29 May, 2022


The Story Of A Latent Management Trick

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

At our drinking session in the Bridgetown pub yesterday, my regular partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram, and I were joined by our countryman friend Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Soloman Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela, known to anyone phonetically challenged as Pol. I might have introduced him before in these pages, but if not, from the length and structure of his name, you might easily infer he is from the Sinhala tribe in Sri Lanka. While this detail is not particularly relevant to our story today, you may wish to note that the meaning of the Sinhala word pol is coconut.

Our friend Pol moved to the UK in his early adulthood, naturalised and acclimatised rather easily, thanks to his fascination for the power and organisational skills of the Suddha (white man). “They come from a little island, but ruled the whole world, machan (buddy),” I remember him saying. While our own island of Sri Lanka – or Ceylon of those days – was under colonial rule for some 450 years, roughly equally split between the Portugese, Dutch and British, it is the last of the masters who impressed our friend Pol a lot. His ancestry managed to be dynamic – acquiring the names “Don” and “Solomon” along the way, and resetting now to “Bandarawela,” so as to gather the right political capital at the right time. Had not things turned out the way they did, with the Empire winding down, Pol might have even considered taking the hyphenated identifier “Crinkle-Bottom” as his surname.

It was during a coffee time conversation, when we had both just started as graduate students in Bridgetown, I learnt of Pol’s particular admiration for the Brits. We were chatting to Pierre Cardin, a mutual friend and fellow graduate student. Pierre, had great difficulty understanding the proof of an algorithm which Pol and I derived for him with ease on the back of a paper napkin.

“These guys don’t appear that smart, no?” I said to Pol, overly generalising the term “these guys” and not yet having learnt that in a civilised society I ought to behave and speak in a colour-blind and other-blind ways.

“But, Pierre is not a Suddha (white man), machan,” Pol said dismissively, “he is French!”

Later in life, settled in a very successful career in the UK, Pol continued to admire the Brits and adopted their ways with ease. The more he restricted his social circles to the affluent sections of the British society – private schooling for the children, membership of rather exclusive gyms, grocery shopping in Waitrose etc. – the greater his admiration became. He did notice societal problems around him but had ready explanations as to what their causes were: laziness leading to unemployment, immigration leading to housing crisis, lack of selection at the age of eleven leading to uneducated urchins loitering in the streets and social security leading to child birth were some of his pet theories. As such, Pol has morphed into a kind of Brit you will be uncomfortable meeting.

Last June, Pol voted for Brexit!

Yet, once in a while Thevaram and I catch up with Pol for a drink. That is our way of sampling how the other half thinks, if at all it does.

In the Bridgetown pub yesterday, Thevaram and I were deep in conversation about happenings back home. The appointment of the Vice Chancellor of UpNawth University in Sri Lanka was our hot topic. We thought the University’s Governing Body handled it rather badly. The gist of it is as follows: There were six applicants – five internal and one from Boston. The application from the external candidate arrived a day after the advertised closing date. The Unions of the proletariat and students appealed to consider a wider field of candidates including the Bostonian, but the Governing Body — which included the five candidates for the job — chose to stick to the rules: “a deadline is a deadline, just as in my undergraduate coursework,” one of its more articulate members is reported to have said. Much unhappiness over the issue has been vented in the pages of Colombo Telegraph recently.

“That wasn’t fair – there was conflict of interest,” shouted one side. “Oh, they are mounting a vicious campaign on this forum,” cried the other.

“At the end of the day, machan, the message was to keep the outsiders out,” Thevaram sighed. “Just like the posters I saw at the Parliamentary election in Nallur in 1977, in support of the local candidate: “Nallur nalluraanukkE” (Nallur is for the local chap), they said, no?”

“Anyhow, justice should be done,” he said.

“And seen to be done,” I echoed.

“Processes should be fair,” he said.

“And seen to be fair,” I echoed.

“How are these things handled elsewhere?” I asked, trying to bring Pol into our conversation thinking he will have good insight into practices at better established universities, particularly ones in Britain which he admired so much.

“How do they keep outsiders out without anyone noticing or kicking a fuss?” I asked.

“Keeping outsiders out or do you mean keeping undesirables beneath the glass ceiling,” Thevaram corrected me, after taking a long sip of his Peroni. From the way he held his hand over his head, I guessed he probably had experienced being knocked a bit from above.

“This is all about management, machan. See, the first thing UpNawth Governing Body should have done when the unions objected to their decision is to write back nicely. Our buggers don’t even know how to write a bloody letter, no?” He used the words “bugger” and “bloody” in classic Sri Lankan posh schoolboy style, than in any derogatory or rude way and ended the sentence with the classic “no” to invite agreement from the listeners.

