There was much to do in the few days following my father’s death, but we had no complications, because both my mother and he had been very clear when they wrote their wills. My father had not wanted to write one, on the grounds that he had nothing in his name, but I had persuaded him that he had to because unexpected possessions could turn up. And in fact he certainly possessed a car.

He said he would leave that to me, but I thought that would not be correct given that I had persuaded him to write a will. He then wanted to leave it to Anila’s son, which seemed an eminently sensible idea, but she was adamant about not having a benefit for her family over and above what the children of my brother had. So in the end my father decided to give the car to Chamara who had looked after him devotedly over the last couple of years.

Anila, hyper-conscious of equity, suggested he leave it to both those who looked after him, but this was silly because Sunil, whom I had taken on when the Reconciliation Office closed, though a good worker, was not the old friend Chamara was regarded as by my father. I thought it best then not to consult Anila about the will in general, in particular the clause about a residual legatee, which was essential since one never knew what might pop up in my father’s name. Again he wanted to nominate me, but I insisted on Anila and he did not demur. This proved just as well, because there turned out to be a motorcycle he had bought for his last driver, Jayantha, and also some shares in my mother’s name.

The main house had been left by my mother to my sister and me jointly, on the grounds that we would not quarrel. This did not prove to be an accurate prediction, since we had very different tastes, but it was certainly true that no one could have doubted Anila’s financial integrity and sense of equity, and I hope she would say the same about me. Read the rest of this entry »

I had left for Jordan the day after my father’s 93rd birthday, on June 27th. He had had a party as usual, and all the reception rooms downstairs, the dining room and the rectangular verandah in front, and the large drawing room with its extensions, the round verandah giving on to the garden and the smaller room behind where the piano stands, were all full. But numbers were fewer than in previous years and, though as usual my father enjoyed himself, he had not been as determined as in previous years that no one should be left out, that all friends and relations should be invited.

He seemed to enjoy cutting the cake and I have a lovely picture of him just afterwards, with his three children around him and his oldest friend, C Mylvaganam, who was just a few hours older, seen dimly in the background. We also had the usual ritual of opening presents afterwards, which I remembered too from my grandmother’s birthdays, the last one in 1993 her 93rd.

I sensed that this birthday would also be my father’s last, though I continued to think, or perhaps to hope, that he would live longer than his mother-in-law had done. She had died on his birthday in 1994, a little over six months after her birthday, so I thought that my father would be with us until Christmas and beyond.

He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but the doctor had told us that there was no point in any intervention, it was a very slow moving disease, and old age was likely to do for my father before the cancer did. It had got worse earlier that year, but there still seemed no reason to worry overmuch. But after I got back from Jordan I had to take him for several tests, and it was clear that his condition was worsening. After the last test I showed a specialist, recommended when the enormously kind Dr Malalasekera, who had dealt initially with the prostate problem, thought this now necessary, it was clear that nothing more could be done. I was simply tasked then with trying to ensure that he did not worry. Fortunately we could at any stage call on the old family GP, Vimala Navaratnam, the most thoughtful and practical of doctors.

I was still out much of the time, travelling to the North and East for Reconciliation meetings at Divisional Secretariats, in Parliament for various committees, and at my cottage over weekends. This was not a problem for my father still continued interested in his principal pursuits in these last few years, cricket and Hindi films. He also still read, though not as much as he had done when he would sit upright at his desk in the lounge. Now he spent all day in his room, in his armchair, though he did still make the effort to come to the dining room for meals. But he had at last accepted the need for a wheelchair, and I had my coffee alone in the lounge until he was ready to emerge for breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »

img_5858The third country I visited in June 2014, in that period of quietude when nothing was moving in Sri Lanka except for an increasing sense of decline, was Jordan. I did not count it as a new country, for I had stayed overnight there in a hotel, when I was traveling to Turkey early in 1989 to join the SS Universe, for the University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea programme. It was for a long interport stint, to cover the whole of Asia as it were, even though the ship was not coming to Sri Lanka. So I was able in that year to visit the pyramids of Egypt for the first time, and in India Tanjore and also Kerala. I also swam off Cape Comorin, and lost my spectacles in the waves, which meant I had to make do with contact lenses for Trivandrum and Cochin and the long train ride back to Chennai, where I had a spare set on board the ship.

