22 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

  • 2
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    Your late father created Lanka Guardian is it not? Loved reading his very period apt, indepth foreign affairs commentary. I believe he was an honorable man. I think my mom used to get annoyed when he used to have a drink or two with my old man in the 1970s during the Haal polu regime of which I was a ancillary part of by virtue of being a relative. Damn man, by 1975 we knew the people were angry. I went to see “Poseidon Adventure” at Savoy and when they showed the newsreel of Mrs. B in Maldives the jeering started at the Balcony level yes Balcony rather than the usual gallery!

    But he was a superb intellectually superior journalist. I think he disagreed a lot with Mrs B and her policies too. Hardly a top notch journalist and knowledgeable writer like him nowadays. I am sure he was probably pro JR in 1977 as some say here, but I think he eventually stood for fairplay too. BTW, who is the guy to the left in that pix and the guy next to Lalith Athulathmudali? Curious. Good luck in your new job. I will not engage in personal attacks etc. Problem with elected leaders are they all get caught up in the “us vs them” frame of mind.

    No matter what party, the semi-feudal society has 2 distinct classes of people. The Hoi-Polloi or the Plebians and the divine rulers.. The latter always knows to manipulate the aforementioned. Now that is happening in a way in Sri lanka too. I watched live, the so called protests via AdaDerana and other sources. I should know a bit about this, because long ages ago, I was a foolish boy who engaged in party politics with May Day rallies etc. Still foolish but not a boy anylonger! Yes engaged in stupid slogans like “Pesaileng thel enathuru, miris nathuwa hodi kannam, seeni nathuwa they bonnam”.. Sigh sigh

    I was wondering how they adore people and their leaders. What is in their psyche? I used to think it was only Indians, specially South Indians who were that servile and gullible. Then I realize how Americans are like that too and today’s rallies show Sri Lankans are no better. Populism at its finest; but I do not think this was such a success, because there did not seem to be a message at all and MR just came and left and so did GR.

  • 2
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    Mervyn De Silva was a fascinating thinker. A prepossessing writer. I had the good fortune of knowing him. When I was a young reporter, he was my editor. He did not tell others how to live. He lived. I watched him live. I am glad that I did. I remember him.

  • 4
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    Compare Mervyn with Dayan Dayan has done well than the father. Mervyn was poor, always a journalist. Went by bus, drank in cheap bars, ate lunch packets. In contrast Dayan has a degree, writes better English than Mervyn, have a nice educated wife., became an ambassador. The negative is Dayan is hated by most people, Mervyn was hated by few because his Lanka Guardian was a UNP mouthpiece. Dayan was stripped naked at Kobbekaduwa funeral and attacked by mourners at Borella Kanaththa. The people’s hatred for him is so much.

  • 2
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    Mervyn Silva was somewhat a patriotic figure. Liked publicity but not so much as Dayan. Mervyn was a man who ate, drank and danced (note above he danced at Lord Nelson’s). Dayan’s patriotism is dubious. It was Dian who nutured and fed Vardharaja Perumal who later declared the Eelam.He now wants to give 13+.

    • 4
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      DJ is wrong when he says with his usual certainty :
      ” bearing the Lion flag and singing ‘Katyusha’ (the Soviet era tribute to the legendary rocket); shake hands with the guest of honor,”
      It was composed in 1938, before the Katyusha rockets appeared.
      From RT.com:
      ” Katyusha tells the story of a peasant girl who longs for her beloved, who is serving far away on the border. The song evokes three themes central to the Russian psyche: the loyal girl pining for her love, the heroic soldier and the Motherland.”

      • 4
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        old codger

        Thanks for being vigilant.
        Dayan has the tendency to slip things that he does not know anything about, drop names which has no relevance to the topic he is typing about, …………………………..

        Don’t you think this island still has fine people to represent this island beyond the shores of this country?

      • 1
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        Katushya…
        unfortunately a ” Katussa ” Chameleon ..is relating the story of Katushya…
        What a tragedy.. ….What an appropriate example…

  • 3
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    Dayan, I think that you shall stop writing not relevant matters and better write about your “karanam” as it seems that you are good as a Trapez Artist than any other.

