05 June 2017

Those bloody Gunasekaras!

A couple of weeks ago, Sampath Agalawatte, who was sharing a room with me at the Mahaweli Reach Hotel, told me of someone he wanted me to meet: ‘’your mother’s friend”.  That night, after Royal had beaten Trinity and secured the League Championship, I was introduced to a man with white hair and a white beard.  

“He knows your mother.”

I couldn’t recognize him.  Agale continued, “He was a visiting student from India.”

After a few minutes I realized that they were both conning and said so.  A few more words and I said “The tone, eyes and smile….you must be a Gunasekara!”

“Suraj, machang,” the ‘stranger’ said.  We talked.  And I remembered all the Gunasekaras of my time at Royal College.  I remembered an incident which I had not witnessed but was described vividly by a friend.  

The light was fading. The First XV of Royal College were going through a regular drill.  Giving them opposition was a ragtag bunch of second string players which included some junior players to make up the numbers.  On the sideline one of the coaches was keeping an eye while chatting with some friends, all Old Royalists.  Royal had a strong team that season and would go on to win the Bradby Shield.  The forwards were tough and the line was fast.  

It was a regulation move - slick hooking, quick feeding of the ball to the Fly-Half and then to the line.  Now we must keep in mind that in school rugby there’s a pretty wide chasm in terms of quality between the First XV and the rest of the squad.  Typically, in practices, the forwards would bulldoze their way and the line would penetrate the defence easily.  Not on that occasion though.  One of the centres sold a dummy to his counterpart and sliced through.  But he was brought down by a wing three-quarter who appeared to have come from nowhere.  

That happens sometimes of course.  Here’s the difference.  The boy who tackled the coloursman (and tackled him hard, let us note) was one of the several who ‘made up the numbers’ that evening.  He was not in the Second XV.  He wasn’t even an Under 17 player.  He was just 14.

The coach saw it all.  He didn’t know the junior players.  He is reported to have muttered, ‘must be another one of those bloody Gunasekaras.’

Which bloody Gunasekaras, though?  Gunasekara is a common name after all.  Well, in the late seventies and eighties among all the Gunasekaras, Gunasekeres, Gunasekeras, Goonesekaras, Goonesekeras etc. of the varied spelling there was one lot that was noticed for skill, spirit, incorrigibility and also for a strain of decency that seemed to be a pronounced element of their DNA.  

The first Gunasekara I met was Suranjith.  He played George Bamberger in Royal’s production of Peter Shaffer’s ‘Black Comedy’ in 1973.  My mother was in charge of the school’s dramatic society, Dramsoc, and she would often take myself, my brother and sister for rehearsals at the ‘Little Theater’.  It was a supporting role that Suranjith played.  I only remember that he blustered in and out.  The only line I remember is the following aside by Brindsley Miller (played by Mahen Perera) “I hope Carol’s monster father likes my culture and buys some!” (Carol was his fiance).  I didn’t know that he was a Gunasekara.  And the name meant nothing to me.

In the years that followed, that name came up many times, primarily through the Royal College souvenir put out for the Big Match, again an exercise my mother of many interests and responsibilities was involved in.  They came up in the stats section or rather the relationship-segment of that part of the souvenir.  They came under ‘Fathers and sons who played for Royal’ and ‘Brothers who played for Royal’.  I noticed that there were several generations of Gunasekaras who had played in the Royal-Thomian, several captains and many remarkable performances with bat and ball.  

Suranjith didn’t play cricket.  Neither did his six brothers.  There were only one Gunasekara who played cricket during the time I was at Royal, Lionel (in the mid seventies).  I ought to have been intrigued by the fact that there were no Gunasekaras playing cricket in the eighties but wasn’t because of a chance remark that I had overheard.  I can’t remember when or where it happened, but again it was my mother who said it.  

She was repeating, I believe, something that Suranjith’s brother Rabindranath (‘Raba’) had told her.  Apparently Raba had taken up rugby simply because there were too many cricketing pundits in the family.  He felt that he would be overloaded with advice from so many people that it would have been counter-productive.  Made sense. His father Valentine captained Royal, as did father’s cousin, Channa.  In fact all of Valentine’s brothers played for Royal: DB, Lionel, Harry, Christie and.  ‘HT’ coached the junior cricketers at Royal and ‘EC’ (‘Kataya’) acted as though he was convinced he could coach anyone in any sport.  Add to this illustrious bunch all the descendants of their grandfather, D.B. Gunasekara (snr) and that’s a pretty formidable and intimidating set of advisors to contend with.  Rugby must have appeared attractive to Raba. 

