15th June 1997


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George Rajapakse

George the pensive intellect

I knew George from his chiIdhood. His father D.M. used to send me a ticket to enter the Gallery whenever I went from school to the State Council to watch the proceedings. I used to visit George in the Royal College Hostel during the war when it was housed in the stately home "Maligawa" of Sir James Obeyesekera.

When George scored two centuries for Royal in the match against Trinity in 1943, I saw that memorable feat briefly at Asgiriya. When he captained Royal in 1944, and lost to S. Thomas’ by an innings, I watched that match seated beside D.M. up in the old S.S.C. pavilion. After his father died in May 1945, George entered the University of Ceylon a few months later and the Ceylon Law College in 1946.

George was a diligent, hard-working student who realised his responsibilities on the death of his father who left no rich fortune but a legacy of an illustrious name. He quickly passed his Advocates’ Finals and took to the legal profession. His legal acumen and political sagacity made him an excellent criminal lawyer. Soon he had the bulk of the criminal court practice in the South. With his professional earnings he was able to restore the family income and pay back the inherited debts. Though nurtured in national politics he had his local apprenticeship in the Mulkirigala Village Committee, being its Chairman for sometime.

He said that a Member of Parliament has more duties than mere obligations. He has a duty to protect his Party and Government, but the primary duty of every Member of Parliament is to protect the people who put him in office. The foremost problem that a Government in office is called upon to solve are problems of unemployment resulting in poverty, inadequate housing, education and health.

A couple of days before his speech of 22nd August 1962 he telephoned and asked me for my copy of Shakespeare’s play "Julius Caesar". I realised why he wanted it when I read his speech of resignation in Parliament.

He said that "if no one has died in this country through starvation it was only because of the rice subsidy, and this Government - to use a phrase which the Hon. Minister of Finance is often fond of using - ‘in the fair name of socialism’ has denied to the people half a measure of rice".

Like Mark Anthony in the tragedy of Julius Caesar vilifying Brutus’ speech " saying "but Brutus is an honourable man", George also used the phrase " in the fair name of socialism" at precisely ten appropriate pauses in his speech with devastating effect!

He suggested that government departments make a sustained and organized effort to eliminate waste, bribery and corruption. He wanted public servants to work during "time" and not during "overtime". He said that a "threat" to introduce Bills for the declaration of assets never materialised. There was pious humbug in the Throne Speeches.

He felt the rice cut was only a symptom, not the disease. "Much has been talked about national development, but national development is impossible without national unity. National unity means unity between the majority and minority communities. Unnecessary controversies that developed have eroded any hope of forging national unity". He reflected that late Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike stood firmly and solidly against any division of the country. But he was never against the forging of national unity between the communities.

The people wanted some kind of solution to this language problem that was an obstacle to progress. But bitterness, acrimony, hard feelings, still remained between the two communities, and it is the duty of the Government to find some way out of this impasse, some solution, if they wanted to carry out the development schemes that they were talking about.

Speaking at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting in 1971 he said that democracy is a human artifice and has no claims to a divine right of supreme perfection. Any erosion in the classical and known forms of parliamentary democracy, therefore, would come principally from internal structural changes like the development of bureaucratic and technocratic power. Governments must also realise that politics at times, is like a game, we lose more because of our mistakes than they win on their merits.

In the traditional sense, democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people. But are the people drawn into the processes of government? What we have today is not government by Parliament, but Cabinet government. The independence of the Judiciary is one of the cornerstones of democracy. In practice, justice is available only to those who can afford to pay for it? One can see a growing impatience with the dilatory procedures of parliamentary democracy.

These are some of the ideals that George lived for. It can be discerned that the prewar politics of his father’s era which mainly concerned the pathetic poverty of the rural Ruhuna peasant had changed. The postwar period brought out new problems that needed drastic solutions. Early in the 1970s the Prime Minister entrusted him with the task of finding effective ways to prevent the denuding of the Sinharaja forest. His comprehension of the problem, his analysis of the danger and his farseeing solutions to the impending disaster left a report admired and appreciated by generations.

George was the very amiable and charming Chairman of the Lanka-Soviet Friendship Association for seventeen years. He earned the co-operation of every member to achieve remarkable results.

In 1970 he was called upon to be the Minister of Fisheries. He was a man who could make a success even if he was appointed a Minister without a Portfolio ! He did not treat Fisheries as a sterile assignment, but made tremendous strides to make it a success. In midstream he was burdened with the Ministry of Health. He made a lasting impact on the Medical Services of this country. He was a sick man by this time. Knowing very well that his heart was functioning at less than half its capacity he struggled on, undaunted by imminent death - he had a premonition that he would not outlive his father who also died at the age of fifty.

Many knew George as an exuberant, energetic fun-loving man, but few knew George as a pensive intellect who seriously pondered over several problems - problems, many of which he could have solved if he had been given his due span of life on this earth.

- Sam Wijesinha

Pieter Keuneman

He placed the country before self

When Oliver Wendell Holmes sang years ago:

"A time like this demands
Great Harts, strong minds,
True faiths and willing hands;
Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy,
Men who possess opinions and a will,
Men who have honour,
Men who will not lie"

He had, perhaps , in mind a plus personality like the Late Pieter Gerald Bartholomeus Keuneman whose exit from our midst has deprived us a born leader with a national image, a great mind, a blending and a synthesis of a humanist who steered clear of racial, regional, religious and linguistic bias and never used these as instruments to gain political mileage. He placed the country before self; principles before politics; spurned everything communal and egoistic and always agreed to disagree democratically on many mundane matters without succumbing to tactics aimed at creating chaos and destruction.

