Monday, December 26, 2011
Let me now briefly touch on something different, something perhaps not directly related to our student life. You might even say these are so trivial and should not be here. To me without touching on these my note will not be complete.
We were preparing for the Final Year Examination in 1976 (that cram time) when on a typical, beautiful mid morning in February, news suddenly reached us that the body of a dead woman had been found floating in the Mahaveli River under the Akbar Foot Bridge. Never to shy away from any form of diversion, we rushed to the river descending that steep embankment which formed the southern approach to the footbridge. The river flow was low and was reduced to several rivulets as during most dry times of the year. There was a sizeable crowd mostly students from the Campus already assembled on the dry parts of the riverbed. Someone bold enough went up to the body and dragged it by hair from the stream to the sand to prevent it drifting further downstream. The dead body was not that of a woman. It was the body of a young girl barely 17 years or so, with striking dark beautiful features and long hair. She had drowned herself somewhere upstream where the river was deep. We returned to the hall disturbed, thinking what sorrow, what grief that made the pretty village lass to take away her precious life like Shakespeare’s Ophelia though the stream was not glassy and there were no garlands or willows. Was it unrequited love? Or was there a fishy mystery behind? These were the questions we asked. I suppose we will never know more about her, but the picture of that unknown girl in her final slumber in that drenched yellow frock had vividly stayed in memory.
Receding into oblivion is another faint memory of that tailor who visited from Gampola, probably when we were in the Final Year. Known as “Vishva Karmaya” this imaginative man sought to extend his clientele, and obviously saw tremendous market potential with the undergraduates in the Akbar Nell Hall. He derived his nickname for his unbelievable acts of alterations and mending skills, and would undertake for a pittance to darn, mend or alter any trouser or shirt that a tailor in Kandy would not touch. Our entire individual outfit then would have confined to two or three pairs of trousers and an equal number of shirts and an embarrassingly low number of underwear. We would desperately hold on to our clothing as long as possible whatever their state, without discarding. “Vishva Karmaya” would take the old clothes to Gampola to mend or alter and bring them back to collect his fees. Suddenly his visits stopped and it was rumoured that some of his Akbar clients were not happy with his service and that he had not delivered as promised. I doubt whether this was the entire truth. We were not the best paymasters as students!
“Captain”- that taciturn guy with a poker face who tried to make a living by running that small canteen next to the Akbar dining hall, selling tea and cigarettes as its mainstay and some peripheral offerings of food (biscuits, laevariya, tala guli, buns and plantains) was more resourceful and smarter in his numbers. Many of Captain’s customers would have tea and a snack or a cigarette on credit. Accounts were maintained by Captain himself in a Monitor’s Exercise Book and settled at the end of each month. It is amazing that when the final year examinations approached, how the final years would patronize the canteen more frequently and would even host their friends on account. Some of them would leave the Akbar Hall forever, conveniently “forgetting” to settle their account swollen over the last month. “Captain” was equal to the task. He would recover his “debt” over a period of two or three months by carefully distributing the unsettled amounts among the remaining account holders using “Bowditch Correction” without arousing any suspicion! No wonder Captain had to maintain his deadpan looks.
And this is the end of my narrative. I must finally say good-bye. Certainly it was a very good time and a rich and a rare experience to be in the Campus. It was springtime of our life with most of us still in our teens and wide-eyed when we packed our bags and left home. There is always a tinge of sadness that those days and years so carefree did flee away so quickly, never to come back- reminds me of that poem (in Rubaiyat) that describes how the Rose and the Nightingale would vanish with the Spring and how Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript would close. Before I finally say adieu let me take the liberty to quote the poem for completeness sake:
“Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence and whither flown again, who knows!”
I am glad to share memories of those days. During the Grand Get Together I am sure you will relive all your own memories which no doubt will be richer than mine. It is also with a touch of sadness that I add that three of us from our original batch are no more, their journey ending prematurely at different times under different circumstances: DN Pieris (1975), MD Ariyapala (1985) and S Ravikularajan (1994).
Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
Well, Friends, I can go on writing. But I think time has come to say Good Bye and to break this manuscript. Before I do that let me pause and quickly revisit those days again, just to check that I have not overlooked or missed anything obvious.
Many more incidents, places, faces, events come flooding into my mind once again- beckoning. I can start it all over. But sadly, this script must end. You may be disappointed that I did not even touch on the natural beauty of the Campus: on those stately trees laden with flowers, the bougainvilleas that were eternally in bloom or those majestic mountains, or a typical evening in the Campus or the beauty of the Mahaveli (river) that made its long trek murmuring gently through the campus.
I am not a poet and it is best that I leave it to you to picture all that natural beauty. I may only add that, to me even a gloomy rainy day in the Campus was enchanting, if you only cared to look at the beauty of those mist-clad mountains from your room window! I also find it hard to keep aside this script without making at least a fleeting reference to a place that was so dear to me then: that table and the chair in the fourth floor of the Main Library, where I spent a fair bit of time, particularly in my first year poring over all those beautiful Russian Classics- in that familiar quiet nook, facing the river.
I could almost feel the smell of those bound books even now at times. Those books must be still there, lying intact in those same shelves? If by miracle the clock can be turned back and if I could get those four years again, revisiting the fourth floor of the library to discover the world of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Checkov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol etc in that quiet atmosphere is something that I will do most cherishingly again.
But I have succumbed to temptation again. I must ask your permission to break my promise and share with you just one more memory coming flashing into my mind.
I am jumping ahead a bit now as perhaps this is strictly not a memory from my student days, rather a memory that I carry as an instructor. But what’s the difference? It happened in 1976 perhaps in September, when we had our graduation ceremony. I was an instructor in the structures lab. After posing for the group graduation photograph in the evening opposite the Engineering Faculty entrance (perhaps the only official event of the ceremony) I went gallivanting with GH Padmasiri and few others to Kandy- posed for the individual graduation photo at Laxman’s studio- had dinner and a couple of beers in one of those clubs facing the lake, played some carom and returned to the engineering faculty late in the night to see how the other batch mates were partying in the massive lecture room opposite the fluids lab.
If memory serves me right it was the band from Penideniya made up with the Burgher boys across the railway line that were on action with the youthful Dr Ranjith Galapaththi also joining them strumming a guitar impressively- all desperately trying to back up the out of tune vocalist on stage who was none other than our beloved Prof Thurairajah with a microphone on hand “singing” Marie Osmond’s popular hit “Paper Roses” and a series of other popular English songs which were in vogue those days. This is the lighter and to me perhaps the most endearing side of Prof Thurairajah. We were simply amazed how he enjoyed this new role as if he was still in his first youth. Not the one with the greatest vocal skills or the voice, Prof Thurairajah in addition to his unwavering dedication to academic excellence of the faculty and the welfare of the students was always willing to share fun with students! What a great humble man!
-Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
To be concluded with Part VII
Sunday, December 18, 2011
The Exhibition we had in the Final Year to commemorate 25 years of Engineering Education was a welcome diversion. As students we did lot of hard work to boost the image of the Laboratories and the Faculty with creative posters, decorations and write-ups for the Testing Equipment. Prof S Mahalingam- the great man that he is- would have nothing of this for his Machine Lab. His meticulously organised, well maintained Machine Lab was always ready and fit to be exhibited without any fillip! People - mostly students thronged from all over the island to see the exhibition. If my memory serves me right we had the exhibition for a week. The most exciting prospect for us was to man those “stalls” or “Testing Equipment”. This was the best opportunity to meet the public. Explaining the significance of those tests (what we hated to do as Coursework!) enthusiastically to students particularly to those groups of AL Schoolgirls was what we were looking forward to daily during the exhibition. The girls always seemed pretty, always seemed to listen to you attentively and always had a smile- even if what you were explaining to them was the technical significance of “Initial and Final Setting Times of Cement!”- Hardly the subject likely to woo a pretty girl! I never realised it then and went on for one full week. End of each day we would return to our rooms feeling well rewarded for our effort of manning the “stalls” and would discuss before going to bed some happy wide-eyed pretty faces we saw during the day.
Another memorable event in the Final Year was the two cricket matches we played in the Campus main grounds on the basis of “Sinhalese Vs Tamils” with the proper cricket ball (leather ball). These were certainly good times- this type of division only meant unity, harmony, affectionate rivalry and fun! I really cannot remember exactly what led to this cricket match, but its genesis may be traced to CTB (Sivakumaran) taunting Aliya (Ranjith Gunatilleka) and Joker (Jayantha Ameratunge) for sometime that he could find eleven of our batch mates from Jaffna and give a mighty thrashing to those who were from “Maradana Schools”- alluding to Ananda College and St Joseph’s College the beloved alma mater of Aliya and Joker. The match in effect was CTB’s XI Vs Aliya’s XI. With PHSW Kulatilleka, RLAC (Mohan) Siribaddana, Vipula Ratnasara, GH Pathmasiri, Jayanaga Fernando and Vasantha Ratnayake in Aliya’s team they looked the better team, at least on paper. CTB’s team included CTB, Herman Dharmarajah, S Logeswaran, Jayantha Anandappa, N Thirukeswaran, S Jayakumaran, Mohan Kumaraswamy, S Harinesan and few others who might wonder as to how their names could appear in a cricket team. Irony is that CTB’s XI was predominantly from Colombo schools.
In the first match (starting before ten in the morning) Aliya’s team batted first until about mid afternoon and were all out. When the run chase started, it was pandemonium as we lost quick wickets. Even before a new batsman could pad up or insert the box, a wicket would fall. (We shared the minimum number of borrowed cricket equipment including the box, and even tennis shoes). As luck would have it, heavens opened and the match was abandoned. I remember bowling unchanged from the Arts Faculty End for almost 25 overs and Herman (Dharmarajah) toiling equally hard to bowl the same number of overs from the Science Faculty End. This was without any match practice or training! We simply did not have any other bowlers. It surprised me when CTB threw the gauntlet again to Aliya, that to settle the issue once and for all, another match should be played on the following Saturday! I recall approaching CTB later and trying to discourage him on the basis that we did not have bowlers and that Herman and I could not bowl unchanged again like that. CTB with his customary smile assured: “Machang, don’t worry, we have talent. The question is how to unearth this talent. Some of these fellows are simply glued to their books. I know of two very good bowlers, a medium pacer and a spinner. With two new bowlers to share the attack, you and Herman can easily fix these fellows. Let us have some fun next Saturday.” I returned to my room quite relieved. It never occurred to me ask CTB who these two new bowlers were! Boy, weren’t I gullible?
For the next match naturally some of the wiser did not turn up which forced CTB to ask GE Amirthanathan to don his “flannels” for the first and probably only time in his life. I recall- fielding at point Amir (who for a while forgot to smile) dropped an absolute sitter offered by Kulatilleka early in his innings against my bowling. The ball approached Amir at a nice catchable height with almost zero velocity, but Amir reacted retracting as if he was about to be smitten by a snake. Kulatilleka went on to score a century and his opening partner Jayanaga Fernando blocked every delivery to get a half century all with singles! Recently Jayantha Ameratunga (who kept wickets for Aliya’s team on both matches) told me that there was an entry in his diary to say that this match was played on 26 April 1975 and the scores were: Aliya’s XI was 206 for 3 declared and CTB’s XI was 15 for 3 when rain abandoned play once again. CTB’s promised medium pacer and the spinner never turned up, and for the second time Herman and myself bowled unchanged at least for another 25 overs each! Herman and I were limping for weeks with the wear and tear whilst Aliya walked triumphantly with his all conquering smile in the Hall and Faculty corridors whistling a tune or singing a popular song. (I am pretty sure CTB at least rather belatedly will look after his two opening bowlers in the Grand Get Together with a beer or two!)
To be continued with PART VI
-Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
By the beginning of the third year there were many in Akbar Nell Hall who chose to move out from the “dry zone” to the “wet zone”. I suppose the opportunity to meet a wide range of students from other faculties particularly the girls was the most obvious attraction for the shift. Having not lived on the other side of the Campus, I will have to leave that tale for some one else to relate. But even residing in Akbar Nell Hall, it never seemed to us that we were missing anything; life was always “busy”, always interesting and never short of diversions: the “Wala”, “The Film Soc” and The Arts Theatre (for movie classics), “gym”, cricket grounds and the “Sara Trophy” matches, soccer and rugby grounds, hall socials, Amaradeva and other music concerts, visits to Kandy, dinner outs (in Lyons, Surasa, Bake House and Hara Queen’s), Perahera and going for movies- all these were so easily accessible even from Akbar Hall. (How many of us had not walked back from Kandy to the Campus at midnight after seeing a 9:30 movie cursing the drivers of the Colombo bound CTB express buses - sometimes with plenty of space- that would not take passengers up to Peradeniya?)
With “Perahera” following the “Wala” and with all those other distractions, it was not surprising that many failed or got referred in the Part II Examination. In August with massive crowds pouring in daily for the ten-day-long pageant, whole of Kandy would transform from tranquillity to a festive mood of incredible intensity and proportion. This feverish, festive mood would spread to the Campus and infect us too; overtaking everything else we might have to do in the Campus.
During “Perahera” days we would eat dinner early and make one beeline to Kandy. By then the city would be packed with people. Crowds- having secured a place closest to the road by midday- would be already standing in the street-sides eagerly waiting for the parade. Naturally they would not budge from their “reserved seats”! Making their annual pilgrimage, there would also be thousands of poor rural folks who would come days ahead from far away villages, and reserve their lakeside space by spreading a tarpaulin. Without access to a vantage point, this would promise a close full view of those fire juggling acrobats, the traditional dancers, the “Hewisi” band, the whip crackers, the torchbearers, the flag bearers, the brightly decorated elephants, the “Maligawa Tusker” and all those seemingly countless performers and the officials that made the pageant such a grand event.
