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A Tale of three aeroplanes



The present-day sky is crowded. Airways crisscross above continents and oceans and are severely congested with all kinds of aeroplanes carrying passengers and cargo. Then someone crashes, people die, and we say, “What a shame!” The manufacturers start defending their aeroplane, the insurance companies look for loopholes to creep through and save their bacon. Of course, there is always the ever-present ‘pilot error’ verdict to take the final blame. That is what happens in air crashes and crash causes. The dying or the surviving is seldom man-made. It is all done upstairs and has little to do with what we deduce from what we know or hear. I have seen enough of the sky and what happens in it to figure that out.

On 7 August 1997, a Fine Air DC-8-61F took off from Miami International on a direct flight to Santo Domingo. It was a cargo flight, two pilots and a Flight Engineer plus a security officer were the only occupants. The DC-8 rolled off on Runway 27 Right and eased into the azure blue Florida sky.

That’s when the trouble started. The first officer was flying, and he could not control the pitch attitude of the aeroplane, and the nose kept creeping up. The speed started bleeding off and the big cargo jet stalled and crashed 3000 ft beyond the end of the runway. It instantly killed the four people on board and also a luckless motorist who was passing on the road beyond the airfield.

The investigation proved the DC-8 was loaded incorrectly by the cargo people and the trim settings shown were wrong.

The load sheet is given to the Captain a few minutes before the doors are closed. It shows how the aeroplane is loaded and how the centre of gravity is calculated by the load master who decides how the payload should be distributed. If he makes a mistake, and the Captain fails to notice it, no one would know that till the aeroplane rotates and the pitch attitude misbehaves. At times it could become almost impossible to fly the aeroplane.

That’s one down and two to go of the three stories.

The Ethiopian 707 cargo aeroplane was loaded and ready for takeoff in Fiumicino Airport in Rome on 19th November 1977. It was a two-sector flight, first to Asmara and then to Addis Ababa, carrying a consignment of tyres. There were five onboard, the two pilots and the Flight Engineer and two security officers.

The aeroplane was almost fully loaded with heavy cargo plus 11,000 gallons of fuel. The Captain checked the load sheet and calculated the take-off power needed and set the stabilizer trim according to the units that were displayed in the load sheet.

The 707 rolled out of Fiumicino and took off. It is not clear what happened; the theories are multiple. The 707 could not be controlled in the pitching and nosedived to a scrub bush jungle on the extended centerline of the runway.

All five people in the aircraft died. The 11,000 gallons of fuel burned the fuselage to cinders. Maybe the calculated trim was wrong or maybe the loading of the cargo was not according to centre of gravity limits. Some even said the cargo pallets may have shifted. Either way, the five people who died lost their lives in vain, perhaps due to a loading mistake.

And now I come to the third aeroplane, the one that got away.

No, this I did not take from any record book; nor is it a trumped-up story from a third or fourth party. This is straight from the horse’s mouth. It was the surviving pilot who laid bare all the facts of this incredible story. Captain Jaya Seneviratne is no more, he passed away some years ago. First Officer Nihal Jayawickrema flew almost every jet aeroplane that served Sri Lanka and retired after being the Director of Flight Operations in the national carrier. I write this in honour of these two pilots. Let the truth be on record, stated as it happened so that such professional pinnacles are remembered and told and re-told for future generations.

The year was 1971. The JVP had taken up arms to fight the ruling coalition of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government. At the start the armed forces were ill-prepared to contain the onslaught of the youth uprising. The pendulum swung both ways and hundreds from the two sides died in vain. I better stop that sad story now before I forget my purpose and blast away at things that are best left unsaid.

Ammunition and soldiers had to be moved to fight the JVP. Road transport was difficult due to guerilla-type ambushers. The safest was by air, load an old DC-3 and fly wherever you wanted. Such was the plan when Capt. Seneviratne and F/O Jayawickrema got onboard to fly from Ratmalana to Vavuniya. They had to carry some soldiers and a lot of ammunition boxes that weighed like concrete blocks. Of course, there were no cabin crew, and strangely more passengers than seats, more like military musical chairs. The plane had to fly to Vavuniya, unload soldiers and ammo and return empty to Ratmalana. Of course, whoever ordered the flight had thrown away the rule book. There was no LOAD SHEET. This was an emergency; nobody knew how much the payload weighed and where the trim sheet centre of gravity was. The Captain was a grizzly old school veteran, and the F/O was a bright young spark, and between them they were more than capable of flying to Vavuniya and back. Passengers seated and standing, limitlessly over-loading, and with enough ammunition to make it a flying bomb if any emergency occurred, somebody sure had vapourised the rule book. Had to be somebody big!

