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qrcode.30283437I was surprised to be told recently that the Secretary to the Cabinet Ministry under which I was supposed to work as State Minister of Higher Education had been dismissed. Eran Wickremaratne explained the reasons to me, but I will not go into those since, much as I respect Eran’s own integrity, there may be another side to the story, which reflects less well on the Cabinet Minister than the Secretary.

In particular, after the admission that Kabir Hashim, along with Malik Samarawickrema and the Minister of Finance, had been in the Central Bank to raise the issue of obtaining more money, shortly before Arjuna Mahendran’s fatal decision to take 10 billion by auction, I have my suspicions about what has been going on there. Thankfully, Eran said very clearly that he was not at that meeting and had known nothing about it, which I suspect would be true of the Secretary too.

I did raise with Eran the question of the failure of the 19th Amendment to address a fundamental principle of Good Governance, which is the strengthening of the independence of Public Servants. Certainly there should be provision to dismiss public servants if they do something wrong, but that should not be a political decision, it should be made by the Public Service Commission. And we must go back to the usual practice in parliamentary democracies where Ministers come from within Parliament, which is that Secretaries to Ministries are in effect Permanent, and not changed with every change of government.

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Richard De ZoysaI was deeply saddened earlier this month to hear of the death of the marvelous Engish actress Geraldine McEwan. I had got to know her 30 years earlier, shortly after I joined the British Council, when she toured Sri Lanka with her one-woman Jane Austen show.

I had been determined to take the tour all over the country, but by then we were advised not to go to Jaffna. So we went instead to Batticaloa, where we found a most appreciative audience. Geraldine also had what was for her a first time experience, in that bats swooped in and out of the hall during the performance.

But she, and her Stage Manager Catherine Bailey, were infinitely adaptable, and said they had enjoyed the tour thoroughly. After the Batticaloa performance, we had a cyclone scare, and had to leave Passekudah, where we were staying, before dawn broke.

That should have been the high point of the tour, but what Geraldine and Catherine remembered most vividly, during our long friendship over the next three decades, was the previous night. After a performance at Peradeniya in collaboration with the university, Richard de Zoysa turned up at the Citadel, and we had a lively dinner which went on into the early hours.

Richard was a fantastic companion in any context, and he struck exactly the right note for Geraldine and Catherine who had a deep sense of social commitment. They would ask after him often in the years that followed, and were profoundly upset when he was murdered, 25 years ago. The fact that it was because of his passion for social justice added to the poignancy of his death, for them, as it should for all of us. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Mirrored Images” focuses on Sri Lankan poetry written since 1948, in Sinhala, Tamil and English

In 2007, the National Book Trust brought out “Bridging Connections”, an anthology of Sri Lankan short stories edited by Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament, and a distinguished writer and academic.

Spurred by its success, they considered bringing out a companion anthology of Sri Lankan poetry. After hesitating initially, Wijesinha agreed to edit this volume as well. Launched recently in the Capital, “Mirrored Images” contains selections from English poetry as also translations from Sinhala and Tamil poetry into English. It includes works by some of the island country’s most respected poets, such as Cheran, Jean Arasanayagam, Richard Zoysa, among several others.

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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Emeritus Professor of Languages
Prepared for the session on ‘Language and Literature’
Of the Sabaragamuwa University Symposium on
Harnessing Knowledge through Research to address emerging Global Issues
January 11th 2012

I am grateful to Sabaragamuwa University for having invited me back to chair this session and speak to you. I am delighted that amongst the speakers today are two former students of this university, one of whom is now a Senior Lecturer. He deserves special congratulations for this, since he succeeded finally in overcoming all the difficulties that confront academics in this country who need to obtain further degrees in the field of English so as to continue in service. Fortunately the situation is somewhat better now, and the Rapporteur today, yet another former student of mine, though from Sri Jayewardenepura, has a doctorate under the scheme implemented by the National Centre for Advanced Study of the Humanities, which we finally managed to set up when I was Acting Dean here.

That institution is a egregious example of what I wish to address in this presentation. I should note however that your invitation came at a bad time, when I was in even greater despair than usual about education in this country, and about English Education in particular. I had been with yet another couple of students of this University, who were telling me all about how several Ordinary Level question papers were for sale through tutories before the examination. I was told in graphic detail about the subject for still life drawing that appeared in the Art Paper, with the details – including the number of leaves in the croton in the vase – all known beforehand.

