A Gentleman steeped in Humility

Jayantha Gunathilake – an appreciation

By any measure, Dr Jayantha Gunathilake was an exceptional man. I know of no other PhD to wade knee-deep into the mud to dig or plough a paddy field. He was so dedicated to Agriculture that he showed no hesitation in getting his hands muddy or grimy. He combined the rugged and rustic virtues of the best of villagers with the observational and technical skills of a scientist. It mattered little whether his exertions were for official or personal achievement. Indefatigable would be appropriate to describe his efforts.

In a life-long career at the CRI, ending up as its Director, he will be best remembered as the pioneer in developing woody perennial intercrops for use in thermal bio-energy. In this work, he was a worthy helper to that celebrated innovator, Dr Ray Wijewardene. I know that Ray looked upon his acolyte with much admiration and affection. The popularization of fuel-wood, Gliricidia in particular, among several others, owes much to Jayantha. He was also an accomplished photographer, which talent he did not flaunt, but saw vivid expression in the CRI Publications by him on Intercropping. He correctly diagnosed the need to increase the income of small coconut farmers through intercropping on their lands and his major work was directed to that end.

This passion saw expression in his work. The paramount interest was to keep the small and disadvantaged coconut farmer in his sights. The integration of livestock and crops for home consumption and bold experimentation with novel crops (including perennial fruit and spice crops) provided fertile insights into fresh potentials. He was a good communicator, reaching his audiences, whether scientific ones or the less sophisticated small farmers.

He was a classic "workaholic". Nothing mattered to him than the work at hand. This, in a sense led to his early death. A chronic diabetic, he was reckless in his determination to place duty first. With his foot partially amputated, irregular meal times, a hectic work schedule and long hours in paddy field mud were not the best conditions for good health. Of course his near and dear and he himself paid heavily for this sacrifice.

Several are the times that I (and others) cautioned him that long hours on travel to work sites and deep into the night on office work, was not the best for health. His response was a "Yes Sir, I will follow that" I was suspicious of his assurances. I remember occasions, during his short tenure as Chairman CCB, when I would track him to his Office at 10 o’clock in the night and admonish him on his ridiculous hours, the response would be "Yes Sir, I was just getting ready to leave (for Lunuvila) and home". Perhaps to be in time to leave at dawn for Weligama! Only unbridled devotion could have sustained such enthusiasm.

Sadly, it could have been his very willingness and a chronic inability to say "No" to what was unreasonable, that was exploited by the less honourable, to lead him to trouble and misunderstandings. There must be some whose conscience troubles them. As Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have reflected "It is dangerous to be too good". This could be Jayantha’s epitaph, but instead I learn he had left instructions that his body be buried and a coconut seedling be planted over his grave. Loyalty even in death!

Exemplary in his devotion to duty, I remember him as a gentleman steeped in humility, grateful to all who helped him along and modest in judging himself.

Empathizing with his family – of a charming and industrious wife Mani and his two worthy sons, I wish that he will soon hasten in his worldly journey to the Bliss of Nibbana. May the family he left bereaved be happy and well in their futures.


Former Director of the CRI


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