01 October 2011

Remembering ‘Tyre Sunil’: may his tribe increase

Sometime in the year 1991, Ananda Thilak Bandara Herath, a final year student at the University of Peradeniya (Arts Faculty) held a one-man concert called ‘Vihinsana’ which could be translated at ‘extreme violence’.  They were all new songs, written by friends as well as a couple of reputed lyricists.  The music, for the most part, was composed by his batchmate Nishad Handunpathirana, probably the most accomplished esraj player in the world today. 
Thilak, as he was known, was from Galgamuwa and teaches in a school close to home.  He sings, still and has recorded many originals. Someday he will be a better known name in the music scene. I remembered him and his concert because of one particular song, the title of which escapes me now.  It was about the loss of a son to that terrible period called bheeshanaya when thousands of unarmed people were arbitrarily abducted by vigilante groups unleashed by the then UNP government, tortured and summarily executed.  It was written by D.B. Sunil, then a second year student at Peradeniya, reading for a special degree in Political Science.  This is a story about Sunil and not the song he wrote or the concert in which that song was performed or the artist who won appreciative applause. 
D.B. Sunil is known to all his contemporaries as ‘Tyre Sunil’.  He was the thinnest boy on campus.  Probably the darkest too.  He was among the tallest in his batch.  He entered university in 1990.  This was immediately after the bheeshanaya.  It was a time when no one wanted to talk politics.  This was understandable.  It was as though the university was out of bound for politics.  Politics, however, does not take notice of such rulings.  It entered nevertheless.  Sunil, even as a fresher, argued that the political is not contained in the university and neither was the university insulated from it.  He wanted students to speak to issues that spilled over the university boundaries and indeed that activism should go beyond the Galaha Junction.  He was vilified by a student population that was averse to treading any path that may lead to the kind of chaos the eighties had seen.
‘Umbata tayar ekak udin yannada oney?’  he was asked (do you want to perish on a tyre?).  The reference was to the method of evacuation preferred by the vigilantes, tossing people on pyres made of old tyres and setting them aflame.  That’s how he became Tyre Sunil. 
Sunil was one of the brightest students at Peradeniya.  Life was never easy for Sunil, given the kind of background he came from.  He was tempered by the circumstances of his growing up and was mature beyond his years.  He had a girlfriend who ditched him around the time they graduated.  Supposedly due to a caste-mismatch.  He held no grudge.  He could not.  It was not in him. 
He sat the Foreign Service exam and passed.  He had answered all questions accurately at the interview. He didn’t make the cut for reasons best known to those on the interview board.  He worked for a couple of years as a data collector for the Agrarian Research and Training Institute, collecting price information from major markets.  He supplemented the meager income by giving tuition.
When he first started teaching, he had only 3 students.  The return on investment was minimal.  He told me then that he will continue to teach them because they had responded to the advertisement (a few handbills).  It was a responsibility.  He fell in love, married and had a son.  He purchased a small piece of land close to Peradeniya. 
‘I skipped lunch on certain days and had a plain tea instead.  When I wanted a cup of plain tea, I drank water.’
That’s how he saved the rupees and cents. 
I visited him in the year 2000 and spent a night at his place.  The house was not ‘half-built’.  It was less built than that.  Tyre Sunil treated me like a king.  I was given his ‘study room’ to sleep in.  ‘The Study’ had one bed and a table that held all the books he had, most of which were prizes he had won in school.  Among them was a familiar book, Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gora’.  The English translation, that is.  It was familiar because, I found out soon enough, it belonged to me.  He had borrowed it way back in 1993 when he stayed at my place.  April 30th, I remember, because we were planning to go out on May Day. 
I flipped through the pages.  It was full of notes.  Words were underlined and the meanings of the underlined words were written on the corners of the particular page, with pencil lines connecting word and translation.  Almost every page had such comments.  That is the kind of effort that Tyre Sunil expended to improve his knowledge of English.  It must have taken him a long time to read the book, even though he must have read the Sinhala translation before.  Tagore to Malalasekera and back to Tagore after every 5-10 words takes a long time, I realized. 
He had, by that time, got a Government job as a teacher.  His first appointment was in some small school in a remote corner of the Hasalaka electorate.  He told me that he was not looking to get a transfer.  He told me that a few weeks after joining the school, the principle had invited him to speak at the assembly.  There was a lot of pride when he said that he spoke about making the best of what one has instead of cursing those who had and lamenting over one’s lot. 
Sunil still teaches.  He has sold that property and purchased one closer to the Kandy-Colombo road.  A couple of years ago, when I visited, he was in the process of building a house there. It was more than half-built.  He has hundreds of students now.  He is as thin as he was as an undergraduate.   Works hard.  Goes out of his way to make sure his students do well and while learning about the subject learn something about the world around them as well. 
Sunil did not ‘go over a tyre’.  Many Sunils did, though.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret of the monumental human resource crisis our country suffers from,  as my friend Werawellalage Premasiri (Director-Development, Upcountry Development Authority), who hails from Kumarigama, Ampara points out frequently when our friends get together. 

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