21st September 1997


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Memories of the man not the politician

By Roshan Peiris

Last Wednesday, September 17th was the late president J. R. Jayewardene’s ninety first birthday, the first since his death. He has played his role in the political life of this country and built himself a suitable niche. He was the country’s first executive president and as a politician, controversial. But no one in the future can underplay his impact.

His house at ‘Braemer’, Ward Place, which this writer visted last Thursday was shrouded in a kind of pall of silence. During his life, it was always a place of activity but his office was silent, a mute testimony that the man who occupied it was dead. I met the grieving family, the widow Elena, now feeble but yet showing her concern for our comfort.

“We have a feeling of loss” said his only child Ravi.

“On his birthdays except last year when my mother was in hospital we had a sing-song for my fathers birthday. He loved to sing and was very happy when my wife Penny got the Merry An singers to come, since Mary Anne was Penny’s friend” said Ravi.

“I miss him all the time, and not only yesterday, his birthday. I fell last year in the garden and injured my hip and so he refused to enjoy his birthday since I was in hospital” said Elena Jayewardene.

“You know we were a happy couple. During the sixty one years we were married we never quarrelled. What was there to quarrel about? she asked wiping her rush of tears.

Ravi, a pilot by profession said “the greatest impact my father had on me was that he acquainted me with Buddhism. He talked to me often of the teachings of the Buddha and so today I am a practising Buddhist.

“I recall my father did not like my being a pilot but that is what I wanted to be, since I was a boy. He was sorry I did not take to politics. Will I now? Most certainly not. When one takes to politics one cannot be truthful if you want to make your mark in politics.”

“The best thing my father did was the open economy policy which gave the country a pep -up. His failure was that he could not stop the war. When my father called in the IPKF, I protested. I told him we should not have foreign troops on our soil.

“But in hindsight, calling in the IPKF was good, it would have ended the war had they remained since the LTTE was weak and not well organised at the time. I believe that our army must today be adequately trained to meet the warfare thrust upon it. This may or may not be received well,” Ravi added.

“My father had many facets to his character. He may have been one of the most powerful politicians but he at the same time would take time off to play with me, climb trees and even the roof which he subsequently did jauntily with his grandsons. His personal effects, believe me, though he was fastidious man amount to little. I can show you some day.

He has not only left his impact on the country in whatever way it be evaluated but he did forcefully touch our lives so that we all feel a tremendous sense of loss, my children too,” Ravi said.

Penny, JR’s daughter-in-law said “Thaththa and I had long talks on Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Swami gave him this chain and pendant and after his death I took it back to Swami. Swami came to me and said “he is no more” and took this beaded chain, I am wearing. He blessed each and every bead and the pendant and put it on me.

“Swami also gave a lingum to Thaththa which I gave him and he blessed and returned it to me. It is in my prayer room at home. Once Thaththa gave me a letter to give Swami and at darshan he came to me and said, ‘Where is the letter your father-in-law gave you?”

“I loved Thaththa for he never never got angry. Many don’t know some of the issues he dealt with while carrying out many onerous duties as president. I have a long list of them and I shall give them to you some time.

“I recall how some people wanted to buy the property and building where the Friend in Need Society houses the Jaipur Foot Programme. He took time off to intervene and stopped it.

“Then there were people who were eyeing to oust the Carmelite nuns at Mutwal. They were cloistered people, with no contact with the outside world. Thaththa was very annoyed and stopped that too.

He also initiated the drug prevention and rehabilitation programme. He was also responsible for the gift of Sri Jayewardenepura hospital by the Japanese.

“And every single Friday no matter his political commitments he asked Ravi to arrange a meeting to review the medical facilities for those injured in battle. A ward in Sri Jayewardenepura hospital was reserved for them.

“He was a caring and concerned person and showed it to everyone in need he knew and particularly to amma if and when she was sick,” Penny recalled.

These are the memories of those who loved J. R. Jayewardene as a person.

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