Book Review
The fascination of the difficult

By Susil Sirivardana

"Dilemma of an Island"
by Merril Gunaratne
— Vijitha Yapa Publications
Paper Back pp. 185; Rs. 400

Merril Gunaratne’s book of essays, Dilemma of an Island ,is that unusual product of a committed professional ,who wrote it as the first call of his retirement after a thirty-five year career in the Police. What is key is the compulsion behind that action. It is a rare occurrence for a dissenter from common or garden practice to follow his inner compulsion to the point of recording it in print and placing it before the public arena. This patent sense of social responsibility is amply complemented by the robust content of the book. These critical reflections of first hand experiences and insights into what are some of contemporary Sri Lanka’s most intractable problems have an immediacy of engagement and a cutting edge quality of contestation.

The range of essays is fascinating by any standard. The first is a closely argued and reflective critical analysis of the ethnic question from the author’s perspective as Director of Intelligence. If there was a challenge for a professional, here it was with a vengeance. The author rises to the challenge by bringing his counsel to the Head of State himself, a highly productive proactiveness and a holism.The narrative has a razor-sharp clarity and a depth of engagement which can only come from an insider.

The final and fourteenth essay is totally different — on Coming To Terms with Retirement, which is a meditative introspective dialogue within the author himself on the need to consciously refocus one’s inner self to a completely different relationship to oneself in society without the trappings of office.

Right in the middle is a set of thoughts on the Rise in Crime and Violence where the author fully empathises with the terrible dilemmas of the public at large where the inertias of a decaying system heap crisis upon crisis on the innocents with no prospect of hope and relief. By reasserting and reinterpreting the first principles of police practice with commitment and creativity, the author reveals the utter manageability of our problems.

In between are essays on the JVP, Student Unrest, Combatting Terrorism in Colombo, Overcoming Child Prostitution in Negombo, Making Police Stations Citizen Friendly, Travails of the Police today, Tackling, Election Violence, the Biyagama Hostage Drama, Revamping Police Medical and Recreational Services, The Pope’s Visit, In Lighter Vein, and an Epilogue.

Let us savour the quality of the writing itself.

One swallow does not make a summer. Besides, the most consistent feature of terrorist operations is the inconsistency they deliberately practice in executing strikes. It is extremely rare that they would conduct two operations within a short span of time. After the commission of an attack they bide their time, disarm us mentally, and induce us to drop our guard. The more important the prey, the longer may be the wait. We should therefore be extremely wary of such relative periods of inactivity. The present quiet is disquieting. (page 57)

The crisp thoughts have an energy of their own. They flow effortlessly. There is a welcome economy in the selection of words. The form and content reinforce each other. See again.

The inestimable value of a professional or an official of proven competence is not duly appreciated by a superior who is himself an appointee for reasons other than merit or efficiency. Such a superior is generally incapable of appointing a true professional of his rightful place, or appreciating the importance and necessity of giving him the consideration he deserves, for he himself had not achieved his position by dint of efficiency and merit. Due to such a vicious cycle, the service can be inundated with officials of limited merit enjoying senior and crucial positions. It is arguable that subject to exception, they often surround themselves with those of their ilk, in order to safeguard their own positions. Overall it is the national and service interests which suffer... (page 174-5)

This felicity of expression is underpinned by a particular quality of mind. Three such qualities are discernible. First a largeness and sensibility. Second a critically to probe deeper. And finally a fundamental value-frame which informs the thought and action.

The largeness of mind and sensibility is seen throughout the essays in the author’s relationship to all his subjects, be they the public, important personages, those he admires or his detractors. There is a sensitivity, restraint and detachment which invests the sharpest criticisms with abundant tolerance and good sense. There is no personalisation, animosity, bitterness or one-upmanship. All these pettinesses are transcended by the pursuit of a culture of excellence.

It is the critically that provides the depth and the insightfulness. The training of the intelligence professional is certainly evident. But there is something more. That is the enjoyment he derives from the challenge of intelligence work. A highly analytical and resilient mind would be naturally prone to such work. He not only finds this work manageable but the maturation of the requisite skills has conferred a proactiveness which is the real stuff of intelligence. Intelligence is just not for mediocrity. It is just not eavesdropping and telephone tapping. It is rather the mapping and synthesizing of apparently disparate fragments to catalyse premptive counter plans to sustain orderly society.

And thirdly the value-frame and ethics. A passion for justice, equity, openness, accountability and social responsibility drives the writer throughout his work. He is called upon to defend and protect the citizenry, vulnerable children, his subordinates and peers, His Holiness the Pope and Heads of State. Especially in a service where force is integral to its instrumentalities, these humane qualities of caring and empathy are essential countervailing qualities. There is a sense of the intrinsic spirituality of human beings — a bottomline which has to be respected by everyone in authority, especially a member of the forces.

This is the kind of cutting edge and engaged reflectiveness this crisis ridden society is crying out for. After fifty three years of independence, our civil society is under challenge to get its act together and assert its civic power, especially against those who have alienated themselves with power and self-righteousness. We are in the process of trying to reconnect with a tradition of public dialogue and discourse-making which we have always had, and still have. Names like Tarzie Vittachi, Mervyn de Silva, Stanley Jayaweera, R.M.B.Senanayake, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, S. T. Hettige, Lakshman Jayatilleke, Ray Wijewardena, Shelton Wanasinghe, Godfrey Gunatilleke and Gamani Corea come to mind. Similarly with those who have contributed their creativity to some outstanding Commission Reports.

It is our wish that this book is picked up by the many concerned institutions which are attempting to hold the mirror up to Sri Lankan society in order to critique its reality and come up with relevant alternatives. PGIM, SLIDA, BIDTI, Sociology Departments, Centre for Society and Religion, SLFI, Institute for Local Government and others should now fulfil their responsibility of following up and debating the issues opened up.

The book must be translated into Sinhala and Tamil.There is an enthusiastic readership there.Similarly the book must be marketed in South Asia.Future editions must have an index, which is missed in this one.