19 November, 2019

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Richard de Zoysa & The Limits Of Love

By Rajiva Wijesinha

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

I was deeply saddened earlier this month to hear of the death of the marvelous Engish actress Geraldine McEwan. I had got to know her 30 years earlier, shortly after I joined the British Council, when she toured Sri Lanka with her one-woman Jane Austen show.

I had been determined to take the tour all over the country, but by then we were advised not to go to Jaffna. So we went instead to Batticaloa, where we found a most appreciative audience. Geraldine also had what was for her a first time experience, in that bats swooped in and out of the hall during the performance.

But she, and her Stage Manager Catherine Bailey, were infinitely adaptable, and said they had enjoyed the tour thoroughly. After the Batticaloa performance, we had a cyclone scare, and had to leave Passekudah, where we were staying, before dawn broke.

That should have been the high point of the tour, but what Geraldine and Catherine remembered most vividly, during our long friendship over the next three decades, was the previous night. After a performance at Peradeniya in collaboration with the university, Richard de Zoysa turned up at the Citadel, and we had a lively dinner which went on into the early hours.

Richard de ZoysaRichard was a fantastic companion in any context, and he struck exactly the right note for Geraldine and Catherine who had a deep sense of social commitment. They would ask after him often in the years that followed, and were profoundly upset when he was murdered, 25 years ago. The fact that it was because of his passion for social justice added to the poignancy of his death, for them, as it should for all of us.

All this came back to me in reflecting on the fact that the JVP seems to be gaining ground now, with much confusion in government about its programme of action. I still believe that there is a fundamental commitment to the reforms we have promised, but we do not seem to understand the need for systems based on principles. It is immensely depressing that so many politicians still think that we are in office to cater to the needs, and even the desires, of our party faithfuls. If we go on like this, we shall sow the seeds for yet more violent reactions, and this time, with the increased sophistication of the instruments at the disposal of all elements in society, there will be greater and more sustained tensions and suffering.

We need then to concentrate on both Rights and Reconciliation. It is the carelessness and callousness that seem endemic in government systems that the Northern terrorist movements as well as the JVP capitalized on previously. Our faiure to make it clear that students are the central feature in our education system has made the universities fertile recruiting grounds for dogmatic opposition to the state, and I find it difficult to blame the students when I see how little is being done to solve simple problems swiftly.

It was his continuing commitment to the emotions of his youth, and his feeling for the underdog, that made Richard so sympathetic towards the JVP in the last few years of his life. His social commitment did not justify his abduction and execution, but it is time now to review the path he took in an effort to learn lessons about why and how an establishmentarian view of politics can provoke dissent that can turn violent. Unlike Richard I still believe violence is unacceptable, but I do recognize that the disempowered would not agree when all the might of society and the state is used to deprive them of the opportunities they so desperately need.

Richard’s boys, whom he trained in drama and self expression, at workshops at the university and the British Council, also taught him a lot. One moment that stands out in my memory is when he explained why the brightest of them did not want to join the Cultural Affairs Trainee programme I had started at the British Council. Initially we had had students from relatively privileged backgrounds, and they have certainly justified our faith in them, going on for instance to head English and other Departments in Colombo and Sri Jayewardenepura and Moratuwa (all my Cats are Swans, I would say, in a phrase I do not suppose many of our target group understood).

Richard’s protégé turned down the offer, he said, because he thought working at the Council would remove him from his roots. That boy had starred in some of the radical workshop theatre we had put on at the Council, with the guidance of Scott Richards, one of the other long terms friends I had made through his work with the Council. Madura had been fantastic in a skit which parodied the then President driving his Ministers like cattle, and for years afterwards my father whould recall his performance.

It was Madura who was arrested some months later, officially released, and then abducted. In such cases, our Liberal Party Provincial Councillor Gamini Guneratne (who had done much to help Richard trace the boy initially), they would almost certainly have been disposed of. He told me I should warn Richard to be careful, and I soon enough found that Richard was aware of the danger. He spent several nights at home when he thought things were getting too hot (including on the night of the last performane he did for us at the Council, readings from Browning, when he saw someone in the audience who clearly had no idea who Browning was).

So many memories, all full of incredible warmth and also a wonderfully whimsical view of the world, that he maintained even in those last few worrying months. He was also an enormous resource for me in that, while he appreciated my strengths, and was always willing to help in the various projects I devised, he knew too to advise with regard to the haste with which I always wanted to act, and the range of activities I undertook. I still remember him telling me not to be too hard on a particular student when I was trying to reintroduce at S. Thomas’ the discipline that had deteriorated so badly, and I have often regretted over the years that I was not more sympathetic, indeed indulgent, to the boy in question.

I tried to capture something of our relationship in ‘The Limits of Love’, the last novel in my Terrorist Trilogy, the first of which has been revived on Sundays in Ceylon Today. Ironically that book ended with the narrator, called Rajiva and to a great extent based on myself, ending up as Minister of Education. But this was after the Richard figure, called Richard, had been killed.

Some years back Scott made a film called ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’, about his death. Recently I was approached by Swarna Mallawaarachchi about a film about his life. She was going to play his mother, a woman of great integrity and determination, who fought for justice against heavy odds. The struggle was too much for her, and in time her mind gave way, but even the last time I saw her, at the home where she spent her last days, the warmth and the charm that Richard inherited came through.

