Tribute to Dr Kingsley de Silva
These are the very personal recollections and intimate memories of my
father Dr Kingsley de Silva Deva-Aditya – a great pioneering eye
surgeon, medical teacher, humorist, amateur historian, an amazing
cricket bowler, born viveur and wit, who was born one hundred years ago.
I have now lived in England for 43 years and the intervening years have
made the memories of my father sharper and clearer to me and I felt it
appropriate to commemorate him by sharing these memories here on this
100th birth anniversary.
He was born at his grandfather’s home, Henley House, Horton Place
(now St Bridget’s Convent) to the Thakura Artha Deva Adithya
Gardiyavasam Lindamulage de Silva family of the Rajput Sesodla
My father was very proud of his Sri Lankan ancestry, being a direct
descendant of Rajput Thakura whose tales of daring do are described in
Mahavansa Chapter 90, lines 12-30 and The Kotavehera at Dedigama by C E
Godakumbura pp 14-15.
At an early age I was inducted to Sri Lankan history by him, having
been given a copy of the – Adithyawamsa, our family history, written in
high Sinhalese and Pali which was hopelessly indecipherable to me. My
father opened my eyes to the glory that was ancient Sri Lanka, with his
unique collection of books on Sri Lankan history; a subject I was
totally unfamiliar with at school having being taught in the English
medium. I was fully conversant as to why Cromwell ordered “that Bauble
to be taken away” and why King Henry said “Who will rid me of this
pestilent priest” while being equally clueless as to who King Mahasena
was or what King Vijaya Bahu had done.
I was also shown our family flag, family crest and even an umbrella
which I found quite an absurd thing to cherish! Later in life, my father
who was a devotee of Sri Lankan dance forms insisted that I learn
Kandyan dancing under the great Chitrasena – a past time I found totally
unable to master.
My father explained that Rajput Thakura having arrived in Sri Lanka
during the reign of King Parakramabahu II in the year AD 1237 as told by
Tod, in the Annals of Rajasthan, married the daughter of Vijayabahu III,
the sister of the reigning monarch. Later, when General Mitta
assassinated Vijayabahu IV in AD 1270 and usurped the throne, Rajput
Thakura personally slew Mitta and placed his own nephew Buvanekabahu I
on the throne. Later his grandson Thakura Mandilka Raja of Dedigama
established the Keerawella family which was the ultimate repository of
the Sesodla Surya Wansa Sri Sangabo Okkaka Lemeni Kula line of Kings of
The reason I have mentioned all of this in great detail, is to
explain how Kingsley de Silva as he was known at the time of his birth
under British rule was suddenly transformed to become Thakur Artha
Kinsley Deva Adtiya in later life and bequeathed to me at the time of my
own birth, a complicated North Indian Sanskrit based surname name which
I now carry and which leaves most of my Sri Lankan friends bemused and
strangers wondering whether I am Sinhalese or Indian. Deva Aditya, I am
told in Sanskrit means Sun God.
My father was orphaned at a very early age, his own father Francis de
Silva who captained Royal in 1894 having died in a riding accident in
Kurunegala at the young age of 37 when my father was 3 years old and his
mother following shortly, dying so they said, of a broken heart three
years later. This was a loss that my father never got over, telling me
from time to time when he was in his cups how lucky I was to have
My father was raised in the house, then named Lakshmi Giri (now Villa
Saifee) in Thurstan Road, the home of his father’s sister Mary (Loku
Achi to me) who was the wife of A J R de Soysa, the son of Sir Charles
Henry de Soysa of Alfred House fame.
I remember my father saying that his own childhood was emotionally
very hard, as an orphan being lonely and alone with his elder brother
and younger sister and being passed ‘like a parcel’ from one aunt to
another living in the lap of luxury with an empty heart and feeling
pitied by his numerous cousins. This loneliness that only orphans can
understand underscored my father’s determination as he later told me, to
study and achieve academic excellence at St Joseph’s College and so earn
the respect of his peers and cousins. Because of this he was very
grateful to those uncles and aunts who particularly cared him and as a
young child I was dragged along under protest on frequent Sundays to
visit them, a boring and tedious business for a 8 year old.
It was only when I was about 14 years old that I realized how famous
my father was, not as an eye surgeon but as a cricketer.
Time and time again I met his contemporaries who looked astounded
when told that I did not seriously play cricket, though given cricket
tuition at my father’s insistence.
