Not being Mark Anthony nor having anything like Shakespeare’s capability to articulate, it still seems opportune to remember if not a Julius, a Junius, from the images I gained of him. He, Junius Richard Jayewardene first elected head of state in our Island’s history once told me “Prasanna, think in terms of decades”. It is therefore right to think of him well after a decade of his passing on.
I first saw J.R. in person on my return from my schooling and training in Europe to join the first five-star Hotel in Ceylon, Pegasus Reef Hotel. My father drove me to ‘Bremar’ in Ward Place. Serenity and calm prevailed, a pony cropped the lawn and the enclosed veranda left lasting impressions of a beautiful Dutch chest and ‘Golu lamp’. J.R. himself in trousers and bush-shirt, was a bit awe-inspiring, somewhat kind but not effusive, seeing him only an obligation imposed by my father, a distant relative and junior at school of J.R.’s.
"His concentration on what was being told to him was complete. However, mundane the matter he always listened, nothing distracted him. I realised this was a great courtesy he paid to the person talking"
Dudley Senanayake had passed away and J.R. was finally the leader of the U.N.P, a broken and rudderless party at the time. I decided to see him and discuss matters. Srimani Athulathmudali’s father Fredrick De Saram, J.R.’s first cousin who was married to my father’s sister Ivy responded to my plea and called J.R. to reintroduce me to him for an appointment. As it was the way of J.R. he asked me to come at once to ‘Bremar’.
The serenity of his house and his very calm demeanor put me very much at ease. He was an extension of my father, a big man, very self confident and capable of being blunt. I later realised he also had the capability and interest to listen, as long as what was said was in good faith and not idle prattle. This was to be the first of many meetings, before, during and after he was Prime Minister and President.
I joined the United National Party (UNP) as a card-carrying member and engaged in party activities principally in Negombo where Denzil Fernando the sitting MP was a good, simple honest man, later to become a Minister in J.R’s cabinet. I subscribed to the UNP paper ‘The Journal’ and got involved with party stalwarts in Negombo at the time like R.I. Fernandopulle, Reggie Silva etc. The party organisation was being streamlined and J.R. at the helm was an absolute leader.
He was never short of time to see me and the more I met and understood of him the more I began to respect him. What I learned from him was immeasurable, not so much about politics but of life and what our contribution should be. He opened my eyes and heart to my country and my people in real terms. He was dismissive of the English-speaking who wished for privilege, as to date with no commitment or real contribution to the people mostly criticism couched in small talk.
His extreme honesty was brought home to me when he once asked me if I was interested in politics. My answer yes was met with “do you have a lot of money” my answer ‘no’ met with “then forget about doing politics”. All the times I visited ‘Bremar’ the house remained the same - nothing new or opulent, temporary garages and the black German Shepherd possibly a sniffer dog, together with security, added when he became President.
"Democracy was at his core. When the party was gaining strength and I suggested a shadow cabinet his answer was “first priority get elections, then win elections. Then only does a cabinet come into being”. "
Democracy was at his core. When the party was gaining strength and I suggested a shadow cabinet his answer was “first priority get elections, (Mrs Bandaranaike had extended the term of her government) then win elections”. “Then only does a cabinet come into being”. To the question “what do we do if we lose” his answer “go home of course, what else”.
While his ‘Satyagraha’ campaign of non-violence was going on and on and I impatiently said we need real action not sitting on the roadside with outdated policy of another era of Mahathma Gandhi. He only smiled. When exasperated by lack of tangible support by UNP stalwarts of the past he said “our people are afraid to even come and see me” and I replied “I come.” His candid reply: “you have nothing the government can take even the car you come in is not yours, it belongs to the company you work for”.
His candour always impressed me as much as his capacity to absorb any criticism I made. He would listen with total concentration. About six months after his coming to power when I criticised the lack of governance and especially lack of tangible results he listened and at the end gently mentioned a hotel which needed to be upgraded and how long it would take. Being a hotel manager I asked him how the finances were, staff, state of building etc. his answer was that all were in bad shape but how long it would take to put it right. My answer - it cannot be done in a short time drew the response “then how long do you think it takes to put a whole country right?” I also found his concentration on what was being told to him was complete. However, mundane the matter he always listened, nothing distracted him. I realised this was a great courtesy he paid to the person talking. He was also never late or missed an appointment another great courtesy. I learned much from this great man of great humility.
Though his bearing and manner can be what is now described as Presidential, he was humble in his being. Once having given me a very intellectual discourse he said “the older generation’s education was better”. I instantly agreed and said “of course sir your generation knows much more than mine” he quickly corrected me and said “no I meant my father’s generation was more educated than mine”. Another time after he had finished his term as President my wife, children and I having had tea with him at ‘Bremar’ left and he walked us to the front door. My son an observant teenager noticed that as he could not get his slippers on in time he walked barefoot to his front door.
His great desire was to be a good Buddhist, as such, a good man. As a Christian I was encouraged by his example to learn what I could about the ways of Buddhism by his approach. He termed the Buddha ‘India’s greatest son’ I realise this to be an indisputable fact.
While I can go on and on about J.R. who to me was in the terms the Indians use for their politicians the tallest of the tall statesman, he most importantly loved this land and his people passionately. Now while he looks down from Mount Olympus or Valhalla or even Xanadu sitting with the Scholar Emperor Marcus Aurelius or Abraham Lincoln or even Kublai Khan, like the latter he can be proud of where his country and nation are going.
My take is that the course being charted by this present successor to the Presidency Mahinda Rajapaksa would meet with his approval - his vision and dream being carried forward for Sri Lanka, to retake its place at the very top of all nations.