22 September, 2017

Looking For Mervyn 

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

“I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.

I shoot with my mind.” —Stephen King, ‘The Gunslinger’ (‘The Dark Tower’)

Papa was a rolling stone. I did look for Mervyn de Silva quite a bit as a boy, disembarking from my mum’s car and popping into every watering hole in town, from posh pub to seedy bar, occasionally encountering him and consenting to a cover story which would enable him to make it home with a halfway plausible excuse while I misdirected my mother to a few more locations so as to buy him some time. Mervyn used to say I’d make a good diplomat, and ventured to President Premadasa decades later that my real expertise was ‘conflict studies’. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the paradox of Mervyn, and how to resolve it.

To those who didn’t know or understand him very well, and that included members of the family he came from, Mervyn had a mystique, an impenetrable reserve or was an exasperating riddle. But to his peers and gifted protégés, Mervyn had a dualistic character. While I agree in one sense with their numerous analyses, I view Mervyn’s personality as containing – and being driven by –a dialectical contradiction rather than a simple dualism. I also wish to follow Godfrey Gunatilleke and suggest that there was an underlying unity of values, ethics and even morality, behind, beneath and above it all.

Mervyn de Silva and wife Lakshmi

Ajith Samaranayake who, as a professional journalist and protégé was more a son and potential successor to Mervyn than I was, identified in the Daily News on the day of his funeral “…the combination of seriousness and impish humour which leant its essential quality to his prose.” (‘The Last Great Stylist’ Daily News, June 24, 1999)

Unerringly discerning, Ajith went on to pose the quintessential question the weekend after Mervyn’s death:

“Then who was Mervyn de Silva? The riddle will endure. The only clues I can offer are his choice of ‘The Outsider’ for one of his pen-names and his fascination with Jay Gatsby, Kafka and Fitzgerald…” (‘The Pontiff of Lankan Journalism’, Sunday Observer, June 27th 1999) 

The literary critic, intellectual and diplomat NMMI (Izzeth) Hussain, who passed away earlier this year, spelled it out. He was senior to Mervyn at the university by a few years and knew him as a young man. Writing on ‘The Two Mervyns’, Izzeth Hussain said:

“I recall our friendship originating in a brilliant analysis of a Kafka short story made by him at the Thurston Road tuck-shop that is before the campus moved to Peradeniya. Mervyn was one of the habitués of that tuck-shop, and rather unusual in being 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 other territory was occupied by devotees of two card games called ‘baby’ and ‘asking-hitting’. The first Mervyn was an intellectual of the highest caliber 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.”

Izzeth Hussain concluded that:

“Underneath was always the first Mervyn, a troubled intelligence, sensitive and vulnerable, the non-conformist 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…” 

I do agree with the depiction of two Mervyns. Seen through my boyish eyes he could be both Prof. Higgins and Alfie Doolittle or George Smiley and Alec Leamas at any given time and tended to harbor an irresistible compulsion to switch from one to the other, though occasionally inhabiting a fusion in a passable imitation of Dylan Thomas.

Somewhere among all of this was the stated appreciation of and unstated affinity with Leonard Woolf. When Woolf’s Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, subtitled Records of a Colonial Administrator, was published in 1962, the author of the Historical Introduction (simply signed ‘SDS’) wrote that:

“Before concluding a word should be said about the circumstances leading to the publication of the diaries. As already mentioned when Mr. Leonard Woolf was in Ceylon in January 1960, a number of suggestions were made particularly by the Literary Critic of the Ceylon Observer, Mr. Mervyn de Silva that these diaries be published by the Ceylon Government.” (xliv)

One cannot but observe that at the time Mervyn was barely 30 years old. The Historical Introduction goes on to set out the structure of the volume:

“The short literary introduction by Mr. Mervyn de Silva discusses Woolf’s place in the English world of letters and evaluates his Village in the Jungle and his short stories on Ceylon as literary works, while the manner in which these particular diaries shed light on the novel are also noted.” (Ibid) 

When Mervyn died in June 1999, I returned to his and my mother’s bedroom, more for one last look than to clear the place up, his reading of the previous night (both my parents read late into the night, a long habit without which they could not fall asleep, and one which I have inherited) lay on the bed, while his stubbed out Havana cigar was in the ashtray on the bedside table. It was the massive single volume of the Letters of Leonard Woolf edited by Frederic Spotts.

