By Laksiri Fernando –
I suddenly woke up with a gentle knock on our front door. On other days, we all would have been awake by this time but this was school holidays and university vacation. We all were having an easy time; I, my wife and our son.
Who could be at our door this early, I wondered.
I heard most certainly Wimala, our domestic help, walking to the door and opening it and then she came to our door and said, “Someone to see you Sir.”
I lazily put on a shirt, as I normally used to sleep without, particularly during this time of the year, and slowly moved to the front door. The glass door was still ajar and when I opened it, there was this strange looking young man with an unshaven face and in rather ragged white tea shirt and a trouser. His eyes looked rather sleepy and tired.
“Dr… I came to see you.”
People used to call me Dr although I didn’t have a doctorate at that time. Sometimes I used to crack, ‘well, I am only a patient!’ It was clear of course that he had come to see me on something important because in his eyes there was a strange glow. He could not be an ordinary person. I asked him to come inside and offered him a seat. I also recognized him as a ‘Tamil’ not from his look but from his talk. He said,
“I am Padmanabha Dr… I was at the seminar day before yesterday,” with a faint smile.
I nodded not really recognizing him, but recollecting the seminar. He was brief and to the point. He said that the police raided the farm that evening after I left and several who remained were arrested. I was not particularly surprised, as I was suspicious when I left the place. I asked him at what time this happened and he said it was around 6.30 in the evening.
I could recollect that I left the place around 4 O’clock because I even managed to come to Ampara by 7.00 in the evening. The seminar was held somewhere north of Batticaloa at a farm belonged to a Catholic organization.
By this time my wife was kind enough to bring a cup of tea for him. He appreciated it even by getting up from his seat. He was gentlemanly in his ragged dress. I wondered why he came to see me. I think he realized what was going on in my mind and explained that some of the participants had taken notes of lectures and it is possible that my name was there as a speaker. He said that the police might come at least to question me. In fact, within days I had to be present at the famous fourth floor.
I greatly appreciated his gesture. He has come all the way from Batticaloa to tell me that I could be in trouble with the police by attending the seminar as a guest lecturer. I asked him how he managed to escape the police and his causal answer was:
“Some of us managed to run and some others got caught.”
It was clear from this conversation that he had particularly come to Kandy to give me the message perhaps because I must have been the only guest lecturer at their seminar who attended. There were two others from the ‘South’ who were supposed to attend, but had not turned up. Mine was the last day. My appreciation increased when I came to know that he was the leader of the organization called EPRLF (Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front). He could have sent somebody else but he himself opted to come. I realized there was someone else outside our gate.
I recollect quite clearly the whole episode of the seminar and the camp. I formally received this invitation by post from an organization with a similar name to ‘Young Workers and Peasants’ to deliver a lecture on ‘Karl Marx and Trade Unions’ in Batticaloa. That time I was completing a research on ‘Trade Unions and the General Strike of July 1980’ and thought this was a good opportunity to know what was happening in the Tamil areas of the country. It was not a secret that there were several rebel organizations operating in the North and the East at that time.
But I was not fully aware that the seminar was organized by the EPRLF or perhaps I didn’t want to know about those details. This was 1983 and it was also the Karl Marx Centenary. It was not the first occasion that I delivered a lecture on the same or similar topic for the Centenary.
That time I was a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Peradeniya and also worked as the Lecturer in Charge of Political Science at the Dumbara Campus. That is where I was living and where Padmanabha came to deliver the message. He left immediately after giving me the warning. I came out with him to say, ‘good bye.’
Our house was at an elevated ground from the main road just opposite the Campus gate. I saw him descending towards the main road with another man; his figure disappearing smaller and smaller. I felt sad for some reason.
It was the same sadness which struck me when I heard in June 1990 that Pathmanabha was killed with 17 others when the LTTE raided one of the EPRLF meetings in Madras. That time I was working in Geneva.
My lecture at their seminar was to say that people need to ‘transcend’ (not abandon) ethnic differences if they wish to seek for social justice for the working people. I said that it is the essence of Marx’s message before he died hundred years ago in 1883. I introduced myself as ‘half-Sinhalese’ and said that ethnic identities are rather illusory. My lecture was translated into Tamil. It was translated by Muththu, who had come from Kandy, whom I knew. I remember how fondly they treated me after the lecture whether they agreed with me or not. We had rice and wild boar for lunch. When tea was served and when I said I don’t drink tea, someone, not Pathmanabha, kindly prepared me a glass of lime juice. I recollect the face and the figure, but never could locate the person thereafter. He was slim and short with a clear disposition of an educated person.
It is extremely sad to lose a person like Parhmanabha in Sri Lankan (left) politics. Apart from being a rebel, he was one of the most sensitive and sensible persons. Prior to this event, I have seen him at the Workers’ and Peasants’ Institute (WPI) that my close friend late Newton Gunasinghe set up in Kandy to conduct research and publications.
Pathmanabha also was around the Peradeniya Campus for some time perhaps making contacts with Sinhala students and radicals. A graduate from the University of Jaffna he also had a half a mind, I believe, to do a postgraduate degree at Peradeniya. I recollect once when he stepped into a controversy, even involving my name, he profusely apologised. He explained the circumstances. It is also from this experience that I considered him to be a frank and an honest person.