A Man Of Spirit

A Man Of Spirit Pictures: Sunethra Devi crashed plane , SirJohn Kotelawala and an air Ceylon plane : credit Daily News

It is very easy to earn a reputation as a ‘pressman’ when your by-line appears in Local tabloids as well as in Sri Lankan English newspapers where you become a ‘buddy’ automatically with everyone within the expatriate community in the UK.

This situation helped me in my journalistic hobby where I managed to file news, general features, scoops or even ‘explosive’  category! What I learnt from the London School of journalism was to be objective, constructive and factual on any criticism or praise, and to write in simple language ensuring that the writing did not ‘go over the heads’ of the majority of the readership.

Powerful personality

In such a backdrop I came across some interesting personalities in London to write about. One such legendary personality was Dixon Kotelawala, whom I met towards the beginning of 1990 in his London flat in Maida Vale, in the presence of his lady friend Fiona who was connected to the British Royalty.

Dixon had been very powerful during his Cousin Sir John’s premiership, acting more or less as Sir John’s ‘personal secretary’. He was a vegetarian at the time I met him and had undergone a by-pass heart surgery.

Dixon Kotelawala happened to be one of the remaining links of the once powerful Kotelawala pedigree that was seemingly heading towards a gradual ‘extinction’. As a man who was privileged to move with the international, political and social hierarchy, including the British Royalty (delivered special gifts of Ceylon tea personally to Buckingham Palace from Sir John) he never lost the common touch, and displayed a noble quality of treating the two imposters in life, triumph and disaster in life like the pitch and toss!

Sunethra Devi - Air Ceylon

On the telephone he sounded exactly a replica of Sir John. Soon I realised that he had inherited the same level of temperament of his cousin, Sir John. When he became bad-tempered or if someone made him irritable for some reason, he was enraged to the point of shivering with uncontrollable anger and started to gnash his teeth.

Childhood

It is very easy to earn a reputation as a ‘pressman’ when your by-line appears in Local tabloids as well as in Sri Lankan English newspapers where you become a ‘buddy’ automatically with everyone within the expatriate community in the UK.


This situation helped me in my journalistic hobby where I managed to file news, general features, scoops or even ‘explosive’  category! What I learnt from the London School of journalism was to be objective, constructive and factual on any criticism or praise, and to write in simple language ensuring that the writing did not ‘go over the heads’ of the majority of the readership.

Powerful personality

In such a backdrop I came across some interesting personalities in London to write about. One such legendary personality was Dixon Kotelawala, whom I met towards the beginning of 1990 in his London flat in Maida Vale, in the presence of his lady friend Fiona who was connected to the British Royalty.

Dixon had been very powerful during his Cousin Sir John’s premiership, acting more or less as Sir John’s ‘personal secretary’. He was a vegetarian at the time I met him and had undergone a by-pass heart surgery.

Dixon Kotelawala happened to be one of the remaining links of the once powerful Kotelawala pedigree that was seemingly heading towards a gradual ‘extinction’. As a man who was privileged to move with the international, political and social hierarchy, including the British Royalty (delivered special gifts of Ceylon tea personally to Buckingham Palace from Sir John) he never lost the common touch, and displayed a noble quality of treating the two imposters in life, triumph and disaster in life like the pitch and toss!

Sunethra Devi - Air Ceylon

On the telephone he sounded exactly a replica of Sir John. Soon I realised that he had inherited the same level of temperament of his cousin, Sir John. When he became bad-tempered or if someone made him irritable for some reason, he was enraged to the point of shivering with uncontrollable anger and started to gnash his teeth.

Childhood

He had been a ‘dare devil’ during his adolescence who could not see ‘eye to eye’ with his father. Once after a disagreement with his father he left the house and took to his heels in anger along the streets in Colombo only to be brought back to Horton Place where his aunt, Alice Kotelawala (Sir John’s mother) lived.

During my chinwag with Dixon, he reminisced in a most loving and appreciative demeanour how Alice Kotelawala sympathised with him after his foolish act of ‘running away’ from home. Alice Kotelawala kept him at her residence and later sent him to St. John’s school boarding house at Panadura and paid for his education including boarding fees and looked after his welfare altogether. At school he excelled in sports, especially in boxing and won two Ceylon flyweight and feather weight titles.

Career

In 1940, upon enlisting as an officer cadet with the Royal Air Force in the UK and undergoing pilot training Dixon Kotelawala was confined to bed for a long time with pleurisy. Subsequently, in 1946 Dixon Kotelawala returned to ‘Ceylon’ and joined the Civil Aviation as an Assistant Aerodrome Officer and progressed speedily in the promotional ladder. During his period of employment in the Civil Aviation he had to work under his cousin Sir John coincidentally, who was the Minister of Transport.