Mervyn’s 1962 introduction to Woolf’s Diaries make at least three important points which speak not only to the subject Mervyn was writing about but also “an implicit scale of values” (p. li) which constituted Woolf’s and his own consistent core.

The first was of a “liberal humanism”, but a liberal humanism which was completely different from that which is espoused and practiced by those of the same age group in Sri Lanka today that Mervyn was when he wrote this essay, i.e. the educated Westernized Lankans in their 30s. Mervyn stressed that Woolf’s “liberal humanism” was out of joint with what he calls “the imperialist system” and “the oppressive orthodoxy of imperialism” (p. li). So what we have is neither an anti-imperialism that was nativist and culturally circumscribed nor a liberal humanism that identified with, was comfortable with or looked to western imperialism for deliverance. This was Mervyn’s own demarcation of values. This is who and what he was; where he placed himself—what Brecht would call his Standung.

The second was a refusal to extend that liberal humanism into a universal moral judgment on all cultures and civilizations; a refusal to allow liberal humanism to become part of a civilizing mission and the white man’s burden. Mervyn commended in Woolf a liberal humanism that eschewed “easy moral judgments” and was instead, sensitive to contexts and situations, especially in its relationship with “the impact of the East, and…its strange, exacting demands on understanding.” (p. liii).

“…One cannot discuss large issues like race, as if there were immutable standards of judgment. The moral criteria in such instances, he suggests, cannot be absolute but must be relative to the specific social situation.” (p. lvii) This then was not a liberal humanist fundamentalism. It was not the liberalism of a ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’ and the Responsibility to Protect. It was a liberal humanism that was more protean than Procrustean.

Thirdly was the moral divide between those in our societies who are privileged by and benefit from imperialism; operate in its interstitial spaces and thrive upon it, and those others who resist or are marginalized by it. Mervyn’s essay concludes with the unambiguous ultimate moral validation of the tragic fate of the impoverished victims of the imperialist-driven order.

“But their small lives are not without their own triumph. Their suffering is redeemed by a spiritual courage and a quality of endurance. In the lonely figure of Punchimenika, waiting for the final ruthless thrust of the jungle, there is a nobility which is truly tragic in quality…Their fierce attachment to these things, the strength of their loves and hates, and their ultimate indomitability of spirit make them persons of different moral worth than the ‘Fernandos’, the headmen and ratemahattayas of this world.” (p. lx)

Mervyn evolved a code of ethics that combined a refusal to make easy moral judgments in personal life with a double bias towards the individualist “outsider” in established society (as Ajith Samaranayake noted), and the social underdog (as Izzeth Hussain emphasized) in the face of “the imperialist system” (as Mervyn termed it in his long introductory essay on Woolf in the early 1960s).

Yet, in the final analysis what mattered to Mervyn was the distinctive quality and character of the individual human: 

“In his own estimate he was a conscientious officer, but the system called for habits of feeling and action which his whole personality must have steadily resisted. Woolf was given too much to personal judgments and discriminations to develop that total conformism which must have been, one guesses, almost a prerequisite of the ideal colonial officer. Inspite of his obvious enthusiasm for his work, his attraction to people, places and things, he could not acquiesce in the oppressive orthodoxy of imperialism.” (p. li)

“At times, he could be the ‘outsider’, and survey the harsh, tousled world before him with the unruffled and dispassionate mind of the English intellectual. But he was not always au dessus de la melee.” (p. lvii)

The outsider, the unruffled mind capable of the dispassionate survey of a harsh unruly world—and yet, not quite so dispassionate as to be always au dessus de la melee–“above the fray”. His description and implicit judgment of Woolf, penned in his early thirties, could easily have been with the slightest modification, the final word on Mervyn himself.