It had proved very difficult to get a flight to Turkey. I had set off for Thailand, from where I was to fly back after finally disembarking in Penang, and in Bangkok I had got the Turkish visa without difficulty. But the airlines going to Istanbul were very wary of a Sri Lankan passport. Even the Romanians, and that in the days of Ceausescu too, would not allow me even to transit in their capital. The embassy staff in Bangkok obviously thought their regulations silly, and agreed that it was hardly likely I wanted to stay in Bucharest (this was the year in which Ceaucescu was finally overthrown), but they would not budge. Finally the Jordanians did give me a ticket, and provided me with a hotel for the overnight layover, but they took away my passport at the airport and ensured that I did not stray.

In Turkey I was able to explore to my heart’s content, taking advantage of their fantastic network of buses that enabled me to get to Ankara and even to Trabzon, a place I have always thought of as magical, ever since reading Rose Macaulay’s wonderful novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which begins with perhaps the maddest opening line in English literature, “Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’) The city lived up to expectations, with its fantastic monastery up in the snow covered mountains, and so did the rock houses of Cappadocia and its extraordinary underground city. I went too to the remote East, the Kurdish area which proved more peaceful than I had thought, and Antakya in the south, the old Antioch, tropical weather even in January and wonderful mosaics. Read the rest of this entry »

Oddly enough, as my father was fading, the world of my other great rock in these last years, Ena, also shrank. In 2012 we had celebrated her 90th birthday in Yala, quite a large crowd though initially she had told me that she wanted only me and Shanthi Wilson. Of course she could not have dreamed of rejecting the rest of the Hard Corps of our younger days when they made arrangements for a larger party, but that may have been one reason for her losing her hearing aid before getting there. By then she had grown adept at switching off when she did not wish to be too involved.

She did not come out with us on all the rounds we did in the Park, but it was a happy enough occasion, and she seemed to relish the cake in the form of an elephant that one of our number produced, and also the book entitled ‘The Moonemalle Inheritance’ that I had brought out in her honour. The sister of her Moonemalle grandfather had been my great-grandmother, and we had often speculated on our common inheritance. We had reached the conclusion that what others might term meanness but which we thought thrift was the most important quality of Moonemalle blood. This was part of a characteristic we had identified in each other, which led us frequently to quote, approvingly, Edward Lear’s splendid characterization of Pelicans – ‘No such birds as fine as we…’

Ena lost her hearing aid twice that year, and was not at all inclined to come to Colombo to get another. I sensed, and she did not challenge me when I once mentioned the possibility, that this was a way to withdraw from the world. Read the rest of this entry »

In retrospect it is clear that there was no hope of stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa rushing headlong into disaster, given that so many of those around him, while pursuing their own agendas, had lulled him into a false sense of security. But it still seemed necessary to try, and I did have at least one significant success. This was heartening, since it suggested he was not totally unaware of the problems being created for him.

The problem had once again been caused by Basil Rajapaksa. While in the East for Reconciliation meetings, late in 2013, I was told about proposals that had been prepared at District and Divisional level for a large UN project which was funded by the European Union. This had been agreed with the government, after Basil had suggested various modifications including that it be extended to areas outside the North and East too. But then suddenly he had clamped down on it and said it could not proceed.

My informants in the Administrative Service thought it was because his favourites, Bathiudeen and Hisbullah who had been basically given a free hand in the North and the East respectively, had not been consulted in the planning. It was believed they wanted the money for political advantage and were resentful that they had not been able to put forward projects that catered to their own agendas. An alternative view was that Basil wanted to control all the funds himself and did not like the decentralized manner in which the project had been conceived. Yet another explanation was that Basil was deeply upset that the Northern Province had so conclusively rejected the government at the recent Provincial Council election, and this was his revenge. Sadly, this was perfectly in character, and led to Sarath Amunugama describing him behaving strangely because of what he characteristically described as ‘unrequited love’.

