22 February 2023

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

It was not an atypical campus moment. There are times when factions clash, sometimes with words and unfortunately most times with fists and worse. This was not about firsts. Or words. It was something else.

It happened in 1986. For reasons we need not go into, some of the first year students of the Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya had earned the ire of some of their third year counterparts. Seniority came, sadly, with the power of judge, jury and executioner. All that was required was a half-way (in)decent excuse. It was duly provided.

So, one day, the third-year ‘seniors’ descended en masse on Dumbara Campus (which is where the first year students were at the time). It happened in the Dumara canteen. Six young men and a young woman were singled out for punishment. One of them was absent. The other five were screamed at, threatened and eventually forced to stand on a half-wall/ledge that cut the canteen into two-thirds and a third. The canteen, at that time, as full of first year students since it was lunch time.

They were asked to confess to their crimes. The young woman went first. She denied guilt and stepped down and into the crowd of batch-mates. Perhaps she got way because she was a woman, but her courage was exceptional.

The remaining five boys were screamed at. Threatened. One of them confessed. ‘On behalf of all of us,’ he said. One of the others retorted, ‘speak for yourself, not for me!’  The others were deaf to the screams and threats.

One senior, who had come along with his batch mates but was not really in line with their thinking and was, in fact, quite friendly with the accused party said softly, ‘just confess so we can get this over with.’ One of the accused responded, ‘I am not in a hurry.’  

So, as per tradition, those standing on the ledge were pelted with polythene bags full of waste water, which naturally broke and drenched them. And that was the end. They got down and joined their batch mates on the other side of the ledge. No one spoke for they were all in shock.

A minute later, one of their friends turned up and said ‘you fellows, go shower, I brought extra clothes for you.’

That took them all by surprise. He would have had to walk the one and a half miles to where they lived, twelve of them in a three-bedroom house with just six beds, collect the right clothes and walk all the way back. It would have taken at least an hour and yet here he was, just a few minutes after they got that distasteful water-water shower, with a bagful of clothes for his friends.  

No questions were asked. They didn’t have to ask. Rohana Kalyanaratne knew things, perhaps because he was a couple of years older than the others. He knew the script. He knew at what point the curtain would fall and after what dramatic moment. He knew what needed to be done. He did it. Always.  

He took care of his friends. At all times. When they were low on finances, he would borrow money from friends and relatives, buy food for everyone. When the lights went out for whatever reason, he would go to a neighbour's house, borrow a petromax lamp and some kerosine oil, light it and make sure his friends could study. He knew when someone was sad and he knew just the right words to say.

Rohana Kalyanaratne knew how to make people laugh. He knew how to make them cry.  On the 22nd of February, 1987, exactly 36 years ago, Rohana left us. It was a Sunday. Some of the boys, nine of them in all, had decided to bathe in the deceivingly ‘shallow’ waters below the Polgolla dam. There were others, lots of them, because a busload of school children had come on one of those educational trips. No one noticed he was missing. Rohana, who had an undetected heart condition, who couldn’t swim, drowned in just eight feet of water.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when his campus friends decided to collect money to help out in some way, someone, I believe it was Ramona Miranda, suggested that a donation was made to the hospital closest to his home in Thalgaspitiya, Galle.

Today, I remember the most lovable ‘Loku Aiya’ of my first year at the University of Peradeniya. May his journey through sansara be brief. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road