13 April, 2024


Engineer Chandrakumaran

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Engineer Chandrakumaran passed away on 15 November 2023, in Toronto, Canada. He was a very likeable and much loved person to anyone and everyone who was fortunate to cross paths with him. I first met Chandrakumaran when we were both first year Engineering students and residing at Jayatilaka Hall in Peradeniya. Memories of that residency flooded back when I heard about his sudden passing away. I also feel inspired to remember and praise Chandrakumaran’ s remarkable professional life and the equally accomplished professional family that he and his wife Usha have raised with their wonderfully gifted children – Priya, Harry and Haran. All three of them were born together, and now at 29 years of age, Priya and Harry are Doctors while Haran is a Mechanical Engineer like his father.

Usha and Chandrakumaran met in Bandarawela, where he was already working as an Engineer for the Department of Machinery and Equipment, and Usha was in her first posting as a young Engineer with the Highways Department. Previously, he had worked with the State Engineering Corporation. Among his many projects in different parts of the country was the dredging and cleanup of the Nuwara Eliya lake which was a priority project for then Minister Gamini Dissanayake.

After Sri Lanka, Chandrakumaran went to Nigeria which had become a job destination for Sri Lankan Engineers in the 1970s. Usha joined him later, and they worked in different parts of the country for nearly ten years before migrating to Canada in 1989. Canada has not been an easy place for migrant engineers to readily find professionally satisfying jobs. That did not deter Chandrakumaran, and given his intelligence, mechanical skills and versatility, he was able to land good jobs and work on impressive projects including the expansion of Canada’s largest airport (Pearson International) in Toronto, and the renovation of the mechanical and electrical systems in Canada’s parliament in Ottawa.

His lasting job for nearly twenty years was with Crossey Engineering, a major Mechanical and Electrical Engineering company in Toronto that was founded in1963, and which after its recent merger with Salas O’Brien company in the US has become part of a North American organization of over 2,200 employee-owners operating at more than 70 locations.

Chandrakumaran was highly respected at Crossey for his contributions, his readiness to learn new skills and undertake new challenges, and his ability for providing guidance and mentorship to young engineers. Chandrakumaran had retired from the company five years ago, but his colleagues attended his wake in numbers to pay their respects, and Andrew Pratt, Principal and Head of the Mechanical Department, eulogized at the funeral. Chandrakumaran’s son Haran is now working at Crossey. The legacy continues.

Perhaps the legacy may have started with Chandrakumaran’s father, Sinnathamby Kandiah, who was an Engineer at the old Water Board and went on to work in Zambia after retiring in Sri Lanka. Chandrakumaran was the oldest son of Kandiah and Yogamani, and was raised with his four sisters and two brothers in their lovely garden bungalow on Ramanathan Road, a stone throw from Parameshwara College, now Jaffna University.

Chandrakumaran entered Peradeniya from Jaffna Hindu College in a large of batch new entrants. Hindu College had a well-established science stream with impressive teachers, including Jaffna’s celebrated Math teacher Varadharaja Perumal, whose A’Level classes were known to overlap with first year university math syllabus. Hundreds of his students have gone on to excel in Engineering and Mathematics in Sri Lankan and British universities.

Hindu College also had another prominent teacher, known in Jaffna as “Communist Karthigesan,” and a pre-eminent teacher of English in the Peninsula. Chandrakumaran had benefited from the influence of these two outstanding teachers, and he would often recount his experience of their classes, including how ‘Karthigesu master’ would teach aspiring university entrants the etiquettes of formal dining using cutlery.

My lasting memories of Chandrakumaran are from our first year at Jayatilaka Hall. It was an experience in congenial socialization that has been of lasting benefit not only to both of us, but also, I would like to think, to everyone else who went through their first years in the halls of residence at Peradeniya.

Jayatilaka Hall was one of the first Halls of Residence at Peradeniya, along with the neighbouring Arunachalam Hall, and was located right across from the Science Faculty and was off the main campus roundabout on Galaha Road. Across the roundabout lay the expansive sports fields and beyond were the Arts Faculty buildings including the Geography Building and the Main Library. It was a picturesque setting, as every site on campus truly was. The Engineering Faculty was some distance away, on the west side of the meandering Mahaweli.

