Posted on December 3rd, 2014

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Sri Lankan Barrister Sepala Munasinghe, who had a lucrative legal practice in London for many years, is now spending his retirement in France with his German wife Dorothea. Apart from a passionate reader of the ‘Life Abroad’ column, he has been able to contribute various experiences of his own that have made the column more colourful. Last month he and his wife celebrated their golden jubilee in London with the family and their close friends.

When we met in Colombo last week at the Cinnamon Grand hotel for lunch, I managed to collect some interesting information relating to his student days in London and Paris including his initial experiences with his ‘then girl friend’ Dorothea, whom he met in Hampstead NW London. That itself was a fascinating story.

Sepala Munasinghe (Left) with the writer in Colombo

During early days in London he had his student digs in Hampstead. Telecommunication facilities at that time were not widespread; therefore, whenever he wanted to take a call out he had to use a public telephone in a NHS hospital, which was the only one available in the area.

One day when he finished using the telephone Sepala noticed two white Caucasian girls waiting outside the kiosk to use the same telephone. One girl was tall and brunette and the other was short and blonde. Even at that Sepala knew what his limitations were! He opened the door of the telephone kiosk in such a way for the tall brunette to enter the telephone box leaving the short blonde outside. There hangs the tale of subsequent meetings in London, Paris and Münster, Germany and eventually marrying her in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, with the blessings of his parents and family!

Algerian revolution

The Algerian War of Independence, or the Algerian Revolution, was a conflict between France and the Algerian independence movements from 1954 to 1962, which finally managed Algeria to gain its independence after a characterised complex guerrilla warfare. It was also seen as a struggle between loyalist Algerians supporting a French Algeria and their insurrectionist Algerian Muslim counterparts. Most of the former were carried out by the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), an underground organization formed mainly from French military personnel supporting a French Algeria.

The conflict made the French Fourth Republic (1946-58) fragile and unsteady and on the first of November 1954 French Presidency was strengthened with the appointment of Charles de Gaulle.

In 1962 the General abandoned the Colonists, held talks with the FLA and directed a referendum in which the French public voted for Algeria to be an Independent State. On third July (1962) the General pronounced Algeria to be a self-governing state.

In London

Elsewhere, in London South Kensington, Sepala Munasinghe was faced with a different dilemma. His girl friend of two years, Dorothea, was proceeding to Paris to prepare for a diploma in the French Language at the Alliance française (an international organization that aims to promote French language and culture around the world. Created in Paris on July 21, 1883, its primary concern is teaching French as a second language and is headquartered in Paris. In 2014, the Alliance has 850 centres in 137 countries, on all five continents).

In the meanwhile Sepala was getting prepared to write his final exam in Law in the Michaelmas Term. (The first academic term of the university year in a number of English-speaking campuses and schools, especially in the United Kingdom). Michaelmas term derives its name from the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, which falls on September 29.

He also had to keep three dinning terms at Lincoln’s Inn Hall before he could be called to the Bar in the UK. It was a case for him to decide whether he wanted to stay in London and study, or move to Paris and be with his girl friend!

After much deliberation, Sepala Munasinghe reminded himself of the famous Shakespearian advice couched in a speech by Brutus to Cassius in Julius Ceaser:

There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune….”. So it was, he decided to leave for Paris at last.

In those days Air France operated cheap night flights between Le Bourget and London Heathrow, flying Super G Constellation Airplanes. This helped him to hold his Dinning Terms in London, learn some French and revise his law lecture notes in Paris and take the night flights as well conveniently.

In Paris

In Paris he rented a studio flat in Neuilly – sur – Seine with Les Sablons as the nearest Métro (Underground Railway). The flat was adequate, although it was on the 12th floor without a lift! For showers he had to walk to the public baths situated some distance away. There was a Monoprix supermarket (a major French retail chain with its headquarters in Clichy, Hauts-de-Seine, France, near Paris) just by the Metro, and all seemed very convenient for a student’s life on the cheap!

Algeria having obtained Independence, life in Paris was relatively devoid of the disturbances that preceded the referendum at the hands of the ALN (Armée de Libération Nationale) – the military wing of the FLN. For the Algerians it was difficult to forget the discrimination that was meted out to the Muslims and the massacre of their demonstrators in Paris in 1961 by the Police. However, Paris became Paris with the Bohemian life style on the left bank where still one had to tread carefully.

Cous cous (a popular dish in France akin to rice, but smaller grains) restaurants were in abundance and that was all that could be afforded on a student’s budget. The French language had to be learnt during conversation with the ordinary day-to-day life in Paris.

Sepala Munasinghe remembered a French woman, of not too insignificant proportions, at the entrance to Monoprix supermarket, whose only task was to flog lobsters to the affluent people frequenting the supermarket from Neuilly. He became affable with her only because his was an identifiable face there; his vocabulary and the knowledge of the odd French phrase got a tremendous boost because of his acquaintance with her. His first name was not difficult for the French because ‘Sepala’ phonetically sounded similar to ‘c’est pas la’ (it’s not there!)

Paris at that time was culturally the Centre of Europe. For song there was Edith Piaff, for films Alain Resnais gave Hollywood something to think about with movies like ‘Hiroshima mon amour’ and for comedy Jacques Tahti was outstanding. Of course, for Haute Courtier, none could rival the House of Dior.

Sepala felt that whilst London was ushering in the psychedelic revolution, with Twiggy and others in train, movements of the like of Hare Krishna for eccentricity was hard to match! Beatles were everywhere and he thought Peace would really get a chance in the world Politique – not so, thanks to the almost maniacal thrust of the US for world domination!

Unexpected enquirer

In between all this, Sepala Munasinghe was able to study his law notes, fly off to London to keep his Dinning Terms in his Hall, until a minor crisis took place. He had a telephone call from a Monsieur Gautrey, speaking immaculate English and introducing himself to say that he knew Sepala’s father when he (Monsieur Gautrey) was working in Colombo at E. B. Creasy who were then representing Michelin in Ceylon.

Monsieur Gautrey was then Michelin’s International Director at the Head Office, and he wanted to know what the hell Sepala was doing in Paris” when he was supposed to be studying Law in London!!

Subsequently, when Sepala Munasinghe dined with him in a posh French restaurant he explained everything….. ‘not quite everything’ but sufficed to send a report back to Colombo for his father’s information’. At about the same time his girl friend’s father intended to visit her in Paris. Naturally things became too hot to handle and Sepala had to make a quick exit to London – law notes and all!!

The post script to all this was, like Brutus in Julius Ceasar, Sepala Munasinghe’s life was not ‘bound in shallows and in miseries’ but he had ‘taken the current when it served’ and did not ‘lose his ventures’.

Eventually, Sepala married his girl friend, Dorothea, in Kurunegala, blessed by his parents and family, lived for nearly nine years in Sri Lanka producing two daughters, Karin and Gitanjali. Married for 50 long years, the couple now lives in France.

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