2nd January 2000
Sunethra Bandaranaike, eldest daughter of two Premiers, talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi
A cosy room. "Thaththa" in his pyjamas and "Amma" in her dressing gown having their fruit and cup of tea. "Akki", "Nanga" and "Mallo", as "Thaththa" used to call them, trooping in to bid goodbye to their parents each morning before school. This was the daily routine and for the Bandaranaike family, that day, September 25, 1959, was just like any other. When they went in to say 'bye to their parents before heading for school, the two girls to St. Bridget's and the boy to Royal, little did they imagine the shocking incident that would not only change their young lives forever, but also the fate of the country, which has been inextricably linked to theirs down the years.
And Sunethra Bandaranaike, eldest daughter of two Prime Ministers and big sister of President Chandrika and leading UNP politician Anura says: "The first news was brought by a domestic to school around mid-morning that father had taken ill. We were collected from school and brought home. There was blood all over. The marble floor tiles were spattered with blood. It was such a shock that my father had been shot in this very house by a Buddhist monk."
We are at No. 65 Rosmead Place, 40 years later. Earlier, seated in the parlour of this old, stately mansion with the heavens opening up outside, it is like taking a walk into the past. The halls lying in shadow are hung with black and white portraits of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike and coloured ones of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Showcases in the room are full of bric-a-brac collected or presented over the years. Ten minutes later, we are ushered up a curvy staircase and into the present era. Bright lights, cheery decor, colourful cushions with modern designs and we are in Sunethra's own little niche.
"To me," says Sunethra, "My father was a man with a booming voice and quick temper. He would flare-up suddenly and when he raised his voice it was like the god of thunder. We, children would shake and quiver." For the next hour-and-a-half, without feeling the time pass, we listen to the daughter's reflections of her father.
Though he was a man of great compassion for humanity, he was not a domesticated father or husband. "There was no outward manifestation of his affection. He was not a father who would suddenly grab and hug us or throw us up in the air. Remember he was of the Victorian era." They were "distanced" from him and "feared" him. He was not close to them.
He was also a very busy man. It seemed as if he used to think that he had looked about a long time and carefully selected a woman who would be capable of taking care of the household and the children. Occasionally, he would spend a few days with them at Horagolla or on holiday in Nuwara Eliya, but soon after he would get on with his work.
"He would tell us not to dissipate our energy, but conserve it for the purpose at hand. He would be very proud when I became first in class, which was quite often," she says with an embarrassed laugh. "He would pat me on the head and give me money not to buy clothes or toys, only books."
"My early recollections of the people, including my father, around me would have been from the time I was about four or five years. He died when I was just about to do my O.Ls. I was 16 then. But there was a continuing thread throughout that period. Though he was frail of physique, one was that he was a strong masculine personality. He was a positive man. There was no unsureness or uncertainty. He was sincere. The other was that he was very strict with us. We attended a Roman Catholic convent in the weekdays and a Dhamma class on Sunday. He was conventional and old-fashioned. He felt girls should be obedient and correct in their behaviour. He felt that girls in Asia including Sri Lanka had to conduct themselves like 'young ladies'.
"The fathers of our school friends were liberal and allowed them to go to parties. My father allowed us with reluctance and after discussion with mother. A domestic was sent early to collect us. If we wanted to watch a movie he asked what the story was. On the other hand he was very keen that we should study and go in for a career, even though we were women. But he left the task of bringing up the children to mother.
"Breakfast was the time when crucial issues and what was happening in the country were discussed with mother. During the short span of three years that he was Prime Minister there was strike after strike, and he was stressed out. He was a great democrat. He was a man with a vision. Amma used to listen to him and say 'If I were you........' and very gently he would explain to her why it had to be done another way.
"As opposed to being very strict with his own children, he was warm when it came to his colleagues. He used to bring lots of people into this house. 'Come, come,' he would say, and usher them into our home and shout for 'Sirima' that they were all staying for lunch. And mother would rustle up something. He would sit in the dining room with all these people, chat with them, joke and laugh. They were not threatened by his personality. He had a tremendous sense of humour, but there was no malice towards anyone. He was a man who had great compassion and humanity. However, he couldn't tolerate fools.
"He had a clever turn of phrase. The flow of language was very good. He would say something, pause for effect and repeat the last sentence for more effect. He teased people good-humouredly. He loved to match-make for young people. He was also very good at coining nicknames. He would suddenly call my mother 'Vo' leaving out the 'Sirima' bit in 'Sirimavo' and she would be furious.
