Overwhelmed by W. Dahanayake … A Few Insights into the Politics of Yesteryear

Bevis Bawa ... writing way back in an article entitled “And the “Brook” overflowed” .… a wonderful erudite title that I should perhaps have retained

A person I have wanted to write about for quite a while is our effervescent Daha known to some as “The Voice”. And to others, long ago, as the “Bibile Brook” and now Doctor of Literature [Honoris Causa”].


Last week I ran him down to earth in the corridors of the House. “Hullo Bawa”, he boomed in his rasping voice which sounds like gravel being thrown on a windowpane. “So now you are a journalist!”.

He led me to the dining saloon of the ship- I mean the restaurant of the House, so like a ship’s saloon [pale blue, grey, and concealed lights in the ceiling]. He ordered tea.

Never having interviewed anyone before, I didn’t know quite how to start. After an awkward silence I asked him to relate a few amusing incidents in his life, for I knew he had the capacity to laugh at himself.

Daha played with a fork on the table and absently put four large spoons of sugar in his tea. “What can I say”, he said loading his cup with another two. Then like a babbling brook he poured forth about everything, from by-elections at Bibile [1944] and battling with bus magnates to Dream Children me and Roast Pigs.

“My first opponent was a bus magnate”, he said, “and armed thugs tried to prevent me holding election meetings. I had to hold unannounced meetings at wayside boutiques, and I won the seat. In the State Council I was the man who broke all records for speaking. The papers called me the Bibile Brook. Once I spoke for 13 ½ hours and I could have gone on for 18 hours but some-body stole my notes, when I broke for lunch. Later I heard it was Sir John who had got it done.

“I was the One-Man opposition in the State Council. There are some people who think about delivering long speeches is not good. But there are some subjects on which it is necessary to deliver long speeches.

“Take the White Paper on Education. It has 30 heads. It needs at least 5 hours. The cry against long speeches is raised by people who do not like talking shop. Parliament is talking shop. If they don’t like talking shop they should not be in Parliament.

“Molamure was the best Speaker; and once I incurred his wrath. At that time hospital attendants were issued with some very bad uniforms. I brought a female attendant’s jacket to the House and suddenly pulled it out and held it up for the Speaker to see, and I said ‘Mr. Speaker; I am sure you are quite familiar with this’…. He was very angry.

I have produced the queerest things in Parliament, from Maldives’ fish to ‘amudes’. I came to the House premises recently in an ‘amude’ but the Speaker would not allow me in the Chamber. I enjoy every moment in Parliament. I like fights.

“I have always got a very bad Press, especially when I was the Prime Minister. But I did one of the biggest things when I was Prime Minister – holding the Parliamentary Elections in a single day. I dissolved Parliament – there was a vote of no-confidence and the Government scraped through with one vote, so I decided to dissolve Parliament. And I gave direction that for the first time there should be a one -day election.

“Earlier there had been 100 Seats and the Elections took three days, but now with 150 seats I wanted to have it in one day. We were able to do it because we had an excellent Elections Commissioner [Mr. Felix Dias Abeysinghe]. He is the best public servant I have come across.

I am the man who has given the largest number of questions in Parliament. Even now there are over one hundred outstanding questions unanswered. Everyday I have the maximum of three questions. They think I am a positive nuisance. Whenever the opposition wants to filibuster, they give me the word.

“I am 61 years old, nobody else at my age can talk so long without getting tired. My secret is deep breathing exercises. In 1956 I gave up drinking, when I became a Minister, I believe that a man who accepts a responsible post must stop drinking.

“Two years later I gave up smoking too. I was a chain smoker, but I got ‘flu and I got frightened when a doctor told me that I would get a patch in the lung if I continued chain smoking in bed. So, I gave it up completely. That is the only way to do it. There is an idea you must cut it down gradually, but you can’t do it that way. The late Mr. Bandaranayake had tried so hard to give up smoking and he used to ask me how I did it.

