Elina, A charming, modest and simple First Lady | Sunday Observer

Elina, A charming, modest and simple First Lady

11 October, 2020
The book was presented to the Prime Minister at the book launch.
The book was presented to the Prime Minister at the book launch.

‘Elina Jayewardene’, a Sinhala biography of the wife of late President J.R. Jayewardene by Sagarika Dissanayake, a veteran journalist was launched recently. It is the first biographical work about a First Lady in Sri Lanka and it is Sagarika’s seventh book. The Sunday Observer met Sagarika Dissanayake to talk about her new book and the unique qualities she found in the late first lady.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography on ‘Elina Jayewardene’, wife of late President J.R. Jayewardene?

A: I like the character of Elina Jayewardene who was a charm, modest and simple woman. In comparison to the wives of our other Presidents and other women in politics, she was a real role model for all women. I also heard about the things she had done behind the scenes when President J.R. Jayewardene was in office. This is why I thought of writing her biography.

Q: How did you find the necessary facts for this book, because it was a decade ago that Elina Jayewardene passed away?

Pix: Ruwan de Silva and Sulochana Gamage

A: When I was Features Editor at the Silumina at Lake House, I tried to write a series of biographical articles on Elina Jayewardene. At that time Elina was alive. But I couldn’t get an opportunity to do that, because she was not interested in talking about herself or publicity. However, as you said when I finally ventured to write this book, most of the people who knew about her had passed away.

And there weren’t many other sources. The only written documents available to me were appreciations written about her by various persons. But Sriya Ratnakara, the late veteran journalist had interviewed Elina Jayewardene. President J.R. Jayewardene was with her when that interview took place. Actually, Elina needed Dicky (as she called him) to be with her during that interview.

Though the sources about her were very few, I could meet the three grandsons of Elina Jayewardene and also Charmaine Jayewardene, her former daughter-in-law. (the first wife of late Ravi Jayewardene, Elina’s only son). And also I was able to meet many servants of the J.R. Jayewardene family. I also met the wife of Premathilake Mapitigama, Private Secretary to J.R. Jayewardene and a few others.

Q: Pradeep Jayewardene, eldest grandson of Elina is a great source for you. Isn’t it?

A: Definitely. He himself wrote a memoir about his grandfather, J.R. Jayewardene recently, and many facts about Elina are included in that book. Here, I should mention that one of my journalist friends, K.C.J. Rathnayake, former News Editor at the Dinamina helped me a lot on this book project. He is the person who introduced me to Pradeep Jayewardene.

But I had to wait another six months to receive permission from Pradeep to write this book. Actually, one of his brothers totally opposed the writing of this book. But Pradeep Jayewardene, was very helpful about this project.

The facts from Pradeep and his other brothers were crucial because they were brought up by Elina after their parents divorced. Pradeep took me to various people who were associated with Elina, but unfortunately, most of them were too old to recall their memories of Elina while some were suffering from ill health.

But one person from whom I received valuable details about her was Dulanjan Subasinghe, who is a son of Elina ‘s sister. Actually, Dulanjan has made a family tree about his family along with a CD from which I found the exact origin of Elina’s name.

Her original name is Elina Bandara Rupasinghe. The family name is Surya Bandara, a prestigious award by a King Rajasinghe two or three hundred years back. As Surya Bandara is a male name, her parents removed Surya from Elina ‘s name.

Q: You mentioned an interesting story behind the name of Elina in this book?

A: Elina’s parents were very rich and had high social standing and Elina was their only child. Because of their class and wealth theay even didn’t send her to school. Elina was born in 1912 so home education was not unusual. But they had given her all the education she needed by getting British teachers to come home. She studied music, art, and even typing and shorthand with them. Actually, she had very sophisticated tastes in music.

When Elina’s parents were married, they went on a world tour. When in France, they visited a city called Elin. The good news that Elina’s mother was pregnant came when they were at Elin. At that time, they had decided that if they had a baby boy they would name him Elin and that if they had a baby girl they would name her Elina.

