A Set of Four Book Reviews

Michael Roberts

In a separate section of this web site accessed by clicking on the section title on the menu bar on the home page, readers can access some book reviews reprinted from academic journals courtesy of the reviewers. Apart from gaining information about the books, this series provides lay people with some sense of the academic circuit. The books reviewed initially by Bastin, Clough, Rogers, Neloufer de Mel and Speldewinde respectively – the items will be changed from time to time – are:

Mark P. Whitaker: Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka.Rohan Bastin: The Domain of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Munnesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka.

Margaret Trawick: Enemy Lines: Warfare, Childhood, and Play in Batticaloa.

A.Jeyaratnam Wilson: Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.

Minoli Salgado: Writing Sri Lanka: Literature, Resistance and the Politics of  Place.

Michael Roberts: Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815.

As one way of leading people to this section of the site, I include several of my recent reviews of the following books within the home page:

Gerald H. Peiris: Twilight of the Tigers. Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka.

William Clarance: Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka and the UN Crisis.

H. L. Seneviratne: The Work of Kings. The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Kumari Jayawardena and Jennifer Moragoda: N. U. Jayawardena. The First Five Decades.

Gerald H. Peiris: Twilight of the Tigers. Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka, Delhi, Oxford University Press & Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 297 pages.

Twilight of the Tigers is essential reading for any person interested in the political history of Sri Lanka during the first decade of this century. With measured argument and in lucid prose Gerald Peiris challenges the belief that territorial devolution is a viable means of resolving Sri Lanka’s political problems and questions the thinking that launched the peace process in 2000-01.

The short title may mislead people into thinking that this is a book about the recent demise of the LTTE as a de facto state in Sri Lanka. In fact the book was in press by late 2008. But Peiris had correctly anticipated the direction of the war because he also has expertise in this arena, having contributed to Jane’s Intelligence Review. Moreover, for years he has adhered to a hardline patriotic position seeking to protect the island’s sovereignty. Thus, he has stood alongside such individuals as HL de Silva in objecting to federalism on the grounds that the devolutionary measures under consideration, including the North-East merged sub-state, would imperil political stability.

Twilight is a cogent exposition of this stance in engagement with specific events and processes in the years 2000-08. Moreover, the argument that “territorial power-sharing is fraught with peril” is further clarified by a brief comparative excursion that analyses such attempts in other parts of the world (pp. 54-56).

Peiris approaches the subject from a “statist” position devoted to efficient centralised planning and delivery. The book is informed by his expertise in economic geography and political economy. Thus, study of his magnum opus on Sri Lanka. Challenges of the New Millennium (Kandy, Kandy Books, 2006) would assist readers who wish to acquire in-depth material on the issues he raises. That book would complement his argument in Twilight that the creation of an exclusive Tamil homeland would not work peacefully because of such issues as the distribution of water resources (pp. 51-52) would emerge as intractable flash-points for future confrontations.

This technocratic persuasion seems to be moderated by some empathy for the grass-roots participatory activism associated with some strands of JVP thinking, but the traces of this leaning in Twilight are too brief for one to work out how it would mesh with the centralist emphasis.

Peiris’s arguments from way back, therefore, stood in counterpoint to my stance on the peace  process  – as expressed for instance in “The Many Faces of Eelam” in the Daily Mirror, 8 August 2002. At that point, in 2002-03, I felt that the Sri Lankan state did not have the organisational capacity to best the LTTE on the military front. This leaning was directed by the abject failures in the various military campaigns in the 1990s. So, pragmatically, I was for some form of modus vivendi, though not overly optimistic about the future because I suspected that Pirapāharan’s desire for Eelam was obdurate.

My pragmatic inclination then – as it seems now on reflection – had one major flaw: it did not attend to the impossibility of sustaining federalism when both units within the federation possess an army and navy (as pinpointed on one occasion by Dayan Jayatilleka). Or, as Peiris puts it, the peace process of devolution could only be sustained if the LTTE accepted “a voluntary abdication of its absolute power” in the terrain it controlled, an act involving disarming (pp. 47, 23-24). This possibility, as we all know, was never ever on the cards.

