23 March 2015

Pasan Kodikara left behind the softest footprints

Pic by Nilantha Gamage
There was a time when those who graduated from universities in the former Soviet Union couldn’t find jobs in Sri Lanka.  Doctors were routinely stumped by the infamous ACT16 (named after the amendment to the Medical Ordinance) but they could at least practice.  Those in the social sciences and humanities had it tough. 

During the early nineties an oasis for these ‘Russians’ materialized at what was then called the Agrarian Research and Training Institute (later named after Hector Kobbekaduwa).  My father, the then Director, did not hold anything against ‘Russians’.  He recognized credentials and potentials.  And so it was that the ARTI got a bunch of ‘Russians’ or ‘Russo’ as fellow researchers referred to them, sometime in the year 1993. 

Piyasiri Pelenda, Sisira Edirippulige and Udaya Rajapaksa had doctorates which Ravichandran had a Masters.  All four knew their onions and much besides.  They could talk about politics, political philosophy, films, theatre, music and literature.  And love.  Since I was ‘Editor’ at the Institute, I worked closely with researchers.  Since interests were common I spent a lot of time with the Russians and even today, years after all of us have gone our separate ways and taken up residence in different parts of the world, we keep in touch.

The institute’s Russians were frequently visited by their Russian friends.  They were all colorful characters.  All of them, without exception, were excellent conversationalists.  All unique.  The most striking of them all in terms of appearance was this young man with long hair, a flowing beard, keen eyes, a voice that did not betray the intensity of thought and a readiness to break into peals of laughter.  He was so much a child, this thinking, reflecting and extremely energetic man who looked as though he would be blown over by the gentlest breeze.  Yes, Pasan Kodikara, was that thin!

He was writer, a translator of several important works including Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ and Boris Bulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita’, a playwright and a university lecturer.  Those who associated him closely would recount hundreds of Pasan-stories.  He was versatile. 

I remember two anecdotes which perhaps his friends would say describe his essence (if not they would I am sure interject with better representational stories).  The first happened in Borella and the second in Punchi Borella. 

Pasan and a friend had been at the Borella junction waiting for a bus along with dozens of others.  A bus had come but had not stopped at the halt.  It had proceeded beyond the halt and had stopped a fair distance away.  One man had sprinted and somehow managed to get into the bus but unfortunately in the process a file he was holding on to had slipped out of his hand.  Papers, notes perhaps, had scattered all over.  It was impossible to gather them in the rush of traffic.  Pasan had laughed.  His friend had chided him.  Pasan explained, ‘What seems like a life and death situation at one moment seems incredibly small and funny in another’.  Pasan then took his friend to his time in the Soviet Union.

Most Sri Lankans who obtained scholarships to the Soviet Union at the time were children of active members of the ‘Old Left,’ especially the Communist Party.  They were mostly Marxist in ideological orientation.  Apparently a bunch of such scholars after their first few months in the ‘Mother Country’ so to speak realized that the Soviet Union was nothing like the Socialist Utopia they had imagined. They decided that the citizens of that country needed to be re-taught Marxism.  So they formed a group.  It was called nyashtiya (Nucleus).  Pasan, since he attended a university different from that which the others were enrolled at was tasked to write the constitution of this new group.

He wrote it.  This was before laptops, floppies, pendrives and such.  He wrote it by hand.  It ran into several pages.  He rolled them all up one afternoon and set out to share it with his friends.  Pasan, cloaked in a winter coat that probably outweighed him trudged along, battered by a snow storm.  Tragedy struck.  A gust of wind caught his sheaf of papers and scattered them all over the snow.   It was impossible to gather the nucleus of the Nucleus could not be gathered. Those were KGB days.  He fled.  He didn’t sight that university for three months.  No wonder he laughed that other afternoon in Borella, thousands of miles away from that other afternoon of a snowstorm and the scattering of foundational principles. 

Then there is the Punchi Borella story.  Pasan and some friends ended spending the night at Udaya Rajapaksa’s house after a long session of conversation and alcohol.  The following morning when they awoke they were all reluctant to get off the mats they had slept on.  They were lying there, talking.  At one point someone said ‘we should get up now’.  Pasan had said ‘ha…ehema karala vath balamu hari yaida kiyala!’ (Ok, let’s do that and see if that, at least, works).  Wry humor.  Deeply philosophical Pasan Kodikara, through and through.

He’s gone now.  He has left a soft footprint in many hearts and along many pathways, literary and otherwise.  So soft that it will take some effort to obliterate.