By Hafeel Farisz –
I’m almost certain that he would have disapproved of anyone doing this- writing an ‘appreciation’ of any sort would not have gone down well with him. “What bloody nonsense is this?” would have been his way of showing disapproval- if only he were around.
But, pen down I must, about the great man I knew. First my source, then advisor, then mentor, and most importantly my friend, and finally, my senior lawyer, exactly in that order, S.L. Gunasekara was a man beyond the ordinary. I’m sure many who have had the good fortune of knowing him and associating with him for a far longer period than I did would certainly provide better testimonies of his life and times, but I could not help myself, for here was a man who lived and laughed like a champion would. It’s an irresistible urge of some sort to tell the world that I knew him, and how proud I am to have been his pupil.
When I first called him, to get information about a case he was appearing in, namely the murder of the five students in Trincomalee, a sense of caution enveloped me. It was only fair, because what I had heard and read about the man throughout the years did not bode well for me, one from the ‘minority’. As I introduced myself I didn’t even sense a flicker of hesitation in him providing me with every ounce of information that a young journalist required to compile a story. That I was a journalist who was also studying law and knew neither why the case was still being heard at the Magistrates court nor the difference between summary procedure and non-summary procedure, was not good enough reason to ignore my calls thereafter.
There was never a moment of “You should know better- what a silly question to have asked me” sort of tone or tenor in that booming voice – a trait that stood firm throughout the period I knew him. Never once was he too busy to explain. Never once too knowledgeable to argue and listen. Never once too proud to acknowledge “Yes, you have got a point there men”. Never once too great to say ‘What the hell do you know, I’ve lived much longer than you and I know these things’. Never once too egoistic to make anyone else feel small in his presence, quite a large one at that in both appearance and persona. If the appreciation is a bit too ‘familiar’, it is intended, because he was in fact ‘familiar’ than many to most of us.
It was during the interview, which was headlined “No man with integrity will accept the post of CJ” that I finally met him in person. Both he and Mr. C.R. De Silva, PC – the former Attorney General – were my sources and advisors on everything legal, albeit over the phone, each time my Editors wanted a legal story confirmed. My Editors lived, and continue to live, in a sort of fantasy in thinking that I would be the one to know these things, leaving me with the only option of calling either Mr. Gunasekara or Mr. De Silva to find out the legal perspective of a report or a story. It was only poetic that among the rare funerals that SL did attend was that of CR’s, and, if I’m not mistaken, that was to be the last funeral he went for, before his own.
“I hate bloody weddings and funerals” he’d say.“Why weddings,Sir?” I’d ask naturally.“Small talk no men, I can’t be bothered saying hi to every bugger who walks by and to every other person I don’t like” SL quipped. “Not like the dead man is going to stand up just because I walk in” was his standard defense for not attending funerals. This was, of course, before I got my hands on one his books “The Lore of Law and Other Memories” where he details his resentment of attending funerals. For me hearing this for the first time at his chamber was a revelation of some sort. Because it was the truth, and here was a man who always gave you the truth devoid of political correctness and niceties.
During that interview at a time when he took a dogged and uncompromising stand against the illegal impeachment of the former Chief Justice, the very Judge whose appointment he had once fought against, he said that he would never appear before any person who accepts the post. The cynic in me took the better of me, not knowing the value of “SL” and his word. So I asked him if this was only a political statement and if,when calm prevails,he would eat his own words? He was steadfast. He said he would not, which I promptly penned down for the newspapers. And he did not. Every case brief that was to be heard before the Chief Justice, was returned either to a junior lawyer or to theclient. Each date the Chief Justice sat, he would not attend that particular court and the only occasion I believe he was in court before the Chief Justice was when my colleague Ashan took oaths. I was seated next to him and we both chuckled at the prospect of him being noticed among the large crowd that participated in the ceremony that day.
