By Sharmila Gamlath –
My father, late Professor Sucharita Gamlath was one of the most prolific scholars of his time. During his lifetime, he continuously demonstrated his acumen in a range of fields, fulfilling the roles of author, teacher, literary critic, linguist, and political activist contemporaneously. He certainly needs no introduction among the general public of Sri Lanka. Since his demise on the 30th of March 2013, there have been many eloquent accounts of his contributions to the fields of Sinhala language and literature, literary criticism and political views. However, on the eve of his second death anniversary, I thought it would be apt to supply an insider’s account of his life to the large number of Sri Lankan whose lives he enriched with his work.
An obvious question that may emerge is why I did not write such a memoir as soon as he passed away or, at least, why I did not write one last year, in conjunction with his first death anniversary. In fact, several friends and family members did urge me to write an appreciation about him earlier. However, during a couple of previous attempts, I had tremendous difficulty dealing with the myriad of emotions that crossed my mind. Recently, when I spoke to a friend about this state of haziness I was experiencing, he reassured me that it is only human to feel that way. So I decided that was best to wait patiently till I was emotionally prepared to get down to this task. Now I am.
Sucharita Gamlath’s work ethic
It is worth pondering over what motivated my father to work so hard. I feel now that it was pure passion, the urge to keep utilizing his brilliance for as long as he could. The expected monetary payoff associated with his work was not a critical source of motivation for him. It makes me feel that scholars produce their greatest works when they engage in their activities with the sole intention of producing an outcome which challenges them, rather than treating a scholarly work like a pail of milk which can be sold and many things bought with the money. Engaging in scholarly work simply for extrinsic gains such as monetary rewards, career progress and recognition could sometimes negatively affect the quality of one’s work. The selfless gratification he got from engaging in his work was probably the magic formula for my father’s literacy success.
My father derived the greatest happiness from writing tirelessly. Usually, he organized his working day into three parts: he would generally get some writing -and perhaps reading- done before breakfast. After than he would sit at his writing table till lunch. After than he had a long nap, and after evening tea, he would go back to his writing and only stop at about 9.30pm.
The energy he displayed was truly extraordinary. He would sit at his table for hours on end, writing in his calligraphic hand. Rarely would he cross out a word. Spending a lot of time thinking about what he wanted to write and correcting and editing his sentences many a time was not good enough for my father. He had the rare ability to form a crystal clear sentence in his head and pen it down in impeccable language promptly.
Spending much of one’s day reading and writing demands a great deal of discipline. It also requires a person to be free of the many other household responsibilities that a person typically has to shoulder such as shopping, cooking, child-caring, etc… Hence, I cannot personally help thinking that such a work ethic would primarily be restricted to men. Within our household too, my father was able to engage in his work undisturbed because he did not have to worry about these mundane duties.
All his life, my father was a faithful ally of the hardworking proletariats of Sri Lanka. As he was born in a remote village beneath Adam’s Peak, he was well aware of the hardships villagers in our country confronted. It was without doubt these humble beginnings that created in him a sensitivity to develop a lasting bond with the working class of our country and be an active supporter of their struggle for emancipation from the bonds of capitalism.
While I did not always connect with my father’s stalwart Marxist ideas, I nevertheless respected his political views. He was a strong advocate of the right to self-determination of minority groups. Having seen with his own eyes the atrocities committed against the Tamils of the North during his tenure as the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Jaffna, he steadfastly opposed the marginalization faced by ethnic minorities by the JR Jayawardene regime. In simple terms, his view was that being a Sinhalese Buddhist did not give an individual the right to superiority.
His opinions regarding the ethnic question were often misinterpreted and resented by chauvinists hiding behind the veil of mock patriotism, blinded by their ambition to attain a state of supremacy and rule over minorities with an iron fist. It was this duplicitous stance my father firmly opposed. He believed that every Sri Lankan, regardless of his origins should have the right to live in our country free of fear and repression. Having seen the manner in which our Tamil brethren were crushed by selfish, greedy politicians repeatedly, he, like a true people-centred intellectual, lost faith in the political system completely. In his view, the ideal solution to this state of affairs was the establishing of an egalitarian socialist state within which all Sri Lankans could live in dignity.
He also believed that language could act as a powerful driver of ethnic harmony. To this end, he proposed that all Sri Lankans should acquire a good command of English, regardless of whether their mother tongue was Sinhala or Tamil. Hence, English would become a medium through which people from all ethnicities could communicate with each other effectively, thereby minimizing the possibility of ethnic disharmony. Although my father and his close friend Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby tried to work on an English-Sinhala-Tamil dictionary to further this noble cause, they received scant support from the authorities for this task, and both these great men left this world with their hopes unfulfilled.
