The Inimitable WI JA Mu
By Prof. Patrick Rtnayake
Wijesinghe Jayaweera Mudiyanselage Lokubandara was the name given to him at birth. Growing up he had to face a fair share of hardships, all of which he overcame with perseverance. Despite all the fame, glory and reputation he enjoyed as a successful politician, academic and author he remained a true villager, a true Kandyan, a modern-day hero who gave life to the proud history that resonates with triumphs such as the Great Rebellion of Uva Wellassa. Instead of the sword he picked Sinhala language as his 'weapon' of choice in his battle against anglophiles. To revive Sinhala he first studied English. After swearing in as an Attorney-at-law, he dropped W.J.M. - the English initials of his name - and adopted the Sinhala name Wi Ja Mu Lokubandara.
Soon Wi Ja Mu became more than just a name, it became a brand name, it came with an identity, a philosophy, an ideology with it. That unmistakable recognition was created around his name thanks to the passion Wi Ja Mu had for everything Sri Lankan; the Sri Lankan identity. Language was his weapon. He used the familiar Sinhala as well as the unfamiliar-to-the-Sinhalese English and he was a master of both. He studied Sigiri graffiti and authored a scholarly work in Sinhala, called Sigiri Gee Siri. He then wrote another book based on his research work at Sigiriya in English called Mystique of Sigiriya.
His birth home was in Haputale, close to a paddy field. With both his parents, his family consisted of a dozen heads. Wi Ja Mu was the third eldest among the siblings after an elder brother (W. J.M. Samarasekara Bandara) and an elder sister. After his father's untimely demise, the responsibility of bringing up the younger ones fell on the three elder siblings and Wi Ja Mu decided to stand up for the challenge by triumphing through education. "Ugatha mana shilpayamayi mathu rekena," Wi Ja Mu always used to say. His 'thirst' for knowledge and education - especially to learn languages - influenced other family members as well. All the siblings became well-versed in Sinhala and English, and the youngest sister, Kumari who himself raised became an English teacher.
Wi Ja Mu first attended the village school called Janananda. He passed Grade Five at Janananda and entered Bandarawela Central College where he did all his O levels and A levels in the English medium in the London syllabus. After passing his advocate’s examination and becoming an advocate, he worshipped his mother and received her blessings.
Wi Ja Mu loved his mother and respected all mothers the same. The respect, the love, the gratitude he extended towards all mothers found its way back to Wi Ja Mu in the manner of election results. Regardless of the political reality of the country at any time, the voters of Haputale made sure to make Wi Ja Mu victorious for the respect he had for all mothers out there. He was the legal draftsman of Sirimavo's Government.
Although his personal political stance was a patriotic and a progressive one he entered politics in the 1977 election through the UNP - a political party which is known for its capitalism. There were quite a few reasons behind this selection by Wi Ja Mu. Before the '77 elections, Major Montague Jayawickrama who was the UNP Organiser of the Haputale seat was transferred to the Weligama seat as a political move, making Haputale a vacant seat. Lalith Athulathmudali who was a UNP giant at the time happened to be a lecturer to Wi Ja Mu during his tenure at the Law College and a personality Wi Ja Mu respected and looked up to. Along with Athulathmudali, other prominent UNPers such as Gamini Dissanayake came to Wi Ja Mu and invited him to contest for the Haputale seat under the UNP.
Although he didn't oppose the idea that much, Wi Ja Mu knew he had to get permission from his mother. Back then the MP of the Haputale seat was W.P.G. Ariyadasa who wasn't as educated as Wi Ja Mu. When Wi Ja Mu told his intentions of contesting to his mother all she had to say in reply was, "Why did you study this hard to do what Ariyadasa is doing?"
It may have brought a smile to Wi Ja Mu's face but the advice in it is valuable to anyone who is thinking of entering politics.
In the end political persuasion triumphed over his mother's dislike and Wi Ja Mu became the UNP MP of the Haputale seat. However, there was a silver lining in all this. His progressive relatives and friends all gathered around Wi Ja Mu, discarding their private political opinions. They believed the educationist, the wise man within Wi Ja Mu would do a better service to the seat than a typical party politician would do.
His progressive ideologies didn't sit well with some other MPs of the UNP. He was branded as an MP who was alternatively opinionated and rumours arose that he would be given an ambassador post. However, this progressive thinking and the loyalty towards the Sinhala language by him made him a likeable character in J.R. Jayawardene's eyes. He was given the Health and Indigenous Medicine Ministry of the new Government by Jayawardene and the rest is history. Indigenous medicine was promoted by leaps and bounds. Indigenous medicine, kola kenda, arishta, the traditional medicine practitioner, herbal drinks, and everything traditional became frequently talked-about subjects on television, radio and in newspapers.
After an official tour of Japan where he witnessed the Japanese answer the phone saying, "Moshi moshi" instead of the familiar, "Hello," Wi Ja Mu instructed all the staff members of the ministry to drop the, "Hello" and say, "Ayubowan" when answering the phone.
During his time at the ministry, he fulfilled his duties so well that people thought he was a Veda Mahaththaya. Later, when he became the Minister of Buddhasasana, he again did an exemplary job that some people were actually convinced he had once been a monk. It was all the same when he was appointed as the Minister of Education. People thought he was a prominent educationist.
Whatever the responsibilities he was given, Wi Ja Mu made it a point to bring a unique local aspect to it. When he was the Minister of Education he brought the free education ideology quite a few steps further by implementing lots of positive reforms in the education system. He emphasised on the importance of developing skills, personality, and the humane qualities of a student as opposed to just feeding them subject knowledge.
Wi Ja Mu held many ministerial positions, executed the duties of a Cabinet Minister and then became the Speaker of Parliament. He was loved by both the Government and the Opposition as well as blessed by the Maha Sangha. Instead of the usual, "Order please!" Wi Ja Mu cried at the top of his lungs, "Nishshabda wenu!" in a way liberating Parliament from anglophiles.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)