Fascinatingly forthright, daringly defiant

Lore of the Law and Other Memories by S.L. Gunesekera
Reviewed by Gomin Dayasri

Name it, it's there in plentiful: Ingredients required to attract contempt of court, breach of parliamentary privileges, libel and every conceivable wrong known to mankind. The reputations of the "repute" and the practices of the "disrepute" are bashed at a level above the navel, graciously, never below the belt.

None touched will dare to become a daredevil and challenge the contents. Highlighted are features that will comprehensively negate any such bizarre thought- Public Interest, Absence of any Ill will, Justifiably well meaning Jest, Truth and still more, the sterile name of a sterling Author, to make such an exercise, totally anti- septic.

Care to think otherwise and step into the ring, sure, "S.L" will make a meal with a grin and grimace.
Narrative shows a hero-worshiped father, former Supreme Court judge - many lawyers who knew the old man intimately, are of like mind- of a judge who lived with judicial aplomb; which SL boldly queries of, in his time.

No longer shocking are the benefits accepted from the State brazenly - shy making on hearing. Does respect offered beget disrespect in return? Santa/Satan visit judicial office, but who else will make acid comments on spurious conduct, without a trace of fear, but as a detergent to cleanse the temple of so-called even scales.

In his world, judges are not mollycoddled on cotton wool. He respects those deserving, unlike some prominent lawyers who hardly have a good word for retired judges, after enriching them with layers of thick butter while in office. Respect earned by a teacher or judge or policeman, can be truly gauged on the treatment received on retirement. SL deservingly dedicates his book to a teacher in his old school.
Arbitrators are placed on a throne of thorns- few errant members are given a public whipping, for the dubious methods employed in the fine art of multiplying fees. Vouch for its validity, since a few of the arbitrators pick fees on dates they never sit to hear the case, being previously postponed as agreed. Some straight and honest in the company of the ghouls, unwittingly disgrace themselves overcome by temptation.

Arbitrations in Sri Lanka are the cesspit of legal forums and an exchequer for financial fortunes. SL's scorns at the Arbitration Act ["the product … of a group of lawyers, who, with the blessings of then Minister of Justice G.L… travelled to Sweden for 'private tuition'…,then drafted this ghastly caricature of an Act"]

His mother made crosses before Christian/Catholic/Evangelical pulpits, and then the good lady abandoned them to become a free Christian thinker, and guided with her blessings, the progeny, on a nationalistic trail. Did she appreciate the son, true to his convictions, becoming an agnostic? A woman with a vision knows an agnostic is not an apostate.

SL is a man without decorations, before or after his name. As revealed in the book, he is no respecter of persons, but of principles. Nation owes a gratitude to parents that produced such a son. Take a peep into a folk museum, to examine the background…. a simple life led by a respected judge and his god fearing/daring wife- conditions under which landmark judgments were written with the aid of an Aladdin lamp and without a telephone.

Well versed in the Bible (prize winner at scripture), his views on God and religion, under the influence of Bertrand Russell, is in the domain of sardonic wit, but makes no attempt to belittle like a Christopher Hitchens.

A venerated Buddhist monk whom SL respected, told me of the 'medicinal oil' SL imbibed in the evenings, on his many journeys to the Wanni, to safeguard displaced villagers, would always be a distance away from the temple gate where he resided for the night, sleeping on a mat: though the right of partaking was sanctioned (without any request) in a secluded corner, knowing the thirst of a weary traveller.

Always tolerant of another's belief: He valued our indigenous rich civilisation that made Men- from whom diverse Gods can learn many lessons. He handles the chapter reverently, without placing a holder of a saintly title of 'God' on the reverse side to read.

His parents, together with St. Thomas and its merited pedagogues, made him the fearless "Gunesekera" with true Thomian blood and grit, unlike those 'Thoras' whose social obligation rested with a few back slaps of mates on an annual pilgrimage to a cricket match. St Thomas, in its greatness/hollowness, on which the author elaborates, molds several characters of his time, true to their proper upbringing.

Salutations for sturdy Kaloo Wije (wild escapades including a lightning charge at Plantain Point): Titillated by the pranks of Tuttu Abeysekera (screamed "Ado Chief Justice Hooo" at eyeball level, to be outsmarted for his pluck in the exercise of free expression, by the quick wit of an acting chief justice): Genuine warmth to his dear planter-friend Herman Malinga Guneratne (thorn of St Thomas in the eyes of a Warden): Embarrassed by Minister G.L. Peiris (providing nanny service to boy Namal of parental fame): Disgust at Ronnie de Mel (other boatman making frequent voyages crisscrossing the floor of Parliament?) : Those starved gangs of food raiders from the college boarding, brings out the best of the authors unexpurgated anecdotes.

