The private secretary

1 montage + 4 audio

Chairperson of the Galle Heritage Foundation, Parakrama Dahanayake recalls his earlier role as private secretary to his late uncle and former Prime Minister Wijeyananda Dahanayake and reflects on his decision to enter local politics. Photography by Kannan Arunasalam.

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  • Kannan Arunasalam says:

    We had arranged to meet Parakrama Dhahanayake at his office in the Galle Fort. Mr Dhahanayake was the current chairman of the Galle Heritage Foundation and the ground floor of the old kachcheri building was being restored as part of the foundation’s work. We walked up the dusty staircase to Mr Dhahanayaka’s office.

    Mr Dhahanayake had a famous uncle, a former prime minster of Sri Lanka no less. Within moments of me saying that we were interested in interviewing him, he launched into a history lesson about his uncle. His grasp on dates and facts relating to his uncle’s political career that spanned almost fifty years was impressive. It was almost rehearsed. Mr Dhahanayake was clearly used to people coming to talk to him about his uncle’s involvement in Sri Lankan politics. But I wanted to know about the nephew. That was my aim, but Mr Dhahanayake couldn’t stop talking about his uncle. I decided to change tack and suggested we visit the family house and do the interview there.

    But I should have anticipated what we found when we got there. The front room was almost a shrine to the uncle. A large portrait of the uncle was placed on the floor. There was no more wall space for it! Politics and family life merged into one. “The house was always open,” Mr Dhahanayake told me as he gave me a tour of the house and his uncle’s old room where his belongings were still kept. “That was what he was like”.

    Mr Dhahanayake then introduced me to his elder brother, a former mayor of Galle, who was sitting in his room at the back the house, a small radio by his side. Mr Dhahanayake seemed certain that I’d be interested in talking to him. In addition to his uncle, Mr Dhahanayake had also been the private secretary to his elder brother after he lost his sight to a congenital eye disease. We exchanged a little conversation. I was amazed that he was able to carry on as mayor even though almost completely blind! He was an interesting character, and I was a little embarrassed to explain to him that although I was very interested in talking more, I had really come to talk to this younger brother. He giggled and called out to Mr Dhahanayake who had stepped out momentarily. “He’s come to speak to you, Parakrama, not me.” He giggled again.

    I felt perhaps the house was not after all the best place for the interview – the uncle and elder brother’s shadows loomed large here – so I decided we should go back to the Foundation’s office, which was the younger Dhahanayake’s domain. We of course spoke at length about the uncle and his principled political life, but a couple of questions about his own work and what motivated him to enter local politics later in life, opened him up a little to say how he really felt about his uncle and about being in the shadow of the family’s famous politicians for so long.

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  • Prashan says:

    It’s fascinating to hear in these interviews how little politics has changed. The selflessness of one individual political actor is lauded and romanticised in the audio extracts, but the motivation by the state to change the electorates were based purely on political gain. The opposition to this by W. Dahanayake adds to the favourable impression of the man that remains with his nephew, but it is apparent that the “system” has changed so little.

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  • Joe Simpson says:

    Hope you will enjoy this excerpt from my (unpublished) monograph on “Small of Richmond” about WD!

