24 September, 2018

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Mervyn De Silva, Journalism & Moscow

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Mervyn de Silva wrote a brief bio-data on the smaller-sized of the Lanka Guardian notepaper/ letterheads in the last years of his life. It was rearranged into a narrative and appeared on the back cover of ‘Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva’ published by the International Center for Ethnic studies, Colombo, 1999. It was Mervyn’s laconic look back at his life as he saw it in his late 60s. He never made it to 70. Here is his last CV just as he had typed it:

1949-53: Edited University Magazine. Founded newssheet.

1954: Joined Associated Newspapers, largest publishing company as ‘part-time’ Parliament reporter while studying Law. 

1960: Joined Associated Newspapers permanently.

1965: Appointed Deputy Editor, Evening Observer.

1970: Editor, Daily News, Premier English daily.

1972: Editor-in-Chief of Associated Newspapers.

1973: Newspapers nationalized by leftwing Bandaranaike regime.

1976: Dismissed.

1976: Joined privately owned TIMES as editor-in-Chief.

1977: Times nationalized by rightwing UNP Jayewardene government. 

1978: dismissed. Founded Lanka Guardian.

Currently Colombo correspondent Financial Times, London, NEWSWEEK, and Times of India. Has worked for The Economist, London. Published in New York Times, Washington Post, Le Monde Diplomatique, International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Far Eastern Economic Review.

Mervyn de Silva ( Middle)

Mervyn had so many dimensions and achievements he could have written a fuller CV. And yet his brief bio focused on his career as a print journalist. That was the axis and trajectory of his being. He wrote for publication in the print media, both mainstream newspapers and periodicals. He was a maestro of the printed word written for a general and regular reader.

He was more. He was a literary critic, a film reviewer, a commentator on international affairs, a radio broadcaster on subjects ranging from poetry to world affairs, and for a while a regular commentator on international affairs (interviewed by Eric Fernando) on TV.

What strikes one in his abbreviated CV is the strange symmetry of his dismissal by two (otherwise) contrasting Sri Lankan governments i.e. political Establishments.

Izeth Hussain, literary critic, intellectual and diplomat, pointed to this phenomenon:

“…perhaps it is not really surprising that he [Mervyn] 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.”

Hussain, who was senior to Mervyn by two years at the university, understood the man’s trajectory and existential choices:

“…He [Mervyn] 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.

…By the time of his death he [Mervyn] had come to be recognized for several years as the doyen of Sri Lankan journalists.

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…

…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…”

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

I started writing this as I am about to emplane for Moscow and am now reviewing it from my desk at the ambassadorial residence above the Embassy. I visited Moscow many times as a boy, starting in the mid-1960s, running through the 1970s, in the company of my parents. On those occasions my father Mervyn was either a guest of the Russian Foreign Ministry or of the APN (Novosti) news agency headed in the 1970s by the formidable Latin Americanist, Kachaturov (whom I was privileged to meet). 

In the early 1970s my father was the first foreign journalist to meet the iconic foreign affairs expert and leading Russian Americanist, the head of Moscow’s USA and Canada Institute, Georgi Arbatov, when he returned from the last round of talks in Helsinki before the signing of the SALT 1 agreement. I was with him and my mother in Moscow at the time. 

As a young undergraduate I was fortunate to meet the finest Russian foreign policy thinker, Evgeny Primakov, who went on to be Russia’s Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, when he was still Academician Primakov, head of IMEMO, in 1976 in Colombo, when my father hosted him to dinner at the Capri Club. Academician Primakov invited me to study under him at IMEMO after I graduated from Peradeniya, but another destiny intervened.

The diplomat-intellectual Izeth Hussain’s greatest encomium to Mervyn de Silva made explicit reference to a Russian intellectual, critical and journalistic phenomenon as point of comparison and affinity:

“But his greatest achievement, more than his writings, was surely the Lanka Guardian (LG). 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.”

In an important sense therefore, my road to Moscow has been in the footsteps of my father. In a three quarter page polemic against my appointment to Moscow, Prof Sarath Wijesooriya termed me a “political gunfighter” whose “hunting ground is politics”. This made me recall “The Gunslinger’s Prayer” in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, in which the abiding sin which is warned against and has to be avoided, is having “forgotten the face of my father”.  As I attend the International military tattoo at the Spasskaya Tower, hear the rousing cheer reverberating through the Red Square at night for the Sri Lankan Armed Forces band and especially the young Lankan army man bearing the Lion flag and singing ‘Katyusha’ (the Soviet era tribute to the legendary rocket); shake hands with the guest of honor, much-decorated WW II veteran General Gennady Zaitsev of the legendary Spetsnatz ‘Alpha Group’ (one of the world’s topmost counter-terrorist special forces); receive an exact replica of the key to the Spasskaya tower of the Kremlin; sit as a member of the Sri Lanka delegation across the table from Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Alexander Fomin at the Russian Ministry of Defence; and look across the Moscow river at night at the massive Stalin-era Hotel Ukraine (now the Radisson) where I stayed with my parents on our first visit in 1964, I have not “forgotten the face of my father”.

