10 April 2013

The King of Raigam

There are landmark moments in the life of every human being.  Turning points, some might say, where the road less traveled was opted for or when charted path was abandoned.  Destiny, some might say.  Ordained by karma, perhaps.  People make choices though. They are moved by situations, sometimes by the action of another, a word that jumped out of a comment and other random things. 

It is not unusual, though, for a man to find inspiration and recognize ‘turning point’ in a dying person’s last words, especially if that person happened to be his father.  Almost thirty years ago, a man who was dying of cancer spoke to his son, Ravi.  Here’s the translation.

‘I had many hopes. I wanted to see you become an engineer.  You however chose to study in the Commerce stream. I didn’t object, even though I knew that you really didn’t choose those subjects because you were interested in that field.  Then you wanted to get into gemming. I didn’t object.  Remember one thing: you are a man who can accomplish anything if you put your heart to it.  Even a PhD.    I am happy that you got into the university.  If you do get a PhD, it would make me very happy.’

The old man was crying at this point. 
‘Look after the others, they too need to be successful.  Put a stop to your mischievous ways.’

The old man was a mathematics teacher.  He considered astrology a science involving mathematical calculation. He did not indulge in beseeching to ‘gods’ and other such practices. In fact when well-meaning relations had suggested the same he had chased them away from his bed.  He shared a secret with his son:
‘When I checked your horoscope, there was reason to be disappointed.  It indicated that you could very well end up being one of the most ruthless criminals in the country.  On the other hand, it also indicated that if you do things right, you could rise to the top in any field of your choice.  Don’t get stuck in a government office but do something for the people.’

Then he died.
It had rained hard that day, but the funeral was very well attended because the old man was a much loved teacher and a highly respected member of the community.  It was well attended, also, because the son was an accomplished truant, highly popular among the youth of Horana.  

After the funeral, as he was chatting with his friends, Ravi overheard a conversation between two elderly men.  One of them had said ‘Gunapala mahaththayage paula ivarai dan…ledeta saehenna viyadam kara, ithuru tika moda putha kai!’ [ ‘Gunapala Mahaththaya’s family is finished now; a lot was spent on his illness and the foolish son will waste whatever is left!’].
Ravi recognized the man, one Piyaratne, referred to as Piyaratne Maama:  ‘I once asked him for his bicycle to go see Vesak.  He said ‘thamuse oka gahakata heththu karala yai…kauru hari geniyanava…..ethakota gevanne kohomada?’ [You will leave it by a tree, someone will steal it; how would you repay the loss?].  The boy clearly had a reputation and one which warranted that seemingly caustic comment at the funeral.

‘I felt helpless. The full weight of responsibility had fallen on me. Relatives couldn’t help.  That comment helped.  I wanted to teach him a lesson. No, it was not about revenge.  It was a challenge.  In fact he never knew what that comment did to me.  He was correct in his reading and in his conclusions because it was based on how he saw me and how I was at the time. I would meet him years later, but I never told him this story.  That’s not important.’
Ravi Liyanage, by admission, was quite a naughty boy when he was young.  He hails from Horana, the heart of the historical Raigam Korale.  He was the second son in a family of 2 boys and 3 girls. The eldest had died young. He has an older sister and two younger sisters, twins.

His mother Subarath Menike was from Sabaragamuwa. He attended the pre-school in Kananwila, Yahalakele, about 3km from Horana, where she taught.  David Gunapala Liyanage was a mathematics teacher at Taxila Central College from where he retired as Vice Principal.  Ravi attended Sri Palee until Grade 5, when he passed the scholarship exam and entered his father’s school. 

Education was important, he remembers.  His paternal grandfather had been a mason who was skilled, very creative and wanted to educate his two sons.  Neither got into university but both studied up to the Matriculation and were good in their English.  Gunapala Liyanage, naturally, wanted his children to go further than he did. 

‘There was a photograph of C.W.W. Kannangara hanging on a wall in our house.  Thaththa put it up. It was a constant reminder to all of us about the importance of education.  He didn’t require us to worship that photograph but I did.’  That photograph now hangs in his plush office at ‘The Kingdom of Raigam’.   
Ravi had been good at Mathematics.  After his O/Ls, his father naturally wanted him to study in the maths stream. Ravi decided against it even though he secured Distinctions in both Mathematics and Science.  The reason was simple.  His father, who was the only non-graduate to teach Pure and Applied Mathematics was an excellent teacher but a very strict one too.  He didn’t want to be in his father’s class!

So he said ‘commerce’.  At that time no one really knew what to do with a commerce education.  His father had asked him why: ‘Why commerce?  You can’t become a doctor because you can’t cram, but you could become an engineer’

‘I said I wanted to become a businessman.  It just popped out of my mouth.  I really hadn’t thought about it.  He didn’t say “don’t”, but suggested that I take Pure Mathematics instead of Logic or Geography.  That wouldn’t have solved my problem because it would have still put me in his class! The truth is that no one in my family had ever done business. And yet he didn’t stop me.’
He was a naughty boy.  He got into trouble with his teachers.  He left school without doing his A/Ls.  He had become an embarrassment to his father, who opted to retire early.  Years later, he made a confession to Ravi.  He had seen his students who were also Ravi’s contemporaries obtain good results and proceed to Moratuwa University.  He confessed that he felt sad and jealous.  He had then told himself that it is wrong to feel jealous. 

