Men and matters of a time that was
Those Were The Days by Dr. P.G. Punchihewa. Reviewed by Dr. Leel Gunasekera
Those Were The Days is an interesting book dealing with the unusual experiences of highly placed public officers, especially the Government Agents and others who have worked in the districts in Sri Lanka and those who sojourned abroad. The author Dr. P.G. Punchihewa has been a Government Agent as well as an international civil servant in Indonesia.
Dr. Punchihewa is known in the literary field with his novel GanaBol Polowa (Solid Earth) and other publications as well as the children's book (Podi Hamuduruwo), which had earned him the State Sahitya award in 2002. He has introduced Indonesian novels to the Sinhala reading public through his translations of Promoedya Anasto Toer and Pankaji.
I take delight in writing about Those Were The Days with my experience in the pre-1970 era as Government Agent in a number of districts and later in international assignments and also involved in literary activity since late 1950s whenever I had some leisure. Those Were The Days brings to mind the good old days when things were peaceful and orderly with nature too having a salutary effect on our lives.
In fact, it seems that the title of the book, although not mentioned by the author is derived from a statement made by a senior officer who is characterized here as the Secretary to the Treasury, by way of advice through experience in his good old days conducting an election, as Returning Officer.
Under the title "The By Election" the incident is described thus, "The counting was completed next day and the winner was announced. I think it was a weekend but the public service worked half day on Saturdays at that time.""On Monday morning to my horror and consternation, I was told by the Office Assistant and the Shroff of the Kachcheri that there was a ballot box inside the vault, which had not been opened and the ballot papers inside had not be counted."
"You could imagine my plight. I examined the ballot box. The seals were intact. Nobody had tampered with them. I gave a sigh of relief. I immediately summoned the two candidates who were both lawyers and were attending the courts nearby having resumed their interrupted legal practice after the rigours of the election contest."
"I told them what had happened and suggested that for whatever its worth, we count the votes in the box to see whether it would change the results announced. They agreed and in their presence, I did a count. It further confirmed the results already announced. In fact, it increased the majority of the winning candidate."
The defeated candidate accepted the results. They shook hands and went away. Both were gentlemen from head to foot'.
There was pin drop silence as the S.T. concluded his story."Those were the days when we had that calibre of candidates. But not now. That is why I warn you to be extra careful. You cannot afford to make any mistake. Do-not-repeat-my-mistake. Thank you gentlemen and good luck". Those were the parting words of the S.T.
The book contains 25 such episodes, which bring nostalgic memories of a by-gone age when such officials who safeguarded the traditions with authority, integrity and sincerity were respected for their impartiality. The individuals with responsibilities devolving in accordance with their titles such as Government Agents and other subordinates whose strong qualities with follies are narrated with a fine sense of humour and sarcasm.
Some of the titles by themselves are self-explanatory to modern times such as the essay on; "When the Buffaloes ran amok at Vap Magula" and the other "More on Buffaloes and Vap Magul". There is a tinge of sarcasm that covers all those true to life episodes of which eight are with regard to experiences abroad, such as Consultants Expats and Specialists, To the Birthday Party in a Becak (Indonesia) Lost and Found in Rome, Standed on Ferry in Samoa, Salted Tea in a Warsaw Winter, Lost and Found in Jakarta, The Bottles of Milk for breakfast in Brazil, The four Sri Lankan Heroes in Blighty.
Almost all the episodes are portrayed to show the humility and dedication of the former public servants who had less facilities bereft of pomp and pageantry of today. The book leaves an indelible impression in the mind of the reader. Perhaps it may be enjoyed better collectively by government servants and their peers, the senior citizens of today, while an average reader too no doubt would find it enjoyable reading.
On the whole, the book brings into focus the life in district administration and international assignments as seen by an individual of the Sri Lankan society where we have the ability to laugh at ourselves.
Such an incident is the telephone call given by a government surveyor to the Government Agent, Anuradhapura when the latter was having, a nap having worked late at night during the Poson Festival. The old servant in the residency who tried to respond to the call, had informed that the "Ejantha Hamuduruwo satipila" (the respected GA is sleeping).
Then the witty surveyor had replied;" please tell the Ejanthe Hamuduruwo that the Minindoru hamuduruwo telephoned". When the GA awoke, the servant told him that the Mihindu Hamuduruwo telephoned, your honour. From the servant's point of view, it was Poson season, which is associated with Mihindu Hamuduruwo whom he thought was there for Poson!. This is in reference to Arahat Mahinda who introduced Buddhism on a Poson full moon day thousands of years ago.
This short episode starts with an authoritative quotation by way of an introduction from Ananda Coomaraswamy. "There is annually a gathering from all parts of the Island at Anuradhapura to visit what are called sacred places. I suppose about 20,000 people come here, remain for a few days and then leave. There are no houses for their reception, but under the grand umbrage of trees of our park like environs they erect their little booths and picnic in the open air. As the height of the festive approaches, the place becomes instinct with life; and where there is no room left to camp in, the late comers unceremoniously take possession of the verandas of the public buildings. So orderly in their conduct that no one thinks of disturbing them." (Ananda Coomaraswamy in Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism quoting the Report of the Government Agent, Anuradhapura, Ceylon 1870).
Throughout all narrations, there is a stream of humour not second to each and every one of the anecdotes. One may say that they are snippets of no depth. But of those concerned with less serious matters it is interesting reading which could be enjoyed personally or in company preferably with peers in the public service sharing experience.
The author has adopted the creative technique in short story writing where the narration ends in a climax. However, in certain stories, the incident occupies a limited space while the introduction of background is quite long. Neverthless, the description by way of the introduction gives very important details of the life of a by gone age where those of us who have shared those experiences can look back with nostalgia. These descriptions are often supplemented with valuable introductory quotations from works of sociologists such as Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Dr. Seligmann, Dr. R.L. Spittel and Prof. Ralph Pieris.
They are of value to sociologists and students in search of knowledge with regard to our own past and happenings of the past covering the last century. For instance, when the Grama Niladhari trudging the wilderness went to inform the Veddahs that their friend Dr. Spittel has passed away, they were already aware of the sad news for they had a battery radio which conveyed the news the previous night. In the episode, Veddahs and communication technology; the introduction runs thus, "The Veddahs are coming more and more in contact with their Sinhala neighbours and it is extremely unlikely that the next generation will remain pure." Dr. Seligmann, an American anthropologist from the Cambridge University, who did research on Veddahs in 1910.
One is reminded of other public servants such as Tissa Devendra (Provincial Days), Prematilake Mapitigama (Longest Days) and L.M. Samarasinghe (Looking Back) who have drawn from their experiences, which are noteworthy contributions and records of the by gone days. Although Dr. Punchihewa's book is a collection of articles he has contributed to a leading Sunday newspaper, the idea to publish it as a book is praiseworthy.
Dr. Punchihewa's book is a treat as well as food for thought for the discerning reader in the context of socio-cultural changes in our society. A Sinhala and Tamil edition would be most welcome. The book is a Vijitha Yapa publication with simple illustrations by Lalith Senanayake.
Dr. Leel Gunasekera is a senior member of the Ceylon Civil Service who was honoured with the Deshanetru State Award for his contribution to literature and culture.