Most of us who did not have a viewing advantage would try to merge with the crowd in the street-sides. We would invariably end up standing behind the crowds and would not get the best view. Those rustic poor folks near the lakeside would be amply rewarded for their early arrival and patience. With the purpose of their pilgrimage and probably their only outing for the year being achieved, they would watch the passing Perahera with obvious thrill and delight- with their dull, weary faces brightening up with a smile. The sight of “Perahera” would captivate every one else too. We would try to keep moving through the packed crowds, in a desperate attempt to get a good view. Among us there would be some, who were more daring and adventurous- who would look to slip a pre-prepared “business card” to a pretty hand in the crowd- in response to an “encouraging” smile or to a momentary eye contact. Some would not simply bother about the splendour of decorated elephants and dancers, or “mingling” with the locals, and would head direct to the Bogambara Grounds where the Carnival was held daily in full swing and where there was plenty of music, dancing, food, drinks, fun games, fashions, glamour, entertainment and of course for the hapless among us who believed in permutations and combinations; gambling! What a time and what a festive mood!
By the third year pet or nicknames for the batch mates had been established firmly. Ones that come to mind easily are Joker, CTB, Porter, Gaetaya, Jacka, Nangi, Appu, Sapey, Bura, Aliya /Ali, Choppe, Sira, Yaka, Kota, Kulta, Dabba, Chan, Serjeant, Reuter, Tel Karaththaya, Lapa, Steam Engine, Polonga, Belekkaya, Kakuluwa, Naya (later spring-Naya), Tel Weeraya, Al Wate, Handa Mama, Peththa, Elara, Gal Hetti, Pol Hetti, Ballah, Tommy, Kab-bah, Sudu Wickie, Kalu Wickey etc. Origin of some nicknames is fairly straightforward. Some origins are not known. Nagaratnam Sivakumaran from Mahajana College came to be known as CTB early in the first year for the simple reason that his father worked as a Regional Manager for the Ceylon Transport Board in Jaffna! I would dearly like to know why Sapey is Sapey. I have heard two different contrasting versions. There are also some who had “worked” hard to “earn” their respective nicknames. I am sure NSKN de Silva will want to have the final say in this subject.
It is only now when I try to pen these lines that it dawns on me that all those batch trips were meant to be educational trips! I always thought the sole purpose of these trips was enjoyment, nothing else. Many would have been inducted to the intoxicating liquid for the first time in their life during these batch trips. I recall in the first year batch trip a youthful Dr Vickramabahu Karunaratne competed with the batch songsters and rendered his voice for a “Sanniya” and showed that he had a good voice and creativity in lyrics. In another batch trip a smiling Dr N Rambukwella was always requesting that we sing Victor Ratnayake’s “Bindumathi”! And we thought we knew why. Has the eligible amiable bachelor got enticed by someone from the fairer sex?
Though our batch did not achieve a high number of first classes (the Faculty yardstick to measure brightness!), I think we had plenty of brilliant and analytical minds in our batch that probably were not passionate enough about engineering or thought the course was not stimulating, or had other interests. NU Gunasena, V Dilkumar and Mohan Kumaraswamy are some names that come to mind easily. You can add many more to this list. Many were multi talented. Srineil Jayawardena and Dennis Ferreira were musically talented. Jayakantha de Mel, HK Karunasena, GH Pathmasiri and Pushpa Kaluarachchi formed our batch drama group. NS (Com) Sivakumaran and WHDM (Chan) Abeysekara were the batch artists. Homer-Vanniasingam was another- an avid reader of Philosophy and J Krishnamurthy- he was always searching for something new, something different, and something always outside the syllabus of the Faculty curriculum! No wonder he thought it was fit that he spent some time studying electrical and mechanical engineering before ending up completing his degree in civil engineering- surely this must be some sort of a faculty record, I suppose? Like Udaya, Homer always liked to challenge the status quo. A debate between Homer and Udaya would have been enlightening, but I would always have both of them in the same team. I can assure that both Dennis and Homer got through the first year examination without touching a book (sorry a piece of paper!). Sarath Rajakaruna surprised everyone by getting through the Part II examination hardly attending the lectures! LSD Fernando was an amateur magician and would practise his hobby for hours in front of the mirror when his roommate was away. He would suddenly take a ping-pong ball from his pocket, nestle it between two fingers, and with one magical move would convert this single ball into two balls to our utter amazement. Immediately he would reveal to us how he did the trick. He would then go on to create three balls from that same single pin-pong ball! Amazing! In the final year LSD gave an impressive magic show on stage on Dean’s Day. Colin Silva on the other hand was saying for four years that his ambition was to give up engineering and to go as a seaman in a ship to see the wide world!
S Vijayakumar was another bright one who was artistically gifted. One Saturday morning when I dropped into see his roommate GE Amirthanathan – Amir- (with whom several of us had close contacts owing to daily prayer meetings we had at that time) I had the good luck to stimulate Vijayakumar’s artistic instincts. He asked me to sit in his room and started pencilling my portrait. This portrait found its way to the Notice Board at the entrance to the Faculty Canteen, and was on display for sometime. What influenced Vijayakumar to pick me as his subject of study, I am not sure, but many admired the artistic quality of the portrait (clarification: not the subject of the portrait, but its creator!). I am sure it is this portrait that prompted Homer- Vanniasingam to try out whether he had latent artistic talents! Unlike Vijayakumar, Homer would not commit a mistake in the selection of his subject for the portrait. Instead, Homer drew a self-portrait of himself looking at a mirror for hours (must have been a testing time!). He showed me his piece of work. I thought it was quite good. Well, it looked like Homer! (But did I hear someone muttering, must have been more like the Greek poet!)
The farewell for Prof Bartholomeusz and the Plane Crash at Maskeliya are some special memories from the third year. Almost the entire batch and the Campus made that thrilling, adventurous voyage in search of the Crash Site. Most of us saw the “crash site”, but only a handful brought “souvenirs”- some one from a junior batch brought with him a Swedish Passport of an Air Hostess. For weeks, the journey to the crash site was the main talking point.
It was also when we were in the third year that Mr HHJ Keerthisena returned to the island after an academic stint in the West and joined the Faculty as a Lecturer. With stomping shoes and somewhat flashy clothes, his outlook did not initially look different to that of his contemporaries when retuning from overseas, we thought. But when the likeable, simple, down to earth HHJK soon started riding to the Faculty in his brand new Chopper bicycle all with smiles, still dressed handsomely, we were not sure whether this was simplicity or whether he was really trying to show off! His state of the art bike was a revelation and a novelty to us at a time imports were banned or restricted, and the only bicycles we knew were those old ramshackle brakeless relics that a few of us had across the river in Hilda Obeysekara Hall. It is not surprising if some of us thought HHJK was showing off!
