-Pic credit: Herbert Perera-
I was deeply saddened to learn about the demise of Reggie Fernando, on 22nd April 2018 in Sri Lanka, the veteran journalist and a worthy friend from London. He Commenced journalism as a staff writer at the ‘Daily News’. Subsequently, in the UK, he continued with his writing to the ‘Daily News’ and ‘Evening Observer’ and ‘The Sunday Observer,’ and became the longest served London Correspondent for Associated Newspaper Group.
Reggie needed no introduction in Sri Lanka or in London. Apart from his journalistic skills, he was known as a ‘dare devil’ in the ‘Ceylon’ Motor Cycle Club (CMCC) during his young days, among the cream of riders and drivers such as Dean brothers – Rally and Zacky, Chandra de Costa, U.D. Jinadasa, and many more. Among the drivers were the unbeatable Cedric Seneviratne, Norman Suby, G.C. Johnston and M.I. Rauf, to name a few, who battled it out every year for honours, realising that motor racing was a more perilous pursuit than bullfighting.
Reggie Fernando was privileged to represent Sri Lanka on a United Nations summit, as the Sri Lankan Media Representative. He also had the rare honour of attending Prince Charles’ wedding in London, as the only Sri Lankan journalist, officially invited to grace the occasion.
His brief experience, as a diplomatic officer in the capacity of Information Attaché’ at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Sweden opened his retrospection to give a better vision to Sri Lankan compatriots on affairs affecting Sri Lanka in the form of news. Upon returning back to London, he wasted no time in contemplating on a local newspaper in the UK. In this direction Newslanka had to be his brain child, despite the enormity of responsibilities it carried to publish a newspaper single handed, on a weekly basis. However, his determined resolve made him a winner. Once retired, in a more relaxed manner, he handed over the reins of the publication to his son, Chinthaka, and Reggie parted with his bags of knowledge and experience in journalism by being the Editor in Chief of Newslanka, a job he could easily supervise, advice and execute even from Colombo or Nuwara Eliya.
Once I wrote to my circle of friends, thus: ‘If anyone who has been living in the UK for a considerable period of time and contemplating to get back to one’s roots in Sri Lanka, to have a much more relaxed life style, then my sincere advice would be to take Reggie Fernando as an example, who is living in style now in his air-conditioned apartment in Wellawatta and ‘Heavens Above,’ Nuwara Eliya.
Reggie was full of fun in company, and those who associated with him closely knew how entertaining he could be. He let never a moment go waste with boredom in company, and came out with humorous anecdotes and side-splitting jokes.
After influencing my circle of friends to emulate Reggie, I followed suit in 2006 to return home. I was in Borella at the time. Once I made a courtesy call to Reggie’s Wellawatta apartment. His generosity had no bounds. The very first words that came from the other side of the phone from Reggie were, “Can we meet up on Friday evening, be ready sharp at 18 hours.”
I had to go out in the afternoon for some work, and having got caught up with traffic, arrived home fifteen minutes late. Before I could enter our flat, I could see a posh E-Class Mercedes Benz parked just opposite my gate. Feeling somewhat guilty being late, I attempted to creep into the flat slowly, but to find Reggie already seated in my sitting room and reading a newspaper and awaiting my arrival. I gathered that Reggie had not lost the discipline he acquired in the UK, as far as time keeping was concerned. He was one of the rare specimens who appeared to be highly regimental on time keeping – 6 p.m. to him meant 6, and not a minute past six!
After a mad rush and quick shower, I got into the Mercedes Benz with Karuni, and Reggie at the wheel. What struck me immediately was that though he had become senior in his age over the years, when it came to driving, especially in Sri Lankan roads where one does not know at what moment a three-wheeler, motor bike or even a careless driver will cut in or hit you from behind, he had not changed an aorta in his ways of driving from the days of his motor cycle and car racing. Seated in the front seat, at various moments my foot was pressing an imaginary brake pedal, as Reggie drove like a professional and the Benz zoomed like a bullet.
