‘Austen and Bachchan few of my favourite things’

Just turned 90, the grand old man of Parliament Sam Wijesinha reveals a little known side of him to Chandani Kirinde

When one hears the name Sam Wijesinha, what usually comes to mind is his long and illustrious career as Secretary General of Parliament or his services as Ombudsman. But not many know that it’s in the world of Jane Austen, Amitabh Bachchan and Richard Clayderman that he has found some of his greatest pleasure.

Far removed from the hurlyburly world of politics and politicians and away from public service, Wijesinha who turned 90 last week continues to engage in his love for reading coupled with his love for music and cinema, with Bollywood movies being among his favourites.

Surrounded by memories and family photographs, Sam Wijesinha looks back at a life lived to the full. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice occupies a special place in his heart, a book he first read for his matriculation examination way back in 1939. Since then he’s read it many times and along with it developed a fascination for the author.

“I have a collection of all her books, as well as books written about her, movie versions of the books and audio books which I have kept to listen to, the day I find it difficult to read,” he says. Wijesinha’s fascination with Austen’s writing is her depictions of the transformation of English society, particularly the shift of power from the landed aristocracy to the mercantile classes. One of his prized possessions is the book written by fellow compatriot Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne on Jane Austen which she presented to him on his 89th birthday. He feels this book, in which she analyses all of Austen’s five novels, is the best book written on the author.

It’s been a long journey for Wijesinha from the village of his birth Gatamanne in the Hambantota District. Having schooled finally at S. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia, Wijesinha began his higher education at the University College in 1941 and left the newly formed University of Ceylon with an honours degree in History for the Ceylon Law College where he passed out as an advocate. His love for history continues to this day with a large part of the library he has built up over the years comprising largely biographies.

“History is best learnt through biographies because the lives of people make history,” he says.
After Law College, he served as a Crown Counsel (State Counsel) along with Neville Samarakoon (who later became Chief Justice), T. A. de Silva Wijesundera and A. Mahendrarajah. In 1962, he was invited to join Parliament as an Assistant to the Clerk of the House who was Ralph Deraniyagala. He succeeded as Clerk of the House in 1964 and along with the Constitutional changes that followed, his position changed to that of Secretary of the National State Assembly in 1972 and Secretary General of Parliament in 1977, till his retirement in 1981.

He likes to look back at his time in Parliament positively. “I saw some good in all the Members of Parliament who served during the time I was there.” Early on in his Parliamentary career, he had won the confidence of members on both sides of the House with Bernard Soysa quipping one day, “Sam, when you first came here your hair was parted to the side. Since then your impartiality is evidenced in the middle parting of your hair,” Wijesinha recalled.

Asked about what he thinks of the poor calibre of persons who get elected to Parliament these days, Wijesinha puts the ball right back in the court of the people. “They are the elected representatives of the people, so it is the people who are responsible for electing them. We criticize them all the time but in life you must try to look for some good in everybody, not find fault all the time.” He also says that standards of politicians have declined worldwide and it is not solely a Sri Lankan phenomenon.

One aspect he feels particularly contented about when looking back at his time as an officer of Parliament was his ability to attend to the welfare of the members of the staff of that institution. “When I took office in Parliament I observed a large quantity of printed material for parliamentarians left behind. I collected these and developed a fund to finance the education of the children of staff members. Many of these children are now in the medical, legal and accounting fields.”

A photograph from the family album

He also assisted the staff members to secure low interest housing loans. “When I left after 18 years of service, not a single member of the staff was without either ownership of a house or at least a plot of land to build on.”

I turn to one of his favourite lines from Pride and Prejudice to bring up some personal aspects of his life. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It’s the first line in the first chapter of the book which he keeps neatly underlined as he does with all interesting lines he comes across in the books he reads.

He wasn’t in need of a wife when he first saw Mukta Wickremesinghe at the Royal-Thomian match in 1941 but their introduction that day led to a friendship that culminated with their marriage in 1948. “I never claim any romantic things such as love at first sight and all that,” he says as he shows me a photograph which he took of her using a box camera in their courting days, an enlarged copy of which occupies pride of place in their home. Mukta passed away in 1997.

Even at the age of 90, Wijesinha keeps himself occupied serving as Chancellor of the Open University, Chairman of the Dispute Resolution Council of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka and President of the Prisoners' Welfare Association.

Wijesinha says he looks back on his life with contentment. Time has not diminished his memories of memorable events of the past and now surrounded by books, Bollywood movies and music, he indulges in his favourite things as only a man who has lived a full and contented life can do.

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