By Ajita Kadirgamar –
Typically on a parent’s birth or death anniversary family members make a trip to the graveyard, place flowers, say a silent prayer or shed a tear. April 12, 2013 marks the 81st birth anniversary of my father Lakshman Kadirgamar, and for the first time since his assassination eight years ago I am here for his birth anniversary, on Sri Lankan soil where the dastardly deed took place.
However I have nowhere to go to remember him, pay respects or even reminisce. My father’s parents, four brothers and sister, all long departed, never received the remains of their beloved youngest son and sibling into the family grave. My father has no symbolic earth-bound resting place, no urn containing ashes, no headstone, nowhere to lay flowers. Upon his death eight years ago, his ashes were unceremoniously stolen from us, his children and rightful family, despite pleas for at least a fair share. Knowing my father as we his family did, he would have wanted at least some part of his remains to be returned to their rightful place within the family plot, for he was fiercely proud of his ancestry and of the family name.
For me the past ten years living in the US, during which time he was assassinated, meant there were no daily reminders of my father’s greatness or his standing in Sri Lankan society. But now that I am back in the motherland there is no escape. His name comes up in every socio-political conversation whether public or private, his statue stands tall in the heart of the city, total strangers from all walks of life, upon learning of my connection to him, praise his life and mourn his premature loss. His memory will live on no doubt as a great son of Sri Lanka, forever etched in history.
What do I remember of my father? I called him dada and he called me ‘sweetheart’ or Ajj all his life. Growing up, on the very, very rare instances he admonished me, he would call me by my full name. And then I knew it was serious business.
He traveled extensively his whole life. When I was a young girl he would bring me Barbie dolls, lacy stockings and socks, baked beans, chocolate, pencils, erasers and other luxuries that were not available in Sri Lanka in the austere 60’s and 70’s of my youth. I was the envy of all my classmates when I brought my stationery treasures to school or wore my stockings and socks to birthday parties.
I do remember when I was very young, sometimes on a Sunday morning as he lazed in bed with the newspapers, I would breeze in, jump on the bed and coerce him to lie flat on his stomach so that I could walk up and down on his spine like a tightrope walker or pretend I was a cowgirl riding a horse. Ever patient, he would humour me.
My father was of course the consummate lawyer, always holed up in his chambers located at the front of the house, or appearing in various courts around the country, or travelling around the world. So we did not see much of him. But I would frequently skip in and out of his chambers, past the clerk, other lawyers and clients. He would always acknowledge my presence even if he was in the midst of something important. I was a familiar sight to all of the client and lawyer colleague ‘uncles’ too, usually riding my bike up and down the driveway or the lane, sitting in a tree or on a wall or engaged in some other tomboyish activity.
For the first decade of my life, he had to be summoned, even coerced from his law chambers to pose with my brother and I for annual birthday photos during our parties. This was something he hated apparently, since he can be seen frowning in most photos, his mind no doubt on the case he was analysing or the notes he was taking at the time. When he was not dictating letters, he always wrote his copious notes by hand. In fact I don’t recall him ever using a typewriter and certainly not a computer. I doubt that even in the last years of his life he ever transitioned to computer and cell phone technology. Yes, he was old school in many ways.
He is of course best remembered for his fine speeches, some prepared, some off the cuff, for he was a master of the English language. When I was in my teens and in the throes of writing essays and sitting exams, he presented me with his Oxford English Dictionary which he had used at Law College and at Balliol College. Dedicating it to me he wrote, “When in doubt, look it up”. I too inherited his love, respect and awe of the written word and even though I am more likely to look up a dictionary or Thesaurus online these days, his dictionary will be passed on to my son who also demonstrates remarkable writing skills.
Growing up in Ceylon, I was always aware of how sociable and well loved my father was. He had a grand assortment of very close and dear friends. They were Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Burgher – such an eclectic mix, such wonderful personalities with names like Ananda, Sandy, Vichu, Fritz, Gordon, Ralph, Singha, Terry, Malli, Douglas. He loved their company, and craved stimulating conversation. He relished spending one-on-one time with them on the verandah or in the garden at Anderson Road and later at Thunmulla Junction, talking about the law, politics, world affairs, and the good old days, all the time sipping their drinks and smoking their cigarettes. During the many years he spent in Switzerland at the UN, I think he felt socially isolated and he missed the camaraderie and old boy’s network that makes Sri Lanka so special. On his trips to Colombo therefore, he would meet up with as many friends and colleagues as possible, getting his full dose of social life and intellectual revitalisation before returning to the routine and mundane lifestyle of the western world.
He did love the water. Childhood family holidays in Trinco, Passekudah, Kalkudah and Bentota would find him leisurely swimming laps in the hotel swimming pool or bobbing around carefree in the ocean even after the sun had set. How ruthless that he was killed as he stepped out of his own private swimming pool, after doing what he loved, the only activity that allowed him a modicum of freedom and relaxation.
