M. Chandrasoma – Lived a dignified life
by Nan

Tissa Chandrasoma, as we knew him, lived a very dignified life and died a quietly dignified death a week ago. He was a dignified man but if you think dignity connotes remoteness with nose in air and detachment from the everydayness of life and living, then the word dignity does not describe him. Here the word dignity is used in the true simple sense of the word without imposed connotations of the likes of what I have mentioned. As the dictionary I dipped into defines the word dignity, Mr. Chandrasoma was endowed with and maintained the state of being dignified; elevation of mind and character; grandeur of man, elevation in rank, place etc; degree of excellence, Preferment, high office.

To all these should be added humaneness and that twinkle in the eye, chuckle and keen wit which were very evident characteristics. He was, in retirement, when I knew him, an excellent teller of tales, especially of his years in service as one of the most respected Civil Servants, the carefully chosen few who worked alongside, and then succeeded the British officers who governed this colony, Ceylon.

In death too he was dignified in a quiet simple way, declaring in a written statement, as Vijita Fernando, his sister, told me, that no artificial aids to prolong life be used. He did not want ventilators and all that and mercifully the doctors attending on him at the end respected his wishes. He decreed that his funeral too be immediate and very simple.

M. Chandrasoma I got to know

He lived across the road off which I live and it was Gerty, his wife, whose acquaintance I first made. She would say a bright hello when she saw me walking past their house and would acknowledge me when we were both at Vajiraramaya temple. More often than not, she would offer me a lift home, the car being driven by her eldest son, Gamini. Subsequently, with her perched on the half wall on the verandah of their home, I would say my good evening to Mr. Chandrasoma who was pacing back and forth in the porch area with frequent stops at the gate. Encouraged to say my hellos and more, I advanced to the greeting "Hi Handsome!" causing giggles from both Gerty and me. I would also often pass him on his daily walks, which he continued up until an year or two ago when age—weariness took hold of him and confined him to the upstairs of his home.

With Gerty’s death and the loneliness he felt I made bold to chat to him, hoping my encouraging him to talk of Gerty would alleviate in even small measure, the gloom of mourning he was immersed in. The chats near his gate were frequent since I necessarily had to pass their home on my visits to the doctor or when going for my evening exercise sessions.

It was during these blessed-to-me chats that I heard interesting, often hilarious stories of what had happened to him and how he had reacted to certain VVIPs. Here was a man who had had the courage and yes, dignity, to stand up to the highest in the land, the Prime Minister then, and tell him/her politely yet firmly where they got off. Many were the times he had told a PM that he could not do as directed since it went against his work ethic and was an unwise move. If they insisted he do as bid he would resign his post. Most often they changed their tack to sail as he advised.

He would tell me about his trips abroad. He was caught in the coup in Burma when Prime Minister Aung Sung was assassinated and nearly ended in jail when the group of Sri Lankans he was with entered a cordoned off area. They had wined and dined and were returning to their hotel when the driver of their vehicle took a wrong turn. Rising to the occasion, our hero managed to convince the trigger-happy guards they were mere stragglers.

M. Chandrasoma, the Civil Servant

The name M. Chandrasoma, with the appellation of Cadet was first mentioned by my brother who was a first batch Divisional Revenue Officer. I was a mere child then but I remember with what respect my brother mentioned his immediate boss. Later, my brother-in-law who was seconded for service in the Customs Department under Mr. Chandrasoma as Principal Collector of Customs spoke glowingly of his honesty, work ethics, fearlessness and dignity.

His man servant of many years, Bennet, described his master when in government and private service as a disciplinarian. One could well imagine this by the way Tissa Chandrasoma held himself — ramrod straight and radiating the impression he would brook no nonsense. Later of course he mellowed, but one could discern the absolutely honest, intrepid, decision-making public servant he would have been. So different from most present day government officials, one cannot help but comment. With the demise of Mr. Chandrasoma, that calibre of high office holder is ended, and Sri Lanka is all the poorer.

M. Chandrasoma, the man

His first novel, Out Out Brief Candle, pointedly claimed to be purely fictional, opens thus: "I was born at night during a thunderstorm. Whether to be born while a thunderstorm raged boded good or ill became a burning question asked everywhere in our village." We really don’t know whether he was retelling a tale told him about his birth. Being the eldest of twelve children, seven girls and five boys, his five remaining sisters could not vouch for the thunderstorm birth. True however it is that he was born in the village of Arachikande near Hikkaduwa, and true again that he was inordinately proud of his rural beginnings.

His life is best described by quoting the dust jacket short biographical sketch in his novel Out Out Brief Candle. We presume the author wrote it himself. It captures the nuances that coloured his conversations, the subtle wit that elevated what he said from its apparent simplicity. Quoting him also relieves me and the reader the tedium of a list of positions held and kudos won. He would be the last to approve of such a recital. He may just permit this appreciation; a eulogy being highly disapproved of. A string of dry bones statistics and dates are avoided. The blurb reflects the humane man who was M. Chandrasoma, writing with tongue in cheek and the ability to say something differently and catchily. His biodata is given thus on the fold of the back cover:

"This is Chandrasoma’s first novel written at sixty seven years of age, possibly making him the oldest man in the world to write a first novel.

"Chandrasoma spent the first twenty four years of his life flitting from school to school trying to get himself educated. The next twenty in the Ceylon Civil Service flitting from job to job at the whim of the government. Tired of being pushed around, he resigned. Then he started pushing himself around in earnest; from jobs in international oil, to port operation, to commerce and shipping. Now he is again working for the government trying too late to gather some moss.

