Not necessarily something smoked, the Bosun’s pipe was a special little metal whistle “piped” by the Quartermaster on board any Navy Vessel in order to get the attention of the Ship’s Crew, before any announcement was made, (sounding like a thin long shriek of a demented mouse), or simply to announce the arrival of an Officer on the Quarterdeck of a Ship. The Officer in question, would then stand at attention, salute no-one in particular, and “come aboard”, so to speak.
What has all this got to do with this most interesting article on a gifted Novelist named Somasiri Devendra ?, well, everything really, because it is all about his latest Novel.
“A Man Called Ceylon”, has just been published and undoubtedly will be on the shopping list of any avid reader. As everyone probably knows, this writer was also in the Royal Ceylon Navy, before resigning to migrate to Australia, but unfortunately did not get the chance to meet Somasiri Devendra personally. He is a superb Writer, one who has written a few other popular books as well, following in the footsteps of both his Father and Grandfather, Somasiri has “been there & done that”, from being a proud Navy Man, elevating himself into the field of Marine Archaeology. The Man Called Ceylon will be an exceptional read, I am sure.
Call of the sea From Navy to maritime archaeologist, Somasiri Devendra comes full circle – By Sajitha Prematunge
The title ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon” derives from the sea-faring days of his maternal grandfather, Lloyd Aswald, who was referred to as ‘Ceylon’ by his shipmates in whichever ship he sailed in, because he was always the only Ceylonese on board. In fact, his penchant for all things water-related, from sunken archaeological treasures to vernacular watercraft, Somasiri Devendra admits, may have been inspired by his grandfather.
Although a book about watercraft, ‘A man called ‘Ceylon” does not run the risk of reading like a research paper, and as the writer himself admits in one chapter, is rather a narrative. It is by no means heady with technical jargon, and is quite readable even for those who haven’t the slightest interest in ships.
His ‘Yesterday is Another Country’ is a collection of autobiographical short stories and he edited his father’s notes about his childhood into ‘The Way We Grew’. But his personal favourite is ‘Two to Tango’, because it is intensely personal, being about his first time living in a village between age 11 and 14. ‘We must have a Navy’ never hit the bookshops because the publishing was undertaken by SL Navy and was sold out within the navy itself. He admits that ‘From Wooden Walls to Ironclads’ was a labour of love.
The articles he wrote to various newspapers between books have been collected in his latest ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”. According to the Forward, the reminiscences, investigations and fantasies had been written, at different times for readers of different ages. Most of the chapters being individual articles previously published, are standalone stories in their own right and could easily be enjoyed even out of context. The book is divided roughly into two parts. The first half, ‘Waterways and Watercraft’, draws upon Devendra’s mother’s awakening of ‘the watery element’ in him. The second half of the book ‘Heritage and History’ is his father’s legacy. “Some of them are serious, some great adventures,” said Devendra, the passage titled VVT Tahiti & The Ghost of the Bounty for example. Devendra admits that the voyage of discovery took many years to put together.
VVT Tahiti & The Ghost of the Bounty is about a ship built in Jaffna, originally named ‘Annapooranymal’ and later renamed Florence C. Robinson known as a ‘tidy little vessel, built of honest workmanship and good hard-wood’ that withstood hurricanes and doldrums, fire in the galley, shredded sails, broken bilge pumps and a malfunctioning auxiliary engine. And where’s the adventure without a ‘man overboard’ scare! She was sailed by an all Jaffna crew from Valvettithurai to Boston, US. “It is the longest voyage made by a sailing ship at the time. It was last recorded to have been used in the copra trade and no further information has surfaced since then,” said Devendra.
It is all the more intriguing due to the fact that it was quite similar in design to HMS Bounty of the Mutiny on the Bounty fame. According to Devendra, it was not entirely home-grown and may also have been heavily influenced by South Indian ship building technology at the time. “There were Indo-Arab boats as well.” The fully home-grown version was the Yathra Dhoni or Maha Oruwa, last of which was Amugoda Oruwa, which perished on a reef off Male, according to the chapter ‘The Mansions of the Sea’. Each of these watercraft types have been meticulously detailed in the book. Devendra surmised that the vernacular tradition was pre-Vijayan, which originated in the forested region with large rivers in the South-West of the country.