The Hall itself was a lovely two-storey building with about 40 to 50 rooms and balconies, spacious hallways, dining and common rooms, a welcoming courtyard and manicured lawns. When the university began in the 1950s, there might have been one student per room with 40 to 50 students in total. In our time there were about 100 students altogether, with 60 first year students at three students per room on the ground floor, and 40 senior students at two per room on the second floor. There were students belonging to all the faculties and coming from all the leading schools in Colombo, Galle, Jaffna, Kandy and Batticaloa.

Jayatilaka Hall, like every other hall of residence in Peradeniya in our time, was a living and pleasant microcosm of the linguistic and religious plurality of Sri Lankan society. The whole campus was a site of pilgrimage where students from different ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, not to mention caste, backgrounds mingled and lived together – expanding their collective consciousness to include others who have not been part of their universe before.

At that time, we could not have conceptualized that our pilgrim experience on campus was a part of the nation making process. Fifteen years would go by before Benedict Anderson (in Imagined Communities) would proffer his pathbreaking insight that social pilgrimages and ‘print capitalism’ (the printing of newspapers and novels) have been the constitutive processes of nation making in modern world history. That Sri Lanka did not succeed in this historical task is a different story. And we are all the poorer for it.

Chandrakumaran had the political awareness of it, and he was also socially prepared for it because of his family’s exposure to life outside the Jaffna peninsula. His mother’s family had lived in Anuradhapura, where Chandrakumaran was born; and his father was born even farther south, in Matara. Yet his upbringing in Jaffna had ensured that he would internalize all the essences of the social and religious ethos of Jaffna society. That ethos is firmly founded on Saiva Siddhanta and is enshrined by the sweep of devotional poems in Tamil literature.

Chandrakumaran was well versed in them, and I had deep curiosity for them given my somewhat blended background of Catholic upbringing among Hindu neighbours and studied interest in Tamil poetry. Our interactions were enriching, perhaps more to me than to him and I cherish my memories of them as I think of him now.

It is now a month after Chandrakumaran passed away. This is also the month of Margazhi, a special month for Tamils, the coldest in the home calendar filled with heavy morning dew. Margazhi is also the month of music and devotion centered on the singing of Tiruppavai and Tiruvempavai. I think of Chandrakumaran and our Jayatilaka days because we used to talk about bands of devotees, walking from house to house in the morning dew of Marghazhi, and singing the seasonal hymns of Andal and Manivasagar. A tradition that predates carol singing and is devoid of commercial embellishments.

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Latest comments

  • 10

    A very affectionate and touching tribute. Though I do not know either person, I, and many like me, relate so much to their experience which Tamils of my age shared. Going to Peradeniya, having a Jaffna heritage, a puzzlement at rejection, going abroad and succeeding against odds, ensuring that the young found a place through education, the sole way that Jaffna Tamils knew to success-the easy understanding of other religions and a sharing of cultures–Thank you for writing this. In the middle of bad weather in Jaffna, reading this was an emotional experience indicating that life can be lived well and that a unique blend of culture in Jaffna (Saivite, Christian and Muslim) will survive both in the peninsula and in other states to which it has been taken. I pray that Mr Chandrakumaran attains bliss at the feet of the God we seek.

  • 6

    The last sentences of the essay are problematic and I am surprised that Rajan Philips, usually a serious author, is writing populist nonsense without any serious research.
    I think by Manivasagar he means Manikkavasagar.
    The point I make is that both Manikkavasagar and Andal date to the tenth century AD.
    On the other hand, as Plymouth University’s history of carols says, and I quote:
    “Christmas hymns can be traced to 4th-century Rome and were in Latin
    In the 9th and 10th centuries, Northern European monasteries developed the Christmas hymn into a sequence of rhymed stanzas. The Parisian monk Adam of Saint Victor began to derive music from popular songs in the 12th century, which introduced something closer to the traditional Christmas carol.
    “Early Christianity turned the pagan solstice tradition into a celebration for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing. In 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called Angel’s Hymn should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome.
    “Soon after this composers all over Europe started to write ‘Christmas carols’ but not many people liked them as they were written and sung in Latin, which was a language that not everybody could understand.”
    Which is older may be irrelevant to us. But facts are sacred and the appreciation of an obviously lovable man is diminished when it is used to make irresponsible assertions that are populist but inaccurate.