To be continued with PART V
-Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
Sunday, December 11, 2011
In the second year, as Halls of Residence were not provided we had to stay outside the Campus. Most of the batch found accommodation in rooms of E-quarters, and boarding homes in Penideniya, Meewatura and the surrounding neighbourhood. Seven of us were lucky to find lodging in a large, comfortable home at Handessa, where facilities, food and the “environment” were quite good, though the walk to the Faculty seemed quite long which would make some of us invariably late for the first lecture. This was always a problem if the first lecture happened to be Prof Mahalingam’s “Theory of Machines”, with the late arrivals having to contrive their own ways to enter the lecture room from behind without being evicted.
Those who lodged in E-quarters always appeared to have problems with either the quality or the quantity of food, or unbelievable appetites. It was not unusual to see some of them walking to Akbar Nell Hall around 8 o’clock in the night to have dinner as the special guests of the Sub-warden who had his own way of turning a blind eye to the “gajayas”. (This was the time that the Akbar Nell Hall was known as “Gajayas’ Paradise”).
An interesting exposure was attending those ESU meetings held in the auditorium then known as “Sukavathi”. The meetings were always conducted in English. Depending on what was at stake and the issues, debating would get heated, voices would be raised and one would often think that this was not the ideal place to make your debut in public speaking. There were few ones like GH Pathmasiri and Sarath Perera who had a flair for public speaking who would have thought differently. In our four years Laxman Tillekaratne, J Thavarajah, Ranjan Abayasekara and Mohan Kumaraswamy respectively were the Presidents of the ESU. All worthy of that high post! I remember this rather funny meeting when Thavarajah was the President.
Thava, the senior citizen had a supreme command of English. I must recount this incident too which happened in a Dean’s Day. The delegates that attended this particular Deans Day sessions included Dr SA Wickremasinghe, and probably Mr Chelliah Kumarasuriar and Neville Jayaweera, the first two were powerful Ministers of Mrs B’s UF Government and the latter a highly respected Civil Servant. I can’t recall what Dr Wickremasighe spoke that day but being a communist his speech must have been heavily tainted with Marxist ideology, certainly his answers to the students’ questions were. Not prepared to take this in anymore, Thava who was in the audience in the capacity of a student wanted to have the last say and quipped: “So Mr Minister, you say that communism is something like a brassiere that is used to lift up the sagging (morale of) masses?” I can’t remember Dr Wickremasinghe’s response, but he retorted at the end: “I know nothing of women’s under garments!”
During Thava’s tenure as the President, a small but highly vocal aggressive group once stormed into an ESU meeting and carried a well-orchestrated attack on the Committee in Sinhala. This pro-Sinhala faction was extremely critical of the ESU Committee that was not really keen in promoting the idea of duplicating lectures in Sinhala (except for the first years). When it came to Thava’s turn to defend his Committee, Thava was unperturbed and was at his eloquent best. He spoke about hypocrisy and was continuing: “Gentlemen, the vulgarity of this situation…..” or something to that effect. One of the main agitators from a senior batch who had been doing the bulk of the speaking, interrupted the President and charged in Sinhala “Sabapathi-thuma, apita “vul-gaerandi” kiyala kiyana eka waeradiyi nay!” (Mr President, why do you want to call us “vul-gaerandi”! (literally meaning wild rat-snakes!)
With the demand to have parallel lectures in Sinhala in the second year causing complex problems and almost dividing the batch, I recall some approached Dr S Sivasegaram (Lecturer of Thermo Dynamics) and requested that they should be at least allowed to write the coursework report in Sinhala. Dr Sivasegaram, a man dedicated to the cause of the common man and a person of high principles, also in charge of this particular coursework, agreed. A batch mate who managed to solicit this concession from Siva, probably also thought here is an opportunity to take liberties at will when writing the discussion. Who would guess that Siva was going to read a discussion written in Sinhala? (Siva himself corrected this particular coursework). I am not sure whether Dr Sivasegaram himself read the discussion or got some one else to do the reading for him. But in the corrected discussion, spotting a section outrageously out of context, the two words “Budu Ammo!” was scribbled in Sinhala letters in the left margin against the offending paragraph highlighted.
In Oct 1973 the University closed suddenly due to the Food Crisis. We had to pack our bags and go home without knowing as to when the Campus would re-open for the Part I Examination. The Campus was closed for more than five months. Although some of us later managed to secure vacation jobs, this disruption and the uncertainty was quite frustrating. During this period, it was a common sight to see bread queues at 4 O’ Clock in the morning. Food and groceries became scarce and prices skyrocketed. Restaurants were forbidden to cook rice on certain days!
When the Campus reopened in Feb 1974, we were given halls of residence again. By necessity in the Halls and the Campus, things had changed; the most notable change was in the area of quality and the standard of hall food.
Though I cannot point to a specific reason, in Feb 1974 when we returned many of us felt somewhat unsettled and insecure. This was probably because we knew that although the Campus re-opened, nothing had really changed outside. When we returned in Feb 1974 most of us were in the New Wing of the Akbar Hall. We only had a very short time to prepare for the Part I Examination. This was a testing time. During this narrowest window of opportunity to study, I recall BK Jayasundera and BDG Gunasekara (and few others) often would go “horse riding” along the length of the hall corridors- they would complete their laps “galloping” from one floor to the other and with sound effects just like in a Western Movie. They would stop the “races” only if a senior intervened.
To be continued with PART IV
-Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
Thursday, December 8, 2011
by Maximus Jayantha Anandappa (1972-75 batch)
If Machine Drawings were a mystery, then the Workshop Practicals was penance. Foundry, Carpentry and the Lathe Machine were not my cup of tea- though the workshop-staff was exceptionally supportive and sympathetic (when we messed up or broke hack-saw blades) like the down to earth lecturer Mr S Amaradasa. It always mystified me that how Mr Amaradasa could write such beautiful subtle Sinhala poetry to the “Gauge” magazine from that “horrific unforgiving” environment!
As we had access to samples from the previous batch, the task of writing Coursework was less daunting. At least we thought so. An early Coursework was Metal Testing in the Metallurgy Lab. Writing this Coursework was not that hard until it came to the discussion. My roommate who was also in my group for this Coursework produced his own Report “referencing” a sample Coursework that scored 9C (I do not know why a Coursework that scored so high should get a “C” ranking, meaning “Conditional”!) The discussion in the sample Coursework (prepared obviously having made reference to the standard recommended text book on Metallurgy) was quite impressive with its “textbook type language”, but to me looked a bit too long. I took that discussion, changed the structure of the sentences from active voice to passive voice or vice versa, left out some text for the sake of brevity and prepared my “own” discussion. Surely this was not plagiarism.
Our submission triggered a meeting with Mr Ayal Jayatilleka (who was an assistant lecturer then in charge of Metal Testing) who thought it was fit that he had a brief chat with both of us. Both our reports were lying on Ayal’s table when we appeared in front of him and without showing any emotion except extreme politeness Ayal asked: “Now tell me who copied from whom?” With neither of us initially accepting liability Ayal said again with composure and the same degree of politeness: “Well, it is not hard to find out that who had copied from whom.” Fearing I may have committed a fundamental grammatical error in transforming the sentences (or precisely in cannibalising the text), I pleaded guilty, thanking that my English teacher was not present there. Ayal asked me to resubmit the Coursework, but also would have given me enough time.
