In Tenuous Times: Mervyn de Silva’s Progressive Liberalism From the South


Jayantha Somasundaram

Mervyn de Silva 20TH Death Anniversary: June 22nd

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead/The other powerless to be born”

– Matthew Arnold

On June 22 1999, as the twentieth century drew to an end, Mervyn de Silva left us. At that time, one could sense that with his passing, an era in the literary history of Sri Lanka had ended. Because he was the last of a glorious age of journalism. He belonged to an illustrious tradition of English journalism in Sri Lanka that gave us H. A. J. Hulugalle, Jayantha Padmanabha, Tarzie Vittachi and Denzil Peiris. They were brilliant editors who provided us with not just world-class newspapers; they were also erudite men who helped build a Ceylonese literati that any society can be proud of.

Today, three years after his departure, it is time for considered reflection on Mervyn, his life and his contribution. His literary pilgrimage took him through three stages. The first began with the liberal education that he received at Royal and Peradeniya. Here he acquired and imbibed all that was admirable in Western culture, literature and thought. And he was able to transform these literary skills into a career in journalism at Lake House that climaxed in the early seventies with him becoming Editor of the Daily News and the Sunday Observer.

By then he was Sri Lanka’s best-known journalist. He would cover and report on the country for the most prestigious international journals: The Economist, Newsweek and The Financial Times (London). He also reported for the BBC. As a foreign correspondent he was the driving force behind the Foreign Correspondents’ Association, serving as its president. He left an indelible mark on journalism in this country.

But he went beyond being just another literary dilettante. The rise of nationalism that came with the post-colonial years interacted with and impacted on his Western sophistication to give this country, for the first time, an editor who was liberal in the most profound sense of the word, in that he was sensitive to the aspirations of the emerging Sinhala and Tamil speaking world. History provided us at this critical juncture in time, with someone who was not just adrift between two worlds but a link between two dimensions of Ceylonese life.

His second arena was international affairs. He schooled himself in foreign affairs so that he became the country’s foremost writer and broadcaster in this field. As Secretary-General of the Ceylon Institute of World Affairs he fashioned a forum where the issues of the day could be discussed and developed.

One of my earliest recollections of Mervyn was at a presentation by Shirley Amerasinghe, then Colombo’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. While Maj. Gen. Anton Muttukumaru presided, it was the debonair Mervyn, immaculately dressed, pipe in hand, who gave the vote of thanks. He opened with: “they say it’s a good thing that diplomats have long noses, because they cannot see beyond it.” It was pure Mervyn, charming, witty, the consummate speaker, a treat to listen to. The two-day seminar that he was to organize in 1972 at the Hotel Taprobane on ‘The Indian Ocean Region’, brought together the best minds of the day, among them jurist Lalith Athulathmudali, diplomat Yogendra Duraisamy, academic K. H. Jayasinghe, writer Hector Abhayavardhana and strategist Rajan Kadiragamar.

At a time when the Cold War had left the emerging states in the South with little option but to formulate their own foreign policy, Sri Lanka was fortunate to have in Mervyn someone who was gifted with a sense of history. It enabled him to respond to the flood of ideas coming out of the Global South as it grappled with its newfound freedom and evolved a policy of Non-Alignment.

Understandably the mainstream media could not accommodate him or contain him; so he had to break out, he had to do his own thing. And so began the third phase of his journey, he set out to create and fashion a literary vehicle that quintessentially could carry his progressive liberal vision. And in 1978 was born the Lanka Guardian. He shared his dream with me on a warm afternoon at the Orient Club. This was where Mervyn retired each day, and as his eye focused on the billiard table, his mind grappled with the challenge of launching a new magazine, a different magazine.

In those early days, the Lanka Guardian drew on the literary talents of independent writers like S. Pathiravithana, Regi Siriwardene and V. P. Vittachi – providing them, and later countless other writers with a unique forum. Mervyn also built around him a loyal team, Hugh Abeyaratne who single-handedly sub-edited the magazine, Gamini Dissanayake who looked after the business side and Shahareen Ismail behind her typewriter. And from a small office at the YMBA they opened a window through which a generation could view Sri Lanka, could share ideas, could debate issues and could publish poetry.

In the years that followed, as tame journalism became the hallmark of the mainstream media, the Lanka Guardian stood out as a fiercely independent magazine, which opened its pages to diverse views and distant voices. It was honest and intelligent in a world that had become mediocre and mundane. It conveyed news, made analyses and poked fun, as everything around was reduced to stultified regimentation. As Sri Lanka passed through the darkness of the eighties and nineties, as violence swept the land, destroying dissent and creativity, Mervyn ensured that the Guardian hit the streets. It was his statement of faith, his belief in getting truth and opinion out there regardless of the cost.

The Lanka Guardian in Mervyn’s hands was more than a magazine; it was a candle that he kept alight as one after the other all other lamps were extinguished. It became a lifeline as people in different corners of the world waited each fortnight to sense and touch the real Sri Lanka; its events, its people, its ideas – its hopes and dreams.

He kept at it with tenacity, undaunted by the challenges. At that tenuous period of time, it was his testament, his legacy. History called him to independently take a stand as a commentator, and this he did without a moment’s hesitation. And he kept on at it until the very end, writing, broadcasting, thinking and speaking, never disheartened by the carnage, the futility and the vanity of that era. He kept true to the end. Surely could he have said when it was all over, like Mark Anthony before him, “Unarm, Eros; the long day’s task is done, /And we must sleep”.

[My father, Mervyn de Silva died 20 years ago, on June 22nd 1999. Scrolling through the voluminous published material on Mervyn while sketching the outline of an article on him for the anniversary, I recognized from the resonance it had in me that it was most appropriate instead, to republish from 17 years ago, an accurate and sensitive narrative portrait of Mervyn by Jayantha Somasundaram. He was already a respected young political journalist reputed for his literate leftist contributions to the Socialist Nation edited by Hector Abhayavardhana, when Mervyn tapped him to be part of the original editorial team of the Lanka Guardian magazine. Utterly civil and meticulously well-mannered, Jayantha was an honourable, thoughtful and reliable young man of whom Mervyn and Lakshmi were especially fond. He was simultaneously a protégé and a quasi-patron, in that the LG was for many years generously housed in premises owned by his family firm, and one of his staffers was the indispensable steno/secretary at the LG office. — Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, Moscow, June 2019.]