Uncles in the Palace : Sri Lankan Civil Servants – a Personal History of Government Service


Cheers around the table lifts him to his feet. Years later I will remember the moments that followed. First for what happened. Later for what it symbolised about Sri Lankan history. About what that history did to a certain generation. To all of us. Time will blur some details. Yet the symbolism will gel into a shorthand that cuts through many Sri Lankan complications.

Such things are beyond me when he finally stands, swaying. A cigarette in limp fingers. Thin lined face already far way. The small room folds into an expectant hush. A fly hops among the table’s forest of empty Lion Lager and arrack bottles. The ceiling fan beats hopelessly against the afternoon heat. Further out, you can just hear the musical toots of traffic.

He takes a slight breath, and fills the room with a song from Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s Maname. I had heard the song too many times. Yet the voice turns the words into the most beautiful flow of sound and meaning I had ever heard. An audio perfume smothering the table’s reek of a hot rice and curry lunch. His singing freezes time into a long happy moment. A refuge that lifts you lotus like above the mud of daily life. Then the song ends. The singer drops to his chair. His audience fall from their moment in heaven to thump applause on the formica.

I am the stunned kid across the table. Sucking on a lukewarm Necto next to my father. Until the song I was bored out of my mind. Lost and ignored in this company of uncles. My father’s friends from his government service days. Practically all had met at university – the golden age of their lives. This is a long postponed reunion. Talk lurching from how old everyone looks to recollections. Tales of obscure events, antics and people in ways I was too young to understand. It was the last time I saw them all together.

They looked quite old even then. Hair (if any) thinned to strands and going white. A few valiant comb-overs despite postures slumped by invisible burdens. These I would later over hear in a trickle of eavesdropped conversations. When they used to “drop by” on my father as a form of refuge. To unload the latest tale of woe. The things the minister’s appointed goons are doing to the department/ministry/corporation.

Shocking tales of indignities. Election thuggery in the once hushed realms of departmental offices. A politician’s favoured brute hauling a respected senior engineer out of his chair by his shirt collars. The rest of the staff cowed in shock and horror. Promotions of clueless yes men. Research swatted away because the resulting policy was inconvenient to the minister’s family business. After all you don’t get into politics to go broke.

The most dispiriting of all is when lazy ignorance or vested interests of the powerful become policy. Leaving talented minds to rot reading newspapers at their desks. Expensive machinery rusting in the weeds, and institutions fading into irrelevance. Tales of waste, neglect, missed opportunities and vicious office politics of increasing pettiness. All told with too many sighs, emphasised by the body language of despair. Kiyala Vaduck Na (no point talking about it).

Not a world for these scholars of Pali, Statistics, Sanskrit, History, Economics. They can move easily between Kālidāsa, Keynes, Irrigation Policy and Chaucer. Calmly analyse things in the methodical manner expected of true civil servants. These are the kinds of people Jack Point says should keep the country running. But they are hopeless in the cesspit of patronage politics.

Yet they some-how managed to rise. After all, someone still had to do the work. A rung below the deputy director of this or the assistant commissioner of that. They were the people who actually read the horrifying details and crafted palatable compromises. Disaster was unavoidable. They just did what they could to soften the catastrophe. Often while keeping one’s integrity above the sewage of politics flowing through government bureaucracies. Some splatter was unavoidable.

They could have made a killing. Got the children into better universities. Driven something flashier than a battered Lancers and Corolla. At least keep the office car and driver for “personal use”. They wouldn’t have any of that. Another chat with my father on the road while they waited for a taxi home. Another feeble act of defiance against the “reality” of the times. Which took its toll. Recorded in hair loss, rumpled faces and poor health.

So where does that after lunch song come into all this?

Songs from any of Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s plays have a special place in their generation. It brings back the idealism of their youth. A cultured, happy time, full of hope. The kind of world view created by a civilised university life. Marked by open air theatre performances that celebrated a heady mix of optimism and possibility.

A time when contributing to one’s country was a palpable reality. They worked diligently at it. Put in late nights in government offices. Their reward: front row seats in the country’s decline into tragedy during the last half of the 20th century.

These songs are this generation’s shorthand to the hopes their life’s work were not in vain. That the ideas they dedicated their lives were not a mirage. The songs are links to a time that still perks them up. After an evening of familiar sad tales, my father would steer the conversation to recollections of the old days. I would catch a laugh. Then a reference about one of those performances. Friends who met and got married after performing in one of those plays. He in the chorus, she a first time supporting role. How good they were…

Now these uncles have managed to reach the shores of retirement. They keep in touch with the protégés they left behind to plug the cracks in the dam. The tales of woe are now told with the air of “lucky it is not my nightmare anymore”.

These nocturnal visits have had their practical uses. Part of a web of relationships that got things done quickly without a bribe. Clarify some contradictory regulation. An application form processed at giddying speeds. “Lost” files found after a phone call to the right person. Clerks who are unbelievably polite when the unfortunate need to go to a government office arose.

I wouldn’t call them heroes. But there is something heroic in their response to tragedy. Along with a measure of naïveté that the cynic in me cannot understand. It is too complicated for words at the moment. Writing about it without even hinting at specifics is particularly hard. But that complexity gives way into some sort of wordless empathy. Whenever I remember those battered faces in that dining room, lost in a song of their youth.

The title of this post comes an Ottoman phrase: “barba sto palati” (uncle in the palace). It refers to the benefits of having an older benefactor close to the centre of power. An essential relationship particularly in a feudal society like ours. I picked up the reference in the Allan Furst masterpiece “Spies of the Balkans“. Well worth the read.

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8 thoughts on “Uncles in the Palace : Sri Lankan Civil Servants – a Personal History of Government Service

  1. interesting post as always. what do you think our generation’s legacy is going to be? r even what is the defining set of songs that elicit a memory of a happier time. i was debating with a friend if (and it is a very big if) we (as a country) were not happier during the war years (minus the security situation)?

    1. That’s actually a profoundly tricky question. I think the answer will hang heavily on one’s cultural/social class experience. Or maybe that’s an easy cop out.

      What did the conversation with your friend uncover?

  2. This is a brilliant post, Cerno. I’ve only caught vague glimpses of this generation, but you’ve managed to convey so much history and emotion in a short post.

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