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The curious hunt for Marusinghe
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Author:  Tissa Devendra [ Thu Jan 04, 2007 2:12 am ]
Post subject:  The curious hunt for Marusinghe

An almost true story
The curious hunt for Marusinghe

by Tissa Devendra
The Island / 1998


Whenever I recall that fateful night of April 1971 at China Bay there echoes in my mind's ear a poem from my school days "The Night Before Waterloo" — a dream of fair women and brave men dancing at a ball on the eve of battle. An immense hangar at the airfield was aflutter with bunting and balloons; fairy lights twinkled merrily and the Air Force band played romantic airs. It was Air Force Night. Gorgeously dressed women, outdone by their officer escorts in magnificent dress uniforms danced to lilting music.

Among the distinguished guests was a wickedly handsome French diplomat escorting a lissom brown beauty in a micromini of gold mesh. A charming raconteur, he claimed to be the fourteenth Frenchman at the South Pole while frankly confessing he had flown — not slogged there on skis.

Clad in a nondescript lounge suit, swamped and outgunned by the gold braid, crimson, white and blue of service commanders I represented the civil administration as the Government Agent of Trincomalee District. Wine flowed, women danced and song resounded — a magnificent finale before the proud tower of complacent "stability" crumbled round our ears.

While revelry reigned fast and furious in the decorated hangar, the radioman in his lonely cabin listened aghast to the ominous message that crackled through his earphones. He scribbled it down and sent his orderly hot foot to the dance. The service commanders and I were loosely grouped together, cheerfully chatting, slightly removed from the youthful revels. With a great clatter of boots the radio orderly breathlessly rushed into our midst, saluted smartly and handed over a message to his commander. When he read it the commander gasped, his eyes popped and his luxuriant airforce moustache quivered. He steadied his nerves with a long gulp from the glass in his hand, took a deep breath and addressed us sombrely.

"Gentlemen, I have just received a very important message that concerns us all. Let's go into my office to discuss it", Puzzled and worried we trooped along behind him — the Navy Commander, the senior Army Officer, the Superintendent of Police and the G.A. Soon after we sat down, despatch riders from the Navy, Army and Police rushed in with identical messages. Police stations had been attacked, mutiny was suspected and the Insurgency of 1971 had been launched!

After a brief discussion, sharing of information and establishing lines of communication we dispersed to our respective headquarters, tense and gloomy. The revels quietly petered out as officers and men were withdrawn to strengthen defence establishments.

Emergency

A State of Emergency was declared with the Government Agent as Competent Authority over all civilian and service establishments. It was a tremendous responsibility, yet strangely exciting. Trinco was isolated from the rest of the country as roads were unsafe. The Air Force was our only "life line" to Colombo. A cargo ship in harbour was commandeered, in case personnel had to be evacuated. A few service vehicles managed to run the insurgent gauntlet, peppered by cross fire. I clearly recall debriefing a military policeman who said — "I escaped thanks to the Tarzan films of my boyhood. When a bush stirred ahead of me, I knew the sniper was pulling a string from somewhere else. So I fired in that direction and made my getaway!"

The sleepy old Kachcheri became a hive of abnormal hyper activity. Officials were detailed to requisition food and fuel. A rudimentary rationing scheme was put in place. All licensed firearms were requisitioned — including an enormous elephant shooting gun treasured by a retired English planter. As always, curfew passes became status symbols and it needed all the tact ofmy Asst G. A. to say ‘No’ to the supplicants and yet remain friends.

We also established a rudimentary "intelligence gathering" operation. All divisional officers passed on whatever information they collected — largely of Sinhala youth who had disappeared from their homes in colonization schemes, work places in government institutions or local schools. There was also the occasional red herring such as the European padre quietly investigated as a possible member of Italy's Red Brigade. The Navy too had its suspects. A leading insurgent set off from Jaffna to raise a mutiny in the Trinco Dockyard but was shot dead. A search for potential mutineers uncovered the sentry guarding the GA's Residency!

