21 October 2014

There are those who stay when they go

It was a Tuesday.  Ratnayake Hall. Dumbara Campus, University of Peradeniya. First day.  I remember it being a cold morning.  There was an English Test.  An hour, perhaps a little longer.  I am not sure if there was one of those orientation-programmes after the exam, although I do remember Prof Ashley Halpe giving a lecture on responsibility to us freshers around the time.  I know one thing for sure. I didn’t know that Sisira Premashantha existed.

I didn’t know of him until a few weeks later when there was an athletics meet to select the Arts Faculty First Year Athletics Team for the Inter-Faculty Freshers’ Meet.  I believe he won most of the track events.  I remember someone referring to him as ‘Naaththandiye Pora’ (The Dude from Nattandiya, if you will).  He led the Athletics team to some spectacular victories at this meet.  I remember being beaten to 3rd place in the 5000m race by a Science Faculty fresher.  There were only three in the race.  Later Sisira represented the Faculty and left the competition far behind in the 100m, 200m and the 400m too, if I remember right.  He went on to represent Peradeniya in the Inter University Games. 

When you’ve known someone for a quarter of a century, you have enough and more anecdotes to relate. Yes, even the most boring of characters are story-made and a narrator with memory can do wonders with moment, event, personality and their intersections with larger processes, institutions and the people who inhabit these things.  Every human life is an epic, Sisira’s too.  Impossible to write down in minute detail. 

Some stories though are memorable, others not. Sisira is made of many stories and these included some pithy observations and some crazy explanations for the way things are. Let me relate one to give a sense of the many flavours that made Sisira. 

About 20 of us decided to climb Sri Pada. This was in 1998 if I remember right.  It was, naturally, a tiring pilgrimage.  We went up one evening, stayed at the peak to watch the sun rise, worshipped, and climbed down.  By the time we reached the Sama Chaithyaya, built by the Japanese, we were quite knackered.  We stopped to rest awhile. No one spoke. Just too tired. Sisira broke the silence. Here’s a rough translation.

‘Do you know why Lord Buddha placed the print of his foot on the top of the mountain?’

No one knew but everyone knew he was going to say something funny. We all smiled. He continued.

‘Surely, Buduhaamuduruwo could have placed the print at Nallathanni or somewhere more accessible where the devoted did not have to expend so much energy! Well, here’s the story.  Did you notice all the little boutiques and kiosks that line the path right to the top?  This is what happened. Buduhaamuduruwo must have signed a contract with the ancestors of those who own these places.  It was a brilliant move on their part.  They were ensuring a decent income for their respective families for generations to come, centuries into the future.’

There’s no such thing as ‘blasphemy’ in Buddhism. To me this was healthy demystification.  It took ‘weary’ out of the journey. We laughed.

I remember also a far more sober comment. It happened a year before the Sri Pada trip. We had just entered the second year and therefore were new to Peradeniya (Arts students spent their first year at Dumbara Campus, Polgolla back then).  This meant that we were ‘new’ and therefore fair game for raggers.  We had antagonized students from two batches senior to us, i.e. the 4th year students.  One day I was ordered to accompany them to their rooms in Arunachalam Hall.  Had no choice. Went.  My best friends were all on the floor.  There were about 10 of us and about 20 of ‘them’.  They told us, kindly, that they were according us the favour of saying whatever we had to say.  This is what Sisira said:

‘When I entered campus I thought this was a wonderful place to be. I though that the truth triumphs here, that justice has meaning.  Today I realize that the truth is not what wins.  Power.’

I remember that day. The setting. The man. I remember other days.  I remember how he led a residence hall called ‘Hindagala’ (aka ‘Lenin’) to the Inter-Hall Volleyball Championship. How he led our batch to the Inter-Batch Volleyball Championship. How he led the Arts Faculty to the Inter-Faculty Volleyball Championship and the University of Peradeniya to the Inter-University Volleyball Championship. He was no longer the sleek freshman who scorched the cinder track back in 1985 and 1986. He was heavy. Bellied. A great leader. A fantastic sense of humour.  And a man who, despite the philosophical thoughts uttered that day at Arunachalam Hall stood up to the JVP thugs in the late eighties along with a handful of his batchmates. 

He was not a man of many words.  He was a man of many smiles.  On October 19, 2010, sometime between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, a great heart burst, unable for whatever reason to contain itself and within itself the sorrow and joy apportioned for this lifetime.  No, I cannot say ‘what a shame!’  He gave enough.  And more. His wife and fellow-batchmate  Ayanthis said, softly, how he would force her and the kids to stop everything if he saw a batchmate on television (we have a few who make the odd appearance as musicians, singers and political commentators).  These things mattered. 

Some people are too fast for their fellow creatures. Some of these people leave a trail for the stragglers and slothful to follow. Then they are gone.  We remain.  It feels, however, that he is here still and I am gone. Forever.