A conversation with a senior lawyer who knew SL for over two decades -one of his trusted lieutenants Mr. Nagalingam Sivendran -will suffice to put an end to this nonsense of SL’s perceived “racism”. Never once was he racist. Over the many conversations I have had with him I have known him only to be a nationalist, and an uncompromising one at that, but never once a racist in even a remote sense of that term and its connotations. “He was only against the LTTE, but never against the Tamil people”, the senior lawyer, a Tamil himself was to tell me. SL has recalled many a time about the riots of 1956 and 1983 and each time he recalled these events there would be remorse and anger both found in the same tone. “I don’t believe that one race dominates another or is more privileged than another.That’s utter bloody cock!” he told me once, when my curiosity got the better of me. I had to ask him, even though I knew very well what he believed in and what he did not. I just had to hear it from him and I couldn’t be happier that I did.
An atheist to the core, not for him were the lectures on virtues and vices. He was a man true to himself and that was all that mattered to him. “The Doctor told me to stop drinking men, that’s none of their bloody business” he said the moment he got back from a brief stay in hospital. I later read in the same book about his memories of how he fell foul with faith, and it was most certainly for good reason.
I found my “feet” with him when, not so long ago, we had a matter at the Press Council where there was a complaint against an article I wrote and another from the same complainant against an article published in another newspaper. SL was my senior by that time, and, naturally, he was my chosen legal representative. My good friend Malinda Seneviratne the editor of The Nation walked in to the Press Council without a care in the world and obviously without legal representation. Having introduced the two who knew each other only by reputation, the prospect of me appearing for Malinda emerged. I consulted ’SL’ as the sittings were about to commence. “Yes, of course, take the fellow (the complainant) on” he told me, this barely a few weeks after being called to the Bar as a lawyer. Naturally, I was apprehensive and I’m sure it showed, for I did not know a thing about law or the lore of it. Once his submissions were over ‘SL’ walked out, and the case I was appearing in was called. Just as my appearance was marked, I could hear a booming voice from behind me and together with the Commissioners I looked behind. “Sir, I want to have a word with my junior” he said, and the request was granted. I walked out only to hear him say something about an “act” and handover some books to me. “Good luck son” and he walked out, leaving me to take it from there. Later that evening, following the hearing I went to his residence located within walking distance of the Press Council. I was irritated that he didn’tstay till I made my submissions. I inquired from him as to why he disappeared, and he smiled.Having inquired from me what took place, he said “I want my juniors to swim on their own, not for them to know that I’m watching over their bloody shoulders all the time!”little did I realize the effect or impact of that ‘intervention’ until it was reminisced. Looking back, every conversation and every moment spent can be documented with a lesson in the Law and in life – they were such enriching experiences.
The many “arguments” on his politics and policies and principles have never once been mundane. Even during the last weeks leading up to his accident, there were many times that I expressed my disagreement to some point that he stood by, even if it were only to ensure that he kept talking. It was such a wholesome experience, the rawness in his statements and conduct was so overwhelming that I doubt I will ever come across a giant of a man like him. I say “arguments” because there was never a conversation during which I felt compelled to be the obedient junior and listen to him.
I believe that was how he was with everyone, open to any form of criticism or critique, he would go on his rants while we went on with ours. During one such conversation, out of the blue, he said “I want to bloody conk off men”, I knew what he was alluding to, and I asked him why he said what he said “I have done everything that I have to do, now what’s the use of an older codger like me. The Kanaththe is also next door no” and we laughed. Once during a consultation with a client who was very much in the news at the time, a conversation about gambling arose. “ I’ve never gambled in my life and the only gamble I took was getting married. The damn thing paid off” he said in the presence of all of us. Behind the lion of a man was a devoted family man to whom, I later learnt, Aunty Nimal was a partner, a companion and most importantly a lifelong friend.
His passion to see me succeed in my applications for my higher studies and pursue it was on par with that of a parent. Having heard of him throughout my teen years and beyond, and later knowing the man as I now did, among my most treasured possessions today are his ‘recommendations’ which he wrote for me, for he was not the sort to appease or pacify anyone.
I’m sure the many thousands who knew him would give the reader a much wider and more illustrative account of the man. But this is about the “SL I knew”. The ‘SL’ who made me feel like we were on equal terms, on an equal footing. An advisor, mentor and father at times, a friend and inspiration at others, but my hero for all times. He lived in peace with himself and therefore there is no real need to hope or pray that he does so in death forhe most certainly will be at peace, having a merry time with the angels that be, if he finds them. Goodbye Sir, farewell Champion !
*Today marks the first death anniversary of senior Lawyer S.L Gunasekara.