They started engines and taxied to line up on runway 04 (heading north/east) and opened full power for the take-off. It was slow to gather speed and almost ran to the other end before the Captain gently eased the control column back and got the lumbering DC-3 to get airborne. The instant Capt. Seneviratne lifted the plane he would have known something was very wrong. The old Dakota was climbing foot by foot while the F/O retracted the gear and the flaps. The aeroplane was still not climbing, the two pilots knew they were flying a heavily over-weight aeroplane which had been loaded with total disregard for its centre of gravity.

From here onwards I am writing exactly what First Officer Jayawickrema told me. This is no fairy tale, but some clever piece of flying which was completely out of the box.

The old Dakota crawled to 1500 feet and stopped climbing. Too heavy and completely out of trim. The Captain turned left and stayed on top of the northern Bolgoda Lake and followed the waterway to Dehiwela. There they turned left and followed the snaking canal to the sea, safe from tall buildings at 1500 ft. Once they crossed the rail-track and the beach, they turned North and flew over the water parallel to the coast. Now they were safe at this low altitude and the Captain sent the First Officer to check the situation in the cabin. There were 24 seats and 38 passengers and so many ammunition boxes that were loaded on the floor at the back. The seatless passengers had conveniently sat on the iron boxes and made themselves comfortable. No wonder the Dakota was over-weight and completely out of trim. It was a minor miracle the Dakota made it to 1500 ft. The pilots decided to fly low level over the sea and head North and somewhere near Kalpitiya to turn right and make a direct track to Vavuniya.

The Captain called the leader of the soldiers and explained and requested the passengers who had no seats to bring the ammo boxes forward along the aisle and the soldiers to sit on them. This was clever thinking. Boxes and men shifted up the aisle, the aircraft was better balanced after the seatless passengers re-located. However, the crew stuck to their original plan to coast-crawl and managed to climb a little too. They flew past Negombo, Chilaw, spotted Deduru-Oya and Puttalam and reached Kalpitiya. There they turned right to track to Vauniya, flying over Wilpattu and Thanthirimalai. The fading sun was still giving enough light and they came to Vavuniya and spotted a clearing amidst the scrub bush. The runway was just a flat strip, a relic from the old second world war days where the RAF had a squadron of Hurricanes based in Vavuniya. That was all gone now and there was only a little hut and a watcher who was there to guard (I do not know from what) but perhaps to chase the cattle that strayed on to the airfield.

The DC-3 usually approached to land at 65-70 knots. But the crew knew she weighed so much more than her maximum landing weight with ammo boxes and 38 passengers. The pilots had to come much faster to land and to avoid stalling the plane. The Dakota did not have stall warning devices. Capt. Seneviratne compromised and made his approach to runway 05 at 100 knots. It would have been an extremely difficult task, an over-weight DC-3 approaching at 100 knots, on a short field of around 1500 meters. There were no guide lights or runway markings to gauge the descent path. The flare alone would have been so difficult to judge; the deck sure was stacked against the pilots, nerve-racking to say the least.

They touched down and went straight for the brakes, but the speed was too high and the runway too short. The Dakota over ran the threshold on the far end and went into a ditch that was full of mud. The nose was down, and the tail was up but no one was hurt.

Considering all factors including the part they over ran the short, unmarked runway, I think it was a brilliant piece of flying. From take-off to touch down it was all seat of the pants out of the box handling and decision-making. My humble opinion says if one was to study everything that happened and how they survived – this sure was a class act.

The soldiers disembarked carrying their ammunition and the crew followed. They inspected the Dakota and saw nothing had happened to the rugged aeroplane except some torn canvases in the tailplane. Ropes were brought and the 38 soldiers pushed and pulled the Dakota and got it out of the ditch. Her wheels were caked with mud and the wheel bays too were pretty badly soiled. Once the soldiers got the aeroplane to hard ground they turned it to face runway 23. The pilots got in and they had to do a battery start. This was tricky, but the crew knew their business. The starter rotated the prop, fuel flowed, ignitors fired, and the engine coughed and smoked as the 14 cylinders came to life. That sure is the sweetest sound from a Pratt and Whitney engine. Both engines started singing and it was all set to go; the Dakota took off on runway 23 and flew to Ratmalana.

