarian” fashion, completely ignoring the demands by the Northern fishermen for an end to poaching by Indian trawlers. Was this press release issued by the Indian side or is it a joint press release where the Sri Lanka side has softened its approach and backed down from pressing our national interests?
In the meantime according to press reports Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has spoken with Prime Minister Modi on March 31 regarding sending food grains, vegetables and medicine to the North and East in view of the economic crisis. This is presumably a follow up on a recent return of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to India – so far it is only a trickle since some 16 persons had reached Indian shores illegally claiming economic hardship in Sri Lanka (but having found the funds to pay the boatman some Rs 100,000). However it does bring back recollections of the situation in the 1980’s and claims of economic deprivation which led to India’s dispatch of relief supplies to Jaffna in an air drop utilizing five Antonov 32 transports escorted by four Mirage 2000 fighter jets violating Sri Lanka’s airspace which is still referred to mockingly by Sri Lankans as the “parippu drop”.
A third issue is the recent proposal apparently floated from our New York mission to canvass a seat for Sri Lanka in the UN Security Council, which will come vacant at the end of the year. It is difficult to understand how such a proposal could have originated from the Sri Lanka side amidst the current economic crisis which has led to closing down of our diplomatic missions in Oslo, Iraq and Sydney. Is this idea being put forward by another interested party which could count on an obedient proxy?
The Chinese, preoccupied with containing the new Covid outbreak in Shanghai, are keeping quiet on these new developments with India, but must be worried about the impact on their major projects and the robust diplomatic partnership they have maintained with Sri Lanka over the years. The Chinese Ambassador has already protested when a project which had been approved by tender to a Chinese supplier to provide solar power in the Northern Islands had been canceled due to protests by India. Then there was the fiasco over the rejected organic fertilizer shipment from China which led to the blacklisting of the Sri Lanka bank providing the guarantee which was later lifted after negotiations including a hefty fine payment.
The new developments in India- Sri Lanka relations have important domestic political consequences for the Sri Lanka government. Beholden to India, President Gotabaya ‘s announced political platform to bring in a new Constitution aiming inter alia at doing away with the 13th Amendment and including the One Country One Law proposal, have all but died a natural death. India’s position on the Sri Lanka Tamil question is consistent, calling upon Sri Lanka to address the “legitimate aspirations” of the Tamil community “for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka”. They are moreover pushing for provincial council elections to be held soon.
A spate of resignations including the Chairman of Viyathmaga think tank from his elevation to Chairman of Litro gas has removed many of the wedges holding up the electoral platform of the present government. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has already signaled the failure of the organic farming initiative and announced the restoration of the chemical fertilizer subsidy to farmers – an important political constituency. It will be interesting to see whether the current talks with the IMF will include reducing the lion’s share of the national budget devoted to defence, another policy initiative of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Going to the IMF will imply close scrutiny of even bilateral projects revealing any commissions paid.
At this time when Ukraine is under invasion by Russia, there is much discussion by Sri Lanka analysts on the term “Finlandisation” whereby smaller countries are understood to build their policies on the principle of “deference” to the Big Neighbour which is carving out its own sphere of influence. However while some argue that the war in Ukraine would not have happened if Ukraine had been under the security umbrella of NATO, others argue that Ukraine’s peace and stability depends on giving up of its ambitions to join NATO and providing reassurance to Russia. What is interesting to note however is that the Russian military aggression in Ukraine has sparked a counter response all over Europe where EU members are for the first time raising their levels of military spending significantly.
Even Finland and Sweden judging by the popular mood are considering renouncing their “neutrality” and joining NATO. In the present crisis, Russia is being “decoupled” from the rest of Europe, economically through sanctions and reducing dependence on energy supplies from Russia, as well as the strengthening of NATO and willingness of its partners to actively assist Ukraine with military hardware including planes. Surely such an outcome could not have been envisaged by the policy planners in Russia nor the huge domestic costs of the invasion, economic and military, let alone the moral condemnation of the world. But then it seems foreign incursions disguised as national threats have the ability to rally Russian nationalism and domestic support for President Putin.
