Features
Stories/ memories
by Gamini Seneviratne

P.G. Punchihewa’s Those Were The Days, a collection of reminiscences of his professional career, is marked by the modesty that characterises him. As a former colleague who has known him well enough to do so, I can testify to that.

I have not worked with him but our paths did cross, most notably, over forty years ago. The Official Language Act was scheduled to be brought into operation on January 1, 1964, and Punchi was to be appointed to oversee that process. He was in Puttalam as Assistant Government Agent and, in the week or so before the due date, some queries regarding the Treasury Circulars on the subject were sent to me for report. My report raised some queries that had to do with the conduct of the Treasury itself, Punchi was faced by a by-election in Nikaveratiya, and the upshot was that I was appointed to the post that had been earmarked for him. He took my place in the Supply & Cadre division in the Treasury under David Loos, functioned there with his customary conscientiousness, and earned his breaks, - the first of them to Poland where, as he relates in his book, he had combated the winter cold by fortifying himself with salted tea.

These reminiscences have been presented in the form of short stories. In some of them, the author’s adoption of the fictional form has enabled him to bring in matter of a more substantial kind on the working of the public service in ‘those days’. As Government Agent in three disparate Districts, Moneragala, Puttalam and Kalutara, Punchi shows his familiarity with the problems that every day, every where, confront ‘the cutting edge’ of public administration. It was a time when Divisional Revenue Officers, as also the Village Headmen, exercised a wide-ranging authority, an authority that sustained the central apparatus of administration. In their turn, Government Agents were, by and large, the beneficiaries of that infrastructure, and were thus able to function as the primary props of public policy at macro-level. In the 1960s that office was invested with more formal authority in agricultural development. Under the guidance of Neil Bandaranaike and Gamini Iriyagolla, the Government Agents came up with their own seasonal targets; they were reviewed in relation to those worked out at the Ministry of Agriculture in open discussion at the District Agricultural Committee chaired by the G.A. It was altogether a learning process for everybody. In this book, Punchi shows some elements of administration as were in practice at the time; they constitute a picture, which I hope he would present more fully, against which subsequent changes could be assessed.

Despite his efforts to fictionalise these memories, for those of us who were around at the time, a few are easily recognisable. ‘The Chicken Curry’, for example, is based on a witticism by W. J. Fernando, a.k.a. ‘Maha Veda’ on account of his service as Commissioner of Ayurveda, on an incident that occurred at the Polonnaruva, (not the Anuradhapura), Rest House. Punchi has, with the tact that also characterises him, changed the actors and the cause of the happening, in ‘How the Drunken Politicos Settled the Bill’; - but the illustration includes a female figure, - which was the casus belli. Yep, Punchi can be mischievous!

Some of his accounts of what he experienced overseas tend to show the thin-ness that too often characterises expatriate society: the ‘raconteurs’ repeat ‘jokes’ that had a wide currency. Punchi himself however, through his long service as Executive Director of the Asian & Pacific Coconut Community, had delved deeper into the culture of his host country, Indonesia. One outcome of that is his translation of the work of a major literary figure, Pramodya Anantha Tore, into Sinhala.

In this book, he has, as appropriate, demonstrated his knowledge of the Buddhist ethic that enshrouds and supports us all.

There have been, and, as time passes for us all, increasingly so, tales of ‘those days’. The authors of such compilations had / have much more to pass on. Let us hope that Punchi and others like him take the trouble it takes to do that.

 

 

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