When one interviews an eminent literary personage, the interviewer has to pay attention to how he conducts the interview as the interviewee himself would have conducted many an interview, so I thought I had to be careful about the manner in which I approached this task. But Michael Roberts said “you’re the boss, so go ahead.” So, I plunged in.
Michael Roberts is synonymous in Sri Lanka with writing, not just any writing, but scholarly writings. Domiciled in Australia now, he is still very much a Sri Lankan at heart and makes it a point to visit Sri Lanka at least once a year or twice. A writer of repute in Sri Lanka, he has authored many books (website: https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/) and continues to write still. This writer managed to buttonhole Michael recently at his sister’s house in Wellawatte while
on one of his frequent visits here. Scoring firsts is not an unheard of thing for
Michael. He, in fact, will be the first personality outside of the Colombo or Kandy schools that we feature in our “Quadrangle” and the first from Galle and obviously the first from that famous Jesuit run school, St. Aloysius College.
When he left school after his HSC (Higher School Certificate or University Entrance) exam, his aim had been to find a job and help his father. But fate decreed otherwise. He had entered the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon (it was the case of just the one university and two campuses in Ceylon in those days of yore) and Peradeniya was the sought after campus, the one that alumni speak of with respect and awe.
“In 1957 when I entered the university, Dr. Nicholas Attygalle was the Vice Chancellor and I had contemporaries like D H de Silva, Gerald Peiris, Leelananda
de Silva, Jayantha Dhanapala, Sarath Amunugama, D D Peiris” explained Michael.
In the first year at Peradeniya Michael had followed History, Economics and
Geography; and thereafter taken to History as an Honours Degree studied over three years. W J F Labrooy had been Head of Department and the staff had included Fr. Ignatius Pinto, Karl Goonewardena, Sinnappah Arasaratnam, K M de Silva and Shelton Kodikara. Mr. Labrooy, who taught British History, had served as Michael’s principal mentor and friend. After Michael secured a First Class in his final exams, he had approached Michael with an offer of a job as a Temporary Assistant Lecturer, subject to one condition: he had to teach in Sinhala. This was challenge which Michael had accepted. Mr. Labrooy had also had a hand in persuading Michael to apply for the Rhodes scholarship. Michael explained “now the Rhodes scholarship is special and is a British scholarship that is awarded only to one undergraduate and offered only once in three years. But there was one payment that I could not afford, the fare to England by ship …. So I was not going to apply. But Mr. Labrooy indicated that the Rhodes stipend was so
good that whoever received the award could recoup the expenditure on travel.”
This being a prestigious scholarship, obviously there had been competition in
the form of Jayantha Dhanapala and Marikar from Trinity, Mark Cooray, Gamini
Seneviratne and Gunasekera from Royal and Anketell from STC. The interview
process had also been the first time he wore a tie. Michael believes that the
sporting prowess he had displayed at the university in playing rugger, soccer,
cricket, tennis and being an athlete weighed the scales in his selection as the
Rhodes Scholar for Ceylon in the year 1962. Michael recalls his childhood days in Galle as carefree days, snorkeling off the Fort beaches and board surfing at “Closenberg,” playing cricket and other games on the ramparts because his
family lived within the Galle Fort. His father was a stalwart of the Galle Gymkhana Club (GGC), so that institution had served as the focus of tennis during the holidays, while the Christmas season had seen the GGC promoting horse races at Boosa – a fun event Michael had attended without ever getting addicted to gambling. He indicated that he was spoilt at home by his many sisters, but said nary a word about regretting it. It is with one of them that he now stays whenever he’s in Sri Lanka.
In his senior years at St. Aloysius he had represented the school at cricket, soccer
and athletics. He had been in the cricketing XI captained by Anwer Jawath that beat Richmond and Mahinda convincingly in the year 1956. These matches had been played in the Galle Esplanade, which is now the Galle International Cricket Ground, a venue that is now renowned in the sports world.
Recalling more of his schooldays at St. Aloysius’ College (SAC) in his beloved Galle over a period that spanned the years 1947–1957, he remembered the Jesuit priests who were in charge of the school as good and dedicated teachers. Among the lay teachers he recalled the names of Vedamuttu, Ferreira and Manatunga. In his HSC years he said he was fortunate to have outstanding teachers in Fr. Vito Perniola SJ., M/s. Anghie, Ariyadasa Perera and Mendis. Though not a boarder himself, the boarding branch at SAC, according to him, was special because it had the sons of planters from surrounding estates and also the so called “difficult” children from the Colombo area; while providing several of the most talented sportsmen the college could muster.
Michael believes that most people in the Galle locality knew that his father was a
West Indian, so he would not have been confused with the Burghers. However, at
Peradeniya campus such background knowledge was lacking; so it is probable
that many considered him Burgher because of his name and his limited.
