By Kumar David –
An Appreciation: Premaraj Appapilllai
Prem and I were very close from a very young age (He was born on 19 June 1943 and passed away in Sydney, Australia on 12 November 2023 and I am twenty-three months older). Prem was the eldest son of Professor Velupilli Appapillai (who retired in 1979 as Dean of the Pera Science Faculty) and Isabelle Thangam, nee Joseph, my Chinnama – my mother’s sister. Prem was one of four siblings, the others are Mano, Kumudhini and Dayananthan (better known as Bole). All three now live in different parts of the USA. Prem married Agnes Mathi and emigrated with her to Sydney, Australia, in the mid-1970s. Agnes had two daughters who he adopted as his own. The younger, Rapti is a charming and loving girl who kept an eye on Prem after Agnes passed away and showed amazing devotion during his terminal illness. Rapti’s husband Jan Sidu was stalwart in his courage and support for Rapti and Prem during these difficult times.
Prem and I, because of the nearness of our age and family homes, not to mention similarity of dissolute ways were very close from a pillow fighting, ground wresting, post ankle-biting age, through to our teens and early manhood. Till he migrated with Agnes you could say we were echo chambers of each other’s thoughts. I could regale you with a Falstaff-worth of anecdotes, but this being a formal appreciation, decorum must prevail. But if I say nothing at all it would be counterfeit, so let me only mention that Prem enchanted numerous damsels in Havelock Town, Bambalapitiya, Kandy and elsewhere; too many to enumerate on the fingers of both hands.
He was an absolute charmer, the life and soul of every party and the centre of every Karaoke session. Numerous are the occasions on which I invited him to gatherings of my closest buddies only to find everybody enthralled around the boisterous rascal and poor me left on the outside craning my neck to get a peek into the inner circle.
Prem joined Standard Five at St Thomas College, Mt Lavinia in 1953 (I had joined in 1951) and our careers were largely in step. In his very first week he challenged the class bully and beat him up, very much to the relief of long suffering victims in the class. This bravado he carried to the very end. I entered the Engineering Faculty of the University of Ceylon in 1963 and Prem in 1965. I was an entirely Colombo (Reid Avenue) product while by Prem’s time the Thurston Road Faculty moved to Peradeniya.
After graduation Prem joined the Department of Telecommunications as an engineer where he was attached to the Radio Laboratory in Havelock Road under the long suffering K K Gunawardena, his immediate boss. The supreme boss of the Telecoms Dept. was a big shot by the name of Watson who it appears had not been adequately briefed about the new recruit. Prem walked in to his first a head office meeting 10 minutes late and the officious Watson peremptorily demanded to know “Appapillai, why are you late?” and was offered the truthful reply “I went for a bog Sir” in front all present. Watson never again tangled with this robust recruit.
He was a great food lover, but a complete teetotaller and non-smoker. Biriyani and chicken curry, parippu and rice were his favourites. Chinamma had to hide the other siblings share before he got his hands on it and devoured everything. Once when he visited us in Hong Kong we took him to a posh restaurant for a classy Chinese meal. Fine dishes were served in elegant bamboo containers with stylish chop sticks and classic porcelain bowls placed in front of each person. Prem summoned the waiter, waved everything away and demanded a large plate like he was accustomed to at home. The astounded factotum obliged and Prem emptied dishes on to his big plate and proceeded to devour with relish.
In Australia, Prem first worked for the Sydney Water Supply board and was credited with a number of useful innovations. If I recall correctly he was awarded a plaque or certificate in recognition of these services. From the water supply department he moved to a new job at Optus, Australia’s world class telecommunications outfit. There he developed a great interest in optical fibre technology. In retirement he toyed with the idea of launching an investment consultancy in optical fibres. I think his wife’s death and his own illness aborted these plans.
Prem was neither an agnostic nor an atheist; he did not give his mind to matters of religious philosophy; he was too busy filling each day with joyful doings. His family was practising Christian and attended the Wallewatte Methodist Church. I understand old Prof Appa’s father was a pastor of the Methodist Church in the 1910s in the Batticalo area. Prem did go to church with his parents as a child and a youth but thereafter he was too busy satisfying each “glorious hour of crowded life as though it were worth an age without a name”. The psalmist’s “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” may be a fitting ending. Or perhaps the better way to end an appreciation of the life and times of that wonderful rascal, my cousin Prem, is to repeat the great secular bards prosaic: Good night sweet prince, may flights of Devaas see thee to thy rest.