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Mervyn de silva prophet and jester

05 Sep 2014 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Friday (Sept 5) was the 85th birth anniversary of Mervyn De Silva, doyen of journalism in Sri Lanka. In this article published in the Sunday Observer on June 27, 1999 late editor Ajith Samaranayake pays a glowing tribute to his mentor.

The passing of Mervyn de Silva, the pontiff of Sri Lanka’s journalism, was redolent of an epoch. Mervyn straddled several eras of Sri Lanka’s journalistic and political life, moved with several generations and was the most perceptive and witty commentator both of the high points as well as the idiocies of the passing scene. Intellectual journalist, foreign affairs commentator, acerbic columnist and flamboyant club man, he personified the times.

Mervyn came to journalism in the early 1950s when the UNP dominated the political scene. However, his early concerns were literary and artistic as befitting a product of the Ceylon University’s English Department. Not that Mervyn ever conformed to the staid and prissy values of the groves of academe. But as a young man he was excited by the literary talents of the West and wrote a series of articles to The Observer on contemporary writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was surprised years later to get a cuttings book of these articles from Richard de Silva, then an Island colleague, now working in the Daily News. Richard who was from Kandy was then boarded in Colombo during the week and he told me that his boarding mistress’s late husband had cut and pasted them!

"Mervyn’s crowning achievement was without doubt the Lanka Guardian which he edited to the last. It was all the more creditable for here was the editor of a mainstream newspaper, a journalist who had always known only the comforts of the ‘Beira Gedera’ (as the Left called it then) and briefly The Times, setting out on his own to launch a ‘little journal’. But I believe the best of Mervyn came out then when he cocked a snook at everybody"

Mervyn was also a fine film critic then. Those were the days when cinema dominated urban middle class life, long before television. The images on the screen and the larger-than-life heroes had an ineluctable pull on the imagination. Anton Weerasinghe who retired as Chief Sub Editor of The Island recalls Mervyn standing alone at the old Atlanta club, drink in hand and puffing a cigarette, somewhat in the cast of one of these melancholy film heroes.

Crowning Achievement

In time he graduated to be parliamentary sketch writer of The Observer at a time when no by-lines were given. It was, however, after Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike’s MEP Government came into power that Mervyn found his métier as a foreign affairs analyst, his forte till the last. Nimal Karunatilleke, that amazing dynamo who combined politics and journalism with much else and whose triumph at Matale heralded the 1956 avalanche, took Mervyn to meet Bandaranaike. The foreign affairs commentary on the then Radio Ceylon was then still being handled by an Englishman and Bandaranaike was unhappy about its right-wing slant. Mervyn used to recall Bandaranaike rifling through his bookshelves and giving him a book, saying in characteristic language,“Read this, young man”. Thus was launched a career which made Mervyn roam the capitals of the world meeting political chieftains, Generalissimos, freedom fighters and eggheads including Abu Nidal, the notorious terrorist of Western demonology. That interview and another with Mahattaya, the LTTE’s number two then, gave him a peculiar insight into what is known by the generic term of terrorism.

Mervyn’s unique achievement was working at the Daily News which he took over in 1970. By that time he had moved with the likes of Tarzie Vittachchi, Denzil Peiris and Ernest Corea who had all been Lake House editors but had never got the chance of joining their ranks. However, in 1970 he made the Daily News not only a newspaper of record (its traditional role) but also a lively forum for the exchange of intellectual opinion. On any given day you could expect to see Regi Siriwardena arguing with Fred de Silva and Fred de Silva with S.Pathiravitana -- that is when the editor himself was not poking fun at somebody or puncturing somebody’s pretensions.  The most scintillating such encounter took place between the Editor and his old Royal College guru Reggie Siriwardena. Mervyn had written a piece on the death of Ezra Pound saying that he was a poet they had read as undergraduates “on our knees”. Regi, who by that time had grown disillusioned with the old English Masters, rebuked his pupil, drawing his attention to the riches of the European and Russian tradition with special emphasis on Anna Akhmatova, one of his icons then. The debate which ensued came to a close only when the pupil reluctantly using his editorial discretion and called ‘finis.’

However, Mervyn’s crowning achievement was without doubt the Lanka Guardian which he edited to the last. It was all the more creditable for here was the editor of a mainstream newspaper, a journalist who had always known only the comforts of the ‘Beira Gedera’ (as the Left called it then) and briefly The Times, setting out on his own to launch a ‘little journal’. But I believe the best of Mervyn came out then when he cocked a snook at everybody.

Those were heady days. Jayantha Somasunderam lent part of his firm Robert Agencies for the offices of the new journal. He himself functioned as Business manager apart from contributing. (Jayantha was an old Nation hand.) Gamini Dissanayake, whose appearance at Mervyn’s funeral was poignant since he was on holiday from Canada, was Circulation Manager, and everybody in town wrote for the LG. The original core contributors were S.Pathiravithana and Regi Siriwardena and later Nihal Ratnaike with Hugh Abeyratne as the Chief Sub Editor. It was printed at Ananda Press owned by the late S.Shirathanantha, a one time ace political correspondent of the Daily News.

Point to Counterpoint: The Enigma

The life of Mervyn de Silva, then, had passed from point to counterpoint. Mervyn, the Lake House editor and director ended life as the editor of a little but hugely respected journal both at home and abroad. The boy from Wattegama, who moved from Dharmaraja College, Kandy, to Royal College, Colombo and moved among the good and the great yet yearned for his roots. Unlike Tarzie Vittachchi and Denzil Pieris he never left Sri Lanka although he could well have afforded to make his name in the intellectual capitals of the world. Was that another sign that Mervyn did not want to forsake his roots although he had moved far from them as part of the Anglicized urban elite of Colombo? The questions will remain and I can imagine Mervyn chuckling delightedly at the enigma he had left behind.

However, some things are certain. The liberal humanist values he imbibed from his Royal College teachers Dickie Attygalle and Regi Siriwardena survived, reinforced by the values of Ludowyke in paradisiacal Peradeniya. Undergraduate irreverence combined with the moral seriousness of later life to produce his immemorial prose. He was both prophet and jester, Kautilya (one of his pen-names) and Andare. Parodist, limerick writer, political commentator and public speaker, he still kept us guessing. He dressed immaculately but yet travelled by taxi or later by three-wheeler. He patronized the most exclusive clubs of Colombo, yet I remember a lunch the two of us had with the late Dharmapala Wettasinghe, editor of the Dinamina at Somagiri hotel, one of the buth kades down Hospital Street, now sadly extinct.
Who then was Mervyn de Silva? The riddle will endure. The only clues I can offer are his choice of ‘Outsider’ for one of his pen-names, and his fascination with Jay Gatsby, Kafka and Scott Fitzgerald. Having been a great fan of John Le Carre, however, I know that Mervyn will understand the allusion from those Elysian Fields.