They radioed Engineering in Ratmalana and told the Vavuniya story. The men who manned Ratmalana were a special breed.They were ‘Hammer and Spanner’ trouble-fixers who were Grand Masters of the DC-3. By the time the Dakota landed the engineers were ready with high pressure hoses to peel the mud off and also had an expert to stitch the torn tail plane canvas. Some names I remember. It is my privilege to mention them. G.V. Perera, Noel Peiris, Sath Silva, JCT, Quintus Gunasekara, Piya. I remember, the rest were equally good, but I am sad I cannot re-collect all the names.

The engineers took over the aeroplane and the pilots went home.

The following morning my friend Jayawickrema rode his bicycle and came to the airport. The DC-3 was taxiing out for take-off, on the morning flight to Jaffna.

“She looked the beauty she always was” he nostalgically murmured. “Even spruced up by her high-pressure water bath. I couldn’t believe this was the same aeroplane that made an approach at 100 knots to land at a short strip in Vavuniya and ended up in a ditch, full of mud.”

Some pilots crash and die, and some survive. The script is decided by fate that flings the dice. You win some, you lose some and if you are lucky, you live to tell the tale.

Some call it consecration; some call it God.

It is as simple as that.

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India Forges ahead even arts-wise; Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy (?)



Hope springs eternal in the human breast, it is said, but if the breast is of a national-minded Sri Lankan, hope cannot rise; it is stifled by fear, worry, frustration and stark disappointment. Government persons are flapping their upper limbs and crowing about improvement in the economy; nothing much for us Ordinaries to experience or savour.

The President has announced the thuttu deke Sri Lankan rupee has risen against the dollar as if he had achieved the fall in the price of the dollar himself with his great economic expertise. Yes, the value of the dollar has declined from its 360 plus worth but if anyone has to be thanked, Cass boldly affirms, it is the Governor of the Central Bank, bless him, our Saviour at this moment. He works cleverly we have to presume, with dedication and loyalty to the nation, gaining nothing himself except his remuneration which we believe he could very well have done without as he was recalled from retirement in Australia to haul the nation out of the economic blackhole it had been pushed into by its own bigwigs – a past Prez, a former PM who, when he was Prez, borrowed mostly from the Chinaman to build his Ozymandias constructions to have his name emblazoned on them. Assisting these two, pulling the strings and side driving in government, was a former Minister of Finance who absented himself often from Parliament when the budget he presented was being discussed. Then there were ministry secretaries and CB high ups and a Gov himself who helped in pushing the rupee to near worthlessness and the country firmly into bankruptcy. This they did in brotherhood, three of them, and unitedly, willfully and most insanely with glaring mismanagement and mistakes.

And we sit and mourn and suffer on account of their mistakes. Some rose in unison and protested and we saw drastic changes in top positions but not in structures and systems. Naturally, and to be accepted, is the fact that recovery will be very slow and very painful. Those who rise up in protest now – chief among them being the IUSF and persons like Stalin whoever – are only a menace and obstacle to whatever economic progress is underway. We see and hear some of the earlier bootlickers of the R clan, or their kith and kin, pontificating again. Cass mentioned three such in her last week’s column. Add to them a horizontally gifted Minister who is guilty of and charged in court for soliciting payment to do some job he had to do; and another who is associated, wrongly or rightly Cass knows not, in the drug trade. He came to the limelight when rescued in a VVIP power driven helicopter with the said power as an actual presence. Only blood relatives are thus treated!

This is miserable Sri Lanka’s side of the picture. Cass cannot help but create the analogy of a beautiful damsel who pleases in every way, being raped by greed and lack of any sense of decency or humanity but totally for selfish gain by rapacious persons to gain power and enjoy the perks accompanying. Thus, she is grievously harmed and injured both physically and mentally. A brave person comes along and rescues her and attempts giving her the chance to recapture her charms. Cass supposes this could be the present Gov of the CB and not the IMF which organization has its own agenda.

