24 August 2015

It's ok if you haven't heard of Nilame Wanigasekera

This was written five years ago and published in the 'Daily News' for which newspaper I wrote a column titled 'The Morning Inspection'.  Nilame Wanigasekera died in July 2010.  Not many people who read the 'Daily News' would have heard of his passing.  But there's always something that people leave behind, something that lingers longer than life...

Akira Kurosawa made many films. I’ve seen. There are Kurosava ‘moments’ that are etched in my mind, as there are in the case of other film makers of course. Many, in fact. This Tuesday morning in July, though, I see only one. It is an image and a statement

‘Dreams’ is a 1990 Kurosawa film belonging to the ‘magical realism’ genre and based, we are told, on dreams that the film-maker had seen. So it is not a film but a collection of ‘filmlets’. I am thinking of ‘Crows’. It is about an art student who goes looking for and ends up inhabiting Vincent Van Gogh’s painting. 

There is an incredible moment when the student meets the maestro in a wheat field and Vincent, close to suicide-moment, dismisses him: ‘there is so much more to do and so little time’. He then leaves the perplexed artist and walks away and into the wheat field and into his own painting of that landscape. 

‘There is so much more to do and so little time’ reminds me of Keats’ close-to-death poem, ‘When I have fears’: 

‘When I have fears that I may cease to be 
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain, 
Before high-piled books, in charactery, 
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain...’ 

I am thinking of a man called Nilame Wanigasekera. I doubt if anyone reading this would have heard that name. He was known, though. Known and loved by close to a million people in this country. He was not a politician, nor a film star. He was no ‘public figure’ to the extent that he was never featured in a newspaper article. He was not considered ‘news’ or ‘newsworthy’. No, not in life and now, not in death. 

Nilame Maama died. Last night. I heard this morning. No, he wasn’t close, not at all. It’s been mostly smile plus a few words a couple of times a year or even less for the past 10 years. We never planned to meet for we didn’t know each other, belonged to different generations and didn’t have reason to strike up a conversation. He was quiet. Courteous. Effective in what he did. 

Nilame Maama was one of the pioneers of the process through which the thrift and credit cooperative movement in Sri Lanka, better known by its Sinhala acronym, ‘SANASA’, was revitalized under the leadership of P A Kiriwandeniya. The leaders of that move were not your typical ‘NGO kaarayas’ as such you will find ‘officed’ in and around Colombo 7 (yes, the addresses of big name INGOs and the headquarters of high-profile NGOs tells quite a story of elitism and top-down comfy-activism). They were the equivalent of the barefoot doctors in the vast terrain called microfinance, long before that became another buzz word that the World Bank appropriated and long before the world heard about the Grameen Bank. 

Nilame Maama almost single-handedly built a strong regional base for the SANASA Movement in the Kurunegala District. When the Movement spawned a Development Bank in 1998, he helped collect millions of rupees worth of deposits and shares from this district. He helped build an asset base for the Primary Societies in this region far exceeding those of branches of well known commercial banks. He was at one time the Chairman of the SANASA Federation and of the SANASA Development Bank too, if I am not mistaken. 

What is it that separates this unassuming, quiet, hard-working person from Kuliyapitiya from the thousands of other do-gooders running around, well, doing good? Nilame Maama, with total fidelity to the cooperative principles on which SANASA is built, always thought ‘collective’. 
He did not see ‘self’ much. A man who spent his life uplifting thousands of people, turning dreams into reality, giving hope and dignity, Nilama Maama took the blows that life inevitably sends the way of such people with equanimity, without complaint. He paid a heavy price for his selflessness. So too his family. 

He died last night of a heart attack. He built lives but was not able to finish building his own house. He helped rural people all over this country to do things that enabled them to give their children a decent education and secure remunerative forms of employment. His two children are still not out of school. 

He was blamed by his near and dear for neglecting self, ‘self-interest’ and immediate family. His self-interest, it seems now, was the collective interest and the national interest. He neglected family. He might have thought ‘so many things to do, so little time’. I don’t know. I just saw him from a distance. 

All I know is that when I was told that he had died and when I learned about his conditions of being, I remembered Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams’, I remembered ‘Crows’ and I remembered the words of Vincent Van Gogh. There are two thoughts, at first glance in opposition to one another, but I feel in the ultimate sense saying the same thing: ‘there is so much to do and so little time,’ and ‘there is nothing to do and so much time too’. 

There’s ripened grain in a granary somewhere. Somewhere, some child is not hungry. Somewhere, some girl is getting ready to go to University. Somewhere a family has a house, a roof over their heads. A lot of people will not know how it all happened. They will not remember Nilame Wanigasekera. He won’t know either. It will not matter. Not to them, not to him. Some people live their lives that way. That’s all. 

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