Tuesday, 15 June 2004  
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H. A. I. Goonetileke - legend in his lifetime



H. A. I. Goonetileke

The first anniversary of the death of H. A. I. Goonetilleke fell on 21 May. As a tribute to his memory, we publish today extracts of comments made by Tissa Jayatilaka on 8 May, 2004, at the inauguration of the H. A. I. Goonetileke Prize for Translation instituted by the Gratiaen Trust.

I am most pleased to share with you this evening some thoughts and feelings about Ian Goonetileke on the occasion of the inauguration of the H. A. I. Goonetileke Prize for Translation under the aegis of the Gratiaen Trust.

Given Ian's warm and intimate friendship with Michael Ondaatje and his significant service to the Gratiaen Trust as its first Chairman, it is fitting that Ian should be so honoured and remembered. It is particularly relevant to institute a prize for translation in his name as Ian was one who strove throughout his life to reconcile the best of the West with the finest of the East.

That said, as those of us who knew Ian closely are aware, Ian was uncomfortable with encomia of this kind. He resolutely resisted efforts made by an intimate friend to set up a trust in Ian's and Roslin's names and to felicitate them in a suitable manner during his lifetime.

He was, I reckon, doubtless reconciled to the fact that he was 'doomed' for some kind of posthumous honour and am confident that, had he a choice in the matter, he would have approved of this excellent gesture of the Gratiaen Trust. As I make this brief address I see in my mind's eye Ian's face with that cryptic, half-embarrassed, half-amused smile on it.

Henry Alfred Ian Goonetileke was born on 5th January, 1922, and died on 21st May, 2003. It is my conviction that Ian was one of the finest 20th century Sri Lankan intellectuals and one of the most productive members of our academic community.

Ian's long and eventful life was an example of certain human and humane qualities, which lie at the root of all greatness. Of these, I like to point out three that exemplify, for me, Ian's personality - these are moral courage, independent judgment and single-minded pursuit of the ideal. However, as Gopal Gandhi in his moving appreciation of him that appeared in the Daily News of June 12, 2003, observed, Ian

'Was also fragile like a shard of unfired clay. The slightest sense of officiousness, arrogance or an 'agenda' on the part of anyone meeting him could see his equanimity crumble. He had not conquered anger, only controlled it.'

Let me now refer to some of the highlights of Ian's career and achievements.

Ian's early life was dogged by emotional upheavels and some misfortune consequent to the early death of his father in 1926. He was briefly at St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia, as a student and then moved to Richmond College, Galle, where he excelled both at studies and sports.

A little known fact is that Ian was a fine cricketer in his day and remained until his end an astute and extremely knowledgeable analyst of the game. He was as well read on cricket as he was on virtually every other subject worth reading about. Ian graduated with a general degree from the Ceylon University College in the early 1940s.

Had he been able to have his way, and if circumstances had proved less uncongenial, he told me once that he would have opted for an honours degree in either History or English.

Two of Ian's teachers at school influenced him deeply - A.C.G. ('Ikey') Abeywardene (a contemporary of J. R. Jayewardene at Royal) and Herbert Keuneman, a cousin of the redoubtable Pieter, the much-respected late leader of the Communist Party of Ceylon. Ian kept in touch with 'Ikey' until the latter's death in December 1975 having first come under his tutelage in 1929.

Herbert Keuneman taught at Richmond for only three years - 1931 - 1934 - before taking Holy Orders, then becoming a writer - journalist, and finally withdrawing (after his wife's death) to his village abode in the Wanni where he died in April 1977. Ian found Herbert Keuneman a particular role model.

Another who made a significant impact on Ian was E.F.C. ('Lyn') Ludowyk who, too, tired of the excesses of modern vulgarity, commercialised city life and the brash veneer of technological progress, escaped in the last thirteen years of his existence to a simple, rural, country-style of life in a quiet village and modest farmhouse.

Now we can understand Ian's decision to move to Nawinna at first and then to the quiet of "Saranam" in Oruwela. Ian held that both Keuneman and Ludowyk drank deep of the "Sinhala-Buddhist" culture and tradition in the best manner available, without falling prey to the excesses of racism and the allurements of modern religious practice - both of which they deplored.

