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Anura - a man beyond the ordinary


Anura Bandaranaike

By Sonali Samarasinghe

Most men cannot rise beyond the ordinary. Anura Priyadharshi Solomon Dias Bandaranaike was not one of them. And to those who knew him well it did not matter that he did not rise to his potential political greatness - for Anura Priyadharshi Bandaranaike, was an extraordinary man.

He was once to say of his friend and veteran politician M.H. Mohamed, "when you develop an affection for a man over a period of time you begin to appreciate his qualities. He is a man with a tremendous sense of humour. He never takes things too seriously which is half the problem with our politicians. He has a wide perception of human weakness."

Anura Bandaranaike may just as well have been writing his own eulogy. For if there was one man for whom the penny had dropped then he was that man. Anura wasn't merely a politician. He was an enlightened politician. This indeed was my immediate assessment of the man and the mood he mediated.

He too had a wide perception of human weakness as much as he had an immaculate understanding of his own potential and limitations. And despite his rich heritage he never took himself too seriously.

Richness of humour

My social encounters with Anura spanned a relatively brief space of time but were filled with a delightful richness of humour and wit that made evenings pass as pleasantly as they possibly could. Any comment or repartee that drew upon Shakespeare or the classics would immediately be picked up and appreciated by the man whose knowledge of life was profound yet charmingly lucid.

Perhaps I loved the fact that he understood and laughed at my jokes, guffawed at my repartee and giggled at some comment I desperately hoped had a modicum of wit. Perhaps there was a part of me that struck a resonance with a man who loved the arts as much as I did. Perhaps it was his ability to play the social game with such impeccable aplomb and converse with such satire and wit that made him so likeable in everyway.

And those who knew him well will speak more of Anura the man, Anura the orator, Anura the life and soul of the party, Anura the dear friend and Anura the loving uncle and brother rather than of Anura the politician. In a way, the rowdy politics of today did not sit well with Anura except as a catalyst for his sharp witted tongue to whip up a string of witticisms that made him, for me at least, the Oscar Wilde of politics.

Malice towards none

With malice towards none he was  relieved to find himself out of the Carnival of Clowns when in February last year he was stripped of his ministerial portfolio.

Under privilege of parliament he called his colleagues jokers, toads, idiots and yes you've guessed it - clowns, but hardly any of his political friends took umbrage for long.

In a way there was an underlying contempt Anura felt for Machiavelian politics that was reflected as far back as 20 years ago, prompting him to often refer to politicians as clowns and toads. No malevolence laced his words as he directed these epithets at some unfortunate politician. Just a general contempt for political blarney.

Bonhomie

Even his political enemies could not remain enemies for long. And Anura who never failed to use his biting wit on his political opponents was himself a man of such bonhomie and merriment he would soon forget what he had said. There was no malice or hatred as his eloquence took over and despite acerbity all around Anura never held grudges or stowed away unkindnesses and irritations for future reference.

Therefore nary a politician or journalist remained angry with him for long and as much as he never remembered a slight he never forgot his friends and if ever he could, he would go out of his way to help them.

As he himself was to once say in parliament in 1991 during a debate following the Premadasa impeachment fiasco, "Mr. Deputy Speaker, surely you know the vagaries of human conduct, we form various opinions of people which we subsequently change."

But it is his wit and quick verbal come backs that would often take centre stage in House debates in those days. Once on October 10, 1991 in a good humoured altercation with Dr. Wimal Wickramasinghe, Anura was to say 'the good doctor does not understand what I am saying. He is supposed to be a doctor - witch doctor or what doctor I do not know.'

Biting wit

On asked to withdraw the remark, Bandaranaike feigning innocence inquired from the Deputy Speaker, 'What is the remark Sir?' On it being pointed out that he had called a fellow parliamentarian a witch doctor he was quick to react with an indignation worthy of an Oscar winner. "Ah, I am sorry," he said spelling out the word for clarity. "No sir, I said w-h-i-c-h.which doctor." The Deputy Speaker ordered Anura to always spell out the word every time he used it, remarking with a smile, 'it's good to have a little fun.'

On another ocassion while debating the emergency, Anura made a remark about the Leader of the House at the time - Ranil Wickremesinghe. 'I think he (Ranil) ran out of facts half way through his speech. Because we were taught the same thing at the same school in the same class. I know this Sir. He began to provoke our Hon. Members to fill out the extra time."

A.H.M.Azwer immediately pounced on this and shouted, "both are in the same boat." Anura shot back, "both of us can survive on the same boat, but thank God, you do not get into it." Azwer not to be outdone replied, "I will not get in when you are there."

Quiet charm

There was a worldliness about AB as he was known to his friends that avoided superficial foppery and translated into a quiet charm. He understood the advantages of knowing a good wine as much as he knew the political importance of nursing his constituents.

His school friends remember him as a simple, kindly, generous soul - a boy who did not display an arrogance of power. At that time Anura was already a political figure but he did not act like a political brat. He was the son of the late S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike and of his widow the prime minister at the time, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Said one class mate, "We were travelling by bus and Anura would often stop and give us lifts in his car and hang about with us. His political and social status seemed of little consequence to him. And he made no reference to it. It was not his frame of reference."

