An Interview with Bradman Weerakoon by Marianne David
Deshamanya Bradman Weerakoon turns 80 today (Oct 20th). He really needs no introduction, having done Sri Lanka proud on many occasions in his many capacities and served the nation to the fullest of his ability in public service for half a century.
Bradman as he is generally known has served under nine Prime ministers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka namely Sir John Kotelawela,SWRD Bandaranaike,Dudley Senanayake,Sirima Bandaranaike,JR Jayewardena,Ranasingha Premadasa,DB Wijetunge and Ranil Wickremasinghe.
Bradman Weerakoon ~ pic by: Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai
To strike a personal note I had the pleasure of interacting with Bradman Weerakoon when he was secretary to the Ministry of Plantations Industry in the UNP government that took office in 1977. I was then a reporter on the Tamil Daily “Virakesari” and was assigned to cover the ministry.MDH Jayewardena was the minister and Alick Aluvihare his deputy.
Since a large number of “Virakesari” readers were employed in the plantations and the paper itself had an up –country edition the day to day activities of the Plantations Industry ministry were of great relevance to the paper.
Covering the plantations industries ministry therefore was n important part of my duties as a journalist.My task was made easy because of the friendly disposition and cooperative spirit of boith Bradman Weerakoon and the addl secretary YG Punchihewa. I found both to be very courteous and amiable in their dealings with the press.
Bradman Weerakoon had in depth knowledge of the subjects under his purview and would explain the intricacies in a very simple manner so that journalists could write their stories with clarity.
Apart from being an efficient and capable official Bradman Weerakoon was what I would call a thorough gentleman.
I wish him well on his eightieth birthday and hope the rest of his golden twilight would be a productive period where he would pen many, many books.
In a bid to inform readers about this remarkable, multi-faceted personality I am reproducing an interview conducted on the occasion of his milepost birthday.
Here, he talks to Marianne David of the Financial Times about the early years, life today and future plans: ~ d.b.s. jeyaraj
Question: Going back to the early years, could you tell us about your childhood – where you grew up, about your siblings and parents and what life was like?
Answer: I was born in Colombo but I grew up in Kalutara.
My first school for a year or so was Holy Family Convent Kalutara and then Holy Cross College Kalutara. After that I wanted to get into the boarding in Mount Lavinia because my elder brother was there. I stayed in Mount Lavinia until the war broke out and then went and spent six beautiful years in Gurutalawa. I was one of the founders; we went in 1942 when the war took up Mount Lavinia. My elder brother was also there with me and my younger brother – a planter – joined later on.
I have an elder sister and a younger sister. The elder was a music person and went to England finally for her exams and so on. My younger sister played in the first cricket match for women. We were quite the athletic family. Both my father and mother played tennis. My elder brother Ronnie was a government servant and a district land officer. He finally became an ambassador in Egypt.
I had a stern and very disciplined father because he was in the Police. He would be the one who would admonish and occasionally cuff us. But my mother was very gentle; a nice person – always a peace maker, trying to bridge things over, right through her life. She outlived my father by about 25 years and passed away when she was 85. She had a long life.
Q:How do you feel about your parents naming you after Australian cricketer Don Bradman, who sailed to Colombo on the day of your birth?
A:At the beginning, a little bashful because I always had to explain my strange name. You can understand an English name but not that of an Australian cricketer. That became the point of a little concern at that point but later on it became a talking point.
When I went for interviews, the first thing they would do was look at the name and ask how I came to be named Bradman. That gave the opportunity for a few minutes indulgence in cricket. They would ask ‘Do you play cricket?’ and I would says ‘Yes’ and so on… ‘Is your father a cricketer?’ It was the usual game. At least 10 questions emerged from my name, which spent the greater part of the interview. That perhaps made them feel I was quite sociable and so on. It greatly helped
I find interviews are quite important. I love interviews; I love your coming here and interviewing me. I just relish it as a great opportunity. I was fairly forward then; not in an aggressive way. I was reading a lot at that time and I wanted to show the knowledge I had – not boastfully… but I would be quite well informed about things, both local and foreign.
Q:How did your entry into the Government service come about?
A:When I came back from a master’s degree in America, I was quite talkative. When I went for the Civil Service examination, I had to do the examination basically based on the knowledge I had acquired a year earlier, because I was away for one year. But the interview got me 250 marks, which was a full mark. Perhaps only one or two others got into the Civil Service with full marks at the interview. I was 22 at the time.
Q:How long were you in Public Service?
