Autobiographies can illuminate untouched corners, away from the mainstream of history. In Sri Lanka, in recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest among many people to relate their own tales in print. What was earlier spoken verbally only, is now translated into beautifully illustrated books and available to a wider public, such as this one. Most autobiographies in Sri Lanka have been written by public servants, and there are only a very few from the private sector. Now, with the private sector playing the dominant role in economic and even sociaql affairs, it is time we hear more stories from it.
As Nihal Jinasena’s volume proves, there are many interesting stories in the private sector, of which the general public are mainly unaware. Since the 1970s, there is a new generation of businessmen and others in the private sector, who have created new ventures and enterprises, and we should be glad to be enlightened as to how they emerged. There are institutions teaching business administration, and for their teaching to be relevant and properly informed, a stronger research base examining local business development is vital. The London School of Economics has set up a faculty of business history some time back, and it is time that a more concerted effort is made in Sri Lanka to look at business development and the rise and fall of individual companies and enterprises, to learn lessons from those experiences. There is the opportunity for one of the economics or business faculties in universities to take the initiative in this regard.
Nihal Jinasena’s volume is a fascinating read. He is one of those businessmen who inherited his father’s company. Jinasena Ltd. was over 100 years old, when it broke up into four parts very recently. The volume is not only about business and the Jinasena company, and it includes his wider experience working with government, as a businessman. There are very informative chapters about his school days at St. Thomas’ College and at the Loughborough University in England, with which the Jinasena family has been associated for four generations.
There is an interesting historical chapter on the development of motor racing in Sri Lanka, in which the Jinasena family were pioneers, spending their own money in developing the sport. Nihal Jinasena has also been a pioneer is developing the sport of yachting in this country. Then of course, there are two chapters on the running of the Jinasena company of which he was chairman, and its subsequent break up due to family dissension. There is much personal information about his life, especially two engaging chapters on his wife Sheryll and son Lalin.
The story of the Jinasena Company has been told in an earlier volume, published in 2005, its centenary year. Nihal Jinasena’s volume has a short chapter, which is more personal. We know of families in Panadura and Moratuwa who made money from the liquor trade. Here is a Moratuwa family which made money, initially from carpentry, and later from engineering. That was something novel at that time. Five big British firms, like Walker Sons, dominated the engineering sector and it was difficult for the Jinasenas to make a mark.
“… the Jinasena company was a family business that was launched as a very modest bicycle repair shop in Hospital Street, Colombo Fort. Later, around 1910 he (Nihal’s grandfather) moved into the premises – No 4, Hunupitiya Road, Colombo 02 which has been our headquarters ever since. He also set up a foundry and a small machine shop there. He began manufacturing rubber rolling machines in 1915 and became a repairer of boilers for steam engines which powered the graphite industry, the rubber industry and the tea industry.” Obtaining orders from the large estates was almost impossible, as they were owned by the British and they ordered their equipment only from British companies. At that time, it was a struggle to manage an indigenous engineering company. There was also the difficulty of raising funds, as Sri Lankans did not have access to banks and had to depend on chettiars.
Until the early 1970s, the two previous generations of Jinasenas, confined their business largely to engineering. The third generation of the Jinasenas expanded their business interests into new fields. They went into hotels, garment and prawn farming, and they seem to have made a success of these ventures, although not for long. With the opening up of the economy by the late 1970s, the Jinasenas found it difficult to compete with imports in their traditional range of engineering goods. Nihal Jinasena himself wrote a letter to the Sri Lankan president regarding the decimation of local manufacturing capacity. The government’s reply was that they should go into new fields which are profitable, and that is exactly what the Jinasenas did.
One of the great achievements of the Jinasenas was the success they made with a new company, Loadstar, and Nihal provides a brief history of how this company came about. It achieved a turnover nearly 15 times that of all the other Jinasena businesses, and emerged as a leading international company. Loadstar manufactured solid rubber tyres through what Nihal calls a “revolutionary method”, and it was given to them by a Belgian called Pierre Pringiers. Pierre and his friend, Philippe, an expert in marketing joined up with the Jinasenas to develop the new venture. After several changes in the structure of the company, it is now one of the largest single export companies in Sri Lanka. The four Jinasena brothers collectively own twenty percent of this company.
