17 November, 2018

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An Intellectual Of The Highest Calibre, A Fine Moral Intelligence

By Izeth Hussain

85th birth anniversary of mervyn de silva – sept 5th

“A non-conformist, someone always on the side of the underdog, without illusions about men of power and their world, and incapable of identifying himself with any political party, perhaps it is not really surprising that he was twice booted out of editorial positions. It is not surprising from a Sri Lankan perspective. It is more than surprising, stunning in fact, from an international perspective. For here was a journalist widely recognized as exceptionally brilliant, a world-class journalist as we say, arguably even Sri Lanka’s greatest journalist, and he of all people gets sacked not once but twice, on both occasions from state-owned newspapers.”

Mervyn de Silva ( Middle)

Mervyn de Silva ( Middle)

Mervyn de Silva was the quintessential Sri Lankan journalist of our time. As such he deserves something more than the usual obituary tributes. Perhaps a monograph, perhaps in the course of time a book, but in any case an examination of what he signified in relation to Sri Lankan journalism since the time of our Independence.

It might seem odd that I choose to regard him as a quintessential journalist when it is known that after getting his degree at Peradeniya he vacillated for sometime between the media and the law. Let me explain.

Brilliant Student, Born Non-Conformist

When he entered the University with a scholarship he was quickly recognized as the kind of brilliant student who would get a First Class Honours degree and thereafter enter the bureaucracy or the groves of academe, the first options for brilliant students of his time. But his academic performance turned out to be well below the expected level.

Something had gone wrong. His own explanation to me in later years was that he could not concentrate on his studies because of a series of minor ailments. There may have been more to it. In any case, it had become quickly apparent that Mervyn would never fit in contentedly into the bureaucracy or academia. He was a born non-conformist, and besides he had an enormous zest for life, sickly though he was.

He would have rebelled against the constricted life-style expected in careers leading to one becoming a pillar of society. His brilliant performance at Law College showed that he could have become an outstanding lawyer, and minted money. Instead he chose journalism and, as his widow Lakshmi used to bemoan, he never made enough to buy his own house. It was his vocation. He was born for journalism.

He began his career as a journalist in the early fifties at Lake House as the Junior of Tarzie Vittachi, Jayantha Padhmanaba, Denzil Peiris, Regi Siriwardene, and others who had established themselves as leading journalists by 1948. So did Mervyn sometime thereafter, and by the time of his death he had come to be recognized for several years as the doyen of Sri Lankan journalists.

His career spans most of the period of our independence, and can be used to illuminate the triumphs, or more precisely the vicissitudes, of our journalists over the last half century. That will require a book.

Two Mervyns: Troubled Intelligence, Tough Journalist

In this article I will engage in some reminiscences, and make a few observations relating him to the vicissitudes of our journalism. Though he was my junior by two or three years at the University, we became fast friends partly because we had common ground as students following the English Honours course under Ludowyk. I recall our friendship originating in a brilliant analysis of a Kafka short story made him at the Thurstan Road tuckshop, that is before the campus moved to Peradeniya.

Mervyn was one of the habitués of that tuck-shop, and rather unusual in being at home in two of its distinct territories. In one, discussions raged on Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mauriac, and Malraux, in addition to the greats of English literature and also of course Marx and Trotsky.

The others territory was occupied by devotees of two card games called “baby” and “asking hitting”. The first Mervyn was an intellectual of the highest calibre and a sensitive soul, at that time blissfully in love with Lakshmi. The other later came to acquire the tough carapace of the exuberantly extroverted journalist. Underneath was always the first Mervyn, a troubled intelligence, sensitive and vulnerable, the non-conformist always on the side of the underdog, who made him the exceptional journalist that he was.

Mervyn & the World of Power

After those days in the late forties our paths diverged. I to inhabit the corridors of power as an official, he to visit those corridors as a journalist. But we still had common ground. We came to share recognition in later years, along with so many others, that in Sri Lanka those corridors of power, notwithstanding carpet and chandelier, are really parts of an abattoir.

A journalist usually has to deal with the world of power and in assessing him and how he carried out his responsibilities towards his public; we have to know what he really thought of the world of power. Did he squirm ecstatically in the presence of men of power?

Did he become disillusioned and cynical about the whole process of politics? There was none of that about Mervyn. He was never the disillusioned cynic because he never had illusions in the first place. Instead he subjected men of power and their world to cool, intelligent, balanced appraisal.

