Even a cursory look at Ruana Rajapakse’s life and work reveals an extraordinarily ambitious and accomplished woman: a Supreme Court Attorney and a playwright; a newspaper columnist and an environmentalist; a novelist and a legal advocate.
Ruana hailed from a family with strong ties to the legal profession, politics and foreign affairs, and the arts. Her great-grandfather was Sir Francis de Zoysa, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon who was later appointed a King’s Counsel. Her grand uncles included Stanley de Zoysa, the former Finance Minister, A.C. ‘Bunty’ de Zoysa, a President’s Counsel and Lucien de Zoysa, a pioneer of English theatre in Colombo. Her father, Jayanath Rajapakse, was a member of the foreign service and thus her childhood was spent in far-flung corners of the world, from Russia to Canada, where she was exposed to multiple languages, cultures and social systems.
Upon returning to Sri Lanka at the age of ten, she spent a good deal of time with her extended family, which included Richard de Zoysa, the renowned actor, playwright, poet and journalist who was assassinated during the second JVP insurrection in 1990. These were no ordinary family gatherings—under Richard’s guidance, assorted members of the de Zoysa clan staged numerous plays well before their teenage years. Many who were involved in these homegrown yet highly elaborate productions remained involved in the theatre scene for years afterwards.
Perhaps due to these varied and powerful influences, Ruana was not content to merely follow a mid-level career in her chosen profession. As a Barrister, she served on a Presidential Task Force on Child Abuse, and wrote a weekly column for the Island Newspaper entitled Legal Watch. She authored two professional volumes on constitutional and legal issues in Sri Lanka.
Determined to seek new avenues of creative expression, she also wrote and produced two plays: a “Colombo” version of R. B. Sheridan’s School for Scandal and the one-act play All In A Day’s Work. A deep curiosity about Sri Lankan history later fueled her foray into novel-writing, and in 2008 she published her first and only work of fiction entitled Garland of Fate, inspired by a Jataka story set in 510 BC.
She was a very private person and did not often speak openly about herself, but anyone who interacted with her, whether in a personal or professional capacity, immediately recognised her tendency for hard work, her dedication to immaculate scholarship and her respect for learning. She was articulate and passionate about a number of issues, and was a member of the Sri Lanka chapter of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law. She was an outspoken critic of the Urban Development Authority’s attempts to hand over the Galle Face Green to a private company in the early 2000s for the purpose of building up an amusement park on the waterfront. When a public-interest environmental organisation took up the case, she represented them at the Supreme Court, according to the Access Initiative. The Court annulled the agreement between the Urban Development Authority and the private company, ruling that the UDA did not have the power to hand over the Green, which had been “dedicated to the public by an order of the Colonial British Government in 1856.”
In a tragic turn of events, Ruana spent her last years on this earth in poor health. She died alone on July 26, and her funeral was conducted without the knowledge of her extended family or colleagues. We hope this belated obituary offers a glimpse into her rich and full life. Though her final years were spent in isolation and obscurity, she will be remembered for her fine contributions to the fields of law and letters in Sri Lanka.
May she rest in peace.