In a Havelock Town house packed with memories and mementos- a veritable gallery where tasteful East blends with gracious West- an octogenarian is enjoying a well earned rest. For 35 long years he was ‘minding’ the Sri Lankan Parliament- for 13 of which he acted as the Secretary General of that august house, having stepped [...]


‘Minding’ Sri Lanka’s Parliament for 35 years


From Galle Face to Diyawanna: Mr. Seneviratne had to oversee the shift of all the records and more from old Parliament to new

In a Havelock Town house packed with memories and mementos- a veritable gallery where tasteful East blends with gracious West- an octogenarian is enjoying a well earned rest. For 35 long years he was ‘minding’ the Sri Lankan Parliament- for 13 of which he acted as the Secretary General of that august house, having stepped up from being Second Clerk Assistant and Clerk Assistant.

His memoirs, ‘A Clerk Reminisces’, modestly concise and fitted into a 100 page but engrossing demi-autobiography, dwells most fondly and lingeringly on the days spent in the grand British neo-Baroque pile at Galle Face, the first Parliament, overlooking a dreamily cerulean Indian Ocean, and then in the landmark building that Bawa raised forth from the marshes of Diyawanna, probably the most dignified of tropical- (or regional-) modern edifices. Published in 2017, this cache of unique experiences and memories will be joined by a Sinhala translation, which will be launched tomorrow, May 6 at the Mahaweli Centre in Colombo.

Nihal Seneviratne, the doyen of Sri Lankan civil servants, says he wanted to share the most interesting episodes of his life and times with a wider Sri Lankan readership, and the Sinhala translation appears in the same format as the original book, titled ‘Galumuwadorin Diyawannawata (From Galle Face to Diyawanna).

Having joined Parliament as Second Clerk Assistant, after turning his back on a freshly-offered American scholarship to study international law (which would have culminated in a diplomatic career), it was a steady climb and one peppered (as well as bullet-holed) with remarkable events- a rich melange of the tragic, the comic, the flabbergasting, the profoundly moving and downright horrifying.

The most remarkable amongst them would be the case of “The Hand Grenade Within the Parliament”. Now forgotten under the folds and debris of later drama, this attack in the Parliament followed the controversial Indo-Lanka pact that President J. R. Jayewardene signed with the Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi.

Nihal Seneviratne in his Havelock Town home. Pic by Priyantha Wickramaarachchi

Early that August in 1987, the President had called a meeting for the Government Parliamentary Group (i.e. the UNP) to expound the reasons for signing the pact. Scarcely half an hour after the meeting had begun, Seneviratne’s peon had come rushing in to his office, to say with faltering breath that the President wanted him.

Downstairs where the meeting was, Seneviratne found Prime Minister R. Premadasa, his sarong slightly raised. A bomb had exploded within the committee room and (luckily) a piece of shrapnel only had hit the Premier’s foot. Rushing in, Seneviratne found the President being escorted out hurriedly. However Akmeemana MP Kirthi Abeywickrema succumbed to his injuries while Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was pulled through only by the surgical skills of Dr. K. Yoheswaran.

How was the bomb thrown into a room, now splattered with blood and with a crater of one foot in the floor, which was carefully inspected by presidential security only moments ago? Before the calamitous blast, members remembered seeing a hand with a white sleeve throwing an object in. Luckily the bomb, intended for the President, had ricocheted off the main table to explode in the middle of the room.

It was a day later, when a housekeeping assistant was reported to have evacuated his home overnight with his family, that the mystery began to unravel. Ajith Kumara, the sweeper, was later caught, but Mr. Seneviratne came under a cloud, momentarily, and was summoned before Cabinet.

“I walked in nervously like the Christian being thrown to the wolves,” he records, but it was revealed, after a haranguing interrogation, that he was in no way to be blamed.

“It later transpired that a few weeks after getting clearance from police screening (imperative for all Parliament employees) and having joined the staff of the Parliament, the JVP had secretly recruited (Ajith Kumara). The JVP was then very vociferous against the Indo-Sri Lanka Pact signed by the President, and they had found Ajith Kumara working in Parliament the best possible person to assassinate the President, Prime Minister and other VIPs of Government.”

Also happening during JRJ’s time was the shifting of the Parliament from Galle Face to Kotte. Mr. Seneviratne had to oversee the shift of all that lined the interior of the colonnaded temple to democracy to their new offices, thoroughly modern but also harking back to Kandy and previous kingdoms- without as well as within. A convoy of lorries, buses, vans and cars were used to transfer a treasure accumulated over 53 years: records, files, photographs, paintings, furniture and the entire library.

The book, beguilingly slim, is really a rich ore of the Parliament’s history of over 35 years, ranging from events of major global importance to the most pithy of witticisms in the House- in an age when MPs knew to use humour with debonair eclat.

One thing the former Secretary General bemoans in the last pages of these memoirs are the abysses into which Parliamentary standards are continuously falling. Never for a moment being a snob about it, he digs out patiently and with professional industriousness the causes- which- if paid enough attention- can be used to make things much better. The book does not stop at being anecdotal- it is a magisterial record and also an antidote.

Wearing his 84 years with a boyish but gentle suavity, Mr. Seneviratne has much to busy himself with in retirement. As a vice president of the Royal College Union, he was instrumental in founding the Loyalty Pledge- offering scholarships to the less privileged boys from rural areas at Royal.

You will find him a regular at the Lionel Wendt and other Colombo auditoriums, as a lover of music “from classical to jazz or swing”. Having grown up in the flamboyant lined roads of Colombo that Geoffrey Beling painted, the delightfully mordant Aubrey Collette having been his very first form master at Royal College, he has great fondness for the 43 Group. But just as prized on his walls are the bright, buoyant tinsel artwork of his three granddaughters who loom large in his life: Sehanya, Aleyha and Taheli.

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