AP de Zoysa: Fascinating glimpses of a unique personality

Leelananda de Silva, reviewing Kumari Jayawardena’s biography of her father

ap de z coverFor the common man, politics began only in 1931. In 1931, men and women over the age of 21 were given the right to vote for electing members to the new legislature – the State Council. 1931 should be seen as the year that liberated the common man from the oppression of centuries, whether it be under local authoritarian monarchies, Portuguese, Dutch or British rule. About this time, two new and distinct strands in politics and in intellectual life could also be discerned. A new class of English educated men was emerging, drawn from village backgrounds, of moderate affluence, Buddhist in religion, and imbued with Eastern and Western values. They were people like G.P. Malalasekara, Senerath Paranavithana, P. de S. Kularatne, Martin Wickramasinghe and many others of that ilk. Many of them came from the Southern seaboard. A.P. de Zoysa belonged to this category of intellectuals.

The other strand was the emergence of a new class of politicians, drawn from outside the Colombo establishment which had hitherto dominated politics in Ceylon. People like S.A. Wickramasinghe, N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardane entered politics about this period. A.P. de Zoysa was also one of them. He (we shall call him AP as in the volume) was one of the very few to straddle both these categories of the new nationalism.

Kumari Jayawardane has written an absorbing volume, blending biography and social history. It is a remarkably affectionate tribute from a daughter who is herself a leading Lankan historian. Kumari has written many books, some of them not as consensual as this one. This biography of her father is an outstanding work and a model of its kind. It traces the life of AP from his origins in Randombe (he was born in 1890), a village fifty miles from Colombo on the Southern coast, where he was orphaned early on, through a financially fraught early life, to higher education in England, and to politics in Ceylon and purposive intellectual pursuits, until his death in 1967. The volume is full of insights into village life in the Southern province, networks of caste which sustained both rich and poor, the early days of an English education for the locals, and the ambition of local young men to proceed to Britain for higher education.

The political life of AP, starting in 1936, and his public and intellectual life after politics for another twenty years are described. AP had several networks of contacts, and one of his close friends and benefactors was Mudaliyar Jayasena Madanayake, the bus magnate. One striking feature is that the volume contains an array of little known information on various facets of public life in the country. For example, the birth of the Rotherfield Institue in the 1920s focusing on psychology and mental health is described. There are nearly a hundred illustrations in the volume and Kumari has unearthed some fascinating photographs of her family in the early part of the 20th century.

Let me start at the beginning with the coastal (is it sleepy?) hamlet of Randombe. Randombe has produced many outstanding people. Walwin A. and Colvin R. de Silva were two of them and the cabinet minister C.P. De Silva was another. AP was a few years ahead of them. In two chapters, “A Colonial Village in the Galle District” and “Religion, Caste and Class”, Kumari describes the economic and social structures of the village, where poverty was rampant. Most young men sought their fortunes outside the village. Fragmentation of land was a common feature and there were no large land holdings. AP’s grandparents had 49 plots of land, most of them miniscule, and these plots were valued not only for economic reasons, “but as part of social capital, giving the family some status as land owners”.

There were a few entrepreneurs and one of them was Ruwanpura Kiliman de Silva, who was an important merchant and connected to AP. “Kiliman had an entrepreneurial attitude to land. He was good at spotting unproductive land owned by relatives and others and took over the management of their land, giving one quarter of the profits to the owner and three quarters to himself as the manager. Kiliman who borrowed money from Chettiars, was also a money lender. He bought land from the government which offered subsidies for cash crops, and through these transactions acquired 100 to 300 acres at a time. He eventually owned around 3,000 acres, almost all converted into cinnamon plantations”. It was the office that Kiliman set up in Colombo for cinnamon trading that “in 1936 became the famous company of Sherman de Silva & Co.” This family, apart from their business activities, helped to educate village youth and set up free lodgings for them near Ananda College.

In relating the story of AP’s education, Kumari has offered many revealing insights into the educational system that prevailed in the South. There were very good schools in Balapitiya and Ambalangoda and one of them was run by the Weslyan mission and which probably directed AP towards Wesley College in Colombo where he came under the influence of Rev. Highfield who was then its principal. “By 1890, there were 145 schools run by the local Weslyam Mission, with 11,425 pupils funded and supervised by the Weslyan Missionary Society of Great Brtain.” This was an enormous contribution to education in Ceylon.

AP left Wesley and came to Mahinda College, Galle where the Principal was Englishman Frank Lee Woodward, the son of a country parson, who had obtained a classical Tripos degree from Cambridge, and who had taught in several public schools in England. He donated his own inheritance of €2,000 (then a large sum) to Mahinda. Woodward changed the Latin motto of Mahinda until that time nihil estamabilius virtute (nothing is more esteemed than virtue) to a Pali motto khippam vayama pandito bhavo (strive hard to be wise). Kumari says that, “In all aspects of life, Woodward was AP’s mentor”. Kumari’s observations on Mahinda College and Woodward are most instructive on the kind of education imparted in these schools at the time, a mixture of East and West, drawing the best from Western classical and Oriental literatures. These schools taught Greek and Latin and Pali and Sanskrit, and AP had a good grounding in all these languages so that, when he went to England, he earned a living by teaching Latin.