Generous

And generous Anura indeed was. Two years ago he gifted an acre of land each to his trusted domestic aides who had served him long and served him well. Many sold their plots some fetching ten million rupees - a princely sum for the families of these aides.

It was only after he had settled these lands on his faithful domestic aides that he decided to gift his walauwa in Horagolla to his nephew, Vimukthi.

Shakespeare

Anura was a man who was a film fanatic as much as he was an avid reader with a vast collection of books that spanned not only several centuries but several genres. His memory served him well as he often recited passages from Shakespeare at parliamentary debates.

Once during a debate on the No Confidence motion of the Speaker, M.H. Mohamed, Anura doing his best to obtain as many votes as possible for the motion was trying to sow seeds of dissent in order to get enemies on the run on behalf of the Speaker. He first told one of his parliamentary colleagues 'that the Speaker had on a number of occasions called the colleague the biggest clown he had met in his life.' Anura then proceeded to wind up his speech with a quote from Julius Caesar.

 Urging his colleagues in parliament to vote for the No Confidence against Mohamed and save him the embarrassment of serving as Speaker he quoted the famous words of Brutus:

"...But gentle friends (from both sides of the house)

Let's kill him boldly but not with anger and hatred (sic)

Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods

Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds."

In a way Anura Bandaranaike's speeches were timeless masterpieces. There was a prophetic quality in the wisdom of its content. For instance he made a speech in 1991 which could very well have served as a speech for the times we live in today.

Anura reminded parliament of a man called Francois Duvalier - better known as Papa Doc of Haiti. 'He was the President of that country. He ruled that country by sorcery, by burying evil things against their people, by rubbing oil on chairs, by making sacrifices both human and animal. That is a country ruled by a Byzantine medieval ruler in the form of Francois Duvalier. There was of course Tonton Macoutes, the special police he had..'

Passion for movies

Knowing his passion for movies I was to recommend to him one evening an excellent movie - A Murder of Crows - a 1999 action thriller directed by Rowdy Herrington and starring Cuba Gooding and Tom Berenger. Believe you me or believe you me not, Anura, movie buff though he was, hadn't seen it nor had he heard of the movie. I knew he couldn't wait to see it and with his passion for the movie world there he was watching it the very next day. I think the cleverness of the movie blew his mind. And for sometime after that he couldn't quite get over the fact that he and I had such similar tastes in what a good movie should be.

Lost

While he got lost in a world of theatrics and make believe Anura in many ways was ill prepared to face the world of realpolitik. He was only seven years old when his father was brutally assassinated by a Buddhist monk. After his mother, Sirimavo was deprived of her civic rights following the general elections of 1977, it was Anura Bandaranaike who had to take over the mantle of leader of the opposition.

In 1983, Anura was elected at the age of 34, the youngest Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka and in the Commonwealth, and at the time in any practicing democracy in the world. It was a tough task for the British educated Anura who had to lead a meagre eight member opposition that had lost its lustre and its popularity. But if there was one man who could rise to the occasion it was Anura and he debated with the most eloquent speakers of the day and went head on valiantly with the mammoth government of President J.R. Jayewardene, a veteran at his game.

Under his guidance the SLFP at the 1989 Parliamentary elections increased its members from eight to 65 and it was widely agreed that it was Anura who had motivated the members into action against the UNP.

Champion of democracy

If Anura is remembered in politics for any one thing it would be that he stood out as a true champion of democracy in parliament, a thunderous but lucid voice of reason.

Neither was he afraid to call a spade a spade. As the foreign policy spokesman for the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) for 17 years, Bandaranaike always believed foreign mediation was vital for a peaceful settlement.

Of the Foreign Minister he succeeded, Lakshman Kadirgamar, he was to say in lighter vein. "He only gets excited when he sees me, thinking I am after his job. One day he introduced me to Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth at Temple Trees as the Prime Minister's daughter!"

Speaking in 1999 of leaders who should not govern due to inexperience and lack of talent, Anura, who was by that time in the UNP was to say, "If you ask me to lead the Bolshoi ballet in Moscow, how can I do it? I can't lead because I am not a ballet dancer. You are a journalist and if I ask you to stand on your head tomorrow, will you do it? It is the same as this."

Ambition

A former speaker, foreign minister, tourism minister and finally the National Heritage Minister, Anura Bandaranaike was a man who had the ambition to lead, if not quite enough of the personal will, to follow through with it. In a 1999 interview with this newspaper he was to say:

"I will support Ranil Wickreme- singhe at the presidential election. I will not contest this time from any other party. But certainly I too have my ambitions to lead the country one-day...I was called the crown prince."

Roller coaster ride 

Bandaranaike has had a roller- coaster ride in politics. He has been accused of many things but never of corruption or underhand politics by his opponents. His method was more forthright. He wrote letters, he castigated the duplicitous foreign policy of the government, he said he was happy to be out of the carnival of clowns.

He was neither a prisoner to his heritage nor obsessed with finding the meaning of his destiny. Au contraire, Anura Bandaranaike lived his life. He peppered it with bouts of politics but he didn't allow politics to consume his soul.

As he lies next to his mother and father at the Bandaranaike Samadhi may the rain fall soft upon the earth above. And the sunshine warm upon the field.


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