  • 0
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    Russia has change since 1991 of CPSU was dissolved by Michal Gorabachove by policies of Petroskia and Gloasonates by fully restoration to Capitalism system of governance in the place of to replace Soviet Union as Russia Federation. That was jovially day for USA led hegemony back camp….1991. Gorachove become hero of USA and Western world including Japan.

    End of Soviet Union result has been having experiences in through out the world.
    It was so many set back to struggle of People of world . Recovered has not been seen time being . But current Russia Federation was borne out of 1917 Bolshevise Revolution, led by Lenin and Stalin it impact will remain in many years to come .
    In real political term of that system of Socialism of Soviet Union was decaling after death of Comrade Stalin in 1953. It was historical tragedy of People of Global revolution—-Socialism.
    In fact no force can destroy People Revolution by power of hegemonies political manipulation in White House politics of “DEMOCRCAY” , DJ was /is not Marxist like his father! He will enjoy life as Ambassador to that country . If Philip Gunawaradana , NM, Colvin, Leslie & Bernard of LSSP s can join Capitalist govt. what else that DJ being post of Ambassadors is nothing ?

  • 4
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    It is gal arrack that destroyed Mervyn De Silva, who was a ok journalist

    • 2
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      Hussain Al Shibrey – “It is gal arrack that destroyed Mervyn De Silva..”
      His son, Dayan De Silva, public racist #1 and warmonger has a penchant for Russian seafood. I hope it won’t destroy him!

  • 3
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    There is no way Mervyn got a 3rd class honours in Uni, our Unis do not offer 3rd class (never)

  • 2
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    It is sad all in the picture are now dead. The guy in the extreme left is late Charlie Abeysekera

    • 0
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      No it’s not, that’s Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyratna (Nissanka Wijeratnas son)

  • 4
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    Dayan now says Mervyn was a Royalist – who were his classmates Dayan. If he went to Uni how come he ended up with a 3rd class degree as Shoi Baba says our Unis do not offer them. Also Dayan says Mervyn was at Law College, who were his compatriots Dayan as my uncle was there too during that time.

    We are not polos buruwo.

  • 4
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    That CV Mervyn typed was bizzare. If that is his work they are not quality stuff. Very rudimenty, kindergarten CV

  • 3
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    Dayan Izeth is now dead. He is not available to verify. Give living people’s evidence to prove.

  • 2
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    Why I detest Dayan? As Shoi Baba correctly states he wants to give 13+. this is unacceptable. MR too wants to give 13+.

  • 2
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    Dyon of Sri Lankan journalism is late Sri DB Dhanapala.

    2nd Mahanama Dissanayake. 3rd Sri Chandrarathna Manawasinghe

    Of the English journalists the best is Sir ECB Wijesinghe. 2nd TMK Samat. 3rd Jayathilake Arachchige Mervyn De Silva

    Full stop.

  • 2
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    If Mervyn De Silva was called Andaya how come the same name was used at Royal, uni and work. Bit suspicious. Sarath De Alwis will vouch Mervyn was never called by that name (Andaya). I called him Mervin and he never told me about Andaya name. Instead of Wambeck Mervyn used to call me Wambat; I did not mind/

  • 2
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    This is a library photo,very valuable as this has never been published before. I hope it is not photoshopped. I think when this photo was taken (again if not photoshopped) Sirima’s civic rights had been abolished.

  • 4
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    Dayan grew up in the 70s, it was a harsh period for all. A journalist would earn pittance those days. I am glad despite his heavy drunkennes Mervyn still managed to well feed his family and give education to all kids. Hats off to Mervyn now dead.

  • 3
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    When I began gradually reading more serious English beyond novels in my A. Levels, most elders in my family — my father and elder brother and cousins –encouraged me to read Mervyn Silva and his Lanka Guardian. I recall that we even had a regular subscription in Jaffna.

