6 May, 2021

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Occasional Stories: About A True Believer

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

I have come across several of them during my university life but this particular person was somewhat exceptional. We all at that time, including myself had this common trait of having somewhat ‘blind faith’ in what we believed in. But he was to the extreme. When I think of him, what I remember is Eric Hoffer’s book titled The True Believer. Hoffer was talking about the general, and I am talking about a specific person.

Hoffer said, “All of them breed fanaticism, exceptional enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance.” They are ready to die for what they believe in and also to kill others for the same. For them the life is not sacrosanct, but the cause is.

In this story, I am not using real names except for prominent figures because some of the facts are sensitive and the way I relate the story may create some prejudice against Sirisoma or others. My sole intention is to relate my experiences, as in the case of all other stories, whatever they are worth to understand this complicated world. After all, Sirisoma was a good man, caught up in his own circumstances and driven by some uncontrollable forces, internal and external.

We were at the University of Peradeniya, involved in student politics apart from our studies or in some instances more than our studies. It was in the midst of a police batten charge in December 1965 that I first came across Sirisoma. While many of us took shelter, or cover against the assault, there were few who confronted the police or were unable to retreat. They unfortunately got a severe beating and the most unfortunate was one Wickremaratne who became permanently paralysed. He was completely innocent. Another was Sirisoma who confronted the police with his bare hands and got inflicted with severe wounds all over his body.

Sirisoma was a six-footer, well-built and handsome. He always walked with his head straight. He studied Science in the Sinhala stream and was not known in the student movement previously before his said adventure. After that he was very prominent and was called gut-Siri for his bravery.

The strike was a virtual disaster, except for its experience. We were licking our wounds for a long time. There were several committees formed to look after various matters because the formal student council was suspended; the leaders were virtually expelled and there was a court case against some of them. The general students, including some activists, were extremely demoralized.

This happened or fortunately ‘not happened’ after about six months of the strike, in mid-1966.

A friend of mine from engineering, Amal de Costa, came to see me with Sirisoma one late afternoon. Amal and I were from the same persuasion of politics at that time, the broke away ‘revolutionary’ wing of the Sama Samaja Party. But we were not aware of Sirisoma’s politics.

“Siri has a plan to resurrect the student movement,” Amal said. Sirisoma was simply called Siri, and that was his nickname.

I was interested in listening because at a recent meeting of our political group I and few others were somewhat asked to look for the ‘ways and means’ of resurrecting the student movement. However, Sirisoma was not talking!

“No, he wanted to show it to us,” Amal became the advocate for Sirisoma.

“Show what?” I asked.

“How it should be done,” Siri said calmly and confidently.

The suggestion was to go to the Akbar Hall to show Siri’s plan. I agreed reluctantly because I had a half a mind of going to the Ramanathan Hall that evening to see my girlfriend. I had to abandon my worldly pleasures for the sake of the political cause. Akbar Hall was completely of the other side of the Campus across the Mahaveli River just next to the Faculty of Engineering. Amal resided there and I was not sure where Sirisoma was living.

On our way, Siri was complete tight lipped as if his plan was a top secret. Allowing Siri to go ahead, I whispered to Amal to know about Siri’s plan. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “he didn’t tell me.” By this time, the night gods were spreading their wings over us and it was getting darker and darker, except for the moonlight. Siri wanted to go to the rooftop of the Akbar Hall to ‘reveal the plan’ and Amal had to fetch the key to the area because it was normally out of bounds for anyone for security and other reasons. But as the President of the Hall Committee, Amal perhaps did not have any difficulty in obtaining the key to the rooftop. It was a six-storey huge building with two wings. Hall Committees were the only student bodies functioning at the time. All other student organizations were suspended after the strike.

The scene from the roof top was amazing. The whole Campus could be seen from there in the moonlight. It was better than the daylight. The mammoth Hantana Mountain was encircling the Campus like a sleeping giant from the East and the South. Mahaweli River was flowing across the Campus from the South to the North, opening the whole area to the Kandy Valley. We were not allowed to appreciate the scenic beauty much by Sirisoma, sensing our deviation or distraction from the ‘political cause.’

He pointed out the newly constructed Buddhist Stupa, glowing in white across the Faculty of Arts building. It appeared very near us from this roof top. At the beginning, I couldn’t understand the connection between this Buddhist shrine and his plan to ‘resurrect the student movement.’ But he explained it with a fervent spirit. He pointed out his finger to the platform erected at the top of the Stupa. Yes, it was there for us to see. In two days’ time, the Prime Minister, and that time, Dudley Senanayake, would be coming to ordain a golden pinnacle to this Stupa. That is going to be the opening ceremony of the shrine. The Prime Minister will be standing alone on the platform, during the ceremony, for some good few minutes without any cover of security.

