[Lakshmi Sylvia de Silva—Birth anniversary November 5th]
For historical, cultural and civilizational reasons, the Kremlin means much more to the Russian people, but to those of us from the global South, it has been a center of a special kind of power, a power that balances the world, a center of power that has housed history-making figures. Standing in the Kremlin, absorbing the historical atmosphere, imagining those figures, looking around and above at the glittering splendor, and then directly facing the third such outstanding Russian figure of world history in modern times, it was quite natural that I should think of my father, Mervyn de Silva, but it was less expected even by me, that I should think of my mother Lakshmi.
There was a direct progression that brought me from childhood to where I was standing on October 11th 2018 to hand my credentials over to President Putin and talk to him for several minutes, having earlier had a chat with the world’s most outstanding Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. When I asked Minister Lavrov whether he could recall Mervyn de Silva from his days in Colombo, he visibly brightened and remarked “Yes, of course! He and my Ambassador used to have discussions frequently and I used to be the translator!” On his visits to Moscow on which I would accompany him and my mother, Mervyn would meet top Russian (at the time, Soviet) foreign policy personalities such as Dr. Georgi Arbatov, the leading Soviet expert, advisor and negotiator on the USA and nuclear arms talks and write about his conversations in the international and Sri Lankan press. When I visited the think-tank the PIR Center in Moscow, the founder, Dr Vladimir Orlov, recounted how we were introduced, when I was ambassador to the UN Geneva, by his mentor, Gen. Dmitri Evstafiev (formerly of the KGB), Chairman of the PIR Center and a friend of my father.
This time around, I have not yet had a meal at the monumentally grand Stalin-era Hotel Ukraine, at which I stayed with my parents as a 7 year old boy on our first visit to Moscow as guests of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, when my father was not yet the editor of the Daily News, only the Deputy Editor of the Observer.
Just as Lenin said of the Revolution, my road back to Russia was hardly as “broad, smooth and straight as the Nevsky Prospect”, but that too was because of my father and the modern heritage of Russia, because I sought amateurishly to put into practice what I had read in the works of Lenin I had taken armfuls of from the libraries of his Russian, Chinese, Cuban, East German and Czech friends, and bought in bookshops in London and America in my early teens, utterly ignorant that linguistic, cultural and religious factors had come to the forefront in my society in a manner that deflected any attempted application of radicalized universalist Reason.
But why am I saying this on my mother’s birthday? Because, as I realized in the Kremlin’s magnificent Alexander Hall itself, my father would have been unable to achieve what he had if not for my mother, and I too would not have become what I am except for her, though I did rebel against her in a manner I never reacted against my father while I did dissent from him.
My father once explained laconically, while we were dining al fresco at the Fountain café while Chris Greet compered and Mignonne & the Jetliners played on stage near the fountain itself: “you have a father who is a liberal because his father was a conservative, while you have a mother who is a conservative because her father was a liberal.”
If my father had made any other choice among the rather more bohemian salon-and-self-centered women who found him attractive – and vice versa—he would have wound up like the liberal-reformist Russia of the 1990s, in a state of disintegration. It was only my mother whose firmness and strength, determination and discipline, constancy and consistency, engagement and fighting spirit that kept him on track and able to achieve that which he did, reaching the top of his profession of journalism nationally and internationally, scaling the heights of global political access and encounter, and with his greatness posthumously recognized. Mervyn always knew that he could count on her commitment, and in his own way his commitment to her was deep and existential.
He knew he owed her. I didn’t realize how much I owed her. Mervyn tried to tell me. Lakshmi miscalculated when she correctly saw the affinities between my father and me, worried how I would pan out and thought to use the same policies with me that worked on my father. That was a mistake because I was a combination of the two and she never spotted or admitted that part of her in me, and she had long left behind and forgotten some parts of herself which were reappearing in me —nor did I see it. When I was rebelling against ‘matriarchal despotism’ as I called it in my early teens, my father said “I thought you were a Stalinist? You recognize that the ruthless Stalinist consolidation was necessary to lay the foundations of socialism. Similarly, Amma (your mother) laid the foundations in a slightly Stalinist manner—that’s how you should look at it”.
That wasn’t the full measure of it either. Once, when Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike complained about me to Mervyn, he wisecracked in a clear allusion to Anura Bandaranaike, “Madam, we parents cannot be held responsible for the political behavior of our sons, can we?” Then he softened the blow with a reflective remark which he later shared with Amma and me: “Dayan is like his mother, Lakshmi —Catholic, unbending”. Mrs. Bandaranaike understood him perfectly, not only because she had been a student at St. Bridget’s Convent but because my mother had taught her daughters Sunethra and Chandrika at the same exclusive private school, and Chandrika had told me on a tube train in London “she was firm but fair”.
That factor, not primarily my mother’s Catholicism, but the factor of Catholicism that she introduced, played a major shaping role not just in me but also my father, but in ways my mother never quite calculated. Still, if not for Lakshmi and her Catholicism neither Mervyn nor I would have been what we were.