[Mervyn de Silva- 88th Birth anniversary-Sept 5th]

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Latest comments

  • 10
    0

    Dayan,

    “Papa was a rolling stone.” ………….. Keith Richards?

    ………………..

    A very touching tribute to a father form a son ………………… Good one!

    We have our differences ………… but we are all human …………. after all …………….

    • 3
      1

      Very touching but DJ s behaviours have been beyond all bearing to ANTI JO people in this country ?

      Has that lot to do with questionable genetics ?

      Why the sexagenarian seems still be be far from sensing the gravity of the problems that lanken in general face – which is higher corruption and abusive mind set.

      DJ instread supports all the men entwined with highly abusive cultures, behaviours and manners. Why ?

      All these prove me, this man either should have been mixed up with someone in the hospital at his birth, or he should be a product of Mervin OR what do you think you guys ? Just express your hearted thoughts.. can help us all CT readers.

      • 5
        1

        All these prove me, this man either should have been mixed up with someone in the hospital at his birth, or he should NOT be a product of Mervin OR what do you think you guys ? Just express your hearted thoughts.. can help us all CT readers.

        • 4
          1

          Bunjappu – You are right, Dayan’s name change says it all!

          • 7
            1

            If his love and care to his own father was that much, why not to bear his surname
            should be the million dollar question.

            Guys, we the lankens led by majority stupid folks are down with all disverse problems, but to focus on DJ s father …… right at this critical point of the country where most cant see who to believe if own lanken blood.

            I am confused, but I always did not like DJ, and his siamese twin brother from Australia- HLD.. Both have much in common, but none of them have done a pinch of thing to lanken nation EVEN if swollen thoughts have been droped down on and on.

    • 8
      3

      This man DJ has been suffering from a rare MENTAL disease:

      1) He sounds always as if he is unique, but from his acts, we cant separate his with that of Wimal Buruwanse – unedcuated man who ruined this society

      2) Mervin De Sliva is proved to be a great journalist, but what went wrong with him failing to guide his son at least allow him proper sensing ?

      3) DJ behaves as if there exists nobody who can know lanken politics than he himself. No matter anyone would laugh by both sides, he is used to give his regular pompous talks to Sirasa weekly programs. Most of them proves his grudge against PM
      But the bugger would never utter a single word against FORMER megalomaniac who looted and rooted lanken assets no second to lybian leader.
      Calling his knolwedge is no entwined to maxistic thoughts, but doing the other way rabblerousing the grass eating majorities – have been DJ is MAIN job during the last 2 years.

      • 7
        0

        Careful Lebbee

        The sins of the son are never visited on the father. Illogical or what.

        Whatever gripe we have with DJ must be set aside here. He has written fairly, and well, and he must have been closer to Pappa than most of us could ever have. Just say thank you to DJ for sharing this with us.

        • 5
          1

          Call a spade to spade I dont need to be careful.

          I respect the words coming from a son towards own father, but in this context, we have been rabbleroused by DJ on and on over the last 2 years.
          Latter is no means what he may have ever learnt from his own father.

          Else, tell, who would ever support Rajapakshes and their condom supporters ?

          I mean, who with even a little brain would not go after Rajapakshe … right ?
          Now things seem turning it s direction slowly …. I see the light at the end of the tunnel.

          God bless Srilanka.

          • 0
            0

            “I mean, who with even a little brain would not go after Rajapakshe … right ?”

            What size of brain do you have ?

        • 5
          0

          Yesterday I happened to listen to Aluth Parlimenthuwa of last week ( a program run by that abusive Dherana). There the panelists were not bad.. most of them were adding their thoughts about SLFP and the Pre-SLFP era.
          Today people have forgotten the place one had to give for English then, even a clerk would no thave been appointed wihtout having proper English.
          That is why even clerks were also seen as gods to the locals ( at that time), but today even doctors or learnt professsors would not earn due respect.
          Having said this, I just wanted to add you this particular DJ is a man grew up according anglo culture, and he therefore brings all kind of words such ” where he has been coming from…. what shakespeare stories his grannies narrated to the boy… bla bla… all mama thamayi miniha style talks ” but my question woudl be…
          what has the bugger done to this country…. having come from such a high class background… even today, he would prefer to be the lap dog of thuggish Rajaakshes for one reason. that is his personal vendetta against Ranil wickramsinghe.

