Saturday Magazine
Remembering Lofty: A Patriarch of the Tea Trade

By C. A. Chandraprema

I was the secretary of the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association when Ranjan Wijeratne was assassinated on March 3 1991. Ranjan was killed on a Saturday.

CTTA Stalwart

When I went to office on Monday, I got a call from Michael de Zoysa, the then Chairman of the Colombo Tea Traders Association asking me whether Ranjan had been a life member of the CTTA. I answered in the negative. "Why the hell not?" barked Michael de Zoysa in his characteristic way. I told him that I did not have the foggiest idea as to why Ranjan had not been a life member. It was barely a few months since I had taken over the administration of the CTTA.

satman.jpg (5681 bytes)He then asked me whether ‘Hema’ was a life member. That too I answered in the negative. Michael de Zoysa then instructed me to do what was necessary to make ‘Hema’ a life member. At the very next meeting of the CTTA committee, Hemachandra Wijeratne or ‘Lofty’ as we all knew him was inducted as a life member. Lofty was Ranjan’s younger brother.

That was my first encounter with Lofty. Both Ranjan and Lofty had been past Chairmen of the CTTA - probably the only instance when two members of the same family had been Chairmen of this august body. Lofty was a very senior member of the tea trade and would have been a life member in his own right even without his connection to Ranjan Wijeratne. But as it turned out, the immediate reason for Lofty’s rushed induction as a life member of the CTTA was the embarrassing circumstance of Ranjan having died before the industry could honour him. From that time onwards, Lofty would attend meetings of the CTTA whenever there was any special business to discuss.

Lofty was in his fifties but looked much older. A tall gangling figure, he was regarded by the others also as a kind of ‘old man of the trade’. He would start off any observation that he would make with the preface, "In the good old days..." Whenever an extraordinary meeting of the CTTA was summoned, other members would half jokingly worry about how to prevent Lofty from holding forth on the good old days... It was not that Lofty was in his anecdotage or something like that. His was a powerful voice in the tea trade and was held in high regard by the younger members of the trade.

Price competition

Lofty could be brutally outspoken at CTTA meetings. In 1994, after I had left the service of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the CTTA, there was a major row which was featured even in the newspapers where Lofty accused the tea trading community of certain devious practices like price undercutting, and sale of poor quality tea that was leading to a loss of competitiveness of the local industry. "You take it from me..." Lofty had thundered, "...the world can pay better prices but you have caused this situation by under-cutting and under-quoting, make no mistake about it YOU are responsible!"

Lofty did not subscribe to the popular view that tea was becoming uncompetitive because wages were too high. He had asked the gentlemen of the CTTA "Have you been to a line room? Have you seen the poor ventilation - where mother father, son and daughter, son in law and daughter in law all live in a dingy ill ventilated room with a Kerosene oil cooker by the side? A room full of smoke? I am no communist, but the worker is not paid enough for the conditions in which he lives quite apart from being paid too much..." And he had asked the CTTA,

"You gentlemen, What do you do? Your wives go shopping to London, Paris, Bangkok, Singapore, at the slightest opportunity. You travel in the latest BMW, Mercedes Benz cars, you dine at the supper clubs and the best hotels..." That was Lofty’s style. He said all that even that potentially explosive comment about the workers not being paid enough at a time when he was controlling large tracts of tea as Ceexxe Plantations had been awarded management of a large extent of tea land. Lofty’s contention was that the tea exporters could be obtaining a better price for Sri Lankan tea if not for price cutting practices which ended up in lower revenue for the industry as a whole.

This problem of cut-throat competition between operators leading to price cutting is something one often hears of in the airline and tourist hotels industries. Sometimes an otherwise healthy industry may be brought to its knees not due to any extraneous factors but due to no-holds-barred competition within the industry. Lofty’s contention was that a similar situation prevailed in the tea industry. Lofty knew his tea. He grew old in the tea industry and it would have been well if the tea trade had heeded his warning.

I can’t quite remember how or when I started visiting Lofty at his home, but in any case, it was after I had left the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. So long as I was at the Chamber, my connection with Lofty was strictly official. And so long as I was in the Chamber, Lofty never knew that I had known and held his brother Ranjan in very high regard. However, I stated working on Ranjan Wijeratne’s biography sometime in 1995 and I worked closely with Lofty at that time and I would visit him quite frequently at his residence on Galle Road, Wellawatte.

Ranjan and Hema

One of the jokes that I heard when I was writing Ranjan’s biography was that the four Wijeratne brothers did not have six passes at the SSC between them and yet they had done very well in life. Ranjan rose to very great heights in the private sector, the state bureaucracy and later in politics, to the extent where he was thought of as the next President of Sri Lanka. His elder brother lives in Scotland. His other two brothers Lofty and Das Wijeratne both became multi-millionaires even in US Dollar terms. Ranjan was by far the poorest in financial terms of the four brothers. There was no particular reason for Ranjan’s relative poverty. All the brothers started off more or less at the same level in the tea trade. Ranjan and his elder brother joined the tea trade as trainee planters while Lofty and Das started off as tea tasters.

Ranjan apparently always was a poor manager of financial affairs. He was the one child in the large Wijeratne home who was always satisfied with what he got and never asked for more. Ranjan never even had a house to live in and during his days as Chairman of the Agricultural Development Authority, he would speculate in a half-hearted way in shares, but he never made much money out of it. Then again as a politician, Ranjan was always scrupulously honest and he died no richer than when he entered politics.

