24 October 2020

Remember the coach(es)

[a tribute to Arjuna Parakrama]

I want to write a few words about Arjuna Parakrama. He was the chess coach of my school and at the time the strongest player in the country. I want to write about him just to say ‘remember your coach.’

So when I was thinking about it, I remembered Jagath Chamila, memorable for many reasons but most for a simple but telling demonstration of gratitude.

In the year 2013, a man called Jagath Chamila was adjudged ‘Best Actor’ at the New York City International Film Festival for his performance as Sam in ‘Sam-ge kathava’ (based on Elmo Jayawardena’s award-winning novel ‘Sam’s Story’).

Jagath Chamila spoke in Sinhala, mostly, as he accepted the award. He said, with pride in eyes and voice, ‘this belongs to my country, Sri Lanka.’ And Jagath Chamila said, ‘I thank my high school drama teacher, Tissa Gunawardena.’ When he returned to the island, award in hand, he was received by his teacher among others. The embrace made for an iconic photograph.

I pulled the above from an article I wrote for the now defunct ‘The Nation.’ Skimming through it, I came across something I had forgotten. Rather, something I had written down but had forgotten.

This is what I had written:

‘It reminded me of something Arjuna Parakrama told me in 1987.  He was at the time a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh.  He had just submitted his Masters thesis.  “I dedicated it to my teachers.  We convince ourselves that our achievements are obtained through our own hard work and nothing else.  We forget how much our teachers contribute.”’

Arjuna was only a few years older than us. I remember him being a very strict, no-nonsense coach. He had a sadistic streak, I thought back then, for he could and would often make one feel very small. Maybe that’s how he taught humility.

What did he teach us? Well, I learned the openings that he was fond of: the Pelikan, the Benoni and the English. Maybe he realized that these suited me best. Others learned different systems from him. He seemed hung up on chess endings. He introduced us to Capablanca’s ‘Chess Fundamentals’ and ‘Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings.’

He was an undergraduate then and didn’t turn up very often, but I remember him being more present than usual just before an inter-school tournament. Some chess. Some values. The chess faded and I like to think the values remained. We fought hard, won some, lost some, wept when we messed things up, rejoiced when we got things right, kept the celebrations low and hid the disappointments. We made friends with our opponents. And these things we taught those who came after us.

He made us love the game. He insisted we play fair. He made sure we took both victory and defeat in our stride. The team matters, we learned from him. We never won anything significant except the inter-school chess championship in 1983 and 1984. Nothing like Jagath Chamila’s award. No speeches required and none prepared for. We didn’t get to say thank you. Back then we didn’t have to. Gratitude wasn’t shouted out or even whispered.  

We did, however, express thanks.

In the year 1984, Arjuna left for the USA to pursue higher studies. In our innocence and stupidity we got a white t-shirt, signed all our names and wrote in bold letters, ‘Mister Royal College Chess Club.’ He obviously could not wear it. He giggled in the way that is part ridicule and part courtesy. He was pompous. He still is. If he reads this, he would brush it off with one of his trademark catty comments. No matter.  

Coaches matter. And so this is a tribute of sorts to the Arjuna Parakramas and Tissa Gunawardenas of this world. Thanks.

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