And, so we have secured IMF emergency funding. We hear congratulations to Prez Ranil W being extended by SLPP MPs in Parliament. The SLPP may gloat but the Prez has wisely warned our troubles are far from over. TV1 in its news broadcast on W  ednesday night had an accurate recalling of how the IMF loan came to be granted.

Hearing the loan was approved and the first tranche would soon be released had the immediate image crossing Cass’ mind of some in power salivating with selfish greed to get their hands on bits of it. But to her great delight she finds that one superb condition, loudly greeted, of granting relief through the IMF is that corruption must be reduced and eradicated. Tall order but it is there in black and white so maybe ticking minds will slow down and seeking/grabbing hands held back.

My title speaks of India. Yes, it is outstandingly clear how far India has progressed in its development and position it now holds in the world. She was burdened with a huge and ever bloating population; widespread poverty; a high percent of illiteracy and lack of education; internecine strife between races and religions and the ever-bubbling Kashmir problem. But just see how far she has progressed, outpacing some developed countries, almost on par with China and courted by the US and EU. I remember vividly a cartoon seen when she entered the Nuclear Club which had just five members. The cartoon showed a bare-bodied man in a dhoti entering a posh club with its wide chairs and bar. India now hopes to join the outer space travellers’ club. There was rampant corruption but laws and the right for the public to report and even bring to Court malpractices of bureaucrats and politicians has reduced the prevalence of this canker. Vigilante groups rendered great service.

I mentioned the arts in my title. This because India has bagged two Oscars this year, one for best short documentary and the other for best song. I watched both films: Elephant whisperers and RRR. The first was of an elephant nursery in South India. I thought our Uda Walawe elephant orphanage where abandoned infant animals are nurtured and rehabilitated to go back to their jungle living could have been filmed to an even better documentary. RRR had the rousing song Naatu, Naatu. Goodness! It was a typical South Indian, though Hindi film of impossible feats of bravery, blood drenched and insanely melodramatic. But the songs were superb.

It was said three conditions held the vast subcontinent as one country – after Pakistan broke away. They were: the continuation of democracy and the efficient bureaucracy the British left; the widespread use of English and it being the main language of communication between the centre and states; and communication in the way of a wide web of railways. Cass feels the most important positive that not only held the country as one vast collection of states but also aided its development and march forward to be one of the VIP countries of the world is that Indians are first and last Indians, whether of the south, east, north or west; and their ardent patriotism.

We Sri Lankans lack these great and good qualities.

We invariably intoned “poor Bangladesh”, considering it would always be battered by tidal waves and floods and continually poverty stricken with two widows clawing for power. Look at her now! She lent us money; she is moving upwards as a self-sufficient country looking after its population. While our GMOA and universities acted strong against private medical education, a college in Chittagong earned plenty forex from just our students alone among its international student body.

A radical change in systems, mass and individual behaviours and mostly in those who rule the country is urgently needed. We are in another debt, this time to the IMF. We need to get back on our feet. We stood firm a couple of decades back. With our positives, mainly of clever, educated people, and potential of the country we can get out of the dire straits we are in. Will we even now wake up and work unitedly while getting rid of the dregs of society that wield power?

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The Box of Delights



Seeing through testing times and the future

Text of the Keynote address By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.

At the beginning of this year I read again, after well over half a century, a delightful book by John Masefield, called The Box of Delights. A feature of this box was that it allowed one to travel swiftly, and to make oneself very small. It struck me then that these magical properties were what is needed for us to do better in the field of English Language Teaching. Those making the running as it were must move very quickly, and they must be able to think like the young do, the very young but also all those students who need to be motivated to learn.

Unfortunately, all efforts to take things forward have to contend with the blockages imposed by the equivalent of Masefield’s coven of witches in an earlier novel, The Midnight Folk, now turned sanctimonious as potential churchmen in The Box of Delights. Who these are in real life varies from generation to generation, but what they have in common is slowness of thought and execution, and an incapacity to think except as adults, and sometimes not even that!

At the end of last year, I came to this university to celebrate a welcome initiative on the part of your Library, together with Madhbhashini Ratnayake of the English Language Teaching Department, the first major contribution to English Language Teaching – or Learning as I prefer to term it – since the nineties. In that decade too personnel at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura played a major role in taking things forward, and I was happy to learn that now too those in authority have given unstinting support to the innovations your colleagues are trying to introduce nationwide. But remember that the midnight folk are always waiting to pounce, the negative ones, though I should note that Masefield also thinks of the little people who help as midnight folk, working with their lights under a bushel.

