Midweek Review

As I Like It
Traversing with Tissa Devendra
by K. S. Sivakumaran

Most informed readers in English in the island know who Tissa Devendra is. He is a writer of repute besides being a top civil servant (retired). He comes from a family of remarkable contributors to the island’s culture.

Tissa Devendra’s varied talents have not been properly exposed or analysed. I knew him as a film critic over the English Service of the then Radio Ceylon in the 1960s. He used to review English films along with the late Regi Siriwardena, the late Donald Abeysinghe, the late Mervyn de Silva, the late Phillip Cooray, the late Sita Parakrama and a few others whose names I cannot remember now. They all came on the ‘Arts This Week’ programme that was then compiled and presented by the veteran broadcaster, the late Vernon Abeysekera and produced by Delorine Brohier. It was during these broadcasts that I came to know some of the celebrities.

Tissa Devendra is not a mere film reviewer. He writes well-researched articles and also produces creative writing. Exactly one year ago, Tissa gave me a book of his titled On Horsehoe Street to be reviewed. Honestly, I didn’t have the time to read and enjoy his book till now. Published by Vijitha Yapa Publications this 238-page book is a collection of very interesting stories primarily based in our provincial towns and villages. Some of these articles were published in The Island, Sunday Island and in the Sunday Times.

The writer says: "The past is, truly, another country".

What provincial regions does the writer traverse into the past? They are Mahanuwara (Kandy), Badulla, Colomba or Kolumbu (Colombo), Thirukoanamalai (Trincomalee), Puranapura (Anuradhapura), Aluth Eliya (Nuwara Eliya). He also relates a "Tale of the Sea".

Because he has had a sojourn in Thirukoanamalai in his career as an administrator and recorded some happenings, I first read his encounter in that town that is blessed with one of the finest natural harbours in the world plus the famous Koanesar Kovil (Swami Rock). Besides, the fact that my late father was born in this historic town in the east was added to my eagerness to read this story. Observe how he brings snapshots of the sleepy town that was 52 years ago on page 104:

"In 1953 two distinct Trincomalees lived side-by-side. One was the old town of narrow streets and winding byways, of houses crammed together with quaint low doorways and steep roofs, crowed bazaar, jostling fish market and dusty ‘maidan’. Occasionally the distinctive architecture of a kovil, mosque or church stood out from the general huddle. Two unsightly corrugated iron structures ‘graced’ the town. One housed a lumbering old fire engine. The other was the ‘Lord Nelson’ Cinema named to honour the British Royal Navy which yet had a dominant presence here. A loud, asthmatically wheezing generator powered the town’s flickering lights. The Resthouse beneath a spreading banyan tree was destined to be my home.

"The British Royal Navy dominated the other Trincomalee. The harbour, Dockyard and Fort Frederick were exclusively theirs, except for hundreds of civilian pen-pushers and menials who docilely trooped in every morning and checked out every evening from these enclaves. RN trucks, jeeps and staff cars of naval top brass, White Ensign fluttering, whizzed through the narrow streets. Impressive battleships rode at anchor in the harbour. It was eye-opening to me to experience, at first hand, the limitations of the Independence we claimed to have won in 1948."

Would you like to read a little more of Tissa’s experiences in Thirukoanamalai? Here comes his sprightly report on a ferry travel:

"Crossing Koddiyar Bay by launch to Muttur [Moothoor meaning an ancient village, but erroneously written as Muttur (meaning a place of pearls)—columnist’s note], Allai Colony and Seruwila was literarily an overseas adventure. These rickety boats with smelly engines were loaded to the waterline with sweaty passengers, bulky merchandise and squawking poultry. It was all so familiar to me, fresh from studying Joseph Conrad on tramp steamers in the South Seas`85" (p. 109).

The illustrations in the book are by Chandramali Mahalekam. One could with rapt attention visualize movement in the sketches.

Tissa specialised in English at Colombo, and he is a lover of books as gathered from this book. On page 48, he writes about American comic books:

"An unexpected mine of reading matter in wartime Kandy was imported wrapping paper. I have never discovered how bundles of American newspapers came to end up as Kandy’s wrapping paper of choice. Avid schoolboy readers discovered supplements totally devoted to comic strips—a novelty to us who only had Jiggs in the ‘Daily News’ for comic relief. These American papers enriched our vocabulary with new slang and new heroes (a hardy few yet soldiering on half century later!)—Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant and Katzenjammer K`85. For us colonial schoolboys this wrapping paper unwrapped for us the enticingly different American Way of Life. The world was changing`85"

On pages 158-9, Tissa Devendra writes after reading Pablo Neruda’s memoirs:

"It was all there—his sojourn in Ceylon, his home in Wellawatta, brumpy his retainer and`85 the ‘dusky statue’ with whom he shared ‘the lightning spasm of the flesh’. ‘Pablo Neruda’ was only his pen name. His real name was Ricardo Reyes—Brumpy’s ‘Mr. Race’! Meanwhile, the poet’s daughter, Imelda, seemed to have disappeared without trace. I vaguely wondered whether she had ever discovered the identity of her famous father."

Let me conclude with the following that gives some information on the writer if you are not familiar with his name.

He had served 40 years in the public service—a graduate of the then University of Ceylon and Cambridge. He was the chairman of the Public Service Commission and the Salaries Commission of 2000. He was also the Chairman of the National Council for Administration. In 1987 he scripted an acclaimed TV documentary on George Keyt. His published books are: Sri Lanka: The Emerald Island, Tales from the Provinces, Princes Peasants and Clever Beasts, More Princes, Peasants and Clever Beasts and On Horseshoe Street.



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