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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2956

Reflections On An Eminently Readable Collection of Vignettes

By Dr. Palitha Kohona

Lakshman Ratnapala's second volume in a year, “Soaring Spirits and Shooting Stars,” though smaller in size than the first, best seller “Flickering Fortunes, is eminently readable. A collection of vignettes, it has been compiled from a personal angle and written in a lucid style, perhaps bearing testimony to his early training as a journalist, not to mention the 12 years at that excellent school by the sea, S Thomas' College, Mt Lavinia. “

These vignettes evoke memories of an era now well and truly overtaken by the onrush of time. I should have read this collection much earlier but, first, getting through the previously accumulated pile of literature lying on my bedside table was no easy task while travel commitments also got in the way of my best intentions.

The fourteen individuals about whom Ratnapala writes with such admiration were obviously well known to him. Some of them occupied a giant space on the screen of my own youth.

Warden de Saram of S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia, was one of them. I still recall the white clad figure of Rev. Canon de Saram, a.k.a. "kunji", striding across the "Big Club Grounds" from his residence behind the pavilion to his office in the 'Talassa' every morning. I did not get to interact with him personally but all those who did and became my friends later, including 'Sinhala Thamby' Nazeer Rashid, still speak of him with a mix of awe and admiration. Many are the stories still recounted in places as far away as New York and Sydney of Canon de Saram's approach to discipline and the use of the cane. Lakshman was asked to take it like a man and he was no exception. I have yet to figure out why he was called "kunji", nor has Lakshman enlightened us.

As Lakshman points out, anecdotal evidence abounds of Canon de Saram's tenure as warden witnessing S. Thomas' embracing the country's newly acquired independent status with both arms. The teaching of our own national languages, in addition to English, flourished and cultural activities blossomed. The school attracted many of the early stalwarts of "Hela Havula School" of Sinhala including Vinnie Vitharana, Arisen Ahubudu, Sandadas Koperahewa et al. Darmasiri started Kandyan dancing classes after school. Rev. Barnabas, the Head Master of the Lower School got us to sing "My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean", at 'Assembly' on Friday mornings. Through an unlikely coincidence, twenty years later, a colleague of mine in the Australian Foreign Service asked whether I knew Rev. Barnabas who after leaving S. Thomas' had migrated to Australia in the early sixties and continued teaching at a Geelong school.

Of course, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a Thomian, is another of Lakshman Ratnapala's subjects. Although Lakshman asserts, probably after reading Chou-Enlai who had observed that it was far too early to comment on the global impact of the French Revolution, that the consequences of the SWRD tenure are too early to judge, his period as Prime Minister left a lasting mark on the country. During SWRD's short stewardship, Sinhala became the official language of the country, the Paddy Lands Act brought an end to a feudal system of land tenure, the concept of state ownership of vital assets became entrenched, internationally, Ceylon adopted a non-aligned policy, while becoming closely associated with India.

Since then many have criticized the initiatives introduced by SWRD, including the adoption of the policy on Sinhala. Lakshman quite rightly points out that SWRD delivered on an election promise to enfranchise the linguistically disenfranchised masses and he had massive support for it. It is also likely that it was his sense of social justice to which he was giving expression. It is curious that the Tamil leaders and the Marxists who objected to Sinhala even with the reasonable use of Tamil proviso had no problems with almost 140 years of governance in English, which was a totally alien language to 95% of the population. Some of SWRD's critics today, who can hardly string together a sentence in 'Singlish' leave alone English, would not have attained the high positions that they occupy now, if not for SWRD opening the doors of power and privilege to the Sinhala educated. Let's face it. Before 1956, inter alia, the civil service, the higher echelons of the security establishment, the judiciary, the leading professions, the business world, were the preserve of the English educated elite of Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. It was a privilege that they found difficult to share. Let us be thankful to SWRD that the children of the masses, the farmers, labourers and coconut pluckers, now share the glittering prizes of society.

A lasting legacy of SWRD is the consolidation of the centrist Sri Lanka Freedom Party as the legitimate opposition to the rightist United National Party and the consolidation of the idea of Apey Aanduwa in the psyche of the people.

Lakshman Ratnapala is obviously a fan of Muhammed Ali. He writes about Ali in lyrical prose. Of course, Ali was a colossus. He made boxing respectable and Afro-Americans proud of themselves. He bestrode the world stage with a challenging swagger at a time when the white establishment had launched a ferocious effort to stem the rising tide of Afro-American consciousness and identity. Ali paid dearly for his principled beliefs. His WBA title was withdrawn and he was incarcerated for refusing to go to Vietnam. As he said, he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese. "No Vietcong called me a Nigger" he is quoted as having said. Ali was a hero at S. Thomas'. His fights, his incomparable quips and effortless success made him an icon immensely popular with the boys. Anyone who brought a pocket radio to school on the day of an Ali fight was highly sought after. I can still remember the cheer that went up around the school after one of his wins at a highly promoted fight.

This was also the era when the West Indies were beginning to challenge the dominance of the world of Cricket by Australia and England. The non-white world was searching for successful role models and they were emerging from their long suppressed corners. Pele, Ali, the Windies, Lloyd, Sobers, et al.

Lakshman Ratnapala has given due prominence to some of Sri Lanka's pioneer captains of industry in the tourism sector. Cyril Gardiner, P.A. Ediriweera, and Herbert Cooray are highlighted in effortless prose. I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of only their offspring and, I might add, that they are also carrying on the family traditions with distinction. During the worst of Sri Lanka's conflict with Tamil terrorism, when tourism was in the doldrums, they stayed in Sri Lanka without decamping for calmer shores, stamping their confident belief in the future of the country. I got to know Sanjeev, Hiran and Suren during this period. I agree with Lakshman that the recent renovations of their properties are impressive. But I am still nostalgic for the old timber floors of the GFH, the oldest hotel east of Suez, and remember the candlelit dinner at the GFH with UN USG Sir John Holmes. No, it was not a romantic rendezvous at the "1864", but the LTTE had begun an air raid on Colombo that evening and the city lights were turned off. We had to ensure Sir John's safety at all costs. While I was trying to divert attention from the faint staccato bursts of anti-aircraft fire in the dark, not too far away, Sir John was getting the latest situation reports on his cellular phone.

I have been guiding my numerous guests from overseas to the GFH, Jetwing and other properties in the respective groups and I am still to hear a serious complaint.

In conclusion, this volume will not easily lend itself to becoming a TV documentary but Lakshman's earlier masterpiece, the hugely popular, Flickering Fortunes , definitely would. Lakshman Ratnapala should be looking for a sponsor.

Both Soaring Spirits and Flickering Fortunes are available at Vijitha Yapa bookshops in Sri Lanka and on Amazon, worldwide.

-Asian Tribune -

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