S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, known to many as a
politician, was born on January 8, 1899 and
succumbed to an assassin’s bullet on September 26,
1959. It’s unfortunate no serious study has been
ever done to evaluate his life from a literary
To find out about Bandaranaike’s literary skills,
his “Speeches and writings” remains a treasure
trove. This volume was published by the Department
of Broadcasting and Information, to coincide with
the fourth death anniversary of the late Prime
Minister’s death. Bandaranaike’s “Memories of
Oxford” which appears in this volume is a collection
of articles he wrote to a Colombo journal The Ceylon
Causerie less than a decade after he left Oxford.
This series of articles written in an elegant style,
though at times may appear to be in stilted form,
encapsulates his days at this prestigious
institution. These writings help the reader to get a
better understanding not only of the challenges that
under-graduates from the colonies faced at Oxford,
but also about the writer’s interest in the field he
opted to study as well as some interesting
information about a few of his contemporaries who
were destined to enter the world of the literati.
Bandaranaike owes a great deal to A.C. Radford for
introducing him to western classics at an early age.
It was Sir Solomon, father of young Bandaranaike,
who engaged Radford of Cambridge University as full
time private tutor to his son. The scholar from
Cambridge not only introduced his protégé to Chaucer
and Milton but also provided a thorough grounding in
classics. As tutor he was provided accommodation at
the ancestral residence of Bandaranaike’s at
Horagolla, where he remained for four years till his
protégé turned fifteen.
Later Bandaranaike was admitted to S Thomas’
College, Colombo as a boarder during the warden-ship
of Stone. The tutoring he had from Radford provided
young Bandaranaike with an edge over his classmates.
Not surprisingly, a few years later when he sat for
the Cambridge Senior he performed exceptionally
well, obtaining distinctions in English and Latin.
Bandaranaike read classics at Oxford during a period
where it was unusual for anyone other than an
“English public-schoolboy to read for Litterae
Humaniores”. As an undergraduate at Oxford he was
fascinated by Prof. Gilbert Murray’s lectures on
Homer and Prof. Garrod’s on Virgil.
Amongst his Oxford contemporaries, there were a few
who were destined to excel as writers of great
repute. The friendship Bandaranaike forged with
Edward Marjoribanks lasted till the early death of
the latter. After leaving Oxford, Marjoribanks made
great strides as a politician, lawyer and also an
author. There are several books to his credit and
“The Life of Marshall Hall”, the autography of a
great criminal lawyer, is considered to be his
In his “Memories of Oxford” Bandaranaike also
alludes to Evelyn Waugh, an undergraduate four years
younger than him. Evelyn wrote several novels
including Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust, etc.
At Oxford when Bandaranaike was functioning as
Junior Treasurer, prior to being elected as
Secretary of the Union, had an ‘encounter’ with
Waugh over collecting subscription which was in
Leelamani Naidu, daughter of Sarojini Naidu,
attended Oxford during Bandaranaike’s days.
According to him “She possessed all the charm of her
mother, and gave promise of developing much of her
The short story as a genre always fascinated
Bandaranaike. In “Memories of Oxford” he recalls a
short story he wrote for the Cardinal’s Hat, his
College magazine, “which was returned”. This didn’t
dampen his desire to try his hand as a short story
writer on his return to Ceylon.
Loathing for respectable garment
After being away from home for six years,
Bandaranaike returned in early 1925. To keep his
literary interests alive in Ceylon, he co-edited The
Island Review with J. Vijayatunga. In the September
1926 issue of this journal Bandaranaike’s short
story “The Kandy Perahera” appeared. This story
serves as a prism for readers to view the conflict
taking place within the writer and how it spilled
over as a symbolic manifestation of loathing for
‘his stiff shirt front and collar’ considered by the
West as the respectable garment of civilisation.
The Mystery of the Missing Candidate, a story
serialised in the Sunday Times of Ceylon during the
early part of 1951, gives a glimpse of the life a
candidate has to put up with during a Sri Lankan
election. This story is leavened with a touch of
humour. By the time this story was written
Bandaranaike had turned out to be a seasoned
hustings performer, and was aware of the ways
everyone paid blatant disregard to the edicts from
the Election Office. Probably the writer sees in his
hero, Sunil Rajapakse, a mirror image of himself!
The hero lives in an ancestral house built during
the Dutch period by his grandfather. Sunil Rajapakse
on return from Oxford University on completion of
his studies, takes to politics like the writer.
The story portrays how the candidate virtually
becomes a prisoner in the hands of his supporters,
dancing to their tune by participating in
processions and propaganda meetings; the ancestral
home turned into a twenty-four hour kitchen to feed
all and sundry who masqueraded as well wishers.
Bandaranaike through this story explains how
politics can change an honourable person to trim his
sails to every wind and make him lead a “Jekyll and
Hyde” life. Finally, Sunil Rajapakse, a person with
an intellectual leaning, finds an escape route that
would give him much needed tranquility.
Bandaranaike who enjoyed reading classics found
equal pleasure with horror stories and detective
novels. Edgar Alan Poe, Agatha Christie and Sherlock
Homes are some of the writers to whom he alludes in
his writings. In most of his short stories including
The Horror of Mahahena, we come across a fictional
character John Ratsinghe who helps us un-tangle mind
boggling mysteries. Bandaranaike sees in John
Ratsinghe the local counterpart of Sherlock Holmes -
a truth he makes more obvious in The adventures of
the soulless man.
Bandaranaike’s writings show he had enormous
creative skills which if developed could have taken
him to great literary heights. Probably he would
have been another Evelyn Waugh!