last of a glorious age
Mervyn De Silva
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
On June 22 1999, as the twentieth century drew to an end, Mervyn
de Silva left us. At that time one could sense that with his passing,
an era in the literary history of Sri Lanka had ended. Because he
was the last of a glorious age of journalism. He belonged to an illustrious
tradition of English journalism in Sri Lanka that gave us H.A.J. Hulugalle,
Jayantha Padmanabha, Tarzie Vittachi and Denzil Peiris. They were
brilliant editors who provided us with not just world-class newspapers;
they were also erudite men who helped build a Ceylonese literati that
any society can be proud of.
years after his departure, it is time for considered reflection
on Mervyn, his life and his contribution. His literary pilgrimage
took him through three stages. The first began with the liberal
education that he received at Royal and Peradeniya. Here he acquired
and imbibed all that was admirable in Western culture, literature
and thought. And he was able to transform these literary skills
into a career in journalism at Lake House that climaxed in the early
seventies with him becoming editor of the Daily News and the Sunday
By then he
was Sri Lanka's best-known journalist. He would cover and report
on the country for the most prestigious international journals:
the Economist, Newsweek and the London Financial Times. He also
reported for the BBC. As a foreign correspondent he was the driving
force behind the Foreign Corespondents' Association, serving as
its president. He left an indelible mark on journalism in this country.
But he went
beyond being just another literary dilettante. The rise of nationalism
that came with the post-colonial years interacted with and impacted
on his Western sophistication to give this country, for the first
time, an editor who was liberal in the most profound sense of the
word, in that he was sensitive to the aspirations of the emerging
Sinhala and Tamil speaking world.
arena was international affairs. He schooled himself in foreign
affairs so that he became the country's foremost writer and broadcaster
in this field. As Secretary-General of the Ceylon Institute of World
Affairs he fashioned a forum where the issues of the day could be
discussed and developed. One of my earliest recollections of Mervyn
was at a presentation by Shirley Amerasinghe, then Colombo's Permanent
Representative at the United Nations. While Maj. Gen. Anton Muttukumaru
presided it was the debonair Mervyn, immaculately dressed, pipe
in hand, who gave the vote of thanks. He opened with: they say it's
a good thing that diplomats have long noses, because they cannot
see beyond it. It was pure Mervyn, charming, witty, the consummate
speaker, a treat to listen to. The two-day seminar that he was to
organize in 1972 at the Taprobane on The Indian Ocean Region, brought
together the best minds of the day, among them jurist Lalith Athulathmudali,
diplomat Yogeswaran Duraisamy, academic K. H. Jayasinghe, writer
Hector Abhayavardhana and strategist Rajan Kadiragamar.
At a time when
the Cold War had left the emerging states in the South with little
option but to formulate their own foreign policy, Sri Lanka was
fortunate to have in Mervyn someone who was gifted with a sense
of history. It enabled him to respond to the flood of ideas coming
out of the South as it grappled with its newfound freedom and evolved
a policy of Non Alignment.
the mainstream media could not accommodate him or contain him; so
he had to break out, he had to do his own thing. And so began the
third phase of his journey. He set out to create and fashion a literary
vehicle that quintessentially could carry his progressive liberal
vision. And in 1978 was born The Lanka Guardian. He shared his dream
with me on a warm afternoon at the Orient Club. This was where Mervyn
retired each day, and as his eye focused on the billiard table,
his mind grappled with the challenge of launching a new magazine,
a different magazine.
In those early
days, The Lanka Guardian drew on the literary talents of independent
writers like S. Pathiravitharne, Regi Siriwardene and V. P. Vittachi
providing them, and later countless other writers with a unique
forum. Mervyn also built around him a loyal team, Hugh Abeyaratne
who single-handedly sub-edited the magazine, Gamini Dissanayake
who looked after the business side and Shahareen Ismail behind her
typewriter. And from a small office at the YMBA they opened a window
through which a generation could view Sri Lanka, could share ideas,
could debate issues and could publish poetry.
In the years
that followed, as tame journalism became the hallmark of the mainstream
media, the Guardian stood out as a fiercely independent magazine,
which opened its pages to diverse views and distant voices. It was
honest and intelligent in a world that had become mediocre and mundane.
It conveyed news, made analyses and poked fun, as everything around
was reduced to stultified regimentation. As Sri Lanka passed through
the darkness of the eighties and nineties, as violence swept the
land, destroying dissent and creativity, Mervyn ensured that the
Guardian hit the streets. It was his statement of faith, his belief
in getting truth and opinion out there regardless of the cost..
He kept at
it with tenacity, undaunted by the challenges. At that tenuous period
of time, it was his testament, his legacy. History called him to
independently take a stand as a commentator, and this he did without
a moment's hesitation. And he kept on at it until the very end,
writing, broadcasting, thinking and speaking, never disheartened
by the carnage, the futility and the vanity of that era. He kept
true to the end. Surely could he have said when it was all over,
like Mark Anthony before him? Unarm Eros, the long day's task is
A reservoir of knowledge
Last Thursday, June 13, 2002, a legend in Sri Lankan journalism,
Victor Gunawar-dena died after a brief illness.
I first came
to know Victor when I was the Director of the Sri Lanka Foundation
Institute (SLFI) in 1995. My close association with him began with
my introducing an idea to him of starting a course of study in Journalism
and Communication for school leavers. The accent of this course
was to be on ethics and professionalism, in print journalism and
the related fields of TV, radio, advertising and public relations.
this idea with vigour, within weeks fleshed out comprehensively
the concept paper I had prepared, and made it possible for us to
operationalize the course in 1996. The first Diploma Course in Journalism
and Communication in the English medium for school leavers was thus
born with Victor as its Project Director.
