Sunday, April 19, 2009


Vivian Leigh was in my bedroom!

“My days at the Hilda Obseysekera hall, then commonly referred to as the ‘seven sorrows of the seven virgins’ by the thwarted male undergrads firmly shut-out by the 7 pm curfew, were some of the most memorable of my life. Our warden was the formidable Miss Mathiaperuman whose rule was that of a kind authoritarian .No one dared to challenge her authority. When we consider what is happening at our universities now that era seems to belong to another country.

I was in the first batch of arts students at Peradeniya. We entered the university in 1953.Among those present were Jean Arsanayagam nee Solomon, Professor Ashley Halpe, fellow Bridgeteen Jezima Ismail, Tawny Rajaratnam, Professor Indraratne and Mervyn De Silva. Although I have had a cloistered up-bringing, looking back, we were well prepared for higher studies. At St. Bridget’s we had received a well rounded education which inculcated in us the reading habit, love of sports and an appreciation of the arts. In between I spent two years studying at a school in Bromley near Kent, a typical English village surrounded by a wood. In the weekends we used to ride in these woods. The village had a lovely green, a cozy pub, more than adequate library etc. And of course London was the centre of a huge metropolitan culture. So by the time I entered the newly opened university in Peradeniya I was somewhat cosmopolitan in my outlook.”

Shantha De Zoysa’s grandfather Francis Perera was a successful businessman, having amassed an impressive fortune from his plantations, made home in balmy Galle at Closenberg, now converted to a popular hotel. Francis Perera owned a large stable and introduced the spirited granddaughter to horses giving her the first lessons in riding on the beaches at Unawatuna. Then the Galle Gymkhana, held towards the end of the year, was a very popular annual sporting event. Horses were to become a lifelong love, today Shantha herself is the proud owner of a stable in Nuwara Eliya possessing several racing horses.

“Although it may sound like an elitist background by no means were we made to think in that manner. The rules were strict and we were always told that we must become good and productive citizens. There was no question of ostentatious living which seems to be quite prevalent now. I still remember the joy of sipping the piping hot cup of tea, generously sweetened with condensed milk, which was poured out at tea time in Peradeniya. Dinner was a formal affair and we had wear saree to attend.At the university our lecturers were like friends who constantly guided and inspired us. It was a treat to attend the lectures of Ludowyk whose eloquence and the wide range of learning was very impressive. Professor Passe was scholarly and thorough.

Their intellectual exertions did not prevent the young undergraduates from enjoying a full social life in the university as well as in the nearby big town of Kandy. Sporting events, long hikes, dances, all night singing parties by camp fires, dramas, and plays were part and parcel of the university life. During this period several movies like Elephant Walk and Purple Plain were made in Sri Lanka with many scenes shot in and around scenic Kandy.

“There was a lot of excitement among the students when famous Hollywood actors visited Kandy. I met the terribly handsome Gregory Peck at the Queens Hotel. Then one day we met the charming Vivian Leigh, the wife of Laurence Olivier, who chattered to us freely and then insisted on visiting our hostel. She even inspected my bedroom.”

It was around this time that Shantha met her future husband, the sizzling Bunty De Zoysa who was then the Crown Counsel prosecuting at the Kandy assizes. The dashing prosecutor was swept off his feet by the charming and accomplished under-graduate and married her no sooner she graduated. They set up home at the then exclusive Regent Flats in the heart of the Fort in Colombo.

Her husband Bunty’s work as a crown prosecutor took him to different parts of the island and Shantha often accompanied him on these trips.

“I particularly liked Jaffna where Bunty had many lawyer friends. We often stayed at the King’s House which was a sprawling comfortable place. One time the presiding Judge was Justice Gratian who often joined us for a picnic on the lovely beaches there.”

In the late 1960s with their two children growing up fast Shantha had time in her hands to pursue a career. Sri Lanka was then just awakening to the potential that tourism held and it was into this new field that she committed herself soon running a successful travel agency. This led her to playing an active role in the PATA organization, travelling to many parts of the world promoting Sri Lankan tourism. Shantha was one time President of the Sri Lankan chapter of the PATA.

“Tourism is a service industry. Handling individuals, attending to their needs is what it is all about. This goes to both sides of the counter. There was this industrious boy from Jaffna who joined me as a messenger boy. At the time he could not speak English at all which was a big disadvantage in the tourist industry. I told him to maintain a diary in English and supervised his entries every evening. He also took the initiative and bettered his education at every opportunity. That boy ended up running a very successful travel agency.”

Meanwhile her husband Bunty who had left the Attorney General’s Department had built up a very successful criminal practice, was made President’s Counsel and elected President of the Bar Association. Naturally all this entailed a lot of involvement on the part of Shantha who rose to the demands made on her with characteristic style and charm.

When Bunty suddenly passed away in 1983 the responsibility of looking after their home as well as business interests fell on Shantha’s shoulders. Soon she found herself running Monaro, a large security services company with more than two thousand five hundred employees.

“One of my biggest responsibilities when managing a business is towards our employees whose livelihood it is. At the same time we expect a quality contribution from them. And then there are other stakeholders whose needs also must be met, particularly the client’s.”

Shantha is philosophical about her life and times.

“My life has been very rewarding. I have met many outstanding people, travelled much, have had the opportunity to see some of the world’s best plays and musicals, visit art exhibitions, museums etc. Now looking back the days of my youth were almost idyllic. But we must recognize the fact that the world has changed. While taking inspiration from days past we have to look to the future and try to build a good society for our future generations.”


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