Seeya’s portrait, as we remember him.
My grandfather was born November 19th, 1924, in Panadura. That side of the family had gradually proceeded up the coast, from Matara generations ago. Achchi and Seeya eventually settled in Mount Lavinia. When I was young we lived there. Many people lived there, when they needed to. I grew up around a lot of Akkas and Ayyas who I later discovered weren’t really relatives at all. But they were. That’s what I remember most about my grandfather. He was a good man.
Ainsley Samarajiwa was a teacher, human rights lawyer, Christian, and – fundamentally – a deeply compassionate man. Other people remember different things. I remember parts of myself, suddenly in context, now that he has passed. His love for travel, exploration. His earnest desire to help, the sense that there was no other choice really, and to get on with it. He’s been sick for so long. I remember it now.
Seeya’s body is still warm. We cover him with a sheet and readjust his head. He looks peaceful now. After a long suffering with Alzheimer’s and physical decline, he has passed away. Today is Wednesday, May 9th. Just after Vesak. It was around noon. He was 87 years old.
This is my Achchi – grandmother:
“Ainsley Samarajiwa, as a boy, went to St. John’s. He then got a scholarship to Prince of Wales for two years and did his Inter-Arts because he was too young to go to University. Then he went to University at the age of 17.”
This is my father:
“Most people are identified by the last government job he had, very few people think of him as the Deputy Commissioner of Exams. Most people think of him as a lawyer, or a teacher. So the two official posts he had, I rarely hear people talk about.
Those days there was no dispute about appearing for Tamil prisoners, but there was about appearing for JVP prisoners. Seeya had been adamant that people should appear for all. He had appeared for JVP and people from various Tamil political parties.
He used to go to Boosa so often. He used to go in the bus. He became a lawyer only when he was about 60. He started law school when he was 55. He retired the earliest possible from government service. He was junior to me, I had finished law school.
He never took any money. Any payment whatsoever. I used to have endless arguments with him, but he never took any money.
There was a very important committee he was on, that looked at all the people who were forgotten, stuck in prison. He was the lawyer member. They went all over the country in planes, trains…”
and herein the narrative is interrupted to chase down long lost names of judges and contacts.
“The UNP had been in power for like 17 years and all these people had been stuck in prison from ’88, Tamil people, Sinhalese people.”
I saw the files in the house. Terrible stuff. Page after page of names, designations, and time spent, reports of torture. Like distant, impotent cries.
My father is on the phone.
Memory, in context.
When I heard Seeya had passed I rushed over. I still owe the trishaw driver Rs. 210. He had passed. He was there, peaceful. There was a Bible on Seeya’s pillow, opened to Kings. Achchi had been reading it, about King Solomon. At that point God seemed more concerned with getting people to acknowledge Him than them being necessarily righteous. I flip through to the New Testament. There’s a passage bookmarked in Luke, 46-56.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.
I sit and thumb through the old, old Bible. It was a gift. The note says something like [from] Lowe and May Grundy, Chester-le-Street, April 1958. “To our sincere friend and brother in Christ Jesus. Praying that God will bless you always.” At the top it says A.P. Samarajiwa. As I’m sitting by his body, I’m thankful that it’s here.
Seeya’s suitcase is on top of the cupboard. Kinda plaid. Kinda Mad Men. Must be from the same era. Achchi says he’s been everywhere with that suitcase, Russia, Czechoslovakia, even Africa. I ask where in Africa, she says Nigeria, for a Methodist meeting. My grandfather was a Christian. In the best sense of the word.
I chose Buddhism when I was about 19, but I am thankful for the Christian values that my paternal grandparents lived and passed on. My father has returned.