Mervyn’s Westernization which went way beyond and way deeper than that of his father’s Trinity College formation and his mother’s Kotte Anglicanism turned Buddhism, because he ruptured with any form of traditionalism and completely embraced modernity so early that not even his elder stepsister can recall him as being anything else (for instance she recalls him quoting the Buddha but never as culturally a Buddhist). His early and permanent turn to Western modernity was due, he simply said, to “the school library”. As his own library shows, that Westernization and modernity led him, through literature and poetry to a sensibility which opened him to Christianity (particularly through the writings of TS Eliot). It was hardly surprising then that as he left Royal College he should fall in love with a Catholic girl who taught at the island’s leading Convent. She was three years older.
Mervyn had a deep spiritual faith which had little do with Lakshmi. She never attempted to convert him. It cynically amused her, and sometimes made her annoyed with God, that her husband, whom she suspected with good reason was violating more than one of the Ten Commandments, not only lit the red ‘sanctuary lamp’ placed at the statue of Jesus and also prayed worshipfully at the statue of Mary with its blue lamp however drunk he was and whatever time he had got home, insisted on pinning his Miraculous Medal to his vest every day, had favorite churches in Europe which he felt compelled to visit each year — the Church of the Infant Jesus of Prague and the Church of St. Catherine Laboure in Paris– but actually seemed to have his prayers answered almost unfailingly and fairly promptly!
Mervyn’s introduction to, and acquaintance with Christianity and its resonance in him, was before he met Lakshmi. That attraction was to the philosophical and cultural-civilizational aspects of Christianity which were more compatible than traditional cultural values were, with his relentless modernity, humanism, and valuation of the individual personality. However, his faith and spirituality probably came with and after the enabling environment provided by Lakshmi and somehow coexisted with his self definition as ‘agnostic’– as one who gambled compulsively, he was convinced by the Pascalian wager about God. There were arguments, to put it mildly, about everything, between my parents, but never on religion.
My mother Lakshmi never tried to influence me in any obvious way when it came to religion. Yes, I was baptized at St Mary’s Bambalapitiya (my parents had married at All Saints’ Church, Borella) a little over week after my birth, but that was on the shared understanding –conveyed to me as a boy–that I would choose my own religion when in my teens. Even though I schooled at St Joseph’s College Colombo, the island’s premier Catholic school, that was after parental discussions and deliberation about Royal College (my father’s school) and St Thomas’s (my uncle’s). When I had a crisis of faith at age 14 thanks to the years of conversations with my erudite Buddhist grandfather (Amma’s father) just before I had to sit for an island-wide Open Religious Essay Prize, my mother took it easy, didn’t say a word of remonstrance, but simply dropped me off for a chat with someone I respected intellectually even more than I did my father: Amma’s own ‘spiritual mentor’, the Head of the Jesuit chapter in Sri Lanka, Fr. Vito Perniola Ph.D., author of the Oxford University Pali Grammar and church historian. We had an easy discussion and when I felt he gave me a book by the progressive theologian Harvey Cox. (I still read anything by him.) I never had another crisis of faith. Oh, I also won that prize, the Pope Paul VI the Open Religious Essay Prize for all Catholic schools (probably the first to do so, in 1971, the year it was instituted).
So my father and I both owe my mother Lakshmi for introducing us to Christianity and Catholicism. If not for her we wouldn’t have had the spiritual resources we cultivated on our own. But I was far from being the son she wanted me to be. Why? Some of it, even much of it, has to do with the very Christianity, in its stronger variant, Catholicism, she introduced us to.
Firstly, she had forgotten or left behind the footprints of her own route to Christianity as she grew into the roles of wife and mother. Though, as my father said, it was probably inevitable that she as the daughter of a liberal father would become a conservative just as he, Mervyn would become a liberal. He was reacting against his own father’s conservatism. I think my mother, who was “a perfectionist” as my father teasingly said, thought it necessary to become more conservative and authoritarian when dealing with a liberal husband and the father of her only child, and a child who was beginning to be a buddy to his liberal father and showing scary signs of similarity.
The problem was that Lakshmi had herself been a rebel, and her Christianity was both cause and consequence of that rebelliousness. While sorting through my parents’ books which are part of my large library, before packing them away and choosing a few hundred for our journey to Moscow, I came across Christian classics such as Thomas A’ Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, gifted to my mother in the 1940s. Most of them bore affirmations of friendship from ‘Chitra’. I phoned my mother’s surviving sibling, also named Chithra, in Kurunegala and asked her who this might be, and she instantly remembered. She said “Putha, that was her close circle of leftist friends at Princess of Wales; the crowd that influenced her in school—mainly Chitra and her sister.” My reply was “this is not about leftwing influence, this is about Christianity”. She came back with “yes, but it was the same crowd of friends. These were the daughters of the famous LSSPer, Cholomondely Goonewardene; they were Reds and also Christians at the same time!” I then remembered my uncle Athula (Prof AJ Fernando, who died a few weeks back) telling me that Amma was a member of the Left Book Club and had a poster of (pro-Moscow) Communist leader Pieter Keuneman on her wall, so it now made sense.
