'There’s no place like home'

‘Turbulent Life’
By Walter Perera
Reviewed by Kirthi Abeyesekera
Publishers: Third Eye Publications Inc. Canada
Soft cover - 282 pages - $ 20 Cdn.

Walter Perera arrived in Canada in 1988 at age 72. Retired after 37 years of government service, the work ethic in him was still strong. The only job he could get however, was to clear tables at a MacDonald’s fast food restaurant. The pressures were too much for a man who had been used to giving orders, not taking them. He quit at the end of the first day, taking home a pay package of $49

Then, for six months he made French fries at Wendy’s, a franchise selling hamburgers. In 1996, at 80, he lay in a coma for two weeks with a severe bout of pneumonia which had him hospitalized for six weeks. He came through miraculously. He then sat down and wrote the story of his turbulent life in the public service of his country.

The story of Walter Perera is reminiscent of ‘Your obedient servant’ in the Kachcheris of Ceylon in colonial times. We are taken through an exotic period in the country’s history when intrigue was part of the British governmental structure, and the ‘Kachcheri Mudaliyar,’ the ‘Disawe’ and the ‘Rate Mahattaya’ had to have the right pedigree to be chosen as the buffer between the ruler and the ruled. It was also a time when kissing went by favour and bribery and corruption that plague the nation today, had their roots in colonialism. The Kachcheri system also had its rigid disciplines, enforced with a stern hand by British civil servants of the calibre of M. K. T. Sandys, R. H. D. Manders and W. Holmes who set the traditions that guided some of the indigenous successors, such as Sir Velupillai Coomaraswamy, the first Ceylonese government agent of the Western province.

It was a struggle for survival in the days when a Kachcheri clerk and his family had to subsist on a monthly wage of Rs. 40. It was natural therefore, that the author, like his colleagues, had to take frequent recourse to lending institutions such as the Public Service Mutual Provident Association and the Government Officers’ Benefit Association, to keep body and soul together.

Born in Kegalle, the son of a tea plantation employee, the author served in many parts of the island. He writes about his chequered life, dealing with men and women in many walks of life, and handling delicate situations without incurring the wrath of politicians such as W. Dahanayake.

For a serious student of the caste system on which the social structure of the times was largely based, the author outlines how caste was determined by the division of labour. He explains the resultant hierarchical social structure. He also recounts the days of ‘Rajakariya,’ when people gave of their free services to the government and the community in return for the privilege of owning land.

This is a very personal story of a man who climbed the rungs of the clerical service ladder the hard way - in which process he learned much about men and matters. There are glimpses of some colourful characters such as Sir John Kotelawela in his heyday, and the monocled, first governor-general, Lord Soulbury, the architect of the first Constitution of Independent Ceylon.

Through his own life story, Walter Perera has brought out many aspects of urban and rural life in a forgotten era the present generation would do well to know about. In his understandable anxiety to see his work in print, the author has overlooked the importance of good editing which would have added considerably, to the reading pleasure of this intimate story of a man who witnessed history in the making. Yet, the book should not be judged for its literary merits. This is an instance where substance takes precedence over style.

The book is of historical importance. The writer chronicles the 1947 Government Clerical Service Union strike which had a significant socio-political impact Emergency 58, the forerunner to the 1983 communal disturbances that have culminated in today’s ongoing fiasco; celebrations hailing Independence 1948, which gives rise to the debate whether ‘self-government,’ de jure, is indeed a necessary alternative, de facto, to ‘good government.’ There is also a reference to the 1971 youth insurrection of the Janatha Vikukthi Peramuna (not named), which today, has ten seats in Parliament.

Foreword writer, John McMurtry, Professor of Indian Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Canada, says that "through the maze of the ways of this ancient people (Sri Lankan), runs a deep underlying chord of humanity’s struggle which may be a cultural universal in every place but the recent west...his story reveals a timeless theme of a people’s true self that runs underneath historical culture as its base unit."

Walter Perera was a septuagenarian when he came to Canada to join his daughter, Malkanthi and son, Rohan who had preceded him and his wife, Freeda. Malkanthi who had come to Canada in 1977 on 3 Commonwealth Scholarship and obtained a Doctorate in Veterinary Science, speaks of her father’s maiden attempt at writing as "the courageous work of a very intelligent man with an exceptional memory." - a fine tribute from a daughter who says he wrote the book under the trying conditions of his failing health and depression. "It was hard for him to leave Sri Lanka at his age, and make a new life in another country," she says.

Walter Perera sees the drastic changes in values in his new-found home, and his thoughts go back to the country of his birth when, in his time, children respected their elders, where homes were more disciplined and when marriage was "considered a sacred institution" and divorce frowned upon.

The author’s feelings for home come out strongly in the concluding pages of his story. His departure for Canada, he says, was "a heart-breaking event...In retrospect, I feel sad that I am separated from my country, my relations and my friends. That was my home" He ends his story:

"Amidst pleasures and palaces though we may roam,

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home."