Mervyn de Silva: literary giant and humorist


Mervyn and his wife

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s piece on his father, the late Mervyn de Silva, in The Island, triggers a nostalgic flashback of fascinating incidents that were played out at Jayatilleke Hall in my first year at the University at Peradeniya. What follows is written in good faith for the record, very much a la the great ancient historian Thucydides’ voluminous account of the Peloponesian war. I was a first year student and Mervyn was a final year English Special student who had entered the University of Ceylon winning the coveted Arts Scholarship as a student from Royal College.

Having known of his scholastic achievements and that he had been the Editor of the University magazine, I was indeed keen to meet him in the first week in the Hall. As a raw fresher I had a feeling of timidity lurking in me. My roommate Melvin Wijesekera, then a third year student offering English and Latin for a general degree (later to be a Sinhala playwright), showed me a figure nattily dressed with a muffler around his neck, perhaps to guard against the chilly wind of an October evening blowing across the "fresh" campus. My timidity could have arisen because my forte was not English, but the logic of Mathematics and the grammar of two dead languages, Latin and Greek. So I felt being out of depth in facing a final year scholar of English coming from a public school in having to engage even in an informal chat. Actually, in that first week before I met Mervyn I met another genial batch mate of his in the Common Room. That was Shanti Kumar Philips, who gave me a few tips on smart moves on the chess board. Ultimately it was in the second Common Room that I spotted Mervyn playing not chess but draughts, a proletarian anti Kultur game, with an older Sinhala diploma student. I used to see him in action at draughts on several occasions thereafter.

Mervyn was known be in the habit of cutting lectures, particularly the French lectures and lectures of Doric de Souza. Once when he did attend a French class after a long absence the lecturer, Madame Reich, had wanted to know what his illness was. On his mentioning a wound in the ankle for nonattendance, she had wanted to see the wound only to find a clean bandage with no wound. According to an article published in a newspaper by Neville Jayaweera (NJ), a final student of Philosophy, Mervyn had much free time hanging on his hands that he used to visit NJ’s room which he shared with Shanti Kumar (SK). When Mervyn found them occupied in serious study, he used to politely excuse himself and make an exit and go back to the game of draughts.

Once a debate was arranged by the Hall society with the proposing and opposing sides evenly balanced. I remember only the three names of Mervyn, NJ and SK as members of the two sides. The warden Prof JLC Rodrigo was present along with the two sub-wardens Vidianathan and Dheerasekea. There was a fair amount of serious arguing for and against among the members of the two sides, with not much verve in the thrust and parry. When Mervyn’s turn came there was only one brief moment of silence to greet him and then there followed cascades of humour gushing out in impeccable diction that kept the entire audience of students and staff in roars of laughter. I could still recall the ample figure of Prof. Rodrigo, my Professor, perilously teetering on the edge of his chair, rocking in laughter and expecting more of it. The equally bulky sub-warden Vidianathan, too, was rocking in harmony with the Warden. I remember Mervyn mention the names of Beria, a Buggaroffsky, Molatov, and some fictitious characters said to be members of Stalin’s inner circle. Two spoke from the audience. One was Nimal Karunatilleke, a first year student, wearing a raincoat though there was no rain. Another was a person whom NJ referred to as one who spoke a language akin to English but not quite English. The latter was later to be a Professor of Tamil. He too was a first year student. Mervyn’s performance was the best that evening.

On another occasion when there was a Hall soiree attended by girls from the Girls’ Halls there was the usual parcel game. During one of the rounds Mervyn received the hated object. The mandate was to kiss the most beautiful girl. Mervyn took time for making the choice by going round feeling the soft virginal rosy cheeks of all the girls present. He then shortlisted the bevy of possible beauties and recommenced the round of palpating the cheeks, somewhat clinically, this time taking a little longer, and finally chose the most beautiful one planting the longest kiss on the cheek of the much embarrassed Kandyan beauty. The chosen one happened to be a girl following the English special course, later to be the wife of a Professor. I am not sure whether the event was orchestrated. Mervyn was the President of the Jayatilleke Hall Society as well as the President of the Union Society. I had occasion to talk to him when he came into our room seeking my vote. Among other things, I enquired from him about his roommate, Travis Ludowyke, another scholar who was exempted from the first year, actually my classmate at St. Joseph’s, Maradana. Mervyn replied that Travis was always reading and reading, having to catch up lost ground. This meant that Mervyn had more time for his pastime playing the carters game. Being from the village I too enjoyed watching the master moves of the two players.

A friend, whose father was a colleague as a government Apothecary of Mervyn’s father, told me how Mervyn’s father had been summoned by Prof. Ludowyke, the Head of the English Department, and been told that Mervyn was throwing away a "first" by neglecting his studies. Mervyn did not need a degree as he was assured of a job in his favourite field at Lake House, based on the results of University Entrance examination. All other undergrads had to struggle to obtain a degree before applying for a well paying job.

In Hall politics, he belonged to the elitist Junta group, favoured by the right of centre Colombo school student bloc which was pro establishmentarian and anti Marxist. Mervyn was a friend of Nimal Karunatilleke, who came from Dharmarajah College, Kandy, and Nimal was a member of the Communist Party. I remember hearing Nimal threatening to get the student Trotskyite leader, Herbert Cooray, assaulted by the Kandy thugs. After leaving the University both leaders, Nimal and Herbert changed their party affiliations, Nimal, to be a Deputy Minister in the SLFP government and later a member of the capitalist UNP, and Herbert to become an Hotelier. This is the way of all student politicians. Mervyn, however, remained committed to his literary pursuits and journalism.



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