“We should shoot him,” he said almost casually.

“Do you mean to kill him?” I asked. I was alarmed.

“Not really, but shoot.”

Something suddenly went wrong in my stomach. I was feeling nausea. Amal also was equally alarmed. He in fact was stammering. Then I thought it could be a joke, or perhaps it could be considered as a joke. Some sober blood came to my mind or head. I said it is simply not possible; the event would take place day after tomorrow.

First, he tried to argue that it is possible and he could find the right gun for the operation. Then I pointed out that the consequence would be not to resurrect the student movement but to destroy it through severe government repression. He appeared listening to this rationality (or not) to argue against it. I did not realise at that time that Sirisoma was at the ‘edge of terrorism,’ even implicating all of us in the process.

I and Amal had an implicit understanding that we should do our best to dissuade Sirisoma from his ‘assassination’ proclivity. We took him to Amal’s room. We started chatting normal things. Siri was exceptionally talkative now. We of course asked him whether he knows about shooting. He said he has training from an army friend and he is supposed to be an excellent marksman. He had some pride in his face. Most intriguing was when he said that he knows how to hypnotise people.

“Can you actually do it?” Amal asked.

“Of course, I can,” was the answer.

I did not have any time to intervene, Amal instantly volunteered to be the ‘victim.’ I never had any inclination to believe or disbelieve things like hypnotism. I was completely disinterested. But in this case, I had to wait and watch. I also thought that the whole exercise perhaps was a good distraction for Siri’s assassination instinct.

I exactly cannot remember the whole process of hypnotising Amal. But he was asked to sit on a chair, close his eyes and concentrate on what Siri was saying. Siri was basically asking Amal to imagine certain things that he was saying. There were several rounds without any results. Amal opened his eyes saying that he was not hypnotised. We wanted to bring a close to the whole exercise several times but Siri was not heeding to our request.

Now it was almost midnight. We even did not have our dinner yet. The whole evening was exhausting. Then suddenly it worked. Siri was asking Amal to imagine that he was on a beach and holding hands of a girl. First, he gave Amal a towel to hold by the corner. Now Amal was standing. Then he gave Amal a pillow and asked him to make love to the girl. I noticed not Amal’s but Siri’s face turning red. His voice was gentle and mood excited. This was strange because Siri was not a person who ever talked about the other sex.

I pleaded with Siri to conclude the exercise. Then it was all over. Amal appeared bit disoriented. Siri appeared triumphant. We decided to go for dinner. Amal had already arranged with whom we used to call ‘hall servants’ to keep some food for a late dinner, including for two visitors. Because of our politics, we had very good relations with the ‘working class.’ Otherwise the dinner time was already over. Siri did not join us for dinner. He just disappeared.

At dinner, I asked Amal what exactly happened and he laughed. He said he had to pretend that he was hypnotised or otherwise there was no escape from Siri. This is something I initially suspected when Amal was ‘at the beach.’ But Amal played so naturally, I in fact thought he was actually in a trance.

It was late 1970 that I heard the arrest of Sirisoma when he was a science teacher at Haguranketha. That time I was teaching at the Vidyodaya University. He was arrested for making explosive devices, bombs and firearms. He also had enlisted school students for this enterprise. He was apparently making firearms for the JVP, which staged an abortive insurrection in April 1971. As he was arrested well before the main incident, he was not brought before the main court case of the insurrection. Neither was he released. He died in custody. Those who had come across him in prison said that he was completely blind at the last stages of his life. It was sad.

He was apparently kept in a dark room for many many weeks or months. The police and prison authorities found him to be a very stubborn man who resisted questioning and even physically fought with the officers. What comes to my mind is how he fought with the police during the batten charge of students in December 1965 at Peradeniya.

Sirisoma was undoubtedly a true believer who was ‘fanatic’ about what he believed in and ready to undergo hardship or die for what he considered a true cause. He wanted a total revolution to the society. He despised authority and particularly the police. As many other ‘true believers’ of his kind, he did not care about others’ lives either. That was the tragedy.

