Tales of a lifetime
A perfect gentle knight

My grandfather, Sir James Peiris, gained a double first at Cambridge. He was awarded First Class Honours in the Law Tripos and the Moral Science Tripos. He was the first Asian to be the President of the Cambridge Union Debating Society.

A fellow undergraduate, G. C. Moore Smith, had this to say of him when he left Cambridge. "Peiris’ work for which he had come to England was done. It had been achieved with a brilliance and completeness probably never equalled".

In the biography of my grandfather written jointly by W. T. Keble and Surya Sena, his several brilliant achievements are described in detail. Among these are stated: First speaker of the Ceylon Legislative Council and Pioneer in Constitutional reform, District Judge, Initiator and Organiser of the Ceylon Social Service League, served on several committees such as the National Congress, Low Country Products Association, Sinhalese Sports Club of which he was elected President and University Project.

In this short tale, while recognising his greatness in the secular sphere, I will stress his basic goodness and humanity, his strong religious faith and regular attendance at church with his wife and family. And last, but not least, his concern for his fellow man. However busy he may have been, no one who came to him for help or advice was turned away. He was available to all.

My grandfather died in harness aged 73. Until shortly before his final illness he was actively engaged in serving his country in several capacities, including that of Speaker of the Legislative Council. He had by dint of hard work while engaged in his state duties, managed to buy and develop various coconut properties. Occasionally, during the weekend he would visit the properties and speak to the labourers working on the property. Very often he would ask me to accompany him. I remember these occasions well. Because we would set out early in the morning before sunrise. And we were back in time for lunch.

I saw for myself the respect and admiration of his workers as he walked around the estate with them, how diligently they listened to everything he said. He did not confine his attention only to the Superintendent. Rather he made it a point to meet all his workers.

As I look back on those days, I recall how I was impressed by his quiet dignity and the innate kindness that was an essential element in his character.

Both my grandfather and grandmother loved me very much. I suppose, because I was the eldest grandchild. And I used to accompany them when they went up to their holiday home in the hills. That was at Hawarden in Haputale.

Often, after dinner we would play cards. It was here that my grandfather showed how very human he was. Whenever he had a good card to play he would say "come on, come on, play". And hurry us up to play our cards. Then he would trump us all and be very happy.

Great delight

He was very fond of good food and took great delight in its preparation. Every day the cook would come to him for instructions as to how the food was to be prepared. He was an arbiter of taste and the cook would know at the end of the interview how exactly the meal was to be prepared.

A gourmet indeed. As for wine, he was a connoisseur. And when he took up his wineglass he would whirl the glass before drinking, as all good wine drinkers do.

Among his numerous activities and interests there was probably no cause that was dearer to my grandfather’s heart than social service. No poor man was ever turned away from his office without being given a hearing.

His interest being aroused, he set about to acquaint himself with the knowledge that he required for launching a scheme of social service. When his scheme was clear in his mind, he acted. On the 29th January 1915, the first General Meeting of the League was held at the Pettah Library. Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was voted to the chair. My grandfather and the Committee laid down the Objects of the League. Primarily to improve the condition of the poor and the neglected classes. And provide them with education, economic improvement, sanitation and hygiene and medical relief.

In 1917 my grandfather became Chairman of the League and my grandmother recalled how he gave every Sunday afternoon to go and inspect the work and to see the babies being fed at the Welfare Centre.

Social service work

In the course of his social service work, which he kept up faithfully ever since the social service league was founded, he felt the need of a home where children who were recovering from sickness could live in healthy surroundings. He found and bought a suitable site and planned the building and supervised and paid for its construction. The Home, which was situated in Mount Lavinia was opened on 25th July 1928 by the Governor, Sir Herbert Stanley, a personal friend of my grandfather. It was known as the Sir James Peiris home for convalescent children.

When the year 1930 was ushered in, none of us suspected that it was to see the end of his earthly life. He continued his work in the Legislative Council and his membership of many committees without any sign of approaching illness. In April 1930, he went to Haputale to his home in the hill country as usual to relax just after parliament adjourned. He caught a chill. Within a few days he took a turn for the worse and the family was summoned to his bedside. His strength failed him and he passed away quietly and peacefully in the early morning of May 5, 1930.

No sooner had he breathed his last than there came a heavy downpour of rain which increasing in intensity assumed the proportions of a major flood. His body was brought back to his home "Rippleworth" just before the up-country roads became impassable.

What follows is a tribute taken from a local newspaper. It read:

"His end has come in the fullness of time, and he passes away full of honour, full of dignity, leaving to his country men a priceless heritage, the memory of a life nobly spent in the country’s service. The people of Ceylon will long remember with gratitude his splendid labours in the cause of political reform, his enviable contribution towards the social uplift of the poorer classes; his great service in the field of education; and above all they will remember with pride his culture, his scholarship, his rhetorical gifts and his high sense of honour and uprightness of life".

My grandfather found his spiritual home at St. Michael’s Church, Polwatte. He was elected year after year as one of the representatives of St. Michael’s Church in the Diocesan Council. He was elected to this position, not merely because of his social position. But because he was a regular worshipper at St. Michael’s. He was to be seen Sunday after Sunday in his place in Church, both morning and evening. And his good example was followed by his wife and family who were equally devout in their faith.

When his portrait was unveiled in Parliament, the then Prime Minister, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, in the course of his speech, made this remark:

"Like Moses, James Peiris brought his people within sight of the promised land. But did not live to see its fulfilment".