Recalling a post-colonial past
Retired higher public servant and a scion of distinguished family in
the country and a man of versatility in writing possessing subtle humour
and affection in him, Tissa Devendra is much known in the country as the
former Chairman of the Public Service Commission and Salaries
Commission. But his interest in the arts and literature are not much
known. He is an author of five books in English. More than two decades
ago he had scripted a TV documentary on the late George Keyt, a Lanka's
pride in art.
My late father Kailayar Sellanainar began his public service career
as a Land Clerk in the Batticaloa (Maddakkalappu) Kachcheri before he
rose up to higher positions in government departments.
This came to my mind when I read that Cambridge scholar Tissa began
as a cadet in the then Ceylon Civil Service in Land Kachcheris.
Tissa is a clever storyteller with amusing anecdotes that keep the
reader entertained. Some of his articles and memoirs are collected in a
book form titled Memoirs of a Penpusher with added tagline - Kachcheries
and Commissions published elegantly by Vijitha Yapa Publications.
The book runs to 154 pages. The cover picture is a Fresco from
Kataluwa temple of a local official of the early British colonial
period. There are photos, illustrations and sketches included.
I first met Tissa Devendra in the studios of the then Radio Ceylon in
the early 1960s when I was also a participant in a weekly program
originally titled 'The Arts This Week', compiled and presented by the
late Vernon Abeysekera and produced by Delorine Brohier.
Many distinguished elite critics and broadcasters contributed to this
Vernon Abeysekera, as some of our senior readers might remember, was
a senior civil servant very much interested in the arts and produced
I liked Tissa Devendra's reviews of English films over the air as
they were amusingly and attractively scripted and was free from highbrow
analysis. They were simple and entertaining. Since then I appreciate his
writing in the newspapers.
In this book T D clearly defines what he had opted to do. Says he:
"My title 'Kachcheries and Commissions' is self-explanatory. The
first section is an insider's overview of the institution in which I
spent most of my working life.
It is, most definitely, not an academic treatise and is coloured by
personal experiences 'to point a moral, or adorn a tale'.
"The second section draws on the work that my colleagues and I did in
the Public Service Commission, the Salaries Commission and the aborted
National Council for Administration. The ripples caused by some of these
activities have been recorded as well. Some articles written in
reflective mode are also included."
As for me I liked the first section better as it was more interesting
than the second which is devoid of imaginative rendition of actualities
in creative fashion whereas the latter part of the book is of interest
to understand the politics of administration.
Very useful notes on fragments of pre and post-independence Lankan
history are recoded in the foreword by retired Secretary General of
Parliament Sam Wijesinha. Young students should benefit.
One must read the book to enjoy it. Judiciously I have avoided
quotations from the book.
At the launch of this book another by the same author at the National
Libraries Board last Friday (March 4, 2011) a large number of
distinguished administrators and other VIPs were present.
Minister Dr Sarath Amunugama, former secretary to the late President
Premadasa, Malay language studies scholar Saldin, former editor and
publisher Vijitha Yapa and the author Tissa Devendra entertained the
audience with their fine speeches delivered in a light vein manner
relating to Tissa's anecdotes in the book and an estimation of his
contribution to the public service in the country.