        • 5
          1

          Europeans in general would not boast about their families as had been in earlier days. They have learnt it that the current generation would be interested in someone’s where about.s but the facts about the day today issues. However, our men being in the past,seem making every effort boasting about their old stories.

          Can anybody please tell me what the current article could bring us the current generation ?

          We only know Mervin s son – who is none other than so called self proclaimed POLITICAL analyst of the nation.
          But from his behaviours, we cant see him to be exemplary at all.
          Most known to me feel, DJ betrayed them, being joined to Joint Opposition men.
          They even cant see as to why DJ continues to do so `????

    • 13
      0

      Go on then DJ, make your Dad proud.
      For starters, quit carrying baggage for uneducated criminals from Hambantota.
      Cheers!

    • 6
      1

      “Papa was a rolling stone. I did look for Mervyn de Silva quite a bit as a boy, disembarking from my mum’s car”

      You don’t need to pulicise your respect to your parents. The most of important thing is that you should be a good child to your parents and humanity. The parents should be proud of you. The association Dayan got with the racists, fundamentalists, corrupters and his opportnuistc characteristics are not in line with his parents or good characteristics of a good child.

    • 4
      0

      I wish i could know what his father would report if he had been alive today.

      First of all about his son’s unstoppable backing to HAMBANTOTA uneducated men.

      Sure, DJ would have been isolated from his father for his behavours.

      Even if DJ is identified as a LONELY WOLF, there are some who feel he is the brain in the country. I really dont know why ?

      Then tell me why the man was not awarded with any Prof TITLEs even if he had been lectuering apart from his self proclaimed DIPLOMATIC assignments.

      There are good dons with provable records in the country to be called as real POLITICAL analysts, but this man DJ and his backers not to see it yet is my surprise.

  • 8
    4

    It is embarrassing when the son is praising his father.

    Mervyn De Silva in Sri Lanka may have read books and quoted from various writers . But we must look at all this in perspective of a huge world of billions of people.

    Where does he fit in ?

    • 7
      1

      Where does he fit in?

      In the pantheon of Ceylonese/Sri Lanka journalists, Mervyn de Silva stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them.

      Whatever our gripes with DJ must be set aside, and instead thank DJ for sharing this article with us.

      We can only speculate on what Mervyn de Silva would have written about the turbulent last few years.

      • 6
        2

        “Pantheon” a Roman temple ! Cannot these Ceylonese journalists fall back on something nearer ! Were they a great set of thinkers and writers or a poor mimic of something very foreign ?

        • 2
          0

          It is normal in the West for a child to deliver an eulogy at a parent’s funeral and also to reflect on a father. Americans do it all the time and so do the British. So stop attacking him for writing his perspective of the father. He, DJ, has issues that are unresolved from his childhood and probably stems from alcohol related domestic squabbles seen in so many powerful families. I have seen DJ insult a lot of people with his clever use of English like his one time GF TG who is angry about her own socialist Daddy. Both are trying to better their fathers in anger of never having being hugged or encouraged or never having parents visit them at school etc. Absentee brilliant father getting shitfaced in watering holes and being brilliant probably bothered this now 60 year old Josephian. Have you seen some of his earlier writings before he became a Palanquin bearer for MR and GR? It is an inferiority complex taking on the guise of a superiority complex and of being best at being mediocre in a small well.

          His father was a man of principle and the BEST journalist in Ceylon and he never resorted to bragging or name calling other people.

        • 2
          0

          Harry Hatton,
          Do grow up mate! there no Ceylonese journalists anymore. You need to reset your clock to in the present from whenever the past you are operating in.

          “Pantheon” is a very frequently quoted word in this country, and if you feel that word to be afar, that is YOUR problem, not anybody else’s.

