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The Sara Legend

The launch of the autobiography of Manicasothy Saravanamuttu


by Arjuna Hulugalle

One can quite understand why the Publishers did not need too much persuasion to reprint the autobiography of Manicasothy Saravanamuttu, the Sara Saga, after almost half a century of its publication. It is written by one of the most colourful Ceylonese personalities of the last century.

Manicam, as he was called by his friends, was the fifth of the brothers in the family hierarchy. Like his brothers, he was at St. Thomas’ College, Mutwal. It was the time of the Stone Age at St. Thomas’, named after Warden Stone.

He had a staggering career at St. Thomas’. This could be best summed up with a quotation from the Centenary edition of the Thomian magazine published in 1951: "Could a prize be awarded to the best all round Thomian of this century it would go to Mr. M. Saravanamuttu, Commissioner for Ceylon in Malaya. When he won the English University Scholarship in 1915, he was Cricket Captain, Football Captain, Senior Prefect, Senior N.C.O. of the Cadets and Secretary of the Debating Society". Manicam had also won the Miller Mathematical Prize, the Obeysekere Classical Prize, the Wijewardene Science Prize, the Pieris Siriwardene Gold Medal for English and the Arndt Memorial Prize. He had his name on the school boards 11 times.

Winning the Ceylon University Scholarship in Science in 1915, he chose St John’s College, Oxford in England.

The Odyssey begins

Here began the Odyssey. Manicam’s mother had her premonitions about him going to England. His journey and stay there never met the promise and great expectations of glittering academic achievements and successes. He showed his prowess at sport and interacted with a large number of people who in later years reached great heights in Ceylon and elsewhere. Manicam’s days in England can best be summed up in his own words, "……. I had a happy time and many good friends, and memory of those friendships still kindle a warm glow in my heart even to the present day. In fact, I still say that a good Englishman is hard to beat." There is much for the reader on his Oxford days and time in England.

After his return, in 1923, he joined the Observer which was then called the "Old Lady of Baillie Street" under D. R. Wijewardene, who was its owner. There he learnt the ropes about journalism and was the Editor of the Sporting section writing a very popular column with the byline "Riding Boy". At that time, my father, H.A.J. Hulugalle, was his colleague and Manicam refers to this and his close friendship with my parents in the book.

The launch

This was actually the qualification for my wife and me to be invited for the book launch on the 1st January 2012, New Year’s Day, at the Tamil Union in Wananthamulla. It was a launch with a difference with his two sons from his Malaysian family entertaining us with song, wine and laughter. The two Saravanamuttu brothers, Manicam and Johan, came with their father’s good friend, Harold Speldewinde (in his 80s) They brought with them a few friends. The supreme self confidence of the Saravanamuttus came out best when the two brothers descended from their elevated academic and commercial pedestals, played the guitar and broke into song. One they called "Que Sara Sara" with the same tune and similar words as the Doris Day hit. The other was a modified version of my Papa". Soon the roof almost flew off as exhilarating, lusty singing took over from all present. How Manicam would have loved this. He the epitome of a ‘bon vivant’ and must have been there in spirit with a glass of wine singing as he had done with friends in various parts of the world. This was the ambience of the launch.

Onto Penang and then the War

In 1930, Manicam left Ceylon and moved to Penang as a "sub editor with knowledge of sports". It is with this move that the plot thickens and Manicam’s story unfolds in the book like a novel from Somerset Maugham. The book continues with chapters on his progress in Penang and on Penang personalities. All this was before the Second World War and soon Manicam had been accepted as a public figure and assumed the post of Editor of the Straits Echo and Managing Editor of the North Malayan Newspapers. He could look forward to a stable future and a comfortable retirement.

