Two hand-written notes, a letter of recommendation and a book inscribed to me personally are the only tangible reminders of the time I worked for Gamini Dissanayake. But the medley of recollections is as rich as it is imperishable. I offer as a tribute a few such recollections. My job interview with GD in July [...]

Sunday Times 2

Gamini: The renaissance man


Two hand-written notes, a letter of recommendation and a book inscribed to me personally are the only tangible reminders of the time I worked for Gamini Dissanayake. But the medley of recollections is as rich as it is imperishable. I offer as a tribute a few such recollections.
My job interview with GD in July 1990 was a surreal experience. As far as he knew I was the “temp” sent by an agency to assist him, but when GD saw me he smiled in recognition and exclaimed – “You are at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute!” — A feat of memory that wowed me. It also stirred a memory of my own.

It was about 5-o’-clock, and we were massing near the reception counter, prior to going home for the day, when Minister Gamini Dissanayake and retinue passed by. Without missing a step, he caught my glance over the heads and shoulders of his officials and nodded to me. Not a smile, not a word, just a nod of acknowledgement. I like to think that GD had some intuition that day that I would be working for him during some of the most turbulent days of his life. But that was more than 10 years before my interview and now, I was no longer at the Institute and he was no longer a Cabinet Minister.

In the bleak months following his ouster from the Cabinet, GD concentrated on compiling his autobiography and needed secretarial assistance. I not only happened to fit the bill, but had the added skills of a librarian and researcher. But on that day I had no premonition that this was the beginning of a journey packed with high drama — commissions of inquiry, allegations of abduction, impeachment crisis, political vendettas, breakaway groups, bomb explosions, assassinations and the death of a President.

Our small band of staff consisted of D. M. J. Ekanayake, Shohan, Chintaka and myself. Our office rooms were in the annexe, which housed GD’s extensive library of books. It was here that I had the scary experience of the shock effects of a bomb explosion.

The LTTE used a truck filled with explosives to attack the JOC headquarters in Colombo and the push effect of the blast vibrated the whole house. I was in the lobby at that time and ran to my office to check for damage. I saw razor sharp fragments littering my table from the shattered plate-glass door opposite my desk, but found my new computer intact. I was so relieved that I told my Boss, “Thank God, nothing happened to the computer!” to which he replied with grave concern, “Thank God, Antoinette, nothing happened to you!”

The chemistry between Gamini and his public was never more evident than in the collective reaching out of people from upcountry villages and tea plantations; from Mahaweli homesteads and Swarnabhoomi lands. It was a demonstration of affection for a man who no longer had political clout. In trying to analyse this phenomenon, I turned to blank verse, to which I gave the title “Why?” I handed over this poem to my boss one morning when I saw him at his desk.

In response, I got a brief note:

“Dear Antoinette, your poem moved me deeply. I don’t know what to say or whom it refers to. Forgive my ignorance. I am so confused being trapped in a society which has lost control of itself.”

Gamini’s departure for England to read for his Masters in International Relations and Politics at Cambridge University’s prestigious Wolfson College marked another phase in his life. In this timeless world of academia, GD found the space to renew his mental, spiritual and physical energies.

Back home, he focused on completing his dissertation on: “Contemporary Issues in the Inter-Relationship of South Asian States: The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 29th July, 1987 and the Indo-Centricity of South Asian States.” In the ensuing weeks, Gamini read and analysed and expounded on the shifting political landscape, the rise and fall of nation states and India’s dominant influence over her neighbours. Even as I typed out each chapter, I found myself researching people, places and events that shaped our times.

The day he left for Cambridge for the written examination, my boss had left me a note:

“Dear Antoinette, Many thanks for your toil and dedication. Your continued commitment has deeply moved me. I have a political and human mission and events as they unfold are taking me there. In a sense I would have forgotten my Cambridge connection and gone on with my work. Shrima and you made me look at it again. Thank you for all you did.”

Two LTTE led assassinations which affected GD the most during this period were Rajiv Gandhi’s killing in May 1991 and Denzil Kobbekaduwa’s killing the following year. The first, hastened GD’s inner compulsions to play a more significant role in the country’s political arena; while the other was a more personal loss, because Denzil was a fellow Trinitian and close friend.

Gamini Dissanayake

GD’s involvement with the impeachment motion and the President’s game plan to undermine it needs no repetition here. Even as the ‘dissident’ MPs sought a restraining order against the UNP high command, eminent counsel went into frenzied action and co-opted me to handle the documentation.

