Midweek Review

Looking beyond literary criticism
by Bandu de Silva
Former Ambassador of Sri Lanka

Literary criticism is not my field though occasionally I have ventured into reviewing a book or two written in both the English and Sinhala languages. The field is generally considered a preserve of those who have been students of classics and English though this is not always the case. It can but be a case of fools trying to rush where angels may fear to tread. That is a lesson I learned when I was editor of the University of Ceylon Magazine way back in 1954-55. I had taken over that stupendous task in that circumscribed intellectual circle where one is subject to close critical gaze and where a line of prominent students in the English and Classic Departments had adorned that position both before and after me. I succeeded Mervyn de Silva, later veteran journalist, who, as I remember, as a new recruit to the Lake House Group of newspapers tore my publication to shreds. That was over a piece Prof. J. L. Rodrigo wrote under a pseudonym that I think Mervyn discovered. I was followed by later journalists Earnest Corea and Merlin Peris, later professor. It was by some quirk of fate that I was placed among those luminaries.

It is because of a certain incident that I recall this past history. It is what I thought then to be the gap between professors and university students. I requested a few university colleagues to contribute to the magazine I was publishing that year. As I recall some of them were Batty Weerakon, Earnest Corea, Jean Solomons (now Arasanayagam), L. U. C. Kuruppu, Donald Abeysinghe and A. B. Elkaduwe, most of them from the English Department. Batty wrote his reflections on a lecture which Prof. I. A. Richards delivered at the university on the "Grecian Urn". As I recall it was one of the best attended lectures at the university after it was shifted to Peradeniya. Prof. Richard’s standing was so high that students from practically all departments in the Arts Faculty and even from other faculties attended that lecture.

Not being a student of English, I asked Prof. H. A. Passe for his comments on Batty’s article. He appreciated that someone had taken the trouble to understand what Prof. Richards said on that occasion but he suggested a small amendment to the title. He asked me if I could make it "reflections" on Dr. Richard’s lecture rather than a direct reference to it. From his explanation to me it appeared that he had some reservations on the capacity of students even to reproduce a lecture by an authority like Prof. Richards. It was clear that he wanted to keep the gap wide.

This is not the first time I came across such superior postures by university professors. Dr. E. R. Sarachchandra was once annoyed with me for making a remark on his first book Folk Play of Ceylon. That was a long time after its publication when he was Sri Lankan Ambassador to France. Quite innocently, I made this remark after I referred to his literary debates with Martin Wickramasinghe (at one time they were complementing each other) which degenerated to a personal level at one stage. Against this background my remark that his book was written without complete research on the subject based just on two Kolam traditions found at Ambalangoda (with both of which I was quite familiar) was misunderstood. Actually, Ariyapala Gurunnannse, one of the owners of the masks lived just behind a house of my wife’s paternal grandfather who was the owner of at least three villas at Ambalangoda on the seaside. My reminder to Dr. Sarachchandra that there were other kolam traditions in nearby villages, like, for example, in my village 3-4 miles interior, annoyed him. He ended our conversation asking me to write another book if I knew so much. Thereafter, he hardly spoke to me during our stay at the embassy in Paris except to ask me to represent him at evening receptions. That was because he enjoyed playing "Ping-Pong" with his female private secretary which had become almost a daily obsession with him! His stamina even at that time was admirable!

Why all this harangue? It is only to suggest what these good professors would have thought if they had been reading what Izeth Hussain (IH) and Gamini Seneviratne (GS) had been writing in The Island about Lenard Woolf’s assessment of the Arab. The debate between the two has drifted from literary criticism to an almost personal level though it is still far away from what Dr. Sarachchandra engaged in over his critics but at one stage I was afraid that it might even turn out to be one between the old Ceylon Overseas Service (COS), now Foreign Service and the old Ceylon Civil Service (CCS).

In his last reply IH seemed to be making some reference to Sinhala chauvinism which I quickly goosed over because I do not wish to hear of that of repeated and misplaced rubric applied to the Sinhalese. Chauvinism though applied in a narrow country context, a majority phenomenon as such, can also be a manifestation of a majority phenomenon arising from a wider context beyond the confines of a country. For example, does not one see a Tamil chauvinism arising from the presence of 50 million Tamils across our shores harking back to a memory of a pieced-together Sangam age and even the Indus Valley-Harappa civilisation? I have also often heard of the expression of Muslim Ummah used when Muslims meet across the world. Once I carried a letter as the emissary of one of our former foreign ministers to the secretary-general of the Arab League in Tunis where our minister used this expression liberally. Doesn’t that hark back to a link beyond a country context? Anyway, it is not my intention to open that debate though one could pick up in IH’s remarks some grist for the mill.

