Getting Records Straight

Getting Records Straight Credit: Graphics by DailyNews

I am very grateful to Peter Wijesinghe who contacted me recently having read some of my ‘Life Abroad’ columns, as I consider him as an encyclopaedia of Sri Lankans and their activities in London considering his knowledge, experience and the vivid memory over six decades of life in the UK.

Peter qualifies as the longest serviceman who has worked at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London from day one of its ceremonial opening. Although he did not fall into the top-notch category of Diplomats, he was well read, knowledgeable, intelligent and ‘with it’ with worldly affairs more than some of the diplomats who had come and gone over the years.

He was also privileged to have had the opportunity to hobnob with all the High Commissioners and had come across the cream of the Sri Lankan society by working exclusively for the Head of the Mission at all times.

After reading my last week’s column ‘Kingdom of Death’ in which details of two suicide incidents at the Ceylon Students Centre were revealed, he corrected me with an extra ordinary story of the very first suicide case of a Sri Lankan in London going back to the late 1940s.

Just after Ceylon gaining independence there had not been many lodgings where Sri Lankan students could be accommodated in private homes.  The number of Sri Lankan professionals who had settled down in the UK from affluent families had been only a handful, so were the number of Sri Lankan students who arrived in Britain to sit London examinations.

Within such family circles they always had found a friend or a relative to help each other to overcome the board and lodging problems of young students.  It was in such a backdrop that two young boys and a pretty young girl managed to find accommodation at the late Dr. Alfred Gunasekera’s residence at Homesdale Road in West Hempstead, NW of London.

One of the dashing young men was none other than Gamini Corea who later became known as Dr Gamini Corea, the financial genius, and the other handsome student had been Christy Jayawardena. The young pretty girl Damayanthi Dunuwila who was the third lodger at Dr. Gunasekera’s residence was a niece of the late D.S. Senanayake.

A romantic atmosphere apparently seemed to have developed covertly among the three young people where it was assumed that the young miss had been attracted to Gamini Corea while the young man Christy Jayawardena had gone crazy over the girl (unknown to her of course)!

This very fact may have led Christy Jayawardene’s concentration powers to go haywire that he failed in his examinations that year.

It was believed that the shame, humiliation and indignity that surrounded him in failing the examination and not being particularly able to face his self-admired love, he decided to commit suicide by jumping in front of a fast moving underground tube train at West Hempstead tube station. This incident in fact had been the very first suicide case of a Sri Lankan in the UK.

Natural death

The first natural death of a Sri Lankan in London was recorded as the late Gunasena de Soyza’s demise while he served as the High Commissioner in London.

He had been the Permanent Secretary attached to SDS & EA (Secretary of Defence and External Affairs) during S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s administration prior to his appointment to London and resided at 21, Addison Road, London W14 which had been used before as the ‘Students’ Club’ prior to the establishment of The Ceylon Students Centre.

Being a keen reader of newspapers he had earned a reputation of going through ‘every letter’ in newspapers; his enthusiasm grew more as he had to wait for a long time till the diplomatic bag arrived by sea freight those days containing the newspapers as well.

Once the High Commissioner de Soyza impatiently waited at home after giving instructions to Peter Wijesinghe to bring the papers to his residence which had been delayed for some reason, but when the delivery was done in the evening after office hours Gunasena de Soyza was seen in a rage for not obeying his instructions properly.

However, having stomached a belly full of invective from his boss, Peter had left 21, Addison Road hoping that the following morning his master would be in a better mood to explain and say what delayed him to take the papers to him in time, but he was shocked to hear that very evening High Commissioner Gunasena de Soyza had expired suddenly due to a CVA (Cerebral Vascular Accident – bursting of a nerve in the brain).

Improvisation

The death of the High Commissioner had caused a problem to the High Commission staff as the funeral of a diplomat in London had to follow a certain decorum followed by a requiem mass according to Christian formalities in England.  

Gunasena de Soyza being a Buddhist the High Commission staff had wanted the funeral to be performed according to Sri Lankan customs and Buddhist rites without having to take the body to a church and having to go through a Christian homily.

However the High Commission staff had managed ‘diplomatically' to improvise a special religious ceremony equivalent to a church mass at the Sri Lanka High Commission building itself on a grand scale and rented out gold plated chairs as well for the British foreign office and other participants to sit during the repose of the soul of the dead person.

Finally the body had been cremated in London and the ash handed over to Mrs. Soyza to be brought to Sri Lanka.  Gunasena de Soyza’s death has gone on record as the first Sri Lankan diplomat to die and cremated in London.

Second such death was recorded when a Trade Commissioner named Ekanayake had dropped dead following a sudden heart attack at the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch in West London after participating in an official ceremony.

Disappointment

She was one Miss Rodrigo before her marriage to Tilak E. Gooneratne, the Civil Servant, intellectual, Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General in London who finally took over the responsibilities at the London Mission as the Sri Lanka High Commissioner in the UK.

Mrs. Gooneratne  was known for her eccentricities for a long time where she used to travel in her husband’s official Cadillac motor car with the Sri Lankan flag mounted. May be people were not aware of the fact that she suffered from a mild kind of neurosis - a form of mental disorder.  That very fact may have been the cause for people to assume that she was ‘arrogant’ and ‘uppish’!

Tilak E Gooneratne  was considered as a ‘blue eyed boy’ of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Subsequently when Guy Amirthanayagam assumed duties at the High Commission as the Education Officer he was responsible for recommending Sri Lankan students for British Council Scholarships.

There was a time when the High Commissioner Tilak E. Gooneratne  had to spend some months in Sri Lanka on medical grounds while in the meantime Guy Amirthanayagam had assumed duties as the Deputy High Commissioner in the absence of the High Commissioner.

Amirthanayagam as the Education officer and deputy High Commissioner went on full steam to try and obtain a place for young Anura Bandaranaike in a British university at a time Mrs. B was desperate to find a suitable university for young Anura in the UK without much luck.

Through his skills and personal contacts finally Amirthanayagam managed to get young Anura into the University College of London which made Amirthanayagam  go into the good books of Mrs. Bandaranaike.

It is said that when the High Commissioner Tilak E Gooneratne returned back to London there had been some apparent indecorous rivalry between the head of the mission and his deputy where Amirthanayagam was alleged to have been blamed for using his discretion and promoting a major portion of Tamil students for British Council scholarships ignoring blatantly many Sinhala eligible candidates!

The diplomatic covert tug of war did not help High Commissioner Tilak E Gooneratne at the end of his term. The result being he had to throw the towel in for his long and flamboyant career when he did not get a diplomatic posting to any other destination. It is said that the tremors and shock waves of such a disappointment were felt more by Mrs. Gooneratne  who used to enjoy all the diplomatic privileges to the full.

Sadly, one morning around 10.30 am when the peak period of travel in London was over Mrs. Gooneratne had walked towards Warwick Avenue Underground Tube station, which was only a walking distance from where they lived at the time, and jumped on to the railway track in front of an approaching tube train holding a Harrods bag.

Within seconds iron wheels of the tube train had run over her tearing her body into smithereens adding yet another suicide case by a Sri Lankan in London.


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