I created a master template for the petitions and affidavits and then began the daunting task of incorporating the countless insertions (and deletions) made by each team of lawyers into the template, so that there would be consistency. Next, I prepared individual sets of documents to be filed in the District Court. The order delivered at around 3.30 on a Friday evening blocked any immediate attempts at further legal action before the decisive Working Committee Meeting. The rest is history.

Notwithstanding legal manoeuvres, the “dissidents” went on a political offensive by founding the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). One afternoon, just half an hour before the inaugural rally at Nugegoda junction, I handed GD a copy of the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd…”

With a spectacular crowd in place and more people arriving by the minute, hired thugs set about disrupting the meeting. Amidst firecrackers and gunshots, people fled in all directions. When calm was restored, we returned to Alfred House Gardens, to find scores of well-wishers waiting for news. Biding my moment I asked GD whether he had read the Psalm. “No,” he said, “I wanted to read it but you know what happened. It’s still in my pocket though.” He then read the few lines of the Psalm and said, “This is a powerful prayer. I believe it prevented a great catastrophe. Thank you.”

Gamini Dissanayake’s 50th Birthday in March 1992, which also marked a defining chapter in his political career, was celebrated with the launch of a Felicitation Volume titled: “50: A Beginning”. Later that week, a gala lunch was held for Shri Natwar Singh (former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs).

GD’s puckish sense of humour often overcame his gravitas. Thanking the Guest of Honour for having presided over the book launch, GD went on to say, “Natwar told me that he wants a quiet place to write his memoirs. I told him that he is welcome to stay at Kotmale and if he needs any help, I can recommend my Secretary …” I gasped at this ambush, which amused everyone else at the table. That evening, my boss formally gifted me a copy of the Felicitation Volume with the inscription: “To Antoinette – whose dedication and commitment is much appreciated. With warm regards.”

As GD got more and more involved with DUNF activities, and our little office began to look like the party headquarters. I felt that my mission here was accomplished. It was time to seek fresh pastures.

When I told my boss that I intended to resign and go to India for an extended holiday, he telephoned the Minister/Counsellor at the Indian High Commission. “My Secretary wants to visit India,” he said, “Could you please give her a visa. I’ll send a letter through her.” So, there I was like a VIP sitting in this official’s suite, while his subordinates ran around with my passport.

When I returned to Sri Lanka in March 1993, I was immediately shanghaied into joining the campaign trail for the upcoming Central Provincial Council Elections. Madam Shrima was contesting the Nuwara Eliya seat, while GD vied for the CPC seat in Kandy. After the New Year festivities in April, we got into the rhythm of meeting local organisers, attending pocket meetings and speaking to all and sundry who would listen.
Lalith’s assassination on April 23rd brought a stunned DUNF camp back to Colombo. Undeterred by threats and a tear gas attack, Gamini and the other leaders got down from their vehicles and, surrounded by a human wall of protection, walked to the cemetery to pay their last respects. Gamini then delivered a poignant eulogy to his friend and co-leader of the party.

Plans were made to resume our election campaign on the first of May. A bracing helicopter ride to Hatton, a meeting with activists, lunch at the Rest House and then our two groups diverged — GD and his entourage to Colombo for the Opposition May Day Rally and our convoy to Nuwara Eliya. We had barely gone a few kilometres when a police outrider stopped us and directed us to the nearest police station. Here, we were informed of the island wide curfew in force following a bomb blast at the UNP Rally in Colombo. After making sure that her daughter was safe, Madam Shrima decided to stay overnight at the Dissanayake residence in Dangolla, Kandy. Here we met up with GD and his men. Rumours abounded that President Premadasa had been killed in the explosion, but confirmation came only via BBC News later that night.

Premadasa’s death brought about a re-alignment of political forces. GD returned to the UNP and eventually became the party’s nominee for the 1994 Presidential Election. One day, I casually asked him whether he wasn’t afraid of being the next LTTE target. He replied quizzically: Yakkunta bayanam sohone geval hadaida? (If you are afraid of demons, would you build houses in the graveyard?)
Gamini’s death in the wee hours of the October 24, 1994 deprived the country of an incomparable leader — a renaissance man — in whom “the elements were so mixed” and whose many persona blended so harmoniously; a man whose memory remains undiminished year in year out thanks to his beloved wife and soul-mate.

Gamini Dissanayake’s love for his country echoes this invocation by Cecil Spring Rice.
“I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love…
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.”

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