(Sarala Fernando, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and her last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN and International Organizations in Geneva . Her Ph.D was on India-Sri Lanka relations and she writes now on foreign policy, diplomacy and protection of heritage)
Duty of Parliament vis-a-vis Article 42 of Constitution
By Dhara Wijayatilake
Attorney-at-Law and former
Is our Parliament worth the taxpayers’ money? In the light of recent happenings, the conduct of Parliamentarians has received much focus. The general sentiment articulated after observing Parliament sessions is one of disgust at the bickering that goes on, the lack of intelligent discourse on any subject, the lack of civility and respect for each other and the overall lack of discipline. Is there any justification for the colossal sums of the taxpayers’ money spent on sittings which yield no results that benefit the people?
The Prime Minister spoke in Parliament (17 May) of the need for a new culture. I believe what he desires to inspire is a non-adversarial, nonconfrontational culture focused on decision- making based on merit. Yes, Prime Minister, we the people are sick of what is happening in there. We the people are no longer interested in petty political bickering that adds no value to solving the current problems of this country. The Code of Conduct for MPs (2018) stands violated in many aspects, and with impunity. Some of the provisions of the Code are worth quoting to note the level of noncompliance –
Rule 30 – The Members shall exercise civility and use appropriate language in political discourse and specially in Parliamentary debate.
Rule 31 – No Member shall assault, harass or intimidate any persons.
Rule 32 – Every Member shall act in a manner that is respectful of his fellow Members and the Parliamentary staff and people of the country with dignity, courtesy and without diminishing the dignity of the Parliament.While the recent incidents of arson, looting and destruction deserve the highest and strongest condemnation, it is time to reflect on why such vengeance was considered justified by the perpetrators. Member Dullas Alahapperuma spoke with great wisdom when he called for retrospection consequent to recent events. It is one of the most useful contributions in the Parliament of recent times that I’ve listened to. As a student, I used to often sit in the gallery of the Parliament and listen to the debates. What quality! What wisdom! What intellect! Colvin, NM, JR, Ananda Tissa de Alwis …. and even the angry exchanges amongst and between them were rich in quality. What a treat it was to listen to them and what learning! And now … it’s just mayhem with a few good contributions for which we have to be thankful.
All of this begs another question. What focus has there been by the Members of Parliament on their responsibilities as Parliamentarians? This brings me also to the essence of Article 42 of the Constitution.
Article 42 of the Constitution states, “The President shall be responsible to Parliament for the due exercise, performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions under the Constitution and any written law, including the law for the time being relating to public security.”
In simple language, this means not only that the President has a fundamental obligation to ensure that his powers, duties and functions are duly discharged but also that he is responsible to Parliament in that regard. When discussing the obligation of due discharge of powers, duties and functions several principles kick in. Some of these are that a holder of this office must ensure that national interest is upheld; power is exercised only for public good; the principle of public trust is upheld; the resources of the nation are utilised only for the benefit of the people, and … the list goes on.The purpose of this article, however, is not to examine the nature and scope of all that must be upheld by the office holder in discharging powers and duties of office, but to discuss the reciprocal duty of Parliament to ensure the due discharge of powers. It cannot be that Parliament has no role to play until things go sour. That would be tantamount to arguing that Parliament only has a disciplinary role, i. e., impeachment. It is difficult to accept that the role and responsibility of Parliament is merely of a disciplinary nature just because the holder of the office is the head of state.
Being “responsible to Parliament” means many things. Being “responsible and answerable to Parliament” also means many things. Parliament has adopted many devices to exercise its responsibility of surveillance including the oversight committee system, the Questions for Answer, Consultative Committee system, adjournment debates on special subjects, etc. Other functionaries and entities that are responsible and answerable to Parliament are required to appear before Parliament oversight Committees such as the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE), the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Finance (COPF). These Committees are established in terms of Standing Orders of Parliament. Officials can be called to present themselves before these Committees to be questioned on the due discharge of their responsibilities. The officials are bound to appear and to respond to questions and to submit information that is called for.