Not all of what he thought about men of power got into print though. For some years we used to wonder in the foreign office why one of our mightiest men of power hated one of Sri Lanka’s ablest officials. None could uncover any details about a misunderstanding or incident to explain that hatred. Years later when I provided Mervyn some details about a nasty plot that was mounted to discredit that official, he expressed no sense of shock. He had no illusions about that man of power. He merely observed that the explanation for that demented hatred was that that official was a man of real integrity who would never kowtow. The observation showed a fine moral intelligence at work about our world of power.

Non-party Man of the Left

Mervyn was always identified as a man of the left, far more inclined to the SLFP than to the UNP, but he really belonged to no party. He certainly was for the underdog. Here I must record the fact that he became a hero for the Sri Lankan Muslims. That was a result of his advocacy of the cause of the Palestinians and of the Arabs at a time when they were very much the underdogs against Israel. Whenever he mounted a rostrum to speak on Palestine, the Gulf War, or on Bosnia, there was a spontaneous burst of applause from the Muslims in the audience. Had he entered politics he could have been sure of Muslim bloc votes.

Of course there was nothing of the chauvinist about him. Here I must mention a detail showing his sincerity in wanting to promote a peaceful solution of the ethnic problem. Our peace lobby has for the most part been following the strategy of making appeals for peace. But for quite some time there has been nothing to show that the three main protagonists in our ethnic tragedy, namely the LTTE, the UNP, and the PA, have really wanted peace. A critical attitude towards them is required. The one movement which has consistently struck an outspokenly critical note is the World Solidarity Forum for Justice and Peace in Sri Lanka. Its leader Rev.Yohan Devananda reminded me that the Lanka Guardian was the only paper to publish the Forum’s report in full. It is the kind of detail that shows that while many have talked peace, Mervyn tried to promote it.

Mervyn’s Vicissitudes

A non-conformist, someone always on the side of the underdog, without illusions about men of power and their world, and incapable of identifying himself with any political party, perhaps it is not really surprising that he was twice booted out of editorial positions. It is not surprising from a Sri Lankan perspective. It is more than surprising, stunning in fact, from an international perspective.

For here was a journalist widely recognized as exceptionally brilliant, a world-class journalist as we say, arguably even Sri Lanka’s greatest journalist, and he of all people gets sacked not once but twice, on both occasions from state-owned newspapers. That says a great deal about the vicissitudes of Sri Lankan journalism in our time.

Mervyn experienced those vicissitudes at first hand and for a longer period than perhaps any other prominent journalist. He experienced what might pardonably be called “the golden era” of our journalism which lasted from pre­-Independence times to the first half of the sixties.

Thereafter a progressive drying up of the springs of creativity in the press took place for reasons which cannot be explored here. Worse followed with J.R.Jayewardene’s experiment with anti-democracy after 1977. Press freedom improved somewhat after 1988, that is under Premadasa, though it could still be very dangerous to exercise that freedom as shown by the media personnel disappearances that used to take place. Under the PA, after 1994, the media has become much freer than at any time since the early since the early Sixties. Other periodizations are possible.

The point is that Mervyn experienced it all at first hand and that is why he was the quintessential Sri Lankan journalist of our time.

The Golden Era…and a Visit in Paris

Can we return to the “golden era”? Some aspects of it have been brought to my mind by my recollection of Mervyn coming to dinner with Lakshmi and their son Dayan at the flat I occupied in the Rue de Tilsitt in Paris sometime in the first half of the sixties. He had just purchased the letters of Scott Fitzgerald, a writer who had fascinated him since his student days, and remarked that writer had also lived in the Rue de Tilsitt. He was delighted to discover that I was actually in occupancy of Scott Fitzgerald’s former flat. The chandelier in the hall could be identified in the famous photograph showing Scott, Zelda, and their daughter dancing in front of a Christmas tree. Mervyn wrote about it in a later article.

The story is meant to illustrate the cultural spaciousness that was available to the Sri Lankan journalist of that time. It had a great deal to do with the fact that it was the age of the cheap paperback, and the average Sri Lankan could afford to buy foreign newspapers and magazines without over­straining his budget. So Mervyn could write on local politics, foreign affairs, film, theatre, the literatures of Britain, America, the Continent, and much else.

