Peter Neville Leslie Mendis was born in 1915. His father was a station master. He lived the early part of his life in Moratuwa. He was lucky enough to attend S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia with his two brothers Florizel and Granville. He did enter the University of Colombo but did not complete his degree for good reason. He took up employment with the Survey Department.
In 1938, when the forerunner to the present Sri Lankan Navy, the Ceylon Naval Volunteer Force was formed, Neville was one of its first 28 recruits. The next year, World War II broke out and the unit was mobilized for war duties in the Royal Ceylon Navy. Neville served as a Signalman Gunner in Trincomalee and was there when the Japanese airplanes bombed Ceylon on Easter Sunday, 1942. He did not see much action in the war, but in 1944, while patrolling about 20 to 30 miles offshore they saw a huge ball of fire in the sky, and upon investigating, found the wreckage of a downed airplane and the bodies of Japanese pilots, which they handed over to intelligence.
In late 1943, he married Lynette Fernando of Richardia, Moratuwa. The following year his first son, Peter Lalith, was born and by 1947, his daughter, Shiranee, and his second son, Peter Mohan, had followed.
After the war, he left the regular navy but continued as an officer in the Ceylon Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (CRNVR) and held the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He joined the Fisheries Department taking up an offer by Captain Mitchell to pioneer the new Deep Sea Trawling unit of the government of Ceylon. After some time as a crew member of the SS Raglan Castle he was sent in 1951 to the UK to study navigation. After a short spell in Hull, he returned to Sri Lanka accompanying a British captain with the Steam Ship Braconglen, a 338-ton fishing trawler.
As he was very keen to complete his studies and the Colombo Plan gave him a break, he returned to Hull, but two weeks after his arrival, his troubles began. He fell and broke his arm, but he continued for his examination, which was two months ahead, with his arm strapped up. He managed to get through all the drawing and charting that was required of him.
On January 17th, 1953, there was bad news from Ceylon. His wife, Lynette, had died under tragic circumstances and he was called home to arrange the funeral and the care of Lalith, Shiranee, and Mohan aged eight, six, and four. He tried telephoning home, but could not get through. The British Council helped him get an air passage home. All this kept him away from his work for two weeks. He returned to Hull in February and in spite of all his worries, he passed his Skippers Examination.
He captained the Braconglen for many subsequent years. He traveled to Yugoslavia to bring back the newly purchased 108-foot, 150-ton fishing motorized trawler, Gandara – the first of a few more to follow.
During the 1958 riots, he was called back for duty as a member of the voluntary reserve and stationed in Kotahena with orders to shoot anyone violating the curfew. He saw a running man who did not halt when ordered to stop. Instead of shooting, he chased the man down an alley way, only to discover that the poor man was merely running to relieve himself as he had no toilet in his own house. Also during this time, he was put in charge of evacuating refugees by ship from the camps in Colombo to the safety of Jaffna.
After his retirement from Ceylon Fisheries in 1972, he served as a director at Cornel & Company and continued to serve this firm even well into his eighties.
Although he did not have an easy life, his unwavering faith in God helped him to get through difficult times. It was many years later, in his seventies, that he became involved in Christian work, but I believe he carried his faith with him throughout his lifetime, or rather, his faith carried him.
He married my grandmother, Rukmini Samaraweera in 1960, and they lived happily together at the Bambalapitiya Flats for 45 years. My grandmother still lives in these flats. Together, they were instrumental in introducing Selwyn Hughes’ ministry to Sri Lanka, and even now hundreds of people rely on CWR’s literature during their daily prayer-time.
Captain P.N.L. Mendis was, to me, the epitome of a gentleman. I never heard him raise his voice, or speak ill of anyone. He was slow to anger and quick to forgive. He was not a loud man. And perhaps because of this, many of his good deeds passed unnoticed. After his death, several people visited my grandmother and told her of how he had helped them consistently in quiet ways.
He had little regard for conventional wealth and material possessions, but he found it easy to acquire a wealth of friends from all walks of life. He never engaged in conspicuous consumption. He used to always say “Never incite the envy of the poor”. He was a man who could walk with rulers as well as amongst beggars with ease and command the respect of both.
He was a calm man. He did not get easily ruffled. He disliked conflict and avoided it unless it was absolutely necessary. However, when it was necessary, he acted with resolve. Once, during a storm his crew had panicked and headed for the lifeboats, and the ship was in danger of capsizing because of the weight of all the men on one side of the ship. He had pulled out his revolver and threatened to shoot if they tried to get into the lifeboats.
He had a strong sense of duty. During the 1983 riots, despite many desperate calls by grandmother asking him to come home, he only did so after making sure that all the girls at office were sent home safely.
When I was in my teens, Seeya introduced me to one of his favorite books. It was “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. It is the story of a fisherman who, in his old age, goes out to sea one last time and catches the biggest fish he has ever caught in his life. This, in a sense, is also true of my grandfather. Seeya saw himself as performing his life’s most important work during his old age when he became involved in ministry and became a fisher of men.
Seeya once told me that when he went to England to study fishing, he was told by his captain, an Englishman, that no man could be a fisherman and a gentleman at the same time. This had upset him, but he had replied that, in that case, he would be the first gentleman fisherman. I believe that in exemplifying the qualities he did, he kept his word to the end.