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On November 4 at sunset we cremated a great man this land ever produced. He was a colossus. A man amongst men and a leader amongst leaders. A man for all seasons, who changed Lanka's history. He changed the horizons, created new vistas. Paved the way for all of us to have a better life. He was a king without a crown.
Last time I saw him alive was on his 90th birthday. He looked very frail although he tried to appear cheerful. His beloved wife was in the hospital recovering from surgery. He was missing her very much. He told me that was the first time he spent his birthday alone after marriage. I was seeing him after 18 months. I am glad I made that long journey from Texas to be there in time for his birthday.
Some thing in the back of my mind told me that I would not witness his next birthday. So I made my travel plans accordingly.
It was heart breaking to see him lying in a hospital bed. So I never sighted the hospital. Instead I prayed and held a Bodhi Pooja. I remembered he had told us that he never spent a night in a hospital. Anyway news that filtered down the grapevine was very disheartening about his deteriorating health.
I never intended to write this so soon. But the saddest news next to my parent's deaths reached me on Friday noon. I did not know how to start this. I had a duty to write this note.
President JR and Madam Jayewardene were like parents to me. I made it a point to see them every now and then ever after their retirement, until I left the country due to vicious politics.
My first encounter with JR, the prime minister was in 1977 when I was assigned to work in the ministry of defence and foreign affairs - subject of defence came under the prime minister and foreign affairs under Mr. A.C.S. Hameed. As years went by I kept moving from ministry to ministry and in 1979 ended up in the ministry of finance and planning as it's information officer.
One fine morning I received a call from Dr. Sarath Amunugama who was the secretary to the ministry of information and broadcasting to see him in the office. Dr. Amunugama, himself a very popular man amongst the mediamen at that time, was the very same person who recruited me to the department of information as its first woman press officer ten years before.
He said, "I am going to give you a chance of a lifetime. I have decided to nominate you to be the press officer in the president's office. When you get a letter of appointment from the president's office go and assume duties."
I could not believe my ears. But the offer was real. I waited for that letter for weeks and months. But it never came my way. I felt there would have been an invisible hand at work to prevent me from going there.
But again at the end of 1983 I received a call from Mr. Milton Weerasena who worked in the president's office. He wished to know whether I would like to join the president's office to handle the media desk. At that time the press secretary's post was vacant. I was never ambitious. But I liked the excitement of working for the highest in the land.
One week later I was before Mr. Menikdiwela, secretary to the president facing an interview. Few weeks later I was appointed to the president's office. Working in the president's office was like walking on a tight rope. One could witness many facets of human behaviour there. I was not sure whether I'll be able to survive amongst the tale carriers.
Few months later all of a sudden I got a call from Ward Place. All these days my work was confined to the president's office. Caller said president wants to see me at 8.30 am at Ward Place. I was a bit terrified. I wondered why he summoned me there. I was a bit uneasy. But when I appeared before this calm, well mannered charismatic gentleman I regained my composure.
Can you write and read Sinhala well? He posed a question. "Fairly well Sir, I replied." From tomorrow could you please come here around 8.30 am and attend to Mrs. Jayewardene's correspondence, he asked. I agreed, and the president said: "We will pay you a salary from our private resources, since there are no funds allocated for a secretary for Mrs. Jayewardene.
I told him I did not wish to draw another salary since I am doing madam's work during my normal eight hours for which I am paid by the government. President looked surprised at my reply who would refuse an extra salary. Until the president retired I stuck to my word and never accepted a payment for being Madam JR's secretary.
Most of the mail that reached Madam contained vicious petitions. My duty was to read all the letters addressed to her and take the necessary action after consulting her. She was very sympathetic. Sometimes reading those petitions aloud was very unpleasant to me. I would tell her that we cannot take the anonymous petitions seriously since most of them are written by jealous people.
Sometimes she listened to me. Most people knew that if they addressed a letter or a grievance to Madam it would reach the President. If she noticed any justifiable grievance in her mail she would take it and rush to President's room, to draw his attenion to it.
The most bizzare experience I had while I was working there was that I had to read to her a petition written against myself. Although there was nothing in it except slander, I was very upset and sad realizing the wickedness of many around me. She took it from my hand, tore it and threw it into the waste paper basket. In the meantime she did not forget to console me. I felt very safe, while working for her.
President JR always consulted Madam Elena when he was making decisions. Most of the important discussions were held at the breakfast table at Braemar. There were close associates who dropped by regularly for those informal breakfast meetings.
His lifestyle was simple and frugal. Both of them enjoyed simple foods. Breakfast consisted of strings made of kurakkan flour, bran bread, fresh fruits, fish curry and the like. At 6.00 o'clock in the morning he must have the day's papers on his table. After breakfast he would discuss the headlines and the day's programme. He did not take alcohol. But occasionally took a sip of brandy for medicinal purposes. Once in a way he would smoke half of a Cuban cigar after lunch.