A:Off and on – after a point I went out and came back – I was in administrative service for about 35 years. My full public service life – being active in either public service or NGO sector or foreign – amounts to about 50 years.
Q:Could you tell us about your wife?
A:My wife was from a traditional upbringing, a strong Buddhist background; not overzealous. I became a Buddhist when I was about 17 or 18, before I met her. I was not very sure about where I was on heaven and hell and so on – it bothered me, like it does all young people, but it bothered me more so I just moved away into Buddhism and found that more suitable for a Sri Lankan living in a Buddhist country. One didn’t think of it as a foreign thing; it was an indigenous thing and I wanted to get into indigenous society.
My wife was actually related to me; she was a Weerakoon from her mother’s side. So we met and then got a whole lot of connections with the village in Payagala. That’s how I wrote the book on Kalutara. She was not a university person; she was quite clever. She did very well in her matriculation and all the examinations at Holy Family Convent in Bambalapitiya, which was across the road for her. She was very insightful and very good at picking up things; rather impatient with people and found a lot of people gossipy and so on. We were married for 50 years. She passed away in 2007 after our 50th anniversary.
Q:Could you tell us about your son and grandchildren?
A:I have one son, Esala. He came after about five years of marriage. Being the only son, we spent a lot of time with him. He was more attached to the mother than to me, which is probably natural in boys. We spent a lot of time travelling around showing him the country, talking to him and so on
Then I was going out on various trips and when I went to England he came there and went to the London School of Economics and read for an MSc in International Relations.
Q:How did you feel about your son following in your footsteps in a sense, as a diplomat?
A:In a way; not really public service local but public service outside. I thought that was good. In fact there wasn’t anything else particularly that I wanted him to do. Doctoring and lawyering and so on. Doctoring I liked, but lawyering I was nervous about.
He is quite a simple guy. Once I had to move to Ampara on transfer from the Prime Minister’s Office and he had to be left behind here. My wife accompanied me and he was quite lonely with his grandmother. For two years or so he was unhappy so we finally brought him to Ampara but there were no schools there.
Then in Batticaloa, he went to St. Michael’s and sat on a bench with small people and got very interested in small people. His friends were the farmer’s son, carpenter’s son, rest-house keeper’s son and so on. He began to attune himself to that kind of life. He didn’t go much for the social thing. He didn’t drink or smoke but was quite interested in people.
He went to the Vidyalakara University in Kelaniya by bus. We never gave him a car to travel; he went by bus or someone took him to school if it was close by. I think he was very happy with that. He gets on very well with people, particularly small people.
Q:Moving on to your career, how did it feel to work with so many leaders of this country?
A:At the beginning it was a challenge; you couldn’t relax, they were very prompt and demanding about things, particularly Mr. Bandaranaike. Sir John Kotelawela, who I started with, was quite amiable. Mr. Bandaranaike was quite firm and demanding; he wanted everything very well done and top class and so on Dudley Senanayake was quite a nice guy; he dealt with me very gently. He was old school. We played cricket together at S. Thomas’ and we used to play golf together. Premadasa was also very fond of me so he was also okay; quite a hard taskmaster, but never hard with me. He knew that I could deliver and he allowed me to do it. He often praised me and never found fault with me and he used to hold me up as an example to others and so on.
In 1983, when the racial issue took place, I was a permanent secretary of government in J.R. Jayewardene’s time. He felt that I could handle this job of looking after refugees and essential services. There hadn’t been a Commissioner of Essential Services earlier so he had a special Gazette notification in which he gave me a whole lot of powers; enormous powers dealing with acquisition of property and land and even people. He said I could choose anyone I wanted from the government to work in my department.
A new establishment was set up and I pulled in all the old people I knew I could work with and we formed a fairly effective unit to deal with several things; one to make sure that the essential supplies like food, water and power were all being given to all people. The other issue was dealing those affected; numbering over 150,000 after the ’83 riots. They were mostly Tamil people whose houses were burnt, family members killed and so on. They all flocked into churches, kovils and schools
We commandeered some schools and put them on holiday and Ratmalana Airport was taken over. We looked after the affected people for about two to three months, until they began to go back. I got a couple of ships, local planes and trains, all geared to send them back. The operation took about a year to complete, after which I went off.
I was getting a bit tired of work here and I had a good offer from London to be Secretary General of an international organisation, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which ran family planning associations around the world. I knew a little about it because I had been interested in sociology, family and women’s rights and so on and this was an organisation which could give me that opportunity.
I went and worked there for five years; it was a five year contract. It was big job and well paid.
