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Richard de Zoysa's other Eden


The murder of Richard de Zoysa was a turning point in the gruesome story of how the Sri Lankan government handled nationwide civil disobedience which grew into dangerous armed rebellion in the 1980s and early 1990s. Marking a dark period in the history of the sunny island, the official figures of the dead and the disappeared from this era cross 75,000 while it’s widely speculated to cross well into six figures. In this terrifying picture, Richard is one of the most visible figures. 


Belonging to a family of influential artists, educated at one of the most prestigious private schools in Colombo and a gifted poet, playwright and journalist, Richard had all the right networks and access. Like most people from his background, Richard could have remained above and beyond the chaos that ravaged the lives of rural and lower middle class youth in the island. Like many with connections abroad, he could’ve left as soon as possible. But, he didn’t. Well aware of his privilege, Richard de Zoysa used his education, talent and connections to speak about the injustices that gripped the lives of young Sri Lankans, the ugliness of strategically propagated racial tensions and the growing anger towards oppressive governance. His poetry, plays and writing resonated the significant mind shifts of the time, questioning the machinery at work to maintain the class and race gaps. He did this in a way that broke linguistic and ethnic barriers to extents that even more directly political figures could not. Of course, this charismatic, creative, and eloquent man with leftist leanings meant danger to many powers. 

Richard’s body was found on a beach, not too far from where he went to school as a child. It was discovered by a fisherman who recognised the face of this well-known actor. The records mention that it was beaten, broken, mutilated and shot at point blank. His mother and other eyewitnesses identified the abductors as high ranking police officers reporting directly to the President, making it one of the most strongly evidenced and widely publicised cases of rumoured government death squads. But, all identified suspects were never sentenced; instead, the leads were ignored by the police and the two main officers identified by eyewitnesses were allowed to walk free while two only got interdicted as punishment after the trial. None were even imprisoned. The two high ranking officers involved in Richard’s murder ended up dying in a bomb attack, along with the President, in an incident that many deemed karmic. Sri Lanka’s current President Ranil Wickremasinghe was one of the youngest ministers of the government at the time of Richard de Zoysa’s murder, and is said to have brushed off the death as ‘suicide or something else.’ 


Not failing to leave a mark even in his death, Richard triggered many significant milestones in the common citizen’s fight against a corrupt regime. Local and international media flooded with tributes, excerpts of his work and most importantly, questions that demanded answers. Time magazine published a piece on his death—that particular issue is still banned in Sri Lanka. The BBC did a tribute play for him many years later. Richard’s incredibly courageous mother—Dr. Manorani Sarvanamuttu— started the Mothers Front amidst death threats. It remains an active voice for families of the forcibly disappeared in the North and the South.


Richard's work—articles, plays, acting and writing remain, changing minds and telling the story of how people get played by governments to stay divided and fighting, for the benefit of a few. His poetry is particularly powerful; some pierce, shake, mock, and prophesy powers and their players as much as the played; others give views into his loves, encounters and lend us glimpses into intricacies of being a queer human in a conservative society. 


This book is a small volume of poems by Richard de Zoysa. It’s a treasured part of our library, reminding how even the most difficult questions can be asked with beauty, grace and wit. It’s an essential collection that carries the very essence of Richard; his daring to ask the hard questions, the strength to remain someone that isn’t the expectation, and most importantly, the beauty of being a human who loves the world and embraces all its experiences—the terrible and the blessed. 


 

Every month, we bring a new book access. Newsletter subscribers get to access a chosen publication from our archive of vintage books. We share the cover, a few selected spreads and the content page of interesting books. Subscribers can request for sectional scans for personal reading and research purposes.

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