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Memoirs of a Cabinet Secretary - Bernard Percival Peiris

'According to my birth certificate, I, the eldest son of my parents, was born on the 29th of March 1908, at our ancestral home "Gorakapola Walauwa", Panadura.'

That is the first sentence in the 259 page closely printed autobiography of an outstanding personality - Bernard Percival Peiris who died, comparatively prematurely, on 18 January 1977, aged 68. But into those three score years of understanding childhood and adulthood this gentleman packed a full life - professionally, personally, socially, honestly and absolutely apolitically. Though he worked very closely with five prime ministers of our land and had contact with distinguished foreigners; and served the Cabinet as its Secretary for 16 years, he never lost the common touch or the respect for the common man, which man offered him deep respect in return. Never lost his head, never lost his love of life, music, fun, anecdotes and naughty songs and the half full glass of his favourite arrack.

Why I quoted the first sentence of B P Peiris's memoirs is because they indicate his style of writing. It is absolutely unambiguous, detailed, almost staid, old fashioned even, yet one does get the feeling there is a mite of tongue-in-cheek cheekiness. Otherwise why say 'eldest son of my parents.' Also it is leisurely written and to be savoured at leisure. On first looking into the book I thought: here is a book to take on a quiet holiday with plenty of time to just sit and read and stare and reminisce. But I was wrong in this supposition. So riveting was what the author had to say and how he said it and kept interest held tight that I just wanted to go on reading the Memoirs, forgetting time and things that needed doing.

Yes, there is no reservation in saying that BP Peiris' memoirs are absorbingly interesting, especially to the older of us readers who knew people like Dahanayake et al; revealing greatnesses and quirks of our leaders and tracing his own career from Royal College and law studies in Britain through legal draftsmanship to becoming the Secretary to the Cabinet. Plenty of spice too - his winking quoting of risquŽ songs and humour like his detailed description of his learnt-from-daughter impromptu dance of a paddy reaper in full length green skirt and black blouse with handkerchiefs stuffed where they needed to be stuffed, at a Royal-Thomian stag party. He speaks of work, of family and friends, and things as they were.

For convenience I shall refer to the author by his initials - BPP.

History

The last stages of colonial rule; the gaining of independence; the drafting of the constitution, entrusted to BPP by D S Senanayake and vetted by Ivor Jennings, and accepted by the British as a model to use when other subject countries were granted their independence; the political history, which is THE history of Ceylon from the beginning of the 1940s to BPP's retirement on 31 December 1963; are all detailed, along with Cabinet decisions, Bills and Acts, unrests and problems. Each has an anecdote to be told and BPP tells them well. Even to his decision to retire hangs a tale which conveys a salutary message to us. He decided to send in his papers for retirement against the wishes of Mrs. Bandaranaike - his PM. A letter to the editor of the Daily News signed 'W' had this to say: "Under the new Sinhala Only policy, as head of the Cabinet Office, he will have, he argues within himself, to sign the annual estimates of expenditure prepared in Sinhala. Could he, not knowing Sinhala adequately, sign a document which he did not understand but for which he would be responsible? Intellectual honesty, therefore, demanded that he should go away."

Social norms

These are embedded in much of the narration; things as they were and how they evolved through the years of BPP's life. He was born to a privileged family; attended Royal College and University College and within two months was sent to England. His tales of Miss Overton, the landlady of Sutton Lodge where he stayed along with a stream of arriving and departing European girls, gives a glimpse to life in London on seven pounds sterling a week while as a young adult in Colombo his daily pocket money was five cents.

Fearing the worst (betrothal and marriage to a foreign gold digger!) because of the many foreign letters the young Bernard received on his return, bearing British and various European stamps, his parents arranged a marriage and after a lavish wedding, hosted an At Home party for a thousand guests.

