Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dr Brendon and Friends

The late Justice P. Ramanathan - a personal tribute

REMEMBERED: P. Rama (as his friends affectionately called him) was an avid follower of cricket. It was in fact this abiding interest of his that brought us together in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

From left: Dr. Brendon Gooneratne, Lakshman Kadirgamar, P. Ramanathan, Dr. Indran Kandiah, Girja Rajapakse. Photograph taken in the quadrangle of London House in winter 1968 by Kumar Ponnambalam

He had come to watch a cricket match played between St. Joseph’s College (his own school) and the Royal College Under 14 cricket team of which I happened to be the captain. My century in that match - I had scored 112 runs - captured his imagination.

He was some years older than I was but our common interest in cricket quickly broke through this barrier.

At a later date he introduced me to that gentleman of cricket - T. Parathalingam, who had captained the Royal College First Eleven a few years earlier, and the finest of the famous ‘lingam brothers’. Rama was always generous, and shared his friends with his other friends.

He continued to watch these matches till the late 1950s, and was one of the first to congratulate me on winning the Sir Cyril de Zoysa Challenge Cup for the Best Performance at the Royal-Thomian Match in 1955.

We then lost touch temporarily when I entered Medical College, joined the Faculty of Medicine and subsequently went to England for higher studies.

I was offered a place in that veritable haven for postgraduate scholars - London House - which was modelled on an Oxbridge college and provided luxurious accommodation and subsidized meals in the heart of London, with beautiful surroundings, a park of its own and cricket nets down in the basement.

Residents were generally postgraduate scholars from the old British Commonwealth, but London House had recently opened its doors to North American scholars as well, because North Americans had funded it handsomely.

The first Ceylonese I met when I went there in 1966 was an old friend of Royal College days, Ajit Jayaratne, who was following Accountancy studies. (His brother Bhathiya had been my classmate at Royal Primary, and his parents too were known to me) The next person I met was Rama, following a legal career attending the Inns of Court. (Rama had been in London House some years before: one was allowed a stay of three years with a maximum of four).

I subsequently met other Ceylonese including Kumar Ponnambalam, my classmate at Royal, then studying for a degree in Law at Cambridge; Indran Kandiah, who was doing postgraduate medical studies; Girja Rajapakse; Vijay Malalasekera, another Royalist, whom I had coached at cricket some years before; Bimal Rajapakse, just finishing a Law degree; and Ranjan Gooneratne also completing his studies in Law.

Later on I met the mysterious ‘Mr. Perera’, who had apparently come to London many years before, and having flunked his higher studies, stayed on living in digs around the corner. He was an excellent cook of Ceylonese food which he invited us to share. He was game for any suggestions regarding the menu on these occasions, and when one was made he would blink and say “Why not?”

Later on, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Sinha Basnayake too became part of this contingent, and we formed a lively group of Ceylonese in London. Of these Rama, Ajit and Kumar were my particular friends, and we would eat out together off and on at favourite restaurants.

Then - some time in 1969 or 1970 - Rama told us that he was thinking of returning to Ceylon. We were rather taken aback because we had considered him a permanent fixture in the London firmament.

But he did finally sail away to Ceylon, and his London House friends (comprising postgraduate students of English, Australian, New Zealand and a host of other nationalities) gave him a rousing farewell, never quite believing he would continue to stay on in Ceylon. But stay on he did, never once returning to England!

I met Rama again in Ceylon when I returned after my postgraduate studies, and visited him in Anuradhapura where he was, I believe, a High Court Judge. He had contracted malaria and was recuperating at the time.

In 1982 he married Mano, who has been a wonderful wife to him, and an intellectual companion in his subsequent career. She had her own professional life in the Legal Draughtsmen’s Department, and now serves the community in many capacities, notably in Zonta, the women’s social service organization.

Rama and I met often when I returned from Australia, and my wife Yasmine and I were regular guests of Rama and Mano. Quite often Rama and I lunched alone, but Mano, Yasmine and Premala Jayaratne sometimes joined us; or we met common friends such as Chandra (‘Malli’) Crossette Thambyah, Desmond Fernando, Ajit Jayaratne, Kumar Ponnambalam, Ranjan Goonerate and, subsequently, Lakshman Kadirgamar who had also returned from his UN assignments to work in what was now called Sri Lanka, and Sinha Basnayake who continued to drop into Sri Lanka off and on.

We were occasionally joined by Percy Colin-Thome and the former international expert in deciphering hand writing, Mr. Samaranayake. We always enjoyed these meetings, because of the stimulating conversations we had, and the camaraderie displayed. It was Rama who knitted us together.

During one of these gatherings (at the Flower Drum Chinese restaurant), something happened that changed the course of Sri Lankan history. One evening Lakshman Kadi, who was a regular member of our dinner group in the early 1990s, told us that Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was to contest the Presidency following Lalith Athulathmudali’s assassination, and had wanted Kadi to come in on the PA National List at the next election. Kadi had never met CBK before this time; in fact, he had not met her even at the time the offer was made.

He wanted our views on the matter; and though the others present (Percy Colin-Thome, Rama, Ajit Jayaratne, and Kumar Ponnambalam included) were rather lukewarm about it, I told Kadi that many thinking people were aghast - as we were ourselves - at what the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene and in particular Premadasa had done to law and order in this beautiful country of ours.

Violence and corruption had become the order of the day; and as he was trained in politics and the law, having been President of the Oxford Union in his time and an eminent barrister, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to get in there and do something to right wrongs of which he had always been severely critical.

We talked it over after dinner as we left the restaurant, and then again with the car doors open for another hour, as Sri Lankans are won’t to do. We resumed this conversation at dinner the following day, and again the next day at a lunch engagement.

Finally Kadi took the plunge, and made Sri Lanka proud by his conduct in public life, his marshalling of facts, his rhetoric and the sheer brilliance with which he carried out his duties as Foreign Minister.

But, as Rama always said, we and Kadi’s relatives had to pay a price for my having persuaded him to accept CBK’s offer: Kadi found new political friends and no longer had time for our group’s meetings.

We could never understand why he did this, but we accepted it and moved on, continuing to meet at lunch and dinner in his absence. Kadi and I occasionally met subsequently at funerals or weddings, but that was all that remained of our old and valued friendship.

Rama, meanwhile, had ascended the Bench as a Supreme Court Judge, yet remained his genial, unassuming self. He figured in a number of important trials and in Commissions set up to probe assassinations of prominent personalities, especially politicians. His judgements were always to the point of the law, fearless and absolutely impartial.

After his retirement from the Bench, a chance meeting with Lakshman Kadirgamar resulted in his appointment as Governor of the Western Province from which he went on to become Chancellor of Uva University, and subsequently Chairman of the Human Rights Commission.

Rama took appointment and disappointments, good health and ill, in his stride - never complaining, never displaying rancour or bitterness, always laughing off any bad moments that came his way with some jocular remark. That was the greatness of the man.

Rama was a truly precious friend to me of more than fifty years’ standing, sharing my literary interests and those of my wife. His gentleness, integrity, generosity, loyalty and his sense of fairplay will remain forever etched in our memories.


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