After a meal and on our way back, Reggie extended yet another invitation to us, which I could not refuse. “Janet and I are going to Nuwara Eliya next week end; would you and Karuni like to join us”? I jumped at the idea, being eager to see his new ‘Heavens Above’ apartment in Nuwara Eliya, which everyone who had visited been praising about.
On our way to Nuwara Eliya, he stopped at the Avissawella Rest House, for breakfast. Waiters having recognised him came rushing to him and offered us VIP treatment. Although we were full to capacity, only a few minutes after our breakfast, Reggie insisted that we should have tea at Kithulgala Rest house, where the film Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed some years back. Although the place had been modernised from the time the film was shot, the reminders were still there in the hallway, with framed photographs of Gregory Peck, John Wayne and others.
Enjoying the scenic beauty of Sri Lankan up country and tea estates, the legendary Devon and St. Clair water falls in Talawakelle, we finally reached Nuwara Eliya by mid-day. Going from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya makes one feel the difference altogether. Standing in the forecourt of Grand Hotel, Reggie pointed at a pastel green building up in the mountains, in the background, as appropriately named as ‘Heavens Above’. I became impatient.
Heavens Above was built on four floors. The fit and healthy could park their cars at the front entrance and climb about 50 – 60 rugged steps to enter the house. Those lazy and knee bucking weaklings could drive round the building and enter from the rear garage entrance, which was at a higher level and had access straight to the master bedroom and a visitors’ room and an additional apartment with six bedrooms. Much of the furniture had been transported all the way from England to match the Nuwara Eliya pre-colonial setting.
In the evening we assembled at his specially designed room, which gave an exquisite view of Nuwara Eliya town and the race course. One glance at this room took me back to England in a jiffy, with the British furniture, imported lighting, an extra ordinary liquor bar, and particularly seeing Reggie in British attire, like a typical Englishman, wearing a woolen sports jacket and a matching scarf round his neck.
Reggie loved to spend his time in his master bedroom either reading newspapers, browsing through Newslanka copies that he received from London, or just relaxing while sprawling in an expensive retractable electric easy chair to appreciate the natural beauties of Sri Lankan hill country. From the visitor’s bedroom too it gave a glimpse of the entire Nuwara Eliya town area, the potato and vegetable farming.
Reggie visited Nuwara Eliya fortnightly, and on special occasions with friends to entertain and to have a good time. During such visits Michael, the man home-help and Meenachi in the kitchen, were kept on their toes to entertain the guests. As a man of etiquette, Reggie was equally particular about entertaining in an appropriate manner in serving drinks etc. Poor Meenachi had to run up and down, four floors, several times, to bring ice and various other odd bits at her master’s command.
An extra ordinary thing I detected during this visit with Reggie, all the way from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya, was despite his car displayed British number plates, many police officers simply looked at the plates, police jeeps over took the Benz, and traffic police with white ribbons across their uniforms on motor bikes stared at the foreign plates, but did not bother to stop the vehicle, even out of curiosity, to question about it! Was it because it was an E-Class Mercedes Benz?
After living in the UK for decades, Reggie Fernando finally did make the right decision and move to Sri Lanka to spend his autumn years in elegance! One thing he always repeated like a mantra was that “If one does not get involved in politics, it is heaven on earth here” !
How many expatriates who are able to live comfortably in their own roots could pluck up the courage or have the bottle to uproot from a sedentary, monotonous and institutionalised life style abroad, thus becoming simply like lemons confined to four walls in an ever degrading and scanty London life? I assured him during the trip to Nuwara Eliya: “ Reggie, I did follow your footsteps, and I too have come back to Sri Lanka to bury my bones here”.
Reggie Fernando was an extremely affable, modest, decent gentlemen and a good friend to associate. My dear friend, Reggie, we all are living in a corporeal world, and we all must return one day to an unknown destination! But one thing is certain and that would be, all your friends, your son Chinthaka and Janet your wife, will all miss you from now onwards with all your loving memories. It is a harsh reality to bear my good friend, but that appears to be the fact of life.
May you attain Nibbana