An “old policeman” who keeps coming back

84-year-old Brindley Paternott, is a treasure trove of anecdotes as he recalls his days in the Police Force before he left Sri Lanka’s shores in the ’50s
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

This is the season when pilgrims trek up Sri Pada, battling the biting winds and ignoring the weariness, to get a glimpse of the footprint of the Great One.

For, Brindley Paternott, an “old policeman” who turns 84 on April 4, in Sri Lanka on holiday, the season brings back memories of his stint of duty on the Holy Mountain. The memories are as vivid as the many sunrises he witnessed there. If not for him, a Christian, up to this day, the seal on the Alms Box where the humble pilgrims deposited their coins with fervour and only the Charity Commissioner had the right to open, would be inspected by the Police Officer on duty of whatever faith.

It was in 1949 as a junior officer heading the detachment manning the Haramitipana point during the Sri Pada season in his decade-long career in the Sri Lanka Police Force from 1948- 58 that Mr. Paternott “mentioned as an opinion” the incongruity of the situation, pointing out that it was an “insult to the majority race and the Buddhists” of this country.

Those were the days: Brindley in a pensive mood. Pic by Athula Devapriya

The report went to the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Sabaragamuwa who called up Mr. Paternott with a request that he re-write it leaving out that particular detail. However, when the young officer insisted that it should remain “if it has not transgressed any department laws”, the SP had felt compelled to make a minute, suggesting ……..“This young officer may be watched – he may be troublesome”.

Mr. Paternott’s stance of “don’t we trust the Buddhist hierarchy” to attend to such matters led him not only to another senior officer but also to a lasting friendship which he still cherishes with that officer’s family even though he is no more. Whenever he comes on holiday to his homeland, “at least once in two-three years”, he enjoys the hospitality of that officer’s sons’ families. For the report landed on the desk of Stanley Senanayake who would later become instrumental in foiling the ’Coup of 62.

“We called Stanley ‘General’ not in subservience but in deference,” says Mr. Paternott, explaining that on seeing the report he called him up to be given one more chance to re-write it. When Mr. Paternott having repeated his concerns, stood up to salute and leave, Mr. Senanayake had offered his hand. Shaking hands, he had said, “Thank you, I am proud to know you.”

The matter ended there, so Mr. Paternott thought. Two weeks later, he had been instructed to take a detachment of policemen to then Speaker Sir Francis Molamure’s walauwwe, as he was hosting a dinner, to ensure that parking was directed correctly and politely.

As the night wore on, Sir Francis and his private secretary had come out and informed him that they would like him to join them for dinner, but he had declined politely, assuring them that it was an honour but “my men have not been fed yet”. The van bringing the food for the police had been delayed. Immediately, arrangements had been made to send the 10 policemen headed by a Sergeant, in batches, for their dinner, while Mr. Paternott joined the guests.

During the after-dinner speech Sir Francis while thanking his guests had turned around and said: “Gentlemen, I would like you to meet this Inspector who has brought to our notice something we should have noticed a long time ago.” While Mr. Paternott was taken aback and stood in embarrassed silence, Sir Francis had assured, “This will be rectified.”

And it was done in the early 1950s. Even 50-odd years after, Sri Lanka lures Mr. Paternott although he left the shores of his motherland in 1958, seeing the growing storm that the Police Force was facing. As the youngest officer of that time to be in charge of the harbour, to his disillusionment he had realized that the police would “have to bend with the wind”. He was not ready to do that.

It was heart-break time, but for Mr. Paternott it was a fresh start in England, working as a clerk and studying electronics, finally specializing in space communication. Now living in retirement at Woodford Green his “last assignment” had been the development of electronic equipment that guided the space probe to planet Jupiter in 1982.

Anecdotes of his colourful life as a policeman in Sri Lanka flow uninterruptedly. An incident he had heard of during that time was about Prince Philip and cups of steaming tea at a little kade tucked along a footpath at Horton Plains. While on a visit to Sri Lanka in the early 1950s with Queen Elizabeth II, the Prince had led a small party including his Ceylonese Mounted Police escorts to the ‘te kade’ . The old man there had recognized the face of the Prince but had been oblivious that he was royalty. Having sipped the tea, the verdict of the Prince’s companion had been that she had not tasted such “a cup of tea even at Claridges”.