I am perhaps simplistic in blaming primarily the tuition industry for this, since it takes two to tango, but I had just before that been confronted with forceful complaints at Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the East, about how tuition was ruining the young. Obviously I could not accede to the request that I suggest to the President that tuition be banned, since government must bear at least some of the responsibility for permitting the privileging of the tuition culture. Teachers and parents cannot be blamed for believing that tuition is an essential part of education, given the nexus that exists between the formal education system and tutories –  of which the most obvious evidence now is the relentless leaking of public examination papers by tuition masters.

But this urge to have recourse to outside elements is an essential part of our approach to education, as I realized in thinking about the other horror story that was brought to my notice. This related to a training programme for lecturers in English at Technical Colleges, which had been conducted by the British Council at a substantial cost. I was told over 6 million rupees had been expended, though the participants were expected to pay for their board and lodging, in comparatively squalid conditions.

I have regularly been told by decision makers who agree that standards of English have to be improved that they will ask the British Council for assistance. Unfortunately they believe that the British Council is an aid organization, as was the case until the eighties, when it provided seminal assistance with regard to English and other training needs.

Unfortunately no one in authority now seems to understand that the Council is no longer run on the old lines, being also required to function on commercial principles. In the old days the idea was to develop Sri Lankan counterparts so that we could be self sustaining in time, now the aim is to continue to be needed, so that it can go on from contract to contract. Aid is thus a tool of business, with grants – and even more often loans – being instruments of winning business deals, which later have to be renewed without such support.

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A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Antony Powell is one of the most impressive fictional works of the last century. The narrator comes across different characters in different settings over the years, and I was reminded of this as I saw so many old friends coming in here today to celebrate Parvathi Nagasunderam and her work.

I was delighted to see Prof Wilson, who was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura when Paru and I

began our work there, and was a tower of strength. Dinali Fernando was one of those we recruited along with Paru, and I also see here Madhubhashini Ratnayake, who is now at USJP, though I am sorry to say we did not succeed when we tried to recruit her then, way back in 1992.

I see Lakshmi Cumaranatunga, who headed the Higher Institute of English Education when Paru taught there, before we persuaded her to come to USJP. Then there is Prof Narada Warnasuriya, who was on the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, when I chaired it in 2004. And I see students such as Lalith Ananda and Sarath Ananda and Palitha Dissanayake, whom Paru taught at the Pasdunrata College of Education, whom she introduced to the Asset Course I ran while at the British Council, and who subsequently joined either USJP or its Affiliated University Colleges when we began English courses there in revolutionizing English at universities.

And then there are Paru’s sisters, including the one I know best, Dr Fernando. When I say I know her, I should say that this is not directly, it is through her husband, Dr Joe Fernando, who was Secretary of the Ministry of Health, who was a constant visitor at my home because he lived nearby and would often drop in on my father during his relentless healthy walking round the block.

I discovered, in the dance of different characters to time’s music that we come across, that Joe was Paru’s brother-in-law. This happened because there was a news item, about 20 years ago, to the effect that the Secretary to the Ministry of Health had developed aids – which as we know from Joe’s continuing healthy walking, was not the case – and I mentioned this to Paru during one of the long journeys we would take together to the AUC at Belihuloya which later became Sabaragamuwa University. Paru laconically said that she would ask her sister, who was married to the Secretary.

I am delighted then to see Dr Mrs Fernando and another sister here, because I feel I know them well. They belong to a very distinguished family of educationists from Jaffna. I am sorry I never met Paru’s  eldest sister, who was Principal of the Kopay Training College, though I did regularly meet the second, whom Paru looked after when she had to leave Jaffna after her elder sister’s death, since the family was then scattered far and wide.

I have not come here with a prepared text, because I wanted to see the type of audience there was before I spoke. The vast numbers of young people here, I am told, are Paru’s students from USJP and from Pasdunrata, and their presence here is a tribute to the deep devotion they feel towards her for her commitment to them. I thought therefore that I would talk about the challenges that Paru has faced, and how she has overcome them to move from strength to strength, in the hope that the range of her work will inspire these youngsters too to become teachers like her.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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