Esmond’s almost lifelong commitment to the UNP can be seen as part of a family tradition, for his father Cyril had been D S Senanayake’s right hand man when the latter was Minister of Agriculture, first as Government Agent at Anuradhapura to supervise the seminal Minneriya scheme, and later as Land Commissioner when he moved to Colombo and into Lakmahal. The two families were close, and they had also been friendly with the Wijewardenes, the owners of Lake House. For years the page at which the old Visitors’ Book at Yala had stood open was the one that recorded a visit of D S and his wife, Cyril and Esme, and D R Wijewardene and his wife.
It was probably therefore to the entire satisfaction of both sets of parents that in 1944 Esmond, having sown his wild oats, married Nalini, the eldest daughter of D R Wijewardene. He had qualified as a lawyer by then, having entered university at the tender age of 17, the year the family moved into Lakmahal. Having obtained a first class in history, he then turned to the law, in which he would doubtless have excelled had D R not summoned him in to look after Lake House.
Just how wild Esmond’s oats had been I heard only after he died, when Regi Siriwardena came home for dinner, and we sat in the side garden over drinks and he mentioned that he had last been there when Esmond was running a Trostskyist cell. I had known that Esmond had been left wing in his distant youth, but I had not realized that he had been quite so deeply involved, and – from what Regi said – party to the great jail break of the Trotskyist leaders during the Second World War. Regi, in his wry fashion, was quite entertaining about the pillars of the establishment socializing in the drawing room, while Esmond plotted sedition in the garden.
Those meanwhile were the days in which J R Jayewardene made his entry into politics, through the bye-election at Kelaniya caused by Sir Baron Jayatilleke’s retirement from active politics. Having chaired the Board of Ministers set up under the Donoughmore Constitution, from its inception in 1931, he was by now seen as passé. His rather sad speech on resigning from the State Council, to take up the post of our representative in India, makes clear his sense that he was being forced out by a younger generation anxious to take over.
But an even younger generation was also waiting to come in. The veteran politician E W Perera laid claim to contesting the Kelaniya seat on behalf of the Ceylon National Congress, but he was challenged by J R. D S – who was rumoured to have preferred the older man – was persuaded to permit both to stand without the Congress asserting a preference. His son Dudley and the younger members of the Congress supported J R, but it is also likely that D R put in a word for his sister’s son. Later, when J R tried to claim that it was the Jayewardenes who had promoted the Wijewardenes after the marriage of his father to D R’s sister, Nalini made sort shrift of J R’s claim in a characteristically dignified response that made no bones about D R’s position as patron.
J R had no qualms about drawing attention to the fact that his opponent was a Christian, and poor old E W Perera stood no chance in Kelaniya, where the Wijewardenes were established patrons of the temple. E W of course was not the sort to draw attention to the fact that the Jayewardenes – like the Bandaranaikes – were themselves Christians.
Once in the State Council J R proceeded to establish his nationalist credentials even more forcefully, by proposing that Sinhala be made the compulsory medium of education in all schools at all levels. D S had just made good the appalling treatment of the minorities that had been perpetrated in 1936, when the Board of Ministers was constituted entirely by Sinhalese. Having ensured that Arunachalam Mahadeva took Baron Jayatilleke’s place as Minister of Home Affairs, he was horrified at this new reminder of what a triumphant majority might do.
Fortunately, when this was pointed out to J R, he accepted the inclusion of Tamil into his motion. The older generation was not happy, and they stood firm this time against Sinhala or Tamil being the compulsory medium of education at secondary level. But they gave in over primary education, and thus began the dichotomy between the different peoples of this country who were not fortunate enough to know English. It is ironic therefore to read J R’s speech on that occasion, when he talks about there being two nations in Sri Lanka, one that spoke Sinhala or Tamil, and the other that spoke English. His claim was that, if his proposal to make education in the vernaculars compulsory was not accepted, the gulf between those two nations would be unbridgeable.
Did D S begin to understand then the strength of the new nationalism that had entered the body politic? It is conceivable he would not have minded, having been involved in the emergence of the Pan-Sinhala Board of Ministers in 1936, and later presiding over the disenfranchisement of the Indian workers who had voted with the left in 1947. By then certainly J R was very much part of the inner circle, having been appointed Minister of Finance when British control of that position went with the replacement of the Donoughmore Constitution by Soulbury and independence.
And what about Esmond, the Trotskyist of the early forties? By the time of independence he was very much a pillar of the establishment, and was swiftly to become one of the more committed players of their politics, as Tarzie Vittachi made clear in his memoirs, in recording Esmond’s manoeuvers when he ran Lake House. S P Amerasingham, writing in the Tribune I believe after D R Wijewardene’s testamentary case, when it became clear how very much he was worth, wrote that it was not surprising that Esmond had been a Communist, with stress on the pluperfect tense.
But I think there was more to it than that. For a man of his intelligence, not yet thirty, it must have been flattering in the extreme to realize that D R found him the only person on whom he could rely, to carry on so influential a profession. The Wickremesinghes were not at all flamboyant, emphatically private people and more functionaries rather than initiators. Of course Esmond did not move away from this tradition altogether, for he always stayed behind the scenes. But the opportunity actively to influence the newly independent country must have been irresistible – and there was little chance then that the establishment would give way in the near future to the left that had commanded his allegiance in his salad days.