This was from 1984 to 1989 and then I decided to come back since I did not want any more contracts there. Upon my return, Premadasa appointed me as Chief Executive and Chairman of Air Lanka. I knew absolutely nothing about planes – except for having sat in one – and I became Chairman of an airline.
I learnt a lot in one year; went to the various offices abroad, had links with other airlines and learnt about how airlines are run and managed. I was also Chief Executive which meant I had to really be hands-on, unlike chairmen of today who are chairman only on boards. The chief executive had gone off and I had to do that too.
Having done that for a year, Premadasa then wanted me in his office as a Presidential Advisor on International Relations. We had got into a really serious position about our human rights record.
Everybody was accusing Sri Lanka then of having killed off the JVP. Thousands had died and lots of human rights violations were talked about. My job was to ease the pain and try and relieve it to some extent.
There were various things I did; invited people in, got them taken around and showed them what was happening, why it had happened and how it had happened. We also relaxed some Emergency regulations. I think that was quite effective in relaxing the whole tightness of the government holding, because by then the problem had been resolved. Wijeweera was dead and there was no reason for all that censorship and security and so on. Premadasa then had a fairly good opportunity for more development work.
Q:Are you helping the present Government on this score as well?
A:I have some concerns. New people have new ways of dealing with it. My concern is that we have been alienating a lot of people, quite unnecessarily. I think the alienation has been really too much.
When you are in a situation that you cannot defend totally – some are indefensible situations – you cannot ride the high horse and say this did not happen or that did not happen. You have to make some admissions of guilt and some admissions of necessity and then try and let the other party know that they too might have faced those situations and they have to get over it that way since there is no other way. That might win you some kind of friendship. But we’ve been very strong at alienation. I find that quite a different way of dealing with problems.
We should have been far more conciliatory, far more concerned about the total effect. The total effect is not good if you have the EU stopping your exports of garments and aid being cut off and so on.
Q:Did you think you would see peace dawn in your lifetime?
A:Yes. I was working very actively towards peace. But the peace I was trying to deal with was a different kind of peace to eliminating the enemy. Mine was to try and bring the enemy into your fold so that there are no enemies. But it requires concessions on your part.
My whole approach to this problem was that there were many things that we hadn’t done as governments. We had let down a considerable part of the minority by not doing that; and by knocking off the other side, you can’t solve the problem. I have a feeling that that is why one has to be so guarded now; that’s why the Emergency goes on, security goes on and people are very scared.
Though the war has ended in that sense, the peace has not begun. The real peace has not been won. And that’s a missed opportunity. I think that’s unfair by so many people. People on this side seem to be alright but people on the northern side seem to be very troubled, to say the least. If you’ve sent about one-and-a-half of your 20 million people abroad, something’s not good, not quite right.
Q:You just published your book ‘Kalutara: An Odyssey’. Any more books in the pipeline?
A:Yes, I think so – if I live! I’m not going to do anymore district related books. This was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s an example of a book which should be written about most districts. This is not an official government manual of the district. This is a personal but objective view of the good and the bad and the positive and the negative.
The trouble with government publications is that they seem to only look at the golden side; but life is not all golden, there are also bad portions and gray days… like rain and sun. This deals with that too. This says ‘here is the promise,’ but for example it also speaks of the need for credit in the village.
Credit is an absolutely vital need in the village. But there are no credit institutions which would cater to those needs of the people. There are huge credit needs – for funerals, weddings, all the really personal things. Credit to set up an industry and all that is one thing, but how do you deal with these?
I found out that what they do is go to the money lenders – I call them loan sharks. They are sharks; they lend you money at very exorbitant rates of interest. You can get Rs. 1,000 in the morning and pay Rs. 1,100 in the evening. It’s ridiculous. These guys who get into loan sharks’ arrangements either default or keep asking for more loans and then they build up enormous loans.
Say you want to send a child on a foreign job – even a housemaid doesn’t go free. You need to get the equipment, the clothes and to attend to other things. How do you get the money? They sell land and so on. There is a high level of indebtedness. This personal indebtedness of individual families is not being met any institution. It must be a very extraordinary institution to do that, but it’s a very big need. I talk about those things in this book.
You have people’s banks and savings banks all over the place, that’s true. But they are mainly dealing with foreign remittances and so on. But there are typical needs of people for day to day living which are not being met.
Q:Have you started on another book?
A:I have an idea for two books. The first will be on my assessment and my understanding of how we got into the ethnic problem, how we got out or thought we got out and what the future of the Sri Lankan nation looks like. How do you best give expression to the potential of the Sri Lankan people?