Preferring to play tennis and go swimming. They were aghast that the
son of the man who had made cricket history during the St Joseph’s
College versus Royal College match of 1929 which was called “Kingsley’s
match” when my father took 7 Royal College wickets in their first
innings by achieving a double hatrick (six wickets in six balls) did not
play cricket. Though he never mentioned it, I now realize he must have
been enormously disappointed that I did not take to the game of cricket
as he had and not played for college as he had covering himself with
much glory as a googly bowler.
The War years were particularly difficult for him who having obtained
his LMS from Colombo medical faculty had to suspend his studies to be a
Surgeon and delay going to England to complete his studies. Having
married my mother Zita, the daughter of Senator Dr M G Perera in 1943,
he served as a House Officer in Kandy and District Medical Officer in
Badulla Hospital and left on the first available troopship at the
cessation of war to Oxford where he proceeded to obtain a DO (Oxon) and
DOMS (RCS) England. My mother followed him and only returned to the
Island in 1948 when she was pregnant with me so that I would be born in
an independent Sri Lanka.
Growing up as I did with a very busy eye surgeon father was quite an
experience. His work output was prodigious. Every day he attended the
Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital, becoming later in 1960 the Surgeon in
Charge of the new Eye Hospital, did over 100 eye operations per week and
attended to his private patients under the channeling system.
I remember him in his later advancing years holding out his hand and
saying to me proudly “still steady as a rock” given that even a slight
trembling of his hand would have meant the end of his surgical practice
considering how delicate eye operations were. Some of his poorer
patients would not afford to pay him and gave him gifts instead.
I remember the back verandah of our house covered with crabs running
all over the place given to him by grateful fishermen from Negambo and
the back yard with boxes of Malvana rambutans and mangosteens.
This drove my mother to exasperation especially when whole fish were
added to this melange. I remember occasions when patients paid him with
one orange or a small bag of rambutans because that was all they could
afford and my father would never have dreamt of asking for more. My
father pioneered eye surgery in Sri Lanka.
He conducted the first cornea graft in Asia in 1951 using intraocular
lenses. This was such a bold advance in Asian and Sri Lankan surgery
that the world famous Harley Street eye surgeon Dr Savin paid him a
visit to our home. During the party given in his honour and graced by
the then Minister of Health Mrs Vimala Wijeywardena my father showed all
of us a film of this delicate operation.
I promptly fainted that was the day, much to my fathers chagrin that
I decided not to follow him into a medical career but rather go and
study engineering. I don’t think he ever forgave me for this decision
though he was kind enough never to make an issue of it.
The sense of honour and his dry wit was legendary. He played
practical jokes on all of us including my long suffering mother who was
not amused once dressing up as tramp and chasing her around the house.
One of his medical students, now an eminent doctor regaled me with some
of his jokes recently, one of which probably the least risque of which I
will impart here. One day during a lecture he asked a female student to
tell them which part of the human body grew 10 times its normal size
The girl blushed stammered and said nothing upon which my father gave
the answer that it was the pupil of the human eye and then added as a
passing thought that married life would probably be a great
disappointment for the girl.
In 1962 he pioneered another innovation in creating the first Asian
Eye Bank. His pupil and junior Dr Hudson Silva later took this to great
fame throughout Asia. I remember the first faltering steps of this great
idea when my father asked people to donate their eyes and the first
depository I visited with him with all these eyeballs in jars looking
back at me.
Visit to England
His visits to me in England during my period of study at
Loughbourought University were sometimes hilarious. On one occasion, I
met him at Heathrow airport. He pointed to an Indian gentleman at the
airport who was cleaning the toilet and said “Do you realize that” the
English probably think you are like him and come from the very same
When I was at Oxford and called Kingsley de Silva, a woman asked me
whether I was a Portuguese coolie. That was the day I decided to change
my name to our old ancestral family name. That is why you were born a
He was bored in retirement whiling away his time with his old cronies
at the Club or at his rubber estate. He passed away in 1977: unable to
resist a final joke – his last words to my mother on his death bed being
that “he was going out for a six”.
The whole of Borella and Colombo North was one traffic jam with
hundreds of thousands coming to pay tribute to him at his funeral. It is
a reflection of his great contribution to life in giving eyesight back
to thousands of people that even today, 34 years later. When I am in Sri
Lanka I am not “Oh you are that British politician or that European MP”
but simply “Oh you are Dr Deva Aditya’s son ...yes I remember how he
helped my mother to get her sight back...”