Kasturi was born in another century in what now feels like an entirely different country. It was called Ceylon, a British colony, and the year was 1933.
Kasturi’s was a very ordinary life, which was mostly dedicated to education. But it was punctuated at various points by key events of his country and people. Tracing his life thus offers us some glimpses of his nation’s turbulent times.
At 15, as a schoolboy he walked to Colombo’s Torrington square to personally bear witness to Ceylon becoming independent (1948). The following day, he wrote the best essay in class in which he outlined high hopes and dreams for his now self-governing nation.
At 20, he entered the University of Ceylon and was among the first students to experience the newly established Peradeniya campus where he studied history and Sinhala language. From the scenic hills, he would see the political transformation of 1956, as well as the cultural revival heralded by Maname (landmark Sinhala drama) and Rekava (landmark Sinhala movie).
At 25, as a fresh graduate entering the world, he witnessed the 1958 ethnic riots that foreshadowed the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict that consumed his nation for the next half century. Among much else, it evaporated young Kasturi’s dreams of an inter-racial marriage.
At 50, as a teacher and father, he saw the far worse anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. For the next quarter century, he would watch in horror — and guilt — as his generation’s collective blunders consumed the next generation’s future.
At 76, as a senior citizen still active in social work and literacy circles, he saw Sri Lanka’s civil war being ended brutally (2009). He had the audacity to hope once more, even if only cautiously. And yet again, his and many others’ hopes were dashed as political opportunism and corruption soon trumped over true healing and nation building. The nation was polarised beyond recognition.
At 82, he voted for a common opposition candidate (January 2015) and for political parties (Aug 2015) who pledged good governance (yaha-palanaya). That was his last public gesture, after having voted at all national elections during his time, and having spent 25 years as a public servant. He played by all the rules, but was let down by the system.
At 84, as he coped with a corroding cancer, Kasturi watched in dismay the much-touted promise of yaha-palana being squandered and betrayed. On 13 September 2017, he departed as a deeply disappointed man who remained highly apologetic for many wrong-turns taken by his generation.
Kasturi isn’t a figment of my imagination. Neither is he a composite character. Until yesterday, Kasturi was all too real. He was my father, whom we returned to the Earth today at a simple funeral. – Nalaka Gunawardene
On 24 October 2015, United Nations marks its 70th birthday. A few weeks later, on 15 December 2015, is the 60th anniversary of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) becoming a member state of this inter-governmental organisation.
In this week’s Ravaya column, (appearing in issue of 25 Oct 2015), I continue my focus on Sri Lanka’s engagement with the UN system. In last week’s column, we recalled how Sri Lanka’s heads of state/government and diplomats engaged with the General Assembly and Security Council.
Today, we look at some eminent Lankan professionals who joined the UN system in expert or management positions and contributed to its intellectual and institutional development over the decades.
As Thalif Deen, a journalist of Lankan origin who has been reporting from the UN headquarters since the mid 1970s, once wrote: “When future historians take stock of Sri Lanka’s enduring contributions during its first 50 years at the United Nations, they may realise that our political legacy spanned both the upper and lower limits of the universe: the sky above and the oceans below.”
The list of Lankans who have excelled within the UN system is long, and I have had to be selective here. The ones mentioned in this column are:
Jayantha Dhanapala, President of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference 1995 and Under Secretary General heading the UN Department of Disarmament (1998–2003)
I end with a reference to Lakshman Kadirgamar, who served the ILO and later WIPO in senior positions in Geneva before becoming Sri Lanka’s finest Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994. I quote from the Foreword that Kadirgamar wrote to a book on the United Nations in Sri Lanka that I wrote for the UN Information Centre (UNIC) in Colombo in 1995 to mark the UN’s 50th anniversary.
Engineer, public servant and legislator D J Wimalasurendra (1874 – 1953) is widely known and respected as the ‘Father of Hydro Power in Sri Lanka’.
While working with the Ceylon Government’s Public Works Department in the early 20th Century, he made a strong technical and economic case for hydro power. At the time, the country was totally dependent on imported petroleum for its (limited scale) power generation.
He had a grand vision for energy independence and industrial revival in Sri Lanka, and engaged in a long struggle to see his vision become a reality. His life is a case study in evidence-based policy advocacy by a public intellectual.