Ranjan was naive with regard to money matters. When I was working on his biography, one of Ranjan’s close friends told me that he had once told Ranjan that his brother Das’ shareholding at Forbes and Walker was worth fourteen million rupees. Ranjan had been flabbergasted. "What can any man want with so much money," he had asked. When Das finally liquidated his shareholding at Forbes and Walker, he realised a few million US Dollars. Ranjan would have freaked out at the notion of so much money.

Turkish Consul

Lofty was richer still. I have heard his at Ceyexxe shareholding estimated at several hundred million rupees. Lofty was a man who really achieved the tea tasters dream. He started off as a young tea taster at Leechmans and soon rose to be the manager of the tea department. When Leechmans merged with Carson Cumberbatch, he became the manager of the tea department of Carson Cumberbatch. Later in 1972, he joined the board of directors of Carson Cumberbatch & Company. In the 1970s, the tea industry was the mainstay of the economy and a position on the board of directors of one of the main export companies was a very powerful post. In 1976 or thereabouts, Lofty’s new social status was recognized by his appointment as the Turkish Consul General in Sri Lanka - a honourary post he held until his death. The Turkish flag always flew from a flagpole in his front garden.

While Ranjan was a committed UNPer from his youth, Lofty appears to have cultivated connections with the SLFP. Throughout the many years of UNP rule, Lofty never seems to have given up being SLFP even though his brother Ranjan rose so high in the UNP. Lofty was a close confidante of Felix Dias Bandaranaike and he stood by Felix Dias through the difficult years of defeat, sickness and finally his death. After Lofty’s death last year, the Turkish Consul Genralship was inherited along with his house by Bharati Wijeratne his eldest daughter. This was probably the first time ever that a consular appointment has been ‘inherited’ by the child of the former Consul General.

Lofty was a very religious minded man. He was a Dayaka of the Bellanwila Raja Maha Viharaya and would painstakingly observe the Buddhist rituals. He maintained the tradition that his father had established of having frequent pirith ceremonies at his house in Wellawatte. He used any excuse to have a pirith ceremony. He even had one pirith ceremony every year on the 3rd March in memory of his brother Ranjan.

The first born

Along with his millions, Lofty’s other achievement was his eldest daughter Bharati. Those days when I used to call at his place, he would always tell me about Bharati. He had four daughters but it was only Bharati that he told me about. Lofty clearly had much pride in his eldest daughter. He would often boast about how good a public orator Bharati was. And much later, I discovered for myself that he was indeed right. Bharati is a much more impressive public speaker than many veteran politicians that I know of.

Bharati Wijeratne was married to Sujith Jayawickrema (a nephew of UNP stalwart Major Montague Jayawickrema) who was then an SLFP organizer in the Galle District. As a consequence of Lofty and Sujith, Bharati was at that time an SLFP firebrand - much in the same mould as Chandrika - not a political wife but a political lady. One day, Lofty introduced me to Bharati and this has proved to be a lasting friendship - a providential one I might add. It was this redoubtable lady Bharati Wijeratne and he Husband UNP MP Mano Wijeratne who were the first to come and see me when I was arrested and jailed last August.

From the moment she heard of my arrest, she had been in contact with my mother who was a heart patient and clueless about what was going on. The fact that my mother is still around today is probably largely due to Bharati Wijeratne’s immediate intervention. I was whisked from my house to the 4th floor and from the fourth floor to the Colombo Remand Prison before one could say Jack Robinson. The very next morning, I found Bharati and Mano and my mother waiting for me in the visitors room. After so many years in politics, it seems ironic that it was one of my Tea trade contacts who really took matters to hand and stood by me in my hour of need. I must take this opportunity to extend my heartfelt thanks to Baharati and Mano.

During the last stages, Lofty had a diabetic infection on his leg and Bharati would travel every day from Meegoda where she was residing at that time, to Wellawatte to wash lofty’s legs and to apply the medication. Lofty was much moved by this filial affection and one day he told me she does not even wear a pair of gloves to wash his infected legs. "Who else would do that?" he asked me. I was to experience something very similar. The prison would not have been unfamiliar to Mano Wijeratne because his father was a one time Minister of Justice. But very few ladies would have come rushing to a prison to see a friend, but Bharati did so without batting an eyelid.

Lofty was in and out of hospital during the last few years. One day, I got a call from Bharati asking me to try and persuade Lofty to take his injections. Lofty had a phobia for needles and would get hysterical at the mere suggestion of an injection. The last time I met him was at Durdans. That might have been around the last few months of 1999. By that time Lofty was virtually bed ridden but far from senile. Despite all his numerous debilitating illnesses, Lofty was as clear in the head at the last stages as when I first got to know him. For a man who could not walk or even sit up in bed, he seemed remarkably well informed about what was happening outside.

At this last meeting, he told me "I have become virtually a vegetable, I cant believe this has happened to me." I gave him a philosophical discourse - "You have had your innings" I told him, "You rose to the top of your profession, raised your daughters, basically saw an end to all you started, and as I see it you have no cause for any regrets." His brother Ranjan I reminded him, had been blown away before he even got started. "Everything that has a beginning, has to have an end." I told him. Lofty knew his end was near and I got the impression that he was waiting for it.

Lofty died on the 4th May 2000, I could not see him during his last illness and neither could I attend his funeral as I was abroad at the time. I was told he died very peacefully with his family around him and the Bellanwila Chief priest chanting pirith. His was a successful life well lived.