“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw ‘Man and Superman’ Encapsulating the kind of life that Prasanna Jayawardena P.C. J lived, into a few words, is like being asked to [...]

Sunday Times 2

We are all better people for his path having crossed ours

Prasanna S. Jayawardena, P.C. J

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

– George Bernard Shaw ‘Man and Superman’

Encapsulating the kind of life that Prasanna Jayawardena P.C. J lived, into a few words, is like being asked to bottle the ocean. However, Sir would have been irritated if I shirked this task. He was a hard taskmaster in life and even in death, he continues to test. Why else, would he – with this irreversible, unbelievable passing – inflict upon anyone, the impossible brief of summing up an extraordinary, eclectic, colossus in a few words? Brevity was a quality he valued. But little did we realise that he would apply it in such extreme fashion to his own life. While his candle was too brief, he was anything but a ‘poor player’ as he ‘strutted’, not ‘fretted’, his ‘hour upon the stage’.

“Sir”, Jayawardena J, was a fascinating paradox. How could someone who was so utterly contemptuous of the colonial enterprise, wield its most potent weapon – the English language – with so much skill? How could a left hander be so coolly rational, methodical and linear? How could he move from being the caustic, mock – belligerent, senior in chambers, to ascend to the Supreme Court as the tempered, empathetic, judge we all looked forward to appearing before? How was he at the same time aristocratic and egalitarian? How was he as comfortable in the trappings and sobriety of the apex court, as he was with the raucousness of the Mustangs tent? How could a man with such a flamboyant personality, be so restrained in Court? Was he more comfortable in his incredible library, or did he prefer the beach, the jungle and the open road? How could he be so utterly compelling, while also remaining so aloof?

It is probably in the answers to these questions, or indeed, in the lack of answers, that we meet the man we so reluctantly laid to rest, on Boxing Day – perhaps the final one of his cruel puns. He was a man who was not usual. Not someone we could pigeonhole. Not someone who paid any heed to labels or social convention. To call him ‘indescribable’ is not a lazy epithet, but a studied conclusion.

As a junior, there were the things I appreciated, and the things that left me in awe. What I appreciated the most was that he showed by example that you did not need to leave the outside world in order to be a good lawyer. That you could still have interests and pursue them, if you set your priorities right. He showed me that balance was important, although seeking that perfect balance could sometimes be a lifelong quest, with a few tumbles along the way. He readily acknowledged his failings. Sometimes unapologetically, and, at other times with the humility of experience. His awareness of his imperfections allowed him never to get ahead of himself, or place his personality above his role – whether it was as a judge, an officer of court, or a mentor. Above all, he realized the simplicity of cause and effect. He never pontificated, or preached sermons. Instead, he was practical and only warned us to be prepared for life’s consequences.

What left me in awe though was his analytical brilliance. He could dissect any complex legal problem effortlessly. It was an intelligence that had no bombast about it, which was its most attractive quality. As juniors, we watched it unfold during a draft, or on his feet at the expense of the other side’s witness. When he was elevated to the Supreme Court he manifested this intelligence differently, with patience and respect. Perhaps it’s a Jayawardena thing. Watching Prasanna work was like watching Mahela bat – cultured, ruthless and efficient, but always artistic. Despite this gift, he valued hard work. And he worked even harder as a judge than he had as a lawyer, mainly because as a judge he worked for more than just a client.

Very early on after he’d adopted me -mainly for his own entertainment, I think – he told me the senior/ junior relationship was a ‘guru-gola’ relationship, rather than a master/servant or employer/employee relationship. This is best translated into ‘teacher and disciple’.He ensured that he held up his end of the bargain, if his juniors did theirs. As much as he expected us to emulate him professionally – deal with his idiosyncrasies in grammar and punctuation, and endure his sporadic marathons of work, he cared deeply about each and every person who relied on him. He spent time on his disciples. For us, every interaction was a learning experience, sometimes even about the law. He would make it a point to watch any plays I was in, never failing to be brutally honest in his appraisal of them. He would read my cricket writings with interest and once called me excitedly to tell me he had heard me on the radio, as if I might not have known I was on. Nevertheless, he always knew how much affirmation to withhold, just in case we stopped wanting to get better.He took us as seriously as he took himself, which was not very much, and had the rare ability to laugh at the hand that life dealt each day.

His loss is even more tragic at this time, because he sincerely believed in encouraging dissent. Once, a lengthy text message conversation led to him eventually conceding my grammatical correction of his use of an apostrophe. As much as he encouraged a challenge, he was not used to being wrong. He would continue to use that grammatical concession for years afterwards, as evidence against my accusations of him being stubborn.I used to have pitched battles with him, mainly on his particular version of nationalism, which was curiously right-wing for someone so obviously steeped in liberal values. So imagine my surprise when after a few years he said to some of us juniors, “come I’ve signed you fellows up for Tamil classes”. His requests were often disguised as commands. Dutifully, we – his acolytes – followed him. He was pushing his boundaries (as he did ours), and needed us around him for moral support, although he would never admit it. It was in moments like this that we fleetingly glimpsed his vulnerability. That underneath the hawk-like, inscrutable gaze and amused smirk, there was real depth of feeling. Beneath the carefully cultivated veneer of unflappability, there was a sea of conscious sensitivity to all whom he came across. Perhaps it was the depth of that sensitivity that forced him to adopt his methodical restraint.

Every day that we would walk into his chambers, his desk would be completely clean. No papers, no files. No baggage from the day before. Everything had its place, and every day started anew. He had an uncommon capacity to let go. That, to me, was the greatest, most significant paradox – his ability to care so deeply and still let go, without the ‘attachment’ that is toxic to his beloved Buddhism. He would blast us one minute for some drafting disaster, and the next minute it would be completely forgotten. He held on to nothing. Not even Life, as it turned out. I remember moaning to him about an order in a case I was working on, and he explained that he’d won cases he didn’t think he would win and lost cases he was sure of winning, “so just do your best and that’s all you can do”. There was no expectation. No victimhood. It was obvious he took this attitude with him to the bench. Being a judge mattered to him.He took his public role very seriously and it was interesting to watch a man who often basked in irreverence, approach his duties with such sanctity. His loss – to bench, bar and most importantly litigants – is immeasurable. He showed us what it was to sit as a judge, but not sit in judgment.

This latest act of letting go was a bit much though, even for him. ‘Arbitrary, unreasonable and capricious’ as the lawyers may describe his sudden loss. Less than a day from the beginning of the end, to the end.  All of us – to differing degrees – feel a violent sense of abandonment. Incompleteness, for the enormity of the tasks he still had to achieve, and regret, at the time with him, that will remain unspent, and the conversations which will remain un-had. But he will be the first one to rebuke our sense of entitlement, and insist that life is nothing without death, and vice versa. Our expectations of his continued presence are not legitimate, he would insist. We will be expected to start anew, with a clean desk.As harshly rational as that thought is, Sir will remain, infuriatingly, right, as usual. And somewhere, he is smiling amusedly as we are compelled to grope our own way.

In this time of not just grief, but utter disbelief, it may be fitting to quote the carol ‘The Angel Gabriel’ – “(T)hen gentle Mary meekly bowed her head; to me be as it pleaseth God, she said”. Sometimes, we are left with no option but to accept the unfathomable will of God. While we are all united in sorrow, we grieve temporarily in the knowledge that as another famous carol says “we shall see him but in heaven.”

We are all better people for his path having crossed ours.

Shanaka Amarasinghe


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