(post prompted by a recent article on Upali Wijewardene in roar.lk)
Somewhere around April 1970, an awkward young woman, just turned seventeen, got into the terminal bus at Athens airport to board the TWA plane. She was on her way home after three months in the USA, Switzerland, Italy and Greece. She had been Sri Lanka’s delegate to the World Youth Forum, and had spent this time with other young people from 28 different countries and American host families in and around New York. She was a little homesick, excited about returning home to her new boyfriend, and unconscious that the time away had transformed her into a much more politically aware, critical and independent person with global friendships that were to last a life time!
On the bus, standing just ahead of her, she sees a young Sinhalese man with a backpack and address label that suggested he lived in her neighbourhood, in Thurstan Road. With her new found confidence she accosts him, says hello and introduces herself. He is polite but dismissive.They both board the plane through the front door. TWA’s gratis ticket has given her first class travel. She finds that her seat is next to his. He is surprised.
“Is the economy full?” he asks
“Have no idea” she answers rather loftily, “I have a first class ticket”
And so began my encounter with Upali WIjewardene, the Kandos Man.
I was so unaware of who he was or his rising position in Sri Lanka’s business scene. I had two dollars in my pocket - in an era when one had to pay for most things on the flight, even in first class. He seemed to have a bottomless purse. He bought my drinks, and when we stopped for refueling at Tel Aviv Airport, he wandered around the duty free, buying several portable transistor radios for his gardener, his cook and his house boy. We talked. I challenged his boast that he was a self-made man: all Wijewardenes in m opinion were elitist and wealthy. He denied that he had much family support and told me the story of his ‘seeni bola’ beginnings. He talked of his ambitions. To build a University in the South of Sri Lanka (which I believe he did); to purchase Lakshmigiri (or Saifee Villa) down Thurstan Road because his dogs didn’t have enough room to run around where he was (which he didn't)
That was it. I came away from the encounter half thinking that I would be better off being Upali’s gardner or cook or dog, than the eldest daughter of my parents!