31 January 2018

Dr Panduka Karunanayake: celebrator of the collective

Prof Carlo Fonseka and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things.  I respect him a lot, however. Prof Fonseka, for his part, has said on more than one occasion, in his caustic way, that he reads my articles for style rather than content.  

A few weeks ago, we happened to be sitting next to each other.  It was at the induction ceremony of the new President of the Ceylon College of Physicians, Dr Panduka Karunanayake.  It was a gathering of the tribe but a few of us who knew next to nothing about medicine were privileged invitees on account of being Panduka’s school friends.  I felt I had to explain my presence to Carlo.

‘Panduka and I were in the same class. He is an amazing person and a man of absolute integrity,’ I said.  

‘I taught him. He was an excellent student,’ Carlo responded.  

Panduka delivered a wonderful ‘acceptance speech’ in which he spoke about the history of the College and also the moral, academic and and professional challenges of the times.  It was not the first time I had heard him talk about such things.  The sentiments were quite apparent when we were senior students at Royal and more recently when I succeeded in persuading him to write on the ethics involved in clinical research for the now defunct ‘The Nation’.   

We were in the same from Grade 2 to Grade 4.  We weren’t ‘best friends’ then.  In fact that is a term that I’ve never really understood.  We were friends and knew of each other’s existence.  Towards the latter part of our schooldays I knew him as an excellent athlete and a very good student and later still, as prefects, I came to appreciate him for his principles and values.  I admired him and still consider him to be one of the best writers in our batch (along with Kanishka Goonewardena and Rajiv Weerasundera) and one of the best human beings as well. 

In the lower grades I remember Panduka as one of the two best artists in our class. The other was a boy named Jagath Bandara Wijekoon. I have no idea what happened to him and neither does Panduka, except that he lived down Pagoda Road back then.  All I remember is that Jagath was dark whereas Panduka was fair.  Jagath used hard lines in his art.  Panduka’s lines were soft.  Jagath’s drawings were stark, Panduka’s were detailed.  He captured ‘movement’ whereas Jagath was more about depicting the still.  I still remember an art assignment where we had to draw a ‘pola’ or fair.  I don’t know what Jagath drew and I can’t remember what I came up with, but Panduka’s submission felt ‘alive’.  

Panduka (extreme right), yet to receive the baton from Sanjiv Gunasekara. 
He would help Royal win this 4x100 relay at what he believes was the 
Colombo South Zonal meet, probably in 1981.

I haven’t seen Panduka run.  All I know is that he won College and Public School colours and that he declined the opportunity to captain the Royal College Athletics team as did others such as Ramli Mohammed and Roshan Askey, with the late Suraj De Silva having the captaincy conferred upon him by default.  All this I learned much later and I assumed it has something to do with a need to focus on his studies.  

Our paths crossed though.  We were both prefects and had occasion to talk and discuss things in the prefects’ room.  I remember two conversations although I can’t recall which came first; the order, anyway, is of no consequence.

He mentioned that he had gone to see the film ‘Reds.’  I didn’t know what it was all about, but I assumed it was some anti-socialist affair.  I said so.  I remember Panduka’s response which, translated into English, went something like this: ‘This is the problem.  Socialists like you haven’t seen it, but capitalists like me have.’  He laughed and went on to talk about the great performance by Warren Beatty as Jack Reed in a narrative drawn from Reed’s classic account of the Russian Revolution, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World.’

I don’t know if Panduka still thinks of himself as a capitalism or a right-winger.  This doctor decided to study sociology though and profit certainly doesn’t seem to figure prominently in his life.  He knows films, though.  He also reads.  He appreciates music and song.  This I found out later. 

The only ‘literary’ encounter I had with him was way back in 1984.  The Prefects’ Room had a blackboard which was rarely used.  I had written down a quote by the German writer and statesman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (who I knew only as ‘Goethe’ back then).  This was the line: ‘The act is all, the reputation nothing.’

Panduka, seeing this, made a grammar point: ‘If you use “all” then it should be “none”; or else you should use “everything,” which would make “nothing” appropriate.’