Created Democratic Space

But his greatest achievement, more than his writings, was surely the Lanka Guardian. Through that small magazine, and against all the odds, he created democratic space in Sri Lanka. For some years I was perhaps the most frequent of all the contributors to the L.G. and some weeks before his death he reminded me that he had never hesitated to publish anything I wrote. After his death I recalled an LG article I wrote on the potential power of the mini-press. Alexander Herzen’s magazine, The Bell, I wrote, was the most potent instrument for forming Russian public opinion in the five or six years before the Russian Revolution. It has been written up as the most astonishing phenomenon in the history of Russian, and perhaps of world, journalism. At its height it circulation was 2,500. The LG‘s circulation was not much more, I believe. The LG is Mervyn’s claim to be regarded as Sri Lanka’s greatest journalist.

*First published under the title ‘The Two Mervyns’ in The Weekend Express, Colombo, July 10-11, 1999

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Latest comments

  • 1
    1

    A well deserved tribute to a multi-talented person.He was indeed a serious journalist with a moral center,able to write about both national and international politics with both insight,verve and style.
    One must however mention too that he was one of wittiest writers that Sri Lanka has prouduced.The satirical columns that he published under the pesudonym of Deadelus were masterpices of wit and irony.In the reviews he wrote about theatrical productions too, while being serious and responsible evaluations,managed to be witty as well.
    Had he lived,how he would revelled in skewering the current crop of charlatans with hie rapier!

    • 2
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      Hi guys, please check this pic closely… today, do we have any of this kind of personalities to shine a light to the island nation. MR and his tamil men can only make it worst.. they are made to popular to within lanka but not beyond the margins of the island.

      I still remember the days of MrSB.. she was a great personlity in our country.. even the world knew the country thorugh grand lady´s unique way. People of abusive kind would attack her even today, but today we are fallen to a pit that decades will need to come out of that. That is that deep.

      • 2
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        Simon J: Please explain or expand this statement:

        “MR and his tamil men can only make it worst.. “

        • 0
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          what he may have meant is MR is today supported by former Ltter FIGHTERS like Pillayan. CBK has no place in the party which her father made decades ago, all because of Rajapkshes looted not only land and power but all SLFP to this day.

          Not many with a bird brain would respect Rajapakshes but some tamils and highly corrupted sinhalaya and muslims (e.g Azwer – the bone eating and souping elderly man representing muslim folks)

    • 1
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      Mervyn worked to a high moral compass. Honesty and integrity, in his profession and life, were features he would not compromise with. He had no house of his own. Only if he traded his precious scruples he could have owned more than a single – at a time when junior journos were gifted homes by the State. That he did not own a car had a connection to an accident he was involved in the UK. He refused to drive from then on. He would be invited by JRJ to “Braemar” at Ward Place and after an hour two will emerge with a box of Cuban cigars – courtesy Fidel Castro. But the next morning the media will carry a strident piece against JRJ’s government, his ministers or institutions – under Mervyn’s name. That was the media culture, freedom and tolerance then.

      Tarzie Vittachi, Reggie Michael, Reggie Siriwardena, Mervyn de Silva – if I may be pardoned for missing some equally eminent ones –
      belonged to a more able and honourable genre of journalists who were a pride to the country and who would have held their own anytime, anyplace. Let us celebrate and honour the memories of these gentlemen giant journalists in a landscape they have been replaced by
      mice and woeful yes men. Exceptions like Singha R must be duly acknowledged.

      I am privileged to have enjoyed Mervyn’s fragrant and close friendship.

      R. Varathan

      • 1
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        R. Varathan

        “if I may be pardoned for missing some equally eminent ones – “

        Okay, you are forgiven.

        However, you will not be forgiven for not straightening up Mervyn’s boy at an early age, the genuflecting war monger and war crime denier.

    • 2
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      I have no idea about the Mervin and his talents but I believe all what the writer added about him. But I am aware that Dayan JAYATHILAKA is said to be the son of this particular Mervin De Silva even if Dayan does not own his surname.

      Anyway, if talking about high intelligent person of Mervin calibre to prodoce a man like DJ that only supported Premadasa#s and Today peeping tom#s politics is for me beyond all acceptance. Why i have been sayin gthat is, DJ seems to be talented and well conversant about the situation that the country faces today specially being isolated globally, but him not to utter a single word again sthte man who made it – none other than MR – is for me no means comphrehesible.

