Twenty five years ago I attended a course of lectures by Palitha Fernando, then a brilliant and inspiring young attorney. Not heeding his advice to me to read law (a decision that I have, at times, regretted), I went on to study literature and dabble in creative writing. I had not met him since then. [...]

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Stories told with style, honesty and experience


Twenty five years ago I attended a course of lectures by Palitha Fernando, then a brilliant and inspiring young attorney. Not heeding his advice to me to read law (a decision that I have, at times, regretted), I went on to study literature and dabble in creative writing. I had not met him since then. Not until a few days ago, when I received an invitation and attended the launch of four books by Palitha Fernando, now Attorney General of Sri Lanka.

One of the books was a collection of “Selected Essays on Criminal Law of Sri Lanka”. The other, however,was not what I expected. It was a selection of short stories titled; “Attorney General’s Advice Not Received Yet.” Both books had also been translated by him into Sinhala.

The first book on Criminal Law, written, as he said at the launch, not as a scholarly work, but as an aid for students, brought back memories of Palitha Fernando’s inspiring lectures, and his ability to hone in on the perspectives and grievances of both the victim and the offender. The book’s essays, such as, “The Sri Lankan Law and the Right to Demonstrate”, “Land Frauds” and “Liberty of the Citizen, National Security and International Obligations of the State”, make useful background reading for anyone.

The book of short stories, on the other hand, acts as a mirror of the Attorney General’s mind and heart. It belies a remarkable ability to observe the nuances behind everyday interactions and the agony of ordinary people who are trapped in lives over which they have little control. The storiesare moving because of the author’s forthrightness. He recognises that it takes very little for another human being, especially those in bureaucracies, to change the horrendous daily struggles of ordinary people with a simple word or deed. Each story is based on a personal experience, most of them from his experiences and encounters as part of a huge and unwieldy bureaucracy. The power of the stories lies in his self-interrogation at the end of his encounters.

In “The Best Lesson”, the narrator is an administrator in a Government office (it is fair to assume that this is Palitha Fernando, for the narrator says,”What I learnt today surpasses all that I learnt during my twenty years in public service”). In the story, the narrator doesn’t help a man who has been waiting hours to file an application for a licence because the officer who handled the work wasn’t there: “That is Mr. Weerasinghe’s subject. I cannot look into his affairs and fall into trouble. Wait for him,” he says. Yet, once the man gets his work done, after much delay, he reminds the narrator of how he had helped the narrator a few months ago. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would have got your job done within minutes,” the narrator says, appalled that he hadn’t recognised the driver who had given him a lift home on a rainy day. There is an author’s comment at the end of each story. On this one, Palitha Fernando has said;I have often heard of the inconveniences one has to undergo when transacting business with a public institution. I have often attempted to understand why one should hesitate to help others.But people go out of their way to help those they know. I developed this story having that background in mind.

Palitha Fernando had written the story that has given the title to the book, “The Attorney General’s Advice Not Received Yet”, not for this collection of short stories, but for his young colleagues. He says in his note on the story: As the Head of the Criminal Division of the Attorney General’s Department, I did everything to motivate young officers to conclude criminal files expeditiously. This was a short story written by me to encourage them to attend to them early.

Through the stories, Palitha Fernando captures the cruelties that people and administrative systems inflict on vulnerable people, sometimes in spite of themselves, sometimes because they make judgments based on preconceptions. The book includes a story of a peon in an office who has to endure the collective hostility of his peers for no apparent reason and is the subject of numerous anonymous petitions; there is another where a man who had climbed the social ladder is ashamed to acknowledge his father because he doesn’t want his colleagues to know his beginnings; and another of a student who is mistreated by the teachers because they think he is of a higher social class.

As Prof. Carlo Fonseka asks in his introduction to the book, “What explains the emotional power of the Palitha’s short stories?” He says that the secret is that Palitha Fernando’s”characters are all drawn from people with whom he has interacted.” There is also an economy of language that shuns superfluous adjectives and descriptions. The language is stark and bare. Through that style, the honesty of feeling and experience in each story is heightened. In each story Palitha Fernando deals with the everyday and the banal, but the dispassionate and perceptive lens through which he observes it and the unclichéd twist the story ultimately takes, give the story a remarkable power.

Prof. Fonseka is not exaggerating when he says, “Let me come right out and say loud and clear that Palitha Fernando’s creations are the most moving collection of short stories by a single author that I have read in a long while.” As a student who once sat in on Palitha Fernando’s lectures and listened to him talk about the person behind the crime and the suffering that rippled out to the family and community from one victim, it is not hard to see how these stories would have germinated within him during the course of his time in public service.As he retires in a few weeks’ time from the post of Attorney General, I can only hope that he will continue to serve the people and the country he understands with such sensitivity and empathy.

(Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe is a poet and a non-fiction writer).

Book facts 

Attorney General’s Advice Not Received Yet, by Palitha Fernando
Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, 106pp,
Price: Rs. 350
Reviewed by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

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