but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done
I had lots of work after deciding to support Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy, and then after he won and I was made a State Minister. And even after I resigned there was much to do, culminating in working for a UPFA victory at the August 2015 election, as I thought the President wanted. But both the UPFA and I – and in the end the President too – fell victim to the infighting within the SLFP. Extreme elements on both sides destroyed the compromise between him and the former President that I believe he had wanted when he gave the latter UPFA nomination for the election.
So he found himself with a government in which the UNP had a majority, and used its power for more sophisticated corruption than he had originally objected to under the Rajapaksa regime. And he also found it with no clue as to how to run the economy, plunging into greater debt than had been objected to previously, and at higher interest rates.
What went wrong in 2015 is however the substance of the last section of the Endgame series I am also writing. Here I am concerned only with what I might term the personal fulfillment I turned to when I found myself no longer in Parliament. A man must after all have an occupation, and since I do not smoke, and since I did not think I wanted to resume regular work, I decided to take up writing in a serious way.
I was helped to this decision by Ariyawansa Ranaweera, one of the poets I had published in ‘Mirrored Images’, the anthology of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry from Sri Lanka that I had put together for the National Book Trust of India. I had arranged readings of the poetry at the launch in Colombo, and then at the various other launches that were arranged in cultural centres round the country, including at several universities.
Ranaweera, a former Permanent Secretary, with a delightful sense of humour, was one of the mainstays of these tours, getting along superbly with writers in English and in Tamil and also with Prof Satchitanandan, the Kerala poet whom the Indian Cultural Centre brought to Sri Lanka, to read from his own work but also to stimulate discussion about our poetry as presented in ‘Mirrored Images’.
Ranaweera said he had enjoyed the essays on English poets which I had been publishing in Ceylon Today, and he suggested that I put them together in a book. When I told him that I was tired of dealing with Sri Lankan publishers who did not seem to me keen on producing or selling anything local unless they saw a quick and large profit, he told me I should talk to Mr Godage of the publishing firm of that name.
So I did, and found a man who was devoted to books. Perhaps encouraged by Mr Ranaweera, he agreed to publish three books that I had been working on. In addition to the book on poets he agreed to bring out a collection of writings on Good Governance, which was a topic I had dealt with a lot during the course of 2015. There were two sets of articles on this theme which I had written for Ceylon Today and the Island respectively, the first to lay out some principles and discuss Reforms which seemed urgently needed, and the other to look at what Good Governance required and, as the idea was totally ignored by those in power, to explore how and why the new government was failing so miserably to live up to ideals it had enunciated. In addition I included in the book the articles I had contributed to the Island a couple of years previously, in a series entitled Sri Lanka Rights Watch, dealing with my efforts to give teeth to the Human Rights Action Plan which we had developed when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights.
In addition Godage agreed to publish an account of the Rajapaksa years which I had begun writing after the election. It was to be entitled Triumph and Disaster, and was to be in two sections, the first about the War years, Rajapaksa’s first term as President when he had achieved wonders, the second about his second term when he failed to establish a lasting peace. I wrote the book through two sets of articles published concurrently in Ceylon Today, which seemed happy to have two columns a week, and also to pay what seemed to me a generous amount for each (I had asked for this when I found myself without an income).
As it happened, the two sections became two books, the first of which appeared early in 2016, the second several months later. I hope to launch that early next year, around the time of the second anniversary of Maithripala Sirisena’s election as President. I feel now that some of the reasons for the failure of the last government are being replicated now, and more upsettingly given also the economic confusion that UNP policies (or the lack of them) have engendered.
Before that book was finally printed, Godage had also agreed to take on two more collections of essays, one on English and Education, the other on Foreign Policy. The first of these included much I had written on the subject at the turn of the century, and dealt with the reforms I had initiated in both Secondary and Higher Education, including the introduction of English medium in government schools. The second incorporated the many papers I had presented with regard to International Relations in the last five years, to Indian and Brazilian and Indian think tanks and also at gatherings of Liberal International and the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats.
