Vale Rajeewa Jayaweera: Mate as well as Renaissance Man

Sanjeewa Jayaweera, whose choice of title is  “Rajeewa Jayaweera: beloved brother, friend, confidant, mentor, and comrade in arms”

“No Chutta, I don’t need your help today. I will let you know when I need it.”  were the last words that Aiya spoke to me. Usually, his tone was brusque and matter of fact.  That day it was soft and endearing. I was a bit surprised but happy. I often wish I had the intuition to guess something was amiss.

Rajeewa (on the left facing) with his younger brother Sanjeewa … in Halong Bay Vietnam

It is now three months since my brother passed away. The intense grief and the sense of tragic loss that my three sisters and I feel have not abated. The heaviness in our hearts is still there.

As in most cases of suicide, many have posed the question “Why did he do this?” Many of his closest friends were bewildered. They did not detect any sign of depression or unhappiness. Neither did I. He was not depressed but indeed weary of life.

His letter to me, which unfortunately found its way to media outlets, websites and social media conveyed his apprehension about a couple of health issues that might impact the quality of his life in the future.

As his brother and closest confidant, I believe his following comments reveal his mindset. In his letter to me, he said, “In the final analysis, I have lived my life in full. I now see little or no reason to continue as the many negatives far outweigh few positives left. Therefore, I look forward to my departure.” In another post he said, “Left in my own time, achieving most if not all I wanted, now tired of it all and with no further reasons to stay on”. He did not elaborate as to why he felt “tired of it all” but followed the motto of Michelle Obama “When others go low, we go high”.

When I recently visited his grave, I saw a post in the cemetery that said, “Death is a delightful hiding place for men who are weary of life”. Many who desperately try to prolong their life in this world despite various challenges would find it hard to understand this. However, I do not.

Aiya was the second of five children, was born in 1956, a few days before the eighth-independence celebration day of Sri Lanka (Ceylon then). My sisters often used to tease my mother saying Aiya was her favourite! He was fortunate to get overseas exposure in his early years in Singapore and then India.

When the family returned to Sri Lanka in 1962, he and I were admitted to Nalanda Vidyalaya. Despite returning Foreign Service Officers having the option of choosing any school, my father had wanted us to be exposed to children from different backgrounds and not just the elite. Although Aiya was at Nalanda only for eight years before proceeding overseas, I believe his thinking on social issues impacting our country was somewhat fashioned by the value system that prevailed in schools such as Nalanda and Ananda at that time.

Our family proceeded overseas in 1970 and experienced the biting winter in Russia. After just one year, our father sought and got a transfer to the warmer climate of Pakistan.

After passing his GCE Ordinary Level exam in Islamabad, Rajeewa wanted to move to Karachi to do his Advanced Level exam.  The reason was that Islamabad despite being the capital city, was a sleepy little town with no social life!  Despite Ammi’s reluctance as he was only 17 years, he prevailed. Even then, Aiya was his own man!

In 1975 he moved with the rest of the family to West Germany. In 1980 he Graduated from the School of Economics specializing in the Catering and Hotel Trade in Dortmund. Only a few weeks before his death, he fondly reminisced on challenges he faced in having to learn the German language and maintain his grades. He said that in the first two years, several students left, but he persevered although he had to study twice as hard to ensure continuance at the institute because of the language problem. But he did it! He worked at several hotels in West Germany as part of his internship, and his stint at the Steinberger Hotel in Bonn from 1975 to 1977 exposed him to hosting of State Banquets for dignitaries like the Shah of Iran and other world figures. The disciplines he learnt were to stand him in good stead even in later years of his life when organizing official functions and dinners. All his life, he was able to know good wines from mediocre ones. He well understood the art of perfect entertaining.

He returned to Sri Lanka in 1980 and worked in the hotel trade till 1986 when he went to work in Mosul in Iraq. On his return, he decided to switch careers and joined Air Lanka in 1989 as a Marketing Executive. He quickly proved his capabilities and was appointed as the Manager of Marketing Communications in 1992. After that, he did stints in Oman, Chennai and then France as the Country Manager.  In Chennai, he was Manager of the whole of Southern India.

He returned from France in 2005 and after resigning from Sri Lankan Airlines he joined Qatar Airlines as the Regional Manager for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, and Myanmar. In 2010 he rejoined Sri Lankan Airlines on a two-year contract and was appointed as the Country Manager for Germany. However, his contract was prematurely terminated by the Sri Lankan Board in May 2011.

