06 May 2023

Deveni: a one-word koan that’s priceless

When Ravindra Devenigoda brought out his first and probably only book of poems, 'Kamatahan Rupiyalai (One rupee per koan)' his friends, all in good humour, altered the wording on the poster announcing the launch: 'Kavatakam Rupiyalai (one rupee per cunning scheme).'

I first met Deveni in Peradeniya. Several years junior to me, I got to know him on account of political beliefs shared at that time. This was in the mid 1990s. He could write.  He was just another political associate but one with whom I hardly discussed politics. We talked mostly about literature and philosophy. Those conversations gave me insights into Deveni, his interests and passions mostly. He didn’t really talk about hopes and aspirations, further education and careers etc. He could draw. He could write. He could not but smile.

In ‘Kamatahan Rupiyalai,' Deveni revealed the sources of his thinking, beliefs and imagination. It was all deeply rooted in history, heritage and culture related to his country and in particular his native Ratnapura.

In a short introduction, Deveni wrote what was essentially an exchange between himself and the famed Balangoda Man of prehistory. Where do we come from, where are we and where are we going, then, were questions that he grappled with. That framed him. Indelibly.

It was years later that I got to know of an instance when Deveni effectively and exquisitely combined his poetic and advertising skills in the ultimate personal endeavour of winning over a girl.

They both worked at Grey’s Advertising, Deveni as a copywriter who doubled as an art director, Ivanthi, his wife to be, an illustrator. One day, Ivanthi, who simple hated the fact that Deveni smoked, had picked up a packet lying on his desk as she passed it and crushed it in her hand. Deveni had smiled. He had then torn out a piece of the packet, scribbled something on it.

නුඹ කිවියකි
සියලු පදරුත්
නිසි ලෙස

[You are a poem where all meaning is perfectly aligned]. He secured that account. They were married not too long afterwards.  

There are many ‘Deveni stories,’ and I must thank a friend and former colleague who wrote a short note titled ‘Maha Kalu Sinhalaya’ as one piece in a series of articles on individuals and ways in the advertising industry.

The title was drawn from the curriculum vitae Deveni had submitted at an interview for a copywriter at Grants Advertising. I had something to do with arranging the opportunity. Deveni showed me this CV.  He had described himself and his skills using a several forms of Sinhala, from the highly to the street-colloquial. And yes, he was dark. ‘Kalu’ wasn’t out of place.

He got the job. He quit without giving notice. It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last. This naturally exasperated his superiors; they loved him, admired him, needed him and yet were livid that he left without saying why. He never bothered to collect the wages owed him. Not in any of these instances.

There were times when he worked alone, i.e. he was a one-person agency. On one occasion, someone known to him and who treated him like a younger brother, told him about an opportunity to design a campaign for a bank. She was at the time handling the bank’s marketing operations.

‘You have to understand, Malli, that there will be other agencies also pitching for this account, big, established players in the industry.’

Akke, mama namata vitharai deveni,’ he had responded with a smile, referring to the fact that the word ‘deveni’ meant ‘second.’ Deveni only in name, he insisted. That was confidence. Self belief.He prevailed over the big boys and girls in the advertising industry. He did not last. He quit. Without warning. He left many unanswered questions.  

Deveni never understood money. He owed much to many. Money and explanation. He was humble and remorseful even though he was pathologically private about his doings.

One night, in the middle of overseeing the entire parliamentary election campaign of a major political party, he had requested Ivanthi for a cup of coffee.

‘It was after a very long time that we had spoken calmly to each other. Then he said “sorry,” and collapsed.’

‘Even today, I am struggling to understand his “sorry,” Ivanthi said at his funeral. And there, in a small village in Ratnapura, witnessing the grief of hundreds of people and overhearing random conversations I learned that indebted though he may have been, he had helped dozens of people and not all of them friends or family. All it took was for him to learn that someone needed money for something, maybe a critical and expensive surgery for example. He gave. They weren’t loans. They were gifts. Given with a smile and pledges to repay dismissed with a wave of his hand and the very same smile.

Ivanthi and their two children struggle to this day. He may have known the future that he had in the end created for them; hence his ‘sorry,’ the last word this beautiful man of many words ever spoke. A priceless koan.

['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:

 Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

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



Anonymous said...

පාසල් කාලෙ ඉදන් මම ගුරුහරුකම් ගත්ත මනුස්සයෙක් එයාව මෙහෙම මතක් කළ එක ගොඩක් වටිනව මාලින්ද අයියෙ. දෙවෙනිගෙ ජීවිතේම මාර වෙනස් පැවැත්මක්. ඔයාගෙ ලිපිය වගේ. ගොඩක් ස්තුතියි මාලින්ද අයියෙ