Skandakumar’s reflections on British influences in his life plus this and that

Speech by Guest of Honour, S. Skandakumar at Sri Lanka UK Society’s  Birthday Banquet for Her Majesty the Queen: Cinnamon Grand. 17th June   2012.

 Pics by Namal and BBC respectively

Your Excellency, John Rankin, High Commissioner for Britain in Sri Lanka, Eminent Excellencies of the International Diplomatic Corps,  distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, When Carlo your President invited me  on behalf of his committee to this evening’s function, I said to him  “Carlo I am four years  into retirement, I have spent it all in relative hibernation in Haputale and many feel that soon I will be ready  for the Archives “… to which his response was ‘Ah That’s just the profile we are looking for!!”

So here I am Ladies and Gentlemen, and a very Good Evening to all of you. It is not only a great pleasure to be here but also a special privilege to have been invited to address such an awesome  audience ,and I wish to thank Carlo and his committee for the  opportunity.

I will not attempt to pay her Majesty a tribute as I know it will be a futile exercise but what I would like to observe is that her reign has indeed been the finest example of a selfless rule and an  exceptional blessing to the civilised world.  Perhaps Prince Charles’ tribute summed it all up         when he said  “You made us all Proud to be British ‘….. There could not be a higher tribute to a Country’s leader than that.

Given the nature of todays event I would like to reflect briefly on  the  British influence in my life.  I joined the firm of George Steuarts in the early seventies,  in its  140th year,  by when it was down to its last expatriate Chairman, Trevor Moy,  a remarkable gentleman amongst gentlemen. I was fortunate  to have him as my mentor in my early years as I saw in him the virtues of humility and integrity in the infancy of my career.. Trevor was awarded the  Order of the British  Empire for his contribution to British interests in Sri lanka and retired in the late 1980s to live in Eastbourne, Sussex, where he passed  away with the dawn of the new millen  ium.

In keeping with his wishes we flew out his widow Kathy with his  ashes and buried them in a quaint little church in Dickoya named Warleigh where his grave remains preserved to date. I am sharing this         with you merely to give you an idea of the deep affection expatriates   of that time had for both our country and its people.

My other interaction with British influence, if I may call  it that,  came in 1991, in a different capacity.   I had  been re-elected Honorary Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka and along with the President,  Ian Pieris, a Cambridge educated cricketing blue, we were preparing  to attend the annual general meeting of the International Cricket Council, which is normally held in the middle of each year in  the main Pavilion of the  Lords Cricket Grounds   when  we received intimation that at the end of the first day’s sessions, that all delegates had been invited to a reception at number 10         Downing Street,  hosted by the Prime Minister of Britain,          Rt Hon John Major .   It was an anxious time for diplomatic relations between our two countries as David Gladstone the UK High         Commissioner had been declared persona non grata for his over  enthusiastic interests in the Political affairs of Sri Lanka,  and Britain retaliated  by downgrading the posting temporarily to one         of a Deputy High Commissioner.  So I said to myself  that I  could not possibly go into No 10 empty handed and   picked up a sterling-silver tray and had a suitable message engraved on it. As  we queued up outside the main gate at No 10,  I noticed that  I was the only one who was carrying          anything in his hand  and   looked quizzically at  Ian whose response was typical…. ‘It was your bloody idea so you         take it in. ”

I waited to be announced in, shook the Prime Minister’s hand  and handed the gift to him.  ” You mean you brought this for me all the way from  Sri Lanka ? ‘  he said.   “Yes Prime         Minister”   I replied and went into the reception hall,  and thought no more aboutit.  After all the delegates had         been ushered in I felt a tap on the back of my shoulder and a voice said  “The Prime Minister would like to have a word with you Sir.” So  I went back to the  meeting area and he said “You know that was a very thoughtful gesture on your part; shall we do a picture together ?” Cameras clicked and he escorted me back into the reception area.

The next morning, while we were at sessions at Lords, there was a knock on the door…’ A letter for Mr Skandakumar of Sri Lanka from the Prime Minister’s Office ‘!! was the announcement. I wish mobile technology had been in vogue then because I would have loved to have captured the expressions of the delegates round the table including that of the Chairman, Sir Colin Cowdrey!

They all assumed that in those 2 hours at the reception I had established a hot line to No 10!! It was just the picture autographed by him with a thank you note; but knowing the virtues of snob values, I made no effort to convince anyone to the contrary!

While still at Lords I would like to share a little story with you.  Some of you may have heard it before;  yet I think it is worth repeating.  It concerns one of England’s finest batsmen in the post-war era.  His name was Denis Compton, For all his talents, Denis was perhaps the most disorganised         cricketer England ever produced.  He could never be on time for social functions and would turn up in the dressing room for important  matches having forgotten his guard, bat, pads etc, and then he would borrow everyone else’s equipment and go out and bat marvellously for England.

So when Denis turned 50, the cricketing fraternity of         England decided to accord him an appropriate celebration. The venue was Lords and, everyone who was someone associated with the game, was  there.