"He was also a man who could laugh at himself. He would look at the cartoons in the newspapers and say, 'I'm in the papers' and enjoy a joke directed at him. Though sometimes the newspaper cartoons were malicious, he would say that it was good to be in the papers and bad only if they ignored him.
"In Parliament whenever it was time for him to speak he would rise to his feet slowly, without any jerky movement. Looking at the opposition benches with a half-smile, gently nodding his head, he would say the most cutting remarks in the most beautiful language. He could use his sense of humour even as a parliamentarian.
"It was some time after his death that we realized what a loss it was to the country as well as a personal one. We were to visit him the day after he was shot. But as we were preparing to go to the hospital, the message came that he had died. Today, human life seems to mean so little and we've grown used to violence. But such a thing was unheard of in the Fifties. The week after his death passed in a haze. His body was kept here, then in the House of Parliament and later at Horagolla before cremation. Thousands of people came to pay their final respects.
"When we saw others cry, we cried and when our cousins came, we laughed. The impact of the loss came much later. Having a strong mother gave us reassurance though. In other households, there would have been financial insecurity with the loss of the breadwinner.
"Fortunately, we didn't have to face that. Our insecurity came from the realization that 'my God, one parent is gone'. At that time Anura was only about 10. He was father's favourite - the much-awaited son. This gentle, soft boy who was spoilt by our father leant on him heavily. I feel that for Anura, his death was a blow he has never recovered from.
"People may think that we might have begun to hate the Buddhist clergy, because it was a monk who shot our father. But the statement to the nation our father made from his hospital bed was very clear. He called on the people to be calm and collected and explained that his attacker came 'in the guise of a Buddhist monk'. Our father, the victim, had shown compassion from his deathbed and we could learn from him.
"In a sense we were cushioned a lot from the trauma by a strong and sturdy mother. For her, treading the path taken by our father was the most natural thing. She felt he had left 'unfinished business' which she was duty-bound to follow and that is why she took to politics. He was a man with a vision and it was only natural that she took over from where he had left off."
The world's first woman Prime Minister wasn't just a political figure says Manel Abhayaratne
The charisma of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world's first woman premier and the impact she had on the politics of this country are too well-known for me to comment on. In a highly male-dominated Asian political scenario she became Prime Minister in 1960 bringing in a new dimension of female intuition and understanding into the more prosaic masculine domain. Today though the office of Prime Minister has undergone change under the Presidential system of government, yet Mrs Banda-ranaike holds the unique position of being the Prime Minister of this country on three occasions and she continues to bring to the post the same confidence and commitment she displayed so many years ago.
In my conversations with her I remarked that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of which she is yet the President owes its continuation to her. It is doubtful, given the vagaries of the public mind, that the SLFP without her single-minded leadership would have continued much longer after the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. It is she who gave it direction and continued to sustain its direction at much personal cost.
However, what impresses me most about Mrs Bandaranaike today is not her political success of which much could be written, nor even her charisma as a political leader but the greater sense of serenity and commitment that is uniquely hers. In her is seen the quality that seemingly appears to be no more, the belief that the most important principle of life is to be true to oneself, for then as Shakespeare said: "One can then not be false to any man." It is this quality that makes her firmly believe that we are the shapers of our own destiny.
In conversations with her, this thought is clearly expressed in her observations on peace and the economy. I often feel strengthened when talking to her of a conviction that we as a nation can achieve much if we rid ourselves of our communal bias and regard not our own individual interest but the greater interest of the country.
Often her concern for detail and for punctuality is another of her characteristics which continues to surprise me. I can yet remember when I was Director of the BMICH we would wait for her arrival a few minutes before the scheduled time for we knew that she would never be late for whatever appointment she had. In the same way, if she gave a time to meet one, one was certain that at the appointed time she would be there, so different from most situations today.
It was at the BMICH that I realised her concern for the under - privileged and marginalized, how a worker was treated and what facilities he had. The first question she asks of anyone who goes to see her even now is, 'How are you?' and this is not a polite query but one of genuine interest.
A few days ago, I visited her and we talked of my tenure at the BMICH and she inquired about the people who had worked with me. I was struck by her enthusiasm to know of the people she remembered despite her present disabilities. She wished to know of where they were and what they were doing. It is this humaneness of Mrs Bandara-naike that creates a bond of affection above whatever loyalties a person may have.
My knowledge of her was very limited till I came to the BMICH but since then I would say that not only do I admire her, but that by her very nature, she draws people to herself. Talking to her I was impressed by the serenity with which she regards life. A verse I had read came to mind.....
'Serene I fold my hands and wait,
The writer is also a former Director of Information
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