A daughter’s memory of her father

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Professor Sucharita Gamlath Professor Sucharita Gamlath

An appreciation on Professor Sucharita Gamlath

My father, late Professor Sucharita Gamlath was one of the most prolific scholars of his time. During his lifetime, he continuously demonstrated his acumen in a range of fields, fulfilling the roles of author, teacher, literary critic, linguist, and political activist contemporaneously. He certainly needs no introduction among the general public of Sri Lanka. Since his demise on March 30 (2013), there have been many eloquent accounts of his contributions to the fields of Sinhala language and literature, literary criticism and political views. However, on the eve of his second death anniversary, I thought it would be apt to supply an insider’s account of his life.

An obvious question that may emerge is why I did not write such a memoir as soon as he passed away or, at least, why I did not write one last year, in conjunction with his first death anniversary. In fact, several friends and family members did urge me to write an appreciation about him earlier. However, during a couple of previous attempts, I had tremendous difficulty dealing with the myriad of emotions that crossed my mind.

Work ethic
It is worth pondering over what motivated my father to work so hard. I feel now that it was pure passion, the urge to keep utilizing his brilliance for as long as he could. The expected monetary payoff associated with his work was not a critical source of motivation for him. It makes me feel that scholars produce their greatest works when they engage in their activities with the sole intention of producing an outcome which challenges them, rather than treating a scholarly work like a pail of milk which can be sold and many things bought with the money.

The selfless gratification he got from engaging in his work was probably the magic formula for my father’s literacy success.

My father derived the greatest happiness from writing tirelessly. Usually, he organized his working day into three parts; he would generally get some writing -and perhaps reading- done before breakfast. After that he would sit at his writing table till lunch. Afterwards he had a long nap, and after evening tea, he would go back to his writing and only stop at about 9.30pm.

The energy he displayed was truly extraordinary. He would sit at his table for hours on end, writing in his calligraphic hand. He had the rare ability to form a crystal clear sentence in his head and pen it down in impeccable language promptly.
Within our household, my father was able to engage in his work undisturbed because he did not have to worry about mundane duties.

Political ideology
All his life, my father was a faithful ally of the hardworking proletariats of Sri Lanka. As he was born in a remote village beneath Adam’s Peak, he was well aware of the hardships of villagers. It was without doubt these humble beginnings that created in him a sensitivity to develop a lasting bond with the working class and be an active supporter of their struggle for emancipation from the bonds of capitalism.

While I did not always connect with my father’s stalwart Marxist ideas, I nevertheless respected his political views. Having seen with his own eyes the atrocities committed against the Tamils of the North during his tenure as the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Jaffna, he steadfastly opposed the marginalization faced by ethnic minorities by the JR Jayawardene regime. In simple terms, his view was that being a Sinhalese Buddhist did not give an individual the right to superiority.
His opinions regarding the ethnic question were often misinterpreted and resented by chauvinists hiding behind the veil of mock patriotism. He believed that every Sri Lankan, regardless of his origins should have the right to live in our country free of fear and repression. He, like a true people-centred intellectual, lost faith in the political system completely. In his view, the ideal solution to this state of affairs was the establishing of an egalitarian socialist state within which all Sri Lankans could live in dignity.
He also believed that language could act as a powerful driver of ethnic harmony. To this end, he proposed that all Sri Lankans should acquire a good command of English, regardless of whether their mother tongue was Sinhala or Tamil.
Had he been alive, he would have been overjoyed by how our Muslim and Tamil brethren used their suffrage boldly to overthrow a tyrannical regime at the presidential election in January.

Was unemployment a source of disillusionment or an opportunity to achieve the pinnacle of literacy success?

When a person wages war against the extant political system with his pen, the fine line between bravery and recklessness could sometimes get blurred. In my father’s case, as a consequence of expressing his candid views on the actions of the UNP regime of the 1980s, he had to suffer 14 long years of unemployment. Drawing a parallel with the Ramayana, I like to refer to these 14 years as the period he spent in ‘exile.’ Alas, my father was no immortal. Thus, like any other ordinary man, this unlawful act of vengeance may have left him feeling embittered, resentful, and emotionally shattered. After my father’s death, in the appreciation written to the Ravaya by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was then the Leader of the Opposition, Wickremesinghe stated that on several occasions, he had publicly and in person apologized to my father for the injustice he faced at the hands of the UNP regime of yesteryear.

Despite the obvious emotional distress he is sure to have felt, in front of his family, as well as the rest of the world, he maintained a fierce air of defiance, and valiantly tried to look for that tiny silver lining in the dark cloud. When a despotic regime forces an intellectual into unemployment, their underlying expectation is that economic deprivation would force him to quit his literary endeavors. Yet, nothing could shake his iron resolve to convert this turn of events into a blessing in disguise. Undeterred by financial hardships, he completed his best literary works.

He was reinstated in his job when former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga assumed office in 1994.  However, he was deeply disgruntled with the changes that had occurred within the university system in his absence. I must also mention that my father never received any compensation for being unlawfully ousted from his job.

His general reluctance to seek justice resulted in my father being played out by swindlers on numerous occasions. For some greedy sharks, my father was nothing but a gold mine. They cheated him in numerous innovative ways over time. They lied to him about the number of books authored by him that were printed, they did not pay him the royalties that he was entitled to, and they made illegal copies of his books and sold them clandestinely.

My father played a pivotal role in developing the literary, cultural and political sensitivity of the general public in Sri Lanka. Enchanted by his unique writing style, people flocked to buy the newspapers to which he contributed as a columnist. He was able to reach the hearts of people from all walks of life with his words. The accolades the public poured upon him meant so much for him, and the positive feedback he received gave him the vigour to continue his work until he was defeated by cancer.
I believe teaching was an inborn talent he was endowed with. An elderly lady once said that when she was an undergraduate at the University of Peradeniya, even though she did not study the subject my father taught, she and her friends sat through all his lectures, hanging onto every word he said. Even though he is not among us anymore, his words will always reside within the pages of his literary works.

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