When we were in pursuit of more Old Rajans in North America, Mr Gamini Gunawardane of Colombo OBA told us about a “Six foot fast bowler who terrorized opponents in 60’s now domiciled in Canda. It was Anil Ellepola who found him for us after they crossed paths at a Monastery in Ottawa. Yet it was very difficult to get an interview from Mr S. U. Mendis due to his busy schedule. Finally we were able to interview him as he was staying at an Inter Continental in Montreal engaged in an official assignment.
Shanti Mendis is a unique type of an all-rounder, someone who has excelled in almost all sports whilst maintaining high academic standards. As a sportsman and a professional he has been able to stand firm for what he believed as correct, defying all odds.
Shanti Mendis is the 110th member of DAANA. Shanti lives in Ottawa with his family. Thushara Diyabalanage and Sajith Ellepola Interview Shanti Mendis for this feature article.
When did you join DRCK, How was your school life?
I joined DRCK in 1954 when I was in grade two. My father was a planter who lived in an estate behind Hantana mountain range. So, I was always boarded at a boarding house in Kandy and finally at the hostel. I had a wonderful school life at DRCK.
You seem to have simply excelled in all sports activities at school, can you please explain?
I captained the cricket, soccer and athletics teams and was awarded the ‘dagaba’ in all these sports. I also represented the college in Hockey and won colors.
What was your most memorable experience as a cricketer at DRCK?
I had the privilege of knowing and playing with some of great fast bowlers the college has produced. Sonny (Sonny Yatawara) and Kehel (T. B. Kehelgamuwa) were true fast bowlers who went on to represent Sri Lanka later on. We played during the days of ‘no helmets’ on a matting wicket. Though Kehel was lot faster, Sonny was a terror. However, quite ironically they both were men with average physiques.
There is a story about a third term fixture we had against Trinity when Sonny had a bad day on a rain affected wicket. He went to Ananda in December and was playing for Ananda against Trinity in January. Trinitians were confident that they had no worries as Sonny was relatively unknown. He ran through the Trinity side! He had the knack of bowling ‘bouncers’ aimed straight at the head. Sonny came to Coach College when I was starting first eleven cricket and got me to do the same. With his guidance I could make the ball rise sharply from a length to the batsman’s face!
Is it true that Sonny clean bowled Sir Garfield Sobers once?
Yes, I remember that incident, as I watched that match. The West Indies were returning from Australia after that memorable tied test. As their ship was anchored in Colombo harbor, one day match was arranged between a team comprising some great West Indian cricketers against a local eleven led by Michean Tissera. A huge crowd has gathered to see this match as they wanted to see the legends like Sobers, Weeks, Kanhai, Hall and Solomons. Sonny was able to shatter Sobers’s stumps when he was showing his presence known. Ironically people hooted as they were disappointed since that deprived them the rare opportunity of seeing the great master in action.
You played with ‘Kehel’ in the same team, can you re visit some of those memories?
Kehel was truly fast. It is said that it was Mr Amranayake who discovered Kehel. He was on vacation in Gampola and has seen him bowling with ‘ottapau ball with enormous speed. That turned out to be a great discovery. Kehel used to scare his opponents with sheer speed.
I recall the match against Richmond (they were all out for 30) and Kehel had me a few yards away from the wicket at gully. He delivered a fast ball outside the off-stump and the batsman cut it in a desperate bid to get out of the way. So did I, as I covered my face with hands and fall back, but felt something hitting my fingers as I fell back. In a moment I realized that I had taken a great catch!
It is said that Kehel was not only a great fast bowler but also a very good hitter?
Yes he was famous for hitting big sixers and had a very good reputation for targeting principal’s bungalow quite regularly. It was said that the principal had to replace the tiles several times.
The other famous fast bowler of that time was Late Major General Nalin Angammana, who was the best bowler in schools in 1964, when I captained the team. He was a great left arm seam bowler who had the ability to pitch the ball on or outside the off stump and take the leg stump off
Even though, you represented Sri Lanka in rugby, you did not represent Dharmaraja?
Rugger at DRCK was stopped for many years as a player was killed. Unfortunately I belonged to that era.
Probably you would have derived some of those skills in rugby while playing soccer at Dharmaraja? How was soccer at DRCK at your time?
Yes..I had a very good kick and could kick equally well from both legs.
