5th September 1999
Mervyn's brilliance as a journalist has been universally acclaimed and rightly so. The qualitative difference in Mervyn's writing was I believe greatly due to his over-reaching interest in international affairs and the width and the depth of his reading. He was able to interconnect events happening in different parts of the world in terms of a universal trend or in relation to a common principle. This enabled him to see the unfolding events in Sri Lanka objectively and in a wider perspective than most and made him much sought after by the diplomatic community. Mani Dixit the former Indian Ambassador marked him as one of the best, if not the best, he had met on his numerous postings.
Another thing which enhanced his acumen as a political analyst was the felt need to probe the psychological underpinnings of the many leaders he met and interviewed in his journalistic career. It enabled him to see and read the person beyond the words. Mervyn had ready access to the dramatis personae of our political stage and he enjoyed his encounters with them. His intellectual capacity gave him the self-confidence of the other great journalists of our time both local and foreign, and his subjects learnt quickly that he could not be patronised or fobbed off with sophistries.
Also because he had this world view of the forces that shaped social and political events and his own penchant for the satirical mode, he tended to see the local players as caricatures of themselves, not maliciously though, but in good humour a la Gabriel Marquez. Not that his commentaries of the Sri Lankan political scene were not serious. On the contrary there was a prophetic dimension to his writing. He was in the forefront of the thinking which mooted the significance of geopolitics in the conduct of foreign affairs. He emphasised the primacy of India in the structure of our foreign policy. The Tamil Nadu factor. The importance of being Minister Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman and the crucial nature of including Prabhakaran in the political discourse.
In the Lanka Guardian which was his prime achievement he was at pains to give due weightage to the expression of the minority view on the vexed nationalities question. There are two issues of the Lanka Guardian which have left an indelible impression on one's mind. Surprisingly both are memorable for the picture on the front cover. The first is the issue after the July 23, 1983, pogram against the Tamils. It shows a picture of a despairing and doomed Tamil youth stripped naked at the Borella bus stand five minutes before he was burnt alive. The second is the issue which carried Prabhakaran as the man of the decade - 1980's. While the first registered a paradigm shift in the mainstream Tamil empirical consciousness from that of a national minority to that of a nationality within a State, the other drew emphatic attention to the political and military reality of the time. Ten years on, very little has changed. This was not only journalist as prophet, but the journalism of integrity and courage. Thanks Mervyn. The need of that hour, is the need of every hour. Then and Now.
I have known Mervyn from our days together at the Colombo University where he preferred the tuck shop - he was quick to see a pun however devious - to the lecture theatre, and the junior common room cut table to the library. Our talk shop resumed in earnest many years later with a regular Saturday morning meeting over a glass of beer with mutual friends. It was right that Lakshmi his devoted wife and companion, always accompanied him and it was so touching to receive the beer supply sent by her for our meeting, the Saturday after his death.
In the intimacy of these conversations to which there were midweek postscripts over the telephone, Mervyn revealed dimensions to his personality in which there was a strong romantic strain. He had a feel for the heroic, the courageous, the brave and brainy anti authoritarian protagonist. General Giap and Che Guevera come to mind.
Naturally cricket which has held the imagination of most of Sri Lankan society both before and after the World Cup victory, invariably became the subject for discussion. He had imbued its culture, from the heady days when from beyond the boundary we were enraptured by another hero - Satha, defining the aesthetics of batsmanship, once and for all. Metaphors from cricket came readily to him both in his writing and in his speech.
Latterly the Lanka Guardian was proving to be more and more difficult to keep going because of financial compulsions. He had already reached many landmarks in his publication and I suggested that he lay it aside to write his memoirs. I reasoned that issues with which the Lanka Guardian had been most concerned no longer made the front page. The ethnic issue had been flogged to a standstill and in the wider arena Karlov had made his crossing over the Berlin Bridge to Checkpoint Charlie. The spies from the Cold War had come in from the cold. But Mervyn was determined to keep going as he wanted to leave the Lanka Guardian as a living legacy for his son Dayan. I know that J.R. Jayewardene had invited Mervyn to write his biography but he declined. There was one other thing he had in mind - the setting up of an institute for the education and training of up-and-coming journalists. He was working at this but received a setback with the untimely demise of A.J. Gunawardane and he was feeling the strain.
On Saturday June 19, 1999 when we met, there was an ominous indication that the ebb tide of his life had caught Mervyn in its currents. On the following Tuesday, June 22, it carried him away.
Mervy was a rare person for whom I had an affectionate regard. We differed on many matters but talked the same language. He was completely unambitious in the best sense of the word. Never a seeker of vain glory, he was also oblivious to wealth and money. He lived to satisfy inner compulsions which were filtered by his reason and intelligence for a life of self-fulfilment in accordance with his outstanding talent. When I learnt of his death, my thoughts turned to those felicitous words of Edmund Spencer-
"Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Other news, Another opinion
By Mervyn De Silva
The Lanka Guardian is primarily a journal of opinion. The proper functioning of a pluralist democracy presupposes the free interplay of diverse opinions. The freer and more active, the better.
Given the structure of the major media, the dominance of the official and the conventional view is no aberration. What is unnatural, and therefore unhealthy, is the conspicuous absence of other opinions and perspectives which by calling into question or openly challenging the all - too easily accepted orthodoxies, stimulate intelligent discussion.
If a colourless conformism has gradually overtaken the mainstream media this is only the smallest price we have to pay. In an educated politically-conscious society, poor ventilation could be a dangerous health hazard.
This should not be read as an unsparing stricture on our colleagues in the press or on their competence. The constraints on their professional practice are visible even to the least vigilant eye. But the issues involved are far larger than journalism.
We are neither politicians nor academics although we shall probably have need of both. We do not belong to any political party nor are we backed by any big business. We are a group of journalists striving to do what we think we know best.
We shall have to rely heavily on the enthusiastic participation of those who will join us in turning this Journal into an open and lively forum. It will respond more promptly of course to those views that are not often heard and to the kind of thinking which is poorly or insufficiently projected in the media.
If we may dignify this exploratory venture in Sri Lankan journalism and embellish our ordinary wish with the formal ostentation of a motto, it is: OTHER news, and ANOTHER opinion.
This perspective is by no means confined to domestic issues and events. On the contrary, we are deeply concerned with the world outside if for no other reason than a plain recognition of a poor nation's essential condition of dependence. If the word means anything, that is what Third Worldism is all about. An informed interest in world affairs ought not to be a private occupation of the privilegentsia nor regarded as an irrelevance for the people. In its bizarre and often frightening fecundity, the argot of latter-day internationalism has slipped into the common currency a term called "intellectual property". We believe that knowledge is the property that should be least private. The dissemination of informed opinion is a kind of sharing.
We have been advised to be lamps unto ourselves. The press in particular has been invited to light the path of our leaders. For common humanity the possibilities of personal salvation, so freely given to the artist and the saint, can only be enhanced by the larger endeavour of social emancipation. The act of informed discussion is itself a source of illumination.
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