Marusinghe

Piecing together our scraps of "intelligence" revealed that the charismatic cadetting master of the Maha Vidyalaya — Marusinghe — had disappeared from school and hostel many days ago. Further probing established that he had unobtrusively indoctrinated selected schoolboys and embarked on a rigorous regime of physical training — including long swims in the open sea with his friend the naval mutineer, now shot dead!

As there was no road communication with the rest of the country it was unlikely Marusinghe had fled to join his fellow insurgents in his southern home. It was assumed that he had taken to the jungle to gather a band of insurgents and attack security installations. Among the papers he had left behind in his hurried getaway was an interesting map hidden in a bundle of the Pyongyang Times. It was a diagram of the roads in town leading to "targets" with exact positions indicated by numbering lamp posts and other such simple fool proof indicators. I knew the GA was an "enemy" to the insurgents, but it was yet unnerving to find my Residency narrowed in this map as a specific target for attack.

The hunt begins

The investigators spared nobody. They even came to The Residency and hauled off the young teacher who was tutoring my son, as he had been a colleague of Marusinghe's at the Maha Vidalaya. He was cleared after a brief interview and — to my son's disappointment — resumed tutoring.

The first searches began at Abhayapura, a Sinhala suburb, home to many of Marusinghe's pupils. Timid parents, roused by the midnight knock, and their nervous teenage sons were questioned by Police and all likely hiding places searched. We drew a blank — no boys had disappeared, no Marusinghe appeared.

As our patrol was about to leave they heard suspicious scrabbling sounds and whimpering from a well nearby. They rushed to it with torches and shotguns, cock sure that their suspect had got himself well and truly trapped. The torches focused on the yellow and angry eyes of a large wildcat fallen in while raiding poultry. Spitting and scratching, it was rescued from a watery death and locked up in the barred vault of the old Dutch Kachcheri. By morning we found it had clawed its way to freedom!

Our next tip-off was from Andankulam, not far from town, a settlement bordered by the Navy water works on one side and several rocky outcrops on the other. It was reported that dim lights and suspicious movements were seen at night from a cave among these rocks. The Navy suspected that Marusinghe may have planned to sabotage its water supply scheme and launched a search operation one morning.

Late in the evening the heavily armed patrol returned to the Dockyard greeted by raucous laughter. Their leading seaman flaunted on his bayonet the trophy of their chase — a black brassiere! This was all they found, with a mat, lamp and cook pot in the first cave they searched after a classic belly crawl and a blood curdling bayonet charge. All caves they searched were free of humans and were the rank smelling shelters of wild animals.

Stern questioning of the nervous informant by the Navy made him confess that his wife had eloped with a young neighbour. He had located their love nest in a cave. Planning sweet revenge he tipped off the Navy that Marusinghe had been seen in this neighbourhood. He led them to the cave expecting the Navy to go in with guns blazing, blowing the lovers to smithereens. But the lovers had left the cave and disappeared. The Navy drew a blank. The deserted husband earned a resounding slap — and Marusinghe remained at large.

More sightings

The next report came from Seruvila, reached after an arduous voyage by launch. The local police had discovered a lonely jungle hut where, villagers reported, groups of young would-be-insurgents had met for indoctrination. Marusinghe was said to have been an occasional "visiting lecturer". A thorough search revealed a cache of pathetic cigarette-tin "bombs" — but no signs of recent occupancy. The bird had flown — if he had ever come this way.

More news came from Kantalai where the Sugar Corporation had a sizable managerial cadre of young graduates, some of whom counted Marusinghe as a friend who visited them. This was more than enough for the investigating Police Inspector who subjected them to a brutal and humiliating grilling which revealed nothing. I found these young men, badly battered and broken spirited, squatting in an open shed. I took them into my custody and bussed them off to a camp in Colombo before worse could befall. (Years later this policeman shot himself dead in spectacular fashion, to escape indictment for murdering a lawyer).

