By Laksiri Fernando –
This tribute is not only from me but also from a friend of mine who had associated Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson, even more than me, for over two and a half decades very closely even living in his home in Fredericton, Canada, for few years. I am writing this not only as a tribute to this great man and an undisputed silent humanist, Wilson, but also to show how some of the hidden stories of Sinhala Tamil relations could bring certain sanity to the otherwise poisoned atmosphere in Sri Lanka and promote reconciliation and harmony among different communities.
When Kumar Samarasinghe came to Sydney to visit his sister, Mallika Gunewardena, with his family I invited them for a simple dinner with some other friends. Kumar and Shamali came with two daughters we have never seen before. I never realised, however, that we were in the midst of a celebrity, a reputed teenage novelist from New Jersey, USA, who had completed three popular novels by the age of just fifteen according to NBC News. Kumar didn’t speak about it except a brief mention and neither did she show-off and I only came to know after Googling her name Sara Samarasinghe and came across www.teenauthorsite.com She is still a college student and has published few other novels all of them have become extremely popular. This is another story which would also show the merit of bringing up our children broadminded beyond ethnic divide and taking up the opportunities open to them beyond our restricted horizons.
I was the first Sri Lankan Master’s student in Political Science, or for that matter any other field, at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in 1974 when Prof Wilson was the Chair of that Department. He recommended me for a Canadian Teaching/Research Assistantship and I was fortunate to get it. After me was late Ambalavanar Sivarajah who also became a Professor of Political Science at the University of Peradeniya. I met Kumar somewhere in 1975 when he was sponsored by his brother-in-law, Dhanapala Gunewardena, an Engineer from CEB who came on a Canadian fellowship to Frederickton Electricity Board with two others. Even for Kumar’s initial arrival in Canada, I believe Prof Wilson helped him.
For those who are not familiar with the name or at least a short profile of this great man; Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson was the first Professor (Chair) of Political Science at the University of Peradeniya in 1969. He was son-in law of late SJV Chelvanayakam, the founder of the Federal Party or Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). Having taught since 1952 at the University of Ceylon, he moved to the University of New Brunswick, Canada, in 1972 and held the Chair until 1994. In respect of his qualifications, he obtained BA Honours from the University of Ceylon and PhD from the University of London. When he was awarded a second doctorate, a DSc by the University of London in 1975, I was in his Department. He was a prolific writer and has written over eight books and over 100 journal articles.
Early 1970s were extremely difficult times for anybody to go abroad and take up studies, undergraduate or postgraduate. I remember obtaining only three pounds as foreign exchange to cross several continents and reach Canada as my first visit abroad. Although Kumar came from a well to do entrepreneurial family in Matara, the owners of the Samarasinghe Motors, his parents were not allowed to remit money as they wished to support Kumar’s education at the University of New Brunswick like many parents do today, legally or illegally. Kumar had to work hard part time, juggling with his studies at the same time. This is where Prof Wilson had stepped in very generously according to what Kumar revealed to me during his recent visit. In reciprocity, Kumar’s father also was hospitable and generous whenever Wilson visited Sri Lanka during 1977-1983. Kumar was reading for Bachelors in Electrical Engineering at UNB.
Of course I had known the generosity and good will of Prof Wilson and also Mrs Susili Wilson, the daughter of late SJV Chelvanayakam. They have three children, two daughters and a son, yet he was a father figure to me and according to what Kumar revealed it was the same with him throughout years until his rather early death in 2000.
It is on record that Wilson helped the drafting of the controversial 1978 Constitution and used to travel very often to Sri Lanka until July 1983 trying to be a mediator between the Government and the TULF in bringing a reasonable settlement to the contentious issues of the ethnic conflict. As far as I could personally recollect, he was very much interested in cooperation between the Sinhala and Tamil political parties and power sharing both at the centre and the provincial level between the two communities. He also had the interests of the Muslim community firmly in mind.
It was this effort that became finally ruined during July 1983, almost a pogrom against the Tamils, and he was in Colombo when the riots erupted. He was sent to the airport by President Jayewardene well before a hurriedly arranged flight back to Canada and he wrote to me relating the experience from the airport and also saying that he will never come back to Sri Lanka. And he never did. He had to wait long gruelling hours at the airport.
