09 February 2015

I was graced by the spirit of R.J.K. Karunananda Ranatunga

She was just an infant when her father ran a race that became one of the most memorable Olympic moments.  She was nine when he died under tragic and mysterious circumstances.  She was literally on the street thereafter when her distraught mother lost her mind. 

I saw her two days ago at her humble dwelling in Dunkannawa, a few miles on the Nattandiya-Kuliyapitiya road.  R.J.K. Nelum Priyadharshani Ranatunga is as nondescript as anyone else and yet her story is the story of this country. She is every woman who pit her wits against harsh realities, took the blows that came her way, responded with equanimity and did what she had to do. 

For more than two decades she’s had to take care of her mother, make sure that the medicines did not run out, administer the same and listen to her story, over and over again.  Nelum’s mother, H.K. Hemapali Kusuma Perera, lives in the 60s amidst triumph and failure, medals secured and those that eluded, a defeat that was transformed into victory, a story that Japanese children were made to read at that time but few Sri Lankan children know, a life that promised and a life that was taken away. Nelum hears all this every day.  It’s all written on her face but few know the akshara of her suffering to decipher in wrinkle and gaze the story of the marathon she was made to run.

Nelum’s father, R.J.K. Karunananda Ranatunga, represented Sri Lanka in long distance events at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.  He was ill that day.  He still ran. He ran and ran.  He just wanted to complete the race because that was the only think he could take back to his baby girl.  He was lapped three times by his competitors.  He finished to a standing ovation and his effort is still recognized as one of the finest testimonies to the Olympic Spirit. 

Karunananda eventually completed his life race in 1974.  Sorry, that race was finished for him, to be more precise.  It was as though he had handed a life-baton to his two children.  Channa Dharshanapriya, his son, was later recognized for civilian bravery for having attempted to save the life of a child who had fallen into a pit in which rubbish was being burnt. He had jumped in when it was clear there was no other way to save the child.  He suffered severe burn injuries. The child died a few days later.  When asked, he had simply said, ‘I too have a child.’ 

Nelum almost single-handedly brought up two children.    Oshadi Nuwanthika Halpe, her daughter, secured two A’s and a B at the A/L Examination 2010 and will enter university soon.  Little Oshan Navodya Bandara Halpe is 14, but had opted to run in a Cross-Country Race, where his competitors were very much older than he.  He was placed 35th.  He had worn a jersey with a hood to protect himself from the rain.  The inevitable happened. It rained and he carried the added weight of the soaked the garment.  He completed the race.  ‘I ran thinking of my seeya,’ he had said upon reaching the finish line. 

Nelum’s marathon will not put her in line for any medals but those intangible rewards of seeing a child’s accomplishment.  When she’s done, one way or another, there will go as thousands of other marathoners go. In silence and without mention in all probability.  Like her father, she will inspire only those who are privileged to have watched some part of that race.  I feel privileged and wish to share this privilege. So I write.  And as I write, I am acutely aware that if this story empowers me, it is the Nelums of our beautiful land that persuade the rough earth to yield flower and fragrance.  They give meaning to life by just living.  We therefore become recipients of a tag, ‘citizens of a blessed nation’.  I wonder if we are grateful enough.   


Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This article was first published in the 'Daily News,' February 7, 2011


sajic said...

No, we are not grateful enough. Thanks for reminding me.

Niranjan said...

Nice article. And if you like, you can view this also


ruchitha subhasha said...

he is my grand father

Malinda Words said...

Oshadi's brother?