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    Sad commentary, but enjoyed reading it too. Thanks for these wonderful tidbits and anecdotes. I remember hearing the occasional rifle shot and screams coming from Naval HQ in Fort during the 1971 insurgency when for a few weeks everyone was scared. Clearly as a child perhaps my memories are clouded but I can still hear the “Ammo” shouts; not sure if it my imagination but when you are 11 and you are afraid of the class envious JVP which had people marked for death I guess one hides behind walls and pretend nothing is wrong. Our house like other homes, was marked casually with brick marks (gadol) like how kids used broken red bricks to mark walls. We later discovered all my father’s siblings houses were likewise marked. I have sympathy in hindsight but if the JVP won militarily they would have gone the way of PolPot without a doubt. So class politics and hierarchical protection from the masses becomes the soup of the day. I was only 11 when we had to go into protection but I am sharing this from my recollection because some of your memoirs are an absolute pleasure to read. 2 of my students at USJ who came after I left (the lovely 1987-90 period)disappeared. I knew one as “Kantale Sunil” not the brightest student but a big time agitator and we were always interrupted by strikes for ludicrous reasons. USJ was always a hotbed for JVP class struggles. I bet he was JVP militant faction. Other was a very polite student who had a pretty girlfriend also in my classes and he was said to have been an organizer but he kept a low profile. I heard he disappeared too. He was from Matale and his name was Wijekoon. Too bad people like UNP Vishwamithra never talk about the murderous period of 1987-90. Another good family friend was executed by JVP for putting up the National Flag at the Estate he was Superintendant on Late Hon President Premadasa’s orders. He ran when they attacked the bungalow. He unfortunately tripped on his sarong. dragged to the flag pole and was asked to kneel down and was executed. His sister and her husband are good friends of ours. Another, an uncle of mine was burnt alive by JVP in his car. I do not know if he was a UNP activist or something else also in his estate in Kandy. Wijeweera would have ruled like PolPot for certain.

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      Dr. Laksiri Fernando, ____________________________________________________________——————RE: Occasional Stories: About A True Believer ——————————————————————————————————————————————–Thanks for the write-up.——–The story of Gut-Siri, somewhat resembles the story of Gut-Sira, who did science at Peradeniya ( English medium) starting 1964/65, and was the first or one of the first to get the “Little Red Book” of Chairman, Mao. He believed in revolution, power comes from the barrel of a gun, like the many sayings in the “little Red Book” , that was his “Bible”. After Graduation, “Gut-Sira’, was teaching science somewhere in the Badulla District,. It was not known whether he joined JVP for the sake of this revolution, during the Peradeniya days, or after graduation while teaching. He was was arrested before the April 1971 JVP insurrection. The stories floating around were that the police couldn’t extract any information from him., despite torture, and finally died under police custody, like the many thousands who died during the insurrection. ———————————————————————————————————————————————–
      remember is Eric Hoffer’s book titled The True Believer. Hoffer was talking about the general, and I am talking about a specific person.

      ” Eric Hoffer said, “All of them breed fanaticism, exceptional enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance.” They are ready to die for what they believe in and also to kill others for the same. For them the life is not sacrosanct, but the cause is.”————————————————————————————————————–
      I am also talking about a specific person, Gut-Sira. ——————————————They all are fundamentalists, whether their beliefs are for revolutions, going to heaven, etc.. and what they lack is reason. This is the case with Islamic Fundamentalists, and others who have to be brainwashed in their formative years. The Theory of Natural selection of Charles Darwin, will generally take care them, like what happened to Gut-Siri, Gut-Sira, and the thousands of who follow fundamentalist ideologies.—They will continue to be born, continue to be brainwashed, and will continue to die after creating enough havoc for everybody around them.

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    I had some mistakes. I meant to say I heard they disappeared after I left Sri Lanka. Unlike a lot of you, I too was a coward in a way. I respect those who suffered and survived and even thrived . This is specially true of Academics who withstood pressure from JVP, DJV and UNP gangs etc. I took the easy way out Sir. Thank you again for your anecdotes.

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    As you are about lovely anecdotal stories, may I share one with you from my mediocre life? Over many cups of chai, samosa and kachori when I was an undergraduate in India in the 1980s we used to debate world events, US, USSR and so many other issues including the rise of LTTE and terrorism supported by Indira’s India. One of closest buddies who is still friends with me came from an ancient Jacobite Christian Malayali family with proud history; he is a senior Soil Scientist now still doing research. Bugger used to go his Evangelical Church and come back emotional full of his Gospel and was very preachy to us. So we were sitting in a gang; my classmates and buddies from Malayisa, Singapore, Nigeria and Kenya etc in the foreign student’s dorm. We were talking about revenge attacks in NE India, terrorism in Assam, Mizoram etc and FORGIVENESS!

    The brilliant child prodigy who finished his 4 year degree in 3 and got his PhD in Soil sciences comes over and says “Machangs, you know Jesus said you if someone slaps you, have to turn the other cheek”.

    So there was a long long long pregnant pause. Rest of us were not Christians; mostly Hindus, 2 Iranian Communist part members and me. Baski /Baskaran the Malaysian Tamil students who was a chain smoker(Wills was the pack of Indian fags we smoked because it was affordable) takes a long hard draw from his cigarette; exhales and looks quizzically at Mathews. “So if you come home and find someone ***king, your wife, do you also bend down and let him take you in the arse LA?”.. Sadly a Malaysian Sardar Swaranjit Singh Mali who was the loudest to laugh that evening, died of drug problems in Malaysia a couple of years back. He was always borrowing money or coming to our rooms to beg for cigarettes! As smoking is taboo for Sikhs, he would do so secretly!