“I remember the mundane things. He was a school principal in a village school. This was a kinda area where people were majority Christian, so they considered the school their own. They also liked their liquor. So on weekends they would take their liquor and play a game called Elle. The school had a playground and they would come to play Elle. Then some ruling came down from the authorities that on Sundays you couldn’t have this school ground used for these activities, because it was a Christian school and they needed the Sabbath respected. These fellows were not about to respect that, we’re talking about a large school. You could fit two soccer grounds. One day these fellows had come, had jumped the gate, they were going to play Elle whether the Principal liked it or not. And this scrawny man went against about a hundred guys. And he yells at them and they leave.”
And yet my father was not a Christian.
“When I was 13 and said I no longer wanted to go to church. Achchi brought Seeya along to have this serious conversation. And then he says ‘he’s got his reasons’ and that was the end of the conversation.”
Achichi has returned, so to chronology.
“He graduated from the Colombo University and till the results came he worked at Carey College. He gave it up and he applied to Kingswood College. He was about 20 years old at that time. That was 1944. Then he worked in Kingswood then of course we married in 49. Both of us were working, I was even senior to your Seeya by one term. And I left, because Lilani was born in 50, in February. I stayed at home without teaching for 15 years.”
“Whereas Seeya did his diploma in Education at the Colombo University in 51, and he was second in the list. In 58 he got a scholarship to go to England for his MA. And he went to Kent, nah, Bristol. Aaahh, Kumara.”
Kumara has come, to help move things, clean things, get the house ready for the funeral. A lot to do.
“Ethakota putha, he studied at Bristol, he came back after 14 months, he came back in 59, really December 58. One year he worked at Kingswood, he was warden of the hostel there. In 60 he was appointed as principal of Katunayake High School. That was a training for him to go to one of the Methodist schools, Kingswood, Wesley. But in 1960, no no, ’62 schools takeover by the government. [’61 maybe].”
“After that he was not full principal, he was class 2 principal. He was not eligible because of the government takeover, only the Buddhist people got placed. Richmond only a Buddhist, Kingswood also. Wesley College was the only place.”
One thing was Seeya supported the takeover – my mother
“He applied out, he applied to Examination Department. He got selected as an Assistant Superintendent. He worked there for 15 years. He finished up as Deputy Commissioner.”
But to return to the government takeover, despite it ending his career prospects, my grandfather supported the move.
“He was very happy about that. He was stoned, they threw rocks at the house.”
“He admitted Buddhist children into the school, Ainsley admitted all. He took a Buddhist teacher onto the staff. He was all open like that. There were a lot of people against but he didn’t care.”
“We moved to Kotte [after joining the Exams Department], and people said now that Seeya was in government he could get his children into good schools. We sent him [my father] to the Kotte boys school, Lilani to the girls school. Then the man topped the examination list and Ananda College he got in. Then said religion not provided for and threw him out. Then Royal College, they said underage and they threw him out. Then Seeya got excited and said where is this boy to go to school. Nalanda nah, Thurstan College vitharai. Poor relative. Seeya kuwa, kamak nah. ‘That boy if he studies at Royal College or Thurstan College, he’ll study, he’ll do well’.”
[as a note Thurstan is considered a second-tier school, not guaranteed ‘class’ like Royal or St. Thomas. Poor relative as my Achchi refers to it. There’s a joke that goes something like – “Where are all the buses? Parked, all the bus drivers are watching their kids at the Thurstan/Isipathana match”. One huge exception is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is also a Thurstanite, but for reasons of his own. That’s another story.]
“He did his A/Levels there. He didn’t have proper masters, boys went for group studies. But the last term, Ainsley was getting a little worried about Chemistry or something, he put you on to a friend of his… a Muslim man.”
‘no, that was a Physics man in Pita Kotte. Talk about Seeya will you.’ (my father)
“I’m telling you that Seeya did not pressurize him. Though he got into Engineering, though he wanted to change [my father changed majors in University, which is another story].”
“Then on his 14th year or so Seeya got interdicted. We were in Dehiwela at the time. The interdiction was… western music paper, the third question had come from the previous syllabus. Seeya was in charge of the whole exam and each of these subjects had various groups… to correct any mistakes. And these people had not. And those who did western music were very influential people. So there was a big row.”