  • 7

    The article refers to Communist Karthigean. His daughter and my batchmate Janaki Balakrishnan (an Engineer in Canada) has asked me to post the following which I do without any alteration:

    1. Comment to comment:
    “…life can be lived well and that a unique blend of culture in Jaffna (Saivite, Christian and Muslim) will survive both in the peninsula..”

    The article hints on that a multicultural and multifaith society can be raised well with a strong influence of a Communist as well. In fact, I have witnessed a strong bond of Chandrakumaran, a strong Hindu devotee, and my Communist father, who had been disregarded by many saying he was an atheist and not promoting the caste system in Jaffna. I still resent the fact that I couldn’t learn English from my father, whereas he devoted his time in raising others in the society, which I don’t resent.

    2. Chandrakumaran although lived on Ramanathan St, he and his family literally lived in Kaladdy, known as Kaladdy for many years, where we lived too some time.

    3. Chandrakumaran was one of the key members in establishing Hindu Murugan Temple in Peredeniya. He in fact was one of the members carried Murugan statue from Jaffna on a pilgrimage. I do not know how far they walked.

  • 7

    Its a respectful tribute Chandrakumaran a multifaced personality. Jaffna man, a egocentric personality, who pretend to be a “true Christian” will spent all his time to unleash venom about individuals, other religions to satisfy his ego. He relies on gossip and without any hesitation put them in print not knowing if others also steep to his level can come out with equally horrific stories about him. Although he raises very pertinent questions and makes some important contribution, his narrow-minded approach derail his thought process and shows lot pettiness and venom. Even many scholars who did research on Christian history begin to understand the myth and reality as common to all the religions and their evolution.
    See Bible SCHOLARS Leave Christianity | MythVision Documentary
    It is time use our rational thinking process to use constructively to promote understanding of various aspects of complex issues, instead of rushing to prove which religion is superior etc. This pseudo intellectual exercise degenerate a person like Jaffna Man to a lower level and making his positive contribution worthless.

    • 6

      Music and dance go way back in India. the great grammarian Panini has in 5th Century BC referred to music. Hinduism was never one religion but an assemblage of faiths.
      Ritual, the source of theatre, was linked with music.
      Temple singing and chanting are unlike music as a religious movement.
      The Bakthi movement had independent origins in India. In Tamil it began in the late 6th or early 7th Century. That does not mean that singing and dancing in worship started then.
      Thirumurukatrupppadai (late Sangam period) refers to ritual song and dance.
      For quality of poetry and variety of theme, Manivasagar (aka Manikkavasagar) and Andal outstand in Saiva & Vaishnava literature.
      What was great about the Bakthi movement was that it let the devotee define his/her relationship to the supreme being. It also eliminated the middleman, the priest.
      I do not know if the Carols (whose origins go back to pagan customs) fall into the same category as Bakthi literature. They have to be valued in their context.
      However the reference is to a tradition of devotional music— not to ritual chants and not specifically to Manivasagar or Andal themselves.
      Bigotry blinds some to accept anything good in another faith system, especially what may seem better than what they have in their faith.

      • 3

        As Comrade Karthigesan is referred to in a comment as well, the Tamil Hindu conservatives hated him, although he wan not hostile to any faith but stood for social justice in matters of caste, gender and class.
        they had opportunity to take their revenge when he died in the wake of the 1977 communal violence, during which he was affected too(in a train to Jaffna, but not too badly).
        They had a full scale Saiva Vellala funeral ceremony. They dressed his remians in traditional attire applied holy ash, sandal paste and a pottu on his forehead.
        The family was helpless under the circumstances when his party was in total disarray and his communist son-in-law was abroad at the time. I was witness to this humiliation which showed how far bigotry can drive people to.
        I am rather amused by the comment on Chandrakumar about his involvement with the Temple. The temple was important to the ‘Hindu’ community in the campus as the Churches there and the Dagoba were to other religions. The mosque came up much later.
        I knew Chandrakumar but not closely. He was progressive and left inclined, but no communist– for no fault of Comrade Karthigesan with whom he associated as a student.