How does the Parliament carry out its responsibility with regard to the principle recognised in Article 42? A process that is specific to Article 42 does not appear to be in the Standing Orders currently in force. It is observed however that Parliament does have the power to provide for the necessary mechanism and process in terms of Article 74(1)(ii) of the Constitution, which provides that “subject to the provisions of the Constitution, Parliament may by resolution or Standing Order provide for the regulation of its business, the preservation of order at its sittings and any other matter for which provision is required or authorized to be so made by the Constitution.”
The events of recent times have highlighted the need to design a mechanism to have regular oversight in pursuance of its reciprocal duty, just as it does in the case of other functionaries. The mechanism would obviously have to be designed considering the constitutional limitations that apply when dealing with the head of state. Perhaps, if such a mechanism was in place, and if Parliament had exercised its duty with seriousness of purpose, this country may not have had to face the current situation which is widely accepted to be the result of unfortunate and meritless decision-making, albeit triggered by advice from others, rather than due to events that were beyond the control of the repository of power.
Ranil-Rajapaksa Interim Government and Cabinet are a betrayal of the People
by Rajan Philips
Whatever may have been the subjective intentions of Ranil Wickremesinghe in becoming Prime Minister for a beleaguered President, the objective outcomes of the new diarchic arrangement are now clearly in evidence. The desired political response to the protest movement that began in Mirihana, would have been the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the setting up of an ‘interim government.’ The interim government would not only provide urgent economic management but implement constitutional and electoral reforms.
One clear objective of the interim government is to reform the presidential system by doing away with the direct election of an executive president and providing for the Head of State to be elected (from among qualified citizens) as President by parliament, and for the Head of Government to be located in parliament as Prime Minister. In this new arrangement, the powers of the President could have been defined to address any implications that the removal of the current system might have for the functioning of the Provincial Councils system.
Specifically for the purpose of economic crisis management, the interim government was expected to bring in experts and professionals as cabinet ministers by first admitting them as MPs through the National List. This idea was widely popular and would have required the SLPP and even the SJB to sacrifice some of its current National List MPs to make way for new and better replacements. But neither party showed any willingness to do this, only the JVP did. Finally, the interim government was expected to achieve its objectives in a period of 12 to 18 months, and set the stage for general elections and for the people to elect a new parliament under a reformed presidency.
It is now clear that the events of May 9 and the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe have scuppered the interim government route to economic recovery and political reform. The appointment of nine more (there is nothing new about any of them) cabinet ministers on Friday further confirms that this is all the change that can be expected under the Ranil-Rajapaksa administration. There is no need to pick and parse individual cabinet ministers. The whole thing is a betrayal of the people. On top of all the economic hardships they have been forced to bear.
It is remarkable how the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe has changed the political dynamic from what it was before May 9 to what it is today. On the economic front, RW has brought more than a semblance of ministerial competence, where incompetence has been the rule not only for the last one and a half months but for the whole two and a half years under the current President. While there are furlongs to climb before the economy is out of the hole, the political consequences of RW’s intervention are quite immediate.
First, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s handling of the economic crisis would seem to have had a sedating influence on protest politics. This is possibly due to a general acknowledgement that the ‘new government’ should be given some time and space to implement its economic relief measures. There are and there will be protests over scarcity and prices, but they may not have the same political edge calling for resignations, as they very much were before May 9. This is not to say that that the dynamic will not change quite dramatically without even a moment’s notice. In fact, it can.
Second, there is a new dynamic in parliament, with almost unanimous support from all political parties, alliances and MPs for the Prime Minister’s economic initiatives. There is also reported parliamentary consensus that the Finance portfolio should stay with the Prime Minister, perhaps a recognition of his abilities and not his office. But on political and procedural issues, MPs, especially SLPP MPs, are content to stick with party-line voting. This was quite evident in the quite ridiculous votes for the election (yet again) of a Deputy Speaker and for suspending Standing Orders to debate a Motion of Displeasure on the President, and the even more ridiculous divisions they produced.