My intention here is to make some remarks on IH’s observations on his personal circumstances where he tried to explain his alleged anti-Jewish bias. If I am not wrong, the scenario he tried to explain was one when he was attached to our Embassy in Cairo for a long spell as Charge d’ Affairs. As the desk officer on the Middle-East at the Foreign Office for sometime, I had the opportunity to go into not only the genesis of the Arab-Israel dispute over Palastine, which is a relic of Anglo-French colonisation of that region, but also Israeli-Sri Lanka relations.

As I recall, IH’s reports on Egypt and the Arab-Israeli dispute were very informative and I relished reading them for their professional quality and terse presentation. One could note IH’s close intimacy with a leading Egyptian newspaperman (I forget the name now) who was almost the last word on the affairs of the region at the time. I am not suggesting that IH reproduced newspaper reports, only that he was really in close touch with the journalist, which was rare among our diplomats.

That apart, I can understand IH’s personal bitterness with the UNP government over how his appointment to succeed me as ambassador to France was messed up after nominating him. The reasons were never explained. Perhaps, IH is not aware that before him I was almost subjected to that treatment when my appointment to France was delayed by the same foreign minister for nearly six months after my appointment was cleared by the Parliamentary Committee which was then presided by Prime Minister R. Premadasa and I was issued with a letter of appointment by Foreign Secretary W. T. Jayasinghe. It was an inquiry from the president’s office whether I was well established there because of an impending visit by the president that made the foreign minister get cracking and ask me to leave within three days! He was graceful enough to allow me two more days to observe Vesak after holding back my appointment for over six months! So Hussain need not think that he was the only victim of the then foreign minister’s caprice.

I have seen IH’s writing in the newspapers on the issue making allegations against the UNP government over the cancellation of his appointment. Did he get the impression that it was a hangover from his pro-Arab and anti-Semitic inclinations (which he does not seem loath to admit) that was the cause of that about-turn?


Anyway, there is much misinformation about Sri Lanka’s relations with Israel. The origins of this relationship is attributed to the UNP but that is not the whole story. What I found as desk officer then was that the relationship, which commenced under the UNP regime in the pre-1956 era was cemented under the Bandaranaike government by no less a person than Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike himself. Israel did not receive such low priority then as she did in the days under Mrs. Bandaranaike. (Even Mrs. Bandaranaike often warned us not to condemn Israel as a country in our statements but only that country’s actions). One forgets that the Israeli government was socialist and received a nod from the Soviet Union and our own leftists were often seeing hobnobbing at parties thrown by the Israeli Charge d’Affairs, Mr. Ramati in Colombo. I met some left big-wigs like Dr. N. M. Perera, Pieter Keuneman, and Bernard Soysa at dinners at Ramati’s residence.

After Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was admitted to the UN in late 1955, the British High Commissioner in Colombo, in a semi-official letter addressed to the Permanent Secretary, Gunasena de Soyza, suggested that Ceylon may formally recognise Israel as a recognition of Israeli support over Sri Lanka’s admission. Actually, some Arab countries like Syria were far more vocal in their support for Sri Lanka as I saw from UN records. On this the new Prime Minister, Bandaranaike, ordered that we may go one step further and accredit our Ambassador to Rome, H. A. G. Hulugalle to Tel Aviv (then Capital of Israel). The Arabs were agitated when simultaneous announcements by the two governments were made. The Arab League met and decided to boycott the import of Sri Lankan tea, whether they could implement it or not being another thing. They couldn’t do without that dark brew. I was in Peking when this announcement was made and I recall that on that day the Egyptian Third Secretary (Commercial), Al-Mantawi, who was known for his loud mouth, came running towards me at a reception at the large Banquet Hall of Peking Hotel shouting "Silva. You are finished! Finished."

I recall how my senior colleague Tachena Moorthy and a number of other diplomats came running to me thinking that I had committed an indiscretion and was in trouble with the Chinese government, as it was the case then with a number of diplomats. Mantawi then explained that it had nothing to do with me personally but with my government; that he just heard over Cairo Radio that the Arab League had decided to boycott Ceylonese tea because Sri Lanka had recognised Israel and was going to exchange ambassadors. Mantawi’s remarks were louder than the Cairo broadcast itself and Moorthy lodged a complaint next day with the Commercial Counsellor, Mr. Hamdy, who was his immediate residential neighbour.

