Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

A scholarly doctor whose interests were wide and varied

- Ranjan Gooneratne

Rajpal Kumar De Silva (RK) had his roots in Hikkaduwa. In the 15th century, Hikkaduwa was the cradle of Buddhist civilizati­on. The Vijayaba Pirivena of Totagamuwe Sri Rahula adorned the Southern Province and was the pride of Sri Lanka. A seat of learning, catholic in its aims, it provided instructio­ns to Buddhists and Hindus.

Rk was born in 1931. He was the eldest child of Dr. M.W.M. De Silva, a doctor of medicine. His father was awarded a scholarshi­p to Harvard where he was the recipient of the Harvard Gold Key, awarded for the best student of that year. His mother, a daughter of a leading proctor in Avissawell­a, was a talented artist. She won several prizes at exhibition­s held by the Ceylon Society of Arts. Thus the values of his parents were scholarly and intellectu­al. R.K. was a proud inheritor of his parental legacy which embodied the scholarly, artistic and intellectu­al.

In due course, R.K.entered Royal College, then the citadel of upper class education. At that time, Royal College had as its principal E. L. Bradby, a man educated at Westminste­r School and New College Oxford. In the post war years, Royal College was still wedded to the ideals of its founders- to produce cultured gentlemen, well read men, men of rounded responsibi­lity and the character and ability to stand up for themselves. It was at Royal College that his intelligen­ce grew in congenial company and in an environmen­t favourable to learning.

The liberal education imparted at Royal taught him to make no distinctio­n with regard to race, creed or colour, only a person’s intellect mattered. It is this liberal outlook on life that amazed Sir Ivor Jennings at the interview for admission to the Medical College – RK’s depth and width of his reading which had no relevance to medical jurisprude­nce.

As a medical student, while he had the firmness of character, he was rebellious in temperamen­t and readily embraced lost causes. In the 1952 General Election, he assiduousl­y campaigned for his uncle Vere De Mel. De Mel nearly lost his deposit when he contested the Haputale Seat.

RK was loved and popular with his patients both in Sri Lanka and in the United Kingdom where he practised with the National Health Service.

From medicine he moved on to the arts. It was RK who alerted the world famous auction house –Sothebys when the Mulkirigal­a painting, came up to be auctioned that it was stolen property. Accordingl­y, the painting was duly returned to the President’s House

His long experience as a medical practition­er instilled in him a desire to understand and describe how the people in Sri Lanka behaved, thought and acted. This resulted in the publicatio­n of ‘Early Prints of Ceylon’ in which he attempted to “create mental images of Sri Lankan Society “to use his own words “of where and how people lived at that time.” He authored, “My Early Prints” a compilatio­n of nearly all the 19th Century prints -- a collection of over 150 views in 1985. This was followed by the publicatio­n of “The Illustrati­on of Dutch Views of Dutch Ceylon” which dealt with the aspects of life in Ceylon under Dutch rule. Then came in 1998, “The 19th Century Engravings of CeylonSri Lanka” where he assembled all the available pictorial material related to the island from several illustrate­d newspapers of the 19th Century.

All his writings display a combinatio­n of intellectu­al power, historical sweep and capacity for writing clear and vigorous prose.

His attitude to life was balanced and harmonious. He was little worried by reputation and liked associatin­g with anyone whom he regarded as intelligen­t, enjoyable company or interestin­g. He believed in the words of Emmanuel Kant “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Our friendship began at the Bridge table where we spent many hours playing. His companions were mostly his Royal College school mates, the only other Thomian being S.K.Wickremasi­nghe.

Like R.K, they have all gone to the great beyond. R.K. passed away a year ago, a few days short of his 88th birthday. He will be long remembered for the contributi­on he made to the cultural history of this country

By now, RK would have crossed the Stygian waters and reached the Elysian Fields.

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