A memorial tribute to Chelva Kanaganayakam


The death of Chelva Kanaganayakam in Canada last month was a great shock. He had just been awarded the highest academic honour given by the Canadian state, the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada on election by his peers and was on his way home to Toronto with his wife Thiru from the award ceremony in Quebec City when he suffered a massive heart attack and was soon gone.

Chelva had become the leading scholar in Post-colonial Studies in Canada dealing with South Asian Studies, as the chair of the English Dept. on the St. George campus University of Toronto, Alan Bewell told the Toronto Star, and was also well known for his translations of Tamil poetry into English, as also of prose works such as the novel Sandangu, which he rendered as Ritual, and the short story, The Sage, the Child, and some Cheedai. I have benefited greatly from his other interpretations of Tamil Literature. He has besides, written very perceptively and generously on other areas of Postcolonial Literature such as the Indian/now Pakistani writer Zulfikar Ghose and the migrant Sri Lankan/Canadian writer Rienzie Crusz.

He was currently completing a major project which is to appear with Oxford University Press, a History of South Asian Literature which will surely be the definitive work in that field besides other work such as an article to appear in the Sri Lanka Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies journal, Phoenix edited by Walter Perera.

Chelva was one of the group of students who shared my exile to the University of Kelaniya when the Humanities were moved there in a so-called Reorganisation of University Education. He was a very quiet and deeply committed student –for instance he wrote a fine paper on Chinua Achebe which he later polished for publication in the English Bulletin of the Sri Lanka Association for Literature and Language Studies. He then contributed substantially to the development of English at the University of Jaffna.

It was after he won a Commonwealth Scholarship to the University of British Columbia in Canada to do a Ph.D. in 1985 that he burgeoned as a scholar. He got his Ph.D. there in 1989 and was appointed to a professorship at the University of Toronto in 2002. He became a leader in the development of Postcolonial Theory and South Asian Studies at the University says Alan Bewell in an interview given to the Toronto Star on the demise of Chelva Kanaganayakam. Bewell adds that he was "…of course a very important translator of Tamil poetry."

The correspondent to the Toronto Star who interviewed Professor Bewell had been a student of Chelva. She gives us an interesting word-picture of Chelva at the University of Toronto: "His door was always open even outside office hours. He was always available for a discussion on urgent matters such as an extension on an assignment or relaxed discussion such as of the latest work of Michael Ondaatje. It’s a wonder he found time for all the roles he played – an academic well respected among his peers, a teacher admired by students for both his rigour and his compassion, philosopher, guide and beloved family man." He was twice named the Best Teacher by the students.

"Most remember Kanaganayakam as a gentle and kind man who welcomed visitors into his office lined with books with a beaming smile. He had a wry sense of humour and an infectious, generous laugh. When introducing himself to new students he’d write his name on the board saying "You can call me Chelva, or Professor Kanaganayakam. But please don’t call me Professor K. That’s just too Kafkaesque" he would joke. His course list included authors from across the globe ranging from Chinua Achebe and Nadine Gordimer to Shyam Selvadurai and Peter Carey " – Aparita Bhandari in the Toronto Star.

Our family developed a strong relationship with Chelva and his wife Thiru after they graduated from the University of Kelaniya. In 1997 he invited me to give a paper at and participate in a conference he organized in Toronto, "Competing Realities In South Asian Literature" in the Asian Studies Programme of the University of Toronto, a conference he conducted with great professional skill. He and his family accommodated me in their home and were most hospitable to me.

Our family is especially grateful to Chelva for two reasons. One is that he accepted our daughter Aparna as a graduate student and nurtured her so generously that she has said that he was a second father to her. Secondly when I reached the age of seventy-five, which was also my fiftieth year as a University teacher, he presented me with a very handsome Festschrift which he subtitled Arbiters of a National Imaginary: Essays on Sri Lanka published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies of Sri Lanka, in which he featured me as a scholar, poet and artist and to which he secured a broad spectrum of contributions – truly a work of "Guru Bhakthi" (Homage to a Teacher).

The Poet in the Scholar

Before I conclude I wish to pay a special tribute to the poetic aspect of his sensibility, to the Poet in the Scholar. This is vividly evident in the titles he gave his publications e.g. Structures of Negation: the writings of Zulficar Ghose (1993), Dark Antonyms in Paradise: The Poetry of Rienzie Crusz and the title of the Festschrift given above. As his colleague Linda Hutcheon, University Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto said of his passing "The world has lost a truly great and gentle spirit".

Ashley Halpé

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