His expertise of the watercraft is evident throughout the narrative peppered with nautical lingo such as ”Seventy-five to hundred foot freighters…rigged with jib, main and mizzen sails, rudder and a sturdy outrigger’, ‘…schooner-rigged two-master, 89′ on deck, with a 33′ jib boom…beam of 19′ and a draught of only 8’, ‘greater beam and draft…fully rigged…not a Frigate but a converted Collier…fitted with an auxiliary (50 HP Belinda Marine) engine’, so on and so forth. It may sound like gibberish to the layman, but all this talk of sunken, marooned and altogether missing ships is strangely reminiscent of the ‘The Ghost from the Grand Banks’, the 1990 science fiction novel by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. It makes one wonder if Devendra and the underwater explorer in Clarke would have hit it off instantly, had they been acquainted.
The book as a whole is a pleasurable read, notwithstanding a few typos. Even the little anecdotes that deviate completely from the main story, such as that of one-time skipper of Florence C, Sterling Hayden, who went from being a high school drop out, fisherman, ship mate, Hollywood sweetheart, to decorated war hero and finally writer, is quite intriguing. The Gujarati lore about the Ceylonese bride and the Gujarati prince is another interesting anecdote, retold in ‘The Other Princess Padma’. As the Gujarati saying goes, ‘Like a bride from Ceylon and a groom from Gujarat’, a Ceylonese princess winds up marrying a Gujarati prince, despite the Princess’ father’s best efforts to prevent it. The old WW II story, ‘The Surrender’, of how an Italian warship surrendered to Ceylonese Navy, has been sourced from an old Navy veteran. The Italian government had decided to surrender by then and all its naval units have been ordered to turn themselves into the nearest Allied Forces. It was a historic event, despite the uneventful surrender.
In ‘The Island of Fate’ Devendra explores the irksome possibility that disciplining in the colonial era depended on colour. The Cocos Island mutineers, the only dissenters who were executed, who all happened to be Ceylonese, was a case in point. A contingent of Ceylon Garrison Artillery was posted to Cocos Island off Australia in September 1939, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. They mutinied and were duly executed. The investigation undertaken by journalist Noel Crusz culminated in 2001 in the book ‘The Cocos Islands Mutiny’. Devendra has placed it in the socio-economic context of Sri Lanka at the time.
Devendra retired from the Navy in 1976, but duty called 20 years later during the war. The Chapter ‘The Forests of the Night’ is the culmination of his service in the Navy during Operation Riviresa as the Deputy Commandant of a volunteer force with a very specific goal. “Riviresa was launched with the objective of retaking Jaffna.” Devendra, et al, were tasked with raising a corps of approximately 10,000 volunteers to send to the Eastern Front, to relieve regular troops so they could be retasked in the North, a quixotic scheme he admits, with more gung-ho than common sense. After much cajoling and promises of honour, they ended up with half the number of volunteers they needed. With only three weeks left for training, the only guns available to them to train with were World War II .303 rifles and factory rejects for uniforms. But the quixotic operation, held together by a ‘string and a prayer’ actually worked and in six months Jaffna was retaken, all without losing a single volunteer.
Devendra hypothesises that the local sense of respect for trees derives from our pre-Buddhist animistic culture and an impetus was provided by the gratitude the Buddha expressed to the Bo tree. The passage ‘Caring for a tree’ explores this symbiotic relationship with trees. In it he describes how his inquisitiveness led him to discover a tombstone-like upright stone slab by the Wellawatta bridge, with indiscernible writing. As it turned out, the slab had been erected by one Sophia Marshall in 1820, before Ceylon was even a crown colony, in gratitude of a banyan tree. Perhaps she was an earlier day ‘ruk rekaganna’, mused Devendra. “What’s amazing is that someone went to the trouble of getting it carved and erected there.”
Sophia nee Brooke, daughter of St. Helena Governor, Col. Robert Brooke, married Henry Augustus Marshall and moved to Ceylon in 1798. The Banyan tree as well as Sophia is long gone but it is rather ironic that her ‘so human act of caring’ is etched in lifeless stone thus;
“To him whose gracious aim in mercy bends,
And light and shade to all alike extends,
Who guards the traveler of his weary way,
Shelters from storm and shades from solar ray,
Breathe one kind wish for her, one Pious prayer,
Who made this sheltering tree her guardian care,
Fenced in from rude attacks the pendent shoots,
Nourished and framed its tender, infant shoots,
Traveler, if from milder climes you rove
How dearly will you prize this Indian grove.
