By Philip Fernando in Los Angeles –
Mervyn de Silva, journalist, commentator and literary critic—and his legendary professional career of over four decades–are encapsulated here to commemorate the 13th anniversary of his passing away. The underlying themes that sustained Mervyn’s thoughts culled from insights privy to me and a choice sampling of Mervyn’s slick repartee recalled by Thalif Deen are presented here. We were both colleagues of Mervyn in the Daily News and the Observer.
Mervyn’s dazzling prose and sharp wit ensured the passageway to eminence and an iconic presence amidst his revered peers. Upholding unfettered expression of ideas propelled him enormously.
Mervyn assertively set and defended the boundaries of unimpeded speech, believing that information held closely is damaging to those holding it and detrimental in the quest for good governance: the more the media appears liberal and adversarial, the better for enlightened dissent to emerge.
Mervyn was easily one of the most readable columnists, one with the pager-turner touch. During his undergraduate days at Peradeniya, he wrote a widely read Saturday political column in the Daily News titled “With Malice to None” using the pseudonym “Daedalus”. Our colleague and close friend of Mervyn, Thalif Deen recalls that perhaps very few outside Lake House knew that Mervyn authored several pseudonymous columns. In the Observer, he wrote a Sunday gossip column “Mild and Bitter” under the pen name “the Clubman”. He also wrote off and on, the daily “Roundabout” column by “Contact”.
The editorials he penned during the days of youth unrest and the passing away of Dudley Senanayake were quintessential Mervyn. The choice of words was exact—you may not concur with the sentiments expressed and still savour the syntactic maturity of the prose:
“All our greatest leaders have stood for a few essential things, although each one of them may have emphasized one at the expense of the other, although each left the struggle unfinished. Mr. Dudley Senanayake, by the light of his own political vision, stood for the unity of this country, for an open society and for economic emancipation, particularly through agricultural self-sufficiency. No monument to him can possibly be finer or more enduring than our own renewed dedication to these ideals.”
Mervyn’s and my generation faced a change of a phenomenal nature in the country’s newspaper ownership. Lake House had shown dominant presence in the areas of readership, circulation, and advertising and overall number of news dealerships. The possibility of a changed ownership seemed imminent in the ’60s as reported by Mervyn during one of his trips accompanying Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike–I believe it was the Non-aligned conference in Cairo ‘64. With the ‘take-over’ in the ’70s suddenly a rookie board of directors was saddled with the awesome task of infusing change on a matter of vital national interest. It never achieved the cohesion needed for the delicate operation.
On Saturday mornings Mervyn would walk in to the Sunday Observer editorial office with his usual chirpy and sure self and peruse the news stories awaiting inclusion in the next day’s paper. Producing a readable newspaper meant the daunting task of seeing the intimidating sword of Damocles hanging overhead. Picking news was like the balancing act of a trapeze artist. Treading the fine line between news and propaganda seemed a nightmare.
Mervyn’s nose for news was dauntingly sharp, as good as the awesome news hounds I knew-Clarence Fernando, Manik de Silva, Thalif Deen Harold Peiris, Lionel Fernando and others. It took him only a few seconds and he would pick the lead story and chit chat on the day’s events. Mervyn (slightly senior to Thalif and me) and our generation were witnessing the changing of the guard–a generational transition between two worlds. Insurrection was flourishing.
The field of foreign affairs, a pet topic of Mervyn, saw countervailing political forces—India, Pakistan, China and the West–striving for supremacy. While the Conference on the Indo-China dispute held in Colombo was a major milestone, the Non-aligned summit in Cairo was, I remember well, the beginning of a foreign policy incursion which the Sri Lankan leaders and journalists excelled in good measure.
Mervyn’s strong point was international politics. Thalif remembers Mervyn’s passion for the cause of Palestine. Liberal in his politics, he disdained Western wire service reporting. The Vietcong was not our “enemy”, he told his copy editors, nor should Palestinian guerrillas be described as “terrorists”. When he was editor of the Daily News, he fired off a memo to copy editors about the political correctness of addressing China by its real name, and not as “Red China” as Western wire services were prone to do in the 1970s. In his memo, he said: “China is China, and I don’t want 900 million people reduced to a piece of crimson crockery.”
During a surprise visit to Los Angeles of Mervyn and his wife Lakshmi- a belle from my home town of Moratuwa- there were impassioned exchanges among friends. I noticed that Lakshmi was the anchor that steadied Mervyn.
Brandishing his language skills, Mervyn who had picked his topics to suit his whims, was reliving his experiences in that more relaxed setting. He relished having taken on the bureaucracy that seemed mired in dysfunction. The fight to abolish the revered CCS and how he faced the wrath of the well-entrenched opposition was quite fresh in his mind, and he believed that he had succeeded in shredding elitism and cronyism of the officialdom, which had been practiced with impunity.
Thalif recalls that during one of his innumerable visits to New York, Mervyn confessed that he had the distinction of being fired by two adversarial administrations from two different newspaper groups where he had served as editor. He accepted it with journalistic pride. After all, if two competing newspaper groups had kicked him out, under two rival governments, he must have done something right.
Scholarly commentators run the risk of not being anchored to a set of values and tend to fear succumbing to the dark lure of alienation. Mervyn was no apologist for anyone, as seen by the public duels he had with all shades of contenders. Mervyn’s politics was perhaps a little to the right-of-centre, yet he was often attracted by both the Right and the Left. I believe that Mervyn was the product of laissez-faire thinking and liberalism. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
It was great theatre to watch the battles enacted in the Daily News and Sunday Observer. Mervyn brought down contrarian views like nine pins in a bowling alley. Yet Mervyn could never be derided—many tried but failed–he would clobber them with his flawless prose. Besides, his grasp was all-encircling.
Mervyn provided core values regarding journalistic norms of full disclosure. For those ready to be seduced by transparency and enjoy its awesome sense of freedom, the right to enlightened dissent seems to be growing exponentially now. Mervyn was the prototype for a “civic ethos” emerging and taking root when most readers could not identify their “generational type”—idealist or reactive, civic or adaptive—and align themselves. Mervyn was a little ahead of his times.
*Philip Fernando, currently domiciled in California, was the Deputy Editor of the Sunday Observer when Mervyn de Silva was the Editor. <firstname.lastname@example.org>