By Laksiri Fernando –
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had a very early inclination for left wing or red politics by fate or circumstances. My father was an apolitical person who used to say that he would vote for the ‘good candidate,’ no matter what the political party is. I remember him saying this during the 1952 elections. I was only seven years at that time.
On urban council elections, he voted for Watson Fernando (not a relation!) who contested from the Communist Party. That time I didn’t know who contested from what party. I came to know the details later. But what I remember very clearly was an incident related to a ‘confrontation’ between the Reds and the Greens.
The Elephant with the Moving Trunk
Our house was near the St. Peter’s Lane from the main road leading to Korelawella. In between was only the Church. I think this happened on the election-day itself. In the morning, I could suddenly see very colourful decorations along the lane, small flags tied to cords (lanu) laid across the road. Most of them were red flags and in between there were green flags as well. Those days election decorations were not prohibited. I was eagerly watching them fascinated by the colours and swaying flags in the wind.
Towards noon time, I heard a vehicle, decorated colourfully, entered the lane from the main road with a loudspeaker playing music and occasional announcements. The vehicle, a Morris Minor with an open roof, was full of green. It had a mounted green elephant on top. Most peculiar was its trunk; it was movable up or down.
When the vehicle came across red flags, the elephant mounted its trunk and destroyed them. The green flags were spared, the elephant lowering its trunk to avoid them. In few minutes, all the red flags were gone and only the greens remained.
I was annoyed against the Green and the Elephant, the symbols of conservative politics at that time.
The next year was the Hartal. It was a major general strike and/or people’s uprising against the government. I was eight years of age. I remember a major demonstration parading on the main road few days before the event. There were hundreds of people marching, but that appeared to me thousands. I ran to the gate and watched it. It was impressive and colourful. There was some force and courage in it which I liked.
Most impressive was David taking a leading role in the demonstration. He was almost at the front, on a bicycle, wearing a red shirt, a white sarong and most impressively a red cap. I was excited. He even had a large red flag mounted on a pole and tied to his bicycle. The flag embraced his face and he was even shouting something.
We used to call him Hadigama David after our father. Hadigama was his home village in Piliyandala, about ten miles from our home. Hadi-gama literally meant ‘brawny-village.’ Hadigama or Piliyandala symbolized the rural to us those days with paddy fields and most importantly several types of monkeys. Ours was urban with no monkeys or paddy fields. David was working at the Velona Vocational School as a carpenter or carpentry instructor. Perhaps my father was responsible for putting him into that job. My father was working at the Labour Department. David used to come to our place and do all carpentry work but didn’t take much money other than some gifts from my mother.
I used to admire this man because he was tall, strong and talked in a brave voice. He was a ‘knowledgeable man’ on many matters (to me) but when he was telling us stories my father used to smile and move away for some reason. He cannot be fighting for the wrong cause, I thought after the demonstration. Therefore, I was in support of Hartal in 1953 when I was eight years.
There were other events. I think it was the day before the Hartal, the army also had a parade on our road. They were marching towards Korelawella. It was different. It was just a march with no guns but small sticks in hand of every soldier. They were about fifty. They did not impress me, except their uniforms and boots. But what was the purpose of the march? I came to know the purpose only later. Korelawella area, popularly called ‘Little Korea’ because of continuous ‘troubles,’ was supposed to be a hot bed of Hartal and left-wing activities. That was the meaning of the army march – to give a clear warning.
Eating My Banis
Those days I was attending the St. Peter’s primary school just next to our house, in the church compound. Perhaps I was still in grade two, losing one-year due to serious illness. I clearly remember the Hartal morning. There were some ‘agitators’ who came to the school and asked or forced the principal to close the school. They were in red shirts. I was not very impressed by that. The principal went from class to class and announced:
“Children, there is trouble in the country. Please take your books and go home soon.”
By that time there were lot of parents who had come to fetch their children home. The situation was little chaotic.
We were having our Banis (the so-called mid-day meal) when the whole thing happened. It was just a sugar bun with a tea. I was not drinking tea even at that time. Tea made me sick. But I relished the sugar bun. The teachers were panicky. When the principal asked us to leave for home, I was not bothered. I was slowly having my sugar bun. All other students immediately left.
This became a story in the school thereafter. ‘Hartal asse, Laksiri banis kawa’ (in the midst of hartal, Laksiri had his bun!) was the story. All teachers were laughing at me because I stuck to my ‘bun’ (not gun) whatever happened. Perhaps I had an element of ‘guts’ in my character those days (not now!). But it was more of ‘realism’ without any need to panic, because I was just next door. Even my mother or anyone from home didn’t come running to fetch me. They were also realistic that I would come.
That day I also saw an army truck going towards Korelawella, waving to the girls on roadside. Some of my sisters were watching.
David was arrested, so we heard. He was released thereafter. When he came home he was a Hero to me. He was my first ‘Marxist’ teacher. He was a Trotskyite. That suited me very well because I was not very impressed by what I heard about the Soviet Union later. My ‘prejudice’ initially was a result of propaganda, but then it became my independent judgment.
Colombo Plan Exhibition
In 1952, we were taken to see the Colombo Plan Exhibition by my father. It was very colourful and educational. At the entrance, there was a Big Bunny demonstrating how to make soap bubbles. We could buy small soap cans and the blowing ring. I saw for the first time a close circuit TV transmission at the exhibition. We could see our pictures when we were walking. That was where I first saw a real Kangaroo! Perhaps the fellow was at the Australian stall.
There was a miniature railway system depicting the railway network in the whole country. I was amused when the miniature trains went through the constructed tunnels. A real train also was there if you wish to have a short ride. We did ride a trip. There were many more things and most impressive was the ‘Swan Lake on Ice.’ I believe it was the correct name. It was in fact a skating rink artificially set up in a tent with several dancing shows available at a nominal fee. I believe it was an item by Canada. White girls wearing white dresses like swans danced on ice to music.
It was during this exhibition that the then Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake, died after falling from the horse, suffering a stroke at the Galle Face Green.
Learning from David!
The importance of the Colombo Plan Exhibition for my initial orientation in left wing politics was several pamphlets given to us at the exist. I had them for several years and many of them were propaganda pieces against the Soviet Union and China. There were several pictures, real or fabricated, showing communists destroying churches and harassing and torturing the old, women and children. I remember them vividly and some were in fact horrible. There were leaflets against the Chinese ‘invasion’ in Tibet and how the communists were torturing the Buddhist monks.
When I asked David about these pamphlets, he confirmed they were largely to be true. Then I confronted him asking why he then supporting the communists? He said,
“No, I am a Trotskyite.”
He pointed out a difference in the flag with the number 4 for the Trotskyites and without it for the Stalinists or communists, along with the common Hammer and Sickle for both. It was little Greek to me. Then I asked,
“What is the meaning of number 4?”
He came up with this story and it was impressive enough for me to believe it for a while. That is how I first learned about the Fourth International! He said there were four armies that came from four sides to capture power during the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin was not mentioned. Therefore, Trotsky was the rightful owner of the number 4 after Lenin!