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
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
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
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
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