56 Years After ’56:Remembering Mervyn de Silva on his 83rd Birth Anniversary

by Sarath De Alwis

September 5th is the 83rd Birth Anniversary of Mervyn de Silva)

“The eagle landed softly on the moon. Now Mr.Nixon will land even more gently in Peking” wrote Mervyn De Silva on 22 July 1971 in the Ceylon Observer. Neil Armstrong passed away this month. The 83rd birth anniversary of Mervyn de Silva falls on 5th September.

This is not a eulogy of Mervyn. It is intended as a reminder of what he attempted to do with his natural constituency- the English speaking intelligentsia of post independent Sri Lanka. He was in his profession the Prophet in waiting to be recognized by the Colonial residue.

In the same article on the Sino American rapprochement he told his compatriots in Sri Lanka “..It is nothing less than the shift of the gravitational centre of world politics from the west to our own continent.

It is here that that the ultimate question of war and peace will be decided in our time “These words were written forty one years ago. Professor Jospeh Nye and Madeline Albright discovered soft power long after.

I think it was the mid-seventies and Nimal Karunatilake, who introduced me to journalism, had done his stint as the Press Secretary to Dudley Senanayake. I was then an obscure reporter for the Daily News with Mervyn de Silva as editor. Said Nimal Karunatilake or rather pronounced with his singular punditry “To my mind the two quickest and brightest minds today are those of Felix and Mervyn.” Then he added the caveat “But Mervyn is human.”

Though my career in Lake House lasted a little more than five years, I developed a close friendship with Mervyn. I learnt during those years and in the three decades that followed that he was indeed very human. Mervyn’s was a razor-sharp mind shrouded by irreverence to orthodoxy and a penchant for child-like foibles. Once he outsmarted someone in a long drawn debate. When the person vanquished in the duel, bade to leave, Mervyn nonchalantly lifted his right-palm and slowly opened, closed, and opened, four fingers with the thumb remaining straight. He was imitating Fernando Rey in the film The French Connection where he mocks his police pursuer played by Gene Hackman as the train pulls out.

Mervyn’s capacity for witty riposte was unmatched. Once, his brother Neville was offered a newspaper assignment in the Cook Islands by a delegate attending the ESCAP conference, the first major international conference held in the brand new BMICH. When Mervyn was told of the offer received by Neville, he pronounced “I knew he would go far as a journalist.”

In order to refresh my mind and to read some of his dispatches, essays and commentaries I visited the Lake House library. To my amazement I discovered old volumes of newspapers stacked on the ground. The three files under Mervyn de Silva contained clipings of articles written on him after his death. There was one solitary photocopy of his 1967 article “1956: The Cultural Revolution that shook the Left”. It was a bizarre coincidence that despite the apparent neglect of this archival treasures, Mervyn’s file contained his views on the one epochal event that finally placed the Wijewardene empire of print media in Sri Lanka firmly on the trajectory to oblivion.

Mervyn’s son Dayan in his moving portrayal of his father “The Old Man and the Typewriter” says that he was “a deviant product of the three most powerful ideological apparatuses of modern Sri Lanka: Royal College, Peradeniya University and Lake House.” Just as much as Lake House tried to produce a Mervyn de Silva in its own image he tried to reshape Lake House in the image that he felt was consonant with the times of creative destruction as symbolized by the single record of his original writing that remains in the file marked Mervyn de Silva in the Lake House Library in 2012. That is 56 years after 1956.

When Mervyn joined it, Lake House was a reluctant or rather a faulty mirror of the socio political forces of the time. The English language papers provided a platform for the cosmopolitan intelligentsia and the native mercantilism. As a bright school boy at Royal College and a restless and impulsive undergraduate of the Colombo and Peradeniya Universities, Mervyn dreamt of being the editor of the Ceylon Daily News, the flagship publication of Lake House – the Brookings Institute of what one may term ‘UNP Ceylon’.

Neville Jayaweera his class mate, university contemporary and the epitome of the then Ceylonese intelligentsia has excelled in describing the sociopolitical milieu in which Mervyn dreamt of being the Editor of the Ceylon Daily News. In his ‘Re-constructing an Editor’s Undergrad Days’ Jayaweera begins “Nineteen forty nine, the year that Mervyn de Silva and I entered university at Thurston Road, was still the best of times – that is for those who were from the ‘right set’.”

When Lake House recruited him after graduation it was presumed that he was from the right set. It however turned out that his rebellious thinking that was hidden beneath the sophisticated repartee was too strong to be contained.

