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ĎA Remarkable Woman Politicianí

Pulsara Liyanage, Vivi: A Biography of Vivienne Goonewardena, Colombo, Womenís Education and Research Centre, 1998.

Reviewed by Regi Siriwardena

BIOGRAPHIES of Sri Lankan political figures have most often been written by personal admirers of the subject of the biography, or by loyalists of the political party or grouping to which the subject belonged. Consequently, political biography in this country has tended to become a species of hagiography.

Pulsara Liyanage has considerable admiration for Vivienne Goonewardena, but although her heart is with the left, she is not, as far as I know, a card-carrying member of any of its parties. This has given her a measure of independence that has enabled her to raise political issues and explore aspects of Viviís life that a party-liner might have avoided. Her biography is of modest proportions (around a hundred pages long), but it has many virtues, as well as some shortcomings. In spite of the latter, we should be grateful to her for undertaking this biography and to the Womenís Education and Research Centre for publishing it.

Vivi was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable women to have figured in the political arena of this country. Her career, during her long life, covered the gamut of the LSSPís existence, from its hopeful rosy dawn to the sunset of its decline. It was important that the record of that life should be preserved for the future.

Where the biography comes off best is in drawing an arresting picture of Viviís personality and in narrating the drama of her life - the drama of an adventurous, militant and courageous spirit. In this aspect of her book the author has used the reminiscences of the people she interviewed revealingly to illuminate her subject, and to bring out the always close links between the personal and the political in Viviís life.

The Vivi who at the age of 66 stood up to a police bully at the cost of being thrown on the floor, kicked and trampled (the government of the day later rewarded the bully in defiance of a Supreme Court judgment) seems to have been latent already in the child who defended the small daughter of a domestic help at the cost of being punished. Or the headgirl of Musaeus who not only sold suriya mal against the poppy but organised a disruption of the two minutesí silence - to be punished again. Or the young woman who insisted on marrying Leslie across the caste and religious barriers of their families, leading to an almost Romeo and Julietesque series of adventures: Viviís incarceration at home, stolen meetings, and secret missives through the medium of an itinerant bookseller. These were a good preparation, one would think, for the years when she would have to lead an underground political existence. Viviís political understanding and commitment matured in the course of her life, but the essential spirit of the fighter against unjust authority and for the weak and defenceless seems to have been implanted in her very early.

Pulsaraís narrative glows with warmth and colour in this account of a womanís lifelong struggle, and one forgives the occasional unevennesses of the writing because one is carried along by the momentum of the story. There is a variety of incidents recounted in the book that will bring alive the impulsive and passsionate Vivi for anybody who knew her. When she and Leslie were underground in Bombay, with a warrant hanging over Leslieís head, he was always cautious and prudent. But one day in Bombay she rushed out and joined a procession of school boys who were shouting "Long live the revolution!" because she found the slogan irresistible: the result was that they had to change their dwelling-place in a hurry.

The difference between Leslieís reserved and disciplined temper and Viviís warm and outgoing one may help to explain why the marriage, in spite of its romantic beginnings, seems to have cooled in later years. Pulsara deals, with a mix of frankness and reticence, with the personal and political relationship with NM that was perhaps the closest and most important in the latter part of Viviís life.

Where I find the book less satisfying is in Pulsaraís treatment of the political differences within the Sri Lankan left. It was inevitable that she would have to depend on both published material and interviews for information on events that took place before she was born. But she has treated some of these sources too uncritically without forming her own independent judgment. This, I think, is due not only to her self-effacement as a biographer. It comes also from what seems to be a deep-seated regret on her part when confronted with internal divisions in the left. Itís revealing that the word "sadly" occurs more than once in her writing in these contexts. She doesnít seem to take into account the reality that a movement as strongly rooted in ideology as the left would inevitably be marked by a history of factional struggles that are related to the conficts of larger social forces.

Itís for this reason that I find unsatisfactory her account of the first LSSP split in 1940 after the resolution condemning the Third International, on which the Stalinists were expelled. Today, when the Soviet Union is no more and even many of those who worshipped Stalin have disowned him, this may seem an abstract and theoretical question. It wasnít so in 1940. Whether the LSSP should have accepted the more sectarian aspects of Trotskyism is another matter; but if the party hadnít eluded the embraces of the Comintern, it would have found itself in 1942 supporting the British war effort and opposing the "Quit India" movement. But perhaps Pulsara thinks that would have been the right thing to do. She cites Lerski, in what seems to me a thoroughly superficial and ill-informed book, to say that the LSSP opposed the war when "not only leftists but also all true democrats in the world participated actively in anti-fascist fronts". This is simply not true. Without going any further, there is the example of the Indian national movement which launched the "Quit India" struggle when the Japanese stood on the borders of India, rightly believing that Britainís difficulties were Indiaís opportunity. Nehru, in spite of his anti-fascism and his attachment to parliamentary democracy, did not differ from this view.