At the same time, SLPP MPs have openly started showing their internal cracks in providing multiple and conflicting versions of the background to the morning violence that spilled over from Temple Trees on Monday, May 9, and the afternoon rejoinders to it in other parts of the country. SLPP MPs and (former) Ministers are not only criticizing the police and the Secretaries but also one another for what transpired on that day. The recent spat in parliament between Ramesh Pathirana, former Plantations Minister, and his colleague Chandima Weerakkody MP, is quite indicative of the level of political interference that has been going on in the transfers and OIC appointments creating police incompetence and indiscipline in police stations.
Dr. Pathirana does not seem to have responded to Mr. Weerakkody’s and others’ criticisms over his interference in police matters. He doesn’t have to, because he has been reinstated to his same plantations portfolio in the Ranil-Rajapaksa cabinet. May be that is reward for his standing for the President and criticizing the police for the mayhem that spun out of Temple Trees on May 9. In fairness to him, his is not the only controversial appointment to the cabinet on Friday. In fact, every appointment is a disgrace and an insult to the people who have been protesting for positive changes in government.
The third consequence of Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming Prime Minister is that he has rescued the Rajapkasas even before he could do anything for the economy. The immediate upshot for the family is that they have had a week of respite since RW became PM. For President Rajapaksa, last week must have been the calmest week since the protests against him began in Mirihana on March 31. And after a week of sojourning in a naval safe house in Trincomalee, ex-PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and scion Namal Rajapakse are back in Colombo and even attended parliament.
For all this and more, the President and the rest of the Rajapaksa family, whether they are now a house divided or not, owe a mountain of gratitude to Ranil Wickremesinghe for stepping in so chivalrously and sedating the political situation that was toxically antagonistic towards the whole Rajapaksa family. Without Ranil Wickremesinghe’s intervention the Rajapaksas would not have had the reprieve they are having now. No one knows what their immediate political plans are, and no one knows what plans the police and Attorney General have to question the former Prime Minister on the background to the violence that spilled over from Temple Trees on May 9. Especially since other MPs have been questions, and some even arrested.
The political question of the day, however, is the future of the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Is the protest against him still strong enough to force an early resignation? Or has he weathered the storm to survive till his single term is over, or will he leave prematurely but when the political dust settles and in a more dignified manner than his brother? A second related question is what prospects are now left for achieving the political and constitutional reforms that seemed to be so within grasp before May 9?
Speaking reflectively in Parliament last week, Chamal Rajapaksa, the oldest of the brothers saw wisdom in hindsight and said that Mahinda Rajapaksa should have retired from politics when his second term as President ended. “One should be prepared to give up positions,” Mr. Rajapaksa, the elder, said. Shouldn’t this apply to Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well? It should and perhaps it would have but for the intervention of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Friday’s cabinet appointments have destroyed whatever economic goodwill that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may have mustered in the few days he has been Prime Minister. There is already bad blood in parliament over the co-option of SLFP and SJP MPs as cabinet ministers ignoring the decision of the two parties not to accept cabinet positions while supporting the economic initiatives of the Ranil-Rajapaksa government. Maithripala Sirisena has warned in parliament that the people will “lose confidence in the government too.”
The fact of the matter is that there is no new government and it has no confidence to lose. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have given some semblance of newness to the government based on his approach to handling the economic crisis. But if he had thought that he could handle the economy independent of politics, that has proved itself to be a gross miscalculation. In a well circulated tweet explaining why he could not accept a cabinet position in the current situation, SJB (ex-UNP) MP, and Economist, Harsha de Silva said that the Sri Lankan crisis “is a toxic combination of economics and politics. The resolution depends on both and my joining Cabinet as an ‘independent MP’ will only worsen the political crisis.” Ranil Wickremesinghe, the more experienced of the two, has just done that.
War at close quarters– oh, how unlovely !
by ECB Wijeyesinghe
When I was a schoolboy of eight at St. Benedict’s College, Colombo, I was made to stand on a platform and recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” With great gusto I rendered the passage, “Cannon to the right of them, Cannon to the left of them, Cannon behind them volleyed and thundered,” with fingers pointing to the appropriate points in the compass. I thought war was grand, especially when the audience began to cheer like mad.
