Upali Wijewardene – an enigma and a legend – The Island


Cambridge days

by A. C. Visvalingam

Some time in late 1955 or early 1956, I was planning to abandon a course in Agricultural Engineering that I was following at the University of Tokyo in order to return to Sri Lanka with a view to starting a scientifically-run farm when I was called upon to act as an interpreter for the well-known personality Mr. Ray Wijewardene, whom I had then just met for the first time. He was appalled at my decision to give up my studies and, on his return to the island, had made a special trip to Kandy to see my father in order to persuade him that there was only one place in the world that I should be going to – and that was Peterhouse, the oldest college in the University of Cambridge, his alma mater.

My father, who was unaware at the time that an earlier operation he had had for stomach cancer had failed to halt its growth, was persuaded – and, in turn, convinced me -to apply to Peterhouse. It was about this time that Mr Wijewardene told me that two of his younger first cousins – Ranjit Wijewardene and Upali Wijewardene – would also be entering Cambridge at the same time.

For his part, Upali had obtained admission to Queen’s College and it was one or two days more before I met him. That is, Ranjit had arranged to meet Upali and a few others at an Indian restaurant and I, too, was invited to joint the crowd. Even before I saw Upali, I happened to hear his voice from a little distance and was rather put off because he spoke with a strong public school accent – which many Sri Lankans still frown upon as an affectation. It was not long before I learnt that Upali had, in fact been studying for two years at Bedales, an exclusive private school in England, and that his accent was nothing unusual in the circumstances. Later on, after he returned to Sri Lanka, he lost almost all trace of this accent.

Even at that stage of his academic career, Upali gave one the impression that he had great ambitions and had no doubt about his ability to fulfill them.

Within a month of my entering the university my father wrote what was to be his last letter to me to say that the doctors had diagnosed extensive cancer and that he had been given only a few months more to live. He counselled me not to give up my studies and not to return to Sri Lanka for his funeral rites.

As my father had been a very powerful personality and had had a profound influence on the formation of my character, the prospect of his death completely put me off my studies and I became greatly dejected. It was in this context that Upali, though a few years younger than myself, showed his maturity by persistently exhorting me to look at things less emotionally and more objectively. He, almost literally dragged me out of the depths of my depression.

Cambridge University was, at all times, a hive of intense activity with students immersing themselves in their studies, in sports, in the work of the numerous associations, societies, clubs and unions, in heated intellectual discussions, in innumerable extra-curricular activities, patties, dances and so on.

Most of the Sri Lankans did not involve themselves much in these activities – other than their studies, in the discussions and in sports to some extent. In any event, when it came to parties, dances and river picnics, there was no chance for a Sri Lankan to get a local girl as a partner because the British men in and around Cambridge far outnumbered the available British girls. This shortfall was met by the substantial number of other European girls who were in Cambridge to study English. For some obscure reason, these girls felt a greater rapport with Asians than they did with Britishers.

Now the interesting thing is that, whereas these continentals did spare the rest of us an occasional glance, there were two Sri Lankans whom they just swooned over at the mere sight. One of them was Upali, who was quite slim then. His height and sharp angular features, which Europeans hold in such high regard, made him a real winner. Upali’s close friends felt that Providence had been most unfair in distributing its largesse of unevenly! In fact, there was more than one attractive girl who would have gladly given up her fiance back at home if Upali had only dust given the requisite signal!

One of these girls, I remember, had been the object of the attention of a large number of foreign undergraduates. However, she was, for all practical purposes only, interested in horses and the beauties of nature. While the others who were very keen to get to know her gave-up their efforts after a time, it was not long before Upali was seen going horse-riding! He, like Sir Oliver Goonetilleke before him, had found quite early in life that the way to make a person take an interest in you is first to take an ardent interest in the things which are of importance to that person. Although he looked upon getting her attention as a challenge which he could not ignore, he did not allow the friendship to develop so far as to cause her any pain of mind when they eventually went their separate ways.

It was in December 1958 that Upali, Ranjit and three other contemporaries, including myself went on a motor car trip to Spain via France. It was a hair raising trip as we had to drive through unbelievably thick fog on the way from Cambridge, to Dover, and on the most slippery ice; through the precipitous Pyrenees, without benefit of tyre chains. Some details of this trip, have already appeared in these pages before; so I shall only mention a few things which got left out the last time.

Upali’s generosity continued unabated even though I had refused to work for him.

I had agreed to go on this trip reluctantly because my allowance was strictly limited Ranjit and Upali were determined that I should not return to Sn Lanka without having seen something of the Continent. So they kept on at me until I agreed and, hence, had to bear part of the expenses which I myself should have properly borne. Luckily, they had access to rich relatives in the UK!

