20 October 2011

Eriyagama is not a place or a bend in the road

Place names fascinate me.  Years ago I even made a list of place names ending with deniya.  I remember ‘collecting’ about 75 such villages.  Peradeniya, Penideniya, Ududeniya, Udadeniya, Dambadeniya, Randeniya, Middeniya, Meedeniya, Madeniya, Dehideniya, Deldeniya, Padeniya, Pindeniya, Gandeniya, Gangodadeniya, Bangadeniya, Theldeniya, Embuldeniya, Paragahadeniya, Dummaladeniya, Dunakadeniya, Apaladeniya, Bangadeniya, Puwakdeniya, Gorakadeniya, Moonamaldeniya, Dandeniya, Ududeniya, Karandeniya, Kiriwandeniya, Thoradeniya, Weweldeniya, Nelundeniya, Elemaldeniya, Pothukoladeniya, Waduwadeniya, Ratmaldeniya, Gadaladeniya, Watadeniya, Kotadeniya and some 35 others which have left me over the past 18 years or so.

Place names roll off the tongue like poetry.  I am thinking of Eriyagama.  I do not know the etymology. I know nothing of the history. I don’t even know if Eriyagama is anything more than a bend in the Colombo-Kandy road, within a hoove-dura (the ‘distance of a hoot’) from Peradeniya.  I know there’s a wine-store cum bar in Eriyagama. That’s it. Well, this, and then Eriyagama.  Sarath. 

I assume Sarath Eriyagama hails from Eriyagama. Makes sense to assume this. I haven’t asked him, although I’ve known him for almost thirty years. We’ve not have many conversations.  Eriyagama, for me, is synonymous with ‘Sarath’ and ‘Chess’.  Other associations are marginal to me. 

I remember Sarath Aiya first as a chess player and then as a coach.  I know him as a man who single-handedly took chess out of the so-called elite schools or, to put another way, out of the circle of domination by schools such as Royal, St. Thomas’ and Trinity and later Ananda.  Dharmaraja was not a ‘name’ in the seventies. It was, after 1980 or so.  That’s thanks to Sarath Eriyagama. 

Sarath Aiya has been coaching since the seventies.  As a player and later coach from what could be called a rival school, I had many run-ins with him, especially in the eighties.  There were no harsh words.  Just disagreements.  I felt that he was wont to tweak the rules now and then and I am sure he may have thought the same of me.  It’s all so long ago and I don’t even remember moment and incident.  I remember this: through it all, there was respect and admiration for all that he had done to develop chess in Sri Lanka. 

In the early seventies, there were only a handful of schools playing chess in Sri Lanka.  Apart from those mentioned above, there were two or three big-name schools in Kandy, St John’s and Jaffna Hindu from the peninsula and the occasional ‘outsider’.  Today there are hundreds of schools playing chess in all parts of the country.  Few will remember and fewer still will acknowledge Sarath Eriyagama’s role in all this. 

I am not saying that no one else did anything for chess in Sri Lanka of course, but few can claim to have done anything close to what he did to popularize the game.  He coached many schools in Kandy. He took the game to other parts of the country or went out of his way to help uplift the game if someone wanted his assistance.  Matale will remember his name. Kegalle too. Kurunegala owes much to him. Other parts of the Central Province too. 

He played a key role in setting up the Central Province Chess Association whose activities over the past several decades have unearthed a wealth of chess talent and helped hone the skills of countless players.  He was also instrumental in setting up the Schools Chess Association. If I remember right, this was at a time when for some reason there was some tension between the Chess Federation and himself.  Anyway, today, that institution, for all its flaws, plays a key role in chess development and is clearly in the forefront of promoting the game in places far away from the capital.

I wonder how many players acknowledge what Sarath Eriyagama did to turn them into who they are.  Not many I am sure, because students rarely acknowledge the contribution of teachers. I know for a fact what a thankless task Sarath Aiya has set himself, the abuse he has suffered and the costs that no one bothers to count or compensate.

He has been coaching Kandy High School for 18 years now and I learnt that KHS has been placed among the first 3 in over 200 tournaments since he took over.  That alone is enough by way of ‘lifetime achievement’. 

Tireless. Ageless. Committed. That’s Sarath Eriyagama. He loves chess, clearly.  May his tribe increase!