by S. Skandakumar
Your Excellency, John Rankin, High Commissioner for Britain in Sri Lanka, Eminent Excellencies of the International Diplomatic Corps, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
When Carlo your President invited me on behalf of his committee to this evening’s function, I said to him, “Carlo I am four years into retirement, I have spent it all in relative hibernation in Haputale and many feel that soon I will be ready for the Archives “…to which his response was ‘Ah that’s just the profile we are looking for !!”
So here I am Ladies and Gentlemen, and a very good evening to all of you. It is not only a great pleasure to be here but also a special privilege to have been invited to address such an awesome audience , and I wish to thank Carlo and his committee for the opportunity.
I will not attempt to pay her Majesty a tribute as I know it will be a futile exercise but what I would like to observe is that her reign has indeed been the finest example of a selfless rule and an exceptional blessing to the civilized world. Perhaps Prince Charles’ tribute summed it all up when he said ‘ You made us all proud to be British ‘. . There could not be a higher tribute to a country’s leader than that.
Given the nature of today’s event I would like to reflect briefly on the British influence in my life. I joined the firm of George Steuart’s in the early seventies, in its 140th year, by when it was down to its last expatriate Chairman, Trevor Moy, a remarkable gentleman amongst gentlemen. I was fortunate to have him as my mentor in my early years as I saw in him the virtues of humility and integrity in the infancy of my career.Trevor was awarded the order of the British Empire for his contribution to British interests in Sri Lanka and retired in the late eighties to live in Eastbourne in Sussex where he passed away with the dawn of the new millenium.
In keeping with his wishes we flew out his widow Kathy with his ashes and buried them in a quaint little church in Dickoya named Warleigh where his grave remains preserved todate. I am sharing this with you merely to give you an idea of the deep affection expatriates of that time had for both our country and its people.
My other interaction with British influence, if I may call it that came in 1991, in a different capacity. I had been re-elected Honorary Secretary of the Board of Control for cricket in Sri Lanka and along with the President, Ian Pieris, a Cambridge educated cricketing blue, we were preparing to attend the annual general meeting of the International Cricket Council, which is normally held in the middle of each year in the main pavillion of the Lords Cricket Grounds when we received intimation that at the end of the first day’s sessions, all delegates had been invited to a reception at number 10 Downing Street hosted by the Prime Minister of Britain, Rt Hon John Major.
It was an anxious time for diplomatic relations between our two countries as David Gladstone the UK High Commissioner had been declared persona non grata for his over enthusiastic interests in the political affairs of Sri Lanka and Britain retaliated by downgrading the posting to Colombo temporarily to one of a Dy High Commissioner. So I said to myself that I could not possibly go into No 10 empty handed and picked up a sterling silver tray and had a suitable message engraved on it.
As we queued up outside the main gate at No 10, I noticed that I was the only one who was carrying anything in his hand and looked quizzically at Ian whose response was typical….’It was your bloody idea so you take it in” .
I waited to be announced in, shook the Prime Minister’s hand and handed the gift to him. “You mean you brought this for me all the way from Sri Lanka ? ‘ he said. “Yes,’’ Prime Minister I replied and went into the reception hall and thought no more about it. After all the delegates had been ushered in I felt a tap on the back of my shoulder and a voice said “The Prime Minister would like to have a word with you Sir “.
So I went back to the meeting area and he said ” You know that was a very thoughtful gesture on your part; shall we do a picture together “.Cameras clicked and he escorted me back into the reception area. The next morning, while we were at sessions at Lords , there was a knock on the door…’ A letter for Mr Skandakumar of Sri Lanka from the Prime Ministers Office ‘ !! was the announcement .
I wish mobile technology had been in vogue then because I would have loved to have captured the expressions of the delegates round the table including that of the Chairman, Sir Colin Cowdrey!
They all assumed that in those two hours at the reception I had established a hot line to No 10!! It was just the picture autographed by him with a thank you note but knowing the virtues of snob value, I made no effort to convince anyone to the contrary !
While still at Lords I would like to share a little story with you. Some of you may have heard it before and yet I think it is is worth repeating. It concerns one of England’s finest batsmen in the post war era. His name was Denis Compton and for all his talents, Denis was perhaps the most disorganized cricketer England ever produced. He could never be on time for social functions and would turn up in the dressing room for important matches having forgotten his guard, bat, pads etc, and then he would borrow everyone else’s equipment and go out and bat marvellously for England.
