Hugh Karunanayake, … with the title and the highlighting being impositions by The Editor, Thuppahi
Nihal Seneviratne, the former Secretary General of Sri Lanka’s Parliament which he served with distinction and diligence for 33 years, has published his autobiographical memoir entitled “Memories of 33 years in Parliament”. Written in a very readable, chatty style of prose, it is indeed a compendium of the highlights of the nation’s legislative workings over the past three decades.
If anyone dares to call the nation’s Parliament a “circus”, then surely the Secretary General, together with the Speaker must be the “ringmasters’ of the circus! It is most definitely a vantage point from which a person appointed under the Constitution of the country, as Secretary General of Parliament, could view the inner dynamics of the workings of an institution entrusted by the people to guide the destinies of this fair island of ours. Any unbiased reader of this book will conclude that the author was eminently suitable for the role, given his honesty, impartiality, tact, and above all the intellectual capacity to handle “the unexpected.” A read through the book will reveal how “the unexpected” manifested itself many a time, and how the amiable Secretary General rose to the occasion in dealing with the issues which may have taken a toll on a person with lesser make up.
The author Nihal Seneviratne, now in his 88th year, is blessed both with a remarkably retentive memory and the capacity to analyse and review major legislative events in the country over the past three decades; a task he has performed so eminently in this publication.. The author was educated at the Royal Primary School and Royal College, Colombo from where he joined the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya as a student in the then newly established Law faculty. Arming himself with a Bachelor of Laws degree three years later, he was on the cusp to enroll in one of the Ivy league Universities in the USA for which he had obtained a Smith Mundt scholarship, when a serendipitous turn of events saw him employed in his first job as Second Clerk Assistant in the Parliament of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in 1961. He was interviewed for the position by Dudley Senanayake, then leader of the House of Representatives, and the Speaker RS Pelpola. Dudley read out Nihal’s Royal College background and curriculum vitae and quipped “Young man you have done very well in your school. The only thing is that you went to the wrong school” to which the young Nihal may have been prompted to say ”Sir, I went to the right school, you went to the wrong school.” However, discretion, as they say, is the better part of valour, so young Nihal held back, showing remarkable tact and maturity, qualities that shone throughout his career as the most senior official in Sri Lanka’s Parliament for years to come.
The author during his 33 years as a parliamentary official of which 13 years were spent as Secretary General of Parliament, the nation’s foremost institution and source of its legislative enactments and governance, was privileged to have a ‘ ringside’ view of the major events that occurred during the last three decades. Some of them since mired by partial unsubstantiated accounts, and others simply forgotten through the mists of the dim distant past, are now presented In this book with the stamp of authority of the former Secretary General himself. These include such momentous events like the hand grenade attack in Parliament which took the life of one MP and almost that of the Minister for Security Lalith Athulathmudali; the events surrounding the loss of civic rights of Mrs Bandaranaike, “a stranger in the chamber’ and the unique exercise of authoritarian power by conducting a trial of two journalists by Parliament for doing their duty, and other episodes now almost rubbed out of the nation’s psyche with more startling contemporaneous issues.
This book also throws some light on the mores of our leaders in dealing with Parliamentary staff. The author is universally and affectionately known by his nickname “Galba” acquired in school at Royal College, a name that has withstood the tests of time. The genesis of that acquisition is dealt with in an amusing aside to his story. It is interesting to note that leaders like Mrs Bandaranaike and Premadasa, always addressed him as Nihal, while Felix Dias Bandaranaike a contemporary of the author called him by his nickname ”Galba’. The redoubtable Colvin R de Silva who is generally more egalitarian in other spheres of his life, was however wont to address him by the more formal and hierarchical “Seneviratne”.
The book is replete with photographs on his travels overseas and his encounters with world leaders he was privileged to meet, notes on his parents and family including references to his late elder brother Nissanka known as “Bull” in Royal College. Nissanka after qualifying as a physician worked as the Professor of Physiology together with Professor ACE Koch in the University prompting students to refer to the department as the “Cock and Bull story”!! Also included in the book are some glimpses and vignettes about little known aspects of some prominent politicians.
There is much more for any reader — tales disconnected with political life, all of which makes this publication a very enjoyable and interesting read. Anyone who wishes to refer to the legislative history of Sri Lanka during the past half century should lose no time in acquiring this lucidly written and well compiled book.
Prasanna Cooray: “Nihal Seneviratne’s Memories of 33 Years in Parliament,” 5 May 2022, https://island.lk/nihal-seneviratnes-memories-of-33-years-in-parliament/