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The many faces of Osmund Jayaratne

The death of Professor Osmund Jayaratne closes a chequered life which has left its imprint on diverse areas of Sri Lankan society. An eminent scientist and academic he was also a leading member of the LSSP and a member of the Colombo Municipal Council while at the same time being a leading light of the Lionel Wendt Theatre at the time when the Centre could still hold, Academic, Politician and Thespian, Osmund Jayaratne was a Renaissance man of a type which has made an immeasurable contribution to enriching the intellectual and emotional life of the Sri Lanka of our times.

Osmund Jayaratne belong to that generation of idealistic young men and women who were radicalised by the ideas of socialism as spread by the LSSP during its early days. While excelling himself in his chosen discipline of physics he also soon emerged as a second string leader of the LSSP and a formidable speaker in both Sinhala and English on both political platforms as well as study groups. He had a sound grasp of socialist theory and although not a theoretician in the same league as Hector Abhayawardhane or Doric de Soyza was a speaker much in demand at seminars and study groups where socialism was seriously discussed.

In the 1950’s when Dr. N. M. Perera was elected Mayor of Colombo much to the chagrin of the UNP establishment Osmund and Bernard Soysa were N. M.’ s main stalwarts. The filibustering speeches made by the two of them on the vote of No Confidence against the Mayor while waiting for a judgment from the Supreme Court have already attained folkloric status in the annals of LSSP history.

During the hartal of 1953, fifty three years ago Osmund Jayaratne was in charge of organising the Colombo South area. He manned an operational centre from a hideout in Wellawatte and was horrified when well-known LSSP leaders like Dr. Colvin R. de Silva arrived at what Osmund had made out to be an innocent middle-class household. Yet the hartal was a total success in Colombo and much of its organisation in the capital city was carried out by Osmund.

In the 1970’s during the government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Osmund Jayaratne was appointed Chairman of a committee charged with the reorganisation of the University system. In a radical measure which evoked howls of injured protests from the conservative academic Establishment the Jayaratne committee recommended a single University with Peradeniya, Colombo, Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya as its campuses.

Osmund Jayaratne will have his own space in the LSSP’s history as the proponent of the Second Resolution at the LSSP Convention in the mid 1970’s where the whole question of the role of the LSSP in the SLFP-LSSP-CP United Front Government was brought under challenge.

The Second Resolution was highly critical of the LSSP’s role and Osmund recalled much later how he was virtually pushed into the toilet of the New Town Hall and forced into withdrawing it by some very formidable LSSP leaders!

I first saw Osmund Jayaratne as a school boy in 1968 when the then Principal of Trinity College, E. Lionel Fernando, invited him to give some tips to the College English debating team. Being an actor no doubt helped but Osmund was a speaker in a class of his own where diction, delivery and body movements were synthesised into a delightful whole.

Very much later I had the pleasure of long hours of his company when along with the late Surath Ambalangoda, a former Editor of the Aththa and a formidable speaker in his own right and the late Lakshman Lokumanne, a well-known printer of the day, we formed a foursome who met fairly regularly at the Solis Restaurant at Koswatte Junction, Nawala when Osmund was living at Welikadawatte, Rajagiriya.

Osmund Jayaratne’s was a full life which was not without its afflictions and in a sense was a tragic commentary on the life of an intellectual in a Third World society. However his was also a contented life for Osmund Jayaratne belonged to that dwindling breed which refused to join the rat race, seek the baubles of office or surrender to the Establishment.

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