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Sunday, 2 September 2012





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A colossus in Sri Lankan journalism

Mervyn de Silva, the writer, thinker and editor has been described as a colossus, a giant, a trail blazer in Sri Lankan journalism. Much has been written about him by many Sri Lankans since his death in 1999. Taken together, they form a unique composite of the man and his mind. It is also a narrative of the dreams and hopes, shattered and realised, of the post-independence Sri Lankan intelligentsia.

Among those many I will rely on a few to compose this piece in memory of Mervyn whose 83rd birth anniversary falls on September 5. I begin with Nimal Karunatilake. Nimal introduced me to journalism after my return to Sri Lanka following several wasted years of pretended academic pursuit in the Europe of the late sixties where my encounter with the counter-culture was a great disappointment to my parents. I think it was the mid-seventies and Nimal had done his stint as the Press Secretary to Dudley Senanayake. I was then an obscure reporter for the Daily News with Mervyn de Silva as editor.

Although I recall the comment that I am about to attribute to Nimal, I cannot specifically recollect the context in which he made it. Said Nimal Karunatilake or rather pronounced with his singular punditry “To my mind the two quickest and brightest minds today are those of Felix and Mervyn.” Then he added the caveat “But Mervyn is human.”

At that point in time I had no idea what Nimal was talking about. Steeped as I was in the counter culture of Rudi Dutschke and many other names that I do not care to remember now, I could not relate Mervyn de Silva to be more human than Felix Dias. At the time I disliked Felix Dias immensely. 

To me, then in my mid-twenties, value judgment was not a complex process. Felix was so blatantly self-centered. Mervyn de Silva was a strange person: aloof, clever and inaccessible. While Felix was easy to dislike, Mervyn was an unknown figure.

Though my career in Lake House lasted a little more than five years, I developed a close friendship with Mervyn. I discovered that Nimal was absolutely right. Mervyn’s was a razor-sharp mind shrouded by irreverence to orthodoxy and a penchant for child-like foibles.

Once he outsmarted someone in a long drawn debate that commenced in the Taprobane bar and ended a few hours later at the Orient Club. When the person so vanquished in the duel, bade to leave, Mervyn nonchalantly lifted his right-palm and slowly opened, closed, and opened, four fingers with the thumb remaining straight. He was imitating Fernando Rey in the film The French Connection where he mocks his police pursuer played by Gene Hackman as the train pulls out.

Mervyn’s capacity for witty riposte was unmatched. Once, his brother Neville was offered a newspaper assignment in the Cook Islands by a delegate attending the ESCAP conference, the first major international conference held in the brand new BMICH. When Mervyn was told of the offer received by Neville, he pronounced “I knew he would go far as a journalist.”

That quality of impishness comes to mind when I am now writing on Mervyn who had a brilliant mind and a sensitive nature. He was indeed very human.

Mervyn’s son Dayan in his moving portrayal of his father “The Old Man and the Typewriter” says that he was “a deviant product of the three most powerful ideological apparatuses of modern Sri Lanka: Royal College, Peradeniya University and Lake House.” Just as much as Lake House tried to produce a Mervyn de Silva in its own image he tried to reshape Lake House in the image that he felt was consonant with the times of creative destruction as symbolised by the single record of his original writing that remains in the file marked Mervyn de Silva in the Lake House Library in 2012. That is 56 years after 1956.

When Mervyn joined it, Lake House was a reluctant or rather a faulty mirror of the socio political forces of the time. Prior to independence Lake House was the microcosm of the sociopolitical composition of Sri Lanka. It was not only informing but was also instructing.

While the Sinhala papers had a great reservoir of literary talent any germinal thoughts on the new nation-state were conspicuously in a state of hibernation. The English language papers provided a platform for the cosmopolitan intelligentsia and the native mercantilism. As a bright school boy at Royal College and a restless and impulsive undergraduate of the Colombo and Peradeniya Universities, Mervyn dreamt of being the editor of the Ceylon Daily News, the flagship publication of Lake House - the Brookings Institute of what one may term ‘UNP Ceylon’.

Mervyn was wading into familiar waters when he joined Lake House. The English language newspapers provided the platform for the discourse of “Ceylonese” identity which was essentially an identity stratified in the status quo.

Neville Jayaweera his classmate, university contemporary and the epitome of the then Ceylonese intelligentsia has excelled in describing the sociopolitical milieu in which Mervyn dreamt of being the Editor of the Ceylon Daily News.

In his ‘Re-constructing an Editor’s Undergrad Days’ Jayaweera begins “Nineteen forty nine, the year that Mervyn de Silva and I entered university at Thurstan Road, was still the best of times – that is for those who were from the ‘right set’.” When Lake House recruited him after graduation it was presumed that he was from the right set. 