My mother’s conversion to Christianity constituted a courageous act of rebellion. The eldest of seven children, she loved her father and was very close to him. He had introduced her to books and bookstores. TR Fernando was so well-regarded a lay preacher of Buddhism from Panadura (though he settled down in Moratuwa) that he had delivered a Dhamma sermon at the official residence of the Governor-General at the invitation of William Gopallawa. Her father’s own father, i.e. her grandfather and my great-grandfather, Amaris Fernando, was a prominent lay constituent and supporter (a dayakaya) of the famous Rankoth Vihara in Panadura, the site of the watershed ‘Panadura Debate’.
My mother’s conversion to Christianity in her teens was prior to her entry to Teacher Training College and then the staff of St Bridget’s and the introduction to the Irish nuns. Doubtless the example of her mother Annie (my grandma) and maternal grandmother Margaret (who died the year I was born), who suffered religious persecution at the hands of my grandfather who was a liberal-humanist in everything but matters of religion, played a profound role in her formation. But it must have been quite an act of rebellion with a public ripple effect because my grandfather was well known for his views in the Moratuwa-Panadura area. It was a rebellion for which she was slapped at least once by my (otherwise liberal and indulgent) granddad.
By the time she became my mother, or at least as she grew into the role, Lakshmi was no longer that rebel. She was even a favorite daughter-in law and sister-in law of her husband’s conservative traditionalist Buddhist family. It was my wayward father who was regarded as the rebel, and that was the supposed source of the contagion of rebellion she was attempting to suppress or pre-empt in me, with much encouragement from her in-laws. The irony was threefold: firstly, the spirit of rebelliousness came from her just as it did from her husband, my father; secondly, it was her ‘unbending Catholic’ character that formed my own willpower and made my rebelliousness less than episodic; thirdly it was same mix of leftism and Christianity that she had been first introduced to, a mix that had matured globally into Liberation Theology by the time it combined with my Marxism and Leninism, that had made me what I was. I was the wrong—or just the right—kind of boy for a parent to introduce to the figure of Jesus Christ and the message and model of Messianism and martyrdom. Freud famously spoke of “the return of the repressed”. Sometimes, that which you repress returns as your own product, from within your own womb, as your own son.
So while Lakshmi was trying to exorcise the spirit of her husband’s temperament from her son, what she was actually battling, though she was unconscious of it, was also the ghost of herself, her past, or more correctly the mix of his and her rebelliousness. What did she actually expect a fusion of her husband and herself would produce? A typical Josephian who would become a successful lawyer while being an obedient son (especially to his mother) and respectful to his traditionalist conservative paternal relatives whose values his father had rejected and turned his back on as a boy?
My father owed her for what he achieved and for preventing what he might otherwise have ended up as. I owe her for what I was and what I have eventually become, through the agonizing and enriching experiences I have had on the way.
Let me end by bringing the story back to Moscow. When we used to visit in the Soviet era, my mother would insist on going to Sunday Mass. She would return saying that there were only the very old and the very young in church. She would also add that Our Lady had told the three shepherd girls at Fatima in Portugal, that someday Russia would go back to Christianity. She was convinced it would prove true. My father and I laughed at her optimism on that score, for different reasons. He was a believer, but he (and Amma) had been seated at the massive military parade at the Red Square and seen the ICBMs and Soviet power. I was a Christian but I believed also in the miracle of socialism and its irreversibility. We were wrong. My mother was right. Now, all over Russia I see the victorious return to its Christian roots and faith. The Russian Orthodox Church is a powerful but discreet force, while President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev are known to be authentically Christian in their faith.
My wife and I visit the splendid churches. The other day, I went to one of the two Catholic churches here in Moscow, the most prominent one, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which doubtless my mother had been taken to by our Soviet hosts, and saw by the altar the large mounted photograph of Archbishop Oscar Arnolfo Romero, massacred while saying mass by Roberto D’Aubisson’s fascists in San Salvador in 1980, and canonized by Pope Francis just the other day. I knelt and prayed before his portrait remembering my relationship with the Salvadoran struggle when I was a Ph.D. student in upstate New York in the early 1980s, and how it had catalyzed my decision to drop out of my Fulbright scholarship and become a radical political cadre back in Sri Lanka. The wheel had come full circle with Romero’s canonization and Pope Francis taking the Catholic Church back to its emancipationist spirit, on the side of the people, especially the poor. And I also recalled my mother, and how right she was about Russia, Mary and Christianity, and how wrong my father and I had been on that count, because our arrogant rationality and intellectual certitude overshadowed the truer insight of revelation.
Mervyn and I owed Lakshmi, and he knew it while I did not. What I owed her for above all else, was the introduction to Jesus.