After I heard about the stoppage I inquired about it from Subinay Nandy, the UN Head whom I would meet regularly though there was increasingly less I could offer him with regard to progress about Reconciliation. He was obviously deeply upset about what was happening, and could not understand how the government could reject such a large tranche of assistance. I wrote then to the President in November about the matter –

During Reconciliation meetings in the Eastern Province, I was told about a European Union project to spend 60 million Euros on District Development which has been abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Economic Development.  The Development Officers of the Ministry of Economic Development had been aware of the project and prepared proposals but had no idea why the Ministry had stopped work.

This stoppage was after approval had been granted, following an adjustment of the project, at the request of the Minister of Economic Development, so as to include Districts outside the North and East too. Efforts on the part of the UN, which initiated the Project, to meet with the Minister and the Secretary, to clarify matters have proved fruitless….

If this policy of inaction is in accordance with a government decision, I have nothing to say except that it will seriously damage efforts at Reconciliation. But knowing Your Excellency’s commitment to the reconciliation process, I believe this is yet another example of governmental efforts being subverted by individual compulsions, a sure recipe for disaster.

I would be grateful if this matter could be looked into and steps taken to adopt a more positive approach to dealing with the United Nations. We can ill afford to alienate the positive elements in the international community at this stage, and I believe the arbitrary decisions that are made, without explanation, will not help us to safeguard our sovereignty and the ideals for which you stand.           

Typically there was no response. But at the dinner after the budget I brought up the matter. It was evident that he had not seen my letter, which reminded me of what he had once said when I told him, about some step that he belatedly agreed should be taken, that I had written to him about it previously. ‘But you write in English’, he had said, ‘how can you expect anyone to understand?’

At the budget dinner however I was able to explain the matter very simply, and he seemed to have taken action promptly. Before the end of the year, Subinay told me, the Secretary to the Treasury had instructed that the project was to proceed.

I felt I was not wrong then in feeling that the President still had a positive mindset about how the country should move forward. But it was also clear that he was less and less in control. Read the rest of this entry »

In the month after my extended 60th birthday celebrations, I travelled extensively. This was not however to any new countries, so I remained stuck on 89 for a few months more. But I was able to get to fascinating places in countries I had been to previously.

img_3859In India this was to the North East, which had until a few years previously been forbidden territory except with a special permit. But by now things had settled down in a few of states that had been created out of the original Assam Province.

I was invited there by the Centre for Regional and Industrial Development, which was based in Chandigarh, but had been working for some time in this relatively neglected region. Given the special circumstances of our own North East region, it was quite interesting to work on a paper on ‘Sri Lanka’s North East, and the need to promote integration whilst preserving local identities’ for the Conference to which I was asked. Before delivering the paper I was able to register some  similarities in our situations and work these into what I said.

The conference was held in Shillong, which had been the capital of Assam but was now part of Meghalaya, which had been created in 1972. It did not have a proper airport however, so we flew to Gauhati, the capital of Assam, and then drove for several hours to get to the University in Meghalaya, where the conference was held. The roads were not very good, which renewed my appreciation of what the Rajapksa government had done in building up connectivity so swiftly after the conflict. Had it only applied similar energy and commitment to human resource development, we would not have suffered continuing tension, but I suppose that lacuna is a function of our general neglect of an area which it is not profitable to work in.

An unexpected bonus of Shillong having been the original capital of the area in British times was the grandeur of the residence of the Governor, where we were hosted to dinner. This had been the home of the British resident, and the splendor of the reception rooms, with lovely wooden paneling, was still preserved.

The university staff were extremely helpful about arranging a car for me to hire to travel, after the conference had ended, to Cherrapunjee, which has claims to being the wettest place in India. The drive there was wonderful, with detours to spectacular waterfalls and also shrines in caves, including a beautifully formed stalagmite, which had naturally to do duty too as a Shiva lingam.