At the time he probably did not know that there was a thing called ‘poetic license’ and that sometimes it sounds better when grammar rules are tweaked or even broken.  At the time I didn’t know either.  Neither had I read how ‘bad’ Shakespeare’s English was and how those ‘errors’ and other literary twists became part of the language.  I didn’t have a response so we left it at that.  I gathered, though, that consistency mattered to Panduka.

He was in the science stream, I was in Mathematics but had decided to switch to Arts.  On one occasion, in the midst of a discussion with the Vice Principle, E.C. ‘Kataya’ Gunasekara, Panduka offered, ‘nothing is impossible, sir.’  I still remember Kataya responding in general to the issue at hand and adding the following comment at the end: ‘try putting back toothpaste into the tube…to respond to what you said about impossibility.’

As prefects we had greater margins for errors in Kataya’s presence, but we were nevertheless wary. We were also respectful.  I don’t what was going through Panduka’s mind, but he didn’t respond.  I am pretty sure he could have come up with an answer.  

Several decades later, Panduka got me to serve for a while in the Ethics Committee at the Medical Faculty, Colombo University.  I told him that I know nothing of medicine.  He insisted, explaining that sometimes the social element in research is neglected or missed altogether and therefore some input would be useful.  I attended a few meetings but circumstances didn’t permit me to continue.  Panduka didn’t express disappointment.  

I also remember him calling me just after the results of the 2015 Presidential Election was announced.  I didn’t ask him what prompted him to call and ask me ‘are you ok?’ but I think I know why.  That’s not relevant here.  I do remember what he did say.  I am paraphrasing.

‘It is only now that the true value of the things you’ve written several years ago is apparent.  Had they listened, things would have been different.’

I was humbled that Panduka had actually read things I had written, busy man that he is.  

Our last conversation took place in the form of an email exchange.  I had told him, after attending his induction, that I wanted the text of his speech.  He truncated it into 1,500 words.  The Daily News published it (I failed to get the Sunday Island to carry it).  I also said that I wanted to write about him and asked him to send me pictures from his school days.  He obliged with the pictures but politely urged me not to write anything in newspapers.  ‘Blog is fine,’ he said ‘for like-minded people who would read and appreciate.’  He expressed the fear that a newspaper article about him would make him 'drop dead with embarrassment.’

His explanation tells more about Panduka than I can ever describe.    

“I am uncomfortable with the idea of a newspaper article that features me directly. You know me - I hate the limelight. The article that you wrote about me, Rajiv and Kanishka was nice and sweet, and everybody I know liked it. I liked it too. In it I was featured at a tangent and peripheral to the point you were making (writers in other professions). That was great.

“What I can do, and what I would like you to do, is to feature the work that the Ceylon College of Physicians does. Obviously, I have only just started my year, so let's write something when we have something to show - I will contact you, or even write something and send you.

“In the meantime, I have updated the CCP website (ccp.lk). The important point is that the CCP and other medical professional colleges like it (probably around 40-50) are entirely voluntary organizations run by doctors, with funding they get through their professional influence, but use it for this instead of private foreign trips, new tyres for the car, etc. Certainly, these help people like me to boost our ego and become famous and 'noble', but at least it is not through tamashas, TV shows and publishing coffee table books on oneself etc.

“These efforts are what keeps medicine in SL up to date in both state and private sectors, and trains our future specialists. It's not an easy task; it should be done (or at least funded) by the state but is not done by it, it is not required in our job description and in fact doing this work delays our individual career progression and promotion.

“In a country where politicos and trade unions are all-powerful, we (although experts in the fields) are sidelined with cynicism and used as cats' paws. It is easy to 'make it' by knowing the minister or TU bigwig, and impossible to do so by doing the right thing by society. Yet we do just that. The media can do a lot to let people know about this - but instead they bash us for what TUs do.

“I hope you can find in this a thread that you would like to take up. But that should be a thread that celebrates collectivism, not individualism. Groups, not persons. Or at least, not me as a person.”

Panduka Karunanayake was and is about everyone.  That’s it.

A new challenge, another baton, another lap to run...



ramli said...

Thanks for a lovely article about a very genuine, down to earth, self effacing human being. Dr Panduka is a credit to many institutions, Royal among them, it was and is a privilege to be his friend