It was now presumed that Marusinghe had taken to the huge expanse of pathless jungle that stretched between the road to Colombo and the road to Anuradhapura. Mysterious movements were sighted on the distant jungle verges of Kantalai reservoir. An army patrol stealthily crept their way through the jungle to the suspect site — only to find a lonely band of migrant fishermen drying fish in their lean-to-huts. No, they had seen no insurgents.

Meanwhile, when yarns were swapped in the wardrooms and service messes Marusinghe quietly acquired the stature of the elusive pimpernel. He was never actually seen, nor had he ever really struck. But this was a period of suppressed panic when the very foundations of the state seemed to have been shaken — and the services felt exposed and vulnerable.

Secret agents

Confusing and disturbing snippets of information came from strange sources. A naval reservist who had married a local girl, was a favourite fifth columnist. Dressed scruffily, and looking thoroughly "rastiadu" he wandered around fishing wadiyas and toddy shops with his ears wide open. Debriefing him at the wardroom bar revealed little about Marusinghe — except that he had never been sighted on the coast.

Police Intelligence from Colombo now entered the act as Marusinghe's name had kept cropping up in interrogations. A pleasant young men visited me, looking mild and un-police-like, sent by HQ to look for Marusingha. His cover story for walking around the jungle was that he was a Forest officer. One night, in utmost secrecy he brought me his star informant, a bearded Moulana from the Muslim village of Rotaweva on the road to Anuradhapura. He swore that a youth, who fitted Marusinghe's description, was occasionally seen on jungle foot paths on the way to chena cultivation. He believed that this youth had even bought provisions from a wayside kiosk. A good lead, we thought.

The Navy mounted a textbook counter-guerrilla operation. The bearded informant (code named Castro) to his great joy, was togged up in Navy blues and helmet to conceal his identity. He led them here, he led them there, he led them everywhere, but the quarry was no where. A dispirited patrol returned at dusk and a devalued informant reluctantly surrendered his uniform.

Sources of information gradually dried up. The Services now took every rumour with more than a grain of salt. As months passed, the insurgency petered out, the roads opened and Trinco was no longer a town under siege. It became increasingly difficult to believe in a man who had never really been seen and an insurgent who had never mounted any attack.

Finale?

Many months later I led a team of Kachcheri officials on the biennial trek (by jeep, of course) through the thick jungle of Seruwila to the tobacco lands of Kompanachchi on the banks of the Mahaweli bordering the grasslands of Polonnaruwa.

Our hosts were tall and taciturn Muslims, breeders of graceful white long-horned cattle. Sharing their simple, but ample, lunch we got talking.

Our Land Overseer had heard a vague story of Marusinghe having been sighted in this area, headed towards Polonnaruwa.

We questioned our hosts abut this possibility. They replied that no unarmed man, unfamiliar with this elephant and bear infested jungle could ever make such a journey. However, they added, some months earlier they had come across a skeleton crushed by an elephant. It would not have been a local man as no villager had ever gone missing.

The hunt for Marusinghe had ended. Never had so many, hunted for so long for — nothing?

Tailpiece

Over twenty-five years had passed. In Colombo I was meeting a team from one of the major international agencies based in Washington. Among them was an expat Sri Lankan agronomist, plump, greying, with a haggingly familiar face. He seemed briefly startled to see me, but settled down as the discussion got under way. As the team left he looked quizzically at me and said "Weren't you the G.A. Trincomalee in 1971? — I don't think we ever met — my name is ....... Marusinghe "!

Author:  Rohan2 [ Thu Jan 04, 2007 2:17 am ]
Post subject:  Laadan Veediya (Horseshoe Street)

Laadan Veediya (Horseshoe Street)

Tissa Devendra's " Laadan Veediya" [= On Horseshoe Street] (2005)] follows the hoof-steps of the Village in the Jungle and the Jungle Tide tradition -in recording the historical present, for the " enlightened appreciation" [=pahan sanvegaya"] of the commoners to come.