One striking feature of Nihal Jinasena’s life is the range of his interests. Having qualified as an engineer at Loughborough College (now a University), he joined his family company and ended up as chairman. He devoted most of his time to the company, but had the good sense to enjoy other things in life. The Jinasenas had been pioneers in motor racing and Nihal’s father was deeply involved in developing the sport, making their own racing cars in their own garages. Nihal provides us an enjoyable glimpse into the sport of motor racing in Sri Lanka, taking part in races all over the island, and in India. Nihal became president of the Ceylon Motor Sports Club. Nihal then developed an interest in sailing and yachting. The Yacht Club in Colombo, in those days was only for the expatriates, and Sri Lankans were entitled to be members only later, and Nihal was one of the earliest members. Nihal represented Sri Lanka at the Asian games in 1970 in Pattaya, and also in 1974. He also managed the Sri Lankan team for the Asian games in 1976. He became president of the Yachting Association later, and is now the chairman of selectors of the Sri Lankan yachting team.
Nihal Jinasena was always anxious to offer his expertise and experience to serve the wider common interest. His most striking contribution came immediately after the tsunami. He was appointed by the President of Sri Lanka, to the board of TAFREN (the Task Force to Rebuild the Nation). Nihal took charge of one of the key sectors – the rehabilitation of the fishing industry, including the replacement and repairing of boats and rebuilding fishery harbours. “We did a fantastic job repairing 10,000 boats and getting donations of 10,000 more. We repaired 10,000 engines that had been damaged by sea water and sand and we set up repair stations right round the coastal belt from Panadura to Trincomalee. We also replaced all the nets that had been washed away… It was in recognition of this service that President Chandrika Kumaratunga conferred on me the title Deshamanya on November 14, 2005.”
This was a well deserved honour. Nihal was also a member of the boards of the DFCC and the Export Development Board. This raises a more general question about the role of businessmen in government. They have been engaged from time to time to serve on boards of corporations and government commissions and committees and the approach so far has been of an ad hoc nature, appointing someone for a particular circumstance. This approach fails to take advantage of the enormous expertise in the private sector which could be relevantly engaged in government tasks. Nihal Jinasena’s enjoyable autobiography has many lessons to offer to a younger generation in business and in government.
Leelananda de Silva.
This review appeared in the Sunday Island of February 15th 2014
I have found that I can let my mind drift now here, now there, lingering over what was good, and there was much good; slurring over the bad times, for there is no purpose in recalling them. It is a time for thought, and thanks for all that was best in the past, not a time for recrimination, for what cannot be cured now. (Christine – a Memoir)
I want you to meet someone who is writing her memoir. Are you interested? Now you should know that I am always interested in people writing. As a publisher you have to keep your eyes and ears open for the unexpected—the jewel that could amble or bump into your office disguised as a dilettante or a computer programmer or a doctor or a teacher. So I always say yes, to meeting any writer.
Suda, whom I knew years ago, met me and told me he knew someone who had lived a long life and was writing her memoir. Ok, I said laconically, I will meet her. She is quite old, he warned me, well in her nineties, you will have to go to her. No problem, I said.
And so it was a morning of 2006, Sam and I found ourselves at Coniston Place in front of two very special people – Christine Wilson and her husband Alistair. While she was immaculately dressed, complete with pearls, Alistair came in a pair of shorts. We sat at the table on the verandah, overlooking the beautiful front garden that revealed fragments of Wycherley looming on the other side of the lane, accompanied by the manic barking of Jenny the rescued pariah dog, and were handed a big file with a sheaf of papers. Here you go, she said, my writings. Read through them and tell me what you think.
After a sumptuous mid morning snack and repeated offers of sherry, which we politely declined at that time, but at later meetings accepted with alacrity, we went back to the office.
I began reading and I was hooked. Here was a person who was born almost a hundred years ago, and went literally from lamplight to electricity. Christine’s memoir may not have been completely accurate, but then again, that is the difference between memoir and autobiography. But it was a wonderful portrait of a society in a period of time that was just about to go through a violent change. Reading her life story brought home to me, born approximately fifty odd years later, that not only Sri Lanka, but the world has changed vastly – not always for the worse, not always for the negative, and it charts a difference that literally rocks your world.
Christine was born to an extremely privileged family in Ceylon, while it was still a colony. She lived a life that we only read about. In her memoir, she wrote this account of her travel to Wilpattu by boat:
Against the sky of a hot December morning the mast of a strange sailing vessel rocked gently. Below the bow a carved floral panel carried in weathered white letter, Mohideen Idroos. For us, my father, mother and me, there was a palm-thatched cabin amidships lined with white calico where we arranged our camp beds.