Anyway, Raba played rugger.  He captained Royal in 1979 and under his leadership Royal retained the Bradby Shield that Rohantha Peiris’ boys had secured the year before.  I am not privy to the conversations that may have taken place in the Gunasekara household about sports options, but the younger boys all followed Raba.  They were all fit, lean and fast.  Some were more fearless than the others, maybe because they were more inclined to rebel or to be naughty.  

They were all impish and always ready to laugh, sometimes at themselves.

Mohammed Haseeb (one of the best actors that the school produced) once told me how he and Raba became best of buddies.  They were among dozens lined up before Raba’s uncle, Kataya, the Vice Principal.  It was the annual interview of potential prefects.  The phone had rung and Kataya had reached behind his chair, picked up a bottle of Dettol and said ‘hello’.  The boys before him had been amused but their fear of the man bested their amusement. Only two had broken into guffaws, Raba and Haseeb. Kataya had answered the phone and curtly pointed to the two and said ‘get out’.  They had gone out, convinced that they had said goodbye to prefectship.  They were the only two who were appointed sans an interview!   

Suraj (known to the family as ‘Devo,’ short for Devendranath — yes, they were either ‘Naths’ or ‘Jiths’), who was next in line, was mild.  He was fast and was a winger.  Ajith, my batchmate, was the naughtiest of the lot and I know that his skipper of 1984, Sampath Agalawatte, and coach, Malik Samarawickrema had a hard time keeping him in line.  But he was an excellent centre.  

In later years Ajith would sober up and prove how good he was with his hands.  He’s a man of few words now, but in him is a poet who will probably remain unknown to the world.  

Suren (Surendranath) was like Suraj, soft in his ways, but fast.  Another winger.  Injo was a less incorrigible version of Ajith.  Amrith, the youngest, was in the rowing team I believe but must have played a bit of rugger in the junior teams.  He is not a ‘Jith’ nor a ‘Nath’ and therefore the exception to their parents’ fixations when naming their children.  The last two completed their secondary school education in the USA where by that time their father Valentine, one of the best architects the country has produced, was teaching.  

Ajith, as I said, was my batchmate, but I really got to know him only after he left school and was studying for his A/Ls.  He was at the time staying with his coach Malik.  My mother asked me to help him with his English Literature.  Ajith was not known for his academic work, but I quickly found that he could do well if he put his mind to it. 

Suren used to come home often.  My mother, who had retired by then, taught him English Literature and I believe Greek and Roman Civilization.  Whenever she couldn’t make it to class, my sister taught him GRC.  I would meet him in Boston not too long afterwards where he visited a friend who happened to be my roommate.   Always with a smile, that’s what I remember.  I last saw him more than 10 years ago.  That was again around the time of the Bradby.  Raba had come for the match and quite unexpectedly took ill and passed away.  Suren was accompanying his mother, Ranee, a lovely and indefatigable lady who, along with Uncle Valentine very kindly took care of me for two months before classes began in the school I had enrolled in (my parents had ‘packed me off’ fearing that I might become a victim of the bheeshanaya that was sweeping across the length and breadth of the country; this was in December 1988).  

I have only one recollection associated with Suranjith after his Bamberger days.  I still remember Uncle Valentine throwing a fit listening to a message his eldest son had left on the answering machine. “Hi Valentine and Ranee….” was how it began.  Uncle Valentine was and I believe still is a God-fearing Catholic (he would go to church everyday with Aunty Ranee, sometimes taking me along as well — “not to convert you,” he always assured).  He was strong in his faith and had strong opinions too, on almost every subject.  He was assured.  He was kind.  Aunty Ranee too.  

Injo and Amrith were so much younger that I never got to hang out with them.  The only girl in the family, Nashtaka, was the quintessential Akka, taking care of the kid brothers, sometimes taking 2 or 3 of them to school on her push bicycle.  

I asked Suraj about all of them.  That’s how I heard that Suranjith had died of a heart-attack a few years ago.  The entire family is living in various parts of the USA.  Wherever they are, there must be laughter.  The Gunasekaras of my generation didn’t come off as philosophers when in school, but they were all philosophical.  They knew when to be serious and when to be light.  Obviously they must have all slowed down over the years and made their mark in their respective fields.  

What counts for me and for many in my generation, is this: if there was one family that added a little something to whatever is essentially ‘Royal,’ it has to be the Gunasekaras.  The Rugger-Gunasekaras, as far as our time is concerned.  


Unknown said...

Thank you for this thoughtful posting. I played rugby with Raba starting in 1980 at the University of California at Davis where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Some of my fondest memories are of time spent both on and off the field with Raba. He played scrumhalf on our "A" side (first XV) with a flair seldom seen in the States. Off the field he set the standards for a great time. We were great friends and I miss him. I sometimes fly a Sri Lankan flag at UCD rugby games in his honor.

Malinda Words said...

People never leave us, unless we leave them, isn't this true?

Unknown said...