In February last year I had to resign from my jobs, and I found myself with little to do. I was a candidate for Parliament, but it was on the National List and, being from the Liberal Party, I was obviously not seen as especially useful for the hustings.
I did do a number of interviews for television, and a few for radio and the press. I had also begun to write several articles, including a series on the Presidential Election and another on the Reconciliation process. But print is an ephemeral media and, given the selectivity with which people purchased or read newspapers, I knew that much of what I wrote would reach only a limited audience.
What I lacked was a website, which I had got used to when I headed the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (www.peaceinsrilanka.org in its continuing manifestation). SCOPP had closed down however, in July 2009. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights did have a website, which I had resuscitated, but that had to deal with a range of issues. It was not appropriate for the discursive and analytical pieces that had helped with putting across information to correct attempts to derail the Peace Process, nor could it cover descriptions of efforts to promote reconciliation.
The Liberal Party did have a website (www.liberalparty-srilanka.org), which also obviously could not be a vehicle for my own perspectives on issues. It was administered by someone on behalf of the party, but he did this as a favour and I could not burden him too with regular requests for assistance.
I decided then to set up my own site, and fortunately found a friend willing to do this for me. It seemed that simply a blog would suffice, and her expertise was such that www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com has proved as effective as any website. It has disseminated the series of articles mentioned above, as well as several others. I was also able, in a series called Interactions with the West, to revive some longer pieces that had not appeared while I was only Secretary to the Ministry, since they were more forceful than might have been appropriate for an administrator. In particular there was a lengthy analysis of Philip Alston’s sleights of hand, which I had not published previously since I no longer had any official standing as far as he was concerned.
But the blog was not only about politics. The Editor of the ‘Island’, sensing that I had little to do, had asked for a series on Literature, which I had begun only as a token of appreciation for his regular use of my other writings, but which soon became an utterly enjoyable exercise. That series, fifty articles on significant English prose writing of the 20th Century, came to an end last week, but will appear in a book to be published by Cambridge University Press in India. Meanwhile the articles continue to be consulted regularly on the blog, with writers such as Enid Blyton and Frank Richards attracting attention along with more obvious luminaries such as Forster and Joyce.
The blog has indeed done extraordinarily well, and even received recognition from the administrators at WordPress at the end of 2010, for the number of visits it receives. The last weekly statistics I received indicated nearly 10,000 views, averaging over 1400 a day. However, I also realize, which is just as well before I get carried away by the idea that my prose is irresistible, that the vast majority of visits are for ‘Historic Buildings’, the series I asked Goobai Gunasekara to write many years ago for the low cost student readers the English Association produced.
We had prescribed the book for the pre-University General English Language Training programme I coordinated along with Oranee Jansz, and it had proved both popular and educative. I used the book at Sabaragamuwa University as well, as also at the Military Academy at Diyatalawa, having added on suitable guiding questions to develop understanding of sentence construction as well as for comprehension. Recently I asked Goolbai to add on a few more buildings to ensure that the modern age was also adequately covered, but I had moved to the Peace Secretariat before the revised version could be published. The book as efficiently and entertainingly updated by Goolbai as always was far too good however to waste, so it was uploaded onto the blog, with a fantastic collection of photographs found by my blog administrator, and has proved wildly popular. The Taj Mahal was viewed over 5,000 times last week, and these visits are from all over the world, suggesting that the blog has found its way onto some international reading list.
With regard to the political writing, the items that have found a wide audience have proved instructive. The section on political principles seems to be consulted regularly, and I was delighted to find that a study group of youngsters at a Nepalese University have made it a focus of attention. They were kind enough to actually let me know, through the strange processes the world of internet information sharing has developed, that they rate the blog highly.
Another piece that has continued to attract attention is my speech on an Adjournment Motion in Parliament regarding the situation in Gaza. I have no idea where the sustained interest in this is based, but I would like to think that my approach to Israel is appreciated for its balance. I believe it necessary to make clear the need for sustaining sympathy for Jews, in view of the appalling suffering inflicted on them over the years, principally in Europe, which alone dignified such racism on spurious moral grounds that often concealed sheer financial envy. But I think we must also do our best to reverse the appalling treatment of the Palestinians, first by the Europeans who sacrificed them to assuage their own guilt about their treatment of the Jews, and now by successive Israeli governments. These, becoming more intransigent as the years pass, have also effectively crushed what used to be a liberal Jewish approach to the problem, which is that they would not give up Israel, as instituted by the United Nations, but they would not continue to take land and livelihood away from the Palestinians.
More recently the blog has also begun a series on ‘Colombo Changes’, which took up a theme I had dealt with some years back, in a series of articles on ‘Lakmahal’, the house where I was born and in which I still live, well over half a century later. The house itself will be 75 years old in a year, and I hope a record of its development over the years, with reference to the social and political changes that have taken place in the city and the country, will be of some general interest. I was encouraged in this hope recently by a response from a Tamil academic to my references to the disgusting manner in which standardization was reintroduced in 1978 with regard to university admissions, following allegations by Cyril Mathew that Tamil Examiners had cheated. The response conveyed anguish, but this was in a dignified manner, and combined with sympathy for the manner in which Sinhalese too had suffered because of the restrictive educational policies inflicted on all students over the years.
Since I still have more leisure time than I am accustomed to, I hope I will be able to complete these publication projects and others. This, I would like to think, is not entirely self-indulgence, since it has been suggested that the work I did in promoting English Education, through the practical tertiary level courses instituted through the Affiliated University Colleges and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, through the institution of English medium in state schools in 2002, through trying to revise school curricula when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, was more important for promoting peace and reconciliation than my period at SCOPP.
I am not sure that that idea has not been advanced largely to belittle my work in politics, so I cannot agree entirely. But assisting with education is certainly important, and if I am no longer able to put ideas into practice, at least I can still produce books that can contribute a little. So a collection of English, Sinhala and Tamil Poetry is planned for the National Book Trust of India as a companion to the Short Story collection, ‘Bridging Connections’, that they brought out in 2007. I have also reprinted the Primary English books the English Association produced in the early nineties, and these are being distributed to schools in Sabaragamuwa and in the North, since I assume a National List MP should work in at least two distinct areas. I have also begun some teacher training in this regard through my decentralized budget, and hope to continue this on a wider scale in the coming year.
But, meanwhile, as age advances, I am also concerned more and more with the past. Though I justify this with the belief that we need to understand our past to do better in the future, I realize some element too of sentiment in placing things on record. To mark the first anniversary then of the blog, I will be reissuing on it the series I wrote about ‘Lakmahal’ four years ago. Looking at it again, I realize that politics has infiltrated more than I remembered. But I suspect that is part of the legacy of the house itself. As consolation, and counterpart, the photographs will I hope suggest wider dimensions too. Though the past is always with us, it is another country too.