D. R. WIJEWARDENE: A GREAT CEYLONESE

An Archival Note by AH



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Standing: Dr Choisy Foenander, H.A.J.Hulugalle, L.J. de S Seneviratne, T.M. Weerasinghe, Rev Anandanayagam. Seated:L.W. de Silva, E.B.Wickremanayake, Arthur Ranasinha, Canon R.S. de Saram, Rev Crowther, Rev G.A.F. de Silva, Dr A.S.Rajasingham, R.S.S. Goonewardene and R.R.Crossette Thambiah


By R. R. Crossette Thambiah


This article by R.R,Crossette Thambiah appeared in the "The Tamil" - A Ceylon Journal in English Vol 1 No 2 1955. "The Tamil" was published by K.C. Thangarajah. It was unearthed recently by Ananda Chittambalam from his large collection of archival material.


One evening, while reading in the Jaffna Public Library, a letter was handed to me. It said:


"Come over to Colombo and join us. The writer was Mr. S. J. K. Crowther, then D. R. Wijewardene's right hand and right brain lobe, and-today as then Ceylon's greatest and most gentlemanly journalist. This quality of Mr. Crowther's unique gentlemanliness has to be emphasized, and re-emphasized, at a time when only those behind the scenes know what part the local Press is playing in the "management" of local Democracy. There is talk of a local Press Commission. If the Commission can be impartial, and remain impervious to the subtle sorts of assay in which the Ceylonese man of means is so expert, much will stand revealed.


But to go back to nearly forty years ago, and that letter from Mr. Crowther. I took it to my Father. With Jaffnese terseness he only said: what pay? I gave him the amount. My Father smiled. "You will be the first Jaffnese," he said, " to give up 125 a month for 75 a month."


But he knew me, and left the decision to me. And I came to Colombo.


The Kings of Kandy were wise in that they never came to Colombo. They remained alert and keenloined in their mountain fastnesses. They left the seaboard to traders and such like. But the British came and built up Colombo-in the typical British mode of muddleshopping centre cheek by jowl with harbour - and one has only to go into the Colombo Fort of a morning to see the British handiwork, the deadliest and deadmost city in the whole world. .


Mr. Crowther said: you will have to meet Mr. Wijewardene, and I burnished myself for the interview. First impressions are important. The budding press magnate's fame had preceded him even to distant Jaffna.


I must confess that my first sight of, and talk with, the Great Man of the south was disappointing. Brief as then my life span was - I was hardly out of my teens - I had met, and known well, the minds. and ways of personages like A. G. Fraser, W. S. Senior, N. P. Campbell, K. J. Saunders, Nevins Selvaduraipillai, W. R. Watson, Jacob Thompson, J. N. Vethavanam, J. W. N. Hensman, W. A. Walton, S. Somasundaram, Warden Stone, T. N. Nathaniel, William Wadsworth, Sir Anton Bertram, Armand de Souza - and suddenly I saw in front of me a mild-mannered gentleman with a, depressed countenance and a singularly limited capacity of utterance. It seemed hardly credible that here was one who had once walked the same courts and quads as Milton and Wordsworth and Tennyson.


But the real calibre of D. R. Wijeyewardene shone out with acquaintance. One learnt to admire, and even to respect, the silent and, (as it seemed), lonely man. In the management of his affairs he displayed two qualities of the utmost value and importance to all Ceylonese. D. R. Wijewardene was a great doityourselfist. Rich, proud, aloof, with hundreds fawning on him for a mention of themselves in his papers, he could have stayed at home and bade others do his bidding. But-every day of the year fair weather and foul - he was the first to come to the office and the last to go. And he kept a close and personal eye on every square inch and corner of his increasing establishment.


In illustration, this slight and even amusing episode may be mentioned as being characteristic of D. R. Wijewardene's thoroughness. A certain young person "on the editorial staff" was assigned to report Prize Day at Ananda College. A tram went from Bailey Street to Ananda College. The person concerned, being unworldly even then, had the "bright idea" of travelling in the front part of the tram. Twenty cents were duly paid for the journey to and back, and twenty cents duly taken from the cashier on a chit duly signed, dated and delivered. Three months or so later, a message came from the Boss.


"Yes, Sir ? "


"Oomph - umph-oomph-grunt " "I beg your pardon?"


"Twenty-omph-umph,ten"


Gradually, it became clear. Reporters must travel second class. Ten cents was the correct fare chargeable, not twenty. Ten cents were duly deducted and refunded. One came away admiring a man who had such a hold of every single string (and purse string) of his job.


The other quality of D. R. Wijewardene's greatness was his willingness to be slow in the matter - of business profit. How many Ceylonese are today bitten with the madness to get rich quick! One thinks with sadness of the fate of vast landed territories of tea and rubber, patiently cleared, improved, manured by years of assiduous labour on the part of the old-time planter and his "cooly" now passing rapidly from hand to hand, each subsequent sale at a higher price, or decimated and parcelled into minute blocks - all for the sake of immediate gain. That way lies national bankruptcy. Emerson wrote :-


" Great estates are not sinecures, if they are to be kept great."


If D. R. Wijewardene left a vast" empire" to his inheritors, it was because he was content to be (1) constantly at his post of work, and (2) even to bear initial losses, so that the ultimate gain may be upon a sound foundation of business stability. Thus in time he became a power in the land.


One Sunday, the whole responsibility of bringing out the next day's paper fell on a single subeditorial shoulder. All his other colleagues - we were sincerely a band of brothers - were away. On the Monday morning the Boss sent for the sub-editor in question and congratulated him. Then his face suddenly darkened.


" Omph-umph-what's this? "


It was a newspara headed "An Advocate's Rice." The ambitious young man from Jaffna had not known that the famous Advocate in question and the Boss were - connected! The paragraph in question mentioned a domestic incident in the Advocate's home which may have delighted Chesterton, but the Boss was indeed" not amused." And so, one thing and another, it was time to go .....


The writer recalls another incident which showed that although D. R. Wijewardene was stern, and even" Napoleonic," in his business relations, he had his human side. On the morning of saying Good-bye, the young man in question, face now turned in eager quest of the long mara-thon of the law, called on the Boss in his home. It was about ten in the forenoon. The house was in complete silence. The visitor was about to turn away, when he saw-the Boss himself, trundling his baby's pram up and down, and a wee daughter delightedly gurgling up at her father: if computations of time be correct, possibly the present Mrs. Gomes.


After leaving the Wijewardene papers, R.obert Rasiah.Crossette Thambiah continued with his legal studies. He was a Barrister - at-- Law of the Middle Temple and the an Advocate of the Supreme Court. In 1949, he became a King's Counsel and acted as Solicitor General. During his distinguished legal career, he was also Senior Crown Counsel, Acting Public Trustee, Commissioner of Assizes and was on special departmental duty in London.


Below is a photograph of his classmates who attended St Thomas College Mutwal during the Wardenship of Stone. D.R.Wijewardene was also at St Thomas' College Mutwal a few prior to this group. This period is referred to by Thomians as the Stone Age.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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