Cherrapunjee lived up to its reputation while I was there, with torrential rains all night. But before that I had enjoyed a fantastic sunset over the hills, at the isolated resort for which the university had arranged a special price. And the next day I had a memorable excursion deep into the forest, to see what are termed root bridges, tangles of massive thick roots joined together by the tribes who inhabit the area, to form bridges which are immensely strong and can take dozens across them at a time. Read the rest of this entry »

After those idyllic few days with my father at my cottage, I went to Algeria, determined to see more of the Roman remains of Africa, and if possible get to the deep desert. Years earlier I had bought guidebooks for Tunisia and Libya, which had better sites, and I had managed to get to Tunisia in 2013. But Libya had now been in essence destroyed by the West’s wickedness in getting rid of Gaddafi and unleashing extremist forces. The Tunisians had told me sadly how, pleased though they were with their own change of government, what had happened in Libya now threatened them too. And a couple of years back there was indeed an attack on the El Bardo Museum in Tunis, with its wonderful collection of Roman mosaics.

Algeria had less to offer in that respect, but I much enjoyed the site at Tipaza which we visited on the first full day there. It had two splendid amphitheatres and an impressive gate, but I also relished its setting, on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean.

img_9195That had been an unexpected joy with regard to Algiers itself. We had found a hotel overlooking the sea, which allowed for the most exquisite sunrises. And though there was nothing spectacular, the religious buildings in the city were well worth viewing, especially the Cathedral high on a hill overlooking the city.

Places were miles apart in Algeria, so we could not use buses, but flights were cheap. We went first to Tamanrasset in the south, where there were spectacular formations in the desert. But as I was arranging with the hotel to go out to one for an overnight stay, we hit an unexpected snag. I had been provided with an escort from the airport when I went to the hotel because I had a diplomatic passport, but then it turned out that this meant they were excessively careful about my safety. There had, I think some time back, and just once or twice, been an attack on foreigners venturing into the desert, and they would not give me a permit. Indeed they would not let me out of the hotel without a guard, so it was a good thing that on the evening we arrived we had had a long walk through the city. Read the rest of this entry »

From the start it was clear that 2014 would be a bleak year. My father was much weaker than before, and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. We knew that this was a slow process and the doctors said there was no need for any interventions since old age was likely to do for him before the cancer did. But it was sad to see him weakening.

That year he decided to stay most of the time in his room. Previously he would be sitting early in the morning in the lounge, the lovely room at Lakmahal that stuck out of the main house, with windows on three sides looking over the garden with its cassia tree, and to the temple flower tree on the right and the ehela tree on the left. I would join him there for my morning coffee, and often he would comment on how he loved to watch the squirrels running up and down the trees, and along the wires. When the routine changed, and he stayed in his room, I missed him when I came up for my coffee in the mornings. He would emerge later, and we would go straight to breakfast and those moments of tranquility faded into the past like so much else.

We enjoyed the tranquility of the house, and it was noticeable that he was increasingly unhappy when my sister visited with a bustle of activity. She was doing her best to keep the house neat and tidy, but increasingly she was getting Pavlovian about this and building up a myth of an anodyne world which she had to rescue from her messy menfolk. What she now claimed Lakmahal had been was nothing like the reality, given that it had been a thoroughfare for so many, and both my mother and father had engaged in a range of activities all their lives. As my sister complained about papers everywhere, I would remember the piles of Girl Guide documents that littered the surfaces of my old room, next to that of my parents. My mother used to stay awake late at night in those days, chasing as Treasurer of the Guide movement after five cents that was missing as my father would put it. My sister’s own dining table was always also piled with papers, but she seemed to think that her principal function now was to sanitize Lakmahal.

At one stage she decided that the overhangs that protected the windows from the rain were crumbling away, and should be done away with. She had a point, in that once a lump crumbled off, but both my father and I would have been happier to let things be. But she was determined, and we gave in, which led to much hammering as her workmen chipped away, with my father covering his ears in anguish, which she did not seem to notice. I did not worry overmuch either, I have to confess, for I have never much noticed noise, and I was in any case out on many days. But my father obviously found it a strain. Read the rest of this entry »

After Ethiopia, I felt I should see the Sudan, not only in search of other aspects of the Nile, but also because I realized that it was the repository of many splendours from the Egyptian Empires. The pyramidic culture had extended far to the South, and then so had Hellenistic civilization, following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander and the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the longest lasting of the successor kingdoms set up by his generals after his death.