The process he started has continued for over six decades, with more hydro electricity plants being built and the national grid being expanded to cover most of Sri Lanka. By end 2014, the total installed capacity of hydro power stations operated by the Ceylon Electricity Board was 1,383 MW (with another 218 MW capacity in dozens of mini-hydro schemes by end 2012) according to the Ministry of Power and Energy.
In a year with good rainfall, hydro power can supply nearly half of the country’s electricity needs.
In this week’s Ravaya column, (in Sinhala, appearing in issue of 30 August 2015), I continue my brief biography of Wimalasurendra, from 1918 onwards. In part 1, I explored the first few decades of his life, from birth to 1918.
Besides being a political leader and social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi was also a prolific writer, journalist and editor for much of his life. He was the editor of three English weeklies, namely Indian Opinion (in South Africa during 1903-1915), Young India (1919- 1931), and Harijan (1933-1942 and 1946-January 1948).
These journals, which he described as “viewspapers”, were means of political and social movements. But they were also printed, distributed and sold in the open market just like other journalistic products.
What can today’s journalists and publishers learn from Gandhi? I revisit this again in this week’s Ravaya column (published on 21 June 2015), continuing an exploration started last week.
“Journalism to be useful and serviceable to the country will take its definite place only when it becomes unselfish and when it devotes its best for the service of the country, and whatever happens to the editors or to the journal itself, editors would express the views of the country irrespective of consequences…”
Mahatma Gandhi said these words on 22 March 1925, when unveiling the portrait of S. Kasthuriranga Iyengar, the late Editor of The Hindu, at the newspaper’s Chennai office. These words summed up the basic tenets of true journalism that Gandhi believed in – and practised.
Besides being a political leader and social reformer, Gandhi was also a prolific writer, journalist and editor for much of his life. He was the editor of three English weeklies, namely Indian Opinion (in South Africa during 1903-1915), Young India (1919- 1931), and Harijan (1933-1942 and 1946-January 1948).
Indian Opinion was bi-lingual (English and Gujarati). For some time it had also Hindi and Tamil sections. Young India had a Gujarati edition – Navajivan. Harijan was printed in several Indian language editions. These journals, which he described as “viewspapers”, were means of political and social movements. But they were also printed, distributed and sold in the open market just like other journalistic products.
What can today’s journalists learn from Gandhi as a mass communicator and journalist/editor? I explore this in this week’s Ravaya column (published on 14 June 2015).
Dr Buddhadasa Bodhinayake, who died on 4 March 2015 in the UK, was a trail-blazing science and health communicator in Sri Lanka in the 1960s and 1970s. While still a schoolboy, he wrote the first Sinhala language book on space travel in 1961, which he co-authored with Arthur C Clarke. In the early 1970s, he also wrote the first local book on child psychology.
While being a high school student, medical student and after becoming a medical doctor, Bodhinayake continued writing to newspapers and presenting science programmes on radio. In June 1966, he launched Vidya monthly science magazine, which had a long and illustrious innings until 2006.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, published on 22 March 2015), I recall highlights of Dr Bodhi’s science communication work, and capture memories of some of his teachers and contemporaries. I also acknowledge the inspiration I derived from his work while growing up in the 1970s.
In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, many asked me what kind of monument was being planned in his memory. As far as the Arthur C Clarke Estate is concerned, there is none –- and that seems to surprise many.
Yet it was fully consistent with the man of ideas, imagination and dreams that Sir Arthur Clarke was. Monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel and silicon — seem superfluous for a writer who stretched the minds of millions. Commemorative lectures or volumes cannot begin to capture the spirit and energy of the visionary who left behind a rich collection of books, papers and ideas.
Speaking at ORBIT’15 astronomy event last week in Colombo, organised by the Astronomy & Space Science Association of D S Senanayake College, Colombo, I reiterated this point. Here are the most relevant slides from my talk:
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I revisit the aviation vision and accomplishments of the late Ray Wijewardene (1924-2010). Licensed to fly fixed wing aircraft, helicopters and autogyros, he had a colourful flying career spanning half a century. In this time, he designed, built and flew over a dozen light aircraft and kept innovating with design modifications to come up with a low-cost, versatile small plane that can land and take off from many places in Sri Lanka.