Time’s Music - Richard de Zoysa at fifty
Richard de Zoysa
Had he lived, Richard de Zoysa would have been fifty on March 13th
this year. He died eighteen years ago, almost the last victim of a
period of abductions and killings about which there were hardly any
protests at the time, except from a relatively small group of political
activists opposed to the government.
Basil Fernando, who now writes so eloquently from Hongkong, had had
to flee some time earlier.
The day after Richard’s body was found, Waruna Karunatilleke (and I
think Arjuna Ranawana too) had to be taken to the airport by a Cabinet
Minister, not by a kindly diplomat, for in those days hardly any
foreigner worried about human rights, except the delightful Mr.
Gladstone, who was in time eased out of the Foreign Office for his
I believe it was Richard’s death that changed all that. There was a
public outcry, which was taken up internationally.
The government of the time was after all the chosen instrument of the
elite, that still makes decisions, that still constitutes the lens
through which much of the West looks at us, and they had had no great
problem with President Premadasa’s suppression of the JVP.
But Richard was himself a member of that elite, the scion of two long
established families, one Sinhala, the other Tamil.
Even though there were crude attempts to justify the killing - leaks
about him belonging to the JVP, readings in Parliament from his diary in
an attempt to suggest that his sexual proclivities had something to do
with the death - in the end it was crystal clear that the government had
gone too far.
Limits of love
Certainly, it was almost immediately after his death that, his mother
would say, Ranjan Wijeratne called the death squads together and told
them, at a party at the BMICH she claimed, that their impunity was now
over, they would have immunity for anything they had thus far done, but
for the future they were on their own.
My own view, which I have expressed elsewhere, and most recently in
‘The Limits of Love’, albeit fictionally, is that President Premadasa
took advantage of the murder to call a halt to the killings that he had
begun to feel were unnecessary now. In that sense, Richard’s murder was
not in vain.
In the three years that remained to him, Premadasa managed to rid
himself of the legacy of the Jayewardene government - a legacy that had
brutalized the youth of two communities - and embark on a development
programme that would have helped to heal our polity had it continued for
a few years more.
But he too fell a victim to the terror that the government he had
served in for 11 years spawned, as Lalith Athulathmudali did, and Gamini
Dissanayake too, a generation of enormously able men sacrificed
tragically to the consequences of the authoritarian repression they had
not dared or wanted to oppose.
But the past is another country, to use one of those phrases we would
toss at each other, knowing the response they would evoke, and the
ramifications for the context we were considering.
So, now, what I would like to attempt, is to look at the wenches that
are not dead, the way we have all moved on, in strange patterns of
relationships that Richard would have relished.
His sense of irony was supreme, and when I read the current
pronouncements of so many of us, whom he knew, and nurtured, and mocked,
and dissected, I speculate endlessly on what he would have made of us
now, growing old in a way that he escaped (I didn’t really want to, he
would have said).
The richness of the pattern came to me in Geneva, when Arjuna
Ethirveerasingham, son of the famous high jumper, married now to Nimmie
Harasgama, half-sister of Preethi, gave Dayan Jayatilleke a book on
Sivaram, the journalist killed a couple of years back, perhaps because
he was thought to favour the Tigers too much, perhaps because he was
seen by them as still fiercely independent. Sivaram had been one of
Richard’s principal assistants in the Tamil language propaganda he had
organized for Lalith Athulathmudali in the mid eighties, when the
Defence establishment finally realized that winning hearts and minds was
more important than anything else.
Richard later introduced Sivaram to the ‘Island’ for which he wrote,
under the pseudonym ‘Taraki’, columns that were critical of the racism
of the Jayewardene government, but from a perspective opposed to that of
Sadly, because of the continuing failure of the Sri Lankan state to
integrate, its insistence over nearly twenty years on treating the LTTE
as the only real representatives of the Tamils, Sivaram - like Suresh
Premachandra, nearly killed by the LTTE in his EPRLF days - seemed to
move towards the LTTE, feeling perhaps that they had no alternative.
Young Ethirveerasingham, though of the diaspora, worked for the TRO
in Colombo during the Ceasefire, and now works for Karen Parker, the
lady who thinks child soldiers over fifteen are not really a problem.