 *Sept 5th—Mervyn de Silva’s 89th Birth Anniversary

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Latest comments

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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      Okay, I’ll say the exact opposite of what I said, so the readers can surmise what was my original comment that was removed:
      “Please … please give us more and more of this.”

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    From Russia With Love from a public racist #1 and a warmonger!

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      Dayan,

      So good ol’ Moscow was the ulterior motive ……. of all those writings about saving the beloved mother land? ………. Now Ranil is the best pol that ever walked the sand of Lanka, eh?

      Anyway congrats ……. that you have finally found a position – that will last a little longer than your previous sojourns – under a well brought up classy gentleman like Ranil ……….. and not under the ill-bred low-class social climbing Rajapakse carpetbaggers ….. who have to reserve all positions for their family

      Moscow is just an email away ……..dont forget to keep in touch …… with all your buddies in the forum ……….. who helped you to get where you are! :))

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        Please address your emails to the old account given here. We are old Josephians anyway (me short term.)
        SSap456@yahoo.com

  • 4
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    It was a bold move for Mervyn de Silva to start the Lanka Guardian in 1978. I must say he succeeded. I can remember reading the magazine which was of substance. If Mervyn were living today, I think he would do exactly what Dayan is doing now – freelance writing.

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    People in this forum had cut Dayan into thousands of pieces. The man still writes in these columns. Does this mean he is an unashamed man without a backbone or his resillience? I think the first. A dignified man would have gone away.

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      Chuti Doo

      Before you attempting to attack Dayan the public racist please decide what pseudonym you are going to use, Chuti Doo or Chun Paan.

      Then attack Native Vedda for and on behalf of your Mrs Udubaddewa madam.
      Please try not to guess meaning and usage of words but check the dictionary to confirm whether your understanding of the word is absolutely right.
      Petticoat also means undergarment.
      What is the vulgarity in the word?

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    I liked Mervyn Silva who was both SLFP and UNP (strange phenomenon during that era). My problem with him was that the man drank too much. Every time I went to the Press Club or the Ex Servicemen’s Club there was Mervyn Silva with his 1/2 bottle of pol arrack, Soda, a plate of chicken or beef stew and lots of peanuts. He smoked four aces then changed to gold leaf. A talkative, jovial fella who would invite only selected people to his table like me (I am a burghur). Even those days he spoke highly about his most beloved son, Dayan.

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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    mervyn was a great journalist because in his time he had no competitors
    due to his arrogance he could not get into the ccs or foreign service with his 3rd class degree and ended up as a journalist
    his other failing was that he was called andaya all his life and was never popular at school or university and ended his life on a low and not on a high
    for an outstanding journalist a great pity

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    I always wondered why Mervyn Silva was never invited into the director board of Lake House, the Times. Is it because he was strong as a Lion or a known trouble maker (the son is like that now – trouble maker).

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    Going back to roots Mervyn De Silva was never a SLFPer or UNPer. He was a born socialist. His one time boss Esmond Wickramasinghe too was a Socialist. He was a member of the Communist Party!

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    Unlike Dayan Mervyn De Silva was a short, stocky man. Fair in complexion. True, a jovial, fun loving fellow. He was dead scared of JR. His English was good but I think Dayan (improved) now writes better. One day we met at Lord Nelson’s at Chatham Street. Mervyn related anecdotes that all laughed, finally he sang “I am going to marry in the morning” (of My Fair Lady fame).

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    If he wasn’t that drinking and smoking I think Mervyn still will be with us today. Sad. Then he will be 98 or 99 today Dayan?

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    Mervyn worked tirelessly hard to bring JR to power in 77 and he expected something in return. JR did not give him anything (any post). Poor buggar even rented a flat opposite JR’s waiting for the call.

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      May be because he stuck to his De Silva. He should have gone for Mervyn Jayatilleka
      Dayan De Silva succeeded.