By Prins Gunasekara
@ WS/Dec2005 / LL


The British Raj purchased the Little Bit of England for a song from the East India Company and managed it through a hierarchy of civil servants and Crown Agents. The Crown Colony, then known as Ceylon, was partitioned into nine provinces of manageable proportion, each run by a Government Agent and his army of civil servants.

The administrators in their spare time took an interest in the life style, culture and environment they Lorded over. The ethos of their sympathetic absorption in the native mores, culture and village life is manifest in the writings they produced at the time - such as Leonard Wolf’s Village in the Jungle (1926) and John Still's Jungle Tide (1930).

These foreign civil servants did a commendable job in portraying the objective realities of the day-to-day life of their colonial inhabitants. Their documentation of the history, geography, local "anthropology ", archaeology and architecture, customs, manners and life style of the people is extensive and solid: their records are a valuable source of authentic information that would otherwise be lost to us today. Some of the administrators were quite successful in their social integration with the governed. Some have added their surnames to the Sinhala vocabulary, as one Government Agent in the South - La Mesurier did- by naming the shady trees he got planted on the roadside- Lamasooriya trees.

Civil Servant Freeman in Ceylon's North Central Province had so won the hearts and minds of the local populace that he also won a seat in the State Council elections held after his retirement from active service. Many other names of foreign celebrities such as Professor Wilhelm Geiger [of Mahawansa (Buddhist epic) fame] and HCP Bell in the field of archaeology come to mind as one looks back at the "good old days".

Tissa Devendra's " Laadan Veediya" [= On Horseshoe Street] (2005)] follows the hoof-steps of the Village in the Jungle and the Jungle Tide tradition -in recording the historical present, for the " enlightened appreciation" [=pahan sanvegaya"] of the commoners to come. It covers a wide spectrum of social strata and interest- geographically as widespread and variegated as the towns and cities [where his father was transferred to, from time to time as a teacher/public servant when the author was only a College student] and later in life, when and where the author himself was stationed as a District Land Officer (DLO in 1950?). Eventually, elevated to the post of the Government Agent [G.A.] of Trincomalee District.- Eastern Province [by 1971].

Tissa Devendra commences his narrative of the long journey, from his school boy days at Dharmaraja College, Kandy [1936-43] through to Ratnapura and Colombo [University life] to the various posts held as a graduated young man, in state employment [as a DLO] in the Central, Uwa and Southern Provinces, to the culmination of his career as a public servant in the Eastern Province -Trincomalie. This spell spans the pre-World War 11 period to post -Independence era 1948, and covers the most exotic and unprecedented political upheavals: the first Hartal [of 19531 and the first JVP youth insurrection - the failed ONE DAY REVOLUTION in 1971.

Undoubtedly, this patch of the country's history is rich and oozing with social and political events of historical significance, each of which may offer focus for long and interest- gripping, riveting accounts. Devendra has picked on several such events and set out to do justice to them. His products are quite readable, some fascinating and even thrilling as the end episodes of a Hitchcock film.

Take for instance, the search for a missing JVP insurgent leader [a Mr. Marusinghe] in the thick of the 1971 insurrection when the incumbent government's existence was perceived to be seriously threatened. Brave, easy believing, Marxism-indoctrinated village youth, [wielding a few single- barrelled shot guns [some, wooden cut-outs in the shape of guns!] and (leaking) hand grenades packed into empty condensed milk tins] were the army that challenged the three State security forces and the Police, who were well-armed and equipped with modern weaponry. Within a few days of the revolt, it was ruthlessly crushed by the security forces. The capital city Colombo was never under any serious threat from the insurgents. For a few weeks there were sporadic incidents in distant parts of the country.