    His cousin who was my good friend and who developed TB(I helped him go to CMC for treatment and he borrowed money from me) is still on social media with me. On my bucket list is a trip to Kottayam, Kerala to see my brother and brilliant Indian Scientist. Sigh. He is the one who actually said “we do not trust Tamils” ! Wow this is an Indian Malayali who said this. Thanks again Sir.

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      “”He is the one who actually said “we do not trust Tamils” ! Wow this is an Indian Malayali who said this. Thanks again Sir.””
      first the estate indians,.. in a threesom joint operation and the rest from the south and kandy sarema R& R brought from oxford.
      Ekka walle gonnu ge thambili bol wela. (king coconuts off the same bunch gone rancid)
      Modi and Raw does not trust either 3…end of road for the banda island bandits.

      Bamba Desmond at least brought a shipload of Baila from Bamba.

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      “””The brilliant child prodigy who finished his 4 year degree in 3 and got his PhD in Soil sciences””
      Where is your brilliant soil scientist in the international scene??
      You are an emotional exaggerator a family trait. There are Indians who completed B.Tech in the allocated time (without attendance one does not get promotions 50% was for sessional) But he knew all branches of engineering and was picked up by Pentagon- still there. There are several Indian record holders completing PhD engineering New York in 1 year (a record yet to be broken)

      Now here is a humble Rajasthani Hindu Brahmin trained doctor who received “Nobel Prize for water”.
      ‘Water man of India’ Rajendra Singh bags top prize
      An Indian campaigner who brought water to 1000 villages.
      Mr Singh uses a modern version of the ancient Indian technique of rainwater harvesting.
      It involves building low-level banks of earth to hold back the flow of water in the wet season and allow water to seep into the ground for future use.
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-32002306

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    Sirisoma has had a good beating perhaps felt helpless. He found the peaceful-protest avenue was simply not there. No wonder his thoughts went into “the shooting” mode.
    Quite a few of the Matale mass grave might have been Sirisomas

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      Thanks Pillai. We do have pain for all those who died. But I also feel that they should have been more peaceful and constructive. As for the particular circumstances of Sirisoma’s actions, I don’t think there was severe repression other than idealism or ideology that motivated him for such action/s.

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    Thanks Mano (if I may call you Mano), for your comments and experiences. Glad to hear that you were also teaching at USJ. That is a place I liked very much although I had only a short stint (July 1969-Decemebr 1971), as Vidyodaya. During my time at Peradeniya (both as a student and a teacher), the teachers sympathised with the students, but never encouraged them for ‘struggles’ or violence, directly or indirectly. I remember, some teachers even cried when students were attacked by the police in December 1965, but always ‘scolded’ students for going to the extremes.
    Thanks also to Amarasiri for his comments.

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      A man of class educated at India and the West- the very best moderator at all India level always smartly dressed whether it’s his state costume or english tie & suit but never a politician as it’s not for our profession-
      With a practice of his own our HoD engineering later a selector of foreign servants India lamented at the last lecture professional practice-
      In clear English speech he said – front benchers, the guys who read so much patronise and score end up as mere servants of the state or at campus because they never read life itself and may never.- Only Truth is Right

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    Have you noticed people love to insult and attack people for sharing personal stories Dr. Fernando? I chuckle because it reflects on them not me. For example when I say brilliant soil scientist, that is PERSONAL admiration for a friend and roommate not an edict and nor is it anything related to his global fame or lack of it. Absurd that some guy who clearly has a chip on his shoulder writes with a pen name to insult people. That is their prerogative. Mathews was brilliant in Math and I was not; so it was a personal comment. These fools do not understand. I can also then talk about people who are are accomplished in their fields that I know of but that was not the point. I consider him brilliant and a civil servant who is also widely read and knowledgeable. He is a friend. These pathetic people who love to insult from so many places makes me laugh. It is an inferiority complex. I had the honor of working with some brilliant Sri Lankan people there too; Superior people all round; one went to Oxford got his PhD as well and is Chair of the department I worked in at USJ. A simple man from simple beginnings in Ratnapura District. Now a top Professor and one of the leading experts in SL in his field. I have a lot of respect for him.

    I really say with two of these blokes here I have to say ROTFLOL!!!! Really enjoy these stories and their superior insults they are indeed accomplished and big powerful brilliant people undoubtedly; not harsh nor nasty. Point about Malayali vs Tamil is an Indian cultural interaction. I think every society has such traits. Germans do not like Turkish migrants; Americans do not like Hispanic legal or illegal immigrants now. I was too lazy and not smart to complete my PhD!! dropped out after ABD.. Chuckle Chuckle

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