      Can anybody of you guys please add more inputs in this regard – many thanks.

      • 0
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        Yo, Simiion, who do you think introduced me to Mahinda Rajapaksa? :))

        For a hint, please read the text below, which appeared in the Daily Mirror, Colombo Telegraph and the nation, having been originally pubished in the daily News 15 years back.

        15th death anniversary of Mervyn De Silva – uncrowned media king of Sri Lanka

        By Mahinda Rajapaksa
        Sunday, 22 June 2014 00:00

        http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/2014/06/22/Main/Mervin-de.jpg [This article originally appeared 15 years ago, in the Ceylon Daily News of July 3rd, 1999]

        I will be falling in my duty if I do not pen a few words of appreciation about Mr.Mervyn de Silva who I admired very much for his knowledge, genuine friendliness and most of all his ability to call a spade a spade.
        Whenever I met him, which happened to be at least twice a month during the last 25 years, I always made it a point to have a serious chat even for a minute. I valued his ability to provide an unbiased interpretation of the current political issues and his forecast on such matters were always accurate.

        It is with a very heavy heart that I recollect some past meetings and I begin to feel that I have lost a very useful and genuine friend. First I came to know Mr. de Silva through my cousin the late Mr. Lakshman Rajapaksa. Both of them were regulars at the Orient Club. Being a Royalist he was also very close to late Mr. George Rajapaksa, his fellow alumni.

        Being only a student of politics, I remained a passive participant at the meetings Mr. de Silva had with my cousin, Lakshman and George, gathering valuable points. However, I came still closer to him after I became a Member of Parliament in 1970. The frequency of meetings grew after the formation of the Sri Lanka Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, when the journalists who launched this organization elected me as its President. Mr. Mervyn de Silva was one of the Patrons.

        Mr. de Silva being a journalist well versed in international affairs was found to be an authority on Middle East. Our Solidarity Committee naturally, considered him as an invaluable asset. He was never a blind supporter of PLO or its cause. There were instances where Mr. Silva was critical of some policies of PLO. I had the pleasure of introducing Mr. de Silva to a number of Palestinian delegations visiting Sri Lanka and I am proud to say that all of them were surprised about Mr. Silva’s knowledge of Middle East and the Palestine issue in particular. He was equal to the best of authorities on Middle East affairs. Mr. de Silva maintained a very close relationship with the Embassy of the State of Palestine in Sri Lanka and its ambassadors had a very high regard for him.

        When the UN decided to hold its regional seminar on the question of Palestine at the BMICH in August 1981 Mr. de Silva was selected as one of the eleven experts to present papers at this seminar. His presentation being of a very high standard naturally brought honor to Sri Lanka.
        Mr. de Silva was a livewire at the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies and his contribution to its popularity among the intelligentsia of this country was invaluable. His ability to conduct lectures and discussion, very often under trying conditions, can never be matched.

        Mr. de Silva was undoubtedly the uncrowned media king of Sri Lanka and he rose to this level only because he wrote what he wanted. He will wine, dine and light the best Cuban cigar presented to him by the leader of the country, but he could not be dictated to by anyone. To him, friendship and other considerations were secondary to ethics in journalism. In this context I feel that the journalists in Sri Lanka should emulate these great qualities of Mr.Mervyn de Silva. While Sri Lanka lost a great son in the field of journalism, international journals like Newsweek, New York Times, The Times of India, Economist etc., along with broadcasting organizations, like the BBC will feel his loss immensely) is no doubt that Mr.Mervyn de Silva brought honor and prestige to journalism in Sri Lanka.

        [‘He Wrote What He Wanted’, Mahinda Rajapaksa, In His Time: Selected Tributes, Mervyn de Silva, 1929-1999, 70th Birth Anniversary, International Center for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, 1999, pp.37-39]
        – See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/news-features/item/30511-15th-death-anniversary-of-mervyn-de-silva-uncrowned-media-king.html#sthash.t2nNCTag.dpuf

        • 3
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          DJ,

          “Yo, Simiion, who do you think introduced me to Mahinda Rajapaksa? :))”

          It looks like you are answering a question which Simiion did not ask.