“How would you write such a letter?” I challenged. Pol had it at his fingertips. He certainly had learnt the ways of his adopted land well. He took out his ball point pen and wrote it for us on a paper napkin.

“Would that do the trick?” I asked innocently.

“It does! Every time it does,” said Pol. “A courteous reply does wonders. If it doesn’t work, one could always invite the executive committee of the Union for an afternoon tea and biscuits on the campus croquet lawn machan!”

“But still, even in this system of yours – which you admire so much — Pol, the people who are to be kept out will be kept out,” protested Thevaram.

“Or to be more precise, kept below the glass ceiling, no?” the fast learner in me corrected him this time.

“So, your system can also be unfair,” Thevaram said with emphasis on the word  “your”.

“Of course,” Pol conceded, “but it will be seen to be fair!”

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Latest comments

  • 7

    Grocery shopping @ Waitrose[ not many across the UK though] and voting for Brexit would leave Pol,more or less White as depicted in the inner part of the coconut depicted in this photo!

    • 4

      Prof. Mahesan Niranjan,

      “So, your system can also be unfair,” Thevaram said with emphasis on the word “your”.

      “Of course,” Pol conceded, “but it will be seen to be fair!”

      Yes. Thanks.

      It is all in the empathy, how you listen and how you wrap it.

  • 11

    The never ending depths of suddha opacity is staggeringly impressive.

    Once they have compartmentalised you, that’s it, you stay in your little box.

    And yet, they coloured half the globe pink.

    • 5

      Methinks the story also charges “our fellows” with compartmentalisation.
      Note Pol’s comment on Pierre.

  • 16

    The main story here is sad: how “UpNawth University” was not even given the chance to tell whether they wanted a new face (in this case that of Bostonian Professor Sam Thiagalingam) as Vice Chancellor or not. We in Sri Lanka have been trying to use legalities to trick the average citizen out of exercising his right to choose too long.

    The Tamils used to accuse us Sinhalese (with some justification) of stage managing the most important decisions that had to be made. It was therefore refreshing to hear the Leader of the Opposition (a guy called R. Sampanthan) say that any new constitution that is ushered in to satisfy the White Folk who control our economic, and therefore all other, activities as well, should be accepted by the people at a Referendum.

    How sad therefore that the “UpNawth University” was denied the right to select the person the community there considered the most suitable candidate. The brilliant man with many pseudonyms (Prof S Sivasekeram) was, by all accounts that I have read responsible. I said so in a couple of places, and remarkably he is able to keep his cool and respond with humour:

    The issue is dealt with in this article by Dr Rajan Hoole with all the seriousness that it deserves:


    and he has wrung some concession from the perpetrators about the undesirability of acting the way the UpNawth Uni council has done.

    Now Prof. Mahesh Niranjan, another brilliant “academic-in-exile” has given us an unforgettably comic version of it.

    However, what I find even more amusing are all these names he comes up with for the people who figure in his stories. Those are worth researching as also illustrating his brilliance.

    • 5

      Yes, considering what the brilliant “academic -in- exile ” has said in his own inimitable style, he is also saying that despite being regulars he and his friend Pol are still not served their pint of Peroni in a silver tankard by the Bridge Town Pub just to make the point of a glass ceiling even in Old Blighty’s pubs.

      • 3

        The miracle is that the Prof, Theva and Pol got served at all at he Bridge Town pub.

        Some of those who are old enough will tell you of the time in old England when brown faces were studiously ignored at the bar.

        My pal De Mel tells of the time in the late-sixties when he came out abruptly from the the The Pleasure Boat in Alperton after being to asked to ^fuck off^ as brown people were not welcome. Those were the days!

        Happily, times have changed.

  • 2

    That Pol’s suggestion of inviting the Executive Committee to tea and biscuit is very archaic and want work any more. Now it is a Government Financed (Free) Foreign trip. This could have been easily arranged with ever willing China, through it’s Bank, “China Merchant” who are tipped to get nearly two centuries lease of a major port in Sri Lanka. That expenditure of giving that trip FREE is pea nuts to this Bank. At your next pub meeting please ask Pol to update his Management Tricks and be more aligned those with modern day Sri Lankan style.

  • 6

    These “Niranjan-Street” episodes resemble the current “SAITM-Street” currently shown in Colombo Telegraph – one about pub-visits the other about AL grades.

    • 11

      Oh, no! Niranjan’s stories are inspired!