His junior in the profession Ernest Corea was appointed the editor of the Daily News. I have worked for both Ernest Corea and Mervyn de Silva. Ernest was stable. Mervyn was bright. Ernest was the status quo: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ Mervyn was change: ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’. The professional vicissitudes of the two men in the sixties of the last century reveals how accurately Lake House represented the microcosm of the firmament that existed outside. I have cited the two slogans of Reagan and Clinton.

Mervyn was undoubtedly the first to explain the Bandaranaike phenomenon. It disoriented the traditional right. It dumbfounded the Left. He was precise in recognizing and defining the popular fascination with and the allure of the feudal lord turned saint and savant.

“To the oriental mind personal sacrifice has a greater moral worth and the sacrificial idea is a leading motive in oriental mythology from Siddhartha to Nehru. The hero is not the man who makes millions but the man who leaves the palace.” This was written by Mervyn in 1967.

Much earlier in 1956, he was writing a series titled “Those were the days”. In the first he writes on “Tower Hall” where the character of Siddhartha enters the common Sinhala psyche with John de Silva’s memorable melodies. He writes “There was no room for ivory towers in the Tower Hall and all that mattered was that the gentlemen in the gallery got their money’s worth.” It is those folk in the gallery who understood the Bandaranaike phenomenon as renunciation of the palace for a populist platform.

If I may re-shuffle the order of the Issac Deutscher triptych, Mervyn was the Prophet Exiled in the cubicle in the Observer wing of Lake House when he observed in 1967: “In little manageable Ceylon, colonization meant both the spoliation of traditional culture and the total surrender of upper classes to the aliens ‘superior’ way of life. In the way of resistance, there were few lonely voices – the stirring indictments of a Dharmapala, the patriotic polemics of a Piyadasa Sirisena, the purist’s ardour of a Munidasa Cumaranatunge, the sublime if little known promptings of an Ananda Coomaraswamy.”

Cloistered in his cubicle Mervyn was insisting that events not individuals matter in history. He reaches in his series, a crucial point in post independence history – the rejection in 1965 of the political party that appropriated the 1956 victory. This was erroneously construed as a reversal of the politicae movement of 1956.The error was arrived at by the traditional left. Explains Mervyn.

“Embittered and enraged the coalition supporters looked for the cause of their defeat. They found it in the minorities and the wrath of the coalition parties were turned upon them.”

He then indicts the traditional left quoting the LSSP theoretician Doric De Souza ‘Our opponents claim that the battle was between Buddhism and Marxism and it was the Buddhists who threw out the coalition. Nonsense. It was in the Buddhist electorates that the coalition did best and it was the minority dominated constituencies or where the minorities were a marginal vote that the UNP fared best’.”

Reading the words of Mervyn in 1967 sheds a retrospective gloom over the events that followed. Who confused class with race? How did we mix up ethnic and economic grievance? Mervyn ends his essay “ The process of growing up is sad and painful for it means a banishment of youthful idealism , the sacrifice of daring, the erosion of ardour; a tacit, perhaps bitter realization that life is brutal, to the idealist and that success in any sphere compels and adjustment to this awful truth. Total integrity may be an occupation for the saint and artist; alas a chimera for the politician.”

Fourteen years later, in 1981, Mervyn revisits the issue in the Lanka Guardian: “Perhaps in the absence of a truly national and unifying pre-independence movement, Ceylonese nationalism, denied a natural birth, acquired mongrel features with the departure of the foreign ruler. Inasmuch as it was against foreign domination and foreign symbols, this nationalism historically speaking, was normal. But when it focused on the Tamil minority, a community identified as the favoured child of colonial policies, it was racist.”

Legitimate claims of resurging post independence nationalism got mired in politics of expediency as practiced in a parliamentary democracy. The nationalism has now acquired mongrel qualities. In his 1981 observations on 1956 he qualifies further: “For a far wider segment of our society, the rural lower middle class and Sinhala educated youth, 1956 held out a rich promise, which remains tragically unfulfilled. In very real sense the youth rebels of 1971 were the embittered and angry children of the ’56 revolution.” He coined the phrase ‘The Children of ’56’, using it in the Washington Post in May 1971 and the South Asian Review in ’72. A decade later, Salman Rushdie wrote ‘Midnight’s Children’.

Mervyn de Silva was close to the sources of power. It never seduced him. He was oblivious to power. That made him an incorrigible satirist. It also made him one of the most perceptive chroniclers of contemporary events of our country and the world. He neatly fitted the role assigned by Edward Said for the public role of writers and intellectuals. “An individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, an attitude, philosophy, or opinion to, as well as for, a public”

[The writer was a reporter for the Daily News and the Observer from 1968 to 1974, going on to write a column “Men and Matters” by Narada for the Sunday Times when it was edited by Mervyn de Silva. Sarath de Alwis could be reached at Sarath.sithija42@gamail.com ]