Willa Wickramasinghe and the SSC Pamphlets: An Appreciation

Michael Roberts

WillaWilfred Wickramasinghe, “Willa” to his pals, was born on 12th December 1932 and was educated at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. He thereafter joined the Sri Lanka Air Force and passed out first in his batch at Diyatalawa. The government of that day said they had no money to send him to Cranwell in UK for his officer training, so he promptly resigned his commission and set off for England in order to study insurance. While in London he became President of the Sri Lanka Students’ Union during the late 1950s over two successive years, succeeding Ratnasiri Wickramanayake (subsequently a Prime Minister). Wilfred became a Communist while a student in England and travelled widely in Russia and other Communist countries.

He returned to Sri Lanka in the early 1960s and it was he who drew up the plan for Mr. Ilangaratna to nationalise the insurance industry. Thereafter, during the SLFP regime of Mrs Bandaranaike from 1970-77 he was Chairman of Salu Sala, Deputy Chairman of the Insurance Corporation and Chairman of the Weaving Supplies Corporation.  He was widely respected for his impeccable integrity.

He had a wide range of interests and undertook several pioneering ventures in trade and commerce during his life-span. In the early 1960s he was a Director of TOAS Ltd which invested in thousands of fishing boats. In the early 1970s he became a director in an enterprise that constructed hotel in the south at a time when such efforts were few and far between.

In step with his radical Left thinking Wilfred Wickramasinghe was Secretary of the Cuban Friendship Society at one point. He also served as Vice-President of the Sri Lanka India Society. He was a friend or acquaintance of the entire Left leadership in India and continued to be an active member of the Communist Party.

I met him for the first time in the mid-1990s through our mutual friend Ananda Chittambalam. The three of us combined to form a small company in 1992/93 that reprinted outstanding essays on the history, sociology and politics of Sri Lanka as little booklets for sale at prices within reach of the reading public in the island. This enterprise was called STUDIES IN SOCIETY AND CULTURE….. or SSC in short. We invested Rs.10,000 each in this venture.

The choice of authors and essays was made by Chittambalam and Roberts, with the latter securing copyright permission from the respective authors and seeing to the proofreading from the distant confines of Adelaide. Willa handled the nitty-gritty production process at the Sri Lanka end as well as the sales process. The sales point was at the Leader Office at 85 Ward Place where Mr. Haris Hullugalle (Chairman, Leader) was our silent partner.

Each of these pamphlets was sold at a mere 50 rupees each; but sets were marketed to interested people abroad at a higher rate. Though we identified 24 articles for our initial list of re-prints, we were not able to sustain the venture beyond No. 21 or 22. This was not due to financial reasons, but because of loss of energy and the large demands on our time. Financially in fact the three of us made a profit of Rs. 30,000 each over the span of years in which the work was carried out.

It is likely that those essay pamphlets published under the rubric SSC will constitute a rare collection among book-lovers. Lists of the series are reproduced below for the benefit of readers with such interests.

Willa was a great gentleman, soft-spoken and always ready to assist his friends. He went further at times: he listened to others faced with a problem and sought to help them in whatever way he could. We will miss him. Sri Lanka has lost a worthy son of the land.

Michael Roberts, 1 July 2013

1. Michael Roberts: Ethnic conflict in SL and Sinhalese perspectives: barriers to accommodation

2. E Val Daniel: Three dispositions towards the past: two Tamil, one Sinhala

3. Vijaya Samaraweera: Land, labor, capital and sectional interests in the national politics of SL

4. Michael Roberts: Tambiah or de Silva? Apocalypse or accommodation? Two contrasting views of Sinhala-Tamil relations in Sri Lanka

5. Bruce Kapferer: Nationalist ideology and a comparative perspective

6. Jonathan Spencer: Collective violence and everyday practice in Sri Lanka

7. Michael Roberts: Noise as cultural struggle: tom-tom beating, the  British and communal disturbances in SL, 1880s-1930s