It was in Spain that i came to realise, to my great annoyance that Upali’s idea of a holiday was to go to sleep as late as possible every night and to get up only in time for lunch the next day! My hopes of looking at some of the cultural treasures of Spain were totally blasted. As he was the most pleasantly persuasive guy, when it came to getting his own way the rest of us just accepted the routine set by him.

In Torremolinos, too, the great attractiveness of Upali to European girls became manifest. The four others were green with envy to see a red rose appearing every afternoon by his bedside when we used to return after our breakfast-lunch. The rose was, as we realised all too soon, an expression of the admiration which the two pretty maids felt for him!

Back at Cambridge, Upali had come to make the acquaintance of a mixed couple an English wrestler and his black West Indian club singer cum entertainer wife.

One day, the wife turned up alone to see him in his rooms during the period he had set aside for his studies, clearly indicating that she had a more than a passing interest in him. With some difficulty, he managed to get her to leave and had just got back to his work when there was a heavy banging on the door.

It was the wrestler! Upali’s knees nearly gave way when the Englishmen told him that, when he found his wife missing, he had thought that she must have come to see Upali. He succeeded in convincing the powerfully-built man that there must be some other explanation for her absence from his side and the matter happily ended there.

Upali obtained an Upper Second Class in his first examinations. He was encouraged by this but was determined to do better in his Finals. All of us were hopeful that he would achieve a good result because he was very disciplined in the matter of the time which he spent on his studies.

For example, he would agree to meet us only during certain specified hours which were outside the hours he had reserved for his academic labours. Nevertheless, something did not go quite work out and he was greatly disappointed when he got only a Lower Second Class Honours degree in Economics – a subject in which he later shone in the practical world of business.

Our ways parted in mid-1959 after our degree examinations. I stayed on in England and then went on to Ghana but kept in touch with Ranjit and Upali who had both returned to Sri Lanka.

By 1970,1 felt that I had studied long enough and acquired sufficient experience overseas in the fields of civil engineering which were of relevance to river basin development to be able to make a positive contribution here and, therefore, decided to return home.

When I wrote to Upali in this connection and asked for his advice on whom I should write to, he, instead, offered me a job in his then young organisation as his Managing Director I remember that he sent me his projections for the expected growth of his business – which, if I recall correctly, was to reach a turnover of Rs. 100,000,000 by 1976 or a little thereafter.

However, I did not find any difficulty in convincing him that I should stick to my chosen path and that, in any event, I would be a rather difficult-to-control employee. I may mention that lie did, by various innovative strategies, achieve the targets he had set for himself despite the highly adverse economic policies being enforced at the time.

He found that my efforts to obtain a post – any post at all – in the engineering field here was being met with blunt resistance by the local engineering establishment. When he found that I was not making any progress, he took it upon himself to speak to the Minister concerned but even the latter could not help me against the might of the technical bureaucracy. Eventually, thanks to some information which was passed on to me by Dr. Lal Jayawardena, I found myself working at Embilipitiya at the River Valleys Development Board.

Upali’s generosity continued unabated even though I had refused to work for him. The ground floor visitor’s room in his castle-like home was put at my disposal whenever I had to be in Colombo on duty, irrespective of whether he was in Sri Lanka or not. When he was in the Island, long hours were spent discussing the Mahaweli Development Project, the Walawe Project, water management, road construction, business, economics, politics, the share market and important personalities in Sri Lanka.

His comprehension of engineering principles was astonishing. Months after I had explained some engineering matter to him, he would refer to it accurately in some other related engineering context with an understanding which I would normally expect only of engineer.

It may surprise the reader to learn that Upali did not have much experience of the workings of the stock market until I told him one day that I had managed to complete my PhD at the University of London largely with the help of money that I had made on the UK stock market by investing my savings from my Ghana days. He questioned the exhaustively on whatever I knew but it was not very long before he had gone into the intricacies of the subject to a professional depth to which I had no aspirations.

He once explained to me the secret of business growth. It was, he said, the legal avoidance of the payment of tax to the maximum extent possible. He was solidly in agreement with the view expressed by certain economists that any tax in excess of 15% provides a strong incentive to finding all possible means to avoid payment – and is, therefore, largely self-defeating. It causes businessmen and the senior people in their organisations to divert an excessive proportion of their time from productive efforts to tax minimisation.

I recollect asking him who were the Sri Lankan men whose business acumen he respected. At the risk of embarrassing those of them who are still alive, I can recall, inter alia, that he mentioned the names of Senator Sarath Wijesinghe (his uncle), N. S. O. Mendis, Mark Bostock and D. P. D. M. de Silva.