This shortcoming in my reading of the Sri Lankan scene became clear when I visited Jaffna and Kilinochchi in late November 2004. Apart from experiencing the depths of support for the LTTE among the Tamil people at first-hand, I (a) discovered that some of the English-speaking Tiger civilians I met were as feisty as eager for the resumption of war and (b) I received unsolicited email evidence that the LTTE was indeed preparing for war. The tsunami of 26 December 2004 merely slowed down that process.

All this, and Peiris’s interpretation, have since been confirmed by details that have subsequently come to light about Pirapāharan’s hardline thinking on the peace process. A conversation recently with a young Tiger supporter in Melbourne confirmed what other sources, including Karuna, have revealed: Pirapāharan went ballistic after the terms of the Oslo discussions in December 2002 were released. Anton Balasingham was pushed to the side (though this move was carefully covered up by the LTTE spin-doctors by an emphasis on his illness).

So, Gerald Peiris has hit the nail on the head when he asserts that the peace process was doomed from the outset. This motif in Twilight is allied with caustic criticism of the “self-induced hallucination” of Ranil Wickremasinghe and the other architects of the MoU that initiated the ceasefire in early 2002 and the various measures, such as the ISGA and P-TOMS, that developed from this foundation in subsequent years. He is equally critical of the Norwegian partialities towards the LTTE (pp. 72-74, 250, 264).

The Moral Imperialism of Human Rights Exponents

Peiris builds on these strands in his thinking by concluding the book with a chapter on “The ‘Human Rights’ Onslaught” in Sri Lanka. He explicitly avoids arguing that all interventions “are sinister in motive.” He admits that “violations of human rights rank among the main problems of the governance in the country” (p. 254). But he highlights the problematic foundations of the international legal regulations and organisations that promote such incursions; remarks on the double standards that direct the choice of countries earmarked for UN intervention within a context of well-organised disinformation campaigns and uses detail to question the impartiality of such interventionists as Louise Arbour and Philip Alston. The chapter is rounded off by a detailed examination of the evidence on the killings of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers at Muttur on 4th August 2006.

The central point in this chapter is Peiris’s questioning of “the authenticity of the information” upon which the UN and other experts intervened (p. 247) and “the moral imperialism” that impels such ideologues as Arbour. This challenge is supported by illustrations of the gross errors of fact perpetuated in some instances by a few experts (e.g. pp. 247-48). Having witnessed at first hand recently how some Australian moral crusaders and media personnel have indulged in sweeping generalisations and/or fraudulent claims about the factors that have promoted out-migration from Sri Lanka,[1] I found some of Peiris’s arguments here especially pertinent.

I do not say that Peiris’s commentary is the last word on the subject, for much within this chapter is unfamiliar terrain to me. But Peiris has thrown down the gauntlet in front of the INGOS and NGOS involved in human rights and R2P agitation for Sri Lanka. The country will be well-served by a debate on the issue as the many well-intentioned local personnel who have pressed these activities in recent times respond to this challenge.

Overview & Formatting

The strength of Peiris’s analytical survey, nevertheless, rests in the detailed review of the circumstances that led to the peace process and its chronological deciphering of key moments in the twists and turns of Sri Lankan politics in the period 2001-08, with all its attendant international ramifications. The temporal progression in this book is assisted by the coherent political argument in defence of state sovereignty and centralised control that is a major pillar in Peiris’s thinking. It is also aided by the excellent organisation and formatting of the chapters, with subheadings, sign-posts and occasional boxed sections rendering it easy to read without getting lost.

While there is much to commend in this book of 279 pages, let me conclude by pinpointing a missing element within his evaluation. I assert here that the peace process may have been founded on ill-judged premises; but it also promoted the decline of the LTTE. This is not recognised. Let me elaborate albeit briefly.

While the ceasefire may have provided the LTTE with the space and time to consolidate its hold on the Tamil people within its realm (and beyond its realm too), it also provided the state with the space to recover from the attack on Katunayake airport and other military losses in the immediate past. Just as the LTTE built up its armaments, so did the governing regimes. Indeed, the military hierarchy revolutionised the capacities of its infantry regiments within the period 2002-06 so that the army had the tactical capacity to defeat the LTTE when Eelam War IV occurred.[2]

Again, as surmise, I assert that the UNP’s policy of undermining the LTTE through consumerism had its impact.[3] The Tamils in Tigerland had been subject to a spartan existence for years. The flow of commodities, including pornographic material and other goodies, opened new vistas. As experienced Tiger officers were allowed to marry, the LTTE also ‘lost’ key personnel in ways that increasing new recruitments did not necessarily compensate for.