8. L. A. Wickremeratne: Religion, nationalism and social change in Ceylon, 1865-1885

9. Kitsiri Malalgoda: Millennialism in relation to Buddhism

10. Elizabeth Nissan: The work of anthropologists in Sri Lanka – a review in 1987

11. Gananath Obeyesekere: Sorcery, premeditated murder and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka

12. Donald L Horowitz: Incentives and behaviour in the ethnic politics of Sri Lanka and Malaysia

13. John D. Rogers: Cultural nationalism and social reform: the 1904 temperance movement in Sri Lanka

14. Kitsiri Malalgoda: The Buddhist Christian confrontation in Sri Lanka, 1800-1860

15. Gananath Obeyesekere: Science, experimentation and clinical practice in ayurveda

16. Mick Moore: Economic liberalisation, growth and poverty in Sri Lanka in long-run perspective

17. Paul Alexander: Malu mudalāli: monopsonies in southern Sri Lanka fish trading

18. Ranjini Obeyesekere: Violence, censorship and the Sinhala theatre during the eighties

19. Deborah Winslow: A political geography of sacred deities: space and the pantheon in Sinhala Buddhism

20. H. L. Seneviratne: The Asela Perahara in Kandy

21. Steven Kemper: J. R. Jayewardene, righteousness and realpolitik

22. Michael Roberts: ‘Our duty to act’: brown sahibs in universal suits. The story of the abortive coup d’etat in 1962

23. Gananath Obeyesekere: The social background of the April 1971 insurgency in Sri Lanka: a comment

24. James Jupp: The revolutionary challenge of the JVP in 1971


Filed under cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, life stories, literary achievements, nationalism, politIcal discourse, sri lankan society, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy

6 responses to “Willa Wickramasinghe and the SSC Pamphlets: An Appreciation

  1. Chandre Dharmawardana

    May be these books should be digitized or simply canned and put on this website for present-day readers

  2. Patricia Samaraweera

    A gentleman to his fingertips…

  3. I would like to thank Mr Roberts for triggering my soul’s intention to tell people of the late Mr Wilfred Wickramasinghe.

    I met Mr. Wilfred Wickramasinghe first in 1999 when I arrived to Sri Lanka as newly appointed Aeroflot-Russian Airlines GM for the country.
    By that time his company ‘Euroasia cargo’ has been the airline’s cargo general sales agent for long 24 years. During such a long term a few generations of Aeroflot General managers changed but all of them preferred to entrust cargo business only to the company headed by Mr. Wilfred. I found the proof myself: cargo volume growth, reports are in time, finance calculations and transactions are neat. No negative remarks from my Head Office. That is the way Mr. Wilfred had used to do business and maintain relations. In this way he was an outstanding person and the man of his word. I could rely on him always.

    Gradually we became friends. Not in a way of meeting each other every day, no. But I felt great when saw Mr. Wilfred in my office. He was a calm person and I know that his calmness was based on hard belief in his own power and ability. He possessed ‘soft power’ which he used wisely in both his everyday life and in business. At the same time he was a simple man, using very simple furniture of colonial style in his office for decades (I know that furniture is still there in his room).
    He was an educated and well-read person. We talked on different subjects and Mr. Wifred always wondered me by his tremendous wide scope of knowledge of everything in this world. Some of the themes we discussed I’ve heard for the first time.

    I left Sri Lanka in 2003 and we hardly met 3-4 times after that in Moscow and Tokyo, but I always felt a thin connection to Mr. Wilfred and his wonderful family. I’m proud I’m his friend and I’m lucky to know Mr. Wilfred. He was that type of citizen Sri Lanka should be proud of.

    My sincere condolence to his family and friends. The loss of Mr. Wilfred in irreplaceab.

    • Many thanks Mr YURAKOV. I will pass it on to some friends. Sri Lanka is also fortunate to have people like you to deal with in business circles.

  4. Pingback: The book-man, books of Ceylon, books for Ceylon, that ecumenical Sri Lankan patriot man Ananda Chittambalam | Thuppahi's Blog

    “Thank u Micheal. Knew him well. A perfect gentleman who was a regular walker around the club [viz Tamil Union] in bare feet to get the best from the grass !”

Leave a Reply