“I am a one-meal -a-day man. I eat only lunch. Good health is the most essential thing for a public man’s success. My formula for success is: 1. Good health, 2. The ability to take interest in any subject and the ability to forget this subject when the issue is over.

“I get the largest mail in the House and I reply all letters. The replies take 500 envelopes from the House every week.

The man I admire most is Winston Churchill. My habits are mostly those I learnt from books on Churchill. One thing I learnt from him is that a siesta after lunch is a must. When we have night sittings most members are rolled up on sofas.

I am a voracious reader. I read any kind of book. I am now reading the Police Commission Report and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tales of the imagination’ [I must have read that before]. In my library I have a special section for poetry and I reach for that section often. I feel sad that the coming generation will not have a sufficient knowledge in English to enjoy English Literature. English Literature is the chocolate of life. I would beg the Government to take a greater interest in teaching of English.

“I was Minister of Education for four years. I was the most criticized Minister. But I was the Minister who did the most amount of work. I worked from 8.00 AM to 8.00 PM. In a matter of one year, I gave Ceylon two extra Universities when there had only been one. The country was on a transitional stage, hankering after development and higher education. I fitted the University idea in to existing institutions. And it was also I who gave a science bent to education

“This world is a most wicked world. The moment a man starts doing something good they attribute some motive to him. I’ll give you an instance. Recently I praised the Prime Minister because she is worthy of praise. Now they say, I am going to join the SLFP. Utterly silly. She is a wonderful Prime Minister of stature. She gets things done. The thing is to get things done even if you make mistakes. I like some of the things they have done, the take over of Insurance and petroleum for instance. They are courageous, adventurous …. Like Columbus.

“I have never gone abroad. Once I left at 8 a.m. by air and came back at 5 p.m. It was a trip for MP’s to Madras. Travels are now associated with jaunts. The Government should permit travel only if it benefits the country.

“My most terrible sorrow was the death of my twin brother last year. To get over it I began to work even harder. We were very close. He was also a politician but he kept off politics to allow me to enter. He could have been a cleverer politician than I. He died of excessive smoking. He died of cancer. I can understand everything in life except death. Where are the dead? This is the most astounding problem in life.

“Politics is a funny thing. Politicians expect people to be grateful. This is wrong. A public man should not expect gratitude. I have found people whom I have helped opposing me at elections. But this is because of the circumstances of the time. I understand that. I do something good because I think it is worth doing it, for its own sake. I have no bitterness. I have no bitterness for losing my seat in March 1960.

A public man should not worry about victory or defeat. You must do what you think is right. When the old scorer comes to wright your name in the Book, it matters not whether you played the game. Does anybody remember whether E.W. Perera won or lost?”.

“I told F.R. Jayasuriya it is silly to fast. I told him to just withdraw from the battle. I told him to get out of the place and come in to politics. I did not go in to fast at the gates of Temple Trees when I lost in March 1960. I went on a pilgrimage right round the country.

“People in Ceylon have very short memories, but I have great faith in the future of our country. I cannot understand the people who runaway from this country. Can you run away to Australia and enjoy Haputale sunset?”.

“My dream child is the improvement of the Galle Port. The island of Tashish in the Bible, where King Solomon got his gold and ivory and precious stones and peacocks, has been identified with Galle.”

Have you read Charles Lamb’s essay on Dream Children? You must read it. You must also read about Roast Pigs.  Delicious. You see there was this man…….”

Daha was summoned urgently to the telephone. He had been talking for two hours, and I could have listened to him for another two. I have reproduced faithfully everything he said, as he said. When I came away my head was in a whirl. And I kept thinking of him as the only Prime Minister who drove to Queen’s House to tell Sir Oliver what he was going to do, or had done, without asking for advice.


* Edward Gunawardena: http://www.dailynews.lk/2017/11/22/features/135227/dahanayake%E2%80%99s-witty-dimensions

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wijeyananda_Dahanayake

* Bradman Weerakoon: “The Legend that was Daha,” Island, 6 December 2019.

