Vernon Mendis – the end of an era in Sri Lankan diplomacy
Posted on July 4th, 2010

By Mario Perera, Kadawata

The above headline in infolanka this morning informed me of the passing away of Dr.Vernon B.Mendis. I am not writing to recapitulate events pertaining to the life and work of this extraordinary figure that graced the diplomatic stage of our country like a colossus. I leave that to illustrious public personalities. My scope is a limited one, being reminiscing on some aspects of my personal knowledge of this exceptional gentleman.

 My first contact with Dr.Mendis was during his tenure of office as Ambassador for Sri Lanka in Paris. I was in the process of being recruited to the Embassy staff, and was requested to take a seat in the hall. As I entered I saw Dr.Mendis holding a conference there. He looked at me enquiringly which made me blurt out; “Sir, I hope I am not being a disturbance, but I was told to take a seat here”. He grasped the situation in the blink of an eyelid, smiled and nodded towards me in acquiescence. And so began my closer acquaintance with Dr.Mendis.

 My first awareness of the humane qualities of Dr.Mendis came immediately on being recruited for my post. The matter concerned the title that was being assigned to me. It struck my attention when I received a copy of the circular sent out from the Ambassador to all. It mentioned that considering my academic qualifications the intended designation was inadequate. He was informing all that I would therefore hold the post of “ƒ”¹…”Assistant’, which the circular said was one quite known in the Embassy milieu. I immediately phoned His Excellency and thanked him for his very sensitive gesture. His reply was very gentle and courteous.

 There were two traits that initially struck me about His Excellency the Ambassador. He entered office with a serious mien on his face. He hardly looked around but walked directly to his office. But all of us at the Embassy knew through our own experience and those of others that beneath this serious countenance lay a heart of gold. I remember the member of the minor staff who was reprimanded for dereliction of duty. An Embassy official was to report the matter to H.E.The Ambassador. We were all quite aghast contemplating the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. But the man concerned knew his boss better. He told us discretely; “nothing will happen because Sir does not harm anyone”. And so it was.

 I recall the day an important file went missing from a desk. His Excellency looked quite perplexed. We were around him trying to throw light on the matter. Then I ventured to say; Sir, one thing is certain, it would not have gone out for a walk. On hearing this, Dr.Mendis burst out laughing which helped to ease the tension.

 As his personally interpreter, I accompanied Dr.Mendis on his visits to French Ministers, U.N.E.S.C.O. directors and other great ones of the French political, administrative and financial community. His demeanour and bearing diffused an aura of nobility around him. Nature had already blessed him with an impressive appearance; tall, handsome, princely. He oozed self confidence. It was wonderful to sense the respect which his hosts accorded to him. It surpassed that due to his status of Ambassador of this country having to do with his own personality. Indeed on one occasion on being granted an honour, his communiquƒÆ’†’© to the Foreign Ministry made mention of that fact. I recall my distinguished colleague at the Embasy Dr.Jinadasa Liyanaratne telling us; “here is an Ambassador we can call “ƒ”¹…”Sir’ with hearts full of pride”. I recall also serving as interpreter when he received a delegation from an African country. One of them told me, that considering the stature and experience of Dr.Mendis, they would have some questions for him. But during the interview no questions were asked. On leaving the Ambassador’s office I asked them why no questions were put to him. The leader told me; “when you are in the presence of such a person all you do is listen!” Dr.Mendis was a well known historian of international fame. He was known to the directors of the biggest libraries in Paris who were also aware of his research projects. His knowledge of countries, men and matters was immense and profound.

 Dr.Mendis showed great kindness to me. Sometimes when passing the office in which I worked, he would peer inside and ask; “Mr.Perera, are you busy?” Then he would continue; “never mind you have time for that, come along with me”. Then I would travel with him listening to his discourses and accompanying him back once his appointments were over. He enriched my life in many a manner. But the most enduring one is this life long gift of being able to say: “I served under Dr.Vernon Mendis”.

 He was always present to his staff. Whenever his subordinates had  personal events to celebrate or to mourn Dr. and Madam Mendis were always there by their side. The biggest sofa in those homes was reserved for His Excellency and Madam Mendis. But Madam Mendis was constantly intermingling with the family gracefully and most naturally without the least affectation. On such occasions, her seat by his aide being empty Dr.Mendis would beckon to anyone passing him to sit beside him, by tapping on the vacant place next to him. He was also very knowledgeable on matters pertaining to cinema, his favourite director being Lester James Peiris. On such relaxed occasions this theme would invariably crop up in his mind and become a subject of discussion.

 It was also a treat accompanying Madam Mendis to “ƒ”¹…”Fauchon’ and other specialized caterers of Paris whenever parties were organised at the “ƒ”¹…”Residence’ for foreign diplomats, dignitaries and their wives. Madam Mendis had very refined tastes. She would tell the caterers what she wanted specifying every minute detail. All they had to say was’ “oui Madame, oui Madame”. Finding the appropriate words to interpret her ideas was quite a task even for a specialist interpreter.

 Dr. and Madam Mendis continued to be very kind to me even in later life. Once on seeing Dr.Mendis, his back turned towards me and clasping his hands behind, during a French National Day cocktail in Colombo, I approached him and wishing to play a prank, held his hands while he was in conversation with some invitees. He turned around and seeing me, exclaimed in the hearing of all; “MY FRIEND”. Here was the most distinguished career ambassador of Sri Lanka calling a subordinate staff member of yester years “MY FRIEND”.

 Dr. Mendis went out of his way to help me even without being asked to do so. When I presented him with a copy of my book on the Royal Botanic Gardens titled “Fountains of Life”, he spontaneously volunteered to write a newspaper article presenting my work. This article appeared in several leading newspapers; “ƒ”¹…”The Observer’, “ƒ”¹…”The Daily News’ and “ƒ”¹…”The Island’,

 Last year I phoned Dr. and Madame Mendis requesting their permission to dedicate my novel “Siripala the cinnamon peeler’ to both of them. On that occasion Madam Mendis very courteously invited me to their home in Colombo, stating that it would provide Dr.Mendis with a refreshing interlude meeting those whom he knew and loved. I went with great joy and presented them with a copy of my book. Madam Mendis expressed the wish of organising a get together at her home at a later date, with some of us who had served under her illustrious husband. Dr.Mendis was however ailing at that time and her project could not be realised.

 This morning when perusing the internet journals I read of his demise with great sorrow. Indeed Dr.Mendis was not one of the common lot. He was a rare comet that appeared in the skies of Sri Lanka and shed his luster on the country and her people. Now that comet is gone, leaving behind a glow of intense and incomparable nostalgy for what was; the splendour and glory that was Dr.Vernon B.Mendis

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