      It is true that they all start off in deceptively similar fashion, but they provide really useful insights! When I’m in the middle of one, I’m never sure how it’ll end.

      And they are enjoyable.

      SAITM stories: I comp[lained about their predictability, and just see how I’ve been attacked:


      See the first page of comments on that.

  • 2

    At the end of the day, machan, the message was to keep the outsiders out,”

    I think, you (author) are dishonest. You should know very well how sudda fellows are always following the oldboys club abd they select people among them.

    I have seen that happens among suddas, when outside suddas come. Very good talent from outside,even thouygh he is a good sudda, is refused.

    People just try to protect their backs.

  • 0

    Prof. NM should change his vocation to a con-vocation and become a Satirical Columnist.

    The half C’nut speaks million words about Brown Sahibs searching for wealth that is supposed to be common in the Kingdom, which is expected to remain United after BREXIT..

    I adopted the same approach when I was asked to respond to “Investors with vested Interests” who submitted “Unsolicited Proposals” to my superiors expressing their “commitment” to participate in the development of the “great country” Sri Lanka.

  • 3

    What is this dude doing with Pol & Thal downing Peroni?.

    May be he thinks it is cool..

    But for me he can spend his valuable time doing something productive like what I do to help the Dalits..

    Unlike the PhDs of Dr Ranil & Dr Harsha this guy is Mickey Mouse with his PhD in Mmathematics , which is hard to get even in the West now.

    Shouldn’t he be teaching Calculus to the War Orphans in his future Eelaam to give them a decent chance to make the cut into Dalits Engineering Unis.

    Otherwise how can their War Widow mums fork out LKR 20 Lakhs upwards for a degree even in a baby SAITM?..

  • 0

    I comment because what you say could be misunderstood (unless understood as intended), for there was just one person who contested the barrage of attacks on the UoJ Council. That too not on behalf of the Council and without committing the Council to anything. Notably, the four candidates targeted for attack did not respond either.
    You say:
    “Dr Rajan Hoole with….has wrung some concession from the perpetrators about the undesirability of acting the way the UpNawth Uni council has done.”
    Which perpetrators and what concession may I know”?

    Amid flattering remarks, you add “…man with many pseudonyms (Prof S Sivasekeram)”.
    How many is many may I know— even if you include “Prof S Sivasekeram” among pseudonyms which Sivasegram does not use for more than one, but not many, reasons.
    Again, in this context only “SJ” wrote for reasons stated several weeks earlier.

    Prof. MN
    You should by now be aware of the quality of humour here; and that to quite a few (especially a particular tribe here) even jokes become sacred fact if directed at “the enemy”. So, may I know where “to keep the outsiders out” enters the equation, except in the minds of some who I think show vivid imagination in selected matters but lack your sense of humour.
    I have been to Bridgetown for non-academic reasons— not the Steeltown upnawth or the Bacon-n-Eggs place dawnsawth. I would like to be educated on procedures that our former masters there adopt in processing application for advertised posts— although I am aware that Bridgetown and Bullcrossing have weird traditions relating to places in their houses of fame.

    I do not mind if neither of you responds, but will duck sniper attacks this one time.

  • 6

    How do others do it?

    Very roughly: Start with actively searching for a wide field of applicants. These days they go out of the way in doing this search by, for example, paying recruitment consultants to help.

    An appointments committee of a small number of senior people (~8-10), drawn from Council and Senate is set up. Often one or two high profile external members are invited to be pat of it. People nominated to serve on it decline if anyone closely connected to them might be candidates.

    The consultants help with the search, often aggressively so, by getting in touch with those who might be potential candidates, have brief discussions “selling the institution” and encouraging them to apply – at this stage the consultant might have had anything between just an email exchange to a one hour skype call with the potential candidate. They might do a first round of interviews with the applicants and draw up a long-list and then a shortlist.
    The shortlisted candidates are invited to campus and given a tour and a chance to meet senior people.

    Every effort is made to impress upon them that taking a job here might be a good idea.

    After a final round of interviews with the committee, an appointment is made and the name of the winner announced. Names of anyone else who competed for the job will be kept confidential.

    In sum: (a) an active process that casts the net wide; (b) no taking part in discussions/decisions where one might have conflict of interest; and (c) appointment of someone who can lead the institution forward with new ideas.
    It is possible an internal candidate wins, but if I look around at those holding the top job in several institutions known to me, the vast majority of the appointments have been external.

    I do not claim it is a fool-proof system, because of the five I worked reasonably closely with, one was a total disaster.

    But the whole process in suddha land appears to me to be much better to me than what we have heard reported on these pages recently.

    Hope it helps.

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