BOY FROM CEYLON BECAME A MAN OF THE WORLD
Posted on July 3rd, 2014

Life Abroad – Part 86 By Dr. Tilak Fernando

The late Jinadasa Vijayatunga was associated with his first classic, Grass for my feet, an evocation of village life seen through the eyes of his youth and adolescence in his native home Urala. He wrote on a variety of subjects and through a diversity of literary forms ranging from essays, travel, biographies, religion, yoga and reviews.

Impressive journalist

Jinadasa Vijayatunga had a very impressive and an imposing bio data. He worked in London as a journalist attached to the London Times, New York Times, Manchester Guardian, Spectator and the New Statesman. Mr. D.R. Wijewardena appointed him as the first London Correspondent for Lake House during which period Vijayatunga had the glorious opportunity to cover the abdication of Duke of Windsor, as well as George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in England.

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The history behind this great literal personality is quite fascinating, yet equally sorrowful during his final stages of human ‘existence’. I was a student in London at latter stages of his life; I used to contribute articles to Sri Lankan English newspapers as a part time hobby when I was struck by a fascinating feature article in the London Evening Standard (Tabloid) by one of its staff correspondents, Angust McGill, who had written about Jinadasa Vijayatunga, whose ancestry went as far back as Alagiyawanna Mohotti.

Having read the colourful account by Angus McGill about this great personality and the distressing plight he was in at the age of 86, I was naturally tempted to go hammer and tongs in doing some research to find out Vijayatunga’s whereabouts. I became so keen to meet with this eminent character that has had an astounding career, especially being one of the rare Sri Lankans who had been moving with the kings and hobnobbing with so many international prominent personalities.

My first attempt was to contact the editorial section of the Evening Standard which proved to be the right target in my endeavour. Evening Standard editorial staff very kindly furnished me with the telephone number of Angus McGill enabling me to contact Vijayatunga.

Angust McGill was equally cooperative and forthcoming, and furnished me with Vijayatunga’s telephone number and his full postal address in North London. I became impatient and quite excited to meet up with this great Sri Lankan.

When Jinadasa Vijayatunga answered my telephone call for the first time, he sounded extremely friendly, obliging and treated me as a young son and invited me to visit him in his Haringey, North London flat ‘to have a long and a friendly chat’. Certainly he was at the time a loner and he very much looked forward to have human company and personal communication rather than spending his time ‘tap tapping’ at his typewriter continuously!

Face to face

On a bright and warm summer afternoon curiously, and to some extent anxiously, I pressed his flat door bell. I was received with a warm and charming smile. The moment I entered his flat, I was struck by a bout of sorrow by the fact, after reading a lot about him in the Evening Standard, how this great personality had to lead a lonesome life, at the age of 86, confined to four walls in restricted accommodation. It really came as a shock to me to observe the situation of this man who had been moving around in his hay day with the noble, gracious and the righteous in the world!

 

Within seconds of settling down in his sitting room, I could focus on the mountain of papers, books, photocopies and letters from eminent personalities in the world which in itself was eloquent enough to fathom the amount of literal treasure in front of me.

An array of personally autographed and framed pictures from King Mahendra of Nepal, Maharajah of Cashmere with his wife, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, Nehru’s younger sister and President and Mrs. J.R. Jayewardene added an extra luster to brighten the walls around him, as much as to this great personality’s past social background.

As I began to relax and be comfortable, he took me quite by surprise by asking me something unexpected: “Your editor-in chief has escaped two bomb attacks”! I was bemused and stuttered, “… You mean Mr. Edmond Ranasinghe….”? A snappy answer came from this veteran journalist: “If you are a ‘journalist’ you must read all the newspapers – Look here! Read this news item in The Times”, and then he passed a copy of the London Times newspaper to me while smiling.

Jinadasa Vijayatunga looked quite fit, healthy, agile and ‘with it’ at the age of 86. Starting a conversation again he, in a manner of speaking, ordered me: “Now, sit down and listen to me – you, of course, would not remember one third of the things you are going to hear from me”! His voice was firm, clear and commanding. I patiently listened with much enthusiasm, paying attention to every word he uttered like an obedient and disciplined student in the presence of a senior teacher.

Past history

Jinadasa Vijayatunga had graduated from Mahinda College in Sri Lanka, and gone to Bombay in 1918 to organise the National Boy Scout movement. In India he had been able make a successful attempt in bringing Muslim, Hindu, Brahmin and the low cast Harijans together.

On his return from India, he had been absorbed into the Ananda College as a relief Lecturer in English. Simultaneously, he got involved in journalistic work and commensed editing of an English monthly magazine called The Librarian.

When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike returned to Ceylon after completing his studies at Oxford University in Britain, Vijayatunga and SWRD embarked on a quarterly review devoting to Art, Literature, and Politics, which was known as the Island Review.

Jinadasa Vijayatunga explained to me how he helped S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike when he contested against E.A. Gunasinghe during local polls where the latter contested the Maradana seat, and how he tackled the ‘Chandiyas’ at Maradana junction who influenced all the voters in the area. I could see his change of countenance while relating the story how he introduced R.S.S. Gunawardena to SWRD: “You know, he was a teacher at Nalanda College, and it was I who took him to 42, Silversmith Street and introduced him to Bandaranaike – if not for that introduction RSS would have remained a teacher forever, but not as an Ambassador”!

When the illustrious poet Rabindranath Tagore visited Ceylon in 1927, he had met with Jinadasa Vijayatunga and offered him a lecturer’s post at Shanthiniketan to teach English, in the School Department, during which period Indira Gandhi had been a pupil there. Coincidently, at the same time, Lady Daisy Dias Bandaranaike had been very keen that Vijayatunga stayed with her son, SWRD Bandaranaike, in Ceylon. The temptation to take up the Indian appointment was too immense, he said, that finally Vijayatunga accepted Tagore’s offer. While he was attached to Shanthiniketan, Vijayatunga had been promoted to the Board of Examiners of The Calcutta University at latter stages. He had some fascinating stories linking the close bond between him and the Bandaranaike family.

He would start by saying, “Sir Solomon used to come to 42, Silversmith Street from Horagolla, Veyangoda. He was very handsome, tall, impressive and with good features. But SWRD did not inherit any of those, except of course he had that irresistible smile, so no one noticed his broad nose! I would be there daily to read his correspondence and write replies, and also to show him bills et al. SWRD would later sign all the letters”.

“Lady Daisy Dias Bandaranaike lived further up the street with her father Sir Christopher Obeysekera. I used to call on her frequently. When I was about to leave for India to take up the appointment at Shanthiniketan, she wrote to me asking me to stay back in Ceylon with her son and not to go to India. Subsequently, while I was at Shanthiniketan she wrote me another letter where she sounded somewhat melancholic about Sir Solomon’s infidelities ‘again’ with an English woman stating that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown”!

With a wry smile Vijayatunga told me: ” Sir Solomon had a weakness for English women”!

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To be continued….in 87

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