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 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.
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