Raising a hearty cuppa to gentle giant behind famed brew-by Yomal Senerath-Yapa

Raising a hearty cuppa to gentle giant behind famed brew-by Yomal Senerath-Yapa



For decades he has not only been the face of Dilmah but the mascot of 100% pure Ceylon tea as well. As Merrill J. Fernando, with his new autobiography, looks back on 93 years of blessed, serendipitous living, it is occasion to raise a hearty cup of Irish Breakfast or Moroccan Mint to the doyen.

The practice of having Merrill’s face on the tea packaging of Dilmah was made necessary because of fake products in the market but it also ensured that generations cherished his genial visage across the globe for the personal or ‘family’ touch of his farmer-grown tea.

For Merrill, it all began 93 years ago, in 1930, when he was born in the balmy village of Pallansena, Negombo, where he bathed in the Maha Oya and was an altar boy at the church of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. His schooling, lastly at St. Joseph’s College, Maradana, was interrupted in the middle for four years when he was a reluctant neophyte at the St. Aloysius Seminary — a calling felt more by his parents than by himself!

The prose of the book is crisp and pleasant with a dash of boyishness and it’s easy to read between the lines and glean Merrill’s dogged determination, drive but also integrity and honesty.

The only drawback one would say is that the lion’s share of the narrative is given to the story of Dilmah and the tea world and its changing fortunes- while an autobiography is expected to have more vignettes of personal nature. But then, the book is titled The Story of Ceylon Teamaker: Merrill J. Fernando- Disruptor, Teamaker, Servant.

But Merrill the man and his life and times do get portrayed intricately alongside how he crafted, the hard way, a brand from scratch- the ascents, fraught with as much ‘snakes’ as ‘ladders’, from trainee tea taster, then selling in a small way till today 60 million people drink Dilmah tea daily, from sheikh tents in Arabia to London terrace houses. Plus, of course, ventures into hospitality.

The book deals with his rather brief marriage, which terminated because his wife’s approach to mothering he found incompatible. He has the steel to call a spade a spade and never minces his words, doling out fair criticism whether it is a fiend in friend’s guise or his own beloved sons.

Merrill’s journey was no cakewalk. He had to learn the ropes the hard way with many a pitfall. His is one of the most inspiring stories you could read, of one rising out of rural middle class to build a brand that is a household name  in his home country and known internationally as well.

It is, too, a history of tea in Ceylon; a passion for Merrill, a passion for the brew that drew him to the path of success.

God-fearing and devout, he shares several occasions when the Maker intervened to save his life;  from a car accident in 1976, a hairbreadth escape in the 1983 riots, a praying session that relieved a disease no doctor could fathom and a cataclysmic train accident after which he hobbled, with a smashed knee and avoiding the medical team, to all his business assignments in the Hague and Amsterdam.

Some of the illustrations take us on a nostalgic path to the days when Dilmah advertisements– those now old fashioned ones with women in polka dots — appeared in high profile international magazines.

The biography is the record of an era that changed from peaceful Negombo lagoon with its outriggers, the village community in palm frond shrouded church to the modern day.

The ethos that Merrill has always lived by was imparted by his mother, who never stinted to provide any succour within her means to the less privileged at Pallansena.

Space is given to the conservation work and community responsibility projects Dilmah undertakes. Some pages are also taken up by the ‘business and fun’. Merrill has travelled from Alaska to Australia and remains, supremely, a happy man.

As for his secret, it needs not much probing– hard work, perseverance, altruism and unshakable faith in God. To quote finally from the Bible which is his daily bread: ‘He who refreshes will himself be refreshed’.

The book, priced at Rs. 10,000 is available at Barefoot, Vijitha Yapa and Sarasavi Bookshops and at Dilmah t’ cafes. All proceeds will go to the MJF Charitable Foundation

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