We had some great players. Tom Ossen who captained Ceylon, G.S. Piyatissa who played for Ceylon and later on became a renowned coach in Sweden, Marrikar who also played for the national team, were in that team. I was the Captain and the goalie. In one match when I kicked the ball from my goal area, it bounced once and hit the arm of a defender inside the penalty area of the opponents. We were winning 4-0 and I shouted “don’t touch the ball” and kicked the penalty, scoring a goal while keeping goal.
Do you have any other memorable incidents while at DRCK.?
We had a college sports meet just after I had broken the Central Province record for the Discus throw. When my turn came I felt that the discus given to me was somewhat lighter/smaller. Regardless, I did my throw and the disc flew in the air, hit the edge of the ground and disappeared into the foliage below. Everybody was excited since it was obvious that I had broken the national record by few feet. Finally, the disc was found and it turned out to be the junior disc! The Prefect of Games, Mr. Amaranayake, tore a strip off and almost disqualified me!
You had been an extraordinary type of an all-rounder. While engaging yourself deeply on extracurricular activities, you have maintained an exceptionally high level in academics as well.
I did quite well in academics and I was able to enter into engineering Faculty. My first love was Physics. I won the gold medal for the best all round student in 1962 or 63. I was a member of the debating team captained by Prof (SWRD) Samarasinghe and was the also the Editor of the college Magazine. I was the Senior Prefect in my last two years at college
How did your passion towards sports continue at Peradeniya University?
At Peradeniya, I represented the University in all these sports and started on Rugby. I also represented up-country in the annual up-country/low-country match and was selected to play for “Ceylon” at the end of my second year. I captained the Cricket and Rugby teams and was the President of Sports Council in 1968/9.
A humorous incident occurred when the committee to select the best all-round sportsman was to be convened where I was a member. Mr. Leslie Handunge (Director, Physical Education) requested me to excuse myself from the three person committee since I was considered the obvious ‘front’ runner. I refused and said I did not wish to be considered for this award. My good friends Jayatissa Herath (retired Senior D.I.G) and Ananda Jayasundara, retired Bank of Ceyon (both rajan’s) were the others in contention. Handunge was trying to convince me that I was the best candidate but I said no I am not interested (I had also won the most outstanding sportsman award that year). Finally, “Tissa” and “Ana” were both given the award for the best all-round sportsman
You certainly seemed to be a rebel of your own; can you recall any memorable experience?
One incident that stays in my mind was playing for a President’s XV team Captained by Late Denzil Kobbekaduwa against the visiting Bosuns from Engalnd. I remember that it was Denzil and I who mainly tackled the visitors. Before the game, I got a note from the SLRFU to pay Rs 25 towards a social and dinner with the visitors! This was too much for me and I took the night train back. That year, for the AGM of the SLRFU, I insisted Mr. Handunge that I should attend as the varsity representative since I was the President of the Sports Council. He who belonged to the ‘old school’ didn’t want me to go. I told him that I will see the Vice Chancellor for a ruling. The VC at that time was Prof. E.O.E. Pereira, who was the former Dean of the Eng Faculty. He loved sports especially Rugby, and treated me like a son. At the AGM, I spoke about the post card I received to pay Rs. 25 and posed the question: “It was our blood, sweat and tears on the field. You gentlemen were entertaining yourself at the bar after the match at the expense of the SLRFU, but wanted us to pay Rs.25! I toured with the Ceylon team immediately afterwards and was referred to as an “indisciplined undergrad’ because I spoke my mind.
I am sure Kandy sports club was there that time, did we have the same rugby league system that time (div 1, b division etc). How was Peradeniya University rugby that time, did Peradeniya play in any league?
There were two divisions – A & B. Peradeniya was in the “B”. Kandy was in A and did very well in that year. Denzil Kobbekaduwa was under suspension from the army in the late 60s but didn’t do too well in the 70s. He was a player who never knew fear. The top two teams in the “B” were included in the knock-out. We did quite well at the beginning of a Rugby season but dropped a lot of points during the exam period. We came to the quarter final one year and held CR to 0-0 at half-time. I used to be a place kicker and have put over 50 yard penalties
Do you have any other unforgettable memories at Peradeniya?