The potential is there in all the various and diverse sectors – whether you are Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or whether you’re Hindu or Sinhalese or Tamil or whatever, how do they all try and get together as a real nation? Not a nation of one kind; not a homogeneous nation, but a heterogeneous nation. Homogeneous nations are easy, but I don’t think they can be done, unless at very great cost.
But how do you devise the mechanisms, the institutions, the rules, the conventions to keep a mixed society going? I want to examine that and the political leadership of the various people whom I’ve worked with at different times and how leaders – from Bandaranaike to maybe even Rajapaksa – have faced this issue.
My second book is fiction, a fictional account of a person who looks like me, born like me, bred like me, came up like me… but it’s fiction. In fiction you can say things that you can’t say in real life.
Q:Could you describe a day in your life today?
A:I wake up at about 6 a.m.; I don’t sleep very much now. Almost the first thing I do – after my cup of tea and so on – is read either a magazine, either The Economist or a book. There’s always a book going.
I’m reading three books at the moment. I’m reading a book called The Atlantic by Simon Winchester. Then I just finished Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog. I’m also reading From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth. I also finished Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Books have been a big part of my life since I was very young; my mother used to say I was reading and spoiling my eyes!
I’m very computer literate. I love machines. I just got one of these new phones and I can manage it after three or four days. It’s quite complicated but I am going to master it. In the book, I even did the indexing.
Usually people write a book and give it to the publisher to do all that; but I did the pictures, the captions, the index and all that. I did it in Microsoft Word and then they said they had changed the setting to InDesign. When you do it in Word and try to change it to InDesign, you find the pages are wrong. Then I learnt how to do it in InDesign. I found it interesting – learning something new.
Around breakfast time, I walk around the house a little – I don’t go for walks anymore. I used to be very much a sportsman; I had colours in cricket, football, athletics, tennis, swimming… all kinds of things. And I took up golf later.
I find it interesting to spend time going for meetings, discussions, meeting people; I telephone a lot, email, write. I am in contact with a lot of friends around the world. Family I have only one son so there isn’t too much. But I know Skype and I’m on Facebook! I find it very exciting and the day passes before you even know it.
I also travel on the weekends to my village, Payagala. I have a little land there, about two acres, and two houses – an old house and a new house my wife and I built – and a little paddy field.
There are problems with the paddy field, water logging and so on, and I learnt a lot about paddy through that field. I talk to village people and listen to their problems so I know a lot about what they need. Everybody needs something. I get a lot of callers, mostly for jobs, asking me to speak to so and so; I say, ‘I will try and help, put my name as a referee!’
Q:Do you dine out and where do you enjoy going?
A:I like the Indian restaurant at Cinnamon Grand, Chutneys. Of all, I prefer having lunch at the Galle Face Verandah. I like to sit there.
Q:How will you celebrate your 80th birthday, which falls today (Wednesday)?
A:I’m having 80 friends coming for dinner at the Galle Face Hotel, which is a special place for me. I was married there and we celebrated our 50th anniversary there. I have most of my little dos there. I like the spaciousness, ambience and old-fashioned nature of the place. Everybody is very kind to me there.
The birthday is not a celebration… I find that after my wife passed away, it doesn’t feel like a big celebration. I don’t think I can celebrate in that sense, jumping up for joy, when you have lost your partner for so long who has been so loyal and affectionate… I feel a sense of great sadness.
The occasion is a sober thank you. I want to thank everybody who comes for all the generous support throughout the years. I couldn’t have achieved what I have without the support of friends, relations, associates, lovely colleagues… all supportive, helpful and very loyal over many years. I have people from Ampara who still want to give me things. I want to thank everybody for that.
I don’t think I’ve yet reached that final stage that Shakespeare talked about in The Seven Ages of Man – the second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. I think I’m not there yet – don’t know how many more. You never know these things.
But then, what do I do with the rest of it? I’m very happy where I am. It’s a rich period of one’s life when you don’t have too many problems to worry about. You have a certain loneliness but you also have a certain freedom as a result of that loneliness, doing what you want.
I thought maybe I should write – you can’t do much, but you can write and speak – about the future that really is the ideal of my future. This future ideal comes from two things that I’ve kept very close to my heart.
One was what Bandaranaike said in 1948, about what the new nation needs – freedom from disease, freedom from ignorance, freedom from want and freedom from fear. I think those four freedoms – I’ve echoed them over and over again – are a wonderful ideal to work towards for everybody, not for some. Some can always have that.
The other thought is that wonderful thought of Rabindranath Tagore:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up
into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason
has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
I think that might be a suitable kind of objective for the remaining years.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com