Dr N.M Perera | Sirimavo Bandaranaike

My article entitled, ‘Underworld joins kudu-ethanol…’ in The Nation of last week had a minor slip-up in mentioning the writer’s name as Kusal Perera [in the on-line edition, however, no harm was done. In fact it is an honor because Kusal Perera is a proficient political analyst while the other Kusal is a cavalier opening one-day batsman]; but, one good thing happened, it took me down memory lane back to mid 50s, the days when our teacher, Mrs … Perera was taking a class on Ceylon history at lower school, St John’s College Panadura.

She asked all Pereras to ‘please stand up.’ At least four or five students responded to more of a friendly request than a command made to 25 or 30 boys and girls in the mixed school.  Among these students there was only one female Perera by the name of Sumana, who happened to be a distant cousin of mine. I was fortunate to share the front row desk and bench with her; (it was the ‘tradition’ for the class teacher to nominate a girl and a boy to share each desk & bench meant for two) for she was exceptionally brilliant though only one year my senior—for Sumana helped me in answering at term tests! This happened sixty years ago and being 12 year-olds, good friends, classmates and connected as well.

The teacher asked,”They say, if someone kicks a bush a couple of Pereras will toss-away, would you agree?”

She made the entire class burst into a loud laughter. While all we boys being somewhat confused agreed discomforting the teacher herself, but Sumana, the obstinate girl she was, unmoved by the loud guffaw, answered in the negative to a stunned class of non-Pereras. She rejoined, “Miss, we Pereras would never creep inside a bush”, to a pin drop silence and embarrassment of all other Pereras, including the writer.

“I am pleased that there was one good answer from a Perera,” replied the elated teacher.
A few minutes later, it was when she began a history lesson that we realized she was about to discuss the role of Miguel Pereira, the Portuguese administrator. This was period of administration dates back to the 16th century Lisbon rule over Ceylon’s coastal belt, which prompted her to chat about ‘Pereras’ in the middle of history lesson. I doubt if they taught students psychology or teaching skills six decades ago at teacher training schools. Yet we had gifted teachers then.  The name Perera was introduced by the Portuguese along with a host of other names like, Rodrigo, Silva, Fonseka and Fernando, to mention a few. ‘Perera’ is a common name even today in Portugal, Spain, Brazil and even in Goa India, the Portuguese overseas territory of ‘Portuguese India’ which existed for about four centuries until it was annexed by India in early 1960s.

The name derives from ‘Pereira’ meaning Pear tree. During my last lap of working life in the corporate sector12 years ago, once I had to go to the Airport to receive a VVIP from one of our Indian principals.  He owned quite a few Pharmaceutical manufacturing plants in many parts of the world (later he was adjudged the richest in India in 2014).  His country manager here introduced me mentioning my name in addition to ‘decorations’. We had a long chat travelling to Colombo, as there was no expressway then. The next morning at a meeting with our chairman, he had told, “That Indian who is working for you, one Perera from Goa, told me…”

So much so for school and working life blemishes: in retirement, venturing into a risky endeavor of writing to newspapers, I once made a suggestion, ‘why not sing the National Anthem in Sinhala and Tamil language’, to receive some harsh comments from readers. A well-known nationalist was saying, ‘a man with a Portuguese name trying to …his…’  [rest is unprintable].

My generation’s readers will remember, how the now defunct ‘Independent Newspapers’ in mid-1970s slandered Trotskyite leader Dr N.M Perera, the Finance minister, in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front government by highlighting in bold letters “Pe-Ray -Raa” (meaning toddy is oozing), for his proposal to allow any owner of coconut trees to tap two trees for toddy without obtaining a valid license. The global economic recession resulted in an enormous sky-rocketing of food prices; the entire sugar requirement was imported causing a severe burden on nation’s coffers. While a significant section of the population was clamoring for food in the waste dumps and bins, the ‘the never-say-die’ faction of party loyalists walked in procession shouting “SEENI-NETHUVA-TE-BONAVA”[meaning, let’s have tea without sugar], an analogous to a slogan at today’s ‘Diabetic-Day- Walk’. They say ‘History repeats itself’

Dr NM, The minister, who was coined  ‘N’o ‘M’oney Perera, (work of smart newspaper men) was compelled to introduce the system as an inducement to make jaggery  as a home industry and reduce the burden on budget’s sugar bill.

However, Independent Newspapers, managed by The Gunasenas, continued their intense denigration not only on the Marxists, but the entire government using a few Sinhala and English journals like Sun, Dawasa and Sawasa, which compelled the UF government of 70-77 to end the drama by sealing their press at Hulftsdorp Hill.

Private print media was never free and fair then [there was no electronic private media]. Every government flexed its muscles to restrict them. That was the media freedom in ‘good old days’!

My father, who had reservations about continuing with the name, was smart enough to introduce ‘Somatillake’ to all siblings, expecting us to drop Perera somewhere down the line. However, none of the six males were bothered. We kept on adding dozens of Pereras down to second and third generations.