A tribute to my parents | Daily News

A tribute to my parents

Sam Wijesinha
Sam Wijesinha

It may seem parochial to write a column about my parents, but I was moved to do this by a fascinating discussion I had on Christmas Eve with Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I had not seen for many years. I realized that writing about what I did, or tried to do, with him, given his outstanding career as a Civil Servant, practically the last of them, would also be of interest. But today I shall concentrate on a train of thought he roused when, almost as soon as we were together, he recalled my parents whom he said he had hugely admired.

As we spoke about them, we registered how perhaps as a couple they were unique, in having in their separate ways had such positive impact on so many people, while having both contributed so productively to public life. And they did this over a wide range of activities, both of them.

My father was an innovative lawyer, and amongst others Daya Perera has written about how he was able to interpret the law positively to help so many. I have also always been touched by his hosting a farewell at home to Sir Alan Rose, when Sir John Kotelawala sacked him as Chief Justice and many of those in the profession were frightened to show any affinity with him. That paralleled what Mrs Bandaranaike said, when his foes tried to rouse her anger by telling her that he had not come to see her after she was elected Prime Minister in 1970.

‘Sam,’ she had said, ‘will come to see me when I have lost.’

My father in effect created the post of Secretary General of Parliament, and its prestige which has declined since his day. J. R. Jayewardene, who acquiesced when my father stopped his machinations (‘If you had not been here,’ he had once told my father, when he had advised the Speaker to disallow something J R tried to assert, ‘I would have got away with it.’), did not allow him an extension, and after that the executive dominated Parliament, with none of my father’s successors able or willing to assert the primacy of Parliament.

Family photo: Sam Wijesinha (Right) with children, (from Left) Sanjiva, Anila, Rajiva and wife Mukta.

J R, who had a healthy respect for my father, and was good humoured about his defeats, then made him Ombudsman, and he was able through his unique methods to obtain relief for several complainants, which has not happened since, for the reports the Ombudsman writes are ignored, with the executive having no compulsion to remedy matters. My own efforts to correct this, by insisting that they do what Parliament recommends (the Ombudsman is after all Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration) or else put in writing why it cannot be done, has not been understood, let alone been taken seriously, by other Parliamentarians.

For they have grown up after all under J R’s Constitution, which has firmly subordinated Parliament to the executive in fact if not officially, whereas I was privileged to learn about the power of Parliament through going there in the sixties, when my father started to work there. In those days the place was full of wonderful thinkers and speakers so that there was a balance between Government and Opposition, between the Executive and Parliament, with opposition to the executive also being expressed by those in Government ranks.

In penning this tribute to my parents, I thought initially of writing first about my father, and then my mother, but I realized that I should follow the spirit of my discussion with Dharmasiri Peiris, which motivated this column. They were above all a couple of outstanding capacity and decency, and it provides for better balance if the latter part of this column is about my mother, and I do something similar next week.

Dharmasiri, I should note, was even more eloquent about my mother than he was about my father. He knew her best, as indeed many people did, in terms of her involvement with the Girl Guides, of which she had been Chief Commissioner in the early seventies. Unlike her predecessor, she refused an extension, for she wanted her Deputy to have a chance at the office. That was Freny Jilla, and my mother was deeply involved in ensuring that the minorities too took office in the Association, other later Chief Commissioners including Julie Samuel and Yasmine Raheem, both her proteges in different ways.

She was deeply fond of Julie, and I remember her telling me, soon after her husband had died, to keep her busy, which I did by asking her to correct the project documents which were an exciting new element Oranee and I had introduced into the pre-University General English Language Training Course when we took it over. As I have always believed, which fewer teachers understand than one would have hoped, any work one gives must be corrected promptly and thoroughly, and in this regard Julie lived up to my mother’s belief in her capability, and did a very good job.

Julie and Freny and almost all Chief Commissioners since did not have my mother’s social standing, and that meant that she continued heavily involved, and was often the public face of the movement – as was the case when, fifteen years after she had ceased to be Chief Commissioner, Dharmasiri became Secretary to the Ministry of Education, and she would liaise with him about the annual grant Government gave the Girl Guides.

He told me he much enjoyed teasing her, and would ask her when she called whether she was prepared. That was typical of Dharmasiri, to know and make use of the Girl Guide motto, ‘Be Prepared’. When she said yes, he would ask if she was prepared for bad news, though as he put it, there was never any question about the grant. That type of whimsical relationship between an administrator and the objects of official benevolence does not I believe happen now.

My mother ended up as President of the Guides, an honourary position which in her time had been held by Mrs. Gopallawa, a lady whose gracefulness she much admired. But for long before that, she had been Treasurer of the Association, a thankless task which, as my father put it, when she sat up for hours in the room next to their bedroom, the dark room that had once been mine and which she took over for an office later, involved chasing five cents for hours. The surface she worked on was a chest of drawers, two of which had been linked by a seat, and it was always in a state of chaos, but she always made her accounts balance, however long it took. Again, I suspect such conscientiousness is not common now with regard to voluntary organisations.

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