So when Denis turned 50, the cricketing fraternity of England decided to accord him an appropriate celebration. The venue was Lords and everyone who was someone associated with the game was there. Champagne corks were popping and spirits were getting high when there was an announcement …”a telephone call for Mr Compton”. Denis trotted off with his fourth glass of champagne in hand , humming merrily under his breath and returned a few minutes later looking quite glum. When his guests asked him if something was the matter, he hesitated and then said ” That was my mother on the phone…..She says I am only 49 !! ”
Now to something serious – January 31, 1996; The time was 10.45 and we had just concluded our weekly Wednesday board meeting when we heard gunshots.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Steuart House, the company’s head office is situated directly opposite the Central Bank down Janadipathi Mawatha. The board room is on the eighth floor and overlooks the bank. We went to the window and saw an ancient lorry having climbed the pavement adjacent to the bank attempting to drive into the lobby area of the bank. When that failed the suicide squad detonated the bomb and the rest is history.
I learnt later that when a bomb explodes it gathers in intensity up to a certain height before it diffuses and so when it reached the eighth floor of Steuart House it was at its peak. It smashed through the glass panes, wrenched the board room door from its hinges carrying it many yards and sent us all sprawling to the ground bleeding.
There was utter mayhem as you can well imagine as we struggled down eight flights of stairs dripping in blood amidst helpless cries of anguish and pain on each floor. An ex planter of the company recognized us on the street and took us to hospital where I was diagnosed with a fractured nose and a gash at the back of my head.
When the surgeon visited the next day and offered to operate on my nose I thanked him and said that I wished to retain it as a grim reminder of my relative good fortune. Since then each morning I have remembered in prayer all those innocent people who were less fortunate than I on that horrific day.
Janadipathi Mawatha then was by far the busiest street in Colombo, flanked by airline offices, banks, hotels and commercial establishments. In fact you could hardly walk ten paces without bumping into a fellow pedestrian. That incident represented barbarism at its very worst. To those men and women of vision, courage and valour, who brought that horrendous conflict to a close in May 2009, we all owe a lifetime debt of gratitude.
My other experience of comparable barbarism regrettably came in July 1983, when a Govt elected by the people stood condemned for having orchestrated brutal violence against its own people; people who were not only innocent but also hopelessly defenseless. I am not reflecting on this to open any wounds although there are scars from those utterly shameless events that may never heal. I am doing so to focus on the countless compassionate and courageous Sinhala bretheren who at great risk to their own lives came forward to offer shelter and protection to those who were targeted.
There is no doubt that left to ourselves, we are indeed a marvelous people ,and this was amply demonstrated in the manner in which we gained our Independance; the transition was smooth and peaceful and reflected the confidence Britain had both in our people and the political leadership. That confidence was sustained in the early years as Ceylon became a showpiece for South Asia.
Sadly, Influenced by the selfish political aspirations of an Oxford educated scholar we then deviated to a path of language and divided ourselves. Arising from that we walked the path of ethnicity and further divided ourselves. We continued to address the issues facing the people of our country by ethnicity and not nationality and failed to find a solution.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who once lamented that it was a mystery to him how man could see himself honoured by the humiliation of his fellow beings. If almost 70 years later that mystery remains unsolved, don’t you think that in itself is a human tragedy?
Ladies and Gentlemen, the biggest threat to civilization will not come from the nuclear missiles feared in North Korea, Iran, or Libya, or for that matter the weapons of mass destruction that only two world leaders were able to locate in Iraq. Oh no! It will come from a growing breed of educated people like you and me, who are flooding the ranks of the Illiterate of the world, by stubbornly refusing to learn the lessons from history. To them I would like to quote the saying “He who disregards history is destined to live through it again ”
When Her Majesty’s father King George the VI announced to the Empire Britain’s decision to declare war against Hitler’ s Germany , he concluded his address with the line “If one and all we keep resolutely committed, then with God’s help we will prevail”
Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to repeat those telling words of wisdom….’ If one and all we keep resolutely committed, then with God’s help we will prevail “.and indeed Britain did. Where intentions are honourable, and actions are sincere God’s help is assured. Many courageous men and women have made huge sacrifices to give us the equivalent of a second Independence. That Independance has opened a path for Peace and Reconciliation that not only has an unending horizon but also unlimited opportunities for all Sri Lankans. Let us one and all keep resolutely committed to that path of peace and reconciliation, invoking thereby the blessings of God to prevail, so that this wonderful country of ours, one of immensely talented people and unparalleled natural charm may move forward to achieve its true potential for all.
I would like to conclude by reading to you lines from Lord Buddha”s teachings….”.When people are happy and satisfied, class differences disappear, good deeds are promoted, virtues are increased and people come to respect one another. Then everyone becomes prosperous; the weather and temperature become normal; the sun,moon and stars shine naturally; rains and winds come timely; and all natural calamities disappear”…..Need one say more ?
May God bless Her Majesty, Our Beautiful Country and All its people. Thank you.
(Text of Speech made on the occasion of the Sri Lanka UK Society’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee)