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Sunday, 19 December 2004    
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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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A life in ideas and writing

by Ajith Samaranayake

By time's mere flux, I am called to play the part
Of patriarch I am unfitted for.
But not for long, I hope. When the time comes,
Ajith, Prince of Obituarists, will write,
I know, a graceful piece - measured, as always,
And free of flattery or fulsomeness.

(A pity I shan't be there to read it, though.) - Regi Siriwardena, May 15, 2002

Regi Siriwardena - a humanist in the best Marxian sense 

Not for long I hope said Regi Siriwardena, on his eightieth birthday and that in a sense was his last salute. Since then failing eyesight and the onset of old age had confined him to his home.

Only in September this year he was conferred the Distinguished Service Award for his contribution to English letters at the State Sahithya Festival which had to be accepted in absentia. Then the twilight was fast gathering and now comes the end and the obituary which Regi will not be there to read.

In the same poem quoted above, Regi mused with a sense of wonderment at the fact that he had lived for 80 years whereas, "Younger better people now are dust and ashes". Singling out only those who had died of violence he cited three names - Rajini Thiranagama, Richard de Zoysa and Neelan Tiruchelvam. He hazarded the guess that his longevity would have been due to his, "Mother's family's sturdy peasant genes".

That reference to his mother provides a convenient point of departure for any biography of Regi Siriwardena. In a poem he has recalled how once when he was studying at S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia, his mother had come to take him early from school since they were shifting house.

Not knowing English, his mother had with her peasant courtliness told the class teacher, "gihin enna". This had been greeted with hoots of derision and Regi's classmates had shouted en masse, "gihin waren".

Regi Siriwardena then was formed by this collision of cultures - his mother's sturdy peasant native culture and the precious anglicized urban culture which he imbibed at the college by the sea. A harmonizing influence however was the final years he spent at Ananda College, Colombo, which was then the bastion of Sinhala nationalism.

These two influences were the primary factors which formed Regi Siriwardena's world outlook. A humanist in the best Marxian sense, he had no communalism or tribalism in his mental make-up.

Although English educated he resonated with a sense of the native ethos which prompted him to write the first English language review of Sarachchandra's path-breaking play 'Maname' when even the Sinhala critics were either baffled by it or dismissed it scornfully. He also wrote the screen play for Lester James Peries' 'Gamperaliya' and 'Golu Hadawata' two diametrically opposed novels but which he tackled with a mastery which undoubtedly contributed much to Peries' final work.

Another formative influence was Marxism, although in later life he tended to dismiss its more doctrinaire aspects. In his book 'Working in the Underground' which was a personal memoir of the LSSP's illegal phase during World War 11, he has recalled how when he was travelling by train as a schoolboy, he had been reading the Left Book Club publication 'The Coming Struggle for Power' by John Strachey, then a leading theoretician of the British Communist Party.

The passenger opposite him seeing the book he was reading had asked him whether he was C. D. S. Siriwardena's brother, an identification which Regi ascribes to a family resemblance. Getting down from the train the passenger identified himself as Bernard Soysa.

Bernard later told Hector Abhayardhana that there was a young man ripe for conversion and Hector having approached Regi, he became a member of the LSSP later serving on its Politbureau. During the LSSP's underground years, Regi was known by the nom de gurre of Hamid and his main task was to arrange a safe house which could be occupied by the LSSP detenues once they broke jail from Bogambara. The detenue who occupied Regi's safe house ultimately was Dr. Colvin R. de Silva.

Regi Siriwardena began his writing career as a feature writer on the Ceylon Daily News having been handpicked by its managing director the late Esmond Wickremesinghe. In the Daily News, he showed his talents in both the arts and politics by writing both the weekly arts column as well as the weekly political column and daily editorials apart from a brilliant parliamentary sketch.

One of the best illustrations of the latter which underlined Regi's twin loves of arts and politics was the piece he wrote on the then finance minister, Stanley de Soysa, which was titled the 'Secret life of the Hon. Walter Mitty'.

