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 age two, he survived malaria during the major epidemic of 1933-35 which killed as estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Lankans. (He lived to see malaria being eradicated from Sri Lanka by 2016.)
At nine, he saw the Japanese air raid of Colombo and suburbs (1942), and lived through the various rations, restrictions and disruptions of World War II.
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
Note: An earlier, and longer version of this was published in May 2014, and can be accessed at: http://groundviews.org/2014/05/07/kasturis-progress/