An evening with Leonard Woolf in Ceylon in 1960

Neville Jayaweera, reprint from the Sunday Island, 7 August 2005

Obsequious ceremonial: Upon Woolf’s arrival in Ceylon in early 1960 (he was 80 years old then) the Home Ministry arranged for him to tour the districts in which he had served as a Civil Servant. One leg of the tour took him through Hambantota, Tanamalwila, Wellawaya, Bandarawela, Welimada and Nuwara Eliya. At that time I was the AGA of the Badulla District which covered the entire route, and my GA was V. A. J. Senaratne  (Vicky) one of the most brilliant minds of the Civil Service — Physics First Class, and first in the CCS exam in his year, but for all that, utterly self effacing and therefore little known to the public. Shelton Fernando, Permanent Secretary Home Affairs, sent Senaratne an exuberant missive instructing him and his AGA (myself) to meet Leonard Woolf at the boundary of the Badulla District, which was near Tissamaharama, a hundred and four miles away, escort him through the district and after a stopover at Bandarawela for the night, hand him over to the GA of Nuwara Eliya District. Though self effacing, Senaratne  did not take kindly to obsequious ceremonial, and showing me Shelton Fernando’s letter, said that he was not prepared to sit out in his car on the roadside waiting for Woolf or for anyone else and inquired whether I would do the honours. Much to my GA’s chagrin I assured him that neither was I inclined to be honoured in that fashion. So, eventually we compromised and agreed that we would both meet Woolf halfway at the Koslanda Rest House and accompany him to Bandarawela. 

The wizened little man:  So it was that my GA and I drove down to Koslanda to meet Woolf. We arrived at the rest house half an hour before Woolf was scheduled to arrive there and sat down to a cup of tea. An hour passed but there was no sign of a Woolf! Whereupon Senaratne asked the rest house keeper whether a certain Mr. Leonard Woolf had sent any message cancelling his visit and were amazed when he told us that he had been there half an hour before we arrived and left ten minutes after our arrival. “But where was he while we were here” Senaratne inquired. “Why sir”, replied the keeper, who knew nothing about the celebrity he was supposed to be entertaining, “he was that little old gentleman who was sleeping on the hansi putuwa when you walked in”. Then we remembered. Yes, indeed, when we arrived at the rest house, there was a Ceylon Tours car parked outside and sleeping on an arm chair in the veranda, was a wizened little man, looking rather bedraggled, who we thought was a retired planter dozing away the hot afternoon. It was just our mistake. We had expected to meet a “personality” which the little man dozing on the arm chair simply was not!

Senaratne and I piled into our car and sped the twenty miles up to Bandarawela where we eventually caught up with Woolf at the Grand Hotel. There, after we had made our apologies, which he accepted very graciously, we spent the evening talking with him and Senaratne entertained him to dinner.

Hambantota diaries: I had read “The Village in the Jungle” while still only a school boy and had been quite enthralled by it. In later years, when I was at university, Basil Mendis, who had entered the Civil Service in the late 1940s, had discovered Leonard Woolf’s diaries in the record room of the Hambantota Kachcheri where he (Mendis) was Cadet, and had written a series of articles romanticising Woolf’s work as an AGA and extolling his work as a dedicated and devoted servant of the people.

I must confess that Basil Mendis’ portrayal of the life of an AGA working for the upliftment of rural people, epitomised in the life of Leonard Woolf, and the opportunity that the positions of GA/AGA seemed to afford for working with people, made a great an impact on me. So much as that, while yet in my second year at university, I abandoned my erstwhile ambition to pursue an academic career and resolved instead to enter the Civil Service and ask for a posting to the provincial administration, the better to serve people. Thereafter, after I had myself entered the Civil Service in 1955, during the two years as a Cadet, I made it a matter of personal discipline to read the diaries of former AGAs and GAs in all the districts in which I served as Cadet so as the better to be equipped for the tasks ahead. 

Work ethic of GAs and AGAs: The culture and work ethic I absorbed reading those diaries, virtually set the tone and pattern for my own work as an AGA and GA in later life. I found in them extraordinary evidence of hard work, integrity, discipline, character, and a dedication to the interests of the people in their charge, almost bordering on religious zeal. Indeed, these standards were not peculiar to GAs/AGAs but permeated all of the public service of those days, even down to the lowly Kachcheri clerk and the postal delivery man. Many of the GAs/AGAs were British, but many were also Ceylonese — the doyen among them being C. L. Wickramasinghe (Ranil Wickeramasinghe’s grandfather) However, none of them seemed to be the imperialists they are often caricatured to be. Paternalistic, yes, as the whole culture of governance of SL had been for ages, but imperialistic, no! Rather, they seemed to be driven by a coherent public service culture and a personal work ethic which provided the cast iron framework for stable governance, but which evaporated rapidly after 1970 when politicians brought the public services under their tutelage. I often say, that if public servants of today were to display even a fragment of the qualities those “imperialists” brought to their work, SL would be a vastly different place today. Sadly, none of these men had a Shelton Fernando or a Basil Mendis to chronicle their work and they have all passed into an oblivion as deep as the anonymity in which they had worked.