The author adverts to a situation facing Trincomalie in the distant Eastern Province, where he was the Government Agent at the time. The Missing JVP leader -reputed to be the Cadet Master of a Madhya Maha Vidyalaya [Central College] near Trincomalie, Mr. Marusinghe was the most feared insurgent in the region, about to launch an attack on the army camps and Naval headquarters, in the provincial town under siege . Government intelligence reported that in the jungles around the Naval base, a uniformed armed man resembling the identity of the missing Cadet Master, had been sighted. The Navy mounted a text book counter insurgency operation in the jungle. The result: no different from the massive US-UK led armed investigations into WMD's (weapons of mass destruction) in Sadam Hussein's Iraq. They were looking for a Marusinghe who was not there!

Many months later, the author himself, in his official capacity as the GA Trincomalie, led a less regimented (of course-unarmed) routine, biennial Kachcheri investigation in the same jungle tracks . Devendra learned from the animal breeders and farmers who inhabited and cultivated in the jungles that no unarmed person, unfamiliar with the elephant- and bear- infested jungle, could ever live or survive there for long. A few months ago, these peasants had discovered in the jungle tracts, a human skeleton, crushed by an elephant. Definitely, not a local man's, as no villager was reported missing during the period. So much for the elusive Mr. Marusinghe, the Cadet Master who threatened the security of the Naval base during the 1971 insurgency!

Hold on a minute: that is not the end of the thrilling saga of the failed armed expedition to catch the roaming JVP rebel leader whose [believed to be] elephant -crushed skeleton has now been long forgotten..

Over twenty five years later [in or about 1996] in Colombo, Devendra attended a seminar of international agencies, based in Washington. Among those present was a Sri Lankan expatriate, a US trained agronomist "..., plump, greying, with a naggingly familiar face." He seemed briefly startled to see Devendra but settled down as the discussions in the seminar got under way. At the end of the seminar, as the team was leaving the assembly hall, this familiar figure quizzically looked in the ex-G.A's face and politely inquired: "Weren't you the G.A. Trincomalie in 1971? I don't think we ever met each other... My name is ...Marusinghe"!

Is that not fascinating? You are not reading fiction. Believe it: this is a quite plausible story!

Factually and historically, a young JVP rebel known by the name of "Marasingha" NOT “Marusinghe” was a legendary JVP leader in the North Central Province. He went missing in the Rajangana NCP jungles soon after the failed insurgency. Many similar stories of JVP leaders - the advanced guards of their "ONE DAY REVOLUTION" who disappeared or went missing - were afloat at the time. The Government in power was awe-struck and fear-gripped by the reputed violence and audacity of these men, some of whom were to abduct the lady Prime Minister and hold her hostage, in exchange for the release of their own JVP leader, still in the Jaffna Hammond Hill prison, from where he was directing the revolution. These JVP generals were the vanguard of the proletariat who collectively master- minded the strategy for the capture of state power. When they heard about the collapse of the revolution -even before the scheduled launch time, early enough to change their attire, shave their heads, don a yellow robe and seek refuge in a near by Buddhist temple, they were not averse to saving their skin- and abandon the revolution. And thenceforth, preach non violence to the village folk! Given the many such ex-JVP haa-hoo- "MAHATTAYS" [= gentlemen] who are an accepted/respected part of the Establishment today, thirty four years after the failed revolution, Devendra is entitled to".. roam into the realms of imagination" and embellish his narrative a little. The readers of Horseshoe Street are assured that”.... all the characters in the stories are based on real people and real happenings.." . As a person somewhat familiar with the regime- shaking events and noteworthy happenings of the era covered by the author, I for one am inclined to believe the author's version of events. To the non-Sinhala reader, may I assure that there is little difference in the change of name from "MARA- SINGHA" to "MARU- SINGHE ". MARA and MARU in Sinhala or Pali are both associated with malevolent death.. Sadly, the real Marasingha, the JVP leader is not among the living today to verify this anecdote.