Conversely Preethi Harasgama, another child of a mixed marriage, is
lost to us now in Europe like so many of our generation, who went abroad
initially because standardization meant they could not get into
university here. Prabhakaran, of the same generation, had no such
option, so he had to stay on and create a different type of future.
Richard, like his cousin Paikiasothy, also went away in the
seventies, but as children, which perhaps explains why in the end they
both came back to stay.
The latter, after doing brilliantly at university, returned despite
the urgings of his mother, who used to hold Chanaka Amaratunga guilty
for having persuaded him to engage in political activism.
Ironically, the oppositional position Chanaka and the Liberal Party
adopted to the Jayewardene UNP changed during Premadasa’s last years,
which prompted Paikiasothy to move away then.
He should, following the 1994 election, have been used more actively
by President Kumaratunga, along with Rohan Edrisinha who took the same
path. Sadly they only came into their own during the Ceasefire Period,
and seem now, perhaps unfairly, to be fervent proponents of the UNP/TNA
association that Ranil Wickremesinghe needs if he is ever to return to
Ranil, understandably enough, was one of those implacably opposed to
Richard, and seemed in his encouragement of the readings of the diary in
Parliament to believe that Richard got what he deserved.
Conversely C.A. Chandraprema, who was implacably opposed to the JVP
in those days, and seemed to make common cause with Ranil, now feels
that the UNP needs a change in leadership, and has argued the case for
this with a close attention to evidence that is unusual in the character
snap games that usually dominate discussions of political leaders.
Rohan Edrisinha I first met when Richard brought him to play the
older Wordsworth I think, in a programme I had arranged - in the first,
misplaced, flush of enthusiasm I brought to bear when I began teaching
at university - to introduce Advanced Level students to the wider
ramifications of their syllabus.
I had been astonished at the general lack of background knowledge of
the students we were getting, and with Richard’s assistance I arranged
some debate style introductions to Literature, in this case setting the
younger romantics against the older.
I have a vague memory that Richard also brought Mario Gomez along,
but my most vivid memories are of Rohan, in that wonderfully sonorous
lugubrious voice reading ‘The World is too much with us’, whilst Ranmali
Pathirana flew high with Shelley in
‘He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again’.
I can still hear her, as I did when Richard died, and the comparisons
with Keats occurred to many of us. Incidentally, it may have been Keats
that Mario played, if it was not Coleridge.
Mario was at St Joseph’s, which Richard used to coach for the annual
Shakespeare Competition to set off one of those wonderfully petty
rivalries that consume so much energy, that seem now to be replicated on
a larger stage. Ravi John was his other great favourite there, and he
helped them both to get through their Advanced Levels and gain admission
to University, Ravi to Peradeniya to read English, Mario to Colombo for
I think they both attended the classes we conducted at 8th Lane, in
the year before the world changed with the 1983 riots. Jeevan
Thiagarajah also came along, though perhaps our most famous pupil today
is Maithree Wickremesinghe, who was to marry Ranil in 1995, five years
after Richard’s death.
He would have relished that event, and in particular Maithree’s
transformation into a grande dame of letters, strenuously maintaining
her modest charm whilst presiding over the Galle Literary Festival.
That phase in Richard’s life lasted only about five years, its last
achievement being Nishan Muthukrishna who is now Consultant on Human
Rights to that Ministry, on the other side of the fence as it were from
He, along with the other Maithri Wickremesinghe, the boy from S.
Thomas’ who we thought would make an admirable teacher, had assisted G.L.
Pieris with the first constitutional proposals of the mid-nineties.
Nalin Ladduwahetty was in the same batch, the distinguished lawyer who
had to hold Rama Mani’s hand when she was questioned by the CID.
I suppose Rama Mani’s links with Paikiasothy, with Mario, with Nalin,
with Radhika (Richard was the first to be entertaining about her pottu,
with no trace of the ethnic criticism any mention of it now seems to
incorporate), illustrate why, in the mid-eighties, Richard began to turn
his back on Colombo.
He had been sardonic about the Colombo reactions to his superb
rendering of ‘Nallur’ at the British Council just a couple of weeks
before the 1983 riots. By 1984 he wrote, in an elaboration of the
Elephant/ UNP imagery he had mastered, how
The city now
Knows behemoths, aroused, will rule by riot.