This meeting with Ayal did not last more than 2 – 3 minutes, but I remember it for another remarkable reason that may look deceptively trivial. Few months later we had the batch trip. Ayal being a younger lecturer and a sub-warden too joined us in this trip. Ever since that incident I had avoided Ayal totally. In the batch trip I was even more careful not to confront him at all. In fact I went in a different bus. During the batch trip, Ayal came to know many of the batch mates by name particularly those who “behaved famously” in the trip. In the first lecture after the batch trip, Ayal was as usual interactive with the students and started calling the “famous” batch mates by their names including me by my name for the first time- something he never did before the batch trip. Gentleman Ayal! He wanted to break the ice without giving the slightest chance to the inquisitive batch mates to ask me the question- how did Ayal come to know me by name- unusual in the first year, unless you had done something special!
Perhaps Ayal typified the spirit of the lecturers whether they were senior or assistant. Though as students, particularly as freshers, we were sometimes a bit hesitant to approach them- they were always there at the hour of need. We always held Prof (EF) Bartholomeusz and Prof (A) Thurairajah in the highest esteem because they looked so approachable, humane and simple despite their reputation for brilliant academic deeds. Even when we were first year freshers, if you happened to meet Prof Thurairajah in Kandy (sometimes opposite the Trinity College waiting for the Penideniya Bus late in the evening) he would always “recognise” you, have a smile for you and would say “Hello” to you. I also recall during the rag season Dr MP Ranaweera once stopped some of us in the Faculty corridor near the Fluids Mechanics Laboratory to inquire about our wellbeing- he especially wanted to know how we coped with the ragging. Realising that we were not likely to tell him about the difficult ones, Dr Ranaweera kept on probing us for sometime until he was satisfied that we were not too traumatised with the situation.
Continued with PART-III
-Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
Monday, December 5, 2011
Here is my feeble attempt for old time sake to capture the moods of those bygone days. I admit this is a fragment- a pale weak account, an apology for something more vivid, more evocative. You might say I have missed the more remarkable moments and people. But I will count on you to put up with such omissions. If this note can bring a smile or two or rekindle your own memories of successes and failures, tears and laughter, hardships we faced, friendships we made, your trials and tribulations, then my attempt is not in vain. If this account is boring, blame C Paheerathan (Paheer) for pushing me into my moment of vanity.
To me memories from the first year are the sweetest. I will start with ragging. Baptism was surprisingly mild for something that was so dreadful. After our first meal we (my pre-arranged roommate Jayantha Ameratunga and I) were asked to eat a fully ripe Arnamalu banana (Plantain) but without peeling the skin. “Dessert in Akbar style” said the senior who looked unimpressed, though we obliged without a fuss. Seniors appeared to have patience when they taught us the Campus Salute. Dressed (almost) with the Emperor’s New Clothing and parading at midnight opposite the Akbar Nell Hall with other freshers to the orders of Ranjith Gunatilleke (Aliya/Ali) is another pleasant one to recount. Aliya had managed to demonstrate his leadership skills so early and almost picked himself as the “squadron” leader. I am sure Aliya enjoyed every bit of this role. His resonant voice commanding us to march to the tune: “Ala Bathala Ala”, still echoes as if it was yesterday. Returning back from the open air to take the mandatory icy cold shower early in the morning signified either the end of your day’s ragging, or the beginning of another day. It depended on how you looked at it. These early morning showers were also a good way to come to know your batch mates so early with nothing to hide. Height of transparency! Aliya also featured in the frequent re-enactments of “Raja Daekmata Avasarada?” the modified episode from the popular movie “Weli-Kathara”. Why Aliya was more qualified to play this role we knew fairly soon. Ragging concluded with a remarkably colourful oath ceremony in the dining room of the Akbar Hall with some lecturers and sub-wardens attending as guests. Most of us gave an item to entertain the guests and the seniors. GH Pathmasiri gave an impeccable demonstration of a Kandyan Dance. CTB (N Sivakumaran) impersonated a dialogue with (ex English) Prof Hughes and LSD Fernando gave an account of his life in Romania dressed like a Romanian (with clothes worn back to front and shoes in the wrong foot)! Dennis Ferreira was impressive and witty as the compere. At the end of the ceremony was the chance to get even with the seniors.
An early academic activity in the Faculty was the English test. Those who failed the English test were required to follow the compulsory English classes (Section B) every morning for the full length of the first term. A notice to this effect with the proposed date for the test appeared in the Faculty notice board. Seeing this Udaya Gunasena was characteristically arguing in the corridor that it was not fair to subject the students for this kind of test so early. The joke was that overhearing his comments Upali Koswatte rushing to console him thinking that this bright looking outspoken guy with a smile and spectacles must be from a backward rural area with a terrible kaduwa. Upali was the most amused when the results were released to discover that Udaya had topped the batch. Anyway lucky were those who passed this test.
Classmate Srineil Jayawardena and I were certainly lucky. With no lectures in the mornings, and nothing better to do, we would saunter to the Hantane Mountains to enjoy a moment of idle pleasure. We would stroll beyond the radio station and the transmission tower (“Surveying Pole”) and sit on a rock in brilliant sunshine and watch the idyllic landscape: the tea plantation, the cloudless blue sky, the Bible Rock and the distant skyline, the Akbar Nell Hall dwarfed like a box of matches, the meandering Mahaveli and the occasional train that seemed so slow to move from that distance. The steam engine would leave behind a thin black smoke scarcely visible. “That train surely must be running late”, one of us must have remarked languidly with the other hardly bothering to dissent. I do not recall exactly what else we discussed on top of the mountains. Surely we must have talked about nicer things. For later in life whenever I would meet Srineil he would be quick to remind me of these walks - rather fondly. My one recollection is that, I was homesick and would not admit to it. Probably Srineil too was homesick. Instead of admitting to homesickness, in idle indulgence, I vaguely remember discussing how lonely we felt for having to leave our girl friends (imaginary of course) back at home. We would have even said how romantic was it that we were discussing our girl friends in that picturesque setting! In reality what we left behind must have been that fleeting moment of teenage infatuation! One day torrential rains and thunder and lightning cut short our stay and we were forced to take a hurried exit from our vantage point. Whilst returning from one of these walks, I even remember mentioning to Srineil that one day I would write about these walks!