Nor were there any qualms in the LSSP about opposition to the war. But the 1964 coalition with the SLFP did create a three-way cleavage in the party. Here, as Pulsara records, Vivi was actively and vigorously in support of the coalition, while Leslie was with the centrist position which had reservations about it. Probably, as Pulsara suggests, NMís influence over Vivi pulled her in that direction. But there seems to be some truth in Vasudeva Nanayakkaraís view, recorded in the book.

"According to him Vivi was not an ideologue but an activist, a very practical person in politics. Therefore seeing how well Philip was able to bring effective reforms from within the SLFP earlier, Vivi felt they could do better than Philip in coalition with the SLFP."

While seeking to explain Viviís motivations, however, her biographer remains disturbed by the outcome of the coalition - in particular, the acceptance of "Sinhala only", which involved an overturning of the LSSPís earlier language policy, and the failure of Colvinís 1972 constitution to address the problems of the Tamil people and their desire for regional autonomy.2 She has put these questions to Hector Abhayawardhana and records his answers.

I have known Hector as the most independent and original mind among the LSSPís Old Guard. But there seems to be a point beyond which party loyalty submerges these qualities. On the first question, Hector says that a blatantly racist slogan during the 1966 protest march was "suddenly shouted from the back of the procession and the leaders could not do anything about it". This may have been so, but what was racist wasnít just one slogan but the whole content and direction of the LSSPís policy and propaganda of that period.3

On the 1972 constitution, "Hector sadly acknowledges their mistake but said they just failed to realise its implications at the time it was being drafted". Can we believe that Colvin drafted the constitution in a fit of absence of mind - the veteran politician who in 1956 had prophesied that one language would lead to two countries? The most charitable explanation one can give is that the LSSP consciously and deliberately bartered away Tamil rights for a share of power that they thought would enable them to push the government in the direction of socialism. This was admitted by Bernard Soysa speaking in the "Constituent Assembly" of 1972: "It was quite obvious that, as far as we were concerned, the content of social justice on the plane of democratic rights in regard to language, had to be subordinated to the question of the economic transformation that is necessary for the establishment of socialism." The LSSP accentuated the ethnic polarisation of Sri Lankan politics: the fallacy lay in supposing that "the establishment of socialism" could be divorced from the upholding of democratic rights, including those of the minorities.

Hector Abhayawardhana has not only been Pulsaraís main guide to LSSP history but has also contributed an introduction. In it, recalling the LSSPís Indian endeavour in the íforties, he writes:

"Not all the efforts of numerous political readership that subsequently emerged could rewrite the meaning of the creation of Pakistan. Among the principal Congress leaders only Mahatma Gandhi could communicate his bitter feelings of resentment to the people. Almost helpless and utterly alone, he turned to plough a lonely furrow, barefooted, through the desolate villages of Noakhali, seeking to give heart to the desperate Muslims of Bihar for whom Pakistan was nothing more than a grotesque mockery, a chimerical gamble. But for Gandhi. Rabindranath Tagoreís ĎEkla Chaloí had long been a favourite hymn. ĎIf no one heeds your call, walk alone! Walk alone!í

"Vivienne Goonewardena was passionately fond of this hymn. Some time before her death, I happened to accompany her to a recital in Colombo of Rabindra Sangeeth. There was a perceptible hush when the singer presented ĎEkla Chaloí to the audience. But soon there was a soft intruding voice, just audible enough for her immediate vicinity. Vivienne was repeating the hymn to herself."

That is eloquently and movingly said. But Hector doesnít seem to be aware of the irony of his own story. In 1955 and 1956, and for a few years after, the LSSP leadership stood up courageously, even heroically, to the high tide of Sinhala linguistic nationalism. Thereafter they surrendered to it. That was not only the tragedy of the LSSP. Vivi included. It was a national tragedy with whose consequences we are still living today.


1. In a memorial article on Vivi (Pravada, Vol.4 Nos.10/11) Kumari Jayawardena described her as "ĎLaPassionariaí of Sri Lanka". The choice of a figure to compare her with is significant: she couldnít have been called a Rosa Luxemburg or an Aleksandra Kollontai.

2. It must be said that the LSSP, even in its revolutionary phase, was opposed to federalism. N.M. Perera, in the very speech he made in 1955, seeking an amendment to the constitution to confer parity of status on Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, decsribed federalism as "unworkable" in a small country. One may find in this position of the LSSP not only a Marxist preference for centralisation of state power but also a fear that class identities might under a federal system be swamped by regional and ethnic ones.

3. The record is preserved in two articles by Sydney Wanasinghe in Young Socialist, No.13, June 1965, and No.15, April 1966.

Published in Nethra, Vol.3 No.2, January-February 1999.