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A tribute to my father – H. L. De Silva

Before I leave for Australia, I wish to reflect awhile on the life of my father. A man who was born 81 years ago in a small country town called Minuwangoda. The beginnings of his life were quite ordinary, with no hint of the stature he would go on to attain. His spent his early years in various schools in Negombo, before completing his secondary education at St Peters College, Colombo. Ammi always said he was a rolling stone that gathered some moss!

He graduated in law from university and started work in the Attorney Generals Dept, where his rise to prominence was swift. He was quickly promoted over the heads of many of his seniors, which caused a lot of angst in a system that was both hierarchical and conventional. Constrained by a structure that did not recognize his initiative, he left the safety of government employment to begin a career in private practice.

This was a turning point for him. He experienced instant success and appeared for many leading personalities in Sri Lanka, including Mrs Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister and her daughter, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

He has held positions of leadership in many spheres of his life. He was elected President of the Bar Association. He was appointed Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations spanning the times of Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan. He met many of the worlds most controversial and flamboyant leaders, including Bill Clinton, the Pope and Yaser Arafat.

He was elected Vice President of the Methodist Church – the highest position a layperson can achieve. He was involved in Government delegations that have tried to resolve the ethnic conflict, which has torn this country apart, and was called upon to speak on this topic on many occasions.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was when he was awarded the title of Deshamanya, one of the highest honours the state can bestow on a private citizen. However, I’d like to believe that his proudest moments were the births of his children, who occasionally annoyed him and his beloved grandchildren who always delighted him.

His ability to think quickly and act decisively was demonstrated early in his life when he had to quickly extricate himself from a rapidly sinking car. He couldn’t swim and he had driven his car into the Beira Lake in the midst of a tropical downpour. Perhaps he was a little distracted at the time, as Ammi was pregnant with me, his first born!

He is known for his integrity and professional skill, and it is these qualities that enabled him, to be elected president of the bar association by his peers, many of whom held political views very different to his own. Because he had successfully represented both major political parties in the courts, something that few lawyers in Sri Lanka are game to do, he was able to instill trust and confidence across the profession. During this time of leadership, he did not flinch from making many unpopular decisions.

He had a very keen analytical mind and was renowned for his innovative arguments, which was reflected in the fact that the courts were often packed, when he argued a controversial case. Even when he lost, I believe his clients were happy in the knowledge that he gave it his best shot.

He had a deep love for his homeland, which has been troubled by ethnic conflict for many years. Belonging to the majority race but to a minority religion he had been consistent in his conviction that the country must preserve its unitary state. He spoke out fearlessly and with great courage against those who threatened the stability of Sri Lanka, often at the risk of his own life. Many of his peers have been assassinated by a terrorist bomb or bullet because of similar convictions.

Despite his many achievements, he was a reluctant leader and certainly felt that he was not born to lead but rather that it was thrust on him. So where did he learn these attributes of leadership?

Leaders are readers and his ability to lead in many different spheres stemmed from his love of reading. His depth of knowledge and capacity to store and recover information on many different subjects always amazed me. Our home is lined with bookcases and he was never far away from a pile of books, which he seemed to devour voraciously. He also seemed to spend a great deal of time on inner reflection as well.

He was a very humble, modest, introverted man who might have gone unnoticed in a crowd. And yet his peers in every walk of life elected him to lead them. He made many wise decisions in his life, but perhaps the wisest of these was made more than 50 years ago, when he married my darling Ammi. Her devotion to him throughout his life was completely selfless and she was by his side as he said his final goodbye.

Thaththi, this was your public life, but my memories of you, are far more intimate and special. I remember you attempting to rescue my very first kite on Galle Face Green, when I lost control and the string ended tangled up, in a very annoyed ladies hairdo! I remember trembling as you explained to my very strict Grade 2 teacher why you were delivering me late to school. I have memories of how you tried to open that guest room door with a butter knife, after Nangi locked herself in, on our very first holiday in Nuwera Eliya.

I remember fighting for my fundamental rights as a teenager but I never had the benefit of an impartial judge! I remember how exasperated you were, when you failed to convince my Vice Principal that my last name was Adithiya, not De Silva whilst I was applying for my A Levels! I will never forget our frustrating dinner table debates, where we were both convinced we were right and neither of us would back down. We have never lived down the embarrassment you caused us, by driving that DKW for about 25 years too many! Many years later I got my own back by coaxing you to into shopping for a pair of jeans when we were together in NY!

We’ve spent some unique quality time together in these last 20 years, even though we lived apart. I remember walking around Stanford with you and imagining what that must have been like for you to win a scholarship in 1958 to such a prestigious institution. It was exciting to discover that little cottage you and Ammi shared in Palo Alto, in the first year of your marriage and meeting your friends from that idyllic time in your life. I remember introducing you to my own friends at Berkeley, and how you roughed it out in my tiny dorm room for a couple of nights when you first visited me in California. You were irritated with me on that visit because I kept asking for a senior’s ticket when we boarded the bus!

I remember getting stuck at the Canadian/American border with passports that were sopping wet because I persuaded you to join us on the Maid of the Mist boat ride at Niagara Falls! We were treated like criminals till the border guards realised you were the UN ambassador and let us through! There are so many more memories. Bushwalking in Sydney, shopping for books long since out of print, that fabulous White Christmas in NY, all those turkey we carved for Thanksgiving. Christmas in Hornsby will never quite be the same, but spending so much time together as a family is a lot to be thankful for, when we lived so far apart from each other.

So what life long lessons have you left me with? You have taught me that I should never seek fame or fortune but that rather that I must strive to earn the trust and confidence of my peers. You have taught me that to lead the orchestra I must be willing to turn my back on the crowd! You were a man who walked the talk and you set us an amazing example to follow.

It has truly been a privilege for Nangi and me to call you "Thaththi’" and I would like to end with the words of Shakespeare which you inscribed in my autograph book when I was but a little girl. "To thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Thaththi, your journey here has ended, but what a ride it’s been! We are all so very proud of what you have achieved and those memories will live in our hearts forever!

Nilmini De Silva

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