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An introduction to theatre

Mr. Sidambarapillai, our Chief Clerk summoned the others in the vicinity too, to share the joke. "I say, Shanmugavadivel, I say Jayalath, I say Weerasuriya, come come. I have something very funny to tell you..." And all those summoned came and stood around Mr. S's table, looking very serious. Poor Mr. Murugesan was at a loss completely and as usual, he looked as if he was about to cry.

"Look Jayalath" continued Mr. S (Jayalath was in charge of transfers) "I gave this chap Jayasena to Murugesu, because he said he had a lot of work. And Jayasena was found to be reading books while on duty. (There were scandalized heaves at this point by those who had come to listen) When I asked him Jayasena tells me that he read a book because he had no work to do! (more heaves)

Because he likes reading I ordered Murugesu to give him all the newspapers that we buy for official purposes, all the gazettes and circulars and all the other junk we receive for him to read and report, and now Murugesu tells me that Jayasena enjoys reading them!" Mr. S. pauses for effect, looks around and asks - "Now what to do you think of that...!"

The audience looks stunned and the general consensus is conveyed in one voice. "Why, that's scandalous Sir...!" So, what do we do now?" Asks a mischievously pleased Mr. S. "Let's transfer him, Sir" suggests the transfer man Jayalath. "Let's send him back to CCE's office," says another. "But apparently he does his work well..." says Mr. S. "I say Jayalath, where can we transfer him?" "Let's transfer him to the Contracts branch Sir. There is a vacancy there Sir," says Jayalath.

Transfer

And so, I was transferred to what was called the Contracts branch. And that was where I met my life-long friend, confidante and buddy - Kapilasena Wijetunga. It was to Kapila that I was assigned to, to learn the work of the Contracts branch by Mr. Periyathamby, head of the branch. It did not take me long to learn the work.

It was all about contract work given to private contractors who were registered with the Public Works Dept. For any Govt. building that cost over Rs. 30,000 tenders were called. There were several categories of contractors according to their prestige and financial status. These constructions entrusted to private contractors were supervised by Engineers, Inspectors and Sub Inspectors employed by the Dept.

My friend Kapilasena was the tender-clerk, meaning the secretary of the all powerful tender board. That post was given only to a very highly trusted officer because it involved safeguarding the tenders until opening day, secrecy of the results and a whole lot of other responsibilities.

Kapila was the man unanimously chosen for the job because of his honesty, integrity and reliability. Kapila was a very popular and much sought after man of the PWD head office those days - meaning the fifties and sixties. He was Asst. Secy. to the PWD Thrift Society, Secy. to the Recreation Club and Treasurer to the PWD branch of the GCSU - General Clerical Service Union.

I will come back to the PWD, its 'Contracts System' and other things as occasion arises. Right now I want to speak about my friend Kapilasena Wijetunga, for a very special reason. It was he who introduced me to drama in Colombo. He knew about my madness about the stage and dramatic activity - I had told him in the process of our friendship.

We had two very powerful trade unionists - in fact the most powerful trade unionists of the day - in our union, the PWD branch of the GCSU, at that time. They were K. C. Nithyananthan and I. J. Wickrema.

One day, at the end of one of our union meetings, Kapila introduced me to both of them as a new member of the union. K. C. Nithyananthan took one look at me and said jokingly, "I say, Kapila this chap should be on the stage or the screen. What the hell is he doing here?" "He is, in fact very interested in the stage.." Kapila replied politely and respectfully. "I say, Kapila..." said I. J. Wickrema as he shook my hand.

"I can help this young man. I know just the right person to introduce him to. We have a member by the name of Arnold Wickramasuriya in the Health Department at the Secretariat who is also a drama man. And I am aware that right now they are getting ready to do a new play. I can introduce your friend to him." "That's very kind of you I.J." replied Kapile.

Trade unionists

And that is exactly what happened. The very next week I. J. Wickrema took me to meet Mr. Arnold Wickramasuriya.

Actually trade unionists such as Nithyananthan and Wickrema were not assigned any duties by their places of work. They were paid by the respective departments, but allowed to do full time trade union work. That's how powerful they were at that time.

I am not sure whether the same situation prevails now.

It was only a hop step and a jump - more-or-less - from the PWD to the Secretariat. It was lunch time and Wickrema and I took the short cut. We climbed a few steps from behind the PWD garages and crossed the road from near the roundabout and proceeded towards the Secretariat.

It was there that the Ministry of Health was housed. We took the rickety old escalator to the second floor and Wickrema proceeded along a rather long corridor, with me trailing behind. He entered a huge hall-like office which was divided into little compartments by placing wooden screens in a rather haphazard manner. The place was noisy - being lunch time.

Finally we stood near a blue capped large table at which a man with square shoulders, a head of silver-grey hair and bushy eye brows was seated. He was engaged in some work and did not look up until Wickrema cleared his throat. The man looked up and smiled. His face looked as if it was hewn out of granite with a broad forehead which wrinkled when he smiled.

The smile also wrinkled his square, powerful face, which attracted one's attention instantly. "Arnold" Wickrema addressed him with joviality but with respect. "Arnold, I want you to take over this young man." Arnold Wickramasuriya pushed the chair back and stood up to shake hands and I noticed that he was a very tall man - perhaps six feet.

He stood very erect, his slim body in a powerful frame standing a good foot above us. He smiled with a mouth full of dentures and shook our hands. "Take over a young man?" He poked Wickrema in the ribs. "I say, Wickrema I have four daughters to feed and a wife. Not to speak of sundry relatives who drop in at regular intervals. No, Wickrema, I can't take over anymore. Not even a nice young chap. I can't afford it....!" And he laughed raucously.

"I heard you are doing a new play, Arnold," responded Wickrema unmoved by the playful charade. "This chap here, Henry Jayasena, I am told is a good actor. And looking for a chance to get on stage."

Thought of the week

I have nothing against modernization. The string of what are called 'Supermarkets' are also part and parcel of this modernization. There are so many in Colombo, in the suburbs and even in the outstations, that you almost bump into them. Some say it's like home and others say it's always a little less - whether measure or charges I do not know.

They have everything from super goods, to expensive liquor, rice, dhal, sugar, curd - even the 'keera mitiya' for which were depended all this time on the keera karaya or the 'elavalu amma'. Fish and meat are invitingly displayed in glass cases and there are no flies to be seen. Everything is sanitized.

All this is fine. And very slick and modern. But I am going to miss the 'keera karaya', the 'elavalu amma' and the door to door fisherman, when they will be driven out of business by these giants. And I am going to miss the week-end 'Pola' which is also likely to vanish in a few year's time.

They were part and parcel of our chatty lives for so long. Our women even enjoyed a little bit of gossip with some of these characters. It is sad we have replaced an integral part of our culture - to 'modernity. I hope I will not live to see the day the last of them vanish.

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