Dr. U. Pethiyagoda
Had Lakshman Kadirgamar been allowed to live, he would today (12 April) have reached the age of 81 years. His brutal and cowardly murder by the LTTE on 12 August 2005 snuffed out his life and undid in seconds what 73 years had taken to achieve.
In our travails at Geneva, some mention of this tragedy may have helped to sway opinion in our favour. But this was not to be for reasons better known to our representatives.
Shortly after his assassination, many accolades were paid to this great son of Sri Lanka. His competence, patriotism, wisdom, oratorical skills, fairness, athletic prowess, charm and personality drew fulsome praise from all quarters. I believe that Lakshman in all his glory, reflects well in the many anecdotes relating to him and some of which I recall. Our association spread from being classmates and friends at Trinity from the time we were about 11 or 12 till his death. I trust that this brief recollection will show him as an exceptional human. Relying as I do on a dwindling memory, I can only try to be accurate and not be guilty of too much “poetic licence”!.
By tradition of our school, friends were known by modified surname than by first name. So he was neither Lakshman nor Kadir but Kadiri. A brain teaser code game grew. Those who were adroit were “Q on the U” (quick on the uptake) and the reverse were “S on the U”! By extension, Kadiri became “Lana Kana”, Singha Weerasekera “Seena Weeyanna”, the writer “Una Pena” etc. Childish but helped sharpen wits! The popular Samasamaja slogan of the time was “V to the P” (victory to the proletariat). Even as a stripling schoolboy, Kadiri’s demeanour, deportment, diction and poise earned him the epithet “P of P” (personification of personality)!
The reason for this became clear slightly later when some of us were privileged to visit 17, Queens Road, often to sit at family breakfast. Father SJC presided and as I recall, Sam J, his wife and rarely Rajan were there. The conversation was vibrant and the fare good but unostentatious. Kadiri had his own room with the walls lined with shelves carrying “The Legislative Enactments of Ceylon” and other serious tomes. Mid-morning, the faithful “Major Domo” – Raman would appear with “Little Master’s” mail and a ten-pack of “Capstan Navy Cut”, compliments of father, for him and friends! (Raman was a sprightly presence -gliding along in a spotless , starched white tunic, buttoned to the collar. To this day, he continues in the Kadirgamar household!) How could a guy fail to become “a personality” in such an environment?
I recall also a typical exchange between father and son. LK had returned to the Hostel after mid-term break. A correspondence somewhat as follows occurred:- ( Postcard) : Dear Lakshman, (1) Did you remove my alarm clock? (2)Why did you omit to tell me? (3) What happened to yours? (4) How now do you expect me to tell the time? – Love, Sam. Reply: Dear Dad, (1) Yes (2) I forgot (3) Mine broke (dropped) (4) Please buy yourself another. Lots of Love, Lakshman. Early signs of a good lawyer!
A group of us seniors shared a dinner table for about ten. Kadiri at the head (Senior Prefect!) It was usual schoolboy banter. Once I recall, a comparison of the virtues of “Science” against “Arts’. The sole advocate for the latter was LK. Easy victory for Science. After the triumph, one victor taunted “You see Kadiri, it is not every fool who can do Science”. The instant reply was “Yes, I quite see. It takes a choice one to do so!”
At the Prize Giving of 1949, with Bishop Lakdasa de Mel as Chief Guest, Senior Prefect and Ryde Gold Medallist Kadiri proposed the vote of thanks. Said he “All great things come in threes. The name of Trinity is one such. In that spirit Lord Bishop, I ask you, please make history by giving us three holidays instead of the usual one”. In his reply, the Bishop intoned “Your eloquent Senior Prefect asked for three holidays and three you shall have!” (Thunderous applause) Short pause and ” Monday” (applause) “Sunday and Saturday” (Loud sighs!). Caught out for once!
Few can forget the shining encounter with Zeinab Badawi on BBC “Hardtalk”. The interviewer, commenting on the alleged bombing by the SLAF of a church in the North sheltering children (LTTE child recruits it was claimed) exclaimed “But Mr Minister, even some Western journalists claimed that these were innocent children” Deflating response “Why “even”? I am not impressed!” There was that entertaining speech to our cricket team while transiting London. Many gems, of which one was “In cricket, if the umpire rules you out, you walk to the pavilion. In politics, you transfer the umpire!” Also, “Today I learned the truth that there is no such thing as a free lunch!”
At the Oxford Union unveiling of his portrait by Lord Chris Patten, he drew applause by his “Oxford was the icing on the cake. But the cake was baked at home!” Another memorable phrase was when he claimed of products of Trinity that they displayed “an innocent elitism”. Before a British Council Lecture by him I asked “What is to be your subject” He replied “Subject, I have not decided yet. But the object will soon become clear!” The speech was an early hint of entry into politics . When I later queried “Why do you want to plunge into that cesspit?” he replied “In my practice, I engage with miscreants of all types and I feel prepared”. Also, after a bruising and long drawn encounter with the Courts, I remarked “After my experience, of the Courts, the only emotion I can possibly entertain is contempt!. The Courts are not dispensing Justice, they are merely selling Law”. I should have expected his response “My dear man, whatever gave you the notion that the function of the Courts is to dispense Justice?”
When the writer was picked to be Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Rome, there were many hopeful aspirants all out to edge him out. All stops were fair game. One solicitously inquired from LK ” Is P a Roman Catholic?’ and earned a classic reply “You know,” he said, “there are 55 million Catholics in Italy. What is the fun in my sending one more!”. End of project! Incidentally, when I asked him when chosen, “Why me?” He replied, “I can give you many good reasons , but just one will suffice. Because you never asked!”.
Anura Bandaranaike had criticised LK in Parliament (in his absence as it so happened) . Later he suffered a bruising response. While thanking him for his “tennis ball bouncers”, please remember he said, ” I was accustomed to facing fierce fast bowlers, with the real leather ball, without helmet or thigh pad!”
Of course Kadirgamar had his detractors – as every politician must. Of others, I do not know, but a celebrated case where he was accused of enmity and jealousy towards a colleague, was a matter on which I could confront him. Whether it was skilled advocacy or candid revelation of circumstances, I must confess to being well convinced. Our chat also revealed another facet of LK as an accomplished “Team Man”. He was clearly prepared to take the rap on behalf of another!
So, eight years ago departed this exemplary son of Lanka. Many instances have sorely missed his suave, polished and winning presence. Much felt in our recent Geneva battle.
His statue must surely be smiling to itself as it languishes in a box at the institution, which however is not shy to blandish his illustrious name!