I vividly remember a particular incident. During the filming of Hantane Kathawa (Director Dharmasena Pathiraja is a old rajan) I was riding my bicycle that had no brakes, only two wheels and frame and almost banged into Vijaya Kumaratunga, who was walking in the lovers lane area with a famous actress. He said something which annoyed me and I said “you actors better remember this is a university”. We had some words exchanged and I was planning to disrupt the filming. When Pathi got to know about it he intervened and made a compromise between us. Much later, Vijaya came to the Grand Prix held at the Katunayake runway with Chandrika Kumaratunge. He stopped his car when he saw me, and asked ”malli, kohomada sapa saneepa”. It is said that he never forgot a face.
How did you achieve the balance between the studies and extra curricular activities. And what is the advise/s you can give to the younger generation who is trying to achieve this
I think the balance I tried to achieve was a life time training to never postpone something for another day. I always got my homework done on the same day itself. In fact, I remember when I was at Peradeniya, we used to take the afternoon train coming from Badulla or Nanu-Oya and travel to Colombo for Rugger matches; then return in the night-mail back to campus. Still I will complete my day’s work before I got to bed.
Were you planning to join the Air Force after Graduation?
Not at all, it is yet another interesting story. I was friendly with former Air Force chief, Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonatilake, who was a great rugby fan. He used to contact me whenever he came to Peradeniya to visit his nieces. I used to ensure him safe passage inside campus without getting harassed by unruly undergrads those days. One day, I came to Colombo to watch a rugger match and went to get his help as I did not know how to get to that ground.
I was wearing slippers like a typical varsity student those days. The sentries who were guarding the entrance were surprised that someone in that attire wanted to meet one of the top officers at SLAF claiming him as a friend. They did not let me enter the officer’s mess as I did not have the proper dress code. So I was standing outside until Harry arrived.
He agreed to escort me to the match and took me inside and offered a drink. As we were talking, an officer who was conducting a new recruitment campaign happened to pass by. Harry Gunatillaka stopped him, introduced me and asked why he does not take an application from me. I just scribbled an application though I was not sure how I can contribute to SLAF as an engineer. That’s how I ended up in SLAF and made my entry into the fascinating field of aeronautic engineering. Of course, Harry was not interested in me as an engineer.
How did your career progress as aeronautical engineer and a sportsman?
At SLAF I had an excellent opportunity to get advance knowledge on aeronautical engineering. As I learned more I developed a great passion towards Jet propulsion engineering and that opened me several new openings.
Meanwhile, I represented SLAF both in Rugby and cricket. I gave up cricket as the lingering injuries to the shoulders troubling me. After I hung up my boots, I coached the SLAF team. Once, in a game against CR&FC, an Air Force player was penalized and there was this person who was screaming for the ref to throw the offender off the field. I walked up to him and told him to shut up or that I will remove him. One of the junior officers ran up to me and said, you are threatening the Cabinet Secretary’s friend. Little did I know that the secretary himself was sitting in the next seat.
It did not take too for me to face the consequences. I was nominated to attend a sports event in China representing the Air Force. The person doing the interview was none other than the Cabinet Secretary G.V.P Samarasinghe. When I spoke about my association with Sports and he concluded by saying: “You have to be very diplomatic to go on such a mission”! I was not selected.
Is it true that you were offered a bribe worth millions to cover up a fraud?
Yes it is true. After leaving Air force, I joined Air Lanka. I was one of the first locals promoted to the position of Manager in the Air Lanka engineering dept. As the Production Planning Manager of Air Lanka, Engineering Dept, one of my responsibilities was to administer maintenance contracts. However, I realized that I was kept out of the loop with respect to the Boeing 747 maintenance with Singapore Airlines. It was the Indian GM who took this task upon himself. Having suspected some foul play, I studied the report meticulously and did my own analysis. In contrary to the GMs report my conclusion was that Singapore Air Lines owed us $5 millions as per the formula in the contract. When I raised this issue, my Boss said that my job will be at risk if I was proven wrong.
Yet I decided to take the challenge. When we were in Singapoor, discussing this issue, I was offered a substantial bribe to bring this figure down by a significant amount. I declined and exposed the fraud thus making sue Air Lanka get its money back. This was one of the last functions I did at Air Lanka, before submitting my resignation after a battle with newly hired Pakistani GM.
What is your current occupation?
I am one of the two Airworthiness Specialists in International Operations Branch of the Civil Aviation Authority of Canada. My job requires me to travel overseas to confirm/ensure that foreign operators coming to Canada are properly equipped and able to conduct a safe operation.