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Island Saturday Magazine 21 April 2001

Book Review
Honesty and integrity

Book: "No, cousin, I’ll to fife"
Author: V. L. Wirasinha

Reviewed by Premil Ratnayake

Honesty and integrity are not virtues normally attributed to public servants as you know them. But rarely though you come across an exception. Such an exception is V. L. Wirasinha who has brought out a memoir of his life during the years in which he served the Government of Ceylon/Sri Lanka as an Officer of the Ceylon Civil Service and as Permanent Secretary. Wirasinha’s honesty and integrity had not been solely confined to his work as a public servant. He has lived them for 88 years.

The title of the book, "No, Cousin, I’ll to Fife," is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Macbeth - Wirasinha has been a lover of the Bard since his school days, Shakespeare being his hero of letters. Wirasinha read Macbeth when he was twelve years old and Macduffs tragedy left an indelible mark on him. He was so moved by Macduffs reply to Ross - "No, counsin, I’ll to Fife" - he decided to use the words as title to his autobiographical work. And, Wirasinha says that he resolved like Macduff he would never seek preferment, at the expense of integrity.

Wirasinha’s account of his interview with the "White Board" for selection to the Ceylon Civil Service in 1935 is hilarious. He has the upper-lipped White bosses on the edge of their seats with his Shakespearian quotations which nearly flunked him because the Britishers were not accustomed to a classical assault even via a countryman unleashed by a potty Black Ceylonese! Wirasinha’s reply to the question, why do you want to enter the Civil Service is indeed a classic — "to earn my livelihood." If he had a free option he would rather be a teacher, but teachers are so poorly paid, but if he could receive as a teacher two thirds of what he would receive as a Civil Servant he would prefer to be a teacher!

In his cleverly crafted work, full of spicy anecdotes, written in masterly fashion, using the English language as it should be used (students of the Anglo - Saxon lingo may read it both for literary pleasure and profit). Wirasinha, always honest with himself and others, and whose sense of humour is puckish, with an unerring eye for the whimsical, does not pontificate. Rather, he relates a story taking you from one posting to the other throughout old Ceylon in the public service, which, I think, did not do full justice to a man steeped in the classics, besides being totally honest, shunting him from one station to the other because in their view he was too obdurate, not "playing ball" (public service is a bed of intrigue, not an Ashram) and in the administrative lexicon," not co-operative" which in other words means" refusing to be an "Yes Man."

Wirasinha must have kept a meticulous diary of his daily life both personal and official, for, he renders some verbatim reports of events encountered more than 60 years ago. Wirasinha being a very pragmatic and unbiased man may not have had inbuilt prejudices against the White men who held high posts in the public service. But he certainly courted their wrath for his sometimes blunt forthrightness. The Europeans were amazed that a pint-sized blackie could be so "insolent" but the youthful and daring Wirasinha could not care a damn. His encounter with a European named T. H. Green ("no kinsman of the Cambridge philosopher, Wirasinha says in parenthesis) is a gem: Black David vanquishing the White Goliath. Green had possessed an unlicensed revolver and had come to see Wirasinha to obtain a license. The European strode haughtily into Wirasinha’s room (Wirasinha was then in Nuwara Eliya functioning as Addl. District Judge, Police Magistrate and Commissioner of Requests) and perched himself on the desk of Wirasinha.

Over to Wirasinha’s own narrative of the incident.

"Green bellowed," Aren’t you going to attend to my matter?"

"Let me first tell you something you should know," I said with delicious calm. He (Green) continued to sit where he was and glared at me interrogatively.

"It is very simple, but not to you, perhaps," I said slowly and deliberately," no one, just no one who has ever come to see me here in Nuwara Eliya or elsewhere has had the effrontery, the ill-bred brazen effrontery to sit on my desk! It is not a piece of furniture meant for you to burden with your bum. Have the goodness to lower yourself into one of those chairs you see there - then only I will attend to what you say is your matter."

