By Ahmed A. Jawad
High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Canada
I had just arrived on a sunny, hot Parisian afternoon on posting at our Embassy in May 1995. “Good afternoon, call me Lester,” he said rather casually in response to my “good afternoon, nice to meet you, Dr. Peries.” I had never met the legend before and only read about his exploits in the media. Having Leonard Woolf’s ‘The Village in the Jungle’ as a text for the Advanced Level, our English Literature teacher insisted that we see ‘Baddegama’.
Over the next few years, it was a privilege to closely associate with the great man and listen to his unconventional views on matters ranging from French culture, history, cuisine and Left Bank politics among a host of other matters. He had a critical eye, seeing something special in ordinary things and something unique in extraordinary things. Everyday life was a reel of sorts where there was something worthy of a deeper look. One felt that he was observing everything around intensely as if looking through the camera; the rather thick pair of spectacle lenses adding to the aura of seriousness.
LJP’s clothes were wonderfully dapper with a bohemian sense of colour. He had an amazingly steady fist, despite being over three score and ten at the time, writing all his letters and notes by hand. That extra ordinary neatness extended to how he would cradle and imbibe a glass of whisky ‘on the rocks’ precisely at 7.00 pm., in the drawing room of the Official Residence, a full half hour before dinner. This drill had apparently continued until, as he told me, at our last meeting in 2015, a sudden “distaste for the practice” had made him give it up some years ago. There was no trace of joy or sadness as he said so. In Paris, he also developed a sudden but brief interest for the fusion renderings of Zakir Hussain.
Lester James Peries was born in colonial Ceylon and lived a part of his youth there before going away to England and then returning. He appeared very reconciled with that ever present patina of an anglophile, upper middle class upbringing which was evident to the very end. That notwithstanding, he succeeded well in relating to patrician and plebeian alike; the halting, exquisite flow of Sinhala adding to the LPJ mystique!
In casual conversation, he spoke very little about the past or of himself, these being reserved for interviews. But he did speak often with a lot of pride when describing the life and times of his beloved brother, Ivan, a member of the ‘43 Group’, whose magnificent oil on canvass ‘The Return’, hung so prominently in the drawing room, besides the great fire place of the Ambassador’s Residence. Dr. Peries always sat at a place directly in front of this painting, often gazing meditatively at it. One of Ivan Peries’ paintings was on permanent display at the Petit Palais in Paris and no explanation by LJP of the artwork was complete without a reference to it.
The 90s were still very much pre internet days and Dr. Peries would keenly await the arrival of the week’s English newspapers from Colombo in the Diplomatic Bag, each of which was read keenly from end to end, every page being creased neatly as he went on to the next. On reading mode, everything else seemed to escape from the centre of his mind to the periphery, sponging up everything that caught his attention.
LJP was a disciplined man, very quick to react to changing circumstances. Perhaps this was one key to his longevity. In Paris, he always walked a couple of conscious and measured steps behind his Ambassador wife, Sumithra Peries. He appeared to have adjusted well to the carapace of protocol that governed diplomatic life. Dr. Peries was intensely aware that the lady walking just ahead was much more than his wife.
The Lester-Sumithra combination, was a unique partnership where their professional life seemed to merge seamlessly into family and vice-versa. To Mrs. Peries, her Lester was husband, friend and mentor all rolled into one. For him, she was that solid rock that he had relied on for so long. The duo made an ideal couple that represented Sri Lanka so well in the rather sophisticated world in the City of Lights, with unending courtesy, mixing grace with empathy and shining a fine light on Sri Lanka in the process.
Almost everything about Lester James Peries had an air of permanency and it included his longevity. Particularly since turning 90, the birthday celebrations became an event of national importance, along with the expectation that the 5th of April next year too would be celebrated. At 99, in 2018, a similar air of expectancy pervaded, but he left so unexpectedly with a film like ending. It almost seems that he had written the script for the final episode all by himself.
The great man was great in different ways to different people. To all who were privileged to know him, he was a gentle soul. Lester James Peries was indeed more than the sum of his parts.