From these aimless wanderings- with head in the clouds, to the Drawing Room was to face grim reality. We had heard from the seniors before hand how difficult Machine Drawings could be. Yes, the subject was a mystery. Added to that, I was simply not prepared to learn, but kept telling myself that I did not like the way the subject was taught. A long association with the subject loomed on the horizon. But well, I was not alone! I can picture, reading this, Regno Arulgnanendran, KADS Chandrasiri, GH Pathmasiri and few others smiling and nodding their heads in amused agreement. T Chandratilleke will smile for a different reason. He was absolutely brilliant on the Drawing Board. He would complete his work well ahead of others irrespective of the complexity and leave the Drawing Room holding his head high with a sense of achievement. Chandratilleke always scored the highest marks. His completed drawings always looked so neat. On the other hand B Arambepola (Arambe) appeared to struggle like any one of us to finish his drawing and often submitted a dirty smudged Kent Sheet eliciting a sympathetic look from the instructor and would leave the Drawing Room excitedly as if the whole world around is about to collapse. Being from Kandy, Arambe did not initially live with us in the halls. The majority of us came to realize his academic brilliance probably only after the Part I results were released. But signs were always there mirrored in his piercing eyes, or evident to you if you had chatted with him on something serious during lunchtime perhaps in the library a place Arambe could be invariably found especially in the second year trying to do the finishing touches to a discussion in a Coursework in his usual excited hurried manner. KA Ariyawansa, dressed in full white like a fresher, would always get on with his work as quietly as he lived and was hardly noticeable. A simple man, Ariyawansa was always approachable if you had a knotty problem- a trait that he maintained through out the four years. The Drawing Room was also associated with “Phantomas”, his fondness to unravel to the girls the mysteries of the subject, and Pushpa (Kaluarachchi)’s courageous “kohoma hari aenda nay” remark, which we dared to utter though we all used the 5c coin to draw the casting curves. On the first or the second day DLC Ariyaratne (Ari) announced that the Drawing Room was owned by “Stanley” (our amiable permanent Drawings instructor) and when I asked him why, he said in typical Ari wit, “Otherwise who would give him the authority to write his name ‘Stanley’ on all T-Rules and Drawing Boards?”
Entering the Surveying Lab Ari proclaims, “Looks like Stanley owns the Surveying Lab as well!” We note that the Theodolites carried the name “Stanley”! (Bulk of this equipment at that time was manufactured by Stanley Bostwich Pty Ltd). Carrying all that heavy equipment across the Campus was the hardest part of the fieldwork. Girls (I mean the female batch mates) must have enjoyed finding how willingly the boys in their respective groups would volunteer to carry that heavy load by themselves without any coaxing! Pity there was no such luck for Malathie and Malkanthi Perera, Miriam Pereira and Anushya Paramakuru who were in the same group! LK Premananda the fifth member in that group will have to tell us his tale. (Or was it W Piyasena? Well, he may have a different version and would always say that he was amply rewarded- for his life long partnership with Malathie). Anyway for us it was good to survey on the “other side” of the Campus and to see the “skirts” and “umbrellas” passing by. Ariyaratne was never short of a witty comment particularly if a girl from the Arts Faculty happened to pass. Packing back the theodolite into the box in its original position at the end of the day, so that it will pass the most stringent verification from “Mame” when returning, was something that was always done with care and with some degree of apprehension. By now we had realised that it was not “Stanley” but “Mame” that “owned” the Surveying Lab. A childhood associate of Prof HB de Silva, Mame had worked in the Faculty from 1950. Looking after the Surveying Equipment lovingly was probably the mission of his life, his joy, certainly it was a job that he did to perfection. His sudden death on the following year was to sadden all of us.
Colours of my first Chain Survey Map were too dark, I still recall the agonising look it brought to the face of the good natured instructor Lalith Ranatunge (who was always with a smile) who found the task of asking me to re-submit the drawing so painful! After 31 years, I can now safely admit that I must have glass sheeted the re-submission. I was not that naïve!
Continued with PART-II
-Maximus Jayantha Anandappa
Thursday, December 1, 2011
The Lionel Bopage Story: A journey through Serendipity’s not so serendipitous times - Reviewed by N. Shanmugaratnam
(Published in: http://transcurrents.com/news-views/archives/6425#more-6425)
‘A biography by its very nature’, writes Michael Colin Cooke, in setting the scene for the Bopage Story, ‘reveals a life not only of an individual but of the society and times of that individual.’ A person’s life story, however, can be told in different ways. A biography may be rich in minutiae and fail to go sufficiently beyond the more immediate social context of the subject.
Cooke deserves to be commended for the way he has approached and narrated the biography of an extraordinary individual, who is intensely political and strongly committed to the creation of a better social order. The young Lionel Bopage dared to engage in struggle with passion. Imprisonment and torture were not the only price he paid for challenging a system which he believed was unjust and hence had to be changed. He was not afraid to self-criticise and re-assess his and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s political past and leave that party to which he gave his youthful years, and choose other means to continue the struggle. He completed his university studies in engineering while serving his sentence in a Lankan prison.
Compelled to be an exile, he continues to be a political activist, commentator and scholar with strong links to the land of his birth. The personal and the political are so intimately linked in his life. In telling the story of this man, Cooke takes the reader on a journey through the different phases of Lanka’s rather turbulent post-colonial political history. The Bopage Story is about ‘rebellion, repression and the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka ’, as the title says. It is an absorbing story that should not be missed by anyone interested in Lankan politics and the daunting challenges of building a left alternative in the country. I am happy to hear that the book is being translated into Sinhala and Tamil as well.
Lionel was born in 1944, when Ceylon was still a British colony. He was barely four when the ‘model colony’ was granted independence, which actually meant a transfer of power to an elite group of native comprador retainers.
He was a child when the newly formed government disenfranchised the plantation workers, the upcountry Tamils or ‘Indian Tamils’. Making the ‘universal franchise’ granted by our colonial masters less universal was one of the first major undertakings of the government of independent Ceylon!
Lionel was drawn into left politics very early in life. His father was a card carrying member of the Communist Party and Lionel was also influenced by some of the leftist teachers at school. But in 1956 Lionel’s father, along with a local Party leader and supporters, crossed over to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Bandaranaike, who had forged a coalition under the rallying cry of ‘Sinhala Only’ on a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist platform with a populist rhetoric that appealed to the Sangha (Buddhist clergy), Vedha (indigenous physicians), Guru (teachers), Govi (farmers), and Kamkuru (workers) – the so called ‘five great forces’.
Lionel recalls his experience of the moment of 1956 in the following words:
My father and I at the time supported the campaign to make Sinhala the official language of the country. Our bodies and minds were overflowing with Sinhala nationalist emotions. I can still visualise the small blue poster with Mr Bandaranaike’s photograph wearing the Sinhala national costume. His fist close to his mouth and one finger pointed towards the sky and a poem in Sinhala to the effect that Sinhala will be made the official language of the country ‘within 24 hours’ of coming to power. (p49-50)
The post-1956 communalist politics and violence made young Lionel wonder why the left parties were unable to mobilise Sinhala and Tamil workers for a united struggle to change the political and economic order inherited from colonialism. The reality, however, was the rise of ethno-politics, the deepening of the ethnic cleavages and tensions, and a progressive recession of class politics. Bandaranaike and his allies had effectively ethnicised distributional conflicts and the social consequences of uneven development and underdevelopment and outflanked the left parties, which after a brave but brief show of resistance caved in and capitulated. In retrospect, the divisive and anti-left nature of the ‘Bandaranaike revolution’ is all too evident.