We bow the head and bend a loyal knee
To jungle law, in hope of peace and quiet.
And by 1986, after my sister’s wedding, where he had danced
extravagantly with Ena de Silva, he spent hours explaining to me why he
found Colombo society stagnant.
By then he was working for the army, and travelling much around the
country. He still did productions for me at the British Council,
including a wonderful ‘Merchant of Venice’ which said more about the
corrosive effects of prejudice on perpetrators as well as victims than
any other production I have seen, but he was moving to working with
students from very different backgrounds.
He brought some of them into the series of workshops I had started at
the Council with Scott Richards, and they hijacked the productions into
being aggressive expressions of dissent: ‘What the papers don’t say’
which ridiculed amongst much else the state patronized Private Medical
College (I remember stunning cynicism from Nishan); ‘Twice Told Tales’
(dominated by Madura, the scholarship boy from Royal, who was picked up
during the JVP insurrection and never seen again, though in my mind’s
eye he continues to drive the bullocks of lethargy as he did in the
British Council auditorium twenty years ago); and ‘Elephants and Whales’
(by which time I think Richard was dead).
About his death I have written often enough. What grips me now is the
idea of his reacting to those of us who lived on, moving in what he
would have seen were fixed patterns, like Madura’s bullocks, in a world
that should have changed.
But I do not think he would have evinced the despair of Mabel Layton,
faced with the regimental silver in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. Rather,
having read what I have written, he would have mockingly exclaimed,
‘Flora Finching!’, and enjoined me to go on.
Such understanding I will not meet again. It was an understanding
that stretched in all directions, covering several aspects of a society
in which he played so many different roles.
To express then his appreciation also of the way time passes, let me
conclude with ‘Rites of Passage’, which he wrote for the ‘New Lankan
Review’ in 1988, when our worlds were already fragmenting and - had it
not been for that understanding - in danger of flying apart –
Rites of passage 1956
Api yamu ko josey
Api yamu ko josey
Api yamu ko josey, yamu ko josey, chandey damanna .......
Dakuna kakula perata dama; shata pata gala
1985 - Tangalle
Going in search of democracy
Off to the election Down South
Land of milk and honey and guns
(They call it shotgun democracy)
40 miles away from democracy,
The enterprise falters - it’s 2 a.m.
Drive’s tired, the girls need sleep
Pull into the Rest House.
No room at the inn, but parked under a tree
The others sleep. We can’t. Strange town. Strange smells.
Strange night sounds drive us out into the streets
In search of excitement - maybe in the South
Things happen near dawn that happen nowhere else.
Up and down narrow, winding, ill-lit streets
Past guesthouses - a sleeping petrol shed -
Back to the curving road that follows the coast
And the surf roaring faraway, nearer,
The searchlight comes screaming out of the dark
Blinds and freezes you, cat in the path of a truck.
Hands fly up
Then it hits you
Now you’ve done it
Now you’re guilty
Now can’t put them down till told to
And he can’t lower the gun till told to
That faceless voice behind the beam
This is the moment of truth
Wherever there’s a fence
Manned with guns
Stumble over the rough grass
Eager to show identity
Show we’re on the right side
- We were just taking a stroll. We’re going in search
of democracy, going to see the by-election next door
- Don’t you know these are not the times for nuts like you to be
roaming around least of all in search of democracy. This is our road and
it’s out of bounds.
- We didn’t know - we’re strangers here.
- In that case you should be fast asleep now move - before I call up
- We’re going.
In search of democracy.
(They call it shotgun democracy)
1984 - Elephant pass
Surely it was before this that I stood
Nerves shot to pieces, while the Lieutenant
Who found me blundering sleepless though the camp
Brought me up sharp with a command to halt
Then told me gently the whole perimeter
(I was not a metre away from it) was mined
Mind, he said
So is the water below the barbed wire fence
The searchlight glared at the shallows, fiercely challenging
Anything to move - And I was thinking of a swim!
Well, he’s dead now, and I’m alive
The war got him in the end
And he got a decoration
Defender of Democracy and the Nation
Still searching for democracy?
Mind those fences