          • 4
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            Dayan writes

            “Yo, Simiion, who do you think introduced me to Mahinda Rajapaksa? :))”

            Anpu

            Is he blaming his father for his relation with MR?

        • 4
          1

          The wolfs head. P4P – Penicillin for Prick.

          ___________________
          Under James, the “Golden Age” is yet so far away.

          Thank heavens Bill Gates and Mark listened to the `hippie` than the foundation ivy league professor bullies trying to live on heritage. stupid politicians and patriots looking at dynastic solutions-no wonder the last refuge of scoundrels.

        • 1
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          This is all about your Father -can you also add more about you please. That is what people want to see it today in country that is being ruined by Rajaapkshes.

          I thank you; Simion to make DJ awake at this moment

        • 2
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          Self proclaimed analyst DJ make us laugh again: ane habata mehemath nataka:

          what do you achieve by this ?

          As also Anpu made it clear – you DJ only want to show something which is not the case.

          Why are u deaf and blind in today#s situation ? Why cant you react as your father did ?
          calling spade a spade without any fears – or do you need kind of therapies to jump over your shadow ?

          • 0
            1

            “Self proclaimed analyst DJ” thinks this Leelawathie. We might not agree with DJ and his politics. But the fact he is a brilliant socio-political analyst, superb Writer and accomplished public speaker needs no emphasis. His late parents will be in peace DJ’s intellectual standing is now universally accepted.

            R. Varathan

            • 2
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              R. Varathan

              Are you being serious?

            • 1
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              “DJ’s intellectual standing is now universally accepted”

              What universally means?

            • 0
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              To his age, then he should have becomea c3 professor in his field. Why is that it seems to be far from even to this day ? I really don tthink that he is a superb writer. He brings articles tha tmany of the readership would not get it easily. Citing there and citing here can always make writers not good writers Varathan. I love the writing style of Thisaranee, and the younger writer fazil..

        • 0
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          The apple fell too far from the tree.

    • 2
      2

      please listen to the great speech made by AKD about current mess being made by MR and thugs in the lost island.

      ආණ්ඩුව හෙල්ලූ අනුරගේ අලුත්ම කතාව….Anura Dissanayake parliament Speech 2014 06 17 1
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cqFLXnB1l8

      • 2
        1

        J,ust V,ultures P,icnic.` .

        raspy,drawn-out hissing sounds &
        the cheeky hisses

  • 2
    1

    Izeth Hussain:

    “An Intellectual Of The Highest Calibre, A Fine Moral Intelligence”

    There is no such thing as Intelectual of the Highest Calibre in Sri Lank as The Nation is Bankrupt in this field.

    • 2
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      Once upon a time people felt that the nation had interllet, but MR thugish adminsitraton has turned it to a studpidity to this date. That is what entire world is sayinag about the island nation today.

  • 1
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    @ R.Varathan;
    Many thanks for reminding the great Lankan journalists of all times..
    Tarzie Vittachi, Reggie Michael, Reggie Siriwardena, Mervyn de Silva and the likes..I used to collect Reggie Michael’s opinion column from Daily Mirror, the then famous daily news paper of the sixties and seventies.

    Now we only have gutter journos like Malindas,Rajpal and a silent DJ who only do selective writing in his own complicated way and writes on subjects not many cares about… what a waste !

    • 0
      1

      Bruz – Our current crop of English newspaper editors and specialised commentators reflect the general drop in our once high standards in almost all aspects of our life in recent years. Have you noticed the amount of grammatical mistakes, not only in the reports filed by
      journalists, but in some headlines of lead articles as well.

      Mervin used to feel happy mentioning the audiences and interviews he gained with Indira Gandhi, Yasser Arafat (as I recall) and that sensational Russian Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko – among other world figures at that time. I am sure Dayan will know of many more. Except for an occasional article by Dayan J, the analysis of our present leading journalists will hardly gain space even in the Madras/Chennai based The Hindu. That is the level our journalism has sunk into.

      R. Varathan

  • 2
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    Just curious – Why Dayan Jayatileka instead of Dayan De Silva? Is it to drop Portuguese name?

    • 5
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      This is a very good question. I raised this though several times sofar. None of you added anything aboutthat.

      But today, I feel it is right to call Dayana Jayathilaka as DJ because he has not inherited any good qualities of his biological father-Mervin Silva. So, not to bear the surname is right thing as we all notice it.

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