Personalities

Apart from his own personality which was both striking and out-of-the-ordinary Ceylonese, BPP writes in detail of personalities he worked or partied with during nearly 50 years of adulthood. There are politicians and among them ministers of state and five prime ministers, two governors general, government servants from top CCS persons to interpreter mudaliyars and peons. He does not character sketch them; rather does he write about their work and the dealings he had with them with conversations reported verbatim. We, his readers, are left to make our own deductions on their character traits and whether they did right or wrong by Ceylon/Sri Lanka. As I said, BPP only reports, we decide. He makes it very clear that he admired SWRD Bandaranaike who had a very sharp mind and delegated authority to him, but unfortunately bowed to Buddhist monks etc. BPP was not for Sinhala only and felt for the Tamils. Mrs. Bandaranaike he speaks well of. "Madam Sirimavo, in spite of the lack of political training, has a marvelous retentive memory."

He says when a High Commissioner had to be sent to Washington DC, she said she would not send an "SLFP nincompoop" and thus sent Shirley Amerasinghe. He speaks of the first instance of politics being made to creep insidiously into routine administration. He did all the recruiting of staff to the Cabinet Office, but when a sweeper was to be selected, Madam B said she'd send one from Horagolla! And later, Felix Dias Bandaranaike sent people from Dompe for employment.

"Mr. Dahanayake, unlike Mr. Bandaranaike, was always early for Cabinet meetings." BPP attended all of them during his tenure as Secretary. It is obvious BPP admired and respected D S and Dudley Senanayake though Dudley griped to him he was weak in his position as PM the second time around. He seems to have got on famously with Sir John Kotalawela, exchanging swear word for swear word, risquŽ comment with one of his own. Felix Dias B he does not seem to have liked or approved of and sometimes met confrontation.

Politics and work ethos

Reading BPP on these two topics shows us crystal clearly how things in both departments have deteriorated. The first Cabinet he served., D S's, was fourteen in number. Sir John's (1956) increased by one, counting the PM too. Mrs. B started with 11. (A desperate gasp is permissible at the 100 odd in the present Cabinet. What would Bernard Percival Peiris have said? He would have resigned at once!)

Politics as described incidentally by him when remembering his life, was clean and gentlemanly then. The world's first woman prime minister was treated as a lady and she acted the lady always, even if wrong decisions were taken and rules slightly bent. I don't need to remind you that Parliament now is a madhouse cum Pettah fish market. Actually mentally sick persons and fisherfolk act and speak with more decorum. Those days, needless to remind you as incidentally shown by BPP, people who entered Parliament had education and good breeding and were honest, no two words about that, and also there to serve the country and its people, not themselves.

One incident is here quoted to demonstrate how people worked in the time of BPP and his peers. As Assistant Secretary to the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Meeting in Colombo during DS's time, BPP worked from 7.00 a m to 3.00 a m - all of 20 hours straight. But there were the easy times too, like BPP driving a British government visitor for sea baths taking along a friend to chat to the man, while he concentrated on his driving. A question was asked about the invoice submitted: 9 gins, 6 beers and a bottle of whiskey and whether an entire bottle of Scotch was needed: The answer that how was he to know how much would be drunk and etiquette demanding a full bottle, silenced the audit query.

Preface and Epilogue

Written respectively by Nihal Jayawickrama and Rohan Pethiyagoda, the Preface and Epilogue definitely add value to the Memoirs. They are most readable and interesting. Nihal J is a cousin of BPP's, twice removed and of a younger generation, his father a cousin of BPP's mother. Rohan Pethiyagoda, as a Thomian schoolboy was a friend of the BPP's grandson and spent many a day at 184, Havelock Road, where the daughter's family lived with Bernard and Adeline Peiris, who hosted many a fun all-day party. BPP would give Rohan advice on how to tackle white girls when the young man was preparing to go to Britain, along with BPPs grandson, Ranjan. There was music all the time, skits, jokes and rip-roaring fun with plenty of good food and drink, as narrated by Rohan.

Nihal Jayawickrema details how the Memoirs got to be published. BPP completed typing his memoirs, laboriously with two fingers probably, in 1967, four years into his retirement. After his death in 1977, the mss. was with his daughter Kamala (Binkie)for 28 years until it was fortuitously retrieved by Prof. Laksiri Jayasuriya "who immediately recognized its historical and social value and insisted that it be published." The computerized text was edited by Rohan Pethiyagoda and the book published by Sarasavi Publishers in 2007.

Priced at a mere Rs. 700, it is a priceless book to possess.

Nanda Pethiyagoda

 

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