As to be expected, one learns a lot about the JVP from this book though some questions remain unanswered or inadequately addressed. The author rightly rejects Moore ’s (1993) characterisation of the JVP’s activism as an ‘exercise in political entrepreneurship’. This type of interpretation of rebel movements belongs to an academic genre that has gained wider currency in post-cold war years. The book is also justifiably critical of some of the other interpretations, which are preoccupied with Rohana Wijeweera’s psycho-pathologies, or are unable to go beyond some useful insights on the socio-political space that enabled the birth and growth of the JVP.
Through his interviews and discussions with Lionel and by broadening the analytical canvas, Cooke strives to capture the historical conjuncture and the ideological contestations that set the stage for the JVP phenomenon in Sri Lanka . While agreeing with Jupp (1978) that ‘the JVP, like the SLFP before it, was a movement of the rural Sinhalese’, and in that sense ‘it was a true child of the victors of 1956’, Cooke takes issue with Jupp and other scholars who have failed to address the JVP leadership’s claim that they were Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. This is a moot point indeed and, after reading the book, one is left with a feeling that it should have been explored more critically and more thoroughly. Many of the key leaders and activists at different levels of the JVP had their early political schooling in the Communist Party of Ceylon and most of them openly identified themselves or sympathised with the ‘Peking Wing’ against the ‘Moscow Wing’ when the party split as a result of the ideological parting of ways between the Soviet and the Chinese Communist Parties. They claimed to uphold the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary line when they broke away from the Marxist-Leninist (or Maoist) Communist Party led by Shanmugathasan (Comrade Shan).
These youthful leaders did not emerge from the SLFP, yet they were all children of 1956 who were influenced by a ‘socialist ideology’ and inspired by the Cuban revolution. The year 1956 marked the beginnings of the hegemonic rise of Sinhala Buddhist ideology through public institutions and the media – the Sinhala media in particular, which played a significant role in the on-going reconstruction of a collective Sinhala Buddhist identity.
This was a mono-ethnic, cross-class, cultural and ideological project of constructing Sinhala nationhood. On the other hand, 1956 also paved the way for the rural youth and the poor to become more aware of their exclusion and disempowerment. Bandaranaike’s ‘Sinhala Buddhist socialism’, while giving pride of place to the language and the main religion of the Sinhala people, failed to deliver in terms of employment and enhancement of life chances.
The two old left parties, however, were in an alliance with the SLFP, which they claimed was anti-imperialist and progressive. The radical left parties and tendencies that broke away from the old parties were advocating a proletarian revolutionary line and rejecting the majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist discourse as chauvinist and reactionary. However, their efforts to win over the working class base of the once radical LSSP and the pro-Moscow CP did not produce significant results. What was happening was that these two old parties were losing their trade union bases to the SLFP and UNP. The JVP leaders, while talking about the working class, chose to target Sinhala students and the educated unemployed for mobilisation and recruitment.
Lionel admits that the JVP chose this strategy as it was easier to find recruits in these sections of society than from the working class. The question as to why the revolutionary left groups that split from the old left parties or the newly formed JVP did not succeed in building and sustaining a strong working class base is not adequately addressed in the book. In some instances, in his self-critical retrospection and theoretical reflections on class, Lionel tends to idealise ‘the working class’ as an entity that is imbued with an innate collective consciousness and transformative power. This is rather abstract thinking, given the hard realities of the counter hegemonic challenges of politicising workers along class lines across ethnic and religious divides. These challenges are further compounded by the growing informalisation (or casualization) of labour and the widespread use of coercive practices by the state against mobilisation of workers for collective action.
The rise of ethno-politics in Sri Lanka meant that ethnicity preceded class and gained an overdetermining power in the evolution of the country’s political culture and modes of political mobilisation. As a political movement, the JVP was not prepared to challenge this process from a Marxist standpoint. Chapter 4 briefly mentions an attempt by Lionel and some other JVP leaders to establish contacts with plantation workers (upcountry Tamils) through the Young Socialist Front led by Ilancheliyan and with urban workers through the LSSP(R) led by Bala Tampoe.
It is not clear how seriously these efforts were pursued and why the JVP failed to develop any links with these organisations. On the other hand, it was well known that the JVP viewed the Tamil plantation workers as agents of Indian expansionism, which was the subject of its Fifth Lecture – the last in a crash course offered to the recruits. With that lecture, the JVP exposed not only its own inability to free itself from the ideological trappings of the hegemonic discourse but also its poor understanding of the history of working class struggles in Lanka. Both of these shortcomings are interconnected, of course. At the same time, the party was ridden by factionalism and there were some tendencies that were trying to operate on their own. All these factors played a role in the making of the JVP and the shaping of its ideology as a petty bourgeois movement, which was in a hurry to make a ‘socialist revolution’.
‘The insurrection’, writes Cooke, ‘has been rightly seen as a failed putsch in which large sections of the more progressive elements in society failed to join; often they were hostile to the JVP. In fact many of the workers who belonged to LSSP-supported unions informed on JVP cadres’ (p154).
Furthermore, the putsch was a response ‘by a faction-ridden party of young inexperienced revolutionaries to… state repression. By doing this the JVP allowed the state to imprison its leadership, murder 10,000 of its cadres, and jail and torture many thousands more’(p157). The insurrection was a disaster, a tragedy indeed. Even more tragic was the failure of the JVP to learn the lessons of that costly misadventure. Lionel had been trying to adopt a principled political stand within the party on the question of whether to launch the insurrection or not and on the factionalism that was plaguing it. Before coming to that, it is important to highlight the brutality with which the uprising was crushed by the government in which the LSSP and CPSL were partners.
Drawing on Lionel’s firsthand knowledge and other sources, the book provides valuable documentation of the conduct of the government and the state apparatus at its command. Thousands of JVP cadres and supporters were arrested and imprisoned months before the insurrection of April 1971.
Wijeweera was arrested and taken to Jaffna and kept there in detention. An emergency was declared on 16 March 1971 and the government invoked a most pernicious 19th century colonial provision that permitted the disposal of dead bodies without any inquest. The British colonialists used this draconian regulation to legalise their brutality during the Kandyan revolts of 1818 and 1848. In 1971 March, in independent Ceylon , the United Front government chose the same regulation to give its security forces a free hand to crush the JVP and anyone suspected of having links with it. The stage was set for the enactment of the first major bloodbath in post-colonial Lanka. More were to come.
