'She was like a second mother in London to all Sri Lankan students and many found lodging facilities at her residence at 18 Harcourt Terrace, London SW when desperate. One of Dr. Dora's major social works can be regarded as introducing a Tamil accountancy student (once a lodger in her house) to Sir John Kotelawala during a week-end visit to his Brogueswood farm in Kent'.
'Having introduced the young man to Sir John, she managed to convince him to help the student to get some 'on the job experience' in accountancy by auditing Sir John's accounts at Brogueswood farm. The student continued to work for Sir John while studying, and on completion of his studies and becoming a fully fledged accountant helped Sir John with all his accountancy matters. Through grapevine it became known much later that this student ultimately managed to buy the Brogueswood farm at final stages of Sir John's life for £25,000'!
'After Dr. Dora Fonseka finally answered her call from above at the age of 82 on a September 20th, Sri Lankans in London later gathered at the London Buddhist Vihara to participate in a traditional alms giving and to remember her as a sincere friend and to pay their respects and transfer merit to her departed soul according to Buddhist rites'.
'Being an out-and-out devotee, and as a mark of respect for her contributions to the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick, her body was taken to the Vihahara on its way to the crematorium for public display and to perform a special 'Pansa Kula' and Mataka Vastra rights ceremony, which went into the history books in London as the first time ever remains of a person was taken to a Buddhist temple in such a manner before a burial’.
Luncheon with Sir John
Sir John Kotelawala, the third Prime Minister of Ceylon, was a vivacious character. "One of my earliest memories is of a small boy whose widowed mother could not afford to buy him a pair of shoes to send him to one of the leading schools in Colombo. Surprisingly enough, that boy was myself. Today I am regarded as a very rich man; But I was not born rich; and my family's circumstances in my boyhood handicapped me badly" - Sir John. An Asian Prime Minister published by George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd, 1956.
Those who have associated with Sir John closely have many interesting anecdotes to reveal. He was a man of surprises. Sepala Moonasinghe, an eminent Barrister in London, too had a unique experience with Sir John having come to know Sir John through his father's friendship since 1931 when Sir John contested Kurunegala seat at the first State Council election for Dodangaslanda.
In the summer of 1974 Sepala Moonasinghe received a phone call from Sri John out of the blue inviting the Moonasinghe family for lunch. When the invitation was accepted Sir Jon's words were:
"I say man, there is nobody else coming, only you and the family. But please be on time at 12.30 and not any later, like our people back home!"
Moonasinghes arrived sharp on time at Brogueswood in Kent as stipulated.
They were ushered by one of Sir John's retinues into the indoor swimming pool area. Sounds of laughter and voices by the pool area indicated an apparent pre-lunch 'drink session' in progress! Suddenly a baritone announcement was heard saying,
"gentlemen my luncheon guests have arrived, and I am afraid, you now will have to leave".
Sri Lankan guests relaxed and enjoyed drinks before lunch. Simultaneously a French lady greeted them and joined the company. She had been a long time friend of Sir John from his student days in Cambridge.
During the pow-wow that followed, Sir John enquired after Sepala Moonasinghe's progress in London - whether it was a wise decision to have left Ceylon after establishing a lucrative practice at Hultsdorp as an Advocate and coming back to the unknown in London! Sir John reminisced how he once visited Moonasinghe residence at Kurunegala and reminded Sepala how his father, being an established businessman in the town of Kurunegala, helped Sir John during the initial stages of his political career to be elected as the Member for Dodangaslanda.
A prominent photograph of Sir John in ceremonial robes of a Privy Councillor (by Karsh of Ottawa) displayed prominently in the dining hall. Another feature that no eyes could avoid was the writing under the Court of Arms which read: "Kawadath siya rata ta my" (always for my country). This confirms Sir John's Tamil cook, whom he took to England when he migrated at first amidst much of a controversy, saying to me once that all Sir John's crockery had the logo in grained in Sinhala as "Kawadath siya rata ta my".
Sepala Moonasinghe's visit in 1974 coincided with Sir John's last stay at Brogueswood as its owner; the Farm had been given out on a lease (believed to be to the young accountancy student whom Dr. Dora introduced as a student) for £25,000, with a proviso for Sir John to occupying the place during the English summer.
No nonsense attitude
Sir John did not suffer fools gladly; equally he was not someone who tolerated any kind of prejudice either. The following story illustrates his character though sounds hilarious: 'An English lady driver once collided with Sir John's car, coming from the wrong side, which resulted in a heated argument which caused the police to arrive on the scene. When questioned by the police officer, the lady driver placed the blame on Sir John going on thus: "This coloured man did whatever it was that he did in order to apportion blame for the accident."
Offended Sir John, at being referred to as a coloured man, pointed at the lady driver and told the police: "Officer, this "colourless woman" did this and that..........." . The matter was dropped and a smile on the face of the police officer indicated he was highly tickled by the 'coloured man's' sense of humour.
'In Paris while Sir John was in the company of students watching a tennis tournament, a French girl went round asking for a cigarette. Sir John chivalrously offered his gold cigarette case to her when an American seated there offered his cigarette to her brashly stating, "White man's cigarette is better than black man's".
'In an uncontrollable rage Sir John struck a blow at the American ensuing an altercation to warrant the French Gendarmerie's presence. Sir John having the advantage of defending himself in French, during the discussion, helped the French police to resolve the matter amicably while the girl finally accepted Sir John's cigarette! That Mademoiselle became Sir John's friend ever since and lived to relate Sepala Moonasinghe the incident which took place in France after many years in summer 1974.
The luncheon was a traditional Sri Lankan rice and curry, punctuated by Sri Lankan vegetables and Kos ata curry (Jack fruit) etc. After a couple of shots of Scotch whiskey suddenly with a mischievous smile Sir John's face beamed to announce that more details about his travels on the continental trips could be had from the mademoiselle!
After lunch Sir John retired for his usual siesta, leaving four white, leather bound photograph albums that contained Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Ceylon while he was the Prime Minister. The French lady while going through the albums unfolded a story to Sepala Moonasinghe which he had never heard of before about Sir John - not even spotted in his autobiography of "An Asian Prime Minister" published by George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd, in 1956.
On completion of his studies when Sir John returned home, the French lady too visited Ceylon and stayed at the Mount Lavinia Hotel with the hope of marrying Sir John...! However, having observed the Ceylon's struggle for independence and people like Sir John, F.R. Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake, E.W. Perera and so forth were making, mademoiselle concluded that 'it would be too much of a handicap for Sir John to be burdened with a European woman in that struggle'. So, the parisian returned to France and later married an eminent French jeweller and the couple remained good family friends of Sir John until her husband died in the early 70s.
Tea at Brogueswood
They had afternoon tea at Brogueswood watching football World Cup when Germany, under Franz Beckenbauer, beat Holland to the delight of Sepala's wife Dorothea. Finally, Sir John accompanied Sepala Moonasinghe and his family to their car, observing it being a Mercedes Benz, he was quick to remark: "I say, Sepala, I hope you are not turning out be another Savundra", which aroused laughter all round.
So many Sri Lankans have come out with numerous fascinating anecdotes surrounding General Sir John Kotelawala, however, not many have had the privilege and closely knitted luncheon meeting Sepala Moonasinghe had with his wife Dorothea, and two daughters, Karin and Gitanjali, in the company of a charming French lady and an illustrious patriot, true gentleman and an all encompassing Sri Lankan!
Originally published on Daily News Thursday, February 6, 2014 (All day) - Features