By 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.