      • 1

        Dear SJ,
        Apart from seeing you referring to the man my father named me after, I noticed the Bandarawela connection as well with “Usha and Chandrakumaran having met in Bandarawela.
        During the past three days or so, I have had so many comments taken off that I’m getting almost afraid of commenting.
        No, I do not recall meeting Chandrakumaran, although I found the tribute moving. Thanks Rajan Philips.

    • 7

      “Nottai” is also a part of Jaffna heritage. We have to live with it. Thank you once more for writing this tribute, Mr Rajan Philips

      • 1

        The nasty piece is more than the usual ‘nottai’.
        (This comment is no nottai, but a serious observation.)

  • 7

    I have noted the unique style of presentation by the author. I gather from this article that he too is a product of Peradeniya Engineering Faculty. That explains, although the author is known for subject areas that he usually writes about. Yes! If anybody does an excellent job at his place of work, people will always remember. One may receive greeting cards and an occasional telephone call to inquire as to how one is, even long after retirement. Late Engineer Chandrakumaran is a good example of all this, and it is not a surprise that the head of the section agreed to deliver a eulogy. I do hope that all working professionals, whatever the profession may be note this and excel in one’s profession. May I offer my condolences to the bereaved family through these columns.

    • 4

      GS, I too offer my condolences to the bereaved family. Sadly, Minister Kanchana . W
      had this to say about the engineers and technicians who work for the Electricity Board. He called them Extremist / anti national, just because they as a union , disagree with his political decisions. Enough and more reason for professionals to leave bankrupt country and flourish elsewhere.

      • 4

        Reportedly more than 1500 doctors left country in past one year, 40 primary care hospitals in the periphery are closed. According to GMOA, many more are to leave soon. Seems govt is planning to bring law under essential services act, in stopping them. Not sure whether, it’s Legally possible at all.

        • 1

          The medical profession is no more the pride of the country. A good number of practitioners are quacks with an MBBS who are only there for the cash.
          That is no defence of government policy, but serious reform is needed in the way medical practice is conducted.

      • 1

        You may not know how corrupt CEB engineers are.
        There are lobbies for diesel, recyclables, coal, natural gas and you name it. They have their fingers in them too.
        Engineering is not the most honest profession anywhere, but CEB is a little over the top.

  • 9

    In refined language, the essence of the matter lies in the commendable words spoken about the virtuous soul, the late K. Chandrakumar—an esteemed engineer by profession hailing from a reputable family in Kaladdy, Jaffna. Credit is due to Rajan Phillips for diligently documenting the life of his university colleague and friend. Mr. Ranjan Phillips, despite belonging to a different faith, paid an exceptional tribute to his dear friend and batchmate, showcasing the noble character of the late Mr. Chandrakumar. However, it is noteworthy that inappropriate comments about the writer and his faith have surfaced in the somber atmosphere.
    I personally knew Late K. Chandrakumar as a teacher who imparted knowledge of mathematics during the breaks in his undergraduate period. It is truly commendable to chronicle the virtues of this gentleman, who was a paragon of humanity, possessing a compassionate heart that extended unconditional help to his fellow beings—a testament that will endure. A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting him and his wife during an event hosted by the Colombo branch of JHC OBA. Unfortunately, the intrusive noise of the music prevented us from engaging in a meaningful discussion.
    Let us join in prayer for the departed soul of Late K. Chandrakumar, wishing for his journey to transcend into the realm of supreme bliss.
    His student P Kunchithapathan / Srilanka (microlintec@gmail.com

  • 5

    De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Rajan Philips has done his part admirably for his friend in their salad days.
    There may be an error relating to some Hindu saints, but what matters here is the spirit with which the tribute has been penned.

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