Champagne corks were popping and spirits were getting high when there was an announcement t …”a telephone call for Mr Compton.”   Denis trotted off with his 4th glass of champagne in hand, humming merrily under his breath and returned a few minutes  later looking quite glum. When his guests asked him if something was the matter, he hesitated and then said  “That was         my mother on the phone…..She says I am only 49 !! ”

Now,  to something serious. 31st of January 1996;  time  10.45 am —  we had just concluded our         weekly Wednesday Board meeting when we heard gunshots. For those of you who may not be familiar with Steuart House, the company’s  head office  is situated directly opposite the Central Bank down Janadipathi Mawatha. The Board room is on the 8th floor and overlooks the bank. We went to the  window and saw an ancient lorryhaving climbed the pavement adjacent to the bank attempting to drive into the lobby area of the Bank. When that failed the suicide squad detonated the bomb and the rest is         history.  I learnt later that when a bomb explodes

it gathers in intensity up to a certain height before it diffuses,  and so when it reached the 8 th floor of Steuart House it was at its peak.  It smashed through the glass panes, wrenched         the board room door from its hinges carrying it many yards and sent us  all sprawling to the ground bleeding.  There was utter mayhem as you can well imagine,  as  we struggled down  8 flights  of stairs dripping in blood amidst helpless cries of anguish and pain on  each floor.  An ex-planter of the company recognised us on the street and took us to hospital where I was diagnosed with a         fractured nose and a gash at the back of my head.

When the surgeon visited the next day and offered to operate         on  my nose  I thanked him and said that I wished to retain it         as a grim reminder of my relative good fortune. Since then each morning         I have remembered in prayer all those innocent people who were less         fortunate than me on that horrific day.    Janadipathi Mawatha         then was by far the busiest street in Colombo, flanked by airline         offices, banks, hotels and commercial establishments.  In fact you         could hardly walk ten paces without bumping into a fellow pedestrian.         That incident  represented barbarism at its very worst . To those         men and women of vision, courage and valour, who         brought that horrendous conflict to a close in May  2009, we all         owe a lifetime  debt of gratitude.

My other experience of comparable barbarism regrettably came in July 1983, when a Govt elected by the people stood condemned for having orchestrated  brutal violence against its own people;  a people who were not only innocent but  also hopelessly  defenceless.  I am not reflecting on this to open any wounds although there are scars from those utterly shameless events that may never heal.  I am doing so to focus on the countless compassionate and courageous  Sinhala brethren who at great risk to their own  lives came forward to offer shelter and protection to those who were         targeted.  There is no doubt that, left to ourselves, we are indeed a marvellous people , and this was amply demonstrated in the manner in which we gained our Independence.  The transition was         smooth  and peaceful and reflected the confidence Britain had both in our people and the Political leadership. That confidence was   sustained in the early years as Ceylon became a showpiece for South Asia.  Sadly, influenced by the selfish politicalaspirations of an  Oxford-educated scholar we then deviated to a path of language and divided ourselves.  Arising from that, we walked the path of ethnicity and further divided ourselves.  We  continued to address the issues facing the people of our country by ethnicity and not nationality and failed to find a solution.

It was Mahatma Ghandi who once lamented that it was a mystery to him how man could  see himself honoured by the humiliation of his fellow beings.   If almost seventy years later, that          mystery remains unsolved, don’t you think that in itself it is a human tragedy ?

Ladies and Gentlemen,  the biggest threat to civilisation will not come from the nuclear missiles         feared in North Korea,  Iran, or  Libya,  or for that matter the weapons of mass destruction that only two world leaders were able to locate in Iraq.   Oh No ! It will come from a growing breed of educated people like you and me, who are flooding the ranks of the Illiterate of the world,  by stubbornly  refusing to learn the lessons from history.  To them I would like to quote the saying “He who disregards history  is destined to live through it again ”

When Her Majesty’s father, King George the VI announced to the Empire,  Britain’s decision  to         declare war against Hitler’s Germany,  he concluded his address with the line   “If one and all we keep resolutely committed,  then with God’s help we will prevail”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to repeat those  telling words of wisdom….’ If one and all we keep resolutely  committed,  then with God’s help we will prevail ”   and  indeed Britain did.   Where intentions are honourable, and actions are sincere,  God’s help is assured.   Many courageous men and women  have made huge sacrifices to give us the  equivalent of a second Independence.   That Independence has opened a path for Peace and Reconciliation that not only has an unending         horizon but also unlimited opportunities for all Sri Lankans.  Let  us  one and all keep resolutely committed to that path of peace and reconciliation,  invoking thereby the blessings of God to         prevail, so that this wonderful country of ours, one of immensely  talented people and unparalleled natural charm may move  forward to achieve its true potential  for all.

I would like to conclude by reading to you lines from Lord Buddha’s  teachings….”When people are happy and satisfied, class differences  disappear,  good deeds are promoted,  virtues are increased         and people come to respect one another.  Then everyone becomes prosperous;  the weather and         temperature become normal;  the sun, moon and stars shine naturally; rains and winds come on time; and all natural calamities  disappear”…..Need one say more ?

May God bless Her Majesty, Our Beautiful Country and  All its people…….Thank you.

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