He (Green) was shattered. This from a native, a pint-sized one at that! But he wasn’t giving up, not yet.

"What if I don’t?" he ventured.

"You will be forcibly- removed."

"By you?" with a contemptuous chuckle.

"Oh no, I wouldn’t soil my hands. The Police will, I am sure, soon be here from downstairs to perform the office."

"What? In surprised disbelief.

"The peon," I said," is an intelligent man, he’d been listening, just inside the door - you could not have seen him. He knows English, he’s heard your crescendos, he heard me say, "Police" raising my eyebrows to him, and he’s left the room! I can imagine why."

Green quietly lowered himself into a chair.

"Splendid," I said," now we can consider your ‘matter",

"And the Police?" He was a mouse bloated beyond belief.

"I have told you the peon is intelligent. I am sure he will keep them merely ticking over until I give the word, which will be never if you behave yourself." I was enjoying small and cat and big mouse.

Victor Lloyd Wirasinha had the two Christian names bestowed on him by his uncle, father’s brother. Old Wirasinha had nothing to do with it, since, he was a very liberal and easy-going man. The names, "Victor" and "Lloyd" held some fascination for uncle Wirasinha - Victor representing King Victor Emmanuel and Lloyd for Lloyd George!

Another interesting anecdote which is pungent concerns Wirasinha and his wife Lilian whom he adored since he first proposed to her both in orthodox fashion and full of love. Wife Lilian was involved in women’s organizations. The YMCA was celebrating some event, somewhere in 1947. Wirasinha was invited to chair the meeting. Wirasinha demurred saying he was a sceptic (not an atheist) not even a member of the YMCA. But the organizers said they had seen Wirasinha going "up to the church" every Sunday.

"Up to, but not in the church," Wirasinha retorted in his usual repartee fashion," as an uxorious husband I have to take my wife there, but I remain outside, reading Butler’s Hudibras or whatever."

Lilian was furious. "You are not a normal human being," she hissed. "Thanks," Wirasinha exclaimed," I know now."

But, Wirasinha writes, "she did not know what it was I knew, and probably feared my sanity."

"Came the day and there I was presiding in the town meeting hall, my wife seated in the front row, wondering what words of wisdom I would utter. "Ladies and Gentlemen," I began," let me first tell you something about myself, I am not a normal human being. This is not just my own estimate, it is the considered valuation of someone who knows me very well indeed. "I said this looking straight and intently at my wife. Remembering the context, she could not suppress a titter, which was taken up by those seated nearest to her, and then soon rose to a swell that filled the whole hall with clamour.

"Well," I said, as soon as I could be heard again, "this mental affliction of mine, I regret to say, is not something peculiar to me. None of you, my friends, is wholly normal. In fact it is no easy matter to determine what is wholly normal.

"Now the YMCA is a place where people gather, who, in one way or another, are not normal human beings, any more than I am or you are. By associating with them you’ll have every opportunity of having your rough edges planed smooth. So my advice to all males present, no matter how old or young you may be is to join the YMCA before the cock crows even once.

"The next item on the Agenda is ......................"

Victor Lloyd Wirasinha now leads a placid life in retirement at his youngest daughter Rohini’s house in Borella. Despite his age (88 years) Mr. Wirasinha is very much mentally alert and relishes his old jokes about the old public service. He narrates them when you meet him roaring in laughter and laughter. Wirasinha’s laughter is infectious. His narrative style is as polished and impeccable as his writing. Now and then he lapses into his most beloved literary indulgences: Shakespearian classics

The walls of his daughter’s house are daubed with the paintings of his son-in-law Nihal Jayamanne PC. Most of them are nudes. But Mr. Wirasinha showing them says puckishly," my son-in-law assures me they are not obscene - only erotic."

Wirasinha’s book is available at Vijitha Bookshop and at his residence at No. 7, Chandralekha Mawatha, Borella.