As a lifelong sports enthusiast and prize winning Trinity College and Colombo University athlete (cricket, rugby, athletics) I know it pained him not to be able to go and watch the various matches and tournaments like a common citizen. He sacrificed every personal and social activity that we all take for granted to live as a virtual prisoner, whisked in and out of cars and buildings, surrounded by security at all times. In the early days of his political career and when the security risks were at their height, he apologised for not being able to go shopping personally to buy birthday or Christmas gifts for me or my son. I still have a hand written note he wrote with an apology and a cash check attached instead.
When packing to return to Sri Lanka at the beginning of this year I was faced with the mammoth task of sorting through all my belongings which have traveled around the world with me over the past 40 years. There were birthday cards, letters, telegrams and postcards he sent me during his travels in the 60’s and 70’s to England, Vietnam, India, Switzerland, France and other places. I could not bring myself to burn or shred them like I did a lot of other less sentimental material. And so these yellowing, fading mementos, in the absence of any of his other personal possessions which should rightfully have come to us his children, have once again traveled across the ocean and lie packed in a box, to be stored away for posterity.
My memories of him during our years in Oxford in the early 70’s seem to revolve around him smoking his pipe or cigar, both of which I hated for their pungent odor. I would scold him and tell him to stop the ‘disgusting habit’, which was for him a well deserved respite from the stresses of his life, and he would just keep puffing away, much to my annoyance. I will always remember him in his study – every house we ever lived in had to have a study – hundreds of law volumes stacked ceiling high, wearing his brown corduroy jacket, seated behind his desk with a cigar or pipe in hand, the desk lamp casting a halo of smoky light around him. This was the man in his element, the brilliant mind at work.
I used to love his white barrister’s wig and black robe which he had to wear when appearing at the Bar in London. Once, for a school play at Wychwood School in Oxford, I acted the part of a lawyer and he allowed me to borrow the wig and robe as my costume. I looked very dignified and authentic in my role and the other English girls were quite in awe of me.
Dada enjoyed gardening for a brief time while living in rural France. He planted some trees in the large, rather bare garden and enjoyed pruning and caring for the roses in summer. He also loved wine and he and my mother would go on wine buying excursions around France. How he would have loved one day to own a house with a proper wine cellar where he could store his treasures.
During my teenage years in Switzerland, one of the things we often did together was drive into Geneva from the suburbs where we lived to buy the Sunday English newspapers for him and my favourite chocolate for me. Sometimes I hitched a one way ride with him to meet up with friends in the city. When we lived in a small village in France he and my mother would take turns to drive to the Swiss/French border to pick me up around midnight when I took the last bus home from the city on weekend nights. Once I turned eighteen and got my driver’s license he was very generous about lending me his old beat up car in the evenings and on weekends, for we lived out of the city and my social life was restricted by the train schedule.
In 1982 with just one suitcase in hand I came to Colombo on summer vacation from Switzerland where I was studying languages at the University of Geneva. That summer vacation turned into a 20 year stay due to a timely meeting my father arranged for me with the then Chairman of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, M.J. Perera. SLRC had just launched and was looking for people with any kind of background in TV. I had coincidentally just completed a brief apprenticeship at TV Suisse Romande and when M. J. Perera heard this he readily offered me a job. We all agreed that the newly created Western Music section would be the best fit for me. So even a little experience was better than none at all and I became one of the pioneer producer/directors at the station. I soon got my first break as an interviewer, transferred to the Newsroom, and went on to enjoy a career that spanned 20 years in the public eye.
Thus my father was instrumental in the launch of my TV career. Once I had become a familiar face and name, whenever my father came to Colombo on UN business, the immigration and customs officers at the airport would ask if he was related to me, the Kadirgamar on TV. I think he got quite a kick out saying I was his daughter and of course he was proud of my achievements. The tables turned naturally once he entered politics and then everyone would ask me if I was related to him! I would say yes, that’s my father, and jokingly add “but I was famous long before he was!”
Much has been written about Lakshman Kadirgamar the lawyer, the intellectual, the statesman and the orator and though his whole life may have been a rehearsal for the leading role he was to play on the Sri Lankan political stage, I believe he remained a simple man at heart, with few needs but many dreams and plans for this island of ours.
Sadly, he never got to totally fulfill his role as a grandfather to my son, a role I believe he would have excelled at. His parting gift to his only grandchild, during a rare high-security orchestrated visit just before we left Sri Lanka for the US was a tie pin, something the child, now turned adult, cherishes.
We were never to see him alive again. The final time my brother, son and I saw him he was lying in a coffin, wearing his Trinity tie and tie pin, two items I suspect he may have wanted his son or grandson to have.