Not that ethnic identity had mattered much in Peradeniya those days. The medium of instruction in the schools had been English and English was the widespread lingua franca. Class, caste and ethnic differentiation had not intruded significantly in social interaction within the campus, though there had been occasional cracks about the “O Fac”[Oriental Faculty] students who, in turn, sneered at the “Kultur crowd.”
However, looking back now with “a sociological eye,” Michael thinks that most students considered him to be ‘Burgher.” So, “speaking sociologically” he was a demi-Burgher even though he (like his siblings) has never, ever, considered himself to be such.
The Rhodes Scholarship stint had taken him to England in 1962. There his life had alternated between Merton College in Oxford and his married sister Audrey’s house in southern London. He had courted and married Shona, a Scottish girl he had met in London. He secured his D. Phil. Dissertation in mid-1965 and worked as a bus conductor in the Isle of Wight over that summer before returning to Oxford for the viva which conferred his doctorate.
Between September 1965 and February 1966 he had pursued an oral history archival project, courtesy of funding from the Asia Foundation in Colombo under approval from Professor Goonewardena, Head of History, Peradeniya Campus. This venture had involved interviews with retired British officials who had served in Ceylon in order to garner data about events, places and experiences. This oral ethnographic survey included an overnight stay at Leonard Woolf’s house in Sussex and a lengthy taped interview with a man whom some (not Michael) have called the “White Vedda.” [All the audio interviews are now accessible to those with basic computer skills: go to the Michael Roberts manuscripts listing then http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/ … and then click on the link to Adelaide Research and Scholarship under Series 1 – Digital versions.]
Michael had returned to the island in March 1966 with his wife and had taught in the Department of History at Peradeniya Campus. He had then secured a Fulbright Fellowship to Chicago University in 1970/71 and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship to Heidelberg University in 1975/76.
Lacking property he and his wife had found it difficult to sustain the family – they had two daughters – within the span of a lecturer’s income during the 1970s. It had been good fortune that enabled him to secure a job in the Department of Anthropology at Adelaide University in 1977.
The family had travelled to Adelaide in early 1977 without a penny. In contrast to Sri Lanka, Shona Roberts’s secretarial and administrative capabilities had generated an additional income that enabled a decent living (without frills). Of Michael’s daughters, one now teaches in Hong Kong and the other is a middle-level administrative officer at one of Adelaide’s universities. Most of his siblings have passed away, but two remain: one is in a care home in England, while the other is in Colombo and has provided Michael and family a home-form-home whenever they visit the land.
When I asked Michael to name any special thing he had done, he referred to his initiation and running of what was called Ceylon Studies Seminar (CSS) at Peradeniya from 1968 to 1975. This research-and-discussion engine had continued for some time after he left (through the efforts of Chandra R de Silva and Sam Samarasinghe), but exists no longer. The idea had been to encourage research on Sri Lanka and to discuss ways of improving the life-world of the people. Research papers were cyclostyled beforehand and circulated to CSS members so that they came to each scheduled seminar primed for discussion – thereby maximizing and fortifying the quality of discussion. It also meant that the papers were able for wider circulation.
Asked if there was anything he regretted, Michael said that he was disappointed that he was not rich or famous. This was not a selfish thought, but rather, he said, it was because only the rich and famous seemed to be able to influence world opinion these days. Explaining his statement he said his last book, an Anthology “Tamil Person and State” – published by Vijitha Yapa Publications (in fact 2 books, one containing essays and the other a pictorial presentation), sought to clarify the complexities of the last stage of Eelam War IV in an empirical and analytical manner; and by this method to counter the mis-directions, exaggerations and baseless claims that were being circulated in the Western world, with the allegations made by Channel 4 of Britain being one of the worst examples.
For instance, it is widely believed in Western circles that 40,000 Tamil civilians died during the last phase of the war. That figure is considered a definite FACT. But Michael points out any person familiar with battlefield casualty statistics knows that the ratio of wounded soldiers to dead soldiers is roughly two-to-one, if not sometimes much higher. So, if 40,000 Tamil civilians died during the last 5-6 months of the war there should have been at least 80,000 injured Tamils in hospitals and/or the Manik Farm detention centres. “The armchair intellectuals in Colombo, Jaffna and the rest of the world do not seem to have the acumen to comprehend this basic fact” declared Michael.
That, according to him was why the clout carried by, say, a Bill Gates or a Harrison Ford would come in useful to convey these facts and arguments to the circuits of the international world in ways that would make people pause and listen. Michael also added, “the Government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated its inability to wield that sort of persuasive power”. In response to my query he said that he would be happy if the present government – or any government – used the facts, images and contentions assembled in Tamil Person and State in the course of the ongoing debates.
A true son of Sri Lanka albeit unrecognized for the work he has done, Michael now enjoys a relaxed life style in Australia. But he dislikes the winter season in the Adelaide area.
Having written this piece I was wondering how to end it, but thought better of saying anything in particular which I felt would be in line with Michael’s attitude, not labeling men or matters but simply describing things as they are.