It was after reading the diaries of those GAs and AGAs that I realised that Woolf’s work as an AGA had not been exceptional at all, except for the intellectualism that winked in and out of his diaries. The work of his colleagues, both before and after him, in the areas of agriculture, irrigation, land settlement, rural and community development, archaeology, historical scholarship and in giving leadership to their districts had far exceeded anything Woolf had achieved during his years in Ceylon. Perhaps, what Woolf had, that most of his colleagues before and after him lacked, was the ability to conceptualize the Provincial Administrator’s work on a larger canvas.

It was against this background that my encounter with Leonard Woolf took place. I had by then read not only all of Woolf’s Hambantota Diaries, but also about Woolf’s work as a member of London’s Bloomsbury Group. and about his relations with John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell (said to be two of Britain’s greatest intellects in the 20th century and both of them his colleagues in Cambridge). I had read of his relations with Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, T. S. Elliot, Bernard Shaw and the Webbs and of his pacifism and of his strident anti-imperialism and about his work with Keir Hardie in founding the Labour Party in England. I had therefore expected to be treated to a smorgasbord of intellectual riches that evening at Bandarawela. I was to be disappointed.

Underlying sadness: I tried hard to lure Woolf into sharing his views on some of his great contemporaries at the turn of the century, but he seemed to go blank. I tried to get him talking about Labour Party politics and about the great issues in which he had been involved but he refused to be drawn. Finally, thinking that he might like to talk about his days in Ceylon, I asked him what changes he had noticed in the Hambantota District between 1907 when he left Ceylon and 1960. “Hardly any” he replied rather sadly, “except that the road up from Hambantota through Wellawaya is now tarred and discipline on the roads everywhere I travel, is quite appalling” I asked him, “Sir, when you visited some of the villages in which you had worked in Hambantota 53 years ago, did anyone remember you?” His eyes lit up as he replied, “No, not at all, no one seemed to remember me at all, but I did meet two old men who remembered my horse. You see, I used to ride a piebald horse which was a rarity in Ceylon, like a Rolls Royce would be now, and these men remembered my horse. So you see, my horse made a greater impact on my district than I.”

For a moment I thought he was just being witty, but no, I sensed a deep underlying sadness in that comment, a sadness that permeated the whole evening’s conversation. I sensed the melancholy of a man whose dreams and hopes had simply dribbled into the sand and who had nothing to show for all his lofty idealism. His conversation was laconic, taciturn and uninvolved, even remote and cold. His demeanour was sullen, even grumpy and if I were given to paranoia I might have said that he was also supercilious and arrogant. I could even have interpreted all that evidence as proof of an incurable imperialist lurking beneath the outer liberal socialist.

It was only many years later, after I came to England that I came to know of his turbulent and morbidly dark married life, leading eventually to the suicide of his wife Virginia. It was only then that I realized that his mood of brokenness that evening had a deeper provenance than I had imagined.
An arrogant imperialist? On the other hand, the view that Woolf was an arrogant imperialist might have been deduced from anecdotal evidence I gathered in later years. When I was myself serving as the GA of Jaffna, where Woolf had served as AGA and Magistrate 56 years earlier (he had been only 24 then) I met several senior professionals of Jaffna who remembered him as an arrogant imperialist. However, they all conceded that, though he was a ruthless and brilliant administrator, he was also a very sensitive and fair minded magistrate.

Reading the diaries of John Penrin Lewis, his GA at the time, I also found that the people of Jaffna had called a mass meeting in the Town Hall to ask the government to transfer Leonard Woolf out of the district, because he was alleged to have struck Sandarasagara, the town’s leading barrister, with a horse whip.

According to the allegation, Woolf had been driving his “horse and trap” down the Jaffna main street when he chanced upon Sandarasagara riding on his horse in the opposite direction. The allegation was that Woolf was so angered at the sight of a mere native riding the high horse that he wielded his whip striking Sandarasagara in his face and causing his horse to bolt. A judicial inquiry that followed fully exonerated Woolf but the whole incident proved deeply traumatic and a turning point in his world view. The scales fell from Woolf’s eyes and he saw that despite all his benevolent paternalism, imperialism had little to offer a subject people besides provoking in them suspicion, paranoia, hatred and hostility towards their rulers.

The leitmotif, or the recurring metaphor of his novel, the “Village in the Jungle”, is man’s incessant and hopeless struggle against injustice and evil, symbolised on the one hand by Silindu and his family and on the other by the oppressive headman and the dark insatiable jungle. It seemed to me that the intellectual Woolf was as impotent in the face of an unjust and evil world, as illiterate Silindu and his family had been helpless in the face of the wicked headman and the demonic jungle.

 In their sharply diverse ways, Woolf and Silindu were both tragic figures, merely the macro and the micro versions, of the same underlying truth.

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