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Tissa Chandrasoma: A tribute to a father

After watching two hours of news of the devastation of the tidal wave, my father bemoaned the fate of his beloved coastline and lapsed suddenly into unconsciousness passing away peacefully on the first day of 2005. It was a blessing that he died without seeing the reality of the magnitude of the tsunami disaster.

He was born in Arachchikande, a small village off Hikkaduwa in 1913. His life was defined by the great events of the century for Sri Lanka; the dissolution of British colonial rule, the great optimism of the post-independent era followed by the disillusionment of political turmoil that led to insurgency and civil war, and finally the greatest natural disaster of the world. Unlike most people, my father chronicled his experiences in four books that resulted from his insatiable desire to write. The first, Five to Eight, is a delightful account of what he remembered of his childhood in Arachchikande. These were the wonderful stories he told us as children; it took all his skill to bring them to life in written word. The second, Vignettes 1938-57, was a resume of his public service. As a member of the elite Ceylon Civil Service that produced some of the greatest administrators in the world (at one time, colleagues such as Shirley Amerasinghe, Gamini Corea, Andrew Joseph, and Raju Coomaraswamy held many of the leadership positions in the United Nations), he traversed Sri Lanka from Kandy to Badulla to Gampaha to Kataragama, finally ending in Colombo as the head of the Customs and Port Commission. These were the great years of his life and the pride that he took in public service is well recorded in the book. The end of his public service coincided exactly with the beginning of politicization of the administrative service of the country. He was lucky; he was not subjected to the deterioration of public administration that took Sri Lanka from a beacon in Asia to the depths of national despair in just three decades. During this latter part of his career, which he never talked about because it had little consequence to him, he worked in the private sector making money that he never wanted. Out, Out, Brief Candle, his third book, was a work of fiction that portrayed the role of a strong woman in a Southern village at the center of the insurgency. My father, while hating the political stance of the insurgents, understood well the reason for it and sympathized with the dissatisfaction of the masses towards an increasingly corrupt Government in Colombo. His last book was a letter to his grandson and my son, Pradip. It resulted from a promise he made when he visited our family in Los Angeles that he would explain Buddhism, which to him was the basis of Sri Lankan culture, to his American grandson. The first and last books are intensely personal and directed at his family; the middle two are his statement about Sri Lanka.

If one has to summarize my fatherís life, the appropriate sentiment is expressed in the last paragraph of his first book, Five to Eight, in which he writes: "`85 my father surprisingly decided to send me to the premier Buddhist school in Colombo. This caused some raised eye-brows among our cousins, because hitherto the furthest our family had looked to were schools in Galle. I was now eight`85 With this transit to a completely unfamiliar environment, the first and simplest and therefore possibly the happiest chapter of my life came to an end." My father recognized that his fatherís decision to send him to school in Colombo had the inevitable outcome of incredible success and disillusionment that was to be his lot in life. The combination of his great achievement and the wealth of my mother led to a life which can only be described as an international jet set existence beyond belief. Growing up in this environment, I always felt my fatherís nostalgia of Arachchikande. At every opportunity we would go back to the village and for a weekend he would assume the life that may have been and it was only in those moments that one saw the real Tissa Chandrasoma; the ultimate Sinhalese village gentleman, the epitome of civilization, integrity and simplicity. He never thought his father had made a mistake in sending him to Colombo for his education, but his nostalgia was palpable. Living in Los Angeles, carried by the same inevitability of my grandfatherís decision, I still share my fatherís nostalgia. But the village is no longer the same; it has moved with the times; the dream is no longer real; when I go back, I do not see beauty. But like my grandfather and my father, I have retained the values of the Sri Lankan village; they are the secret of my success just as they were my fatherís. It is when these values of honesty, dignity, generosity and an extreme confidence in oneís self worth emerge from their present dormancy that Sri Lanka will prosper again.

I have just returned to Los Angeles after attending my fatherís funeral. The experience is something I will never forget. When I walked in and saw my father lying in the casket, I felt no sorrow. This was a life well lived, an integrity never compromised, a dignity never lost and a mind that was sharp till the moment of his death. My only sensation was that I was so proud to be the son of this man. When no sorrow is evoked in a son at the time of death, a father has achieved the perfect Buddhist life.

Parakrama Tissa Chandrasoma
Pasadena, California
January, 2005

 

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