Saturday Magazine

Remembering the ebullient Reggie Perera

By Senator Reggie Perera

Revolutionary, Marxist, parliamentarian, Senator and Ambassador, Reggie Perera was one of the most colourful personalities in the post-independence era of Sri Lanka.

The Bohemian politician was known for his wit, sense of humour and dedication to his party, the LSSP.

As a Senator he made friends with journalist and invited them to the Senate Restaurant where he heldforth with other distinguished Senators such as Doric De Souza, late academic from Peradeniya.

Reggie ended his public career as a diplomat - Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Egypt which came as a surprise to his friends.

19 November 2002 marks the 25th death anniversary of late Senator Reggie Perera, pioneer of the left movement in Sri Lanka.

After being in prison with the left leaders during World War II, Reggie Perera was elected to the first Parliament of 1947 to represent the Dehiowita electorate, as a member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). He was a Member of the Senate, the then Upper House of Sri Lanka from 1959, until its abolition in 1972. Thereafter, Reggie Perera was appointed in 1971 as Ambassador to the Arab Republic of Egypt by the then Prime Minister, late Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Reggie Perera who had his education at St. John’s College, Panadura was attracted to the left movement then taking root in the country, to spearhead the anti-colonial struggle against British rule. Having joined the LSSP as a youth in the 1930’s, Reggie Perera actively engaged himself in the youth league activities of the party. This was a period when the left movement in Sri Lanka drew inspiration from the Indian freedom struggle and interacted closely with the Congress Party of India. Reggie Perera represented the LSSP at the Annual Sessions of the Congress Party held in Tiripura in the late 1930’s.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Reggie Perera was among those incarcerated by the British authorities consequent to the escape to India of the LSSP leaders such as Dr. N. M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. De Silva and Philip Gunawardena. Reggie Perera spent over three years in the Badulla and Bogambara prisons as a political prisoner.

After release from prison at the end of the war, Reggie Perera was elected in the General Election of 1947, to the first Parliament of Independent Ceylon. His Parliamentary career was marked by a series of measures he initiated for the social and economic advancement of the rural poor of his electorate, Dehiowita. He was closely involved in the work of the LSSP to alleviate their suffering during the Malaria epidemic which raged through Kegalle district.

During his tenure in the Senate, he participated actively on foreign relations matters and his sympathy with the socialist ideals led him to espouse the cause of the international socialist movement in the Senate debates.

An important facet of Reggie Perera’s life was his abiding interest in traditional art and culture. His brainchild, "Sandella", the International Cultural Center, first established at Dharmapala Mawatha in Colombo and thereafter located at Mt. Lavinia, was the natural preserve for a range of cultural activities in the 1960’s. He played the part of the patron of the arts espousing the work of well known artists as well as those not so wellknown, from the backwoods of Sri Lanka. He also took an active interest in theatre and cinema and his film "Sadol Kandulu" (Tears of the outcasts) won several national awards.

To mark Reggie Perera’s 25th Anniversary, we publish two instalments of a series of articles he contributed to the national press in the 1960’s under the title "Journey into Politics" which captures the life and the adventures of late Senator Reggie Perera, as well as the socio-political developments of a by-gone era.

The desire to travel is deep-seated in most of us, and perhaps goes back to a far-away time when man was a gregarious animal. Bernard Shaw when questioned by a Ceylonese newsman once, as to why he was travelling around the world retorted, in typical Shavian manner, that he was compelled to do so because the world did not travel around him. I think it a valid excuse for all travellers.

Some travel to a purpose, some travel aimlessly — "hither and thither blown". I knew a young German hitch-hiker who had experienced a series of perilous absorbing adventures beating a treak on foot from Frankfurt to Colombo. However, this man could not be pursuaded to put his stories down on paper and share them with the world. "I travel for my own pleasure?" he would cynically and rather selfishly observe. That was his philosophy of travel.

On the other hand there are those who organise their travels with the detailed precision of an Army manoeuvres and whose every step is calculated to serve a purpose. The Zigmund-Manzelka Expedition, sponsored by the Academy of Sciences, Czechoslovakia, is a classic example of stream-lined and creative adventure. They travel to make cinema films, Television talks and Television films, Magazine Articles and photographs and collect material for publication of travel books. It is small wonder that these travellers have fans in their own country and abroad that number several millions.