“And at that time, Seeya had gone on leave, he was in Bandarawela at a local preachers seminar. He didn’t even know. When we were at Dehiwela, four five Exams Commission people came home. They told me. So when he came back of course he got the news then, what do you think, the UNP trade union, Exams Department, went forward and fought for Seeya. They knew he was not in their camp, Ainsley was on the left side no? The UNP Trade Union went and said he’s a very fine officer, he’s not in our camp, but we’re speaking on his behalf. Then he was called and said you can go back to work.”
“But, after that, they decided that he was not going to do, he went on to Inquiries [department] and worked there for a couple years, he was of course Assistant Commissioner at that time. It was there that he got interested in law. He had to refer to law books because of the cases of cheating.”
Father – “He was in charge of the Confidential Branch. Major military operation to get all the exam papers out on the same day, he would be out with the lorries. During his day there were no leakages, I remember he actually arrested people.”
Achchi – “At age 55 he gave up exams. Following day he was at the Law College.”
Happiest time? [My father asks what their happiest times were].
“We were always happy.”
Then she thinks about it some more.
“He was happy working in Kaliyapullawatte. They started that project from, they worked for a time at Summitpura, off Dematagoda, where all these people who they threw out for a government summit. That is called Summitpura. It was a swampy area where the river waters came, they got the land development people to put lorry loads of soil there. They moved to Dematagoda, that was a real success.”
“You know there were rackety old buildings and all, they used to put canvas underneath. These were harbor laborers, vendors, carrying loku bags to market, had no place to live. They used to find takarang and plastic and cardboard, little places they’d hitch up. No proper road, no toilets, no bathing, no nothing.”
“So, CSR (Center For Society And Religion). They did a very fine job at Kaliyapullawatte. They organized, they worked for years on that. They started with trying to get the children… they had no toilets. Women would get up early morning with a tin of water, go further down do their business and come. Later on they had lovely toilets done. They had to be educated also. All those slum areas the children had no schools. Seeya had a lot of influence with education people. They went out and said “Appo, muduku lamay appe gan nah” [my bad transcription, essentially we won’t take slum kids].”
“They opened a small shed. I used to work on a mat, teaching the small children letters. Most of them didn’t have birth certificates, first of all got the children their birth certificates. ”
Tha – “there’s a film, the ‘People Trade: Leftovers’ – ‘while community worker Ainsley Samarajiwa meets people looking for work in one of Colombo’s shanty towns.'”
“Kaliyapullawatte was a real success. They empowered the people themselves. Charlie was a man who pushed the garbage lorry, he was President of the society they had. They had a committee, they had meetings, they had film shows. Then the children, I want to tell you, they got birth certificates, their education level was nil. They opened a small school, they were taught to read and write. As soon as they were little competent, they were taken to schools. They managed to get the children in. After they come to school, four five teachers, all went there and helped the children. Some of them are doing very well today.”
“On the women’s side, they got the girls into sewing classes. Gave them a machine, they started sewing, so they were able to fend for themselves. Artificial flowers they were making, they had sales points. For a number of years they worked there. Once we went for another ceremony later. They had a nursery school they opened out. The girl who used to work rang me up the other day also, she’s in Ireland now. Ramani Gunasekera and others helped a lot.”
“Final thing was they went in delegation to the Municipal Councils and asked for land. Then there was a garbage dump, they got them to bring lorry loads of soil and cover it up. They took a census of all the people in the slums, each of them were given ownership of three perches of land. They cut roads, built toilets, water. They had a lovely picture of Ainsley standing in his national, the first tap they got into the compound. The film has been lost. So those were nice days.”
I’m not sure where this fits chronologically. The interesting thing is that my grandfather became a lawyer after retirement, after my father. And thus began what was in many ways the most productive and remembered part of his career. He worked at the CSR until he literally could not work any more.