Had he been alive, he would have been overjoyed by how our Muslim and Tamil brethren used their suffrage boldly to overthrow a tyrannical regime at the presidential election in January. On the other hand, he would have been harshly critical of the new government’s fragile stance regarding a range of issues as well. As he never pledged his support for any political party, my father was able to maintain his autonomy at all times. Firmly grounded on his belief that mainstream political parties never worked in the best interests of the common man, he possessed the courage to criticize the actions of successive governments openly.
Unemployment: was it a source of disillusionment or an opportunity to achieve the pinnacle of literacy success?
When a person wages war against the extant political system with his pen, the fine line between bravery and recklessness could sometimes get blurred. In my father’s case, as a consequence of expressing his candid views on the actions of the UNP regime of the 1980s, he had to suffer 14 long years of unemployment. Drawing a parallel with the Ramayana, I like to refer to these 14 years as the period he spent in ‘exile.’ Alas, my father was no immortal. Thus, like any other ordinary man, this unlawful act of vengeance may have left him feeling embittered, resentful, and emotionally shattered. After my father’s death, in the appreciation written to the Ravaya by Hon Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was then the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Wickremesinghe stated that on several occasions, he had publicly and in person apologized to my father for the injustice he faced at the hands of the UNP regime of yesteryear. Yet no apology can turn back time or make amends for the wrongs my father faced. There is no bitterness in this reflection; yet I feel an irreversible sense of disenchantment when I think about how much agony my father may have undergone during those long years.
Despite the obvious emotional distress he is sure to have felt, in front of his family, as well as the rest of the world, he maintained a fierce air of defiance, and valiantly tried to look for that tiny silver lining in the dark cloud. When a despotic regime forces an intellectual into unemployment, their underlying expectation is that economic deprivation would force him to quit his literary endeavours. Yet, nothing could shake his iron resolve to convert this turn of events into a blessing in disguise. Undeterred by financial hardships, he completed his best literary works during these long years of unemployment. This was his response to the injustice he faced- an approach to retaliation befitting a scholar par excellence.
Despite being reinstated in his job when HE Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge assumed office in 1994, he was deeply disgruntled with the changes that had occurred within the university system in his absence, almost entirely for the worse. Among other things, the gross politicization of the higher education sector and the shocking decline in academic standards created a deep sense of discontentment in him, and he went into retirement with a genuine fear for the future of the children of our country.
I must also mention that my father never received any compensation for being unlawfully ousted from his job. His great friend Mr Ran Banda Senevirathne represented him in a lawsuit demanding the earnings he lost due to unemployment, but the trial came to an abrupt end due to a mere technicality. Yet never did my father despair. After all he had gone through, losing the lawsuit was just a very trivial incident for him. In fact, he was never very enthusiastic about litigation in relation to his expulsion. This is evident from one of his famous statements, which was,”Places like courts and police stations are capitalist organizations that have been created to waste people’s precious time.”
Sucharita Gamlath’s naivety
His general reluctance to seek justice resulted in my father being played out by swindlers on numerous occasions. For some greedy sharks, my father was nothing but a gold mine. They cheated him in numerous innovative ways over time. They lied to him about the number of books authored by him that were printed, they did not pay him the royalties that he was entitled to, and they made illegal copies of his books and sold them clandestinely.
Worst of all, we have now found out that with absolutely no respect for his intellectual property, entire sections of books he authored have been plagiarized. It is quite ironical that at present such crooks who have stolen my father’s intellectual property in broad daylight are hawking their wares within the new “good governance” regime, portraying themselves as white knights bent on ridding our land of all vices. Good governance per se is a much needed political paradigm. However, it is exceedingly hard to believe that such charlatans, who cannot even respect the intellectual property rights of a scholar, and for that matter a dead one, would contribute towards this endeavour selflessly.
My father played a pivotal role in developing the literary, cultural and political sensitivity of the general public in Sri Lanka. Enchanted by his unique writing style, people flocked to buy the newspapers to which he contributed as a columnist. He was able to reach the hearts of people from all walks of life with his words. The accolades the public poured upon him meant so much for him, and the positive feedback he received gave him the vigour to continue his work until he was defeated by cancer.
He also passed on his passion for excellence to a large number of students. The brilliant pieces of writing by his students that appear in newspapers and social media sometimes only bear testimony to what a brilliant teacher he was. I believe teaching was an inborn talent he was endowed with. An elderly lady once said that when she was a student at the University of Peradeniya, even though she did not study the subject my father taught, she and her friends sat through all his lectures, hanging onto every word he said. According to her, they had to always arrive in the lecture theatre a couple of hours in advance to find a seat, as scores of students who were not enrolled in the subject attended his lecture, enthralled by his brilliant delivery of the subject matter as well as his good looks!
My father always believed that a good citizen should earn his living through honest means and maintain the utmost degree of integrity in his actions. I am confident that he was pleased that his children followed the way of life he advocated. What is even more wonderful is the fact that he inspired many Sri Lankans with his scholarly contributions. Even though he is not among us anymore, his words will always reside within the pages of his literary works.