FEATURES

Lakshmi Dias Bandaranaike

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Felix Dias and wife

by Nihal Jayawickrama

My first contact with Lakshmi was on the telephone. It was 1960. Mrs Bandaranaike had been appointed Prime Minister, and Felix was the 29-year-old Finance Minister in her Cabinet. I was an undergraduate on the Peradeniya campus of the University of Ceylon. I was the President of the United Nations Student Association, and in that capacity, I had written to the Minister of Finance inviting him to address the students on the subject of “The New Lanka”. I had had no reply.

A trunk call from the campus meant waiting at the telephone exchange for at least an hour and a half. I decided therefore to come down to Colombo, and from my home I telephoned Mahanuga Gardens. The call was answered by Lakshmi, and she promised an early response. Eventually, when Felix and Lakshmi did come to Peradeniya, Felix told me that the reason why he accepted my invitation was that Lakshmi had persuaded him, saying that “the boy was very polite and had a nice voice”.

Fast forward to 1965. The general election of that year was over, and the SLFP was now in Opposition. Unlike today, there used to be a spate of election petitions filed by both parties. The SLFP MPs whose elections were challenged invariably found their way to Felix. I remember the first of these petitions, against the MP for Balangoda, Clifford Ratwatte. Felix’s juniors were Lakshmi and me.

I didn’t realise at the time what effect it would have, not only on my other professional work, but also on my personal life. Preparation for the next day in Court always began with a consultation in Felix’s study at Mahanuga Gardens at about 6 o’clock and ending around midnight. It was Lakshmi who realized that Sarojini and I had only been married for two weeks. Rather than letting me go home early, Lakshmi’s solution was to co-opt Sarojini to sit with us for six hours every evening.

Another five years, and it was 1970 and election day. After having gone round the polling stations in the Attanagalla electorate with Mrs Bandaranaike, I came home for a quick change before proceeding to the Colombo Kachcheri where I had been designated as her counting agent. I was surprised to find that Sarojini had been persuaded by Lakshmi to accompany her and Felix (who was his own counting agent) to the Dompe count which was also to take place at the same venue but in a different room.

As the night progressed, it was clear that the majorities of the two SLFP candidates in Attanagalla and Dompe would probably be among the highest in the country, and I began to sense some rivalry emerging from the Dompe count. In the end, it was Mrs Bandaranaike in Attanagalla who secured the highest number of votes, 31,612 to Felix’s 31,515; but it was Dompe that had the highest majority: 22,373 to 21,723 in Attanagalla.

Two days later, Sarojini received an urgent telephone call from Lakshmi. She wanted both of us to come to Mahanuga Gardens immediately. When we arrived there, we found that Felix had left the Cabinet formation meeting that was taking place at Seevali Ratwatte’s home in Shady Grove Avenue and come home, angry that he had been offered the Ministry of Agriculture which he had declined.

He was threatening to sit as a backbencher. Fortunately, Lakshmi was able to calm him down and persuade him to go back. It wasn’t long before Lakshmi received a telephone call from Felix to say that he had been offered, and he had agreed, to be Minister of Public Administration, Minister of Local Government, and Minister of Home Affairs – three very important portfolios, all wrapped up together in one.

A few days later, the newspapers reported that I had been appointed Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. That report was premature. I had been invited by the Prime Minister but had not decided what I should do. I was assured it would not be to keep appointing justices of the peace which the Prime Minister thought was all that that Ministry had been doing in the past.

She said that I had been advocating the need for legal and judicial reform, and she was now affording me the opportunity to deliver precisely that. It would be a life-changing decision, and Sarojini was quite unenthusiastic. That evening, Felix and Lakshmi came home and invited Sarojini and me for a drive.

I believe we went to Fountain Cafe. Both advised me against accepting the Prime Minister’s offer. They recalled how Felix had been “let down” when he was Minister of Finance in the 1960 Government and had to resign that portfolio and from the Cabinet. They said the same could happen to me at some stage, and that since we were a young couple (as they were in 1960) they did not wish to see us getting hurt.

Felix and Lakshmi both advised that I should remain at the Bar since I was obviously enjoying my life there, and perhaps think of a career in the judiciary at a later stage. Sarojini and I both felt that their concerns were genuine, and we did not doubt their sincerity. At the end of the day, it was a difficult decision, and one which I alone had to make. Ultimately, I did not take their advice.

As things turned out, at the end of seven years, both Felix and I, and Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike too, were summoned before a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry. As Sarojini and I photo-copied hundreds of documents necessary for my defence, on a massive photocopier that Felix had installed in his sitting-room, it was Lakshmi who constantly exercised restraint whenever Felix’s jokes, intended to keep our spirits high in those dismal days, became too racy. Eventually, Parliament stripped all three of us of our civic rights.

Me, for refusing to allow the CID to detain exchange control suspects in solitary confinement (and about 40 other charges); the former Prime Minister for having kept a state of emergency on for longer than the three Commissioners considered to have been necessary; and Felix for selling milk and eggs from his farm to the Milk Board instead of hawking them around on the streets. In fact, Felix argued that a vendor walking down a street offering “the Minister’s eggs” would probably have fetched a higher price than what was offered by the Milk Board.

These are some early memories, and nearly 60 years have come and gone. So has Felix, Lakshmi, and Mrs Bandaranaike, and so has Sarojini. From wherever we were, in whichever country, Sarojini would insist on telephoning Lakshmi on April 19 to wish her Many Happy Returns. Today, I bid farewell, to the one person whose single word, gesture or frown was sufficient to bring the irrepressible Felix immediately under control – the vivacious, dynamic, captivating, witty, frightfully competent, occasionally domineering, but always warm-hearted, Lakshmi. May She Rest in Peace.

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