Tissa Chandrasoma: a treasure of the lost yesterdays


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Tissa Chandrasoma

By Malinda Seneviratne
We have heard about the "bungling bureaucrat". In fact it has been our misfortune not just to hear about this creature but to endure its high-handedness, its servile character and more than all this, its incompetence. And yet, all it takes is a cursory glance at the numerous "sessional papers" produced by civil servants of an earlier era to realise that we had something good and that it went sour for a variety of reasons. Add to this courage, creativity and a philosophical bent and you are bound to come up with something interesting, if not unique.

I chewed over these two distinct personas, one of an official content merely to do the bidding of a politician (more often than not a crook or a murderer or both) — and we have far too many of these — and the other of disciplined scholars for whom the well-being of the people irrespective of their political affiliation mattered more than personal gain or getting into the good books of the particular minister, a few days ago when I went to have a chat with M. (Tissa) Chandrasoma at his residence in 5th Lane, Colombo 3.

Manikkuwadumestri Chandrasoma, is probably one of the oldest if not the oldest survivors of the Ceylon Civil Service, that august collective of which members of its present day incarnation, the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, speak with awe, but with hardly a tinge of guilt. At 87 he has lost none of his eloquence, humour, and capacity to laugh at himself, although by his own admission he has trouble remembering names.

He was the eldest in a family of 7 boys and 2 girls, and was born in his mother’s village Hennatota, Dodanduwa in 1913. The family had later moved to their father’s village of Arachchikande, off Hikkaduwa.

Chandrasoma, Tissa to his colleagues and friends, claims that his family name, Manikkuwadumestrige, means "master carpenter" or builder of boats and ships. His father, M. W. H. de Silva, was a government contractor, specialising in bridge building and apparently built the Chilaw-Puttlam railway line. Chandrasoma himself had heard about this very recently and said he couldn’t confirm the story, although he did recall having spent a lot of time in that area when he was very young.

He had his early education at the Hikkaduwa Government School. Later he had been sent to the section of Ananda Vidyalaya that was later to become Nalanda College. Since Ananda did not prepare students for the Cambridge Junior Examination, young Chandrasoma, largely influenced by his uncle, chose to go to Wesley, where he excelled both as a student and as an athlete.

Since he was very young, he had to sit the Cambridge Junior three times. "The first time, I got honours and distinctions, the second time I got honours, and the last time I just passed," he said laughingly. He was a member of an elite relay team which broke all three major relay records in one afternoon, 100 yards, 220 and 440.

Speaking of his days at Wesley, Chandrasoma said that Mr. Moscrop, the son of a Protestant Missionary in Jaffna, who was his English teacher had a strong influence on him. In fact he said that he owed much of his writing skills to this teacher, who had made him write endless essays and had encouraged him to read one verse of the New Testament every day as a way of improving his English. Moscrop had been a friend of Joseph Conrad, and would receive that author’s latest books which he would pass on to his disciple.

His uncle had got together with Mr. Kularatne to persuade him to sit his Matriculation Examination from Ananda. This he did and got a First Division pass. In 1932, he entered the university and later passed the Civil Service Examination, joining the service in 1938, where he had a comparatively brief but eventful tenure.

Chandrasoma was first posted as a cadet to Kandy and from there he did the usual "tour" of the districts, in Kegalle, Puttalam, and Badulla before he was appointed as the Emergency AGA of Gampaha during the war, where he was to encounter one of his first run-ins with the unholy intrusion of the political in affairs of public administration.

There had been a man from the Siyane Korale who also had land in Aluthkuru Korale. This gentleman had been in the practise of diverting his paddy to the black market. Chandrasoma had promptly confiscated all his paddy in Aluthkuru Korale. It so happened that the "victim" had an inside track to the Senanayakes, and Chandrasoma was soon to hear from the Paddy Purchasing Department. Being the forthright man that he is, he had promptly told the Chief Secretary of Administration, i.e. the head of the public service, "I am sick of this. I want out!"

He was transferred to Colombo as Secretary to Sir John Kotelawala, the then Minister of Communication and Works. The two men had become close friends, and in fact Sir John had been the first visitor to his new house in Colpetty. This didn’t mean they didn’t have their fights. Chandrasoma observed that Sir John had a very impulsive character. He had even wanted Chandrasoma to take up the post of IGP. When rumours of the offer reached the press, Collette had promptly sketched a cartoon of Chandrasoma’s small head barely peering out of an oversize cop uniform! The offer had been declined because he was not impressed by the then "stars" of the police department.

In 1948 he was appointed as the Secretary to the Public Service Commission, which although an independent body, was rarely seen as such by the various permanent secretaries. "I had to take a lot of gaffe from them," he said.