So in the three months after the August election I was engaged in intensive writing and editing, which I hope will also serve some educational purpose. There is a stunning shortage of written analysis in this country with regard to topics of general interest, so I trust the books Godage has published during this period will fill this gap and satisfy the needs of those concerned with social policy and its implementation.
But I did also do some travelling during these three months, to Sikkim which I had long wanted to visit, after my first exploration of Nepal in 1970 and then a magical visit to Bhutan in 2013. The opportunity came when I was invited to yet another Conference by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, through whom I had got to Assam and Meghalaya the previous year. This time the Conference was in Chandigarh, but I went early and managed to get a flight to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Sikkim.
I was said that Sikkim was no longer a country, having been taken over by India in the early seventies, but there was an advantage in that I did not need another visa. Having a SAARC travel permit, I assumed I could enter from a neighbouring Indian state with no further formalities. That was what the Indian High Commission here told me, for by now what had for some years been travel restrictions on Sikkim had been lifted. But what I found when I reached the border between West Bengal and Sikkim was that anyone with a diplomatic passport had to have had prior clearance from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
But I was lucky. I had made friends with the Joint Secretary for Sri Lanka, and she proved a brick, in agreeing to clear me. But she had to do this through our High Commission and, though the officials there were also their usual helpful selves, communication from a remote border outpost was not easy. When finally permission was granted, and sent to our High Commission for onward transmission, it turned out that the fax at the border post did not work. Our High Commission agreed to email the document, but the computers at the border post did not work either.
An enormously helpful official allowed me then to cross into the town across the border, but there it turned out that there was a power cut. Finally he came with me himself to a little shop which had a generator and a young lady who was a good friend. She obligingly printed out the letter from the Ministry and that did the trick, so I was provided with authorization and crossed over into Sikkim.
From the airport at Bagdogra a car had been arranged to take me to Darjeeling, which I wanted to see first because of the fascination I had felt, ever since my first visit to Simla, for the hill stations the British had developed. The name Darjeeling has a magical sound, but though it was interesting enough with its toy railway I preferred Kalimpong, which I went to after Sikkim. The high point there was Dr Graham’s School, set up for the half caste offspring of the British planters in the area, later becoming a cult establishment for the Bhutanese elite.
But it was Sikkim that was magical, four days of driving through glorious mountain scenery, despite the appalling state of the roads. Gangtok had a palace which one could not visit, but the royal temple next door was consolation enough. And I stayed in a delightful guesthouse with a secluded garden, where I relished morning coffee as well as an evening beer.
My taxi driver there found another willing to go off on an expedition, and he brought along his son (who had been to Dr Graham’s School) to better communicate in English he said, but also I think for the views. He was quite happy to scramble with me to the one impressive archaeological site in Sikkim, the 18th century capital of Rabdentse, through a gloomy twilight, though he did give up on the last few temples I visited. The monks were as always welcoming, even when they were supposed to be studying, which meant mellifluous chanting.
In Pelling I stayed in a fantastic hotel set out over the cliff so that one looked across at a beautiful sunrise over the hills. From there we drove out to spectacular waterfalls, and gompas high in the hills. And then, though the roads were appalling, we had a long and lovely drive along and across foaming rivers down into West Bengal and Kalimpong. There I stayed at another delightful hotel, a former palace, though obviously of a very minor princeling.
The driver I found there was enthusiastic about the sights, the splendidly laid out school with its beautiful chapel, the exotic gompas up in the hills with delightful monks, and the spectacular Jelepla viewpoint over the Relli and Teesta rivers. He took me afterwards to the wildlife reserve at Jaldhapara for my last night, with very different but also lovely scenery, and Indian buffalo and elephant during my morning tour. Sadly there were no tigers, but that would have been too much to ask after such a range of wonderful sights.
Ceylon Today 24 Dec 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=11712