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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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.