Cuban cigars arrived in the Ward Place as a gift from Cuban leader Fidel Castro. There was an undying friendship built between Castro and JR who was branded as a capitalist. Cigars were very popular among some of his ministers and friends. He generously gave the cigars away.
A glorious day in President JR's life was when he made hundreds of Indians cry during his address at the SAARC summit at Bangalore, India in 1986. We reached there three days in advance to prepare the ground for his arrival. At that time LTTE propaganda machine was very active in India.
President's media desk went to Bangalore well armed with counter propaganda material and quietly released them to journalists. Next day Indian newspapers went to town. K. N. Arun of the "Express News Service" wrote: "The SAARC conference here has provided the Sri Lanka government with a chance for a media offensive against the militants and other Tamil groups. Four documents in the docket released by the president's desk stand out..."
Best part of the Bangalore summit took place at "Vidhana Soudha" conference Hall soon after President JR finished reading from his prepared speech. So much had been said and written about his world famous San Francisco speech on the peace treaty. This speech at "Vidhana Soudha" may be his second best because that day he changed the Indian hearts and made them shed tears.
I would like to quote below his speech made extempore that day for future reference. Addressing Prime Minister Rajiv, he began...
....You quoted a poem from Rabindranath Tagore which is close to my heart. Tagore wrote: "If life's journey be endless, where is the goal". I think the goal and the road are one. Every step must be as pure as the goal itself. There can be no impure steps to attain a pure goal.
"I say this because I know that violence brings hatred. Hatred cannot be conquered by violence, but by non-violence and love. When I spoke at the 1957 San Francisco conference on the Japanese Peace Treaty soon after the war, I cited the Buddha's words. I said, "Hold out the hand of friendship to the Japanese people. Hatred ceases not by hatred but by love."
"Zafrulla Khan of Pakistan spoke after me. He said that Prophet Mohammed also had a similar view. Certain enemies were defeated by arms and they were brought before the Prophet with all the goods that were captured. He said, "Release them, release everything you have taken from them, except their arms. Forgive them," he said.
"Hindu Vedas and the Bhagwat Gita asks us to do right without fear of consequence. Christ forgave his enemies on the Cross.
"I am reminded of all this because every time a bullet, whether it be a terrorist bullet or a bullet from the security services in my country, kills a citizen it goes deep into my heart. I do not know how to stop it. Violence achieves nothing, except distress and hatred.
"I am reminded of a story of Gautama the Buddha. He was meditating in a jungle near a village. A young mother lost her only child. She could not believe that he was dead. She carried the body round the village trying to find some medicine. She could not find it. She was told, "Why don't you go and see that holy man. He may help you."
"She went to him. He told her, "Sister, can you bring a mustard seed? But it, must be from a house where there has been no death." She went back to the village carrying this dead child. She visited house after house; but there was no house where there was no death. In every house somebody had died. She came back and told the Buddha, "Lord, I could not find such a house to bring a mustard seed."
"So he said, "Sister, thou hast found, looking for what none finds, the bitter balm I had to give thee. He thou lovest, slept dead on thy boosm yesterday. Today, thou knowest the whole wide world weeps with thy woe. The grief that all hearts bear grows less by one. Go, bury thou thy child."
"Whenever I hear of death it grieves me more than I can explain. One of your leaders, the great Mahatma Gandhi personified in his life the non-violence that I mentioned. He showed the world that non- violence can be employed to attain political and democratic objectives.
"Whether it be freedom from foreign rule, or the elimination of Capitalism and the formation of a Communist State or whether it is Separatism or Federalism, this is the only way that can be supported by civilised people. That is the way of non-violence or "ahimsa."
"I was privileged, Mr. Chairman, as a young man just entering politics in the 1930s to witness a great movement which began to stir India. Mr. Chairman, I knew your mother and grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. I stayed with him in his house. I was his guest at the Congress Ramgarh Sessions - the last sessions before freedom. I was his guest in Bombay when the "Quit India" Resolution was passed.
"That was the first occasion on which Mahatma Gandhi, in his long service to India, tried the non- violent way to attain freedom for his country. He was training his people in non-violence. He walked to the Dandi beach to break the "salt laws." He broke the laws of the British Government after the Amrithsar massacre. He broke the habit regarding the wearing of foreign cloth and encouraged the Swadeshi Movement. He said you are in a movement not only to attain freedom.
"At the Bombay session when he spoke on the "Quit India" Resolution, I was sitting behind him when he ended his speech with KARANGE YA MARANGE "DO OR DIE".
