Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In the shadow of a Peoples president by Evans Cooray. A book that took me down memory lane

I came across this book completely by accident.
It was a Sunday evening and I wanted some time to myself. So there I was sitting in the Odel book store trying to make myself inconspicuous when I spotted it lying in a corner on the lower end of a shelf virtually invisible. I am sure if I was not seated on that chair I would have missed seeing this completely. I realized that I knew the author who happened to be the father of one of the guys I used to hang out with when I was at school. Though we have lost touch completely now.
I am glad I did not resist the impulse to buy this book. It proved to be quite insightful and was written in a very simple fashion making it quite easy to read.
This book also took me down memory lane. Premadasa’s rise in power coincided with the period of my youth where I was showing a keen interest in politics. I was young and idealistic then and believed that democracy was the solution for everything. Now after seeing the donkeys in parliament I believe third world countries such as us cannot afford the luxury of democracy and does require some kind of authoritarian figure. A benevolent dictator so to speak. I did not agree with some of his intimidation tactics and forceful manner. I regret to say I was one of those who hated him when he was in power and rejoiced when I heard of his death. But today I think losing his leadership was one of the biggest impediments to the development of our country.
Some of those who read this might have been quite young during this era so I would like to dwell on some of the changes he made. He was all about getting a job done. During his tenure government offices were functioning as smoothly as the mercantile sector. You could go to a kacheri and get a copy of a birth certificate within one day. Something one would not even dream of in previous times. He also showed immense compassion to the poor of this country. He was up and working from 4.30 in the morning till late into the night. And he provided the common man with an unprecedented level of access to him. One could go and personally speak to him about his or her problem if they could make it to Sucharitha before dawn.
Many of us in Colombo criticized him and his projects. Specially the  Gam Udawa  scheme which was seen as an absolute waste of money. Time called it the grandest birthday party in the world because it started on his birthday and ended on his wife's birthday. But I have visited some of these celebrations in remote locations and seen with my very eyes how grateful the people of those areas are to be able to experience and witness such an event first hand. For instance some of them would never have seen what the inside of an aircraft if they did not step in to the Air Lanka (now Sri Lankan) mockup which was on display.
This also triggered another memory about some background info I had on his death which I had squirreled away in a murky corner of the memory vaults till now. It is bound to make interesting reading.
As you know Premadasa like most politicians today places a lot of faith in astrology and the powers of the Occult. One of the reasons he was fearless about stepping out amongst the thousands on that fateful Mayday even though it was a time fraught with danger due to terrorist threats was because he had brought down some Malayalam Soothsayers who were chanting protective blessings over him at his office. And he believed those mantras would make him invincible.  One of my neighbors who hail from a long line of Ayurvedic physicians and soothsayers was very close to him happened to be with him at that time and heard the Soothsayers. He realized that what they were chanting was wrong or would not provide adequate protection.  But there was no way he could tell the president that because he would not have been believed and the president would have got angry with him and thought he was jealous of the more expensive foreign soothsayers.
 Guess my neighbor was proved right in the end but all in all it was our country and us who lost the most.
I still wonder what Sri Lanka would be like if he was here today.

1 comment:

Jack Point said...

Preme had good intentions but I think a somewhat limited imagination. He tried to create by fiat - eg the 300 garment factory project and this did not always work out.

He also had dictatorial tendencies, which may be why the UNP split at the time.

He was not clean either, but did not have the unbridled greed that is the hallmark of polticos today.