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    choti
    he was called andaya because he was a trouble maker
    ask his contemporaries at school at uni and professionally

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    mervyn was waiting for srimas call earlier but that too failed
    lets forget about mervyn
    bye bye dayan i hope the russian winter wont do to you what it did to napoleon and hitler
    if you dont drink too much vodka like papa and dont write too much you can survive
    remember sira appointed you because you hacked poor ranil so now you dont need to
    as you were suitably rewaded

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    Dayan, now in Moscow, should meet Putin’s foreign minister so that both could converse in Sinhala language. In Colombo, as a Russian diplomat, he did converse in Sinhala witnessed by this writer who was, during that time, at the US Embassy.

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    nalmen, I doubt it that Mervyn had a university degree. Are you sure?

    To be fair to Mervyn, those days most middle class people drank pol arrack (this writer himself). Gal was for the underclass, and scotch was for the supreme elite. Today the middle class drinks scotch and pol and gal are drunk by underclass. The fact that he (Mervyn) elevated himself from four aces to gold leaf (bristol was in the middle) shows that the buggar prospored financially with time. Despite the family sufferring financcially during Sirima’s Maiyokka Yuge (we all sufferred), Mervyn managed to feed his children reasonably ok,

  • 5
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    Mervyn De Silva utmost respect to DB Dhanapala. He always bowed down and called Dhanapala “Sir”, the dyon of Sri Lankan journalism.

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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    Daya Gamage, are you the now Minister?

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    jeromy
    mervyn was one of royal colleges most brilliant students he got the english scholarship to university
    beating all other students island wide he should have got a first class but he did not attend lectures as he said he knew more than the lecturers and eventually got a third class
    his arrogance let him down

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    Nalmen
    Thank you very much for the clarification. I thought Mervyn only passed London Matriculation.

    Is it at University that he met his future wife (Dayan’s mother)?

    Why did they call him Andaya at Royal?

  • 0
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    If he were alive will he be 98 or 99 today Dayan? (Born in 1920?)

    Please answer

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    I have a problem with Mervyn’s education

    This is the first time I have heard he was a Royalist

    If he was such a distinguished Royalist as pronounced by Nalmen, surely he would have easily got Dayan admitted to Royal. But Dayan went to a different school. Please clarify this as a matter of importance. Also, who were his classmates at Royal?

    If Mervyn went to University, which university and which period please?

    Some are trying to say Mervyn was also a lawyer; my foot.

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    Nalmen

    No Sri Lankan university (or worldwide) offers 3rd class degrees (gotch ya)

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    Late Mervyn de Silva of LG and Regie Michael of Mirror were admired and respected by many readers. I still love reading old issues of LG available in Noolaham website.

    Mervyn selected LTTE leader V Prabakaran as Man of the Decade and published his photograph on the front cover of LG 1st January 1990, with a write up. Hope Dayan and his comrades will read it and correct their line of thinking atleast now.

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    Having known my drinking buddy Mervyn so well, he would be the happiest man today if knew his beloved son dayan will become an ambassador especially Russia

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      Jeromey Wambeck

      Mervyn would be turning in his grave thinking what had happened to his beloved country. Couldn’t Sirisena find a senior carrier diplomat who could perform his duties uninterrupted by focussing on the job in hand.
      But then Sirisena wants to buy a floating junk from USSR for $150 million. Perhaps Sirisena is hoping for a better commission negotiated by a windbag and unprincipled racist.

  • 6
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    Dayan Jayatilleka

    You are no Mervyn. Stop trying to be one.

    You knew you were ‘no Mervyn’ when you ditched the ‘De Silva’ off your name.

    • 0
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      Saw this under “Latest Comments”. Thanks, it has saved me time. No read to read any tosh above this.

  • 1
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    Jeyaraj dbs wrote a piece called ‘under the cadjan roof’. It was widely read due to the nice title. It was Mervyn who suggested the name to Jeyaraj. Such brilliance was Mervyn.

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    Unfortunately, this is what life is. You think you’ve achieved the unthinkable, your long-cherished ambition … … but alas, the thrill is only short-lived. The adrenaline rush evaporates in no time, and you’re already disillusioned with your ‘new found success.’ Your mind, being the restless misery that it is, immediately looks to fill the void with fresh plans, or falls back on reverie. For Dayan it is reverie for now. That means revisiting his reference group via CT and indulging in the sweet nostalgia of his dear dad’s iconic place in Sri Lanka’s modern history.

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    So Dr. DJ you made it to Moscow BEFORE the Aeroflot started the Moscow/Colombo flights, I was praying that you would get to travel first class in Aeroflot, in which I hear they serve very special cabbage rolls with Vodka, so that you wont feel the impact if/when it ever crashed. So long mate, I will miss your unprincipled rants.

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