He had a phenomenal memory for names and connections. He could tell the relationships between almost any of the important people whose names cropped up in our discussions.

His comprehension of engineering principles was astonishing.

On one occasion, I happened to be in Colombo on the day Dr. N. M. Perera was presenting his Budget for the following year. His speech, or excerpts of it, were being broadcast and both of us were listening carefully While I had no idea what Dr. Perera was going on about half the time, Upali kept up a constant stream of instantaneous comments on how a smart businessman would exploit the very proposals which Dr. Perera was putting forward to tie them down hand and foot. This ability to think on his feet. as it were, and to react extremely rapidly to adverse developments was the principal hallmark of his business personality.

His office desk was always clear of papers. That is, any papers which were brought to him were dealt with immediately and the appropriate directions given to the person bringing the papers, up to him. To my knowledge, he never studied any office document by himself.

Because of the pace at which he made decisions, he had a great deal of spare time which lie spent talking to his friends and business contacts either at home, in his office or on the telephone. His telephone calls often exceeded one hour in length -sometimes even overseas calls.

In retrospect, one of the more remarkable qualities of Upali Wijewardene was his ability to get the most out of relatively unpromising managerial material. He was not impressed by degrees, wide experience or other considerations. With his ability to analyse problems and arrive at answers with lightning rapidity the qualities he looked for most in his employees were the ability to carry out orders, loyalty and a willingness to work at all hours of the day or night as the situation demanded. Given these qualities in those who worked for him, he was able slowly but surely, to get them to take on more and more responsibilities to the point where several of them became capable of managing large enterprises on their own. This, he was able to do with many employees who would not have passed through even the preliminary tests of a management consultancy organisation.

His office and factory layouts were planned by him personally and were, in my view, extremely efficiently and neatly laid out. The late Mr. Lawrence Tudawe was just given a free hand sketch or two, with a few overall dimensions, and told to get on with the job.

His tastes in furniture and fittings reflected the greatest simplicity of line and good proportion.

As for his cars, he had then maintained beautifully.

At a certain point in time, he got tired of merely making money and decided to use his business strength to introduce a little excitement into his life – needless to say, with no adverse impact on the growth of his business. He chose horse-racing because it was the sport of kings. In particular, it was the sport of his late maternal uncle, for whom he had an enormous admiration. Apart from the sheer thrill of winning, I have no doubt that one of the considerations which would have been uppermost in his mind would have been the high profile image it would provide in dealing with top businessmen in other countries.

Upali did not talk about the few business failures I believe lie had because he probably felt that that would reduce his authority in dealing with people, not excluding his friends.

When the UNP came into power in 1977 and Upali became the Director-General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission, he twice asked me to join the organisation to look after the engineering side. I declined on the grounds that I had had enough of working for the government, i.e. considering my experiences at Walawe.

There was, however, a problem for the young GCEC to find counterparts to deal with the foreign experts who were being sent to help it to set up the Investment Promotion Zone at Katunayake and to plan improvements to the associated infrastructure. Upali, therefore, got certain members of the Commission to persuade me to work, at least as a consultant, with the foreign experts, who happened to be from the Shannon Free Trade Zone in Ireland.

I hardly met him at all, either privately or officially, during the period I did work for the GCEC because of the pressure on all of us to get things organized quickly. It was towards the close of my association with the GCEC that the engineer from Shannon and I met Upali to discuss a technical -report of ours. It took Upali only a few seconds of explanation by us to grasp the essence of the problem and give his decision. The speed of his comprehension greatly surprised the Irishman.

After Upali started taking an interest in entering politics, I found that I did not feel like making the same effort to meet him as I had done hitherto. This was because his new goals led him to tolerate around him a great number of sycophants whom he would normally not have allowed within a mile’s radius.

Only once did I advise him in this connection -and that was to warn him, after ‘The Island’ started attacking certain political figures – that it was a very unwise thing to do and that he should try to “mend fences” with his targets as quickly as possible. After all, I argued, people who have been in the hurly-burly of politics could not be expected to take kindly to a relative newcomer upstaging them. Unfortunately, those giving the opposite advice were more numerous and spent more time around him. Thus, my advice came to naught. The rest is history.

No man is without fault but Upali had many more pluses going for him than minuses. May his journey through Sansara be brief!

The one thing that I never could have foreseen was the immense hold lie had developed on ordinary Sri Lankans by the tremendous strides he was making in the business world, particularly outside Sri Lanka. The man in the street felt proud that one of their countrymen could go out into the wide world and make a success of himself with such panache. It was his disappearance – and the suddenness of it – that created the situation where all of us became aware of his charisma.



Thank you

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