Tissa Chandrasoma’s Vignettes

Rajpal de Silva, in the Sunday Island, http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=articledetails&code_title=143108 3 April 2016, introducing a book Vignettes of the Ceylon Civil Service 1938 – 1957, prepared by Vijaya and Parakrama Chandrasoma,  and printed by Lazergraphic, Colombo., 2016.

This new handsome hard-cover publication by M. Chandrasoma’s sons, Vijaya and Parakrama, includes an Introduction and Postscript and six photographs showing Chandrasoma at various events during his career of nearly 20 years in the Ceylon Civil Service –which then comprised an elite group of individuals (usually an annual intake of 10) chosen from the cleverest of the Ceylon University’s recently qualified graduates. There was no political ‘input’ in this long bygone era – and hence the administration of the numerous and varied governmental departments whether they be Forestry, Fisheries, Agriculture, Public Works, Health or Revenue were managed by the best intellects that the island produced annually.

Manikkuwadumestri (Tissa) Chandrasoma’s original book, published in 1991, is once again reproduced in full. The original title, Vignettes, is most appropriate, considering that Chandrasoma’s book of 153 pages is sectionalized into 37 chapters.   Aaaa--VIGNETTES

In Chapter 2, it was Tissa’s misfortune that he had to witness a judicial hanging, following which he was so upset that he became ill for many a day – and what satisfaction he must have derived when his uncle, M W H de Silva, as then Minister of Justice around 1958, abolished the death penalty.

Each of Chandrasoma’s 37 Chapters in his book is a narrative of varied incidents during his career in the Civil Service. What comes out glaringly well is how daft a great deal of ‘procedure’ is!! e.g., the issue of gun licences. The tales are mostly short and sweet and are based on the varied experiences that Chandrasoma encountered in his long career in the Civil Service – even though most are related to his early years in the service.

Chandrasoma’s diverse postings to various parts of the island are recounted and regaled to give the reader much of the habits, customs and festivals that take place regularly throughout the island. In his narrative, Chandrasoma transports one back to a long by-gone era, e.g., his being in charge of the annual festival at Kataragama, the first Sri Lankan official to do so – the event being previously under the supervision of an English Government Agent. On the last day, when the fire-walking ceremony takes place, Chandrasoma describes (confirmed by other pilgrims) the vision of a man who suddenly appeared, walked the fire, and then disappeared into thin air!

In his last combined appointment as Port Commissioner and Customs Chief, which he held for three years before he resigned, Chandrasoma was paid Rs 250/= (two hundred and fifty rupees a month) which he called the ‘bargain of the century’.


The Introduction by his sons in this new edition draws attention to the fact that their father, a man who was totally apolitical, was unable to compromise his sense of integrity to accommodate the island’s evolving political scene. Vijaya and Parakrama have meticulously traced the history of the evolution and demise of the Ceylon Civil Service, (CCS), which, in its early days was an august and elite body concerned with every aspect of the island’s administration.

The CCS was established with the advent of British rule in 1798. It was initially staffed by 16 to 20 year old Englishmen with a basic public school education, and picked for their ability to withstand the rigours of a tropical climate! These youngsters first served as ‘Cadets’ learning the work under Government Agents, who were the supreme rulers of the provinces that they administered.

In the 1840s, it was decided to include Ceylonese in the CCS, and many highly educated and distinguished persons entered the Service. Men of the calibre of Frederick Livera, Simon Casie Chetty, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, and Paul E Pieris, who joined the service, but were discriminated against and never promoted to the higher grades. Chandrasoma joined the service in 1938, when the intake of cadets was 10 per year, and ‘Colonial bureaucracy still lay in the safe hands of English Government Agents, who were masters of all the lands and people they surveyed.’

In 1948, after Independence, the CCS was gradually Ceylonised and there was no doubt the all the Ceylonese who filled the positions of Government Agents were without exception, “men of superior intelligence and education, whose integrity was never in question.”

In 1956, political changes marked the end of an independent Civil Service which was eventually dismantled in 1963 and replaced by the Ceylon Administrative Service. The Chandrasoma brothers’ short history of the Civil Service – much of which information has been taken from Dr Wiswa Warnapala’s thesis, Civil Service Administration in Ceylon — provides the reader with some welcome insight of the administrative environment which existed when their father joined the service.

In their Postscript, the Chandrasoma brothers examine why their father left the Civil Service after nearly 20 years of service, just six months before he would have been eligible for his pension. Immediately after his resignation from the public sector, he was offered a job in the no. 2 slot at the Shell Company and continued working there until 1964, when Mrs Bandaranaike’s government offered him the post of Chairman Port Cargo Corporation and Port Commissioner, which he accepted. In 1966, Chandrasoma was appointed Director of Development Public Sector, in addition to his job at the Port. His expertise was made available to 29 State Corporations as a Director!

In 1957 Chandrasoma was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his distinguished services for the government of Ceylon. In 1966, he finally resigned from the ‘Service he loved, and which he served with considerable skill and enormous pride.’ Additionally, the rear cover of the book contains a short biographical note on Chandrasoma, together with titles of the other books written by him.

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ADDENDUM: Tissa Chandrasoma was interviewed in recorded audio form (spools) by Michael Roberts on 23rd September 1967. These records have now been converted into audio CDs by the University of Adelaide Library and are available in the Barr Smith Special Collections, under “Roberts Oral History Project.” … Go to the Michael Roberts manuscripts listing  http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/ …… And click on the link to Adelaide Research and Scholarship under Series 1 – Digital versions


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One response to “Tissa Chandrasoma’s Vignettes

  1. A very enjoyable book. Chandrasoma himself was an interesting character; I’d have liked to learn more about his antecedents.

    His descriptions of rural life in his era show clearly how very primitive the hinterland of Lanka still was in his time. His description of Kataragama makes it seem as though little had changed there since the days of John Davy.

    It is astonishing to think that the Donoughmore Commission, a quarter-century earlier, had thought these people capable of responsibly exercising their right to vote in a national election. Of course, the truth is that the commissioners never spoke to these future voters, or even saw them except through the windows of their cars or trains as they rushed from provincial capital to provincial capital, interviewing the local notables, who of course were educated, Westernized and seemed like plausible democrats.

    It’s a pity the story ends where it does, in 1957, but in any case the Ceylon Civil Service itself only lasted another six years. It was too efficient, honest and diverse to survive majority rule.

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