Rajah Rutnam — Sri Lanka’s first immigrant to US

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United States Marines perform military honors for Rajah at his funeral in Los Angeles last year.

United States Marines perform military honors for Rajah at his funeral in Los Angeles last year.

Typical of the man, my brother the former Marine Corps veteran Rajah Mahendra Rutnam, 74, fought a valiant battle against failing health before passing away last year.

Rutnam migrated to the United States in 1953.

Rutnam migrated to the United States in 1953.

Aged 19 in 1953, Sri Lankan-born Rutnam set sail for the United States and thus gained the single honor of becoming the first immigrant from the island nation to set foot under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 on American soil. Scion to a political and business dynasty, the eldest son of author, trade union activist and philanthropist, Dr. James T. Rutnam and Evelyn Rutnam, he traded a comfortable lifestyle in the land of his birth for a life he passionately yearned for in the West. Joining the Marines soon after arrival, he was embraced by his peers and respected for his candor, integrity and unfailing devotion to his adopted country.

 Never one to ignore his roots, he opened his doors to Sri Lankan compatriots who chose to follow in his pioneering footsteps in seeking fresh pastures in the USA. The hospitality of Rajah and Patsy knew no bounds as many an immigrant Sri Lankan would testify. Those who had ventured far from their homes to a strange and unfamiliar land were warmly welcomed, offered encouraging words and were never denied a warm meal.   

 In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Rutnam received his education at the prestigious hill station boarding school of S.Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa, where under the tutelage of Dr. R. L. Haymon, he acquired an abiding love for animals and the great outdoors – a passion  he cherished till the very end. He even orchestrated the remote control birthing of a thoroughbred foal in Sri Lanka by telephone, from his armchair in North Hollywood.

From back row: Jayam, Rajah, Iswari, Chandran. Seated: Indrani, James T. Rutnam (Father), Evelyn (Mother,) Dennis. Bottom row: George, Padmini and Niece Kshirabdhi. Picture taken in 1960 at Donalds Studio, Sri Lanka.

From back row: Jayam, Rajah, Iswari, Chandran. Seated: Indrani, James T. Rutnam (Father), Evelyn (Mother,) Dennis. Bottom row: George, Padmini and Niece Kshirabdhi. Picture taken in 1960 at Donalds Studio, Sri Lanka.

Venturing into the field of commerce in ‘64, Rajah was instrumental in establishing the first Sri Lankan restaurant in California, located in Hollywood and aptly named ‘Rajah’s Elephant Walk’. He was also the publisher of the initial Sri Lankan newspaper in California. He also served as Vice President of the Asia Pacific Organization and Director of Sri Lanka Trade Tourism and Cultural Information Services. As a former Founder Member of the Sri Lanka American Association of Southern California, (SLAASC) he was responsible for having Mayor Tom Bradley proclaim November 19th 1976, ‘Sri Lanka Day’. Rajah also helped found the first Buddhist temple at Beechwood in the Hollywood area.      

Rajah and his wife Patsy with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

Rajah and his wife Patsy with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

As a theatre and film aficionado he, along with Nelson Fernando, promoted several Sri Lankan works. One such dates back to the early ’70’s – A Crafty Matchmaker – by H De Lanrolle, featuring an ensemble from San Francisco. He also promoted the film, Hangi Hora, directed and produced by his friend Rohini Jayakody. Coincidentally years later, he also backed the movie Keli Madala, starring Rohini’s daughter Veena Jayakody, which screened at the Vine Theater.  He also worked tirelessly during SLAASC events and with foundations that fostered goodwill among the local Lankan community.

 An 18 year gap between us two hardly precluded Rajah and I enjoying a close friendship. There was always mutual respect and understanding between us. We shared a love of filmmaking and made two memorable trips to Malaysia and Sri Lanka scouting locations but more importantly strengthening our brotherly bonds. He is gone now but will forever live in my heart. There have been few like him.