          Be respectful of other’s opinions or else stop joining these forums.

        • 1
          0

          Dear Harry,
          “all the gods of a people or religion collectively.
          “the deities of the Hindu pantheon”

          (especially in ancient Greece and Rome) a temple dedicated to all the gods.
          2.
          a group of famous or important people.
          “the pantheon of the all-time greats”

          That’s what pantheon means.

  • 6
    2

    papa mervynwas no doubt a brilliant student of English literature in his time
    that is why he was awarded the all island English scholarship to enter the university from royal college
    his erudition was only matched by Constantine who won the history scholarship.
    unfortunately he was so arrogant that he thought he knew more than his lecturers, did not attend lectures, and ended up with a 3rd Class.That put paid to his chance of getting those jobs which were coveted by students at that time namely the civil service. university lectureships. or even the foreign services so he was forced to take to journalism in which area he had few equals.
    his duality was recognized as he was known as ANDAYA[not a complimentary term by any means ]both in college and at university
    and judging by what DJ is writing now,, even running after those who sacked him, demonstrates that he comes from mervyns andaya side

    • 4
      0

      Not so much arrogance as an altogether better use of time. Many lecturers, then and now, would mark on attendance however much the brilliance of the student. I have known many a ‘first’ that ended up kowtowing to some oleaginous politician, something, as far as I know, Mervyn never succumbed to.

      As for being ‘forced to take up journalism’ I think the reality is different. Mervyn ‘accidentally’ fell into it, having impressed many nabobs at ANCL who congratulated themselves on their find.

      NO, there was nothing ‘third class’ about Mervyn – He was first class every step of the way.

  • 3
    0

    Careful Lebbee

    The sins of the son are never visited on the father. Illogical or what.

    Whatever gripe we have with DJ must be set aside here. He has written fairly, and well, and he must have been closer to Pappa than most of us could ever have. Just say thank you to DJ for sharing this with us.

  • 4
    0

    spring koha
    I don’t deny mervyn was a first class journalist unlike his son who tries hard to be a first but has ended up a poor third.
    had merv got a first class in uni as he should have, and then went on to join the civil service he might have reached much greater heights in his career than he did in journalism
    his exceptional journalism was his good side but andaya was his bad side and that was the problem

  • 3
    1

    I thought it was Dr Mervyn Silva whom Dr Ranil has appointed as the Chief UNP Organiser for Medumulana and greater Hambantota. for the next Election………….Where is Keselwatta kid and Uncle Karu……..

  • 4
    0

    A son’s reflections on a father. Very touching but seems to reveal the issues at home, related to the creativity that stemmed from imbibing and lack of hugs and love at home leaving this now 60 year old angry.

    Mervyn had principles.

  • 3
    0

    Flipping back through some of the related articles, is it correct to assume that DJ’s real name is David De Silva?

  • 2
    0

    It is normal in the West for a child to deliver an eulogy at a parent’s funeral and also to reflect on a father. Americans do it all the time and so do the British. So stop attacking him for writing his perspective of the father. He, DJ, has issues that are unresolved from his childhood and probably stems from alcohol related domestic squabbles seen in so many powerful families. I have seen DJ insult a lot of people with his clever use of English like his one time GF TG who is angry about her own socialist Daddy. Both are trying to better their fathers in anger of never having being hugged or encouraged or never having parents visit them at school etc. Absentee brilliant father getting shitfaced in watering holes and being brilliant probably bothered this now 60 year old Josephian. Have you seen some of his earlier writings before he became a Palanquin bearer for MR and GR? It is an inferiority complex taking on the guise of a superiority complex and of being best at being mediocre in a small well.

    His father was a man of principle and the BEST journalist in Ceylon and he never resorted to bragging or name calling other people.

  • 3
    0

    This is the Dayan J who should adorn these pages…. Lovely read. Well done!

  • 4
    0

    Do not want to talk much about the old Bloke – Mervyn,.
    But., then it comes to DJ, this man have a tendency to lick the back of dictators either RP or MR and the other day we had ASS-Wer the old chap from Puttalam who had the same tendency like DJ in licking the back of Sri Lankan Mugabes/Idi Amins passed away.