The reason was that Rajeewa refused a request by a VVIP who had a penchant for the welfare of airline flight attendants! He was told to arrange for an officer of the Sri Lankan Airlines Frankfurt office to meet two flight attendants who were returning by train from Berlin. They were then to be assisted and placed on board the train going to the Frankfurt airport.

As the day concerned was a Sunday, Rajeewa said that in Germany it was not possible to ask staff to work and as such he could not accede to the request. He also believed the ladies concerned were seasoned travellers and that there was no reason for them to be met and assisted. The net result was that his contract was terminated shortly after.

He was not a person who suffered fools gladly. He was known to be a firm administrator who discharged his responsibilities diligently and efficiently. A former boss of his at Sri Lankan Airlines told me recently that most of Rajeewa’s overseas postings were to places where contentious issues had to be resolved and that there was no better person than him to be assigned. He always got the job done. He was forthright and not a “YES” man. He said what he had to say quite openly irrespective of the consequences. This forthrightness, at times, negatively impacted his career as well as his personal relationships. At times because of this, people did not always see the softer side of him.

His devotion to his parents was exemplary. He checked all their requirements and attended to them even, from overseas.  When he was in France, my parents spent every summer with him and despite his hectic schedule he would take them sightseeing during the weekends to various locations. Both my parents were of the view that the time spent in Paris with Aiya were some of the happiest they have had.

When Ammi passed away, we soon realized that Thathi was neglecting himself.  The cooked meals sent by Rajeewa were not being consumed. He, soon took charge and employed two attendants to look after him and spent about four to five hours every day, ensuring that Thathi was shaved, bathed, exercised and fed. All this was done diligently under his supervision. He ran the household with military precision! The menu for 21 meals for the week was on a magi board! I remember him telling me “Chutta, with your workload at JKH you don’t have the time. I will do the needful.”

Rajeewa with his father Stanley

My brother has written three articles about the different phases of his relationship with our father. As a teenager, he rebelled and was at odds with Thathi’s thinking. However, he was the one who was the proudest of our father’s achievements and personal attributes.

When visiting Germany during Thathi’s tenure as Ambassador, Rajeewa discovered that he was planning to order a Volkswagen Golf as his private vehicle to be brought back to Sri Lanka at the end of his assignment. Vainly he protested telling Thathi that most returning Ambassadors brought back Mercedes Benzes or BMWs from stints abroad as they could be brought in duty-free. Thathi’s reply was that he was buying a car to take him and Ammi from point A  to point B and a small car was more than adequate. Rajeewa found such attitudes challenging and did not always understand such actions!

Twenty-seven years later, when Rajeewa retired from full-time work and relocated  to Sri Lanka, he had to decide on a car and opted for a small Toyota Aqua despite being financially able to afford a higher-grade car. Chatting over a drink about the choice of the vehicle, and he said that he now understood Thathi’s thinking and principled way of life. He also said that he now fully appreciated one of our father’s often-repeated phrases “Class is something that you are born with and not what you acquire. It is not based on how much money you have in your bank accounts or the assets you own.”

As a brother, he was my friend, confidant, mentor, and comrade in arms! He was never intrusive. The advice given was on a take it or leave it basis and nearly always only when sought. I always knew that he was there for me and likewise, that I was there for him. When I look back it was, he who always helped me, and my greatest regret is that I did not have the opportunity to reciprocate. He rarely asked for any help.

He took great pleasure in my success at John Keells. I still recall how, after three years working as an accountant, a senior director decided to join a competitor. He offered me a job at his new place of employment and promised a two-fold salary increase and a fully maintained official vehicle! I was delighted. However, before accepting the offer, I sought Aiya’s guidance over a drink. When I mentioned the job offer and details of the prospective employer, his reaction was “Chutta, you are an idiot if you don’t know the difference between the JKH brand and that of the other!”. That was the end of the discussion. When I was appointed a director at JKH four years later, Aiya jokingly asked me “Hope you remember our conversation”!

When I returned to Sri Lanka from London, I was a bachelor living near to Aiya’s. He used to provide me with meals and pick me up and drop me at work until I got my car six months later. When I got married, he told my wife, “Deepthi, you don’t need to cook lunch as you are working. I will continue to provide meals for both of you”.  Such was the amazingly soft and considerate side of him.

Rajeewa was a proud Sri Lankan. In several articles, he expressed his displeasure as to how certain Western countries were attempting to hold Sri Lanka to account to standards which they themselves do not adhere to. He was also critical of the role played by India in the late 1970s and 1980s in promoting terrorism in our country.

In one of the boxes, he left behind for me is a personal letter from The Rt. Hon. The Lord Naseby PC to Rajeewa. The letter was enclosed in the copy of Lord Naseby’s book “Sri Lanka – Paradise Lost Paradise Regained.”