"Mr. Chairman, I was returning back to Sri Lanka when I was told that your grandfather was arrested. Throughout his long life, Gandhiji never stressed any means other than non-violence. I remember when there was an agitation in Bihar and the police station was set on fire in Chauri Choura. Some policemen were killed during the non-cooperation campaign
"Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders were in jail. Mahatma Gandhi called off the agitation because violence had broken out. Jawaharlal Nehru from jail asked why did he do so, when they were about to attain their objective. Mahatma Gandhi said, "No! I do not want to attain freedom through violence."
"That was the man that inspired me. Those are the men who brought freedom to all our countries. Not only in Asia, but also throughout the world. And I say again violence means hatred. Hatred cannot be conquered by violence, but by non-violence and by love. That is the way I would like to follow.
"Mr. Chairman, as I said before and I say now, "I am a lover of India, I am a friend of its people and you its leader, Mr. Chairman. I am a follower of its greatest son, Gautama the Buddha."
While he was speaking many elderly Indians listened to him with rapt attention and their eyes filled with tears. Ladies were reaching out quietly for their handkerchieves. Some of the senior journalists too were wiping their tears secretly. We were simply elated and so proud of Junius Richard Jayewardene.
During his state visit to US in 1995, American Senators and some Congressmen did not take much notice for unheard Sri Lanka. Ronald Reagan was the President and there was a grand banquet in honour of President JR and Madam Jayewardene. Frank Sinatra who was also invited for the dinner made a rendition of "I did it my way", JR's favourite song. At the end of his prepared banquet speech JR again spoke extempore, surprising his audience. At the end of everything American journalists walked up to our mediamen and told them, "In his speech your man outdid our man."
It is said that when a great man dies even the heavens weep. So it was yesterevening. After thousands thronged in grief to pay their last respects to J.R. Jayewardene, the rain came down in sheets.
I will speak of him as a man, since his politics and political life has been spoken of and written in hundreds of pages and thousands of words. I saw in him a humanity born out of the study of a human being and experience of long years. It was that ability which made him mould those who followed him. He had the capacity to judge people shrewdly and assess their potentiality. So it was that he chose men such as Premadasa, Gamini Dissanaike, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjan Wijeratne, Ranil Wickremesinghe and many others. He built them through guidance and advice and imbibed in them that sense of discipline and leadership which was to become the hallmark of the times.
I personally would not have come into the front line of politics, had he not persuaded me and offered his hand of guidance. When I took his hand in mine, I felt in me all that strength and assurance necessary to make me want what I had thought was not in me. In that proffered hand, the strong grip was borne out of years of sacrifice, patience and humility. All these qualities I learned to respect as I went on my political journey. Today more than ever, I realise that value of self-reliance, truth and strength of character, to differentiate between right and wrong. To fiercely defend what is right and equally resist with all our strength what is wrong. Not to give into injustice and iniquity. To speak the truth even if it hurts you, knowing that ultimately truth must triumph. All of these have I come to know, practice and realise through guru, J R Jayewardene.
After he had achieved the pinnacle of success in politics, J. R. Jayewardene knew when to call it a day and cut himself off from that world in which he had lived for five decades. He had in him not only the deep knowledge of history, but also the sense of history. In this retirement he availed himself of the opportunity to study in greater depth the philosophy of the Buddha Dhamma. Often as we sat together in the evenings engaged in long conversations and arguments, the basis of it all would be the word of the Buddha. His was a very practical approach to the Dhamma in the context of present day reality and not the indulgence in the blind acceptance of ritual gathered over the centuries. His was not a display of Shraddha influenced by ritual and opulent and meaningless display, but the practice of cultivating those perceptions based on the understanding of the Dhamma. It was that profoundness that captivated me.
It is that profoundness that made him utter that one sentence - "Nahi verena verani" - hatred begets hatred, which won the everlasting affection of the Japanese people. To a nation which was shattered by the authorship of aggression, a giant of a man from a small, almost insignificant nation offered hope based on forgivenesss. To those powerful nations besieged by a sense of revenge, this message of forgiveness and love was indeed a revelation. In that one sentence was conveyed to all those nations at the San Francisco Conference, a fundamental of Buddhist philosophy. Perhaps no one ever contributed in modern times to the propagation of the Dhamma as he did in that one effort.
Often have I heard J R being described as an "iron man" or a "cold man". In the event, it has been my experience that he is a warm-hearted man and full of humour. He had that inordinate capacity to laugh at himself and accept criticism. He was a great raconteur and many are the instances in those nostalgic recountings that led to the personal insight of his character.
When JR.'s wish as to how his remains should be taken care of was read out from the pages of a diary noted in 1991, it showed how far he was looking. It was typical of his devotion to detail. It also showed his sense of history. In a life dedicated to the service of people, he never forgot that Kelaniya was as much his first love as his responsibility. To him it was as much a part of his life as it was of Buddhist history. So he wrote that his remains be cremated in that hallowed spot where the Buddha visited, in full view of the Vihara and that his ashes be immersed in the Kelani River at a place recorded to be where the enlightened one bathed.
