Opinion

Obituary
Dr. Kandiah David Arulpragasam (1931 – 2003) (I)

Born on 16 September 1931, Kandiah David Arulpragasam lived out his confirmed bachelor’s life in the household of his only sibling and elder brother Arulanantham’s family. His brother had married their first cousin Padma. Her affectionate tender care of Arul (as he was fondly called) enabled him to live in peace and quiet. This doubtless contributed enormously to his prodigious output of work. Having lost an eye at the age of 13, his one-eyed vision came to be very sharply focused. On a given issue, he could also be singularly single-minded. He was clever and he was a good-looker. These attributes made him the formidable and respected public persona that he was.

Peaceful death

Understandably, he was obsessively concerned with the care of his good eye. Thirty years ago vision in that eye too had begun to fail. From early life Arul had patiently cultivated the habit of "toiling upward in the night" while his companions slept. So it was well past midnight of the 6th of August when he went to bed. At 7 am on the 7th of August, as on every morning during the past 30 years, his solicitous cousin Padma has gone to Arul’s bedroom to instil eye-drops into his eye. For once he hadn’t co-operated. She was absolutely shattered to discover that he had peacefully passed away.

Having exhausted our biblical life-spans, Arul and I have, from time to time, discussed the prospect of Death. Believing as he firmly did that a moral order prevails in the universe, he said that Death would have no sting for him. How he actually contrived, as he had planned, to quit earthly life (or "to enter glory" as a leaflet issued by his sorrowing neighbours put it) like a thief in the night, I do not know. He had many and varied talents including the talent of dying exactly as he wished to. All one could do with his kind of talents was to envy them.

Fruitful career

Majoring in Zoology, Arul graduated B.Sc. with honours from the University of Ceylon. He acquired a Ph.D. on marine zoology from the University of Wales, UK. His post-doctoral training in the University of Southampton was in oceanography. He was Professor of Zoology in the University of Colombo for 23 years. For two years he was Dean of its Faculty of Science. When the Eastern University of Sri Lanka was established, he was appointed its founding Vice-Chancellor and he guided its destinies for five years. Virtually every learned scientific society in the country elected him as its president. Thus he was president of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Biology.

Zoologist

Arul proved to be an effective and dedicated teacher of Zoology. He was trilingual with a vengeance and lectured in English, Tamil and Sinhala. For many years, he was Controlling Chief of the GCE (A/L) Examination in Zoology. In the last decades of his life, he focused on the subject of Biodiversity and spoke and wrote extensively on it. At one stage he was appointed Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority. I will treasure his book on Biodiversity, which he gifted to me, as a memento of our friendship.

Arul was very loyal to the University of Colombo and when the occasion demanded it, stuck his neck out on its behalf. Few academics have served the University of Colombo with such dedication for so long; and upheld the cause of state education in the country with such commitment. The University of Colombo, however, chose to ignore his contributions and neglected to reward him even with an Emeritus Professorship, for whatever that honour is worth.

Education Reforms

Although Arul and I were members of the staff of the University of Colombo for nearly three decades, it was in the University Grants Commission and the National Education Commission that we worked as colleagues. He was extensively and intensively involved in the Education Reforms initiated by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Occasionally he and I didn’t see eye to eye and we argued like mad. He tended to dismiss me as a mere medic involved in teaching a highly profitable trade; and innocent of the higher aims of education. With some justice he regarded himself as a proper scientist and an enlightened educationist. To me he seemed to be an out and out idealist who had no grasp of the political realities of this country. He was the originator of the idea of introducing an "Aptitude Test" as the decisive instrument for selecting university entrants. I was among those who strongly opposed this proposal on the ground that such a valid, reliable test is simply not available. The compromise was the introduction of the Common General Test (CGT) into our examination system. When the introduction of the Aptitude Test was proposed in 1999, the Opposition at that time rightly condemned it and promised to abolish "Tara’s Test" as it was dubbed by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe. In power, Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku for one, having examined the structure and intended purpose of the CGT carefully, seems to have concluded that at least it will do no harm. Arul was greatly relieved by that conclusion. He was passionately devoted to his brainchild. Once at a formal meeting called to review the Education Reforms, Arul told the President in my presence that I had been unconscionably remiss about reporting on the progress of the CGT. The President gave me a long, cold stare and I promptly apologized for the alleged lapse. That was quintessential Arul in action. He was absolutely open, straightforward and transparent. He would never stab anyone in the back.

CBK fan

Arul was unalterably convinced that I had the power to influence President CBK’s thinking decisively. So he used to inundate me with advice on the ethnic conflict to be conveyed to her. Quoting instances, I told him that President CBK doesn’t give a damn about what I tell her. He wouldn’t believe me and there was no let-up in the advice he inundated me with, to be conveyed to her. Finally I had to tell him that there is no reason why President CBK should accept my advice (or anybody else’s for that matter). I reminded him that she has been the only one up to date who has had the intelligence and strategic prescience to get elected to the highest office in the land, not once but twice. That is surely the political equivalent of a ‘Double First’ in academia. And the heroic courage and magnanimity with which she pursued ethnic peace despite a near-death experience at the hands of her murderous political enemies is the stuff of Nobel Peace Prize-winning politics. Therefore why on earth should she take seriously at all anybody else’s advice? That put paid to his entreaties. He never asked me thereafter to convey advice to the President of Sri Lanka. His motivation, I suppose, was that as one who believed in the basic soundness of President CBK’s political instincts, he felt he was obliged to do something to prevent the alienation of even moderate Tamils from her.

Resignations

Such was the man. He would bring his scientifically trained mind to bear on any given matter, and after due cogitation come up with a carefully phrased policy statement which he would defend to the last against all comers. He would abandon it only when it actually proved to be non-implementable. When he felt that a situation was unjust and intolerable, his knee-jerk reaction was to tender his resignation. On the 7th of August 2003, he quietly resigned from life itself. During the past few years, he was my constant sparring partner. I do miss him.
Carlo Fonseka


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