“Seeya used to set the English paper for the law entrance. The moment he went into Law College, somebody else had done it and he had to sit the exam. In Law College he finished up his three years, but he came down in one subject. Accounts. So Ainsley went to a friends husband and taught him accounts. He got through.”
Achchi has gone to see Seeya’s body. Thatha passed me this Daily News link. He’s been Googling Seeya, to see what the digital record is. This is an old article by Upali Cooray.
“I know Mahinda Rajapakse only because in 1989, as a member of the Committee for Democracy and Justice in Sri Lanka (CDJ), I helped to organise a delegation of members from the European Parliament (MEP’s) and European lawyers to visit Sri Lanka.
They were sent to investigate the 60,000 odd persons that “disappeared” during the 1988-89 period. Without the assistance of Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse, Mr. Ainsley Samarajeeva, Mr. Mangala Samaraweera and others this delegation would never have been able to fulfil the important role they played in curbing the worst excesses of State terrorism. That year, Ms. Christine Oddy, MEP, presented the data that Mr. Mahinda Rjapakse and others so courageously and painstakingly collected to the UN sub-committee on human rights.”
I shan’t comment on that. I don’t think Seeya thought of his work in a political context, not in that sense. I mean, he was always political, don’t get that confused, to a degree we all were. But the human rights stuff was simply human rights. He was simply helping out humans who’d been forgotten in a very dark place. Achchi came back for a moment, before someone from Panadura arrived. Ah, he’s in Ratmalana now. We’re still moving up the coast.
“These slum areas, Seeya used to go to Netherlands, Germany, he met these groups. He brought them, these people came, they spent money and they bought those drains like that and fitted it. The whole Kaliyapulawatte was beautifully drained off by these Germans.”
There are more motions about. I turn back to the Bible. There’s another passage bookmarked, with a faded brown leaf.
“When men fall, do they not rise again?
If one turns away, does he not return?
Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?
They hold fast to deceit,
they refuse to return.”
Not quite sure what that means, it’s from Jeremiah. Through the rest of the passage God seems rather… stern.
There are things to do. My cousin returns with the death certificate. It’s about booking cremation slots. Decisions. We start clearing off the mantlepiece for the funeral. Where on earth do these bric-a-bracs come from, and how do they persist. I walk past Seeya’s room. He looks more peaceful than I’ve seen in years.
Achchi – “Tha Tha was a local preacher. He was Vice President of the Methodist Church.”
I think there’s to be a service at Church.
Seeya’s last years – following a stroke and Alzheimer’s – were of progressive decline. He hasn’t recognized me or anyone for years. The body lost weight, huddled and declined – but remained. The mind was gone I’m afraid to say. For a man who lived by his mind, by words, by deeds, that volition was gone.
Over Avurudu I carried him out of bed in the mornings. It was like holding a heavy child, a body, in reverse. He struggled to breathe, to eat. Today is the first time I’ve seen him at peace in years. This is the first time I’m remembering him, as a man, beyond his present condition.
This is not an obituary. It leaves out so much of his work, as a human rights lawyer, as a father, grandfather and as a refuge for countless more. Perhaps this is part one, but I don’t want to trouble my Achchi too much, not today.
Their 63rd wedding anniversary was just weeks ago. In all things they were together. It’s difficult to say that I learned this from Seeya and not from Achchi, or from other sources as well. But I did imbibe something deep from them. A sense of Christian charity, of duty, of honor if you will. I’m not him, God knows, but if I have done anything compassionate in this life, it is only by their example. If I have any kindness, it was born of them. He was a good man, and he was my Seeya. He held me as a child and I held his head today, felt the warmth passing from his body. I feel he is at peace.
The funeral will be Friday the 11th of May, cortage leaving at 3:45 from the house. The house is 80/16 Templars Road, this is actually a bit off Templars, science college turn. It will proceed to the Mount Lavinia cemetary at five. In lieu of flowers, I don’t know, do something randomly nice.