Many years later when I with three others, stood on a hill barely 1,800 yards from the Japanese positions on the Arakan Front and watched the real stuff – the Allied guns and dive-bombers blasting the enemy strongholds all round us – our blood nearly froze in our veins.
As I told you last Sunday there were four of us: A.C. Stewart, Editor of “The Times of Ceylon,” G.J. Padmanabha, Deputy Editor of the “Ceylon Daily News,” K.V.S. Vas, Editor of “The Virakesari,” and myself representing “The Ceylon Observer.” Stewart was the most affluent of the Four Musketeers invited by Lord Mountbatten to see the last stages of World War II in Burma.
His flask of brandy, like the bottomless well at Puttur, never ran dry. So we huddled close to him, especially one cold night at a God-forsaken place called Comilla, on our way from Calcutta to Chittagong. It was not the low temperature alone that made us shiver. The Japanese were flying too close to us for our comfort, and the spotless white banian and cloth of Vas, the Brahmin, made us a sort of sitting target for the enemy snipers, who were all over the place.
Regarding that assignment it was not the rigours of the actual battle-front that have stuck in my mind so much as the amusing interludes at Chandpur, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and Maungdaw and finally the adventures in the streets of Calcutta.
If ever you travel from Calcutta to Chittagong I would advise you not to do the whole trip by train. Do part of it along the placid waters of the River Meghna, one of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The Chittagong-bound train from Calcutta leaves the city just before dawn and as one moves eastward the glory of the sunrise seen from the train, can only be compared to the view one gets on a clear day from Adam’s Peak.
After about six hours the train reaches a little station called Goulanda. It is on the banks of the Meghna and anchored by the side of a floating book-office is a steamer, flat-bottomed and paddle-wheeled. Probably the show-boats on the Mississippi, made famous in Negro song and history, were bigger models of these picturesque craft.
Padmanabha, who appeared to be in the mood for a little chanson about the black man’s burden, could not obey that impulse, owing to the noise made by a gang of labourers who were bearing their burdens accompanied by a chant resembling, the Volga boatman’s song. Some men were loading mysterious parcels probably with lethal potentialities, while others were engaged in the more mundane task of shovelling the silt with spades and pick-axes from the river’s edge.
We embarked on the boat just about noon, after an eight-hour train journey. In the little dining room red-turbaned waiters were busy laying the table. The smell of cooked food assailed the nostrils sharpening the appetites already made keen by swigs off Stewart’s flask of brandy. As the boat’s whistle went off, the romantic little craft was released from her moorings and somebody said it was time for lunch.
Not more that 20 people could sit at one and the same time, but that was quite enough, as there were not more than 20 on the upper deck, though there were many more in other parts of the boat. The soup tasted good. The fish, caught in the very waters in which were chugging along, was better. The next item was Irish stew, and Stewart, the Scotsman attacked it with fierce intensity.
To the three men from Ceylon, it was however the rice and curry that appealed most. Over little mounds of snow-white, thin, long-grained Delhi rice large chunks of chicken, curried in Indian fashion, were placed. There was dhal in abundance and papadams, which greatly pleased our Brahmin companion.
Next to me sat a strapping big Borah contractor from Dacca. He went through every course with a zeal worthy of a better cause. When it came to the curry he thought he should say a few words. “This is done in our Bengal style,” he said, smacking his lips after consuming two platefuls of rice. He helped himself to two more pieces of chicken and asked me whether I liked it, but there was no more to be had.
My Borah neighbour, in a loud voice then called for the pudding. One could close one’s eyes and say that he liked that, too. He did not care for the coffee. The cups were too small for his taste.
The siesta in the two-berth cabin was disturbed by the call for tea. As we emerged on deck again, we were told we were passing the birth-place of C.R. Das, the great Indian nationalist. So through the silence of the waters, broken only by the cacophonous calls of kites and sea-gulls, we reached Chandpur the last port of call on the road to Chittagong.