I hope the film is made for, as Anne Ranasinghe puts it so forcefully in her memories of those who have died as victims of intolerance, it is evil to forget.

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Latest comments

  • 14
    0

    Next to Jesus Christ himself, Richard came back from the dead. His killers walk the streets freely. Our culture of impunity goes back, way back. Perhaps we should start being proud of it, why bother protesting. Tell the UN, shut up, this is how we do things. Our Glorious History, No ?

    • 1
      0

      UN Got to shut up only when it comes to Tamils.

    • 2
      0

      vishvajith,

      I could not have said it any better.

      Yes we are a people who are so base we have no hope in hell in redemption. Rajiva’s fine words are just fine words only. Even Buddhas fine thoughs have done bugger all for this bugger of a country.

      • 2
        0

        Thanks for your response BBS Rep. Gosh! how much Rajiva white washed, the white van era, with all his fine words.

    • 1
      0

      Yes Vishwajith, it seems very much so.

      Anyone clamouring too much for social justice is raising his hand and asking for it.

      Some Order; some Values. Some History!!

      • 0
        0

        Thanks for your response J&F.

    • 2
      0

      And, what does that ‘No’ stand for in your exit?

      • 0
        0

        What do you think Mon Ami ?

        • 1
          0

          Supposedly, he aught to mean “Vous êtes un âne….”.

  • 1
    0

    Rajiva, I often read you for your English — its subtleties and nuances. Thank you.

    This time I am stumped by your phrase “all my Cats are Swans, I would say, in a phrase I do not suppose many of our target group understood.”

    Nor I. Google also has nothing to say. Please clarify for us ordinary folk.

    • 1
      0

      Think he means that all the Cultural Affairs Trainees CATs were swans (privileged kids) and not “ugly ducklings”? Rajiva am I in the ballpark?

  • 4
    0

    My encounters with Richard was very limited. Last time I heard him was after a drama Festival at Peradeniya and then at Center for Society and Religion. I learned a lot from him. What really makes me angry is that some of his friends and admirers who were part of the previous regime failed to put pressure on the regime to find his killers (as well as killers of others). Shouldn’t we need to earn the right to memorialize our fallen comrades?

    Cheers
    Jude

  • 0
    0

    A State Minister who has MUCH TIME in his hands to write crap on CT like DJ… Stop showing off that ur educated and have traveled widely… Empty vessels make the most noise…

    GET YOUR ASS TO WORK for the money WE the citizen of SL pay YOU.. Get ur act together or else u would not have 500 votes at the next election, but only way u could be an MP is by SELECTION.

  • 0
    0

    and who killed Richard..are we ready for truth and reconciliation on that? or is that piece of truth too is inconvenient, especially now? or shall we all move on? Over to you Dr. Wijesinghe.

  • 4
    0

    The law of Sri Lanka requires the killing of every person to be dealt with by a coroner, recorded and dealt with as he recommends. We simply have to return to those days when this was unfailingly done. Accountability for all killings including those who were killed during the JVP uprisings is necessary to achieve this. This is why the UN process must be given all assistance. People like Rajapakses seek to escape it by stirring up nationalistic sentiments when what the nation needs is the restoration of the rule of law.

    • 4
      0

      “The law of Sri Lanka requires the killing of every person to be dealt with by a coroner, recorded and dealt with as he recommends.”

      Punnakku,

      Do you mean to say the Coroner deals in the killing of the killed, and recommends the records to deal with the killing?

  • 1
    1

    Think he means that all the Cultural Affairs Trainees CATs were swans (privileged kids) and not “ugly ducklings”?

    Rajiva am I in the ballpark?

    • 3
      0

      No, you barked over a pall on your coffin.

  • 1
    0

    Prof
    “Northern terrorist movements as well as the JVP capitalized “

    Why did not you say LTTE, EPDP… instead of “terrorist”

    “We need then to concentrate on both Rights and Reconciliation”

  • 2
    0

    Dear Dr. Rajiva,

    “Unlike Richard I still believe violence is unacceptable”

    Is your comment to imply that to be sympathetic toward a philosophy is to accept the methodology of all those that follow that philosophy and are you aware that you have accused Richard De Zoysa as being violent. In which case all leftist in Sri Lanka should be Violent according to you.

    What a way to remember a person

  • 0
    0

    Visvajith.

    Frankly,I am still unable to figure out how Rajiva could have travelled for so long in the Rajapakse caravan.Jane Austen on one side and holding a brief for Gota on the other.He has reached Whuthering heights!

  • 1
    0

    Plate O, it should be pronounced ‘Withering Hites’.

  • 1
    0

    Richard was a fantastic companion in any context, 
    We know what you mean!!!

  • 0
    0

    Bessemer.

    It should read as Wuthering heights.But in terms of Phonetics it should be Withering Hites.Agreed.

    Apart from the niceties is Rajiva flying Kites?

    • 1
      0

      So, what can be the meaning of ‘Withering Hites’, did you ever guess what Henry Bessemer wrote?

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