It however turned out that his rebellious thinking that was hidden beneath the sophisticated repartee was too strong to be contained.He found himself the ‘Outsider’ both in the column he wrote “Off My Beat” and within the glass cubicle in the Observer editorial room where he had been demoted, with the sole company of Pedris the old peon in khaki Bermuda shorts. Mervyn immersed himself in world affairs and frequent excursions to sites of turmoil, intrigue and of political consequence, for his time was yet to come.

His junior in the profession Ernest Corea was appointed the editor of the Daily News. I have worked for both Ernest Corea and Mervyn de Silva. Ernest was stable. Mervyn was bright. Ernest was the status quo: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ Mervyn was change: ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’.

The professional vicissitudes of the two men in the sixties of the past century reveals how accurately Lake House represented the microcosm of the firmament that existed outside. I have cited the two slogans of Reagan and Clinton.

Mervyn was undoubtedly the first to explain the Bandaranaike phenomenon. It disoriented the Right, the UNP that specialised in the politics of welfare- free health, education and land settlement. It dumbfounded the Left, the CP and the LSSP who specialised in the politics of agitation, social equity, workers’ rights and the class struggle.

“To the oriental mind personal sacrifice has a greater moral worth and the sacrificial idea is a leading motive in oriental mythology from Siddhartha to Nehru. The hero is not the man who makes millions but the man who leaves the palace.” This was written by Mervyn in 1967.

Much earlier in 1956 Mervyn was writing about the Tower Hall in “Those were the days” where the character of Siddhartha enters the common Sinhala psyche with John de Silva’s memorable melodies. This was when SWRD was alive and Mervyn’s writing should be regarded in that frame.

“Today cabinet ministers in cloth and banyan, the diplomat in evening dress, the Colombo 7 socialite and the big businessman jostle each other as they enter the grimy, dust covered building called Tower Hall”. Mervyn then recounts the days prior to ‘the social ferment’.

“There was no room for ivory towers in the Tower Hall and all that mattered was that the gentlemen in the gallery got their money’s worth.”

It is those folk in the gallery who understood the Bandaranaike phenomenon as renunciation of the palace for a populist platform. Cloistered in his cubicle Mervyn was insisting that events not individuals matter in history. He reaches in his series, a crucial point in post independence history - the rejection in 1965 of the political party that appropriated the 1956 victory.

This was erroneously construed as a reversal of the political movement of 1956. The error was arrived at by the traditional left.

Reading the words of Mervyn in 1967 sheds a retrospective gloom over the events that followed. Who confused class with race? How did we mix up ethnic and economic grievance? Mervyn ends his essay “ The process of growing up is sad and painful for it means a banishment of youthful idealism, the sacrifice of daring, the erosion of ardour; a tacit, perhaps bitter realisation that life is brutal, to the idealist and that success in any sphere compels and adjustment to this awful truth.

Total integrity may be an occupation for the saint and artist; alas a chimera for the politician.”

Fourteen years later, in 1981, Mervyn definitively revisited the issue in his Lanka Guardian: “Perhaps in the absence of a truly national and unifying pre-independence movement, Ceylonese nationalism, denied a natural birth, acquired mongrel features with the departure of the foreign ruler.

Inasmuch as it was against foreign domination and foreign symbols, this nationalism historically speaking, was normal. But when it focused on the Tamil minority, a community identified as the favoured child of colonial policies, it was racist.”

Godfrey Gunatilleke identifies the essential quality and strength of Mervyn’s world view with hawkeyed precision in his revaluation of the Mervyn–Reggie debate of 1972 that was captioned “Pound, Poetry and Politics. ‘....Mervyn captures the dilemma of his generation in the two terms he uses in his debate with Regi - “cosmopolitan hothouse” for the artificial cultural mix of this intelligentsia and “universal” for what he describes as the “finest things they assimilated from another culture.”

Mervyn was the Universalist who was fortified by a clear understanding of his identity and purpose as a writer and thinker. When he wrote on the “the willful rejection by English-educated Ceylonese even of the finest things they assimilated from another culture” he was in fact the ‘Prophet Armed’ (to use Deutscher’s phrase) with the editorial pen of the Ceylon Daily News. It was, in his own words “a general warning” against what he then believed “to be a lamentable swing of the emotional-psychological pendulum from an unreasoning surrender to a ‘superior’ culture to an equally unreasoning repudiation of the ‘alien’.” Mervyn de Silva was close to the sources of power. It never seduced him. He was oblivious to power. 

That made him an incorrigible satirist. It also made him one of the most perceptive chroniclers of contemporary events of our country and the world. He neatly fitted the role assigned by Edward Said for the public role of writers and intellectuals. “An individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, an attitude, philosophy, or opinion to, as well as for, a public”.

The writer was a reporter for the Daily News and the Observer from 1968 to 1974, going on to write a column “Men and Matters” by Narada for the Sunday Times when it was edited by Mervyn de Silva.



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