Everything changed in 1941. The Japanese entered the War against Great Britain. By December the entry of the Japanese into Penang was imminent. The British authorities evacuated all the Europeans on the 16th of December from Penang. The citizens of Penang were left to fend for themselves and they turned to Manicam’s leadership. He wrote, " I hand printed a notice and circulated it the following morning. About 500 people turned up at this meeting, at which a Committee consisting of three members from each of the four Communities was elected to run the town. This Committee insisted on my being Chairman". As the British had left, Manicasothy took charge. He raised the white flag and lowered the Union Jack at Fort Cornwallis thus declaring Penang an ‘open city’. He was accompanied by Harold Speldewinde, his bodyguard, and R.S. Gopal, a sub editor of the Straits Echo, who climbed the flagpole to lower the flag.

On the 21st December 1941, the Japanese forces entered Penang. They asked Manicam to collaborate and continue as Editor of the Straits Echo. He refused to give his name to the paper under the new regime, but he clearly declared that this was not because of any love for the British. That Christmas day, lunch time, he was taken to prison and locked up.

The conditions were appalling. His narrative describes the humiliation he had to undergo. He writes "I had to sleep on the bare, cement floor with my shoes as my pillow". The book has to be read to get the full picture of the suffering Manicam went through. Yet, his spirituality was so profound that he was able to sum up the experience with the philosophical words "In many ways the nine months incarceration by the Japanese made a better man of me".

Finally, and quite unexpectedly he was freed and had to survive the travails of life under Japanese rule. Post war years saw Manicam interacting with the leaders of Malaysia and the South East Asian region in their path to Independence. He had a very close friendship with the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who he had known from the time he was in Oxford and London. He influenced the Tunku as a friend and as a journalist and would have contributed "to make Malaysia, a conglomeration of people to get together and live as friends".

In 1950, D.S. Senanayake appointed him Commissioner for Malaya, the first from Independent Ceylon. After that five other Prime Ministers of Ceylon depended on him to nurture Sri Lanka’s connection with South East Asia. From 1954 to 1957 he was the Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to Indonesia and had to also look after Singapore and Malaya in the rank as Commissioner. His observations on the historic Bandung Conference of Non-Aligned Leaders during this period, gives a valuable insight into the happenings behind the scenes.

From 1958 to 1961 he was Honorary Consul General in Bangkok.

"Manicam’s pride and joy"

On a personal note, much of this book I have read out loud to my wife. Through these readings it suddenly dawned on her that Manicam was the grandfather of Richard de Zoysa, who is referred to in the foreward of this new edition by his sons from the Malaysian family as "our father’s pride and joy". At Richard’s death, a group of his father’s close friends compiled a book with several of his articles and pictures. This entire book was hand written by my wife in calligraphy with illumination as the medieval monks did in the monasteries in Europe. The first copy was handed over to St. Thomas’ College. Manicam, I am sure, would have appreciated this effort. It was truly a labour of love and took several weeks of untiring effort on her part.

Another person to whom Manicam makes special mention to is C. Sittampalam who later joined the Ceylon Civil Service and became a Cabinet Minister in the D.S. Senanayake Government in 1947. As a student in England, he was recognized as a mathematical genius. Manicam writes of his friendship with Velu as he calls him and when I conveyed this to Mr. Sittampalam’s daughter, Mallika, who still lives in Sri Lanka, her eyes twinkled and a smile broke through reminding her of those halcyon days with her parents many decades ago.

A review can hardly do justice to this book as it overflows with pulsating vignettes from the life of an extraordinary human being, who was called a "Global soul" because he crossed all borders which generally restrict smaller men. It gives an insight into the beginnings of the Saravanamuttu family in Chunnakam. What a galaxy of Saravamuttus emerged from that town with its abundant limestone, which gave the Saras their brains and brawn and contributed to building the legend.

The Sara Saga has to be read to savour all this. However, if one were to summarize Manicam’s own life it could not be done more succinctly than with those of his own words "perhaps the secret of my success in winning the cooperation of others could be summed up by the old saying: "if you love everybody, everybody will love you". That was the hallmark of the qualities of his leadership which made him different from others.

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