"Loafer"

I too have been a bit of a "loafer" in my time. I remember earning a rather doubtful reputation among my teachers as a disrupter of school work by organising hikes and cycle tours in and out of season. Once accompanied by a Siamese friend and painter, I foot-slogged from Colombo to Adams Peak via Hatton and then climbing down to Ratnapura walked back to Panadura. It was considered just a bit of adventure by students at that time.

I also remember walking head-high in school, because I had organised a cycle tour that took us in the course of seven days to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sigiriya, Kandy and via Nawalapitiya and Kitulgala to Colombo. That was 25 years ago. And when we were stranded in the late hours of the night between Habarana and Sigiriya, we had good reason to lose our nerve, for at that time the wild elephant population was much higher that it is today.

My first big opportunity to travel came my way when I was nominated by the then Sama Samaja Party as a fraternal delegate to the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress in Tiripuri. Our groups consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Goonewardene, then newly-weds, Mrs. Caroline Goonewardene (now Mrs. Anthony Pillai), Mrs. Susan Caldera, W. S. de Silva (Sheba), Udakendawela Saranankara Thero and myself.

Tiripuri

Tiripuri is a little village in the vicinity of Jubbulpore, and it was transformed by an army of organisers to meet the needs of and requirements of thousands of Congress representatives and the tens of thousands of visitors. That was in 1937, and at this session the Forward Block led by Subhas Chandra Bhose clashed with the Official Congress majority led by Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru and supported by the moderates.

I still remember Subhas Chandra Bhose being carried to the assembly hall on a couch as he was a sick man and also remember hearing a few cruel opponents observing that it was a theatrical stunt calculated to win popular support for his position. However, the Pant resolution which embodied the position of the moderates eventually won the day.

Meeting

At this Congress I had the occasion to get a close glimpse of the personal character of Pundit Nehru. An appointment had been fixed for the Ceylon delegates to visit Pundit Nehru in the leaders camp. However, as several of our delegates were sick with malaria, and some others were busy otherwise, it ultimately transpired that W. S. de Silva and I were the only two to keep the appointment with the great Indian leader, I was enthusiastic to meet this man who was moulding the destinies of a nation.

When the day of the appointment came, I concealed the fact that I too was hot with fever and undertook the journey which entailed a walk of about two miles. Pundit Nehru was delayed by some pressing business and when he eventually came back to his tent it was well past lunch time. He arrived, deeply apologised for the delay and invited us to have lunch with him in the leader’s dining hall. We thanked him and very dishonestly told him in that we were after our lunch. Thereupon he insisted that we should accompany him and sit with him at lunch.

It was a long hall and everybody sat on the floor and seated opposite us was M. N. Roy, one-time a co-worker with Lenin, and his Mexican wife. Roy had become a legend in his day when Lenin accepted one of his amendments to a resolution moved by the Leader of the Russian Revolution.

 

Chapatis

I was rather amazed that Pundit Nehru, like everybody else, was served in rustic fashion, the cook bringing hot chapatis on his palm, straight from the kitchen and dropping it on Nehru’s plate. At the end of the meal, Pundit Nehru, at my request wrote out a statement in my note book as a message to the fighters of socialism and freedom in Ceylon. This message took pride of place in our Party organ at that time.

When we rose to leave, Pundit Nehru noticed that I was a sick man, and I had to confess that malaria fever had got the better of me. He was surprised to learn that we have walked all the way from our camp to meet him. He immediately ordered his personal car to be brought and we were driven back in his car through the milling crowds.

To us, just out of our teens it was a crowded hour of our glorious life, for evelrybody knew Punditji’s car and we thought we were mistaken to be either his close friends or important personages.

Temper

The other incident relating to Pundit Nehru is an illustration of the Pundit’s well-known volatile temper. At one stage of the sessions a decision was taken to hold the sessions in secret and the assembly hall was cleared of pressmen and visitors. A rather overenthusiastic pressman attempted to smuggle himself in but being detected was requested by Nehru to leave the hall at once. This foolish man made a second attempt and was severely warned again. On the third occasion, when he was apprehended, Nehru lost control of his temper and gave the reporter a slap across his face.

At that time I did not know that I was once agian to see Pundit Nehru in an angry mood. This time it was in Ceylon, on the occasion of one of his visits to our country. A mammoth meeting had been organised at the Galle Face Green and Dr. Colvin R. de Silva was assigned the task of interpreting his speech. A communal leader had a batch of hooligans to disturb Dr. de Silva’s interpretation. The mammoth crowd was becoming restive and the hooligans, despite several appeals persisted in continuing their assigned task. At one stage it looked as if the crowds were getting out of hand.