The final paragraph of the letter reads as follows “I hope you enjoy the read: maybe if I am lucky it will turn out in itself to be the match to light the lamp that takes Sri Lanka forward to be better understood by the West and admired by others. I look forward to reading your review in due course.” It was unfortunate that he did not have the time to review the book written by a person whom he admired greatly and felt indebted for having spoken passionately on behalf of our country.

The decision to gift Rs. 1 million to the domestic as well as Rs. 500,000 to the Presidential Fund for COVID are examples of his generosity and his sense of duty. In the covering letter sent to the President’s Fund, he had stated that as a beneficiary of free education received, he felt that it was his duty to donate despite having paid Income tax for several decades.

He paid his Income Tax for the year 2019/20 just a few weeks before his death. He wanted me to compute the income tax payment for quarter 1 of 2020/21. He got annoyed when I told him that it was too early to calculate and in any case the payment is due only in August.  Upon enquiry, I found that he had settled all his credit card dues. He wanted to ensure that he owed neither the state nor anyone else anything.

I believe that it was as a regular contributor to the Sunday Island and the Island from 2013 onwards that he found his niche in life. It gave him a purpose as all his articles were well researched and supported by facts. He was a fearless and a non-partisan writer in a country where most hide and use non de plumes when expressing opinions on controversial issues impacting the country.

He had contributed over 325 articles since 2013. I reproduce below some of the tributes paid to him by fellow scribes and readers of his articles.

A trenchant, well-informed writer, his contributions that included incisive political analysis, were without fear or favour. He was the most knowledgeable writer on Sri Lankan Airlines in the Sri Lankan press drawing from an information bank in his head and using his ability to dig deep into the affairs of the airline which he had served long” – Manik Silva – Editor of Sunday Island

Of course, Rajeewa Jayaweera was not my friend. I never saw him in person, nor heard him, but I had once seen his picture in a web publication. However, I saw him well enough through his writings as a fellow contributor to The Island, and experienced a latent relationship with him as a person whose intellectual grasp of our country’s burning issues, and whose concerns and attitudes relating to them generally matched mine; I felt as if I had known him closely as a friend for some time. I was impressed by the meticulous attention he paid to his language in expressing his ideas precisely (a characteristic in truth-tellers)”. –Rohana Wasala

The well-researched analysis, on many topics, too numerous to list were factual, objectively composed and fair to everyone. He was a prolific writer on matters of public interest, providing knowledge and insights to inform and enrich our lives. His writings were always non-partisan. He wrote on all sorts of public issues, ranging from corruption, in public places, to civil aviation. He was at his best on diplomatic issues, and foreign affairs, given his family background”. – Dr D Chandrarathna

He will be remembered by many as a courageous writer who put vital and scandalous information of Sri Lankan Airlines into the public domain, through the media. I always remember this impeccably dressed handsome marketeer who turned to be a prolific writer, placing his authority in a topic he knew like the back of his hand”    – Ranjith Samaranayake

The unbroken thread that ran through his essays was impartiality. Political angles did not influence his writings. He offered no respect to the dishonest, and those professionals who failed to preserve the national interest and dignity in office. He was fearless in the expression of his beliefs, convictions and conclusions, and was undaunted by reaction and reproach. He wrote without fear and prejudice. There was much to learn and absorb from his writings, particularly because intense research underpinned his analyses and conclusions. Reading him was a process of enlightenment, enrichment and education” – SDIG (Retired) Merril Gunaratne

I genuinely miss Rajeewa. I probably saw the best in his incisive mind and greatly talented personality. I always looked forward to reading whatever he wrote, and we had lively discussions on topics of the day.” –Goolbai Gunasekara

I think the tributes encapsulate Rajeewa’s contribution as a journalist and the respect with which others of similar ilk held him.

Many have asked me why he chose the Independence Square?  It was a close friend of his who explained that it was symbolic. It was his “independence” from a life of which he was truly weary.

***   ****

A NOTE from Michael Roberts:

I often plucked Rajeewa’s articles from the Island for presentation in Thuppahi and therefore corresponded with him — with my longstanding friendship and admiration for his uncle Neville as one springboard for our exchanges. My intention of placing Sanjeewa’s moving and revealing Vale in Thuppahi when Rajeewa’s death hit the news was stymied by the Inquest.

Sanjeewa’s is a wide-ranging and meaningful epitaph. He is a chip from the Jayaweera block. Sri Lanka needs more servants forged with the Jayaweera skeins of metal.

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Filed under cultural transmission, education, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, life stories, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people, world events & processes

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