Ethiopia I had visited in January 2014, and the next month I went to the Sudan. We landed late at night but, after the first hotel I sought turned out to be a dump, we ended up in the Acropole, by far the most attractive of Khartoum hotels except for those who want five star comfort on the lines of what they have experienced in other countries.

The Acropole was owned and run by three Greek brothers, who were born in Khartoum after their father emigrated there before the war. They knew the country well, and were enormously helpful about how to get to places, while also efficiently covering the required formalities, such as registration with the authorities on arrival. The breakfasts they served up were fabulous, and on Fridays they provided a free city tour, which I came back for.

On the first morning we explored the city, and saw the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White. I find this fascinating, and still have fond memories of seeing the place where the two branches of the Amazon, the Solimoes and the Negro rivers, come together, in Manaos in Brazil. Way back in 1987, I was taken to the confluence by a delightful boatman who did not make too much of a fuss when it transpired that I had thought the price he quoted a tenth of what he wanted (there was much confusion in Brazil in those days because of currency reform, cruzeiros having become cruzados at the rate of 1000 t0 1, a process repeated three years later when cruzados gave way to new cruzados).

Chanaka Amaratunga used to later claim that I was the only person to have been made President of a political party while in the Amazon. The Liberal Party was set up in January that year, against my advice, but the other office bearers of the Council for Liberal Democracy were determined. I had consented to be Vice-President, as I was of the CLD, if they did go ahead, but its President Hugh Fernando decided to rejoin the SLFP instead. Chanaka I suppose then thought me the most reliable of his associates in the movement, a trust I believe I justified, while all his school friends fell away over the years that followed. Read the rest of this entry »

Much of this series has been about my personal travels, and the slow but steady dissolution of the world I had known. To dwell only on these would however give a misleading impression of what occupied me most during the years from 2012, when I began to realize that my efforts to promote reform were getting nowhere. But that realization took time to crystallize and, in the period when I continued in Parliament on the government side, I tried hard to effect some changes.

It was something I felt that the National Human Rights Action Plan, which we had begun drafting when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was finally adopted by Cabinet. There was no Ministry of Human Rights following the 2010 election, and it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs, to which in theory the subject had been entrusted, was neither competent nor concerned. Minari Fernando, the Consultant we had taken on to draft the plan, found it impossible to work from there, but fortunately Mohan Pieris, as Attorney General, took on responsibility, though he was too busy to attend meetings and I had to do most of the work. But he allowed the more able members of the Department such as Yasantha Kodagoda to contribute, and with yeoman service from Dhara Wijayathilaka and Hiranthi Wijemanne, who had been deeply involved in improving the lot of women and children for many years now, we got a good draft together.

After it was adopted, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had been made the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights when the failure of the Foreign Ministry became obvious, was appointed to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the Plan. That did not I think ever meet, but he appointed a Task Force to expedite implementation, and asked me to help. By then I had realized how insincere Mohan Pieris was, so I told Mahinda I would do this only if I chaired the Task Force. Mohan was clearly upset, and said at the meeting at which Mahinda asked me to take over that I could be a bloody nuisance, but he made no further objection, and for a few months we were able to work towards consensus on many issues.

But before long it became clear that, to expedite action, we needed a dedicated Ministry as we had had before. Though Secretaries to Ministries seemed most cooperative, in particular the Secretaries to the Ministries of Land and of Women and Children’s Affairs, the representatives they sent to meetings could not ensure follow up. In some cases there was vast confusion about who was responsible, given the proliferation of Ministries, and the plethora of Departments within Ministries. We also had to cope with a very conservative Ministry of Justice, which seemed determined for instance not to repeal the horrendous Vagrants’ Ordinance, on the grounds that that was the only way to control prostitution. The fact that it was used to remand women at will, with no provision for checking on their fate, while prostitution flourished in various forms, was ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

December 2016
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