As a narrator, Devendra has endeavoured to distance himself [from taking sides] about the immediate political significance of some of these events and developments. The fresher walking the University corridors leading to the lecture halls in English and History, in the Colombo campus, and frequenting the Bambalapitiya Lion House, where arguing about Ceylon's ("fake") Independence - as decreed by the Bagatalle Road intellectuals [Colvin R De Silva, Doric de Souza. Bala Tampo and Karalasingham] was the done thing, and debating the inevitability of the permanent revolution that will eventually end exploitation of man by man and establish a classless society, it is not difficult to surmise where the author's political sympathies as a student might have been. But in the Horseshoe Street there are few identifiable political footprints. However, in a sympathetic tone, Devendra adverts to "children of Kannangara" and the political awareness of the student population, alive to national issues. As an administrator he cannot be unfamiliar with the enormous advantages free education bestowed on the country- rich and poor alike. Equally, the lasting impact of the medium of education - the Sinhala and Tamil language issue-that accompanied the free education surge and overwhelmed the country cannot be overlooked in an objective survey and record of events of the past five to six decades in Sri Lanka. It would be interesting to surmise what Sri Lanka might be today, had the "children of Kannangara" been free-educated in the English medium, from the kindergarten to the University, as the author was fortunate to have had the privilege, in his lifetime. That may well have averted two insurgencies and saved at least a near 100,000 young lives lost in ruthlessly crushing of the two revolutions. The cream of the country's youth destroyed in the two rebellions - many of them- may well have adorned key positions in the silicon valley technological revolution of today.

In the story about the take over of Monte Misto Estate, a rundown tea plantation for village expansion/land settlement purposes, Devendra, perhaps unwittingly, discloses the streak of favouritism/ nepotism/corruption that pervades all land acquisition transactions in Ceylon/Sri Lanka. What transpired between Banders [u know who] happy to accept the offer for sale of a white elephant of a neglected tea estate, belonging to his friend from Oxford days, the Government Valuer tamely accepting the owner's grossly over-inflated claim, and the planter Charles Coultsleigh laughing all the way to the bank with the government cheque, the young DLO judiciously leaves to our imagination to surmise. Not only was the planter friend financially rewarded for the old school tie relationship, [the author tells us] the age-ing British planter was eventually elevated to the Senate-the House of Lords of Ceylon's legislature, in grateful recognition of the services rendered to the State -by accepting enhanced value for a dilapidated property! Manifestly, this is abuse of political power and patronage - though on a very minor scale. Nothing compared to what the Bandaranayaka family collectively did just before the implementation of the Land Reform Law, in 1972. The secret sales of Bandaranayaka family property jointly by the Prime Minister, her two daughters and the son [all in public life of the country today!] while deliberately holding back the new Act from becoming law, were the subject matter of a no-confidence motion in Parliament- an issue worthy of a book - of historical significance.

What impressed me most in the book of stories were the author's memories as a student, shy in the company of girls, absolutely innocent of all the lovely, sweet and beautiful things such exposure can render unto a decent young man. First the youthful school boy was forced, by his beloved mother, into an unwilling tandem as body guard/care taker of a family friend's beautiful daughter- "walking Wathsala home" after school. Then at the University lectures, the English alphabet required him to sit next to sophisticated, pretty young things from Colombo7 elite girls schools who had entered the University along with him. The association was pleasant, rich, delightful, exciting and sweet-in hindsight, though void of any tangible gains. However, both these experiences apparently ended sadly, leaving Tissa disappointed, almost heartbroken. His "LETTER TOO LATE" written, presumably years after he left University, captures the pathos of parting with a loved one ["piyehi wippayogo dukkho"]. The resulting void, emptiness, barrenness and desolation are all richly and vividly portrayed, elegantly and tastefully expressed in the several end paragraphs of his letter. They depict the refined, adorable sensitivities of a decent young man. The letter alone, by itself, is a satisfying read.


Prins Gunasekara, Barrister-at- Law, Journalist, ex-Parliamentarian (Sri Lanka) and Human Rights Activist sought political asylum in 1989 and 'lives in exile' in London.

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