With his tour of duty encompassing not only remote areas but also Cinnamon Gardens many are the incidents seared into Mr. Paternott’s memory. Emotion takes over as he recalls how when he was on patrol in Ratnapura as a young officer with a senior constable, his flashing torch came upon a “bundle of old clothes”.

Closer examination revealing that it was a young woman with a babe in arms as well as a three-year-old child, they had gently queried whether the woman had missed the night bus home. Looking at the police duo quizzically, the woman had answered, “I’m at home” and when asked, “When did you eat last?” thought awhile before saying, “Last morning” more than 24 hours before.

Moved beyond words, the policemen turned Good Samaritans had then brought roast paan and seeni sambol for the mother, a bun with butter for the little one and a bottle of warm milk for the baby.

Similar had been Mr. Paternott’s experience at Eheliyagoda, a town with thriving shops and boutiques even then, where he had come across a beggar-woman carrying an infant, pleading for a coin or two in the pouring rain. With a large garage at his quarters, but having only a motorcycle and no car, he had offered her shelter there, in the wake of which a flood of petitions had gone to the hierarchy from the people that a beggar woman was enjoying “police accommodation”.

Having heard that he was pulled up and in trouble, one afternoon the woman had worshipped him and gone her own way, back to the streets to beg but not before telling him, “You will meet trouble in life, then think of me.”

So “mad” was he with the townsfolk, says Mr. Paternott, that he went around announcing that the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians who got together to deprive a woman and her child of food and accommodation would have “to answer and weep” one day.

He recalls the time spent at Cinnamon Gardens dealing incessantly with frivolous calls about the neighbour’s dogs. One incident one night, however, stands out. Hearing a car screech to a halt in the Police Station compound, a door banging and loud voices, he had not been surprised when a chap, whom he politely declines to name, burst into his office. When he demanded a strong drink, recognizing him as a top civil servant, Mr. Paternott had gently told him that they had no alcohol but could give him a hot coffee or tea, after which the sad tale of infidelity had unfolded.

The civil servant had been at a meeting with the Prime Minister which was supposed to go on for a long time but had finished early. On returning home, he had found his wife in bed with his best friend. Luckily for the couple, the furious and humiliated civil servant who was licensed to carry and did possess a gun, had driven to the police station in bitterness and anger without attempting to take the law into his own hands.

Calming him down, Mr. Paternott had called his brother, requesting him to come immediately, while he himself went to the home of the civil servant. Taking possession of the firearm, he had told the errant wife, that though he had no authority to give advice he thought it would be best if she left the family home before the husband returned.

Thinking back to his police days when “discipline was perfect”, he picks out four officers along with two others whose paths crossed his and who had a major impact on his life. Although they are no more, the names and deeds of these officers flow easily with his words………Assistant Superintendent of Police Stanley Senanayake; the Headquarters Inspector at Ratnapura during his time, Eric Vanden Drisen; the Inspector-in-Charge of the Padukka Station while he was handling crimes, Derrick Christoffelz; Tyrell Goonetilleke not only a personal friend and on the same boxing team but also whose knowledge of the law was “legendary”; and Algy Weerasinghe, a former Government Analyst who was so precise that his findings were never questioned in court; and Dr. Guilbert Gajanayake, who was the District Medical Officer at Rakwana and a devout Buddhist who persuaded him to give up shooting wild animals such as wild boar. (“Thereafter, I never gave guns to my sons, not even toy guns, he smiles)

The coup, according to Mr. Paternott was a "very sad and trying situation" when every facet of Stanley's character including friendship with fellow-officers, his Buddhist faith, his quest of right and wrong, was put to the test.

“Stanley made the ‘momentous decision’ as an officer of the law that the law of the land must prevail. Maya stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her husband and took the flak without flinching,” says Mr. Paternott.

Reams of paper would be needed to include the richness of Mr. Paternott’s experience as a police officer in Sri Lanka. As he bids adieu to his beloved motherland this weekend, hoping to keep coming back, the treasures he takes back are the memories of those years mingled with the experiences of re-visiting those very same places.

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