And then, in part because of the attractions of a new life world, General Karuna decided that continuing war, something that Pirapāharan was wholly committed to, was not attractive. His defection in March-April 2004 was one of the unintentional outcomes of the peace process, even though a honey-trap that entwined him in some urban hotspot was deliberate design that accelerated that momentous step.[4] This defection itself was founded upon a pre-existing regional fissure among the Sri Lankan Tamils, namely, the long-standing hostility of Batticaloa Tamils to men from the north. So, the reasons for this major development were complex. That it weakened the LTTE considerably cannot be doubted.


[1] See Roberts, “Crude Reasoning” and “Tamil migration” in http://www.thuppahi.wordpress.com.

[2] S. Tammita-Delgoda, Sri Lanka. The Last Phase in Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudukulam,” New Delhi:  Centre for Land Warfare, Manekshaw Paper No. 13, 2009.

[3] One concrete illustration was the manner in which Colonel Karuna took to safari suits and highlife. A young military officer at the peace talks concluded that he was no longer committed to fighting. This evaluation proved correct.

[4] This is based on grapevine gossip.

****             ****               ****                      ****

William Clarance, Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka and the UN Crisis (London: Pluto Press, and Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2007), 296 pp.

This is an unusual book and essential reading for those interested in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. William Clarance was head of UNHCR’s relief mission in Sri Lanka from 1989 to 1992. He kept a diary and has waited until he had left the arena of international administration before recounting his riveting experiences in the field.

His brief in Sri Lanka was to cater to the needs of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India who had chosen to return to their homeland. In practice, however, the local UNHCR’s efforts also embraced some local refugees (IDPs, or ‘internally displaced people’), whether Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese, who were the flotsam and jetsam generated by the warring turmoil in the island. Clarance sets the pursuit of this venture within its historical context by outlining the temporal stages in the escalation of hostility between leading Tamil and Sinhalese political forces. This competent summary is complemented by a description of the Indian intervention in 1987 and a capsule survey of the events in the period 1987–89, the immediate background to the UNHCR relief efforts.

Ethnic Warfare should, in fact, be read as the earnest outpourings of an ‘aid missionary’ (my term) advocating innovative programmes in support of refugees. As such, and appropriately, it ends by addressing the several bureaucratic and legal issues surrounding such activity.

The focus of the book is largely Mannar District, though it occasionally ventures into other areas of the island. The temporal span is narrow—indeed, as I write in 2008, battles are raging continuously in the Mannar terrain traversed by Clarance and his team. Within this regional, and time, framework the book provides enthralling details about the daily activity of the UNHCR relief workers and their negotiations with contending forces. This specificity and the intensity of expression by the author capture dimensions of the human strife and mediatory problems that sweeping overviews hide. The details capture—in stark ‘nudity’—the extremely complex, volatile and turbulent situation of relief work within the confluence of war. Despite these insights, as one would expect, the account is one or two steps removed from the experiential world and miseries of the refugee victims.

Clarance’s engaged description also reveals a remarkable degree of flexibility, amidst sporadic stonewalling and hard-headed military tactics, among both LTTE and Sri Lankan Defence Service personnel at the battlelines. Further back in Colombo, leading members of the Premadasa administration, from Ranjan Wijeratne (Minister of Defence) to General Kobbekaduwa and such officials as Bradman Weerakoon and Charitha Ratwatte, are seen to be accommodating in their responses to the needs of these refugees, albeit within the constraints of the military goals of Eelam War Two. Such flexibility, however, was not across the board and there were several obdurate personnel, both civilian and military, on the government side.

As the book reveals at various moments (pp.101–4, 111ff, 121–3), and as those alive to the story of war in Sri Lanka are fully aware, one has to be careful in essaying generalisations. Conditions in the Eastern Province in the period 1989–92 were quite different from those of Mannar District: there were numerous atrocities from both sides as well as Tamil militant forces opposed to the LTTE.