Q: In your research on Jayewardene, you found some of rare facts about Elina?

A: yes, I found some very rare facts about her. One is that her role in giving the presidential candidacy to R. Premadasa. Initially J.R. had no idea whatsoever about giving the presidential candidacy to R. Premadasa.

Elina had changed his mind and made him give the candidacy to Premadasa. Elina had said him “Dicky, your party is called Unge Neyinge Pakshaya (your relatives’ party). So, you give Premadasa the candidacy, because Premadasa is one from the people, he is popular among people. And he is the best candidate for the next presidency.”

Q: You mentioned that there was a close relationship between Elina and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike too?

A: There was an interest about Elina in S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake too when they were young. However, J.R.’s family needed to marry J.R. to Elina, partly because of Elina’s family’s wealth. J.R.’s family was very upper class. His mother is Helena Wijewardene, the elder sister of D.R. Wijewardene. So, they were naturally rich, but they sent a marriage proposal through a magul kapuwa to Elina’s parents.

Q: According to your research Elina’s family is very rich?

A: Yes, They had thousands of acres from Panadura where her ancestral home was, to Colombo Fort, and many shops along Galle Road. A land of fifty acres from Manelwatta, Kelaniya was offered to Kelaniya Temple by her parents. They were Buddhists. Actually, their family was from Kandy, they were Kandyan Walauwe families. The point I want to highlight is that J.R. came into politics because of the financial and other support given by her. She let him utilise all the property and other financial means for his political needs as she was the only heir to her family property.

She went from house to house and asked people in Kelaniya to vote for J.R., when J.R. was contesting the election from Kelaniya. When J.R. was defeated in the 1970 General election, he drove his car from the Parliament straight to his house called Braemar. It is said that when he saw the smiling face of Elina at the time, he relaxed instantly.

Q: Elina was a very compassionate person?

A: Yes, she was a very compassionate and empathetic person especially towards women and animals. When the servants and other people that I talked with, recalled their memories of her goodness, saying “Nona, rattaran nona kenek.” Actually, she never checked who used her lands and shops. She had many shops at Chatham Street. Once one family told her “Madam, we have no place to go. If you can, give that land to us?” At that time she signed the deed of the land she owned immediately.

One servant told me that she gave her the saree that was given to her by Queen Elizabeth 11 when the Queen came to open the Victoria dam in 1978. I got to know that she invited a hundred poor women to her house and treated them with good food monthly. And she constantly went to see her friends and helped them much when J.R. held the presidency and after the presidency.

She was the one who started the daycare system in government offices. She initiated this system through J.R. after she heard about the difficulties faced by the women who had children and no place to keep them when they were working in government offices. And it was she who started the Women’s Bureau. Even the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was also started by her concepts given to J.R. In this way, she has rendered a great service for women not as a politician, but as a woman.

Elina had a Secretary when J.R. was in power, but she advised her not to seek any publicity whatsoever for any projects or events initiated by her. The duty of the Secretary was to open the letters and respond to them. This was also a big task, because people had the habit of writing letters to her as they had the impression that if you write to her, things would be solved instantly.

Q: Did you meet that Secretary when you were writing this book?

A: Unfortunately not, because she was abroad. I saw her letter of appreciation which she wrote when Elina died. She worked as a Secretary to J.R. too. When J.R. retired, he asked her to continue to work for him. But J.R. had told her that he would not pay her from government money, but his own private money. However, she accepted his proposition and worked for J.R. and Elina free of charge.

Q: You are also a woman. What type of things did you learn as you researched her character?

A: I learned much from her character as a woman. She showed us how to live as a woman, wife and as a First Lady. In my view, she was the only woman in Sri Lanka who depicted the real qualities of a First Lady.

Q: Do you think this is a complete biography of Elina Jayewardene?

A: Not at all. This is the compilation of the facts that found when researching about her. But after I wrote this book, I received many more facts about her. Some people volunteered to offer information. Therefore, I have an idea to include the other facts to this book and publish a more comprehensive edition.