A great barrel of fresh water was set by the mast; the boat was open to the elements in front, except at the extreme end, where a tiny cooking area was sheltered from the wind by a sacking curtain. Here, in the stench of bilge water and acrid smoke, a scraggy twelve-year-old Moorish boy, Haniffa, cooked, punctuating his work with heavy breathing and sniffs. (p49)
Today, there is talk of a vast road being built through the Wilpattu sanctuary that could change the eco-system of the area. Christine would be horrified. Wilpattu was close to her heart. Given a choice, she would rather be there than in Colombo.
Out National Parks are small, intimate, beautiful. Here there are no endless plains with mammoth gatherings of elephant, buffalo, hippo. But great trees of Mara, Palu – the fruit of which bears love. Tamarind, Satinwood, Ebony have grown for centuries. At every turn there are vistas with pools starred with water-lilies. Sometimes we may see little: perhaps the sight of a single amber eye, an indolent leg hanging from a branch from where he, the leopard can see but we cannot. (p186)
Whenever I visited her and told her I was going camping or to Yala, she would wistfully say, that she wished she could come with us. Her daughter Anne, wrote to me a few days ago and told me that Christine expressed a wish to come with her to Yala when she visited this April. Such was her spirit!
I on the other hand, wished that I had known her when she was younger, feisty and a pioneer and role model for women. For Christine, gender didn’t seem to be a barrier, she was tom-boy, adventurer, pretty girl and socialite, painter and writer all at the same time. Before the war she lived on tea plantations by herself. After her divorce and during World War 2, she worked towards the war effort and met Alistair, a Scots serviceman, the love of her life whom she later married. Together with her father she worked with the Veddahs, she lived in Scotland and later in Kenya with Alistair, then both of them came back to Sri Lanka after retirement and while writing, conducted tours of the jungles to create awareness of the wonderful eco-system that our country possesses.
Of course by the time I came to know Christine in person, she wasn’t living this life but had meticulously documented them in her memoir. While we were working on her memoir, Christine was frantic that it should come out soon, as she might not live to see the book in print. So we worked on it, doing overtime and having many meetings and discussions. Always at the verandah table, always accompanied by Alistair. And eventually in January 2007, we had a launch at the Dutch Burger Union on a Saturday morning. My greatest sadness was that Alistair was too unwell and therefore unable to come to the launch that he so wanted her to have. After the launch, Christine, her daughter Anne and her husband Henning, Suda, Smriti Daniel, Sam and myself went to Coniston Place and shared a bottle of champagne with Alistair who was overjoyed at the success of the launch, even though he could not attend. Five months later Alistair passed away. Christine was devastated.
When I fell ill, Christine who had just lost Alistair monitored my progress closely with weekly calls to Sam and generous baskets of fruit, flowers and other gifts to keep me occupied and cheer me up. After my recovery, whenever I visited her, she would always be far more concerned about my health than her own failing health. She would hold my hands lovingly and tell me that I must get better, that I must live. That she would not have it any other way.
Sam’s and my visits to Christine were also a step back to another way of life. From the moment we entered Coniston Place, it was an entrance to an era that no longer existed outside. Sometimes I would take my mother with me to visit her and once my sister came and both Christine and Anne exclaimed on how like Anne she looked, another time a friend who is an architect and who is passionate about the environment had wanted to meet this great and exceptional woman.
Even at her weakest, Christine would be beautifully dressed, sometimes waiting for us, sometimes walking slowly towards us using her walker. We would sit together and not five minutes later be offered a glass of wine or sherry. Sometimes we would refuse, it being ten or eleven in the morning, other times we accepted and she would sip her drink with us companionably, chatting about her past, chatting about her next book. We dreamt together of doing a book of photographs – her photographs of the other love of her life – the Veddah people. She had the most magnificent photographs that I have seen and it would be a pity if nothing came of it. They are photographs that deserve to be shared.
We came at last to our home in Sri Lanka… as we sat down at a small candle lit bridge table to eat, we looked at each other and burst out laughing. I lifted a glass of wine and said to my husband, “Welcome home.”(p252)
Christine you are now united with Alistair – you are home. But Sam and I will miss you.
Christine Spittel Wilson, the famous daughter of Dr. R.L. Spittel, passed away on the 26th of February. She is the author of a dozen books including CHRISTINE – a memoir.