of love and law
“I’m not going to say anything,”
says Winston Peries, who greets me at the door with a very definite
‘man about the house’ air. “He’s the one
who can’t stop talking,” is the quick assertion of the
impeccably dressed, gentle-faced woman with a welcoming smile.
|Gnanadevi and Winston to day
Gnanadevi Kanagasingham and Winston Peries celebrate
together 50 years at the Bar and 48 years of marriage. Theirs is
a story of love. Love for the legal work they both enjoy, which
has seen them through a lifetime, and for the person who has become
a lifetime partner.
I go to meet this couple knowing only this much
– that they have worked side by side for fifty years as lawyers,
while weathering the ups and downs of life for just as long.
The basic background information to what seems
the long and interesting story of their life (although it is played
down much) is listed out with a professional air, in courtroom fashion
by Mr. Peries, who demands, “So, what do you want to know?”
And then dives straight into details…
“Her father – the town proctor Trincomalee.
My father – the town proctor Kegalle.” That’s
what inspired the fascination for law in two young adults, who decided
to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. So much so that as
lawyers he practised in Kegalle and she in Trincomalee, until they
got married, at which point Mrs. Peries came to Kegalle to be with
her husband. Their areas of specialisation in the legal field are
as different as their personalities. Again, succinctly put by Mr.
Peries as, “She’s entirely civil and I’m entirely
criminal.” In more ways than one!
For Mr. Peries, a third generation lawyer who
has never got a sentence, law comes naturally. And on the question
of the range of issues concerning criminal law cases, his contention
is simple and frank, “Who knows.” Judging is for the
judge or the jury, he says, I present facts and I don’t judge
my clients. Working on the principle that although ninety nine guilty
men may go free, under no circumstances should one innocent be found
guilty, Mr. Peries says that in his line of work, every day is a
challenge. “Every day it is a man’s life in your hands.”
It’s tough, he says. And yes, sometimes he even gets nervous.
It’s stressful work, and that is why it’s important
to be able to switch off.
|Gnanadevi and Winston on their wedding day
Appearing in the high courts of Kandy, Kurunegala,
Anuradhapura and Kegalle, Mr. Peries has also had a short political
career, in addition to his legal career. Politics, for him, was
a challenge. “In 1983 people came and asked me what I was
doing about the prevailing state of affairs, so I got involved in
local politics. Later I got dragged into major politics. When I
felt that I had done my bit and, for me, there were no more challenges,
I went home.” It was as easy as that.
For Mrs. Peries, civil law is her strength. In
her line of work she comes across cases pertaining to partition
and divorce and attests deeds. With divorce cases, there is only
one solution, says her ever-witty husband, “Don’t stay
with the in-laws.” Working with something like 20 to 30 divorce
cases daily, Mrs. Peries says that there are times when her husband
has actually given couples his piece of advice – and it has
worked! There is a lot of stress in marriages these days, but in
our case we come back so tired we can’t argue, says Mr. Peries
who adds firmly, “All arguments are in court.”
Their story of love runs alongside the story of
law. They met in Law College, where they were batch mates. They
sat in alphabetical order during classes, as was the custom at the
time and fortunately, interjects Mrs. Peries, “K wasn’t
very far from P”. From Mr. Peries’ quarter comes, “Since
then I have been behind her!” And then? Who knows, they say,
Over the years of lectures, budding hopes, dreams
and ambitions, through dances, matches and picnics, something happened.
They knew this was a “match” in the making. Two years
after they passed out in 1955, they were married.
The fact that they came from two major ethnic
groups in the country was a problem. Especially in the case of both
mothers, who were “tough”, there was intervention from
Mrs. Peries’ brother who just happened to be her husband’s
friend and an uncle, with the added determination of Mr. Peries,
who “didn’t listen to anyone” and the two were
married. Their strong faith and the work they were both dedicated
to became the foundations of their relationship. Tthe ethnic issue,
for them, was never a problem.
Never? During the communal riots the fear was
there. Thankfully, they say, they never had an incident. They both
acknowledge that during the time of the 1971 insurgency, Kegalle
was bad, and that was the only time they thought of leaving, but
they never did. Life has always been exciting for them, and they
have been “batting on well”. The real blessings came
in the form of their three daughters. They were never keen on law
and we wanted for them what they were happiest doing, is the joint
response of parents who’ve had faith in their children, and
given everything to make their dreams very real possibilities –
in the fields of investment banking, finance and business management.
For the two lawyers in the family, after fifty
years at the Bar, they are only just beginning to take it easy.
If we stop work, we’ll grow old fast, says Mr. Peries, so
we are just adapting to small changes, as change is something constant
– you accept it and deal with it.
Their life thus still revolves around the work
that still keeps them ticking, occasional visits to the club for
a game of bridge, tennis or snooker, and exciting reunions with
their children who live abroad, when the whole family explores a
holiday destination they haven’t visited before. It’s
what keeps alight the flame of commitment, fulfilment and adventure.
It’s a life they’ve built so beautifully that it is
possible for them to sit back and say, simply that they are “very
happy”. This, I think, is what it is to be content.