Within a short
period, with Victor's guidance, direction meticulous arrangements
and planning, the course enjoyed a considerable reputation. Victor
believed in assuring quality, and his attention to every detail
in developing the curriculum, his exhaustive consultations with
highly reputable resource persons and his dedication and commitment
to the Project, helped make my dream become a reality. Soon, the
Diploma Course at the SLFI was referred to as 'Victor's baby'. How
true! He nurtured it with tender, loving care and treated the students
like his own children sometimes even compromising on discipline
premature exit from the Course, left him a highly disappointed man.
Predictably the Course took a different turn, having lost its father
past few years Victor was also a strong arm of support and strength
to me whenever I sought his counsel on a variety of matters.
described Victor as a 'living encyclopaedia' and a 'walking library'.
This is only an underestimation of what he was. He was all of it
rolled into one - a reservoir of knowledge, information and wisdom.
On the June
1, this year, I began a new association with Victor when he joined
the President's office as its Consulting Editor, Publications. Within
a span of 12 days he taught all of us so much, and quickly became
an indispensable resource.
On that fateful
day last week, Victor had just completed an interview with the Chairman,
Ranaviru Seva Authority on a story he was writing on welfare measures
introduced for armed forces personnel and their families. While
leaving the building he fainted, and on admission to hospital was
discovered to have an expanding intra-cranial haemorrhage, which
the doctors pronounced inoperable. Victor's condition deteriorated
rapidly and within 24 hours he was gone.
demise, Sri Lanka lost a highly respected journalist with unparalleled
integrity. His daughters lost a father one could only dream of having.
I lost a guide
and mentor, I will perhaps never have.
Dr. Tara de Mel
You are the dearest mother
Are the best that's ever been!
The world has ever seen
To us your children, you, dear mother
From the time that we were children
You taught us right from wrong
You built up our characters
To be just, clean and strong
Love for God
and our Heavenly Mother
You firmly instilled in our mind
To tend and care for the poor and needy
And our neighbours to be kind
You loved us
all so dearly
With your very heart and soul
And with care and understanding
Guided each one to their goal
Even with nine
To nurse, to clothe, to teach
When other's children sought your help
You always were within their reach
You cooked and
washed and fed us
Then rushed off to teach at school
But still had time to show us how
To abide by the rules.
You taught us how to gain respect
Give unto others their rightful place
And to look at things from their aspect
For grand and
You had all the time
And with the in-laws gathered round you
Your life was so sublime
You also were
a friend indeed
With kith and kin who were in need
Your generosity you'd never show
What your right hand gave, your left would never know!
us on the wings of an eagle
Through good times and in bad
You were our trusted confidante
The best friend we ever had
were welcomed, sans reservations
And you helped our friendships, grow so strong
They'll miss you as much, as us dear mother
And remember you their whole lives long
We thank God
for you dear mother
and your exemplary life
The way you held your head up high
Through trouble and through strife
strong and silent
You shielded us from harm
Every time we failed or faltered
You were there, with outstretched arm
To keep you
longer with us
We tried our very best
But God thought it was time for you
To have that well deserved rest
farewell dearest mother
Ever gentle and so kind
Etched indelibly you will stay
In each one's heart and each one's mind
Mother we pray,
please guard and guide us
From your special place in heaven
And forgive us our trespasses
Even seventy seven times seven
We know you're
seated by God's side
With our father gone before
And hope one day to join you
And together live for evermore!
Sultan Abdul Cader
Marhoom M.S.A. Cader passed away on March 12 in Colombo,
surrounded by his loved ones. The beautiful smile and the tranquil
look even in death bore testimony to the dignified and pious life
he had led.
In a Hadeeth,
the Prophet had said: "The angels will descend upon a person
who is nearing death. If he is good the angels will say, 'Come out!
O good soul proceeding from a good body! Come out in an honourable
way and rejoice in God's bounty and favour and the Lord is ever
happy with you'. The angels will then escort his soul to heaven
and upon reaching the heavenly entrance, the inhabitants would say:
'Welcome! O good soul proceeding from a good body, enter ye with
full honour and rejoice in the bounty and pleasure of Allah.' His
soul is then taken from one heaven to the next and eventually escorted
to the presence of Allah, the Most Exalted."
certainly lived a rich and eventful life. Having received his secondary
education at the prestigious Jaffna Hindu College, he pursued higher
education at the Colombia University, New York, where he was the
vice president, of the Foreign Students' Association.
He was the
second Muslim from Jaffna to enter the Ceylon Administrative Service
after Senator A.M.A. Azeez.
He was secretary
at our embassy in Jakarta, served in the Ceylon delegation to the
United Nations, New York and led a many a Sri Lankan delegation
abroad for conferences.
public servant served his motherland untiringly and held many prestigious
positions. At the time of his demise, he was a member of the Colombo
Mediation Board and the panel of Disciplinary Tribunals for Public
Servants. He was also a fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society,
the glorious feats achieved, he remained the epitome of modesty,
simplicity and humility with a deep and abiding sense of spirituality.
His face would light up with a smile as he greeted his friends and
relatives at his home, 'Villa Qadir'.
It was Mr.
Cader who translated "Guru Mani" one of the earliest works
of Guru Bawa Muhiyaddeen, and named his translation "The Pearl
of Wisdom" and credited the entire proceeds of the sale of
this book to the Serendib Sufi Study Circle.
Wainnaa Ilayhi Raajioon - to Allah we belong and to Him we return.
May he attain
M. Z. Akbar