Chandrasoma is married, has three sons and, with power to add to the number, seven grandchildren of whom the youngest, Nishka Genelle, is his only grand daughter."

That is his summing up of an illustrious career and his having held positions which before him were reserved for foreign top level officials. He told me he never gathered the moss he realised he should have; even his rightful pension denied him. Fortunately Gerty had reserves of moss which came into use when his earnings diminished.

M. Chandrasoma, the writer

As quoted above, he started his writing late in life, but made up for it by some very worthwhile publications. His books are extremely readable and thus fully engages the interest of the reader. This is not an easy feat: it is the overt manifestation of inborn talent — insight, sensibility and cleverness with use of words.

I have mentioned and quoted from Out Out Brief Candle. No publication date is given in the edition I have, but subtracting from his age at death — 91, the book should have been out around 1980. It is a nostalgic going back to roots and detailing village life, its customs and traditions. His next publication was Five to Eight dealing with his public life and career; anecdoting in his inimitable style.

M. Chandrasoma the author is best known for his somewhat controversial book on Buddhism, his concept of the philosophy as propounded by the Buddha. Titled Siddhartha Gotama of the Sakya Clan: a letter to a grandson, it is a coffee table edition to be proud to possess. Printed by Ranco Printers and Publishers Colombo it was published in 1996. The author dedicates it to his kalyana mithra Varindra Tarzie Vittachi. H. A. I. Goonetileke has contributed a succinct foreword. Paintings done in the mural tradition are by Shantha Jayalath and the distinctive and original design of the book is by architect Tilak Samarawickrema.

Quotes from Ian Goonetileke’s foreword will indicate what the book is. "In this sumptuous and eloquent book an octogenarian grandfather in Sri Lanka sets out to tell his grandson in America, in his own lucid and personal terms what the boy should know of the world and the Word of the Buddha... In ten chapters... the life and times of the Buddha, the influence of his teachings, and the fundamental philosophy underlying them are explained. The elucidation is at times invigoratingly unorthodox and suffused with a refreshing candour. Never forgotten is the essential humanity of the Buddha.

"This book however, is different in that it is written in simple language so that a young boy, exposed to a modern and sophisticated society, may be inspired to think and act differently, strengthened by his grandfather’s love and appreciation of another time and place, where the Word of the Buddha has prevailed and persisted over two and a half millennia."

At the very end of the book is a section titled Gotama and the twenty first century in which the author says: "Can we not, Pradip, you at seven years old and gradually but surely becoming aware of your responsibilities first as a member of our family and then as a citizen of the world, and I, at a ripe eighty one, can we not, your generation and mine and those in between, persuade the world of the nineteen nineties to heed the true word of Gotama; to think every thought, to say every word and do every deed in conscience, in compassion, in fraternal love? For only therein is our salvation. That is Tissa Chandrasoma, the compassionate man, the true Buddhist.

As Vijita and I reminisced at the funeral, while Gerty was given to ‘overt Buddhism’ — veneration and commune with monks, alms-giving at an extremely generous level, temple going and bana listening, Tissa was the quiet Buddhist, the follower of the Buddha’s word, truly understanding and appreciating the deep philosophy of the Dhamma. One act that struck me and kept me repeating its narration to others was the fact that Tissa Chandrasoma who needed a drink of arrack to get him a restful nights sleep gave it up altogether from Vesak to Poson, accompanied by a month’s vegetarianism. Soon it extended from Vesak to Esala, the period being symbolically marked, to my thinking, by the Buddhist flag that flew from his upper balcony right through the two months.

M. Chandrasoma, the loved and admired human being

He was very good to his domestics, present and past. They too were devoted. Meena who was Gerty’s maid, the kitchen being the territory of their cook appu, graduated to becoming housekeeper and care giver to Gerty and then to Tissa. She was efficient knowing exactly when to phone a doctor, call for an ambulance, and was sufficiently bold and authoritative to go against the patient’s injunctions of just letting him be.

He ends Out Out Brief Candle on a philosophical note: "But I do know that they who died young were the lucky ones. For they died before life and the weaknesses of age could corrupt them. Could make them the broken old hypocrites we see strutting and fretting around the world like clowns in a circus. They died before the small mean sins of life could engulf them and make then petty. They were the gods of my latter days and now surely they are gods above to whom I can make vows and hope for surcease from the evils of old age and death. I do not mourn them. I rejoice that I lived long enough to know them and cherish them.

Contrary to his predictions in the novel, Tissa never showed the ‘small mean sins’ of old age. Of course there was the thinning down of muscle, the slowing of step, the limitations of walking. But his spirit never flagged, neither his sharp intellect and mental abilities. The infirmities of advanced age that came to him were only physical.

We rejoice that he lived long enough to make more friends, to quietly influence others by his resilience, his will to live in dignity; by his writings and by the mere fact that here was a true son of Sri Lanka, who, coming from the village rose to the highest positions in life completely apolitically, only by the strengths in his character, his intellect, and ability to make wise decisions and get things done. All the people who knew him, even mere acquaintances, were the beneficiaries of his excellent years of life and Sri Lanka the beneficiary of his long years of service. Contrary to the quotation from Macbeth’s soliloquy of despair in Shakespeare’s tragedy, of which one line makes the title of Chandrasoma’s first novel, he was not a mere player that strutted his hour on the stage of life and country. Rather was he a dynamic achiever who left his mark, a positive mark on the history of Sri Lanka. His yesterdays lit no fool to dusty death. His was a death of dignity after a life truly well spent. He will not be ‘heard no more’. Rather will he live on through his grandchildren and their children and through his writings.

We mourn his death, but more do we celebrate his life.


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