Quite incidentally, the book will make non-specialists aware of a remarkable aspect of Sri Lanka’s complex situation, one known to all and sundry locally, but usually unmarked within international networks of knowledge. In a war pitting the Sri Lankan government against a rebel force—namely, the LTTE, that has controlled territory and run a de facto state since mid-1990—the economy of the latter has been propped up in partial ways by the salaried funds and various supplies (e.g. medical aid, however inadequate) provided by the Sri Lankan government. In effect two forces, A and B, are at war, but A also pays for some of B’s salaried personnel who take the money from Colombo but, by and large, take their orders from the LTTE. This is partly the product of humanist welfare orientations within Sri Lanka, but it is largely the outcome of the constitutional dilemma confronting the Sri Lankan government: such payments mark its claims to ‘sovereignty’ over the Tamil people and the regions they occupy.

Writing as a UN missionary, then, Clarance’s prose is as strong as it is lucid. There is a measure of redundancy in detail—arising in part from the recurrence of obstacles and practices, and perhaps also from the diary-keeping foundation of the book.

In Sri Lanka UNHCR was operating at the edge of its mandate and was bedevilled by limited funds. Clarance and his team were therefore subject to pressures and bureaucratic rigidity from within certain quarters in Geneva. Indeed, if there is an ‘enemy’ in this account, it was the UN bureaucrat afar who had no understanding of the human strife on the ground and the desires of dedicated relief workers striving to ease the pain. Clarance, it turns out, found the administrative hassles, whether in Colombo or Geneva, more mentally exacting than either the sweat of taking relief convoys through the jungle to Madhu and Mannar Island, or local negotiations at the coalface of war.  Clarance’s team was a motley mix of assistants with big hearts, among them Pipat Greigarn (Thai), Binod Sijapati (Nepalese), Danilo Bautisto (Filipino), Mahmud Hussein (Pakistani), Nihal de Zoysa (Sri Lankan), and Yvan Conoir (French). But one of the most significant dimensions of this book is the fact that it brings to light other ‘shining lights’: viz., those forgotten men, the Tamil government agents and other officials appointed by the government in Colombo but subject, whether directly or indirectly, to the dictates of the LTTE. Sandwiched in the middle between two forces engaged in war, these administrators trod a balancing tightwire. The epitome of such figures in Ethnic Warfare in Sri Lanka is S. Croos, the G.A. of Mannar, a committed Christian and dedicated worker. There are also incidental insights of great ethnographic value, such as the tale of Tamil villagers readily providing communal shramadana (labour) to dig out aid lorries stuck in the mud (pp.150–1) and the popular support for Heroes’ Week organised by the LTTE (p.164).

It is a measure of Clarance the man that his book says nought about the privations of arduous journeys or episodic sojourns in the jungle. Rather, it dwells on the beauty and tranquillity of the bush landscape and the upliftment derived from these hard-earned experiences of relief work. Saludo!

****              ****                      *****                  ****

H. L. Seneviratne, The Work of Kings. The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19991, 358 pp)

 This book deciphers the interventions of bhikkhus in the socio-political processes of Lanka over the last 70 years. In these activities the monks take on the work of kings, a role that the nationalist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala advocated during the colonial period as essential for national regeneration. Seneviratne identifies two streams of activity, the one typically associated with the monks of Vidyodaya (VYO) and the other with the monks of Vidyalankara (VL).

The VL line was governed by pragmatic economic activity at the grass roots seeking village uplift and stressing a monkish life style of minimal consumption and spiritual guidance to the laity. In contrast the VYO position was ‘ideological’ and called for ‘social service’ in a way that catered to middle class desires and has eventually resulted in the secularisation of the monks. Both are said to have been inspired by the thinking of Dharmapala who was, in turn, influenced by the models provided by Christian organisations in the course of his sturdy opposition to Christian expansion. Such inspirations notwithstanding, the VYO and VL monks explicitly argued against each other in the 1940s.

Seneviratne maps an urban/rural distinction unto this divergence and his book suggests that the line of emphasis advocated by the VO monks has secured primacy from 1956 onwards, enabling many bhikkhus to indulge in personal aggrandisement and partisan political work under the cover of social service. Above all, it has resulted in the degeneration of Buddhism towards an intolerant chauvinism that has shed the accommodative, pluralist forms of pre-colonial Lanka. As such, many monks are ‘conquered by the ideologies of ethno-religious hegemony’ (p. 347), namely that of Sinhala Buddhism. This is both an intellectual and moral failure.