Let me now speak briefly of those initiatives of the nineties, even though this may seem an arrogant move, given how central I was to all the developments of those days. But I should make it clear that none of this would have been possible without not just strong but also imaginative support from many others, including two fantastic practitioners of English Language Teaching at this University, Parvathi Nagasunderam and Oranee Jansz. Interestingly, the latter was not initially enthusiastic about the former joining the university, because she was a strong proponent of autonomy for the English Language Teaching Unit, and resented what she thought was potential interference by a recruit to what was then the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies. The then Vice-Chancellor had expressed the view that Paru should be appointed to head the ELTU, but there was such opposition to this that the incumbent who had resigned reassumed the position.

Oranee herelf changed completely when there was opposition on racist grounds to Paru by other members of the ELTU, and not only supported Paru thereafter, but took another Tamil recruit whom the other ladies were attacking to work with her in the Medical Faculty. Her imaginative approach there meant that USJP medical students were accepted much sooner by the medical hierarchy than graduates from other new medical faculties – since as you know the establishment in this country belittled any new medical faculty, and in turn, when that faculty gained wider acceptance, it joined the old guard in belittling new ones. Kelaniya and Ruhuna and Sri Jayewardenepura and Rajarata have suffered such persecution in turn, though perhaps that mentality has now changed for the Sabaragamuwa Medical Faculty has not had to face similar belittling.

My return to the state system was because of an initiative by Prof Arjuna Aluvihare to extend opportunities in tertiary education, and to do this in particular with regard to English. Typically, the Midnight Folk sniffed at this, anguished by the thought of English being made available at tertiary level to students who had not studied English at the GCE Advanced Level, in short, to students outside the charmed circle of Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna. After all, as one professor put it, when earlier I had suggested syllabus revision to incorporate Sri Lankan writing in English, her students could go to Cambridge for postgraduate work, though in actual fact no one from that university or indeed any other in Sri Lanka had gone there for postgraduate work for two decades.

So, it was USJP that took up the challenge, through the then Dean of Arts, Mahinda Palihawadana, whose erudition too I see has been honoured by the republication of a seminal work on the Vedas. Given his wide-ranging sense of commitment to students as well as books, he roped me in, and persuaded me to join the university, which seemed essential to keep things going, for he himself was on the verge of retirement. So, I not only took charge of the English Diploma course at six Affiliated University Colleges and of General English at five others but also transformed English at this university, introducing an English Language component in addition to English Literature. And this was available also in the External Degree we started, which rapidly became the most popular external degree in the whole university system.

I was able to do all this because of the wonderful support I had in the Department, and in time Paru expanded on this, when, finally, an English Department was established here. She also when we requested this from the Ministry introduced English Language Teaching as a component of the external degree, which was a great boon to teachers nationwide. Again, in those days, at the turn of the century, the other universities refused, for they still believed pedagogical skills had nothing to do with academia.

That situation has now changed, and all universities I believe understand the need for this, though I fear the idea has not penetrated into other skulls, whereas we also need for instance components of teaching mathematics in university mathematics degrees, if we are to develop STEM education. But while successive ministers of education talk about this, they will not ensure the elementary measures needed to promote such education, namely to produce better teachers – and swiftly, as I started by saying we must ensure with regard to all positive measures.

I have spoken thus far of the colleagues I worked with in the university system to change things so swiftly in the nineties, after half a century of moribundity as to tertiary level English. But there were also other tools essential to take things forward. The most important of these were materials, and materials that could be made readily available, for students to be able to own them and work with them on their own.

This was an area in which The Midnight Folk had a particularly baneful impact. They did not believe in materials which students could use on their own, and instead thought that education demanded power in the hands of the teacher. Thus materials were not easy to understand, and had to be explicated further, and all this meant enormous profits for those who produced materials, books prepared by teams whose members vied to impress each other rather than produce what students could readily understand, and then teachers’ guides which also had to be studied, and only by the teacher. The fact that these did not always reach students and teachers in time – the more remote the area, the greater the delay in transmission – meant nothing in a context in which the production of materials, and the money made on them, through allowances for preparation and contracts for printing, was an end in itself, with little thought for the use that was to be made of them.