Most leaders traditionally would have wanted to leave on record an epitaph befitting them, but no epitaph can be written on the waters of a river and yet if JR's achievements had to be recorded, it is necessary only to look at those places where his vision was translated into the creator of vast reservoirs, hydroelectric power houses, multi-storeyed buildings, fuse trade zones with numerous factories, housing projects, universities, hospitals and the Parliament in a new satellite city.
As the ashes of his body mingles and flows with the waters of the Kelani River, it must surely symbolise not only impermanence of life, but also the sansonic dimension which he believed in. To that extent this lfie of JR has ended and yet a new journey has begun, and in that long journey let us wish that all the good deeds done in this athma will help him shorten that journey to the final and external tranquility Nirvana.
And so, the elder statesman, that colossus who bestrode the world of Sri Lankan politics, a beacon in Asian politics and a man of stature internationally, who in the last decade and a half or so became a controversial figure, was cremated in the historic sacred city of Kelaniya in the shadow of the Raja Maha Vihare.
As shades of evening fell on the valley silhouetting the pinnacle, the flames licked around the Chitakaya and consumed his mortal remains. And soon his ashes will merge with the waters and the murky deeps of the Kelani which quietly meanders through the verdant countryside.
The fact that "J.R." as he was familiarly know in Kelaniya wished to have his final obsequies in Kelaniya roused my interest. Hence these random jottings as I wander back reminiscently to what I can personally recall of his overtures in Kelaniya.
In those good old days the elections held something of intrigue, providing us children with much amusement and entertainment as slogans and cries sometimes downright insulting, sometimes ingenious, nevertheless accepted genially, were raised along the streets, where vehicles with loads of supporters roamed.
Vehicles also sporting flags of various hues and later symbols came up to doorsteps to transport the voters to polling booths. I remember the whisperings of the adults as they tried their best both to evade and please; torn between loyalty to the person they professed yet anxious not to displease or hurt the others. People at that time were so scrupulous about maintaining amity, political or otherwise. And we young ones enjoyed the thrill of the opposing factor at our doorstep surreptitiously conveying the news to the adults and thrilled to bits over our spying.
Once the results were released the winning party took over the streets in jubilation, revelling in the victory often entertaining the people around.
On such occasions when "J.R." won as he always did, save once, he went along the streets standing in an open vehicle which moved at a snail's pace, hands clasped in grateful, thankful greeting, smiling at his voters who stood at the edge of the road, pausing at the homes of his regular voters, acknowledging the cheers, his faithful life's companion beside him.
I recall one instance when he contested against Mrs. Wimala Wijewardene and won. He was doing his normal round and a lorry load, brimful, making scathing comments on the opponent preceded. Those who were by the edge of the road heard Mrs. Elena Jayawardena going on in an audible whisper:
"Nanda gana mukuth kiyanna epa kiyanna"
"Tell them not to tell anything about Nanda"
Here was the reaction of the gracious lady beside him, in his moment of triumph.
Another incident that remains etched in my memory is the eve of another election day when we, a batch of students from the then St. Paul's Girls' English School, Kelaniya were returning, having recorded a programme at Radio Ceylon. We, in our green school ties, were at the Pettah bus stand looking out for a bus. We were asked by some bus crews which bus we wished to take. The moment we said Kelaniya we were ushered in to a bus with an obeisance.....
"J.R.ge kandeta ida denna"
( Allow J.R.'s people to get in)
Thus he was acclaimed in times past.
If I remember right J.R. always contested Kelaniya and won until he met his Waterloo in 1956 in R.G. Senanayake when most of the greens turned blue except for the die-hard loyalists with whom voting for J.R.was a tradition. Came the next election and having given over to A.W. Abeygoonesekera (Ossie Abeygoonesekera's father) J.R. opted for Colombo.
Was it a decision prompted by hurt feelings that he was rejected in his own realm? I remember the earlier cry:
(J.R. is for Kelaniya and Kelaniya is for J.R.)
And now the saga of J.R. has ended. Politics is neither my field nor my concern. But in recent years controversy has ranged loud and long over the Peace Accord; the I.P.K.F; and the Executive Presidency. Be that as it may, there is something gnawing in me where this admirable statesman is concerned. I could not fathom why this grand gentleman of politics deprived Sirimavo of her civic rights. Call it my feminist mentality if you will but to me it is strangely inconceivable.
And so finally J.R. has come back to Kelaniya. Has come home where his heart always had been. By the banks of the Kelani in the vicinity of the sacred temple he bade his adieu and the people of Kelaniya appreciate this magnanimous gesture of gratitude and farewell.
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