Seneviratne’s book, then, can be applauded because it is a personal political intervention that directs sharp criticisms at the ‘political monk’ embodied in such a figure as Walpola Rahula Thera. This type of monk makes the world into a monastery (pp. 335-7). Even though Seneviratne’s approach is by no means Marxist, ‘ideology’ is used in the old-fashioned and narrow Marxist sense. In this usage ‘ideology’ is a weapon of disparagement, an accusation levelled at the VL-type of monk for straying from the exemplary role demanded of bhikkhus by lay Buddhists as well as orthodox texts.

Seneviratne’s research is strengthened by the use of rich source material in the Sinhala language, including diaries, virtually all of it untapped before. His prose is lucid and unaffected by post-modernist pretensions, while his translations are exquisite. The method of exposition is that of a detailed intellectual biography of the influential monks advocating these programmes. His heroes are the VYO monks exemplified by such individuals as Hendiyagala Silaratna and Kalukondayave Pannasekhara. Clearly, then, there is a preference for the Gandhian pastoral and the exemplary Buddhist role model.

At one point, in detailing the programmatic statement of one of the pragmatc monks, Seneviratne describes it as ‘not theory at all but a practical guide’, one directed by the ‘basic idea of self-help’ and the picture of ‘numerous, decentralised, self-contained and self-sufficient village communities’ (pp. 126-7). To those of us who have broader conceptions of ideology, there may be some difficulty in accepting this policy as non-ideological, but that does not make Seneviratne’s data any less fascinating.

Seneviratne’s work is also marked by parsimony. The theoretical engagement is mostly devoted to an engagement with Max Weber’s misleading ideal typical characterisations of Buddhism. In this sense the book is an exploration of the relationship between religiosity and the mundane world. In its broad ethnographic thrust it also elaborates Tambiah’s contention that a fetishization of the Buddhist religion has occurred in Sri Lanka as a result of colonial and post-colonial processes.

Parsimony also characterises Seneviratne’s engagement with the considerable literature on religion and politics in Lanka. In the absence of a bibliography, one has to rely on the citations to evaluate his interests. These suggest that he found the works of such individuals as Phadnis, Kearney, Kapferer and K M de Silva, among others, to be of little value. These leanings encourage lacunae, especially in the delineation of the historical backdrop of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. ‘Village uplift’ had many advocates and agencies (often mushroom) and may not have been Dharmapala’s brainchild (p. 59). There is a considerable literature that would call into question his passing dismissal of the constitutional reform movement of the late British period for ‘its slavish acceptance of imperialism’ (p. 134). Ironically, the latter aspersion was a conventional shibboleth popularised in the mid-twentieth century by individuals such as Rahula as a means of boosting the political aspirations of the Left parties.

****     ****

N. U. Jayawardena. The First Five Decades, by Kumari Jayawardena and Jennifer Moragoda, Colombo: Gunaratne offset for NU Jayawardena Charitable Trust, 2008, 199 pages, ISBN 978-955-1772-10-9.

Kumari Jayawardena and Jennifer Moragoda have provided Sri Lankans with a lavish coffee table biography of N. U. Jayawardena’s first fifty years (born 1908). NU, as I shall refer to him in typical Sri Lankan style, was born into a lower middle class Durāva family. His story embodies one of the outstanding processes of the British colonial period: social mobility through educational channels, seconded by an arranged marriage which consolidates this rise with landed property and higher status links.[1]

Unlike some biographical tales, the authors do not attempt to hide NU’s caste origins. In pre-capitalist days the Durāva were almost wholly confined to the low-country districts and “typically associated” with toddy tapping, even though they engaged in other occupations as well. This linkage meant that they were relatively low in the caste ranking system. The British colonial period and the transformations effected by the new imperial rulers led to the expansion of capitalism and the growth of an indigenous class of capitalists (namely a bourgeoisie) who overlapped with the strata identified in local idiom as “middle class,” namely, a status group with a particular Westernised life-style and a good command of English.

The emerging new indigenous bourgeoisie secured their wealth and status through entrepreneurial ventures in trade and contracting, some manufacturing (e. g. graphite, coopering) and the cultivation of export crops (coconut, coffee, tea, citronella, cinnamon, tea and rubber). Families from the Karāva, Salāgama and Durāva castes were prominent in these fields and were able to challenge the social status of the ritually-dominant Govigama caste on the strength of these foundations.