I was glad in one way that the Japanese had bombed Chittagong. The very look of the place at that time created a violent prejudice. Going through the main street was like going through Reclamation Road and coming out at Sea Street. It was dusty, dirty and unhealthy. I slept there under a mosquito net. In the morning, when I rose I thought I had disturbed a hive of bees.
There they were, thousands of big fat mosquitoes trying to force, like big fat rugger forwards, an entrance through the narrow apertures of the curtain. Had the net not covered me while I slept, I am afraid I would not have been alive to tell this tale.
It is almost impossible to compress within the narrow compass of this column, what happened during the two or three weeks on a battle-port. Or, to describe the things we saw or the people we met. For example, the quaint sight of attractive Burmese women carrying small children, but smoking big black cheroots, the vast plains near Cox’s bazaar over-run by snipe and teal, the transit military camps where one had to walk about one hundred yards from the dormitory to the latrines – which incidentally had no doors – the bully beef diet, the marvellous physiques of the Indian soldiers nourished on chappatis and a little ghee and the spirit of camaraderie of all the Allied military personnel.
But I must get back to Calcutta and tell you an interesting story about a foreigner who made a strange request. We were in the Grand Hotel and after breakfast, while the others were spending their last few pice in the Hogg market where you can buy anything you can think of, I was ruminating awhile, watching the passing pageant on the pavement.
The hotel is situated in Chowringhee. the main street of Calcutta, which every school boy knows is about five times the size of Colombo. I was in deep thought when I was suddenly accosted by a man dressed in grey flannels and a white shirt. His eyes were red, his feet were unsteady and every time he exhaled the air was filled with the aroma of some potent liquor.
As he looked up at me I noticed that something was worrying him. Discontent was written on his face. He grabbed me by the shoulder. My heart went out to him. Here was a man, I thought, a Stranger in a strange land, needing help. Obviously he believed I was an Indian and I asked him what I could do for him. “Do ?” he growled and spat out. I was about to leave him and allow him to enjoy the headache he had acquired at that early hour — it was about eight-thirty — when he spoke again.
“Do you know I come from Ceylon?” he blurted out in a thick Scottish brogue. Until then I knew he was a European but could not identify his nationality. Of course, the going was bound to be good after that. The magic word Ceylon made me prick up my ears. While he clung to my shoulders I clutched at his elbow. It must have been a moving sight.
Smartly dressed Anglo-Indian girls on their way to work giggled as they passed by. A British officer who seemed to sum up the situation at a glance gave a sympathetic wink and walked on. The usual crowd was beginning to collect. I suggested moving up. He assented. We stopped at a popular joint called Firpo’s and then he poured forth his soul.
He was a seaman. He had been to many lands and visited strange countries. Forty years he had spent on the ocean wave. Born and bred among the distilleries in the Highlands, he had acquired a penchant for the strong brew that comes from Scotland. But his heart was in Ceylon. He told me how beautiful it was. He spoke of Colombo with a gulp in his throat and of the little hotel in Chatham Street, named after a famous Admiral, where he used to stay. I was silent. He went on talking. Time was marching on. I could have listened to him till dusk. Finally as he bade me good-bye he said: “You must visit Ceylon some day.”
“I suppose I must,” I murmured, and passed on.
There was one disappointment on this otherwise most instructive and entertaining trip. I wonder whether you remember reading about the Black Hole of Calcutta. It happened about 220 years ago when a fellow called Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the Nawab of Bengal, suddenly lost his temper and attacked the British East India Co.
The Nawab collared 146 Empire builders, all Englishmen of course, and in order to test certain theories he had about space, he shoved them into a dungeon less than 20 feet square. Naturally, there was not enough air to go round and 123 British bodies were discovered the following morning. The other 23, who were half dead managed to tell their tale of woe to Lord Clive, who naturally took a serious view of the Nawab’s cruel joke.
Three thousand British troops were summoned and English history books tell us that they made mince-meat of the Nawab’s force of 50,000. Clive’s men were probably armed with guns while the Nawab’s men must have had lovely swords and axes. Anyhow, this was one little hole in Calcutta that I wished to see but our guide pretended not to have heard of it. He was a Bengali.
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