A COMMENT from who was responsible for bringing this old news item to our attention, 19 May 2020: “Bevis Bawa was born on 26th April 1909 at Chapman House, Darley Road, which was then a residential area. His parents were Benjamin William Bawa, King’s Counsel and Bertha Marriane Schrader of Kimbulapitiya Estate, Negombo. He was educated at Royal College, Colombo, but left school at the age of 17 to look after the family plantations.  He joined the Ceylon Light Infantry in 1929. In 1934 he was appointed Aide-de-Camp to Governor Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs by cable whilst on a trip to China, and went on to serve on the staff of Sir Andrew Caldecott, Sir Henry Monk Mason Moore and Lord Soulbury, up to 1950.

In 1934 he toured the Far East extensively. In 1958 when he toured Japan again, he developed a passion for Landscaping & Gardening, which began as a hobby and continued as long as his health permitted.
He joined Lake House later and he was assigned to conduct interviews of public figures by his bosses.  Dr. W happened to be his first.”

A Note from Nayeni Fernando to Oliver Guruge of Richmond College, 20 May 2020:

“Dear Oliver, Thank you for sharing that interview. Daha was one of a kind. An educated, honest and simple man who clearly identified with the poor. I can still picture him seated on the parapet wall in his checked sarong, sans slippers or at the boutique at the corner near the church, and talking to people. He was a true son of Richmond. When he was leaving temple trees after his very short stint as the PM, we are told that he packed his bag and was trying to go out and take a bus to go home to Galle. His staff had to run out and get the outgoing Prime Minister a car for him to go. …………….. Those were the days  !!!! ………….. Nayeni


Filed under accountability, British colonialism, economic processes, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, parliamentary elections, patriotism, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy

6 responses to “Overwhelmed by W. Dahanayake … A Few Insights into the Politics of Yesteryear

  1. AN EMAIL COMMENT from Nihal de Alwis, 19 May 2020: ”
    Oliver thanks for that lovely article/ interview Bewis had with Dr Daha Fantastic!

  2. Patrick Rodrigo

    A great but simple gentleman who was not apreciated bur ridiculed by society.

  3. Chandra Wickramasinghe

    Daha – what a colourful Character! Thanks Mike.

  4. Pingback: W. Dahanayake: A Prime Minister like no other | Thuppahi's Blog

  5. Joe Simpson

    As a (very) young VSO English teacher at Richmond College 1972-3, I remember the by-then elderly Dr. W. Dahanayake vividly. The first time I met him on the road near the school entrance, having had him pointed out to me earlier, I greeted him politely by name. He knew exactly who I was, his finger ever on the pulse of local matters. “How did you know who I am?” He replied, in a challenging but not unfriendly manner. “Why, Dr.” I smilingly responded, thinking as quickly as the unfamiliar humid tropical climate allowed, “The very same way you know who I am!” He seemed to like that! If ever I can be of any help, young fellow, just call at my house over there, he told me as we parted. On one or two occasions – the school hostel where I was billeted during that year then lacking any such device as a telephone connection – I did take advantage of that kind offer to make use of his great hefty Bakelite telephone to call the British Council office in Colombo, to let them know (as my ostensible liaison with VSO main office in London) that I was still very much alive and kicking. “Use my telephone, any time! exclaimed the good doctor, “I get it for nothing, my only perk as a retired politician! So I left my former constituents use it any time they need to!” It was a frequent sight to see ast least a dozen people from the local area lined up outside Dr. D’s house in the Richmond village awaiting their turn to petition this great but very down-to-earth man for help with this or that. He had infinite patience for his people, as he saw them, I think.

  6. Joe Simpson

    PS – Dear Michael, aiyo! very sorry about a few typos there that I’ve just spotted “belatedly”! The word “sane” should be “same” of course, where I describe my first exchanges with Dr. D. And “firmer” should of course be “former” when referring to his one-time local constituents.

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