The Karāva were at the cutting edge of this political struggle in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries so that Ceylonese lore has direct references to the “Karā-Goi” contest.[2] Several of the prominent Karāva in this period had made their wealth in the arrack trade, a field that depended on the supply of raw material from the toddy-tappers, many of whom were Durāva. It is a paradox, therefore, that there were relatively few Durāva arrack renters. NU’s social mobility in the twentieth century via the educational channel of advance must be placed within such a backdrop. Arrack had some stigma attached to it in a Buddhist milieu. Indeed, new generations among some Karāva and Govigama families who had made their wealth (or parts thereof) in the arrack trade jettisoned this line of accumulation and even became notable advocates of temperance.

Such pathways were also intertwined with highly significant processes of internal migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which brought various social strata from the outlying regions to the primate city of Colombo. People from the Southern Province were at the heart of this movement to Colombo and elsewhere, whether as labourers, white collar workers or traders, and NU’s career was one pole in this scaffolding. This process in its turn was one pillar in the development of Colombo as a hegemonic centre in Sri Lanka[3] – until recent times when the Eelam movement and then the nourishment of Hambantota District by the Rajapakse government have generated countervailing processes in different ways.

NU’s diligence, studiousness and intelligence combined to advance his career. As a boy he attended to his books and homework on train and at railway station during long journeys to school. In later life he “surrounded himself with books” (p. 128). He entered the work force at the age of 16 as a teacher and then a clerk. His capacities were quickly recognised and he rose quickly in government service, while also securing a B.Sc (Econ.) degree via correspondence course. These interests secured him a government scholarship to the London School of economics (LSE) in 1938 (pp. 77-95).

He was one of the key administrators involved in state intervention in production and trade under British direction during the exigencies of the Second World War. As such he worked closely with O. E. Goonetilleke. Subsequently, in the immediate post-war era and Sri Lanka’s infant days as independent state John Exeter and NU were key figures in the steps leading to the constitution of the Central Bank, the bankers’ bank and a pillar supporting sovereign power. These roles, we are told, had a touch of irony: both Exeter and NU were sceptical of Keynesian economics (pp. 137-38) and leaned towards the minimisation of state interference. But the critical point is that NU was one of the few local officials “who grasped the theoretical dimensions of the role of a central bank” (p. 135).

In overview, therefore, the book must be commended as a story that goes beyond biographical bouquets to reveal a great deal about the history of Sri Lanka in the first half of the twentieth century to generations of readers who will only have the flimsiest of information on the period.

There are gaps to be sure. One cannot discover anything about the currents of Sinhala nationalism associated with such figures as MCF Perera, Piyadasa Sirisena and Anagarika Dharmapala, the activities of the Ceylon National Congress, the emergence of the Left movement from the 1930s or the political currents among the Tamils and Muslims of the middle class. Nevertheless, this book can serve as a partial introduction to the island’s history.

Particularly significant in this regard is the attention devoted to a neglected dimension in our history: the war years 1939-45. The Second World War is a kind of interregnum that had tremendous political and economic repercussions, an impact that has not been, in fact, fully charted as yet. Let me illustrate. Just before the war the Governor, Andrew Caldecott, acceded to nationalist demands and recommended alterations in the Donoughmore Constitution, notably the abolition of the Executive Committee system. The outbreak of war put a stop to this line of progress in the devolution of colonial power.

However, the war also enabled the astute Ceylonese leadership to enter into fruitful cooperation with the British. The apparent contrast with the Indian nationalist leadership should be evaluated by taking note of the geo-political difference in clout: namely, by attending to the enormous difference in people-power in the two countries on the one hand and, on the other, the power exercised by the British Navy in an island situation as distinct from continental India.

The war effort also brought the administrative and bargaining skills of Oliver Goonetilleke, a kattayā if ever there was one, to the fore. A little sideline can be deployed to demonstrate his ramified influence as Civil Defence Commissioner. Folklore indicates that OEG assisted the influential Saravanamuttu family in their effort to transform some swampland in Wanāthamulla into what we came to know as the “Colombo Oval,” the home of the Tamil Union C & AC. This was a cricket stadium that was up to the best international standards of that day. In the immediate post-war years it hosted numerous foreign cricket teams, from Bradman’s Invincibles on “whistle-stop” in 1948 to Indian, Pakistani and West Indian teams playing unofficial tests. The first official test, against England from 17-22 February 1982, took place within its ‘sacred’ precincts.

