Dr. Senath Walter Perera has always fought shy of the limelight. For nine long years the Chair of the Gratiaen Trust, he would present in that suspenseful night the coveted laurels to the winner, but never claimed the stage for himself, preferring his role as academic in the corridors of Peradeniya, and as a judge [...]


Leaving behind the lectern and literary criticism after 40 years at Pera English Dept


Presenting the Gratiaen Prize 2017 to Jean Arasanayagam in his last year as Chairman of the Trust

Dr. Senath Walter Perera has always fought shy of the limelight. For nine long years the Chair of the Gratiaen Trust, he would present in that suspenseful night the coveted laurels to the winner, but never claimed the stage for himself, preferring his role as academic in the corridors of Peradeniya, and as a judge for many an international literary prize.

Having concluded his nearly four decade service at the English Department of Peradeniya University, Dr. Walter can look back on a chequered and colourful, fulfilling career- as intricate and rich, one feels, as a stained glass window at St. Paul’s Kandy, where he worships and is part of the choir.

Walter was born to the Perera clan who were lawyers going back to at least three generations. His great grandfather was barrister E.F. Perera who wrote a summary of the Panadura debate for the Ceylon Times, thus prompting Colonel Olcott to come to Ceylon in a quest for Buddhism. A great uncle was E.W. Perera – the ‘Lion of Kotte’, so instrumental in bringing Independence. LLBs came after the names of Walter’s father as well as brothers Narendra and Mohan. It was a childhood listening to legal arguments made by strong personalities throughout the day, that convinced him he did not have the gift of the gab to be an advocate, and must seek other avenues.

Providentially there was the Central Ceylon Youth Council Library in Kandy, where Walter would be absorbed in the adventure stories by Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, Frank Richards and Capt. W.E. Johns. Those yarns, meant for English children when the empire was still great and glorious, were ‘orientalist’ and politically incorrect (in hindsight) but Walter relished the narrative content.

At Trinity College, Walter was mentored by English master P. Subramaniam, who instilled in many Trinitians a love of literature, quoting magical passages of Shakespeare from memory.

The Kandy Walter knew, was salubrious in an age with few cars and the lake almost pristine. Of course, the city was dead by seven in the night. The cousins from Colombo complained but the Pereras were happy with their simple hill capital.

Having read English at Peradeniya, Walter came top of his class and was appointed temporary assistant lecturer. From then on he would obtain two Fulbright fellowships to Virginia Tech and Cornell, and do his MA and PhD in Canada on a Commonwealth scholarship.

Over the years, his academic interests have included the Sri Lankan Novel of Expatriation. While he was impressed by diaspora novels, there were also orientalist tendencies and attitudes he found problematic. When Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef appeared he made his views known in a critical article that was published in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature in the early 1990s. This led to several academics/in Sri Lanka and abroad providing counter and supporting arguments.

Happy memories: Walter at Peradeniya University

Walter has judged the Gratiaen, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Meenakshi Mukherjee Prize and the DSC Prize. A high point of his career was being associated with the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia) as a judge in 1999 and Chair of the region in 2002 and 2003.

“At that time, the CWP rivalled the Booker and was not the online short story prize it has become now.   The Commonwealth was divided into four regions with a Regional Chair and two judges from each region being required to choose the best book and the best first book for the region.  The four Chairs would then meet in a Commonwealth capital to choose the overall winners in the two categories. This panel would be chaired by an eminent personality.”

“In my three years, I have judged the books of V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Chandra, Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer and Robert Clark to name just some.”

He was “extremely disappointed” when Ian McEwan’s Atonement which won our (Eurasia) region did not win the overall prize that year but “felt vindicated” when it was subsequently regarded as one of the 100 best books of the 20th Century and adapted as a successful film.

In 2002, Walter was the Regional Chair for the Commonwealth Prize. He has an anecdote to share.

The final judging for the glittering prize was at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh where no function can be held without a royal in attendance. Britain’s Princess Anne fulfilled the role that occasion, and Walter found himself seated next to her.

Walter was relieved when the princess went on talking to the Commonwealth Foundation Chair who was seated to her right.

“After about 10 minutes though she turned “expectantly” towards me. Annoyed because the organizers had not briefed me on the seating arrangements and not ready with any “ice breaker” as a result, all I could say in my opening remarks to her was that I had become aware in reading the popular Everybody’s Magazine in the early 1960s that many upper middle-class parents in the Commonwealth had their children’s tonsils removed because it was reported that the queen had done the same for her children.”

Princess Anne was nonplussed for a moment—but coolly asked Walter a few seconds later if his own tonsils were still intact.

Later, she would let him know through her lady in waiting that she had enjoyed that evening very much.

The Gratiaen, of course, has been Walter’s child for nine years, though he was trustee for 17 years. It was he who initiated the practice of inviting university students to the final night so that creative writing could catch up with the youth. He would make what was chiefly patronized by the Colombo elite more popular, though he is far from totally satisfied with what they have done.

“Sri Lanka’s publishing industry does not recognize the importance of editing,” he laments. During the last leg of his tenure as Chair, Walter was to go to Calcutta to arrange with the Seagull Foundation a workshop for editing but the pandemic cut short any hopes.

Away from the lectern and literary criticism, Walter has an abiding love for music.

He joined the Trinity College choir as a treble in 1966 and has been singing in choirs ever since—having begun to sing bass at the age of 14.

“Whenever I go out on sabbatical, I try to join a choir—so choral singing in four-part harmony is one way I spend my spare time,” he says.

He also loves team sports though never having played competitively. He began supporting Arsenal Football Club after reading Denis Compton’s autobiography -he was a double international at cricket and football and played for Arsenal.

With no TV and newspapers not covering British football, young Walter wrote to Arsenal and so began a correspondence between the boy and the club which was to benefit the country itself; for after the tsunami the club supported a boys’ home, and later founded a boys and girls’ home that is now flourishing.

Walter also edited The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities for 16 years, and succeeded Prof. Ashley Halpe as the Chair of the Sri Lanka Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies.

Walter will continue to compile the annual bibliography on Sri Lankan Writing in English for The Journal of Commonwealth Literature with a critical introduction. He has been performing this ‘laborious, but ultimately instructive and rewarding’ task since 1995—having succeeded Professors D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke and Yasmine Gooneratne.

He adds with gusto he will “read all the books that I could not during my years as an academic because I was then reading largely for professional reasons.”

He will also continue, “in a modest way”, his travels as an academic.

Though there is much more to look back on, all Walter wants to add is “if I were to give myself some kudos at all, it would be the ability to take on different responsibilities, serve extended periods, and step down when others felt I should yet carry on.”


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