    DJ looks like coming colors not good.

  • 4
    1

    DJ was embarrassed about his Dad’s well-known eccentricities that he did not want to be associated with the father then. So he changed his surname ‘Silva,’ and adopted his mother’s nee surname,”Jayatilleka.” Now DJ writes affectionately about the Dadd he despised.

    • 1
      0

      Yes and these are the traits he displays in his insults and angry tirades now. He could never reconcile with his father; Mervyn was a man of principle but a kaala beela happy westernized left of centre man who loved Scotch. I am not sure if he created domestic abuse situations and made his wife, DJ’s mother suffer but clearly there was angry rebellion by DJ who changed his last name as an act of defiance. DJ needs love, hugs and a good psychological counselling and perhaps even psychiatric treatment and medication. His insults are a reflection of his childhood insecurities. His anger is from Mervyn not recognizing him. Not sure if MDeS hit on other women and had affairs. But his love of Bachchus was well known and DJ alludes to it now. Hope he can find solace and inner peace reconciling with his father’s principles and intellect and lack of love for him when he was growing up alone without a father to teach and guide him and hug him or even walk with him to our alma mater STJ. Very well written article.

  • 3
    0

    Since you so admire your father why don’t you take a leaf from his book & stop going shopping for the bygone king?

    & be open minded like Mervyn- don’t be so prejudiced in your opinions. It does NOT become a journalist .

  • 3
    0

    Dayan Jayatillaka quotes Stephen King “…………..he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father……………”.
    A corollary is “…………..he who divines those who shoot with their hands has forgotten the face of his nation……………”.
    Dayan tells us that Mervyn led a western life and did not care very much for those crawling locally. He probably never read local literature and had the time for local films and the like.
    Dayan has absorbed these and now strives to be a diplomat in Europe.

  • 4
    0

    Dayan, you are an opportunistic bloody plotician! Not a journalist like Mervyn or Ajith! MJA

  • 2
    0

    Was Mervyn too a die-hard supporter of corrupt and murderous politicians?

  • 0
    0

    DJ I have to admit that I did not bother wasting my time to read your article, Saw the caption and decided to write this though it may not be appropriate to what you had written here, you only have to look for Lalith Weeratunga, I hear he has gone missing , the rest to follow.

  • 0
    0

    Mervin Silva was key editor newspapers of Lake House group . At that time central managing control of by Esmond Wickrmasighe and Gomaz of two son-in laws of after late of D R Wijewaradana of business magnate of Press group. The Lake house management having so many allegations against News Papers that support for UNP regime in and out power.
    Lank House being in favor of the political leadership UNP that all an opposed progressive acts of policies launch by 1970 coalition govt. led by Mrs SRB of SLFP.?
    Eventually that charge level against of misappropations funds of Lake House by Esamod and Gomaz has come to lime lite by revelation; Lake House Commission Report by headed Walpita and others .
    The corruptions having difficult for Mervin and other, time of Two were in head of Lake House management? Later of 1960 tees that demand rise against came into being that Lake Housed to be nationalized.
    After 1970 elections there was pressure of Lake house nationalization to Coalition govt. led by SRB.
    I do not know Mervin position at time.

  • 0
    0

    I am amazed at rhe puerile comments from some of you hardly knowing the real Dayan Jayatilleke. How dare you take up such personal umbrage against him on a public webpage without looking at the mirror yourself and realizing your own shortcomings exposing your apathetic mentalities and lack of class in casting stones at one of Sri Lanka’s great modern patriots and classy intellectuals. So what gives you carte blanche to sound so officious and judgemental when you probably are full of faults yourself? Dayan may be outspoken and have his fallibilities but a brilliant commentator, political analyst and holds up a banner for many good objectives probably beyond your pitiful comprehension and undeserving of some of the cruel comments you have had the nerve to dish out to him.It is quite sickening and full of myopic, unjustifiable bias!

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