By Susil Sirivardana
Thinking about the lives of two exceptionally robust individuals, who passed away recently, led me to ask the question, were we not a robust society at one time, which we are not certainly in present day Sri Lanka?
Since we do not stop and ponder over the demise of individuals normally, what is it that egged me to do so in their case? Obviously, their lives and its record, which were noteworthy of reflection. We stop and reflect on lives that have touched other lives and left indelible memories. Interestingly, such memories are not only experiences of the past, but equally, they reflexively refer back to ourselves and the present. Such reflexivity should be turned to creatively nurture own self-awareness for today.
You will wonder who these two fellow Sri Lankans were one was S.D. Saparamadu, popularly known as Sappy, and the other was Dunstan (M.G.D.) Jayawardena. I only knew of the former through his reputation and his writings. The latter though, I knew well and had worked as his junior colleague.
Emblems of Robustness
What is the relationship between their lives and robustness of society? Since it’s not something obvious and immediate at a first mention, we need to probe further.
These two lives, I would argue, are emblematic of a Sri Lanka, which possessed as an integral element of their make-up, certain widely recognised qualities of excellence and commitment, which are very rare today. They were both public servants who were exemplars to the community at large. They came from a society that was structured to produce such exemplars in its normal course. It was their values and attitudes and consistency that mattered. That means there was a sizeable minority across the professions, who were known and acknowledged by society, to be a distinctive community, a dedicated cadre of professionals, or what we conventionally call an elite. They had their own minority community identity, which was certainly known throughout society.
Justification of the term robust society demands more clarity. Let us use the records of Sappy and Dunstan to clarify the issue further. They were both from middle class families. One was from Colombo and the other from Padukka. Sappy attended Royal College, while Dunstan’s was Christian College, Kotte. Having schooled in the cataclysmic Word War II decade of the forties, in the early fifties they were among the first batches that went to Jenningsian Peradeniya, which served as a uniquely dedicated intellectual castle to transform endowed bright undergraduates into potential intellectual gogetters. Sappy did History Honours while Dunstan did Economics Honours. Their Peradeniya was unique in that their creative imaginations and personalities were fired to seek and internalise sophisticated thinking in relation to their personal journeys.
The outcomes were predictable. Sappy entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1955. After the initial years of cadetship (later called ‘induction training’), his career radiated into the usual round of top level assignments reserved for those in the CCS, namely Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication, Assistant Government Agent in Kalutara, Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, Secretary to the Ministry of Shipping and Tourism, and Director Wild Life Department. The experience in the Wild Life Department has been documented and published under the title, Sri Lankan Wild Life: An Interlude.
He also did a stint as Government Agent, Monaragala. That was not all. Quite extraordinarily, he pursued a parallel private passion – throughout his life, researching, writing and publishing what is now considered a unique collection of Sri Lankan colonial and contemporary history, an achievement without parallel. Especially because each of these republished volumes contained a lengthy annotated and updated critical introduction under his hand, contextualising the historical text in question. This was under the Tisara Press label, owned by him, which also published all Martin Wickramasinghe’s books. He started his writing career by editing the Ceylon Historical Journal which first came out in 1950. To cap it all, the family managed a Tourist Hotel in Koggala during the first tourist boom.
Dunstan being overage for the Civil Service, joined state service after applying for a gazetted civil list post in the Administrative Service. That was a numerically less exclusive service than the Civil but also reserved for a larger number of the best products coming out of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and later, from the others. In the mid-sixties, he joined the National Housing Department as an Assistant Commissioner. Interestingly, he made it a field to live out a major part of his public service career. In time, he becomes Deputy Commissioner, National Housing, and finally Commissioner. This was in the Pieter Keunemen (1970 – 1974) era, when Housing by the State, largely meant Regulation and Control with a definite pro-tenant bias. The work revolved round the series of Acts the Government passed on housing ceilings, rent control, tenant ownership and protection and a limited amount of new construction.
After that, in the Premadasa Era (1977 – 1992), he fulfilled another pioneering role. He became the first Chairperson of the National Housing Development Authority, which was a new state corporation specifically created to design and strategise President Premadasa’s Vision for Housing by the Poor. The most challenging milestone here, is the paradigm shift from provider-based to support based housing, where the poor house builders became the dominant players in their housing, with the State as active facilitator. Dunstan sensitively navigated the new institution through this transformation, and in the course of time, achieved so many firsts, including the UN declared International Year of Shelter for the Homeless in 1987. After a near 30-year career in housing, he retired as Chairman, Air Lanka.
Thus their personal journeys were a tough ascent up the bureaucratic hierarchy, where integrity, clear thinking, a commitment to getting things done, independent judgment and analysis, soon earned for them a reputation among the political classes, who invariably realised that the recommendations of such trusted professionals were the preferred course of action to follow. Not that there weren’t differences of opinion. But then, these professionals stood their ground and did not compromise or bend to power where principles were involved.
Here is robustness in action. Here is the interplay and the thews and sinews of contending opinions in the course of decision-making where people’s and national interests were emphatically safeguarded.
After official retirement, their personal journeys took on a new lease of life. Sappy sustained his historical writing, editing, and publishing. Dunstan sought the path of seeking wisdom in the Dharma by learning Sanskrit from scratch under the tutelage of Revd. Walpola Rahula. That was their way of fulfilling their responsibilities to themselves, their beloved families and to the community at large.
It only remains to stress again, that this extended reflection is not limited to two exceptional and rare individuals. The achievements we underscore in the two examples, were a part of a general culture of excellence and integrity. That culture not only produced individuals, but more fundamentally, crafted a set of institutions which sustained the standards implicit in them. They were representative of a facet of the recent past, which is vibrant in the memory of many of us. Each reader will be easily able to come up with her or his own list of individuals who contributed to this culture. Another truism is to say that we had an elite.
The question of what we now have as a society, is left open. That is, I hope, a subject on which the reader will reflect with profit.
The writer could be contacted via email email@example.com