Destination Colombo (1981)

While stationed at Nagpur in March 1980 I was asked by my departmental headquarters for my willingness to undergo training at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA). As I had been at Nagpur for more than two and a half years and as I had never undergone any kind of training after the Foundational Course in the National Academy of Administration around couple of decades earlier I readily conveyed my willingness. I was told it would fetch some extra money in the shape of deputation allowance and that there could also be a short trip abroad. An extra Rs. 300/- may appear like peanuts today but in the days of salaries of a thousand and odd it was substantial. And the lure of going abroad then was immense as one could hardly go out of the country on one’s own.

The orders took a while in coming. It was held up in June in the PMO because of unexpected death of Sanjay Gandhi. Naturally for a few days such minor matters as that of training of mid-level civil servants were pushed into the background. Nevertheless, the orders arrived in time for me to join what is known as Advanced Professional Programme on Public Administration (APPPA) – a programme of nine months for mid-career training in administration and management. That eventually it turned out to be a programme mostly for those ‘hangers on’ of pretty senior levels who either were not willing to go out of Delhi or were not acceptable anywhere in the government is another story. There were very few of my kind.

Towards the end of 1980 we were told that the foreign trip was on and that it would cover three neighbouring countries. So in March 1981 we were off to Colombo via Madras on my first trip abroad. Going past the customs in those days was a big hassle and camera, if any, had to be noted down in the passport to be checked again on arrival back. The meagre foreign exchange sanctioned was already noted there. For a 50 minute flight more time was taken in completing the pre-departure formalities. We were in a highly controlled and virtually sealed country and yet, ironically, smuggling was rampant of items that had heavy customs duty imposed on them.

As the flight approached Colombo it appeared as if we were flying over a carpet of green. So dense was the plantation of coconut palms right through that it appeared like green baize. The Colombo airport appeared much better organised than what our Palam was in those days. There were well arranged rows of shops and for the first time I saw orchids. These were being sold from a shop stuffed with a variety of exotic flowers and among them were the orchids. Sri Lanka is reputed to have 150-odd species of orchids.

The local High Commission had arranged for our stay in the Sri Lanka Oberon hotel – a five-star outfit. I was put in a good room with a huge ceiling-to-floor window overlooking green spaces skirting which I periodically see a light rail puffing by. My companion in the double room was P Upendra, then of the Indian Railways, who later became a politico, eventually becoming the right-hand man of NT Rama Rao and later of VP Singh in whose government at the Centre he was appointed the Minister for Information & Broadcasting.

The Hotel was fabulous but our allowances did not allow us to avail of all its facilities. We used to get what in those days was known as the split rate – the hotel being paid for by the High Commission/Embassy and a highly inadequate balance was disbursed to us that made even taking breakfast in it unaffordable. We had to perforce eat out off the small street joints which – unlike ours – were clean, hygienic and well-regulated. Their prawn curry was fiery but delicious.

A visit to the department of public administration the next day was very rewarding. The Secretary of the department was very knowledgeable, articulate and suave. Perhaps an Oxonian, he didn’t have that Sri Lankan slant. A very clear-headed man, he gave us a superb coverage in a few minutes about all that his department was doing for appointments of personnel, their training and administration.
Later, we happened to visit the small Academy of Administrative Studies which was an establishment like our IIPA but far too small. It used to train freshers as well as those already in the government. With the IIPA in Delhi perhaps they need not have duplicated the facilities. It, however, became pretty clear the Lankans were not quite prepared to seek assistance of India in such matters. From conversations with them I surmised that they much preferred to get their officers trained in England in administrative matters and for technical matters Japan was the country for them. For research in matters relating to, say, rice they sent their agricultural scientists to Japan when they had a Rice Research Institute closer home in India.  Curiously, the Sri Lankan government did not send any officer in our APPPA although we had two Bangladeshi officers and another of the Malaysian Administrative & Diplomatic services, a Chinese Malaysian. Perhaps, they found India too “Big Brotherly”. In word and deed the Indian government may have on certain occasion(s) given them that impression advertently or inadvertently.

Japan was a country with which they had, apparently, very close relations. Japan was in those days mecca of technology. Its technological boom was, however, missed by India because of, inter alia, our xenophobia. In Sri Lanka they were very much in business then and, for instance, they had put up a Noritake pottery with local collaboration. Noritake, as is well-known, is a famous name the world over for its fine bone-china and porcelain tableware. Noritake Sri Lanka, too, was producing stuff which the best of Indian pottery could not have matched at that time.

Most interesting, however, was the spice market. I am forgetting its name. Perhaps it was Pettah Market. Sri Lanka, like South India, produces all kinds of spices of superb quality. I had never before seen spices, particularly, cardamom, cloves or cinnamon of this quality and in such quantities. Most of the participants, including myself, bought spices of our choice. One of us bought a kilo of cloves, a quantity that came in a huge paper bag. The small quantity of fragrant cinnamon that I had bought put me in a bit of trouble a few days later in Kuala Lumpur. Such was its aroma that the airport police there got suspicious and had my baggage opened up for inspection.

The Fort area of Colombo is the Central business district and appears more like Fort Bombay. The buildings are similar looking housing banks, commercial establishments, hotels, government departments and offices. A department store by the name Cargill’s was located in one of the impressive British-era buildings. On our last afternoon in Colombo I walked into it with all that was left of the local currency. Pitching on some cosmetics I bought a few items for my wife. Back in Delhi, we later found that they were mostly made in India.

A little ahead is Galle Face Green that has lawns stretching for long distances facing the sea. The place was, it seems, cleared by the Dutch long ago to enable a clear line of fire for the canons located in the nearby Fort. A beautiful place that is ideal for an evening stroll and some delectable hot and spicy snacks.    

In an outing we were also taken to the Mount Lavinia Beach not very far away. It is a largely middle class residential area but is famous for its Golden Mile of beaches and hence a hotspot for tourism. We saw a fairly large number of Western tourists lolling on the sands or wading into the sea. Most of them were Germans who reportedly liked the Sri Lankan sun and sand as also its delectable cuisine. This was before Sri Lankan Tourism, in collaboration with Sri Lankan Airways, did some aggressive marketing and commenced poaching of international tourists from India. The aggressive tourism effort, however, dissipated with the onset of Tamil resistance that eventually assumed proportions of a civil war. One can see now signs of revival. After all, tourism used to be one of the mainstays of the country’s economy.

Mount Lavinia has been named after Lavina, a mestizo dancer, whose smile captivated Sir Matland who was Governor General of Ceylon from 1805 to 1811. The couple used to indulge in secret escapades, meeting in the Governor General’s house. The village that surrounded the Governor General’s mansion developed into a bustling suburb and was named after Lavina.

A short sojourn as it was, it was pleasant way of getting out of the country for the first time – part official and part touristic. Soon it was time to get back to Madras on our next leg of the tour – to South East Asia.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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