    It is a pity that Dayan does not carry his great father’s name. As a result I realized his heritage rather late in life only when my wife whio knew him in university told me.

  • 4
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    Mervyn and I have been for drinking buddies for good 12+ years. We use to meet at Old Empire, Lord Nelson, National (all Fort), Du Roi (Borella), Perlin (Dehiwela), Nippon (Slave Island) and Shalimar (Maradana). Mervyn always paid for himself and never relied on others for a free drink.

    Mervyn was an excellent writer and big talker/story teller.

    Mervyn’s golden era is after he started the Lanka Guardian. He was very proud of it and it was like his too eyes. But unlike Dayan was not a king maker. Mervyn had a soft corner for Sirima and was dead scared of JR. He thought JR would appoint him to a top post in media. He cherrished a director post at Lake House. When MJ Perera was appointed as Rupavahini Director General Mervyn was sad. I think JR though Mervyn was a Sirima man.

    I do not think Mervyn is a Royal nor he attended university or law college. He came from mediocre family but he was very private about his childhood. What I gathered was that he had a difficult childhood and he came up on his own.

    I liked Mervyn a lot and it was a privilege to drink with him for so long.

    Mervyn liked me a lot. He is the only person who called me Wambat. I was a steno attached to Muller and Phillps for 35 years.

  • 3
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    chula menike,

    During haal pol, miris pol period we all suffered. I came from a hi fi family. So the De Silva suffering that time is no big news. I know they travelled by bus.

    Mervyn had a hard life but was a man of solid steel. The buggar learnt the trade of journalism well from hardcore jorunalists. He knew what he was doing and went ‘kade’ to politicians only to suit himself. But he was not corrupt. He maintained his principles. He never held a political appointment given to him on a plate though he would have gladly accepted like the son accepting the Russian post. Mervyn always travelled by bus and had an ordinary funeral. I salute the comrade, Mervyn De Silva. He did a yeomen service to journalism in Sri Lanka – English journalism.

  • 3
    1

    If Rathna Jeevan Hoole learnt English after reading Mervyn De Silva it is an insult to Mervyn De Silva. Not only Rathna Jeevan Hoole makes obvious grammar mistakes he does not know how to write to the point. Dayan is a Mervyn student and he writes well. Dayan is a pride to Mervyn.

  • 3
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    I am 84 now

  • 3
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    I think the golden era of Mervyn was between 1970 – 76 (in the 60s he was a ‘student’ learning the trade). True, Mervyn was very disheartned he was not offered a post by JR. The cunning fox JR knew Mervyn was never their ‘UNP’ man. Though initially Mervyn tried his best to win over JR by publishing pro open economy article he gave up because UNP did not give him paid advertisments to Lanka Guardian. Lanka Guradian had a natural death in the mid 80s. It was booming in the late 70s and early 80s. Now that name is owned by radical extremists who favour tamil separatism.

  • 1
    0

    Gee Mervyn De Silva could write

  • 2
    0

    the problem faced by Mervyn De Silva is that Sirima thought he was UNP and JR t. hought he was SLFP/leftist. NM never liked him. Poor De Silva ended up being a journalist with no high post ever held in his life.

    In that regard Dayan succeeded because MR is a generous man who lavishly treated anyone who helped him in a significant manner. Sira thinks Dayan intellectual becasue Sira studied only up to grade 8.

  • 0
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    Mano

    the man in the extreme right is late almon peiris (a premadasa protege)

  • 2
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    Luke (Visidagama)

    What a fantastic analysis. You are spot on mate.

  • 1
    1

    I am a body language expert. By distancing a bit from Mrs B Mervyn shows respect to her while leaning towards Lalith Athulathmudali he tries to show “I am with you Sir”.

  • 1
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    I think this photo incident was the produest ever moment of Mervyn’s life. I heard it is prominently displayed in his then home (now demolished)

  • 1
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    Mervyn always wrote by cial pen, he seldom used ballpoint pens. It is remarkable how he would have survived in this computer age if he were still living

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