I was deeply saddened earlier this month to hear of the death of the marvelous Engish actress Geraldine McEwan. I had got to know her 30 years earlier, shortly after I joined the British Council, when she toured Sri Lanka with her one-woman Jane Austen show.
I had been determined to take the tour all over the country, but by then we were advised not to go to Jaffna. So we went instead to Batticaloa, where we found a most appreciative audience. Geraldine also had what was for her a first time experience, in that bats swooped in and out of the hall during the performance.
But she, and her Stage Manager Catherine Bailey, were infinitely adaptable, and said they had enjoyed the tour thoroughly. After the Batticaloa performance, we had a cyclone scare, and had to leave Passekudah, where we were staying, before dawn broke.
That should have been the high point of the tour, but what Geraldine and Catherine remembered most vividly, during our long friendship over the next three decades, was the previous night. After a performance at Peradeniya in collaboration with the university, Richard de Zoysa turned up at the Citadel, and we had a lively dinner which went on into the early hours.
Richard was a fantastic companion in any context, and he struck exactly the right note for Geraldine and Catherine who had a deep sense of social commitment. They would ask after him often in the years that followed, and were profoundly upset when he was murdered, 25 years ago. The fact that it was because of his passion for social justice added to the poignancy of his death, for them, as it should for all of us.
All this came back to me in reflecting on the fact that the JVP seems to be gaining ground now, with much confusion in government about its programme of action. I still believe that there is a fundamental commitment to the reforms we have promised, but we do not seem to understand the need for systems based on principles. It is immensely depressing that so many politicians still think that we are in office to cater to the needs, and even the desires, of our party faithfuls. If we go on like this, we shall sow the seeds for yet more violent reactions, and this time, with the increased sophistication of the instruments at the disposal of all elements in society, there will be greater and more sustained tensions and suffering.
We need then to concentrate on both Rights and Reconciliation. It is the carelessness and callousness that seem endemic in government systems that the Northern terrorist movements as well as the JVP capitalized on previously. Our faiure to make it clear that students are the central feature in our education system has made the universities fertile recruiting grounds for dogmatic opposition to the state, and I find it difficult to blame the students when I see how little is being done to solve simple problems swiftly.
It was his continuing commitment to the emotions of his youth, and his feeling for the underdog, that made Richard so sympathetic towards the JVP in the last few years of his life. His social commitment did not justify his abduction and execution, but it is time now to review the path he took in an effort to learn lessons about why and how an establishmentarian view of politics can provoke dissent that can turn violent. Unlike Richard I still believe violence is unacceptable, but I do recognize that the disempowered would not agree when all the might of society and the state is used to deprive them of the opportunities they so desperately need.
Richard’s boys, whom he trained in drama and self expression, at workshops at the university and the British Council, also taught him a lot. One moment that stands out in my memory is when he explained why the brightest of them did not want to join the Cultural Affairs Trainee programme I had started at the British Council. Initially we had had students from relatively privileged backgrounds, and they have certainly justified our faith in them, going on for instance to head English and other Departments in Colombo and Sri Jayewardenepura and Moratuwa (all my Cats are Swans, I would say, in a phrase I do not suppose many of our target group understood).
Richard’s protégé turned down the offer, he said, because he thought working at the Council would remove him from his roots. That boy had starred in some of the radical workshop theatre we had put on at the Council, with the guidance of Scott Richards, one of the other long terms friends I had made through his work with the Council. Madura had been fantastic in a skit which parodied the then President driving his Ministers like cattle, and for years afterwards my father whould recall his performance.
It was Madura who was arrested some months later, officially released, and then abducted. In such cases, our Liberal Party Provincial Councillor Gamini Guneratne (who had done much to help Richard trace the boy initially), they would almost certainly have been disposed of. He told me I should warn Richard to be careful, and I soon enough found that Richard was aware of the danger. He spent several nights at home when he thought things were getting too hot (including on the night of the last performane he did for us at the Council, readings from Browning, when he saw someone in the audience who clearly had no idea who Browning was).
So many memories, all full of incredible warmth and also a wonderfully whimsical view of the world, that he maintained even in those last few worrying months. He was also an enormous resource for me in that, while he appreciated my strengths, and was always willing to help in the various projects I devised, he knew too to advise with regard to the haste with which I always wanted to act, and the range of activities I undertook. I still remember him telling me not to be too hard on a particular student when I was trying to reintroduce at S. Thomas’ the discipline that had deteriorated so badly, and I have often regretted over the years that I was not more sympathetic, indeed indulgent, to the boy in question.
I tried to capture something of our relationship in ‘The Limits of Love’, the last novel in my Terrorist Trilogy, the first of which has been revived on Sundays in Ceylon Today. Ironically that book ended with the narrator, called Rajiva and to a great extent based on myself, ending up as Minister of Education. But this was after the Richard figure, called Richard, had been killed.
Some years back Scott made a film called ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’, about his death. Recently I was approached by Swarna Mallawaarachchi about a film about his life. She was going to play his mother, a woman of great integrity and determination, who fought for justice against heavy odds. The struggle was too much for her, and in time her mind gave way, but even the last time I saw her, at the home where she spent her last days, the warmth and the charm that Richard inherited came through.
I hope the film is made for, as Anne Ranasinghe puts it so forcefully in her memories of those who have died as victims of intolerance, it is evil to forget.