He deserves our eternal respect
By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando
The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa signed the visitor's book at Jinadasa Vijayatunge's residence, Chapel Road, Nugegoda, when he visited his residence to pay his last respects to the renowned author and journalist, who died in 1989, with this single sentence observation: "This great author who brought world honour to Sri Lanka deserves our eternal respect".
The President arranged for Vijayatunge's return on 28 April 1988 by acceding to every single request made by Vijayatunge when they met in London in 1986. Jinadasa Vijayatunge's last wish was to "get back home to die."
Jinadasa Vijayatunge's profile is fascinating. His ancestry goes as far back as Alagiyawanna Mohotti. The writer read a feature article about him in The London Evening Standard by Angus McGill in 1987. With the assistance of McGill he contacted and met Jinadasa Vijayatunge in his North London flat. At the age of 85 he was mentally alert but physically frail. Welcoming me he blurted: "You will not remember one third of the things you are going to hear from me!" His voice was firm, clear and commanding.
An array of personally autographed and framed snapshots of King Mahendra of Nepal; Maharajah of Kashmir with his wife, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, President J.R. Jayewardene et al adorned the walls of his sitting room. East-West publication catalogue filled with articles and photocopies containing world eminent personalities such as Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Krishna Menon, Dr. Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose, Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten bore evidence to this great Sri Lankan's social and literary background.
Jinadasa Vijayatunge was born on 26 January 1902 in Urala to William Dias Vijayatunge and Esther Emilia Edirimanne Mohotti.
After passing out from Mahinda College he left for India in 1918. Upon his return he joined Ananda College as an English teacher.
When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike returned from Oxford University the duo published a quarterly review called "The Island Review."
In 1927 Rabindranath Tagore, on his visit to what was 'Ceylon' at the time, appointed him as an English lecturer at the Shantiniketan. SWRD's mother pressured him to remain in Ceylon with SWRD, but Vijayatunge proceeded to India. Subsequently, he was appointed to the Board of Examiners of Calcutta University.
Being a steadfast Buddhist, he became involved with the Indian Mahabodhi Society activities. This enabled the organization to guide and send him to propagate Buddhism in New York. However, the three-year mission in NY was a failure. As an alternative he took up broadcasting and journalism and contributed articles to the New York press.
In 1929 when Pandit Nehru declared "the Indian struggle is to obtain a free Poorna Swaraj," Jinadasa Vijayatunge published a controversial article in the New York Times against British, under the heading "Indian Maharajahs are puppet rulers" that incensed Americans and resulted in his immediate expulsion from New York.
He was back in London in 1932 when the India League appointed him as its London Press Representative to participate in a round-table conference with Mahathma Gandhi at Lancaster House. The opportunity opened doors for him to publish regular articles in publications such as the Star, News Chronicle, Time and Tide, The Spectator and The New Statesman. With the publication of "Grass for my Feet," which went into four editions, Vijayatunge zoomed into fame in 1935.
On 12 January 1938, he entered into wedlock with Elizabeth Sadler, younger daughter of the late Captain Henry Sadler and Maud Elizabeth Sadler. The Second World War saw their marriage dissolved on grounds of desertion because he joined the Colonial Intelligence Service. In 1948 Vijayatunge re-married Sita Rodrigo and they had two daughters and a son.
Many of his publications were mainly on Ceylon, including one in the Tamil language. His work on the Buddha's life story, from Prince Siddhartha to Parinirvanaya (passing away) is considered as being one of his best works.
He was Lord Mountbatten's neighbour at 12 Clivendon Place, London, in 1963. While he was the Editor of "India Today", Indira Gandhi commissioned Vijayatunge to transcribe her official biography in 1985. The Sri Lankan journal "Kalpana" carried an article on Jinadasa Vijayatunge that struck a chord with Prime Minister R. Premadasa and inspired him to meet Vijayatunge in London.
On 19 July 1986, Premadasa gifted some prose authored by him to Vijayatunge as a mark of appreciation. It was during this London powwow that Vijayatunge expressed his desire to the Prime Minister to return to his roots.
K.H.J.Wijedasa wrote to Vijayatunge under reference No.PM/2/27/1/6/K on 25 September 1986, expressing the PM's opinion that Vijayatunge's return would be extremely beneficial to the country. Vijayatunge responded expeditiously highlighting his dismal financial status and emphasising how dependent he was, in his old age, on a paltry British pension and social security payments for survival, and as such it was his desire to seek State assistance to return home.
In the absence of further response from Sri Lanka he became disconsolate and dejected. It was at that time that the writer, having met and listened to Jinadasa Vijayatunge's burning aspirations, devoted nine columns in his London Diary Column in 'The Island' newspaper under the heading "A Little boy from Ceylon who grew up to be a man of the world," highlighting Vijayatunge's woeful dilemma and the Prime Minister's personal assurances to help him get back to his roots.
The newspaper article in all probability may have caught President Premadasa's attention once more. Like a bolt from the blue Vijayatunge's problems began to unscramble at rocket speed paving the way for him to return home.
Happy as a lark, Jinadasa Vijayatunge returned home with countless dreams of completing all his unfinished work in Sri Lanka, particularly the authorised biography of Indira Gandhi. Alas! He was able to enjoy his emancipation only for a few days in his motherland before he received the predestined call from above. At the time of his demise, an unpublished draft on Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru remained on his typewriter.
It has given the writer a sense of consolation to look back and know that he was at least able to contribute in someway for this eminent Sri Lankan to fulfill his dreams of getting back home while he was in an abandoned state in a regulation council flat in London.