‘He was a very religious person.  He organized meditation programs and was involved in the Bauddha Sangamaya of the school.  He was a simple man who turned farmer after he returned from school, entering the paddy field with just his loin cloth or amude. He was a philosophy, a strong advocate of “Buddhism devoid of deities”.  He was generous.  After the harvest he would distribute excess paddy among the landless in the village. So he had what it took to combat things like envy and to remind himself of his own thinking on education, that all children must be educated, not just his.’
Ravi, thanks to his truancy, gave up his studies, but only temporarily.  

‘I decided I would try my hand at gem mining. I went to my mother’s village in Ellawala and started working with my cousins.  My father didn’t stop me, but I later realized that he had been quite strategic.  He gave me 5000 rupees but had told my cousins to make sure I won’t make any profit from a single stone. 
‘I came back and sat for the A/Ls again, but from Sri Palee.  I came third in the Kalutara District.  I entered Jayawardenapura University in late 1983, along with a Mahapola Merit Scholarship. My father had by then been diagnosed with cancer. He passed away during the Orientation Program.’

The university system collapsed due to the second JVP insurrection.  During this time he worked in a multinational company as a Trainee Executive.  He eventually graduated with a Second Class (Lower Division).  He sat for and passed the Customs Exam, coming 3rd out of 7000 applicants (8th after the interview, he said).  I took it up because my mother wanted me to do a government job.
Ravi’s education did not stop with his degree.  He obtained an MBA from Colombo University, a Diploma in Marketing from SLIDA and also has certification from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. 

‘I wanted to be a gemologist.  So I got a Gemology Diploma (Moratuwa University).  I am also a Fellow of the Gemological Association, UK.  In 1990 I became a gem appraiser in the Customs.  At the time I wanted to someday head the Gem Unit.    Customs gave me a lot of freedom and that’s how I was able to continue my studies.  I even went to Belgium to study Diamond Grading and as a result had to drop out of an MSc in Management at Jayawardenapura.  I started my PhD in Business Administration in 2000, enrolling in a split program between Lacrosse University, Michigan and the University of Wisconsin with research in Australia.  This was because of what my father told me on his deathbed.’
So how did this truant gem appraiser end up as King of Raigam? 

It happened when his wife had been posted to the Matara Hospital in 1996-7.  There he met a batchmate, by then a Chartered Accountant working for Harischandra Mills.  He came into the story later however.  One day he had being having a chat with iis classmate at Taksila, Piyananada Kularatne, Chairman of MDK and a man from the same village, who often suggested that they start a business and Kishan Theadore (of Kobian Technilogies) who had met him ‘half way in the customs journey’ and was at that time Sales Manager, Jagath Robotics.  
The ‘business idea’ was once again brought up. Ravi had remembered his mother who would often get upset on Poya days because of the weevils in the TVP packets.   He suggested that they could go for better packaging.

That’s how ‘Raigam’ was born.  The name was natural given the location and of course the historical weight.  The friends had all invested.  The rest, as they say, ‘is history’.  From value addition, they moved to production itself.  They went for different textures and flavors, freeing ‘TVP’ from the veggie-bind and thereby expanding the market boundaries.  That diversification was taken to another level with ‘Raigam’ moving into other food products, cosmetics, household items and becoming a key stakeholder in the salt industry. 
Through it all, Dr. Ravi Fernando has remained a simple man from Horana who has not ventured too far from the cultural ethos and philosophical bent embodied by his father.   He remembers those last words of advice well.

‘There’s only so much wealth that I need.  My wife earns enough for both of us to live comfortably.  I believe that there’s a lot more we can do for our people. ‘
A nationalist of a pragmatic kind, he was instrumental in developing ‘the second rice’ or deveni batha, marketing rice noodles as a staple option.  Indeed, in all product development activities and new business ventures, this King of Raigam is constantly conscious of benefit to fellow citizen and nation.  They are as important as the basic assessment of marginal costs and marginal benefits of the rupees and cents kind. 

He is not religious in the way his father was: ‘This may be because he made us worship at a special shrine room he had built out of naa (Iron Wood) upstairs; but I abide by the dhamma, it is my faith and my ultimate protection although I am not a temple-going kind of Buddhist’.
A naughty boy from a small village close to Horana didn’t have it easy but he clearly had what it takes to become King.  His crown, however, doesn’t appear too heavy. 

To this day, the portrait of C.W.W. Kannangara in his office reminds him constantly of the value of education and moreover how much he owes free education.  To this day, before leaving his house, this truant son of a meditative teacher-farmer acknowledges with clasped hands all that his father gave him.
A man who caught a word at an auspicious moment, paused and took a path that was not in mind-map until then.  Today, what he did and does is a monument and a landmark not just for him, his family and his village, but the nation as a whole. 

[Published in THE NATION, April 7, 2013]


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the story that was written beautifully. I wish him all succsess to continue this journey with simplicity and clarity.


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Anonymous said...

Mr. Papadam!

Budgie said...

Your story I'm sure will help all naughty but intelligent children to do well in life. My best wishes to you to be more successful. May you be blessed with good health, happiness and long life.