Pause then, awhile, and ere you ass it by,
Give to Sophia’s name one grateful sigh.
The intensely visual imagery in the narrative of ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”, ‘full bellied sails’, for example, is reminiscent of his brother, Tissa Devendra’s accounts of a bygone age in ‘On Horseshoe Street: More Tales from the Provinces’, although the junior Devendra admits considerable differences in their writing style. Literary talents obviously run in the family and everyone concedes that Ransiri Menike Silva, the younger sister is by far the most prolific. Although the Devendras were, as they say, ‘English educated’, had a good taste of the village life. This is evident in their collective writings, in the authenticity of descriptions on village life, from Tissa’s ‘On Horseshoe Street’, Ransiri Menike Silva’s Worm’s Eye View to Somasiri Devendra’s ‘A man called ‘Ceylon” itself.
Devendra, in his own words, is the ‘proverbial rolling stone’, a man of many talents who cannot seem to sit idle. A graduate of the first batch of University of Ceylon, now Peradeniya University, in 1955, he was a school teacher before being commissioned an Instructor Officer in the then Royal Ceylon Navy in 1960 and wound up a Commandant, Naval & Maritime Academy, Trincomalee.
Much like his brother, Tissa and sister, Ransiri Menike, who started taking writing seriously only in her 40s but went on to clinch the State Literary Award, Somasiri Devendra found his calling, archaeology, after retirement, first from the Navy, after 17 years of service, then an illustrious career as a company director. Soon after leaving the Navy and joining Somerville & Co. Ltd., Sri Lanka’s oldest firm of Share and Produce Brokers, Devendra climbed up the corporate ladder to make director. He was also a founding Director of the then fledgling Colombo Stock Exchange. “The adventures of the mercantile forest ultimately gave me heart trouble,” said Devendra.
The resourceful man that he is, Devendra did not want to spend the rest of his life idling. Consequently, he decided to take up the investigation of local maritime heritage as a full-time occupation. Few would believe that a career change at 55 is feasible, but not for Devendra, who, as a child, used to tag along with his archaeologist father, D.T. Devendra, on his excursions in search of ruins in the jungle. He defines the period after retirement, as the most fruitful period of his life. In addition to dabbling with archaeology for the first time, he wrote prolifically, anything from books to feature article to the paper.
“I started attending international conferences on archaeology of my own volition and meeting people from different parts of the world was interesting.” Devendra noted that, unlike people from most other countries, as a people, Sri Lankans were more aware of our own heritage. A pariah in the field of archaeology, notwithstanding his father’s legacy, Devendra wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. All the government institutions wanted him, because they recognised the fact that he could get things done, but couldn’t technically offer him a job, because he was over 55.
“I didn’t represent any university department, and funding restrictions were to be expected,” said Devendra. Luckily foreign institutions took note and invited him to more conferences, some even offering funding. His fascination with archaeology lead him to the most unexpected places such as Jamaica, Mozambique, Hawaii, Taiwan and Germany.
But he caught his biggest break while training a student group for the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology on underwater archaeology, in Galle, with the help of an Australian maritime museum. “The Australian trainers, who happened to have a lot of time on their hands, discovered that the Galle harbour was strewn with shipwrecks, so why not investigate they suggested,” said Devendra. He readily complied. Between 1992 and 1994, the project continued on a shoestring budget, until Minister of Cultural Affairs Lakshman Jayakody visited Galle, was impressed with the project, asked around for a point man, was directed to Devendra and later called in with an offer of funding. “It was several millions and a lot more than we could hope to squeeze out of any government department’s accounts division!” chuckled Devendra. A project plan was drawn up by Devendra and by the time the money was passed, they already had a team in place, and the money was utilised to buy much needed equipment.
From the Navy to corporate director and finally maritime archaeologist read how this multifaceted man came full circle, in ‘A Man Called ‘Ceylon”.