Many other unforgettable honorable schoolboys of his vintage are affectionately referred to in the book, with their salty nicknames, incapable for a contemporary from another school, whom my closest friend in Hultsdorf -SL- imperiously calls the "Mariyakade College in Maradana", to identify those worthy chumps. The book should be placed on a pedestal in the College library- it is the buccaneering history of the beach boys of the sixties.

His share of heroes and villains are not necessarily mine. On his victory dais, stand Lawyers Aelian Kannangara and Dr Colvin R de Silva, and in the doghouse lies Sarath Nanda Silva.

Colvin and Sarath were outstanding men at Law, with strengths and weaknesses of mortals; Colvin shamelessly flattered ('bumming' in SL's slang) the Bench to an embarrassing degree, unbecoming for a man of his stature; Sarath, smarter than Colvin, had a ready itch for his own upward mobility. Both craved for public acclaim.

Aelian Kannangara was greater than either, cared and stooped to none, with his nonchalant cavalier outlook, and was naturally, a Boys Own magazine hero to SL's macho creed. He was not an office hunter.

In my black book, they are dwarfs, compared with SL. He would not have scripted this book, if personal advancement was his motive.

Narration of his days as an appointed MP from the SLFP of Mrs Bandaranaike, signing the impeachment motion, helps to place the record straight on aspects unknown. The banter in Parliament is low key, though friendly arrows are thrown with gay abandon to make it hilarious, more than historic. The chapters on colorful personalities in court are down memory lane, when sturdy men in black were on parade with distinction.

SL is too kind to his own tribe, by not taking the cane in hand with which he raps others hard in the malpractices associated in the administration of justice. S.L, a gentle soul (unless ruffled and wronged, which may make him a bull terrier) notwithstanding an appearance of a hard exterior, lives a life on a 'machang' wavelength with his friends and family, which he describes vividly. A simple man, if you knew him well.

In his innocence, wistful of a just society, he suggests many reforms to the administration of justice. An idealist at work, forgetting "many lawyers stand as guilty as all others associated in dispensing justice, distorting the system of administering justice" [Quote is mine alone]. Incurable, until possibly, an iron clad mythical Chief Justice steps into the breach- most unlikely in an era where the executive is in search of the weak and the wavering, for their comfort corner.

SL is against granting dates "on personal ground"- forget it chum, some lawyers are permanently in a state of delicate health; susceptible to weird infections that Rasputin cannot diagnose, mostly on days when not ready with their cases. Poor judges are helpless; some are helpful.

The criteria for nominating President's Counsels, which SL states is an unsatisfactory practice: Whose fraternity exceeds in numbers "too large to fill a moderately sized passenger train". Chuck it mate; let's not derail the Hultsdorf Underground, with its long queue shoving each other, wending its way to the political ticket office. May their tribe increase hundredfold, and let's watch in silence, the packed classless compartments pass with human cargo. The deserving sit upright in a first class carriage.

Non-payment of fees, which SL complains of, is never a problem. Answer- decline to go to court on the next day, in the absence of the fees fully settled of previous dues of counsel, and more importantly of your juniors. I decided to hang my boots after working close to 40 years on that simple formula. Clients from individuals to the largest of corporates to foreign bodies have discharged their obligations honorably. Just keep to your word, and the word gets around.

He does not forget the members of the outstation bars, many better rounded in the graces of men and matters, and in the spread of culture, literature and knowledge, than those whose names are better known, merely because they hail from the metropolis.

The spiciest chapter is in the height of his vagabond days, as editor of the outspoken Sinhala daily newspaper, Davasa. Brave and honest media men are the boldest among the professionals, and SL's presence would have given them added impetus. Would he care to revert, on retiring from the legal profession, to contribute more to the press and give zest to media freedom, sending a few shivers down the spines of politicians? That chapter should be made compulsory reading for cub journalists.

In an age where lawyers print statutes, with a few interpolations of their own, and pass them off as 'books of learned men', it is rare to read a manuscript that is truly original and authentic. Never before, or ever after, will you pick a book on Hultsdorf, so explosive, electrifying and entertaining.

(The book, priced at Rs 1,000, will be released through Vijitha Yapa Bookshops later next week).

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