A legal colleague suggested that it may help if Dr. De Silva stood down and he volunteered to interpret the speech.

"No, no," roared Pundit Nehru: "Dr. Silva you carry on".

Taking off his long coat and rolling up his shirt sleeves, Nehru moved as if to make towards that section of the crowd from which the jeering emenated. The disturbance subsided and Pundit Nehru once again proved the strength of his personality.

Our journey to Tiripuri had taken us by train from Ceylon to Madras and then via Nagpur to Jubbulpore. At the conclusion of the Congress Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Goonewardene and de Silva left for Bombay. Revd. Saranankara, Mrs. Caldera, Caroline Goonewardene and I decided to go East to Calcutta.

The day after our arrival in Calcutta, we were taken by Revd. Saranankara to take part at a mammoth meeting organised by the Foward Block to protest against an act of British terrorism against the Indian people. Revd. Saranankara moved up to the rostrum and said to one of the organisers pointing at me: "He is from Ceylon, he must speak", and I was the next speaker on the rostrum. This little incident proved that Bhikkhu Saranankara who was subsequently to be the receipient of the Lenin award, was highly esteemed in Bengal National Revolutionary circles.

When we returned to Ceylon, the urge to travel had become a compelling force.

 

Marriage

In May, 1941, I decided to accept the responsibilities of martrimony. This event in normal circumstances, would be irrelevant to the story of my travel. However, I decided to transform the so-called honeymoon to a long drawn jaunt visiting the great cities of India. It was literally a journey from Cape Comorin to the Himalayan snows.

Making use of a "travel-as-you-please" railway ticket, we took the opportunity of visiting almost all the major cities of India — Madras, Bombay, Agra, Delhi and on to Rawalpindi. From this city, which is now in Pakistan territory we made a memorable bus journey to Srinagar in Kashmir.

It is now almost hard to believe that this railway ticket which also brought me back to Madras via Calcutta cost me only Rs. 90/- and that one could hire a richly furnished house-boat on the Dali Lake in Kashmir for Rs. 5. Even to this day I have nostalgic pleasure recalling a roast-chicken I ate in a wayside Inn for a few annas less than a rupee.

On our return journey from Srinagar and New Delhi the fellow-passengers in the train were being teased and provoked by an intemperate bully. I knew that this man would pick on me at any time as his next victim and I, not wanting to be at the receiving end of the ribald humour, decided to toy with a dagger I had purchased in Kashmir. My manoeuvre failed to act as a deterrent and this self-appointed jester commenced to subject me to an inquisitorial cross-examination. However, his pestering ceased abruptly when I told him rather severely that I was from Lanka. "Oh! You are from the land of Ravana", he said, and after that left me severely alone.

Clashes

When we were approaching Benares we were rather anxious because the newspapers informed us that communal clashes were occurring in the city.

As we alighted from the train we were mobbed by a crowd of screaming and shouting horse-cart drivers. Most of these people were with shaven heads and one among them, I observed, was seeking to draw my attention to a few strands of hair which survived on the top of his bald pate. I subsequently learnt that he was seeking to establish that he was not of Muslim faith and that I would not be running any risk if I hired his horse-carriage.

In jail

My travels abroad were abruptly terminated for a period of more than 3 1/2 years. The British Government — then the rulers of our country — had concluded that it was necessary to incarcerate me in order that the Second World War could be conducted more efficiently. The immediate cause for my arrest and detention, which was effected after I had absconded for over one month and for which arrest the Government had offered the fabulous amount of Rs. 500, was the escape from detention of the four political prisoners — Mr. Philip Gunawardena, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Dr. N. M. Perera and Mr. Edmund Samarakkody.

Incarceration being the extreme opposite to travel, it took me sometime to adapt myself to the new circumstances and way of life. The most trying aspect of jail life is the confinement to small place and the staleness of recurring events. A towering grey wall around us and a patch of blue sky above was our world for 3 1/2 years.

Walking along their perimeter of the prison in the evening to get a little much-needed exercise, I often found myself repeating a verse from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Jail. This verse had assumed a deeper meaning to another prionser.

(The second article by Reggie Perera will be published next week)


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