    In the 1951 Richmond Souvenir there is a memorable photograph of the Richmond College Cadets, headed “1918 Winners of the All-Ceylon Drill Shield”. Rev. Small sits in the centre at the front, with the Shield itself on the ground seemingly balanced against his right knee, in dark jacket and tie and white trousers – and sporting a very “colonial-style” topee and a splendid “Lord Kitchener” handlebar moustache. At first glance the contrast to other photographs that show him bare-headed, clean shaven, trimly-moustached and wearing his academic robes and clerical “dog collar”, is quite startling. The diminutive figure of Lt. (later Major) F. A. de S. Adhihetty in his full Cadet Corps regalia including “Sam Brown” belt, sits on Small’s right, dwarfed by the tall figure of his Principal. On the other side of Lt. Adhihetty sits the young E. R. de Silva, later to become the first Lanka-born Principal of Richmond College. The teenaged P. H. Nonis, future Principal of Wesley College, Colombo, is seated on the far right end of the same row. And immediately behind Rev. Small stand two young boys whose surname would become almost synonymous with 20th century Galle – the 16-year-old Dahanayake identical twins, Kaliyanapriya and Wijayananda, sons of Pandith Dahanayake, a reputable Sinhala scholar and ardent Buddhist revivalist who had been one of the welcoming party when Col. Olcott first arrived in Galle in 1880. The Dahanayake family home sat right beside Richmond Hill. It was Wijayananda, named after the Buddhist temple at nearby Dangedera where Olcott first observed pansil (and where his father was a prominent lay official) who was destined to be the “Voice of Galle” in Parliament and for a brief time in 1960 the country’s caretaker Prime Minister. At the time of the photograph, however, not only were both brothers extremely brainy but they were also notorious practical jokers, and to make it worse neither of them could be pinned down for the sins of the other! Trying to tell them apart was an ordeal that their teachers and even Principal Small constantly underwent.

    A short time after that 1918 photograph was taken, the Dahanayake twins completed their Richmond education and attended teacher training college in Colombo. “K” taught at Richmond from 1928-1931, then went into journalism at Lake House where he became a constant thorn in the sides of more consevative colleagues, sometimes to the point of fisticuffs. “W” taught briefly at Richmond from 1924-1925, while still in his very early twenties. I believe that he also acted as a Hostel master during this time. He later taught English, Mathematics, Geography and History for 8 years at the Roman Catholic St. Aloysius College in Galle. In the 1930s “Daha” (as “W” was to become more widely known) resigned from his teaching post and entered his true vocation – politics. He won a seat on the local Municipal Council, eventually becoming Galle’s first Mayor in 1939, beating by a single vote District Judge T. W. Roberts (father of an enormous family including the Galle historian and chronicler Norah Roberts, still living in Colombo in her mid-90s, and Michael Roberts the Australia-based anthropologist and prolific author on Sri Lankan politics and society). During his tenure as Mayor, “Daha” – reputedly – almost bankrupted Galle Municipal Council by introducing a series of populist measures to alleviate the problems of the poorer classes: the tax on bicycles and rickshaws was reduced, taxes from poorer households were waived, new roads and housing were built, and employment relief schemes were set up with central government assistance, and so forth. Then in 1944 he won the distant Bibile seat in the State Council, and entered the national arena, where he formed a one-man opposition party and became famous as the “Bibile Brook” for a twelve-and-a-half hour speech. In 1947 he won the Galle seat as an L.S.S.P. candidate in the first Parliamentary elections, comfortably beating prominent Gallean Henry Woodward Amarasuriya, the son and grandson of the two Amarasuriyas who had been such outstanding benefactors to Mahinda College and crucial supporters to Frank Woodward in the early years of the century.

    In 1952, “Daha” was expelled from his party for welcoming the U.N.P. Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, to Galle – typically, in defiance of Party orders. In 1956, “Daha” became Minister of Education in S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s S.L.F.P. cabinet, a post he used to confer University status on the Buddhist Pirivenas of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara and, equally memorably, introduce free midday meals in schools. When Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1960, “Daha” reached the pinnacle of his political career by being unanimously elected Caretaker Prime Minister. Not for long though – falling out with his colleagues, he called a General Election in March 1960 – and lost. To his credit however, as Norah Roberts (who as a lifelong Galle resident and long-time custodian of the Galle Fort Library evidently held “Our W” in affectionate regard) points out, he removed the Government side’s traditional advantages by bringing in the One Day Election and allowing all political parties access to public radio during the run-up. “Daha” doughtily soldiered on regardless, and in 1970 was the only U.N.P. candidate to retain his seat in the South. In 1977, he lost his Galle seat but then succeeded in overturning the result by special petition, due to the winner being shown illegally to have held a Government contract during his election campaign. His civic contributions to the Galle area have included the present railway station and bus-stand, the Fisheries Harbour and Cement Factory, and (more controversially) the replacement of the old cricket pavilion with a new stadium on Galle Esplanade.

