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28th February 1999

...And the wars come home

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Profiling Mervyn de Silva – Part III

Mervyn de Silva, a senior print and broadcast journalist, turns 70 later this year. In this unusual and intentionally premature evaluation, his son Dayan Jayatilleka suggests why the media community should be preparing to felicitate him.

The overwhelming bulk of Mervyn's work is easily that of critical political commentator and analyst. This is paradoxically also the contribution that can be discussed most easily, so clear and self-evident is its defining motif: internationalism.

He was internationalist in three senses- attitude and outlook, subject matter and journalistic practice.

His role was dualistic-the best known Lankan correspondent for a proliferating array of foreign papers , magazines and radio stations and simultaneously the country's best known commentator on world affairs. A twofold translation: interpreting his country's processes to the outside world and in a manner intelligible to it, while explaining the global processes to his fellow countrymen and women. In doing the latter, he was more the pedagogue to generations of Lankans than he would ever have been on the Peradeniya staff.

This dual role did not make for schizophrenia - the functions were twinned, integrated. The exceptional on- site coverage of the student revolt throughout Europe in 1968 for the Observer (one of the few third world journalists to do so) and the page long article on Ché clearly conditioned his sympathetic stand on the JVP in 1971.( He would attend the CJC trials and in Oct 1982, write Wijeweera's TV address for the Presidential election campaign).

Similarly, his commentaries on guerrilla movements for national liberation and awareness of identity-based struggles throughout the world gave an unique objectivity to his attitude to the Tamil Eelam struggle and to Velupillai Prabhakaran.

De Silva was the internationalist who stayed home even when Tarzie and Adrian Zecha wanted him to join The Asian or Denzil wanted him at South. But he worked for the BBC, the Sunday Times, the Economist, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Times of India and the Khaleej Times and published also in Le Monde Diplomatique, the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune. No one had that track record.

Mervyn's internationalism was not equidistant from the two superpowers any more than his Third Worldism was a celebration of 'Commonwealth Literature' or tolerably developmental and do-gooding, as Tarzie's largely was. It was anti-imperialist, resolutely political and in the final analysis supportive of the Soviet Union, Cuba and the socialist bloc.

While in Sri Lanka ,Tarzie and Denzil were ambivalent on Vietnam - and the former had a rather fuzzy profile on the Indonesian coup of '65. (Esmond was actually supportive). From the days of Diem, right through Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive ( which we watched Olivier Todd cover for BBC T.V.) down to the final victory in 1975, de Silva was a pioneering supporter of Vietnamese liberation and a particular fan of General Giap, in the pages and on the air waves. His friend Pieter Keuneman would complain in Cabinet that the leading local Maoist N Sanmugathasan "existed in the public eye purely by the grace of the editor of the Ceylon Daily News!!

A great admirer of Mao and more particularly of Chou En Lai though he was, he took his distance from China's foreign policy after its rightward turn and one of the reasons for his dismissal from the Lake House was that the anti-Soviet/pro-Chinese Janavegaya group felt that the year of the Colombo NAM summit (backstage of which there was a huge Sino-Cuban battle) was one in which an editor who had written a series supporting the MPLA and Cuban forces in Angola, was an unaffordable risk.

De Silva and family were guests of Indonesia's pre-coup Foreign Minister Subandrio and Iraq's Tariq Aziz and briefly hosted Evgeni Primakov in Colombo.

What was the fundamental lesson that de Silva derived from his extensive international experience? While chronicling the country's crisis in the LG he was unswayed by the interpretative natter of 'civil society-ism' (and feminism) which contemporaries like Charles Abeysekara and Godfrey Goonetilleke would fall prey to. Through the fog of loudly articulated 'soft ideologies', he would be guided by what Peter Yusuf, Iraqi ex Communist militant and foreign editor of the Baath Party newspaper Al Thawra emphasised to us on a long desert drive through the oil fields into the Kurdish mountains : " what finally counts are the men with the guns…..and the men who control the men with the guns".


Two instruments of expression, not just the one: typewriter and microphone. His domination of English language print journalism has been such that it is often forgotten that de Silva has been for 40 years a journalist of voice as well.

Though his weekly commentary on foreign affairs has been the longest running of his programmes, by far the best was the literary critical one - largely poetry - called ' From My Bookshelf'.

I would sit in my mother's second-hand Ford at night outside the SLBC (then CBC), National Panasonic transistor on, tuned to what my father was saying in the studio. I suspect that even today if the SLBC was to dust off those tapes and re-broadcast them, the magic would be released once again into the night air.