The incident was reported to Colombo and Ambassador Hulugalle who was on his way to Tel Aviv was asked to hold back. He presented his credentials later when W. Dahanayake became prime minister of the caretaker government after the assassination of Bandaranaike. The Arab boycott did not work but the pressure persisted. The reasons for this change of course under the caretaker government could not be found in official records. One had to go behind them to find the cause. The clue came when the newly formed political party, LPP, under Dahanayake’s new leadership submitted a formidable list of 115 candidates for the general election. Everyone asked how it got funds so suddenly. Funds came, no doubt, from a host of sources including "Distinguished Citizens"who were sworn in one day at midnight at the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs. For that there were not enough staff officers in the ministry and even Foreign Service Probationers were summoned to the ministry at midnight to officiate. Everything had be completed before early morning. The citizenship certificates issued had to include photographs of the spouses of the new citizens and some of their produced photographs could not even be recognised. These men, mostly from a single village in Gujarati, never brought their wives to the island. So even a pet under a veil could have substituted as a photograph of a spouse and that is how some looked! Some "Distinguish Citizens" were well known butchers from India!

Did Israel also gain under the foray? That was what those who knew in the Foreign Ministry asked. Of course, as I knew Dhanayake used to stop over at my father-in-law’s (whom I knew then but was not married at the time) on his way to Galle when an election was near and to everyone’s amusement shout at him, his old student at Richmond, Galle, "Deepan, Arthur, Deepan! Umbe Oya Salli Gaha Holapan!" Arthur de Silva was then one of the first few biggest income tax payers in the island, as a former commissioner informed me, not that he was rich! Anyway, that was Sri Lankan politics in the bygone era.

I am not so surprised as I have witnessed suitcases loaded with currency notes being brought by members of the former Indian business community to support elections of the party in power not so long ago! No doubt, the business community had to keep the other side also happy.

There is no question that J. R. Jayewardene was a sponsor of the Israeli case in Sri Lanka even when he was the Parliamentary secretary (Deputy Minister) of Foreign Affairs in the Dudley Senanayake government. That is what G. P. Samarasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry told me when he asked me (desk officer then) to give him a report on the Israeli connection. He was new to the ministry and was shocked when he read the contents. He even asked me if I was sure of my facts and I replied: "Absolutely, well researched." Thereafter, my report became the reference document in the ministry for successive governments on the Israeli issue when it was raised in Parliament (the document is since lost!).

Jayewardene’s interest in Israel did not stop there. The Israelis came back under his presidency after a temporary setback under Mrs. Bandaranaike. I recall how President Jayewardene during his unofficial visit to France met Prime Minister Simon Perez at his hotel in Paris at a midnight meeting. He told me the next morning that he could not inform me because it was late in the night and the meeting was unexpected; the other having come to know of his presence and sought to call on him. It was a story good for the marines as the saying goes! I knew from the beginning that something was up from inquiries the president made from me as soon as he arrived. He was accompanied by Minister Gamini Dissanayake and not by Foreign Minister Hameed. The latter too smelt a rat when the president cut him off and asked him to go to New York and busy himself with the General Assembly sessions. He placed his men around but I had no truck with him.

Early next morning when the Herald Tribune (Paris edition) carried a small reference to the meeting on its back page (how it appeared within a matter of few hours!) and I pointed this out to the president, he took the newspaper and quite unconcerned, turned the pages and showed me another page with a big news item. "Did you see this?" he asked me. King Hussein going to meet the Israeli leader. So it is good for them to meet. You think it is bad for me."

I had not said anything except pointing out the news item about his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister. I was only thinking of the questions from the media that I might have to answer. It was later that the circumstances of the meeting were explained.

President R. Premadasa instituted an inquiry about the Israeli connection not because it was disadvantageous but because he wanted to expose Gamini Disanayake. He got the Israeli interest section in the US Embassy through which the JRJ government carried out dealings closed. Did he think that the Israelis were trying to oust him in preference for Gamini Dissanayake?

Chandrika Kumaratunga went to the other extreme over the Israeli connection. Like her father, she opted to open diplomatic relations with Israel and even sent a resident Ambassador to Jerusalem for the first time.

India which was very critical over Sri Lanka’s relations with Israel under the JR regime was later quick to embrace Israel and open diplomatic relations with her. How the circle turns!

Therefore I think the equation that IH has tried to draw on the Israeli connection of the respective governments is somewhat superficial.


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