    In my time at Richmond (1973-1974) “Daha” in his early seventies was of course still very politically active, though because of his idiosyncratic, contrarian personality he was rather a marginal figure at the national level. Locally however he was very much a man of influence and quasi-seignorial status, albeit often-times controversial. Michael Powell in a footnote to his “Manual of a Mystic” biography of Woodward, describes “Daha” in passing (and not entirely unfairly!) as “a somewhat irascible and unpredictable personality”. I recall him as being a touch formidable, with a very acerbic wit and considerable charisma. (Norah Roberts provides some hilarious examples of the often-impromtu parodies with which he used to enliven parliamentary debates and deflate parliamentary egos). He never shrank from publicly criticizing any incidents of what he saw as Police brutality. Very occasionally during my year at Richmond, I would go down to his home next to Richmond Hill to telephone Colombo, there being no telephone connection to the School Hostel in those days. Invariably “Daha’s” wide, open front verandah would be busy with the comings and goings of a diversity of humble petitioners seeking the ear of the “big man”, and others (like me) allowed use of his telephone as M.P.s did not have to pay for even their long-distance calls.

    For all his aura of power and influence, “Daha” never lost his common touch. He liked to refer to himself as Sri Lanka’s Dick Whittington because (presumably metaphorically, but then again with “Daha” you could never be sure!) he had “walked barefoot” from the Bibile backwoods to Temple Trees, the P.M.’s residence in Colombo. Somasiri Devendra has recalled to me how he had offered his seat on a Colombo bus one day years ago to an older man in national dress standing in the aisle. The offer was firmly refused (shades of Rev. Small!), and it was only then that Somasiri realized that he was talking to the famous ex-P.M. Dr. Dahanayake. “Daha” immediately proceeded to grill the younger man about his family and where he came from, and on learning who his father was, recounted some of his memories of the late D.T. Devendra. Then he came to his stop and was gone, leaving Somasiri to answer the incredulous queries of his fellow passengers – “Was that really Dahanayake?” According to Norah Roberts, he was the first Sri Lankan M.P. to travel with a third class ticket on the railway; he explained to anyone asking why, that he did this because there was no fourth class! (Having travelled third class once from Colombo to Galle, I can sincerely attest to the sacrifice involved in this gesture).

    As recounted in Norah Roberts’ book, GALLE As Quiet As Asleep, on his 89th birthday on October 22nd, 1991 the Colombo Daily News had a front-page photograph of “Daha” with a “Tissahamy” beard, long white hair and roll hat – stroking a cat. The book also features a colour photograph of him in his early nineties, sporting sage-like long white hair and beard and standing to the west of the Esplanade with the Galle Fort ramparts in the background. The Clock Tower seen beyond the walls was erected in 1883, the same year that Joseph Small was born in far-off Lincolnshire, to commemorate the services of Dr. P. D. Anthonisz both to the world of medicine and to a successful battle to preserve the 17th century Dutch Fort ramparts from demolition. In the picture, however, it soars skywards…seemingly out of the top of Wijayananda Dahanayake’s roll hat.

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    • Anne Williams says:

      Jo – my pa, Norman Winter, who loyally supported the UNP (the first and only national party in Ceylon at the time of independance) knew Daha very well. We feared him as a Trotskyist of the LSSP, so why he joined the UNP was very surprising to me! Pa also knew Colvin R de Silva. Daha seems however to have the plight of the poor of the nation foremost in his heart as did my Pa and his father, A.W Winter of Pillagoda Valley, Baddegama. A.W was also a local benefactor and philanthropist as were others as noted in the book by Norah Roberts. She however made incorrect statements regarding our family, something her nephew Michael should correct. My Bowman cousins who managed Baddegama estate (founded by George Winter the sugar pioneer and, together with other merchants, the Colombo Observer newspaper on February 4th) all insist that Haverstock Bowman never won the VC.

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