Kumar has never been a political animal. He comes from a strong ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ (not fundamentalist) family from the Deep South. As far as I am aware it was by accident that Prof Wilson came to know Kumar and his family but that accident was good enough for him to keep an agreeable relationship with the whole family. When Wilson came to Colombo he often used to go to Matara and visited Kumar’s family. Wilson enjoyed speaking in his broken but precise Sinhala during these visits. One of his interests was to know the culture and living in the Deep South and took much interest in knowing the rituals of Bali Thovil, according to Kumar.
It was during these visits to Sri Lanka that he has asked Kumar to look after his house at Colonial Heights, Frederickton, as his own children had been away from home for their studies. Perhaps Wilson was following a tradition from Peradeniya (I mean the University of Peradeniya) where many teachers when they were away or on sabbatical asked the most favourite students to stay and look after their homes. Both parties benefitted in the bargain and my teachers as well as I have done the same.
But the difference had been that even after returning from Sri Lanka he has asked Kumar to stay at home if he wished without any rent or payment. It is during this time that Kumar has come to know Mrs Wilson very closely, an exemplary mother figure and a fine lady. Perhaps they were missing a youngster at home, whether Sinhala or Tamil did not matter to them very much. Kumar had moved to New Jersey in 1981, but continued his contacts with the Wilsons.
Mrs Wilson has always been a gracious woman. I recollect her generosity and care when my wife, Winitha, and the two year old son, Ravi, moved to Frederickton to join me in 1975. Without her help, their settlement would have been extremely difficult in that extremely cold country as they arrived at the height of the winter. I also recollect her when I went for Chelvanayakam’s funeral in Jaffna in April 1977 after my return. It was extremely a political funeral and Mrs Wilson just arrived and was feeling lost in the melee of thousands of people coming to pay homage. When she saw us she was delighted and wanted us to be with her and wanting me to take photographs of her dead father. She could have asked anybody else to do the favour but opted for my help. Why? It was our trusting association for some time whatever the views we were holding on political or other matters.
It was well known that I was strongly opposing the Presidential System and the 1978 Constitution in 1978 that my teacher Prof Wilson opted to support and in fact helped to draft. There were of course times that I became disillusioned about his complicity with the whole project of JRJ and he himself became disillusioned according to the letters I received later. During 1977 and 1983, I have met him several times during his visits and on few occasions he came home at Peradeniya. But our human relations were the same.
There were a number of events and moments that we were close. Kumar expressed the same feeling when he met me the other day. Our different ethnic identities never deter our relations, as teacher-student or elder-youngster. Perhaps we were more mindful and careful to recognize and respect each other given our ethnic differences. This is something I wish to emphasize in this short appreciation. I do have some insightful letters that he has written to me on politics and other matters which I might relate at a future appropriate occasion.
It is heartening to note that he indirectly called me son on several occasions. This was also the feeling of Kumar Samarasinghe. Once he wrote to me saying
“They say that when a man grows old and is stricken with illness, the children whom he regards as his favourites come closer to his mind as the days go by. Well, you belong to this category and thought of you as well as visions of you have been in my mind for the last several months.”
Prof Wilson died peacefully in his sleep of a heart failure on 31 May 2000 at the age of 72. For those who wish to know the books that he has written, the following is an incomplete list.
- Politics in Sri Lanka, 1947-1973 (1974, Macmillan)
- Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: the Ceylon General Election of May 1970 (1975, Cambridge University Press)
- The Gaullist System in Asia (1980, Macmillan)
- The States of South Asia: Problems of National Integration : Essays in honour of W.H. Morris-Jones (1982, Hurst)
- The Break-up of Sri Lanka: The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict (1988, Hurst)
- S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977: a Political Biography (1994, University of Hawaii Press)
- Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the 19th and 20th Centuries (2000, Hurst)
- The Post-Colonial States of South Asia: Democracy, Development and Identity (2001, Palgrave)