I consider Peter Wijesinghe as an encyclopaediaof Sri Lankans and their activities in London considering his knowledge, experience and the vivid memory over six decades of working life at the Sri Lanka High Commission in the UK.
Peter holds the longest serviceman in the Sri Lankan Government Service, having worked at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London from day one of its ceremonial opening. Although he did not fall into the top-notch category of Diplomats, he was well read, knowledgeable, intelligent and ‘with it’ on international affairs more than some of the diplomats who had come to serve in the UK, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as diplomatic officers.
He was privileged to have had the opportunity to hobnob with all the High Commissioners from day one, and had come across the cream of the Sri Lankan society by working exclusively for the Head of the Mission at all times.
After reading my column, titled ‘Kingdom of Death’ in which details of two suicide incidents at the Ceylon Students Centre were revealed, he corrected me with an extra ordinary story of the very first suicide case of a Sri Lankan in London, going back to the late 1940s.
Just after Ceylon gained independence there had not been many lodgings where Sri Lankan students could be accommodated in private homes. The number of Sri Lankan professionals who had settled down in the UK from affluent families had been only a handful, so were the number of Sri Lankan students who arrived in Britain to study or sit for London examinations.
Within such limited family circles, they always found a friend or a relative to help each other to overcome the board and lodging problem of young students. It was in such a backdrop that two young boys and a pretty young girl managed to find accommodation at the late Dr. Alfred Gunasekera’s residence at Homesdale Road in West Hempstead in North West of London.
One of the dashing young men was none other than Gamini Corea, who later became known as Dr Gamini Corea, the financial genius, and the other handsome student had been Christy Jayawardena. The young pretty girl Damayanthi Dunuwila, who was the third lodger at Dr. Gunasekera’s residence, was a niece of the late D.S. Senanayake.
A romantic atmosphere apparently seemed to have developed covertly among the three young people where it was assumed that the young miss had been attracted to Gamini Corea, while the young man Christy Jayawardena had gone crazy over the girl – quite unknown to her cousin! This very fact may have led Christy Jayawardene’s concentration powers to go haywire that he failed in his examinations that year.
It was believed that the embarrassment, humiliation and indignity that surrounded him in failing the examination and not being particularly able to face his ‘self-admired’ love, he decided to commit suicide by jumping in front of a fast moving underground tube train at West Hempstead tube station. This incident in fact had been the very first suicide case of a Sri Lankan in the UK.
The first natural death of a Sri Lankan in London was recorded as the late Gunasena de Soyza’s demise while he served as the High Commissioner in London. He had been the Permanent Secretary attached to SDS & EA (Secretary of Defenceand External Affairs) during S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s administration prior to his appointment to London and resided at 21, Addison Road, London W14 which had been used before as the ‘Students’ Club’ prior to the establishment of The Ceylon Students’ Centre, at Sussex Gardens, London W2.
Being a keen reader of newspapers, he had earned a reputation of going through ‘every letter’ in newspapers; his enthusiasm grew more as he had to wait for a long time till the diplomatic bag arrived by sea freight those days containing Sri Lankan newspapers as well.
Once, High Commissioner de Soyza impatiently waited at home after giving instructions to Peter Wijesinghe to bring the papers to his residence, which had been delayed for some reason or the other, but when the delivery was done in the evening, after office hours, Gunasena de Soyza was seen in a rage for his staff not obeying instructions properly.
However, having stomached a belly full of invective from his boss, Peter had left 21, Addison Road hoping that the following morning his master would be in a better mood to explain to explain about the delay in delivering the papers to him in time, but he was shocked to hear, that very evening High Commissioner Gunasena de Soyza had expired suddenly due to a CVA (Cerebral Vascular Accident – bursting of a nerve in the brain).
The death of the High Commissioner had caused a problem to the High Commission staff as the funeral of a diplomat in London had to follow a certain decorum followed by a requiem mass according to Christian formalities in England.
Gunasena de Soyza being a Buddhist, the High Commission staff had wanted the funeral to be performed according to Sri Lankan customs and Buddhist rites without having to take the body to a church and having to go through a Christian homily. However the High Commission staff had managed ‘diplomatically’ to improvise a special religious ceremony equivalent to a church mass at the Sri Lanka High Commission building itself, on a grand scale by renting several gold plated chairs for the British Foreign Office staff and other participants to sit during the repose of the soul of the dead person. Finally, the body had been cremated in London and the ash handed over to Mrs. Soyza to be brought to Sri Lanka. Gunasena de Soyza’s death has gone on record as the first Sri Lankan diplomat to die and cremated in London.
Second such death was recorded when a Trade Commissioner named Ekanayake dropped dead following a sudden heart attack at the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch in West London after participating in an official ceremony.
The third death or suicide was committed by Mrs. Tilak E.Gooneratne ( nee Miss Rodrigo ) who was married to, the Civil Servant, intellectual, once Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General in London who finally took over the responsibilities at the London Mission as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner for the UK.
Mrs. Gooneratne was known for her eccentricities for a long time where she used to travel in her husband’s official Cadillac motor car with the Sri Lankan flag mounted. May be people were not aware of the fact that she suffered from a mild kind of neurosis – a form of mental disorder. That very fact may have been the cause for people to assume that she was ‘ arrogant’ and uppish’
Tilak E Gooneratne was considered as a ‘blue eyed boy’ of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Subsequently when Guy Amirthanayagam assumed duties at the High Commission, as the Education Officer, he became responsible for recommending Sri Lankan students for British scholarships.
There was a time when the High Commissioner Tilak E. Gooneratne had to spend some months in Sri Lanka on medical grounds, while in the meantime Guy Amirthanayagam had assumed duties as the Deputy High Commissioner in the absence of the Official High Commissioner.
Amirthanayagam, as the Education officer and deputy High Commissioner, went on full steam to try and obtain a place for young Anura Bandaranaike in a British University at a time Mrs. Bandaranaike was desperate to find a suitable university for young Anura in the UK, without much luck.
Through his skills and personal contacts finally Amirthanayagam managed to get young Anura into the University College of London. That made Amirthanayagam to be in good books of Mrs. Bandaranaike . It is said that when the High Commissioner Tilak E Gooneratnereturned back to London, there had been an apparent indecorous rivalry between the head of the Mission and his deputy where Amirthanayagam was alleged to have been blamed for using his discreationand promoting a major portion of Tamil students for British Council Scholarships, thus completely andblatantly ignoring many eligible Sinhala candidates.
The diplomatic covert tug of war did not help High Commissioner Tilak E Gooneratne at the end of his term. The result being, he had to throw in the towel to his long and flamboyant career when he did not get a diplomatic posting to any other destination. It is said that the tremors and shock waves of such a disappointment were felt more by Mrs. Gooneratne who used to enjoy all the diplomatic privileges to the full.
Sadly, one morning around 10.30 am, just after the peak period of travel in London , Mrs. Gooneratne had walked towards Warwick Avenue Underground Tube station in West London, which was only a walking distance from where they lived at the time and jumped on to the railway track, in front of an approaching tube train holding a Harrods bag.(Harrods is an exclusive departmental store in London where the rich and the elite do shopping). Within seconds iron wheels of the tube train had run over her tearing her body into smithereens adding yet another suicide case by a Sri Lankan in London.
picture by Writer.