One might say that was the high watermark of a communist but the communists of various hues the world has known are not always of Keuneman’s mould!

He was a rare human, a humanist of a distinct vintage, of whom all, friend and foe, proclaimed, "You are a man my son" as Kipling sang in his "IF".

Right now, the plight of Beautiful Sri Lanka is in a sorry mess which has been the creation of a class of leaders over the years, some chosen and a few self-ordained who in comparison with Keuneman would pale into insignificance!

Mr. Keuneman was an exception! When the history of his time comes to be recorded, Mr. Keuneman, like Abu Ben Adhem, would be miles ahead of the Titans of his times.

The best way to offer to this great man of our times is to rid us of narrow pride prejudice and political opportunism for the greater glory of the country.

- T. N. Punjaksharam

Mahen Vaithianathan

Wit was his tool

Mahen Vaithianathan passed away on a Bak Poya day delineated by a monstrous shower that irrigated the parched fields of south-west Sri Lanka. He once asked me whether I preferred to walk in the sun or the rain and being quite essentially British I replied . "In the sun, of course", to which he shook his head and said that I was no child of the tropics because to walk in the tropical sun was self-torture and until I grasped that I would never understand the mind of a Sri Lankan.

That was more than twenty years ago. I may not be any closer to understanding the Sri Lankan psyche but I do know one thing - that Mahen Vaithianathan was an enigma to his closest friends and perhaps, most of all, to himself.

Bedevilled by an un-quenchable desire for experience, Mahen placed freedom for self expression above every other consideration. A gross underachiever in the eyes of "respectable society", this graduate of Balliol Collage in PPE rarely practised the law he was qualified in.

The son of a famous political father, Mahen was famous for his parties - for his knowledge of jazz, of mediaeval Ceylon history, of the philosophy of art, of the archaeology of Sigiriya, of the film noir and the place of Pantagruelism in 20th century thought.

A man for all climates, his ability to juggle words, ideas and personalities in an "arro"-driven sparking one-man show never failed to astound his enormous circle of friends and admirers. To be a guest at one of Mahen’s parties was an unforgettable experience. He educated the innocent by exposing the socially sophisticated for the poseurs they really are: he destroyed as many egos as he flattered; he torpedoed as many theories as he constructed. Dreams were his designs and wit was his tool, but both were subordinated to a Zen-like urge to always do the unexpected - at whatever the cost.

Not that the wildness was a pose. One of his earliest memories was of being shut up in the boot cupboard at home for some misdemeanour. The boy from Royal Junior who climbed up to poke a cigarette between the bronze lips of the statue of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike - that faithful servant of the raj - became the adolescent who swung on the chandeliers of Sir Ernest de Silva’s mansion in Flower Road. He had a saying (he had so many) "I’d rather be a flower in Flower Road than all the sin in Cinnamon Gardens!" One of his favourite sayings, which he had borrowed from his guru, the German swamy Gauribala, who had in his turn shamelessly borrowed it from Lin Yutang the post-war Chinese Philosopher, was pure Taoism.

"The wisdom of the foolish,
The gracefulness of the slow;
The subtlety of stupidity
And the advantage of lying low"

Typically Mahen altered the last line to read "the advantage of lying flat!’

As a high profile Tamil living in an ocean of Sinhalese, Mahen had every reason to know the advantage of lying flat. But for a man who looked like a late Kandyan Court jester: who could speak the high-flown Sinhalese dialect of the Kandyan grande like a native; who could banter in "Greek" with stevedores from the Colombo dockyards and expose a foreign academic fraud in less time than it took to light a jostik before his bronze Nataraj, Mahen was never a man to take an insult lying down.

However punch drunk he may have felt, he always staggered back for more .Well, that kind of self-punishment finally takes its toll.

In a land going through Kali Yuga, when man’s inhumanity to man overrides every other consideration, the courage of the nonconformist becomes a beacon to the pusillanimous.

He leaves behind his mother, two sisters and a brother who will rue the mixed blessing that such a star-crossed person brings to this world with them.

If such are the best of us, may the gods have mercy on the worst.

- Jane Russell, Camberwell, London

Sqdn. Ldr Pamunu Mahamalage

He brought honour

The second death anniversary of Squadron Leader Pamunu Mahamalage fell recently. Mahesh Gamage flew with him in the company of some of their colleagues on that fateful afternoon to a destination from which they were destined never to return in one piece, in our history’s first ever "AVRO" disaster before the very eyes of the ground crew.

The short period of ten months he spent after marrying our daughter brought immense happiness and joy to our families. Despite onerous duties he never neglected his obligations towards the families. Pamunu putha brought honour to his Alma-Mater Maris Stella, country and religion. He spent his last few hours with our family at a Holy mass at Raddolugama on Monday, Thursday before he left for his parental home. Sadly, we never saw his beautiful face afterwards.

Many in the forces below his rank spoke of his high human qualities and to the best of my knowledge he was accepted and respected by all who knew him and the vast crowd that gathered at his funeral is a fair testimony to the statement.

We thank Jesus for his love towards our dearest son-in-law and we beseech Him to grant our dearest daughter the happiness she deserves and to comfort her in this pilgrimage of life.

- Florence and Bertie Mendis

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