LONGEST DAYS - Prematilaka Mapitigama, Author Publication (2000) pp. 378. Rs. 600
Personal experience and impression of a public servant
It was the late Kingsley Amis who held the view that if you cannot annoy somebody with what you write, there is little point in writing. But Prematilaka Mapitigama appears to have proved him wrong in his recent book "Longest Days", in which he has been extremely charitable even to those who, using their political power or patronage, tried to undermine him in the performance of his duties. With malice towards none, Mr. Mapitigama has written one of the most interesting accounts of his early years in the village, and his subsequent entry into the public service where he had a long and distinguished career, and his final stint after retirement as both Secretary to the late President J. R. Jayewardene and Secretary General of the J. R. Jayewardene Cultural Centre.
This is not a biography. It deals with his personal experiences and impressions as a public servant from 1951 to 1999. Mr. Mapitigama (no relation of the politically powerful Buddhist monk Mapitigama Buddharakkitha) was born into a respected land-owning Kandyan family. He was the fourth child in a family of nine children. It was thanks to the vision and determination of his mother that he received a sound education. Through some happy turn of events, he managed to move out of the village school to Colombo for his secondary education. He joined the Clerical Service in 1951 and was posted to the Registrar Generals Department in Colombo. During his long and distinguished career, he wore several hats and served in Colombo, Kegalle, Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya, Hambantota, Kandy and even Jaffna. He joined the prestigious Ceylon Administrative Service in 1968, and from that time on wards, he never looked back.
What he has written is both interesting as well as amusing to read. By picking personalities and events, he succeeds in giving the reader a glimpse of the socio-political history during his life and times. He gives us a very lucid account of how the system of supplying lunches to government servants operated at that time, when Colombo had few restaurants and no fast food outlets. Lunch was prepared by the so called "Bath Amma" who supplied it to the lunch carrier in a plate wrapped in a serviette with a label giving the customers name and address. Each lunch carrier collected and transported on his bicycle, for a pittance, some 5060 plates to a central place - the equivalent of the Clapham Junction of the British Rail - where they were sorted out and directed to their destinations. Such a system worked well and enabled the city worker to eat home cooked food at minimal cost.
In 1959 Mr. Mapitigama moved to Ratnapura after his marriage, and was privileged to work under a martinet named Arthur Rajakumar Ratnavale, the Government Agent. It was the time when officers in the Government Service took decisions and stood by them come hell or high water. Mr. Mapitigama illustrates this point with an incident concerning the death of his driver Podi Singho, who was a constituent of Galigamuwa electorate, and Mrs. Wimala Kannangara was the sitting MP and the Minister of Health. She rang up Dr. Amarasuriya, the D.M.O at Olugantota in Balangoda and the exchange of conversation between them was as follows:
"Is that the D.M.O. Amarasuriya?"
"I am Wimala Kannangara, Minister of Health"
"A constituent of mine who was in your hospital has died, he is Podi Singho"
"I want you to send his body to Kegalle"
"We have no hearse"
"Send the body in an ambulance"
"Sorry Madam, Ambulance is not meant for transporting dead bodies, they are meant for transporting patients"
"Well, I am ordering you to carry out my orders as your Minister"
"I am sorry Madam, I am unable to carry out your wrong order. Madam, entrust this arrangement to an undertaker".
Fortunately for Dr. Amarasuriya, the minister concerned neither sacked him nor transferred him to an outpost, instead we learn that he served at Olugantota for several more years before being promoted to Colombo!
Mr. Mapitigama devotes two chapters on elephants. Both are fascinating to read. One concerns the removal and release of a young bull elephant that had fallen into an abandoned gem pit at Rajawaka in Atakalanpanna Korale. Mr. Mapitigama enlisted the services of the well-known elephant expert, Sam Elapata Dissawa. En route the Dissawa picked a villager who brought with him a clay pot of water. We then learn how the Dissawa was able to put the elephant to sleep within minutes by simply sprinkling a little water from the pot! When the chains on the legs were removed, he was able to awaken the elephant from its slumber by sprinkling some more water on it. The young bull rejoined its mother and went back to the forest. Incredible! There is also a good description of the Elephant Kraal at Panamure organized by Sir Francis Molamure in 1950 in which unfortunately one of the big bulls had to be shot as he was running amok.