Of his own deliberate decision to migrate into the interior (in both senses) out of what he termed 'the pressing need to withdraw from it all, and do one's own thing in peace', Ian told me that this was a yearning he had from his boyhood. This is how he put it -

'I read Thoreau's Walden at the age of 16, when it came out as one of the first 10 Penguin Illustrated Classics in 1938, costing all of 45 cents, and it coloured by whole attitude to life. It remained a golden thread of escape in the sombre curtain of existence until I was ready to chart the course he did (though, of course, in different circumstances).'

Scott and Helen Nearing's The Good Life was also a seminal influence. Scott Nearing, as we know, was a pioneer socialist American academic who was Philip Gunawardena's teacher in the 1930s.

To return to Ian's career, he joined the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, as an Assistant Librarian in 1953. He secured a Postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship in 1958 winning the John Duncan Cowley Prize for the best thesis in the process. In 1966, he received his FLA obtaining a distinction for his dissertation entitled -

'A Bibliography of Ceylon - A Systematic Guide to the Literature on the land, people, history and culture published in Western languages from the 16th Century to the present day -' which formed the first two volumes of his monumental - 'A Bibliography of Ceylon' in eight volumes - only five of which have been published. The remaining three volumes he did not proceed with due to failing health and other infirmities.

Ian, was a very close personal friend of the '43 Group, the lone survivor of which today is Richard Gabriel now domiciled in Australia.

George Keyt was the one to whom Ian was closest with the other George - Claessen - coming a close second. Harry Peiris, the first secretary of the Group, had once invited Ian to serve in that capacity, an honour he declined due to commitments at Peradeniya.

His 'shining hour' he said was when he was invited to be the Chairman of the academic community of Peradeniya in the early 1970s.

The most significant event he indicated was the invitation he received in 1982 from the then Mayor of that city to help re-build the Jaffna Library the planned destruction of which venerable institution by certain moronic vandals among our countrymen will forever remain a profound blot on our national conscience.

In July 1979, at 57 plus some months, Ian resigned prematurely from his post of Librarian to which he had succeeded K. D. Somadasa in 1971.

For me personally, Ian's finest hour was Sunday, 5 January, 1997, when, on his 75th birthday, he formally bequeathed to Peradeniya his priceless 60-year collection of books, journals, pamphlets, off prints and other documents of an academic nature, paintings and other art objects such as statues in metal and wood as well as some replicas in plaster. In addition, in that bequest was also Ian's very valuable collection of personal letters.

It was by 'foul extrusion' that Ian was 'thrown upon the world' outside of Peradeniya and his giving up his position there was very much a consequence of the intellectual fastidiousness that was a striking characteristic of his personality.

This act of defiance on Ian's part was certainly not without traumas that accompany such momentous decisions and I do know that Ian paid an enormous price for having the courage of his convictions.

As Ashley Halpe has memorably put it - 'His (Ian's) departure was on a matter of principle, yet he went without any bitterness for the institution itself but rather as a reminder to us all of the nature of academic honour and academic standards. He continued to nourish us in many ways..'

Ian's disillusionment with the then university administration did not come in the way of his loyalty to and affection for Peradeniya. It is this magnanimity of Ian's spirit that one values greatly.

Mahatma Gandhi once observed that any philosophy based on the logic of an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind. Ian, by this most meritorious deed of his bequest to Peradeniya, has borne eloquent testimony to the truism reiterated by Gandhi.

Not for Ian the path of vengeful retaliation which not only leaves out the possibility of eventual reconciliation of human conflict but also fosters a mood of recrimination rather than one of renewal.

This, as K.N.O. Dharmadasa has pointed out, is what made Ian Goonetileke a man among men, a man capable of rising above mundane frivolities like the lotus rising above muddy waters ('paduman va toyena alipamano').

With this bequest to Peradeniya, Ian laid his (academic) ghosts. It was his conquest of himself, to me his finest hour.

These are glimpses of the man we honour today by the inauguration of the H.A.I. Goonetileke Prize for Translation.

We owe this special Sri Lankan a great debt. One hopes that the honour the Gratiaen Trust bestows on Ian Goonetileke today is but the beginning of our payment of that debt.

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