Both Dixon and Sir John Kotelawala shared a similar character and temperament. Despite Sir John being a man of unchangeable and fixed opinions Dixon managed to ‘get on’ very well with his cousin because, as he put it, I quote: “Strangely enough Lionel was very tolerant with me because he would probably have realised that I had a streak of human in me.”

Immediately after Dixon Kotelawala got promoted to the rank of ‘Captain’ at the Civil Aviation Authority, on December 21, 1949 Air Ceylon aircraft Douglas DC-3 Dakota VP-CAT (Sunethra Devi) took off from Ratmalana airport with Dixon Kotelawala at the controls as Captain, Simon Rasiah as First Officer (co-pilot), Hector Fernando as the Radio Officer and air hostess Ranee Ranawake.

Tragedy

After a few hours of flying over the Indian Ocean ‘Sunethra Devi’ crashed into the ground at Trichinopoly but without any loss of life miraculously; the broken parts of the flying machine ended up at a scrap yard for metal!

Dixon Kotelawala suffered superficial injuries but Simon Rasiah; the co-pilot suffered a fractured skull and a broken forearm.

During our casual chat at his Maida Vale flat he recalled this incident and explained to me how “a fuselage panel adjacent to the Radio Officer's position had been torn off exposing a gaping hole in the side of the plane and fire-fighters started liberally spraying a mixture of water and form instinctively at the wreck from outside when Hector Fernando was still in a stunned position glued to his seat” !

In a silent aside he whispered in my ear how he ‘let his co-pilot carry out the landing’ although he was not officially authorised to do so! Such liberties could have taken only by a senior Captain who was authorised to conduct in-flight training of pilots!

As the Captain of the aircraft, Dixon Kotelawala naturally had to take the blame and responsibility for the disaster. However, during the official inquiry it was concluded that despite ‘Sunethra Devi suffered technical problems during that flight the aircraft had been flown and the landing had been attempted by co-pilot Simon Rasiah’. Much later on when Sir John Kotelawala became the Prime Minister, Dixon Kotelawala was appointed as the Director of Civil Aviation.

Senasuru Erastaka

Dixon Kotelawala never paid any heed or gave any importance to astrological projections or predictions. Once a soothsayer warned him about a pending a 'senasuru erastaka’ (severe planetary ill effects) on his life, but treating all such guidance as hogwash he decided to get married to find his marriage lasted only for eighteen months.

It was a time for him to put his so called friends into the acid test. Soon he realised that those who were hobnobbing with him when he was in power and doing well in life suddenly turning against him over night. Even the journalists who showed much respect earlier started to dip their pens in garlic in writing harsh and colourful reports detrimental to his character which made Dixon Kotelawala decide to throw the towel in and leave Sri Lanka for good.

New life in London

In London while picking up broken pieces of his life’s jig-saw he started to stretch his business tentacles to Europe. Soon he became the Chairman of on Oil Company with exclusive exploration rights to dig oil and gas (off-shore) in a developing country. Astrologers’  prophesy of his being under the influence of ‘Erastaka’ for a 23 year period apparently had a bad effect on the oil business too which ended up in disaster.

During that traumatic period he had to undergo heart surgery. Post operative strong drugs made him imbalanced, more aggressive and at times mentally disorientated. Fatal news that followed suggested he was even suffering from a “terminal illness” which not only added to his volatile temper but he began to “kick his own goals”!

Dixon was not the religious type yet his words were: “Love and Kindness towards one another is God”, a complete transformation from an “overconfident man” once to a simple kind hearted fellow who felt a lot for other human beings.

During the last stages of his life when he was sharing his life with Fiona, a charming and elegant lady from the British aristocracy, he was full of beans. Once I casually put a question to him by asking:

“Dixon,  now that you have fully recovered, financially, emotionally and physically and are determined to live up to 90 what is the secret being your young looking and virile?”

His answer came back like a shot: “Look here my dear fellow; it’s not the chronological age that counts but the functional”! (Laughter)

It took me in a flash how his cousin, Sir John Kotelawala replied to the columnist of ‘Fly by Night’ Column in the Ceylon Observer while he was the Prime Minister when asked a similar question:

Columnist: “Sir! you seemed to be very fluent in French, and where did you learn the French Language?” Sir John :  Without batting an eye lid answered: “In between the blankets of Paris”!

Finally when Dixon Kotelawala bid good bye to his human sojourn Fiona, being a British and a true friend, fulfilled all Dixon Kotelawala’s aspirations (after his demise) by conforming to Buddhist religious traditions and rights from London in transferring merits to the departed soul.

During the funeral arrangements she approached me and made one simple request to try and invite a Buddhist monk who could speak in English when last rights were performed before the interment in order that she could understand and share the feelings of separation in her own right.

Pictures: Sunethra Devi crashed plane , SirJohn Kotelawala and an air Ceylon plane  : credit  Daily News


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