Again, Oliver Goonetilleke’s links with high-ranking Britons and the backroom work of Sir Ivor Jennings were of central importance in the steps towards independence in the 1940s marshalled by DS Senanayake. How better to address the imperial Brits than through the machinations of a constitutional Brit, namely, Jennings!

Supporting OEG as a key financial advisor, one had an astute mind in NU Jayawardena, a mind that also had a passion for work. As outlined above, the creation of a Central Bank was one facet of Sri Lanka’s efforts to shore up its economic strength. It may not have removed the island’s colonial legacy of capitalist dependency, but, arguably, it reduced the measure of dependency.

This book is not an ordinary biography relating to an extraordinary man. It is a biography beyond the ordinary. As such, it is in step with its subject.

I assert this partly because it is a sumptuous production, composed in aesthetic manner and printed by Sri Lanka’s best, Gunaratne Offset. But in larger part it deserves bouquets because of its content, both pictorial and words. The biographical tale is richly contextualised. By way of illustration let me note that (a) the initial attention to NU’s birthplace, Hambantota, is filled out with maps and references to the work of Leonard Woolf who ‘ruled’ the district as AGA at precisely that point of time; and that (b) NU’s sojourn at LSE is prefaced by references to the role of the Fabian Socialists, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, in establishing an university that catered to the ordinary classes within Britain.

Pictorial images, maps and etchings cartoons embellish each context. NU’s footsteps are animated by this vivification and elaboration of place, route and circle of persons around him at each major stage of his journey. As with the generality of biographies, family pictures are part of the embellishment; but, here, they are literally swamped by the plethora of illustrations from a remarkable range of sources.

This rich pictorial imagery of context is deepened by a historical analysis in the course of biographical tale. The presentation avoids intellectual pretension and sticks to lucid prose oriented to a general public. The analysis is based on a solid foundation of reading. It is possible to point to omissions, such as Henry Oliver’s Economic Opinion and Policy (1957) and SBD De Silva’s The Political Economy of Underdevelopment (1982), but such notes amount to quibbles that neglect the difficulty of encompassing all the texts pertinent to such a long span of years.

At the personal level I was overjoyed by the choice of frontispiece, a picture of NU, with characteristic visage of serious intent, striding purposefully along the ramparts of Galle Fort. The ramparts were my beat. And, like NU, I was an Aloysian and proud to be one.

Indeed, our paths crossed at St. Aloysius. NU Jayawardena, then Governor of the Central Bank, was the Guest of Honour at a prize giving one year in the early 1950s and as a wee lad I was among those in the hall. Little did I know then that some ten years or so later my academic path would cross trails with NU’s eldest son, Lal Jayawardena: as I struggled with my historical researches into Sri Lanka’s nineteenth century agrarian history, I found that Lal’s recent dissertation covered facets within this field. Ever generous, Lal assisted me in several ways. Ever alive — like his father — to intellectual endeavour, Lal continued to debate these issues and share findings with me in the years that followed — from late 1965/early ‘66 in London and then in Colombo from 1966 to the early 1970s. By the late 1960s my interests in elite formation and nationalist currents in Sri Lanka took me closer to the research interests of Lal’s wife, Kumari; whereas Lal’s duties in the sphere of economic planning took him further away, both literally and physically.

My sentiments in this review, clearly, are swayed by such circumstances. But I trust that I have said enough in this review to whet reader-appetite and to suggest that this work is a truly unusual biography about an intelligent and industrious man from deviyangē rata, God’s own country, the southern lands of island Lanka.


[1] See Michael Roberts, “Elite Formations and Elites, 1832-1931,” in  Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, 1979, pp 153-213; Roberts, Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982; Patrick Peebles, Social cHange in Nineteenth Century Ceylon, New Delhi: Navrang, 1995; Kumari Jayawardena, Nobodies to Somebodies – The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2000.

[2] G. A. Dharamratna, TheKara-goi Contest, with an Appeal to the House of Commons, Colombo: Independent Press, 1890.

[3] Michael Roberts, “The Two Faces of the Port City:  Colombo in Modern Times,” in Frank Broeze (ed.), Brides of the Ocean:  Port Cities of Asia, 1500 to Modern Times, Sydney, Allen and Unwin. 1989, pp. 173-87


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