The Long Littleness of Life by Leelananda De Silva

Izeth Hussain, reviewing Leelananda  de Silva’s Memoirs of Interesting Times, in The Island, November 6, 2016

 I refer of course to the ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” which has come to be much cited after Eric Hobsbawm chose “Interesting times” as the title of his autobiography. When life proceeds placidly in its even tenor the times are not particularly interesting, but they become so when changes take place, more particularly changes of a revolutionary order of the sort that we witnessed in Sri Lanka during the last century. Leelananda de Silva’s memoirs “The Long Littleness of Life” seems to be exceptional in reflecting those changes. This review will therefore touch on a few of the representative aspects of his book, to the extent possible within the limited ambit of a review.
But first I must note the beautiful lucidity that is characteristic of his style, which has been admired by others including to my knowledge the late Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike who notoriously had very exacting standards. Not surprisingly he declares himself a bookworm who likes to write. As for the contents, I found them engrossing. Part of the reason is that he mentions a great number of persons who were known to me. That means that we had the same kind of background but with a significant difference. I belong to the most Westernized of all the Sri Lankan generations while he – my junior by 10 years – represented a transition to a Westernized type of Sri Lankan with firmer indigenous roots. But he and his generation came to feel just as alienated in Sri Lanka as mine did. We all lived in interesting times.
The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with the first thirty four years of his life covering his childhood, his education, and the first ten years as a Government official working mainly in the districts. It contains much that is enchanting about the old Ceylon that has vanished forever. It contains the names of a great number of persons who are mentioned without much being said about them, so that the book often reads like a chronicle rather than an autobiography. This is deliberate because his is not the story of an official who rose gloriously to the top. He is explicit that he wants to give due credit to all those who made positive contributions to the Sri Lanka of their time. He is emphatic about the crucial contributions made in the field of agriculture by our scientists, the unsung heroes of our time as I came to realize through my interaction with the Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
The second part of the book covers the seven years he spent in the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, which he considers the “high noon” of his career. He was part of a team that worked closely with the Prime Minister and accompanied her on many of her trips abroad. During that period trips abroad were a privilege reserved for the happy few – apart from those lucky fellows in the Foreign Service – and proximity to the Prime Minister was a privilege indeed. All that could be expected to provoke envy and burning hatred, all the more because he rose to that position not through pull in the right quarters but through ability and luck. Godfrey Gunatilleke attests in a note appended to the book that H.A. de S Gunasekera, the Secretary to the Ministry, had announced when L de S was being inducted into it, “He was one of my brightest students who could have easily collected a first”. That guru was known as one of the most brilliant economists produced by Sri Lanka and was also known for having the most exacting standards. As for the luck, that guru was not interested in the external dimension of the Sri Lankan economy and left all that to L de S. The latter had therefore entered into interesting times without knowing it and he chose the right metaphor for it, “high noon“: the guns were out to get him.
The major focus of his work in the Planning Ministry was on North South issues. He recognizes that those issues were of a temporary order and that today the very concept of the “third world” has disappeared. He mentions in passing Peter Baur whose Dissent on Development I read sometime in the mid-seventies. I was enormously impressed by it as a brilliant puncturing of the pretensions of development economists who were much in vogue in certain countries, all of whose economies – I read somewhere – were wrecked as a consequence. Baur was surely right that the deteriorating terms of trade – which was at the core of the North South debate – was not a secular trend, and he was right on much else. Much of the economic ills of the South may have been caused by the rogues in the North. They were certainly worsened by the incompetent rogues in the South. I wonder whether L de S would agree with these seemingly extreme views of mine. In any case he is eminently equipped to write the definitive post-mortem on the North-South debate.
Our paths converged for about a couple of years around the work we did in connection with the Colombo Non-Aligned Summit of 1976. I must place on record that he made a decisive contribution on the economic side of the Summit. Earlier the economic aspect of the Non—Aligned Movement tended to be dominated by Cuba entailing an imbalance that had to be corrected. L de S was largely responsible for correcting that imbalance at the Colombo Summit. Also he must be given much credit for shifting economic affairs from the periphery to the center stage of the Non-Aligned Movement at the Colombo Summit.
L de S places on record Sri Lanka’s political achievement at the Colombo Summit which has not been sufficiently recognized in Sri Lanka – ironically far less than it was in the US! He was part of the delegation that accompanied Mrs. Bandaranaike to the September 1976 Session of the UN General Assembly. He writes “This was a triumphant visit for the Prime Minister. She had a great reception at the UN General Assembly. Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State met with her to convey their appreciation of her role at the Summit and ensuring that it was a truly Non-Aligned occasion. This attitude of the Prime Minister led to a major improvement in the relations between Sri Lanka and the United States”.
The Government changed in 1977 and there occurred the high noon shoot out which I will deal with after I comment on the third part of the book. It deals in detail with his work as an international consultant for 35 years, mostly with the UN and its bodies. He estimates that he must have undertaken over 150 consultancy assignments, and he writes “I must be the one person in the entire world who had worked as an UN consultant on my own without an institutional base for such a long period and for so many UN bodies and others”. I won’t go into details but merely note the indubitable fact that as an international consultant he was spectacularly successful, probably setting up world records in some ways.
He is laconic about the way he was treated by the 1977 Government. He writes that he gave up the “rat race” for high office and soberly sets out some facts without rancor and without recriminations. He was informed by the new Minister that there was no place for him in the Planning Ministry and he was sent to what was called “the pool”, a system whereby officers were humiliated by being kept doing nothing. He writes “The climate in the higher rungs of the public service at this time was unfriendly, and that of place seeking, and long-standing acquaintances and so-called friends avoided me. ……. It was not the politicians who wanted officers like me removed from their posts. It was other bureaucrats themselves, who were aspiring to new positions in the new Government”.
It often happens that an officer rises to high office through pull and not through merit. That cannot be said of L de S. He was placed first in the written papers for the Civil Service examination but he failed by being placed sixteenth through an iniquitous interview system. Later in an Administrative Service examination also he came first in the written papers. He quotes a very high commendation by an internationally eminent academic, Asa Briggs, about his very exceptional performance in one of the papers for his degree examination. All those details are not the result of boastfulness but an essential part of the story he has to tell. What is his story about? For me it is clear enough. Sri Lanka is still the isle where the spicy breezes blow. But indubitably, in these interesting times, it also stinks. Our purpose should be to make the spicy breezes prevail over the stink. For that purpose Leelananda’s story provides inspiration.

The reviewer is a retired career diplomat who was a member of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service who has served in many parts of the world including as ambassador to the Philippines and Russia. He can be contacted via

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