The principals who ran schools like Mahinda, and those who patronized them with their philanthropy, and the students who attended these schools aimed at obtaining an education which blended Eastern and Western values. There was a strong nationalism and a spirit of Buddhist revivalism during AP’s time. The urge for a stronger nationalism, and the rejection of Western values came at a later time starting in the 1940s and the 1950s, where the importance of an English education, and the opportunities for any state- supported and privately managed system of education were rejected. Fifty years later, Sri Lanka is seeking once more to equip its children with an English education without trappings of Western culture.

They now demand functional English and technical English and email English. One aspect which might be noted in this connection was that the principals of these leading schools, both Buddhist and Christian, were independent- minded, eminent personalities (Woodward, Highfield, Kularatna) who built up great institutions and provided a voice of reason in British colonial times. There are no longer principals who are independent minded or schools which are independent (I am not speaking of the commercial tutories). We have lost a rich legacy.

The two chapters “London in the Twenties” and “Marriage to Eleanor Hutton” offer us a picture of life in England in the 1920s and 1930s for Ceylonese students. AP’s great ambition had been to proceed to England and there he obtained a BA degree, sat for the Bar examinations and obtained a PhD from the University of London. He also married an English wife. His post graduate degree was in anthropology and his thesis was on Observances, Beliefs and Customs in Sinhalese Villages covering a wide range of subjects from childbirth, marriage, magic and beliefs and astrology and monastic life. He obtained most of the information from his own experience in low country Sinhalese villages. It might be appropriate to publish AP’s thesis even after this lapse of time. Why should not the Social Scientists Association do it?

AP spent fourteen years in England and these years made a major impact on his life. He moved in some of the artistic and cultural circles in London, and was engaged in promoting Buddhism as “A rational set of beliefs”. One of the books he recommended was Sayings of the Buddha” by F.L. Woodward. He was in contact with British Theosophists and freethinkers. He was associated with some of the Ceylonese who were later to become leading Marxists – Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe (whose family, after he married Doreen, an Englishwoman was very close to the de Zoysa family), N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardane, Colvin R. De Silva and Leslie Gunawardena, among others. It is surprising that AP did not become a Marxist, unlike his friends. S.A. Wickramasinghe had been at Mahinda, and he became the leader of the Communist Party in Ceylon. Why this did not happen was that AP was steeped in Buddhist philosophy and he attached critical importance to a hybrid approach- changing society like the Marxists, and changing oneself, as in Buddhism. He was a social democrat, steeped in Buddhism.

AP was in active politics between 1936 and 1947. He won a famous election for the Colombo South seat in the State Council in 1936, beating a well known Colombo figure, Dr. E.A. Cooray. (Cooray’s mother in law, Nancy Peiris, owned 4,678 acres of land) AP’s election stands as one of the early dents in establishment politics in Ceylon. AP was not a party man and he worked with his Marxist friends and other liberal politicians of his time, in the legislature. He was a strong advocate of women’s rights and of the rights of minorities. He wanted the dowry system abolished. His main interests in the state council were in social and cultural issues. He does not appear to have been too concerned with economic issues, unlike the Marxists. He was active in the State Council during the Bracegirdle incident and very critical of Governor Stubbs (Bracegirdle was a young British tea planter, whose visa to stay in the country was terminated by the Governor when he joined the LSSP). He moved a motion which read: “In view of the fact that most Civil Servants lack the love of liberty and the respect for legal rights of the people… this council is of opinion that his Majesty the King be informed that no Governor of Ceylon selected from the Civil Service would be able to perform his duties in the best interest of His Majesty’s subjects”. AP served in the Executive Committee on Education in the State Council and was a key supporter of C.W.W. Kannangara in bringing free education. AP had proposed free education in all elementary schools receiving grants from the government, as far back as 1940.

After he ceased to be a member of the State Council, AP devoted the rest of his life to writing, translating and publishing. He had started a weekly paper “Dharmasamaya” in 1939, and this continued until 1949. He translated the Tripitaka into Sinhalese from Pali, so that ordinary Buddhist laymen could understand the Buddha’s teachings better. (AP’s illustrious mentor, Woodward had translated the Tripitaka into English) AP also ran a press of his own. AP attached great importance to educating the public in a democratic society. He passed away in 1967 at the age of 77.

It is abundantly clear that AP was an exceptionally unique personality in the public life of his time. He did not hold any top public office. He was not a leading politician. He was a man who lived by his principles, mostly imbibed from Buddhism and from the best of Western culture. He had an affinity with the British liberal tradition. He combined intellectual interests with political action and his primary aim always, through his speeches and writings and in teaching was to improve the lot of the common man and to build a decent, civilized society. He believed in reform as an improvement, not in revolution. Kumari Jayawardane’s volume stands as a testimony and a memorial to an outstanding public servant of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

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