I transformed this, using a system I had instituted while at the British Council, where fortunately those in charge accepted my argument that we needed to develop the reading habit, and we could best do this by producing low cost readers. A stream of these were produced, initially costing Rs. 5 each, which meant they were snapped up by students all over the country. And thus we could reprint without further subsidy.

We had produced well over 50 titles at different levels by the time I joined USJP, and we then produced dozens more which were made available to students, some at just Rs. 10. Needless to say I was accused of making money on this, though the students themselves, who had initially objected to paying for materials – provoked by The Midnight Folk who did not like the successful impact of my programmes – agreed that Rs 10 simply covered costs and that, having got money, from the Canadians who were very supportive, to publish the first copies, I was not going to go begging again to them.

Unfortunately, this very simple principle, that we cannot live for ever on handouts, is very far from the minds of our decision makers, for as you can now see, when we are hopelessly in debt, the only answer they can think of is more debt. The idea of generating income, of using borrowed money only to promote productivity that can pay for itself, the horror of sinking further and further into debt that future generations will have to repay at the cost of their own productivity, is not something that occurs to the unimaginative Midnight Folk.

To return to the idea of producing our own, I believe that over the years I have been responsible for well over a million books for language learning, which were snapped up by students all over the country. I had wonderful collaborators in this project, Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Sybil Wettasinghe and Madhubhashini Dissanayake as she then was for primary and secondary level, Madhu again and also Nirmali and then Janaki Galappatti (and a team of university scientists) and Goolbai Gunasekara and Oranee and the ELTU head Damayanthi Ahangama for tertiary level, Paru and Dinali Fernando – who was at USJP for several years – and Rapti de Silva, later of Moratuwa University, for pedagogical input.

We used these materials, refined further, when Oranee and I were also asked to take charge of the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) project, where we changed the term teaching to training, for we were also concerned to introduce soft skills, the first time in this country, long before they became fashionable – and still with no proper system to develop them nationwide. Sadly the Life Skills curriculum developed when I headed the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education was perverted to exclude this, with a change of Minister and another of the Midnight Folk appointed in my stead. Entertainingly that same Minister is now in charge of education, and tertiary education and vocational education too, for the umpteenth time, with nothing to show for his many periods in office, only sanctimonious pronouncements.

(to be continued)

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Happy Birthday dearest Mrs. Peries !



Dear Mrs. Peries,

So you would have turned 88 today, 24th March 2023. On a day like this, my mind goes back many, many years, to all those birthday parties and celebrations at the old Dickman’s Road (Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha) house.

Birthday month at No 24 residence spanned both March and April and usually kicked off today, when in the morning you would offer dane to the Bellanwila Temple.The floors were polished, as was the gleaming brassware. The prized crystal ware would sparkle from inside the glass cabinets and the vases would brim with flowers. The birthday mood was all pervasive.

That faithful telephone, the much memorised 011.2588822, would ring incessantly right through the day and this was perhaps the only day in the year when LJP would not volunteer to answer, since the calls were invariably all for the Missus.The evening was generally a subdued quiet affair with family from both the Peries and Gunawardene sides, and a few very close friends, and even fewer from the big screen.

I remember Mrs. Paddy Mendis, a regular birthday visitor. After all it was during her husband Dr. Vernon Mendis’ tenure as Ceylon’s Charge d’Affaires in Paris in the late 1950s that LJP first met you, when en route to Cannes with Rekawa.Remember how you carefully chose your short eats. Getting pride of place were your favourite delicate asparagus sandwiches. Coming a close second would be those cheese and chicken bouchees, and the ginger beer and the iced coffee.

There would be Nuran Gomez, the great-grand-nephew from the Peries side, at the piano, tickling the ivories and entertaining everyone with music from the Peries’ films and old world continental hits much to LJP’s delectation. Aaahhh such lovely soirees those were.

Today would also begin the countdown to 05th April, when No 24 literally overflowed with humanity and when the maestro would blow the increasing numbers of candles on his cake. Oh 04th April is another story altogether !

Yes No 24 overflowed with humanity from the film industry. But then as I sadly observed over the years, as the both of you made fewer and fewer films, those crowds decreased. When the both of you finally stopped making movies, he with Ammawarune (2006) and you with Vaishnavee (2018), those numbers dwindled down to a mere handful from the film industry. You were left with family and a few very close friends.