Power without responsibility has always been the prerogative of politicians and prostitutes. What we mortals have is responsibility without power. When Mr. Mapitigama refused to buckle under pressure from a politician and quit the bungalow that was assigned to him as O.A of the Government Agent in Nuwara Eliya, he was banished overnight to Hambantota, a move that separated him from his family and caused great distress. It was while in Hambantota that the then Finance Minister, Dr. N. M. Perera demonetized the currency with the view to catching the tax evaders.
"Longest Days" also provides a fascinating account of Rohana Wijeweera, the late leader of the JVP and analyses the causes that led to the uprising in which thousands of Sinhalese died at the hands of both the JVP and the armed forces. The late Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike crushed the insurgency and incarcerated the insurgents. It was a brief victory for the Government, for as Churchill once said, half tongue in cheek, "theres only one thing worse than losing a war - winning it". The JVP later recouped and unleashed a reign of terror in the mid-1980s. Terrorism both in the south and north owes its origins to the perception of injustice by the underprivileged youth. Such a perception has always been one of the most powerful causes of anger, violence and aggression in humans. While many people living in the maritime areas escaped poverty as a result of the excellent education imparted at the Missionary Schools, those living in the highlands where such educational facilities were unavailable, found it difficult to become upwardly mobile. The introduction of the System of Free Education by the then Minister of Education, Mr. C. W. W. Kannangara was a milestone as it provided for the first time, an equal opportunity for every citizen in the country to educate his or her children. Although the System of Free Education was introduced in good faith, yet as Mr. Mapitigama points out, it has failed for lack of vision. He puts the blame not only on the Government of the day but on the people who elected them. But what if a Government came to power through rigging? Can anyone blame the people? Today we find that our system of education does not ensure that it prepares the youth with the skills and competence needed to face the real world in which they live. Many youth, especially those reading Arts subjects, after spending three years in a university, find themselves ill equipped to get a job. A university degree is no guarantee for a job anymore. Lord King of British Airways (no degree) told a story: "A former headmaster of Ampleforth, when asked what happened to the boys who failed to go to the University, replied, "In later life they tend to offer employment to those who did!".
Politics is often said to be about policies and not personalities. But in Sri Lanka, this is largely not true. It is wrong to think of politics as independent of its practitioners. It all depends on the integrity of politicians. Politicians are people. Some are straightforward, others are devious. Mr. Mapitigama ascribes the success of the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme to the commitment and vision of two politicians - the late President Mr. J. R. Jayewardene and Mr. Gamini Dissanayake. As the Greek poet Archilochus points out, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". J.R was the old fox, while Gamini Dissanayake was the young fox who longed to be a hedgehog! Mr. Mapitigama who knew both of them extremely well, gives due credit to their achievements and their contributions to the development of the country. He considers working for both J.R and Gamini Dissanayake a great privilege. For him days of labouring under the exacting standards they set are now cherished memories.
Mr. Mapitigamas book "Longest Days" is a delight to read. He writes
clearly using simple words. Although there are some minor typographical errors, they do
not in anyway diminish the books value as a mirror of the social history of a bygone
era. It chronicles the authors long career in the Ceylon Administrative Service.
Work in the kachcheris in Sri Lanka is invariably both intolerably dull and boring but Mr.
Mapitigama, in the tradition of Leonard Woolf, tried his best to clear the backlog and
improve the service for the public. As such, it is a required reading to the present day
Government servants working in the kachcheries, especially those at the Kandy branch
involved with the issue of revenue licences.
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