In 1952, at the age of 39, Chandrasoma was appointed as the Principal Collector of Customs and he was the first Sri Lankan to hold that post. Chandrasoma had acted on behalf of his predecessor, Hernu, when he had gone on leave. Sir John had taken Hernu to his ministry when he returned, appointing Chandrasoma in his place. He was also in charge of the Port Commission at the same time. In fact, Chandrasoma recalls, that he did two jobs for practically half the service.

His disillusionment with regard to the Civil Service began in 1957. Before Phillip Gunawardena joined with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the port trade unions were basically divided between him and N. M. Perera. After the alliance with Bandaranaike was struck, they had, according to Chandrasoma begun to drift towards the LSSP.

One day, the Prime Minister had called him and said he wanted to make a tour of the port, and had invited Chandrasoma to accompany him. On the way to meet the premier, Chandrasoma had driven through the Port and had been surprised to find the workers getting ready to organise a rally. He was even more surprised to find that the Prime Minister was going to address the rally. Since he abhorred what he called "stoogism," he had stayed away from the meeting, after having informed a senior police officer to take care of the Prime Minister. Apparently the unionists supporting NM had hooted Bandaranaike.

The decision to nationalise the private sector operations of the port had been taken soon thereafter without his views being sought and in contradiction of the recommendations of Noel Gratien, the one-man commission appointed to investigate and suggest the best way the port can be run. Chandrasoma had to hear about it from his deputy. Typical of the man, he resigned within half hour of the news being broken to him.

For six years after that, he worked as Operations Manager for the Shell Company. In 1963 two ministers had invited him to return to the service and take over the Port. He had said that he would, provided that he be allowed to run the port as an independent authority and also that he be paid his pension. The first request was granted. With respect to the second, Ilangaratne has said "I will consider".

"I didn’t tell him that when a politician says ‘I will consider’ it means he will not do it! But I did bring back the port to normal."

When Dudley Senanayake became Prime Minister, Chandrasoma had repeated his request that he be paid a pension. Although Dudley had been almost a family friend, his brother Robert’s wife and Mrs. Chandrasoma being very close, he had allowed his civil servants to prevail against the request. The argument was "There is no precedent." Chandrasoma, by his own admission, a "pig-headed man," had retorted "I am a man of principle. Principles are more important than precedent."

After he left the Civil Service for the last time, he worked in the private sector until he was 60. When he retired, sans pension of course, in his words "I was a poor man". Poverty is of course a relative thing, but in any event, it is clear that this articulate and fearless public servant was anything but poor in experience, example and expression.

Chandrasoma has authored four books which are collectively his memoirs and his philosophical reflections. His "Vignettes of the Ceylon Civil Service: 1938-1957," published in 1991, should be required reading for both aspiring public servants as well as anyone who is interested in following the trace of the general deterioration in our society as it finds expression in our instruments of governance.

"Out out brief candle," published in 1981 to mark 50 years of universal adult franchise in our country, similarly traces the particular path that has unfolded for our people to walk on. His first book, "Five to Eight," published by M. D. Gunasena offers insights into village life, and, according to some critics, does not have any evidence of the sense of guilt that the intellectual who has chosen to leave that life typically brings into a treatise on the rural.

In 1996 he came out with "Siddhartha Gotama of the Sakya Clan: a letter to a grandson," in which he demonstrates that his decision to study Buddhist Civilisation for the Civil Service examination reflected a deep personal engagement with the doctrine of the Buddha. It won a Sahitya Award for "the best produced book" in 1998, thanks to the excellent art work of Tilak Samarawickrema, as Chandrasoma readily acknowledged, with a smile.

All these works stand on their own for the sheer literary worth and testify to the widely held notion that even if one didn’t agree with him, no one would dispute that Chandrasoma writes excellently. The only other person about whom such a comment has been made to my knowledge is Pablo Neruda. Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said about Neruda "Even when he got into trouble politically, he wrote beautiful poetry."

I am sure Chandrasoma would reject such a comparison, but the fact remains that even when he got involved in debates, especially after his controversial article "The debacle of the Ceylon Service" was published in the Daily News in 1988, provoking much invective from his contemporaries, he had the rare gift of saying what he wanted to say with economy and polish.

Despite his disillusionment with the administrative service on account of "the system tending to foster stooges when politicians ‘do the doing’ instead of allowing civil servants to act responsibly," Chandrasoma did observe that it is important for intelligent people with integrity to rise above the rush of politics and personal gain, if only because "someone has to do the administering, and however bad things may be, there have to be those who are committed to correcting the state of affairs."

These words of an old and charming man, whose children and grandchildren are scattered around the world, and who is wont to suggest that the conversation be laced with some test cricket on the television, are indeed optimistic. But then again, one could not expect anything less from a man who stood up to defend whatever truths he believed in, regardless of the consequences. The lessons are there for the learning, and not only for public servants, I might add.