I remember one of your birthdays a few years ago when you and I decided to go on a “loaf” one evening. We drove around, loafing around, I actually forget where, and when we finally got hungry it was past 10.30 pm when most of the restaurants were closed. We were hungry, very hungry and there was no place open.

I remember calling my good friend Harpo Guneratne who, in turn, immediately called the staff at Harpos Pizza Pasta Parlour on Mirihana Road, Nugegoda and told them to keep the shutters open despite it being way past closing time. The boys were there, all smiles, to greet and serve the celebrity Birthday Girl guest.

I remember, very, very vaguely, another birthday soiree in the late 1990s in Paris when you were our Ambassador. It was just LJP and You and I in that beautiful salon at your Ambassadorial apartment on the Avenue de Longchamps with the French cheeses and the wines, and Coq-au-Vin for mains, and as the champagne popped we sang Joyeux Anniversaire in French. Quelle nostalgie !!!

‘Carols for LJP’ at Christmastime was yet another looked forward to event at the old Dickman’s Road House with Nuran Gomez once again at the piano and everyone joining in lustily. What absolutely memorable and joyous soirées those were.

There were also those New Year’s Eves when you lit sparklers in the garden with Kumudu Casie Chetty, Surangani Wijewickrama and Lalinka Mutukumarana and much to LJP’s fretting and concern, those after-dinner chats that went on beyond midnight, the impulsive drives we went out on for iced-cream and those occasional dinners out. Those were the simple pleasures of life you also rejoiced in.If I were to go back in time, the both of you came into my life that morning in 1986 when I walked into your Dickmans Road sitting room and we shot my first ever interview with you for “Bonsoir” for the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka. I was in great awe and felt terribly small and insignificant in your presence.

Little did the three of us ever realise that this was to be the beginning of our private lifelong bond … sealed by France and the French culture and language. Yes it was our very private “Club Français”. In it we regaled. In it we journeyed through French history, gastronomy and culture through our innumerable chats. In it we constantly celebrated the francophones and francophiles in us. LJP was the first to leave us and our little Club got empty. Mrs. Peries now you, and our Club is emptier than before.

Seated in the audience at the BMICH that afternoon in January 2022 with Nadeeka Gunasekare and Yashoda Wimaladharma, I vividly remember the joy jubilantly splashed across your face when the University of Kelaniya conferred on you an Honorary Doctorate (Sahithya Chakrawarthi). Your portfolio of honours and achievements was finally complete. You were now Dr. Mrs. Sumitra Peries.

And exactly one year later you’re gone. Mrs. Peries, as I write this piece I don’t think even you realised, two months ago, that you would go, go just like that, in literally a flash. Yes you were ailing but you were ok too. And then suddenly you were gone.

That evening at the Independence Square was sad and overcast as the flames consumed all that was mortal of you, at almost the identical spot they did to LJP five years ago in 2018. And as I did with LJP too, I patiently sat there by your pyre, in the intermittent drizzle that evening, and stayed with you way past midnight, until you were finally gone, until all that was you turned into soft, burning hot ash. Those images still haunt me.

My dear Mrs. Peries, it’s already two months and a week for today, since you’re gone … gone on your journey in Samsara. The inescapable humdrum of life has overtaken us all, yet the grief still persists, thick, viscous and heavy. It sits like glue at the bottom of my heart.

The nation mourns. The film industry mourns. Family, friends and colleagues still mourn. I too grieve my very personal loss, yet celebrating the memory of two wonderful people who lit up my personal and professional lives and who were also my ‘alternate’ Father and Mother. You often referred to me as “the son we both never had”. The feeling was absolutely mutual.

Yet … just as a rainbow slowly appears after a torrential downpour, there is also a very strange sense of joy … joy as we now celebrate your life and everything you meant to a lot of people.As you journey on … what more can I say but “Thank You / Merci Beaucoup” for the memories, those warm, cheerful, nostalgic and indelible memories. May your journeys through Samsara be speedy my dearest LJP and Mrs Peries, my ‘adopted foster mother and father’. Love you both from the depths of my heart … always … and beyond always.

Joyeux Anniversaire
– Happy Birthday Mrs. Peries.

Kumar de Silva
Trustee – Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation

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