Narrative with no holds barred | Daily News

Narrative with no holds barred

Book: Impressions: Multifaceted Reflections
Author: Mineka P. Wickramasinghe

In Impressions: Multifaceted Reflections, Mineka P. Wickramasinghe offers his take on the world as he’s seen and lived it. His third book, Impressions is a masterful fete of storytelling and reportage, of critical thoughts and imaginative ideas.

As an elder and a statesman who has lived through much of this country’s turmoil, Wickramasinghe has opinions, strong ones. And he makes them known. His writing evidences that he is deeply patriotic, though some readers—younger ones, especially, educated in a different time, viewing the world through a different or perhaps more cynical lens—might question the conclusions his patriotism leads him to.

Still, one thing is for certain: Wickramasinghe is not shy about expressing his views, even when they go against the grain. He does this in his latest book, as he has done throughout his life.

Wickramasinghe is most renowned in the country for being the founder of Ceylon Biscuits Ltd. He started the company as a young man back in 1968, and spent almost 48 years at its helm, guiding it through turbulent times and cementing its status for posterity as one of the most eminent Sri Lankan brands. Under his leadership, Ceylon Biscuits Ltd. expanded its product line dramatically, including developing the Ritzbury line of chocolates in 1991 and acquiring Lanka Soy in 2000. In 2017, he was awarded the Deshamanya title, the nation’s second-highest national honour given to civilians, for distinguished service of a highly meritorious nature to the nation.

Wickramasinghe retired from CBL nearly three years ago, retaining the position of President Emeritus in the aftermath but allowing himself to spend more time pursuing other passions. One of these passions, according to all who know him, is the written word.

Even as a duly employed Chief Executive Officer of an immense conglomerate, he published two books: The Playmate, a collection of short stories which won the State Literary Prize in the Short Stories category in 1995, and E-Danda, based on the ‘87-’89 insurgency and published in 2010.

Now, his much-awaited third book has finally been released. For anyone invested in the past, present, or future of the country—for anyone eager to gain personal, the playful, the pious, the professional, or the political insight from one of the country’s most prescient and influential minds—Impressions provides much to chew on.

A significant portion of the book, understandable for a work published at the dusk of his career, is occupied by Wickramasinghe’s musings on his tenure at Ceylon Biscuits Ltd. In a speech, reprinted in the book, which he delivered to the MBA Alumni Association in 2009, Wickramasinghe provides a brief outline of the history of CBL. In a speech he gave in 2014 at the opening ceremony of Ceylon Biscuits Bangladesh, also reprinted, he writes about how CBL desired to and eventually did expand beyond Sri Lanka’s borders. He also documents what it takes, in his view, to transform a family business, and the impediments to entrepreneurship of the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement.

The political, too, abounds in Impressions. In “Buddhism Endorsed? The Tolerance of Our Religion,” Wickramasinghe harkens back to the lethal anti-Tamil riots of 1983. Taking a pronouncedly anti-LTTE stance, he writes, “The LTTE seized this opportunity as victims of minority oppression and propagated the terrorist cause. They convinced the Western world to take an anti-Sinhala stand, and won sympathy from the Western press, who called the LTTE ‘freedom fighters.’”

Controversially, Wickramasinghe—in a treatise on Sinhalese tolerance, which he says stems from a commitment to Buddhist principles, that is the heart of this essay—mentions nothing of such discriminatory legislation such as 1956’s Sinhala Only Act, which demonstrably led to Tamil discontent.

Instead, he writes, “The Sinhalese and Tamils have lived peacefully and worked together in predominantly Sinhala territories, because there was no discrimination. They were free of harassment and equally free to mingle, free to walk with their children, free to dress in their traditional wear, free to come home to the safety of their abode, free to make investments, free to practise their professions and free to criticise the Sinhalese openly. There is no fear psychosis amongst the Tamils in Colombo, or in the Deep South.”

This essay, along with the causes and conclusions anointed within it by Wickramasinghe, is sure to be hotly contested and fiercely debated.

Some of the book’s most pleasant moments come when the author gives himself over to the fantastical and fictional. A short story which particularly delights is “The Stranger.” Billed as “a haunting daunting encounter experience,” the story tells of an unidentified man who becomes fixated an older lady he sees walking, sometimes on the streets and sometimes in the woods. No one understands his obsession, least of all himself, but it validates itself slightly when the man sees the women disappear into the cavity of a mango tree.

Wickramasinghe is a storyteller extraordinaire, able to captivate the audience from the first sentence. A devoted follower of the yoga and philosophy of Sri Aurobindo Ghose and the Mother of Pondicherry, India, he says he took to writing as part of his spiritual discipline. His book is boundless: his verbiage exudes a quiet confidence in each topic he undertakes, and he remained unflummoxed and undeterred while narrating on such diverse subject matters as Velupillai Prabhakaran and two-tier sales taxes.

Throughout, an aura of prescience permeates his prose. Words written decades and years and months ago feel newly relevant each passing day. One essay, in particular, is sure to bring sly smiles to all who read it. “Aussies Down and Under: The Unprofessionalism of Professionals” is undated, but the book was published in February of this year—a full month before members of the Australian cricket team were caught on camera using sandpaper to tamper with a ball during a test match against South Africa in Johannesburg.

And yet Wickramasinghe’s critique of the behavior of Australia’s cricket team is as applicable now, perhaps even more so, than it ever has been in the past.

“Was it professionalism, which enabled the Aussies to succeed?” he asks in the essay. He writes of earlier cricket seasons, in which baseless ball tampering accusations were lobbed against Muttiah Muralitharan, and the entire Sri Lankan team was bemoaned and ridiculed by Australians.

“Time and again some commentators and journalists tried to ridicule us — Sri Lankans eat rice and chicken bones; Hashan Tillakaratne cannot afford to pay hotel laundry and gives the laundry bags to his friend to wash at home; Ranatunga comes from the outstation and travel by bus for cricket practice; Sanath Jayasuriya is a village lad from a poor background; Muralitharan’s father sold confectionary on the pavement to educate his son.”

Wickramasinghe concludes, “No one wants to lose but an overwhelming fact is that the English and their cast-off brothers, Aussies, are very bad losers.”

How right he was, though how prescient his essay would become just a month after his book’s publication, Wickramasinghe could not have known. At least, though, there’s this: Mineka P. Wickramasinghe, with the publication of his expansive, no holds barred third book, is having the last laugh.


 

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