Writing the editorials and the political columns on the same corridor in the 'Dinamina' was another Siriwardena, B. A. Siriwardena, later the distinguished editor of the 'Aththa'. In the 1960's Regi Siriwardena resigned from Lake House in protest against what he considered an obnoxious cartoon drawn by Collette coupling Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike with Dr. N. M. Perera.

Leaving Lake House Siriwardena struck out on an entirely different path by entering academia. Not that teaching had been entirely strange to him. Succeeding the legendary Dickie Attygalle as the senior English teacher at Royal College, Colombo, he had produced many brilliant pupils among them the late Mervyn de Silva.

But as the founder of the English department at the Vidyalankara University in Kelaniya, only recently raised from the status of a pirivena, Siriwardena set for himself an entirely different challenge. This was nothing less than orienting and acclimatizing English language and literature to a native Sri Lankan milieu.

Siriwardena was later to carry this experiment even further when in the mid 1970s he collaborated in the introduction of a new English literature syllabus for the Advanced Level which to the consternation of the conservatives included the lyrics of a song by Bob Dylan. At Vidyalankara Regi's first pupil was the late Ranjit Goonewardena who following his master's footsteps was to introduce the Sinhala readership to the poems of Pablo Neruda and Anthonio Machado.

In mid life Regi Siriwardena studied Russian in order to translate the great Russian writers from their language of origin. He excelled in his translations of Anna Akhamatova who has perhaps captured best the sense of pathos as well as the sense of Russian resistance to the excesses of Stalinism. Fascinated later by President Gorbachev's democratic experiment in Russia, Regi flowered into Sri Lanka's most authoritative commentator on the developments in the Soviet Union.

This flowed from Siriwardena's study of Marxism from his student days. As a journalist he had met and interviewed Isaac Deutscher, whose three-volume biography of Trotsky is not only a monumental exercise in biographical literature but also a brilliant work of English prose.

Later during the Gorbechevian experiment Siriwardena was fascinated by the restoration of Nikolai Bukaharin who had been denounced and killed during Stalin's purges.

Bukaharin before his death had asked his wife to memorise a letter in which he explained for posterity that he was not the traitor that Stalin had painted him to be and after decades Bukaharin's widow faithfully recording the message sent it to Gorbechev who restored Bukaharin in the pantheon of Soviet Marxism. Siriwardena was fascinated by the interplay of ideas between Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Bukaharin, which was to play a crucial role in the formation of the Soviet Union during its infancy. Siriwardena summed up these themes in a play he wrote on the life of Bukaharin and was in communication with Bukaharin's widow.

During the last stages of his life Siriwardena was the Editor of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and was a father figure to the young academics and researchers of that institute.

He was horrified and saddened by the killing of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam which took place almost at the ICSES' doorstep and was a staunch advocate of a sane approach towards the resolution of the Tamil national question. On a different level he was also a passionate advocate of multi-culturalism which he has celebrated in his short novel 'The Lost Lenore' insisting that all of us are thuppahi under our skins.

Regi Siriwardena was the last great man of letters in Sri Lanka in the mould of Edmund Wilson who too was preoccupied with both politics and literature. Although a scholar he was no pedant. Although an academic he did not believe in intimidating the reader with the jargon of the trade. On the contrary he was one of the most brilliant and lucid writers of English who could write pellucid prose and had the rare talent of been able to carry both the general and intellectual reader through a formidable argument.

With his preoccupation with the history of ideas, literature and the arts, his lively inquiring mind and quiet wit and broad range of humanistic sympathies he was one of the last few renaissance men.

I don't believe there is judgment after death,
Or penal court of Yama: If there were,
And I were called to account, what could I say
In mitigation of sentence, but stammer,
"P-please sir, I tried not to be p-pompous ever,
P-pretentious, Sir, incomprehensible,
or b-boring". Would the judge pronounce severely;
"A frivolous trifler! He deserves no mercy,
I sentence him to fifty years of torture
Translating into Serbo-Croat the texts
Of Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha!"

(Birthday apology and apologia-eighty iambic pentameters for my eighty years - Regi Siriwardena, May 15, 2002)

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