The decision to launch the insurrection on 5 April at 1130 pm was taken at a meeting of the two factions of the JVP amid unverifiable and contradictory messages supposedly sent by the imprisoned Wijeweera, lack of trust between the factions, poor information flow within the party, and arrests and killings of cadres by the police. The police also had informants within the organisation, which came to light much later. Lionel had his reservations and told his comrades that the party did not have enough cadres and arms to sustain an offensive in Colombo . However, his concerns were unheeded by the Athula-Sanath group that imposed the decision to stage the insurrection. The secret plan was to launch simultaneous raids on police stations in different parts of the country. ‘The aim was in one quick scoop to capture a large cache of arms and in a short space of time, to seize the state’ (p141). An incredibly bizarre plan for a new party with serious internal conflicts and without popular support! And things did not go as planned. The element of surprise was lost due to an isolated premature attack on a police station on 4 April. Many of the police stations could not be taken. The poorly armed and ill prepared but daring youthful fighters were badly outnumbered and outgunned by the state’s armed forces. The blood bath happened with the support of many countries including India , Pakistan , Singapore , Soviet Union , USA , and China.
In April 1971, Lionel and U Mahathaya had sought refuge in a Buddhist temple in Panadura. One morning the temple was surrounded by hundreds of policemen and Lionel and his comrade were arrested although at the time the police did not know that they had caught two key figures of the JVP. In detention, like thousands of other JVP prisoners Lionel was tortured. The torture included electric shocks to the genitals of the prisoners before subjecting them to further physical cruelties. I reproduce one of the quotes from Lionel:
‘Then we were hit on the sole of our feet. The pain would jolt through my whole body. By the fourth or fifth hit the body went numb. Many a cadre ascended the stairs and never walked back. Another favourite form of punishment was to hit by the butt of a rifle. The pain was intense and I could not stand up but had to move on all fours. Many of these police officers could only be classified as sadists. The political thuggery was simple, if you gave in, confessed and dobbed your comrades, the punishment would stop.’ (p171)
As noted by the author ‘the government’s barbarity had appalled the progressive forces in the country’, and international human rights bodies.
They demanded investigation into the atrocities perpetrated by the armed forces. The government did not care and it expelled the British observers sent by Amnesty International. The leaders of the JVP were tried by a specially set up Criminal Justice Commission (CJC). In a defiant and eloquent speech before the CJC, Wijeweera spoke the language of class struggle and declared himself a Bolshevik! While not taking responsibility for the insurrection he maintained that his party resorted to a struggle in the face of intolerable repression by the state. It would seem that he did not think that the time was ripe for launching an insurrection in April 1971. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and Lionel to 15 years rigorous imprisonment. In fact, Wijeweera’s sentence exceeded the maximum term that could be imposed under the CJC Act. Subsequently, the sentence was reduced to 20 years in response to appeals by the Amnesty International and the Civil Rights Movement.
The suppression of a youth rebellion in the south did not mean the end of youth revolt in Lanka. As Lionel and his comrades began to serve their sentences, another rebellion was in the making in the north, a rebellion that would turn into a brutal protracted war with far reaching consequences. In prison, Lionel came into contact with some of the Tamil youth leaders detained for their anti-state activities in the 1970s. He became more interested in the Lankan national question and decided to study it deeply.
His ‘A Marxist Analysis of the National Question’ was published in 1977 in Sri Lanka . ‘The Constitution of Sri Lanka and the National Question’, a pamphlet by him was published the same year in London by the Ginipupura group. In these works, he was defending the Tamil people’s right to self-determination and arguing the need for a secular state in Lanka. With the help of his analysis, Lionel was able to persuade the JVP to adopt his position on the national question. The JVP, however, abandoned that position after 1983, opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution and any form of devolution, and supported a military solution.
Much blood had been shed in the country since the release of the JVP leaders in November 1977, while the Lankan state was getting more ethnocratic and authoritarian. The UNP government, whose key figures were the masterminds and facilitators of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, scapegoated the JVP, the NSSP and the CPSL. No one believed the government’s propaganda but that did not stop the authorities from arresting Lionel and many other JVP members. They were released after several months of incarceration.
Lionel was fighting a losing battle on the ideological front within the JVP.
He was against changing the party’s stand on the national question and stood for engaging in talks with left-wing Tamil groups to convince them that a united struggle for socialism rather than a separate Tamil state was the right path. This had few takers within the JVP. Realising that he could not persuade the party leadership to change the chauvinist course it was taking, he decided to resign from the party in 1984. Lionel saw through Wijeweera’s clever distortion of Lenin’s views on the national question to disguise a chauvinist line. As Cooke observes on page 419, ‘the JVP like the traditional left and the LTTE does not seem to have had the political vision, patience or the stamina to do the hard political yards that is essential to confront the chauvinists and make common cause with the members of all communities.’
Lionel’s principled stand on the national question and his vision of a united struggle for a secular and egalitarian Lanka are admirable indeed. It must, however, be noted that the prospects that existed in the 1970s and early 1980s for a new united left alliance across the ethnic divide had begun to recede rapidly as the Tamil people’s struggle came to be dominated by militarism and sectarianism. Many years ago, while condemning the anti-Muslim violence in the north and east, I raised the point that Tamil nationalism had turned into a mirror image of Sinhala nationalism (Shanmugaratnam, 1990, Tamil Times; Economic and Political Weekly). I do share Lionel’s view that a resolution of the national question within a united country is the best way ahead for all the peoples inhabiting it. I am aware that many individuals hold the same view. Indeed that is the line taken by some smaller left political formations in the country. However, we are yet to see the beginnings of a united and sustained movement towards that goal in post-war Sri Lanka . What we see is ethnic polarisation and majoritarian triumphalism in a highly militarised and fear-ridden environment.
Lionel’s letter of resignation (1984) is a moving, revealing political statement, which is marked by a tone of lamentation and, at the same time, a strong commitment to a socialist revolution. In the more than a quarter century since Lionel’s resignation, the JVP has turned more chauvinist and opportunist. In 1987, after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord and the arrival of the IPKF, the JVP resorted to an opportunist tactic and staged its disastrous second insurrection and a series of assassinations. The government was mercilessly brutal in its response. Thousands of lives were lost. Many leaders of the JVP including Wijeweera were killed. Many left political activists and human rights workers who had nothing to do with the JVP were also killed. More recently, the JVP split in two and there are some belated signs of repentance from both factions. It is difficult to say which way the JVP is going, although it is not at all difficult to see that it has been reduced to a minor political actor in today’s Lankan political scene. The JVP had long missed the opportunity to reform itself and emerge as a multi-ethnic left party in Sri Lanka .
But Lionel has struggled and moved on and against many odds found a political niche in exile. Unbowed by the diatribes from pseudo leftists and self-proclaimed ‘patriots’, he works intelligently and energetically to advance the case for a political solution and genuine reconciliation and peace in Lanka. In narrating Lionel’s story, Cooke has done a remarkable job of locating the JVP story in the larger historical processes of the rise of ethno-politics, the decline of the ‘old’ left and the search for an alternative, neoliberalism and globalisation, secessionism and war, and the continuous erosion of democratic freedoms in Lanka.
(The writer is Professor Emeritus, Department of International Environment & Development Studies, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Photo from: http://www.decc.org.au/photo3.htm)