Eminent historian Professor Emeritus K.M. de Silva is a straight talker and it is this attribute of simplicity and honesty that one sees in his writing too. His writings on history are matter-of-factly and minus the gloss giving readers forthright and fascinating insights into the lives of men and women who have made a mark in post independence Sri Lanka . One of his most recent books, Sri Lanka: The Recent Past – Brief Essays in History and Politics is one such example in which he has written brief sketches on leading personalities in the country , using his unique personal insights to give the reader a brief but interesting glimpse into the lives of men and women who have made a mark in several fields including politics, education and the public service.
The book starts with Dudley Senanayake (1911-1973) , thrice Prime Minister of the country, a man many people remember for his magnanimity. The book tell you he was educated at St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and the Middle Temple; barrister -at-law-bachelor, all of which is public knowledge but what makes Professor De Silva’s political sketches highly palatable are the little insights he gives into the personal lives of each of these personalities. Such examples include details of Dudley Senanayake’s very long affair with a married woman, Freida, the younger sister of John Lionel Kotelawala and the wife of Dr.C.V.S. Corea or the irritable bowel syndrome that Senanayake suffered from ,” something that would affect his political life at various times for years to come.”
Sir John Lion Kotelawala (1895-1980), one of Sri Lanka’s most colourful political personalities also figures in the book. “An ebullient and colorful personality his outspoken and indiscreet comments enlivened the political scene but earned him a reputation of frivolity which his rivals exploited to his disadvantage,” writes Professor De Silva.
Of Sirima Bandaranaike, thrice Prime Minister and the world’s first female head of government , Professor De Silva writes,” After much hesitation, Mrs. Bandaranaike took over the leadership of the party her husband had built; and from the very beginning she -not very reluctantly imposed on it her own personal views and attitudes – in handling the problems involved in the leadership of the stricken SLFP.”
The sketch of Bandaranaike gives an insight into her decision to re-introduce the death penalty to punish the murders of her husband S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, her nationalisation drive, and her close friendship with several world leaders . “She worked with unabated enthusiasm with Nehru first, then with Indira Gandhi; and often beyond the Indian leadership as in the attempt to play the role of mediator between India and China when tensions broke out between the two Asian giants. She moved with Nasser of Egypt and Tito of Yugoslavia and enjoyed the hospitality of Tito in the early 1970s in his luxurious quasi-Palace in or near the Adriatic.”
He dedicates a page in the book to Elina Jayewardene , wife of the country’s first executive President J.R.Jayewardene referring to her as , “A Sri Lankan heiress who set standards of political behavior as the first lady for all her successors.”
Professor De Silva also dedicates several chapters in the book to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam referring to him as National Leader; The only Tamil public figure to enjoy that status in his day and up to the presnet. The six Chapters look at Ponnambalam’s role as an administrator, a politician and his political career, political outlook, and political initiatives.
The others who figure in the book are Sir Razik Fareed, Ronnie de Mel, Gamini Corea, C.P.de Silva, A.G.Ranasinha and C.Loganathan while important figures in the country’s education sector including , P de S. Kularatne, Peter Harold Nonis, Father Peter A Pillai too are notable entries.
Others include Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Dr. N.M.Perera, Dr. S.A.Wickramasinghe (The Socialist Challenge), George Edmund de Silva and R.S.S.Gunewardene (The strange case of caste in Sri Lanka’s public life) and in the Epilogue to the Book, Professor De Silva writes on Lalith Athulathmudali , L. Gamini Dissanayake and Ranjan Wijeratne in Chapters tilted Potential Political Leaders -Lost.