That magic was in the match of words and voice. Just how utterly distinctive that timbre and diction was among Lankan broadcasting voices was proven when, in London, on the BBC's exclusive and jealously guarded Home Service, the studio put on a programme by de Silva on the very first take!

That programme was 'Breakfast with Yevtushenko' after his vodka and borscht encounter with the young Russian dissident poet.

Coming out of the studio acknowledging the producer's thumbs-up, Mervyn collected his paycheque and bought his first Harvie and Hudson shirt in a little shop in Jermyn Street - a long way from the Yatirawana rail-gate in Wattegama.

(When Morocco's King Hassan fled the coup by Oufkir he abandoned his wives and packed his Harvie and Hudson shirts).

Frost, Auden, Eliot, Dickinson, Thomas. The proto-modern sensibility of Donne and Shakespeare's sonnets. The poets introduced, the poems read out and interpreted. We stayed in the car outside in case he did a runner. Once he'd gone across the street from home with empty bottles to buy some soft drinks, been accosted by a friend and gone to Nattandiya to watch a by-election rally, returning the next morning as I was getting into my school uniform. Another time I got off the stage after a Christmas pageant at St. Joseph's only to find him gone- and still in my angels wings, requested Norton Pereira to announce for my father over the public address system. Vainly.

Merv's blues

"Golden lads and girls all must / like chimney sweepers come to dust". I remember that one off his book shelf and into the warm night air, closing out a programme. Mervyn de Silva today may not even recognise himself in this essay.

Though he does not wear the bottoms of his trousers rolled, he's had more happen to him than just grow old. It's not the booze that's finally getting him - he got on the wagon when I was being hunted by both the NIB and the JVP.

The striking young Maoist ideologue and leader who would drop into the Lanka Guardian office and chat up the editor like an intelligent nephew would - the back of his head blown off and a suicide note left behind which elliptically prophesied the true nature of the people's victory. The tall dark polite young Tamil who would also drop by, turning out later to be the head of an armed liberation front, executed on the orders of the leader Mervyn had correctly named on the Lanka Guardian cover as the island's Man of the Decade of the 1980's.The same man was responsible for the assassination after a cuppa, of Mervyn's old Tamil parliamentarian friends.

Colombo, which had nocturnally turned itself into Dublin during de Silva's Daedalus days, was now Belfast - every other familiar road, building or junction the site of some bomb blast or assassination.

There were severed heads around the Alwis pond at Peradeniya, and LTTE and SLA commandos shot it out in the corridors of Lake House. Not even Hemingway, Malraux and Chandler had prepared him for this invasion of surreal violence into his social living spaces. The wars had come home.

And finally there have been the natural deaths-actually premature ones brought upon by illness. His sister, Wimal de Mel, D.J. Attygalle, T. Sivagnanam, Gamini Jayasuriya, Mahen Vaithyanathan, A.J. Gunawardana.

His weekly newspaper column now had too many valedictories.

Until a few years ago he would regard with arrogant good humour, the day he would be "suddenly shocked by my own mortality". (The line was from a movie, Richard Harris still trying to sound like Burton). A virtuoso solo performer and individualist, remote if good-humoured, he is now deeply appreciative of siblings and extended family.

After thirty five years, he doesn't live in 'Cinnamon Gardens' any more. The heavy, self assured tread is more a shuffle. The household disarray is no longer "just like the set of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, machan" as the critic Gamini Dissanayaka told me, a touch envious of my old environs.

It is a sparer set now, the unconscious style a tired minimalism, a desert of desuetude like the jungle tide threatening Woolf's 'village'. Boxes of belongings reached me recently - my parents lightening their load - which included Mervyn's favourite beer mug picked up in Stratford at the Shakespeare Quadcentenary. As he turns seventy this September and crosses the border into the 21st Century, de Silva's only 'certain certainties' are the proximity and fixity of the final deadline.


Unorthodox male chauvinist

In his attitude to women Mervyn was an unorthodox male chauvinist. His mother played bridge and tennis and was the first female fan of his humour. He never believed that the place for women was the kitchen and the home - and when around, he did help with the dishes, his thick gold wedding ring making an infernal clattering sound in the most perfunctory of rinsings.

He liked intelligent women, admired Maude Keuneman and as editor Daily News was to bring out of mothballs one of Lankan journalism's finest columnists, the foreign born leftist Rhoda Miller de Silva.

Some of his best friends were feminist academics. But Mervyn seems to have a simple dictum: he would regard the women of his time and acquaintance as fully equal the day they could speak and write as well as he could. And that went for the transatlantic, editorially upwardly mobile women journalists he would flirt heavily with.

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