Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Ian Goonetileke - an 'authority on a thousand themes'

...And Lamb, the gentle and the frolic,
Has vanished from his lonely hearth...

wrote Wordsworth of his friend, Charles Lamb. Ian Goonetileke had the laughter of the uncompromised, the tears of the uncomforted and the memory of the unbefooled.

He was all that, he was librarian extraordinaire, chronicler par excellence, art connoisseur sans peur. An authority, no less, on a thousand themes. Formally, an expert on Sri Lanka-US relations and, as I came to know, even more so on the Sri Lanka-India bond. But 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.

I met Ian for the first time in the summer of 1978, when I was posted in Kandy as First Secretary in the Assistant High Commission of India in the temple town. My late friend Godwin Samararatne - also, at that point, a librarian, at the Kandy Municipal Library - took me to see Ian ("You ought to see him - a very knowledgeable person who knows how to keep all his knowledge from becoming a weight"). Ian was seated in the sanctum of the Peradeniya Library, the equivalent of his walauwwa. Surrounded by books in his own little room in that well-endowed library, Ian peered at me through his thick lenses.

He seemed to more than see; he seemed to see through, size up and store away his assessment in that cerebral vault of his for later retrieval. That was the beginning of an acquaintance that lasted over a quarter of a century.

There were few persons whose integrity was as impressive as it was forbidding. I remember, shortly after my first meeting with Ian, my Colombo based colleague Ranjan Mathai (now India's Ambassador in Doha) and I debating whether Ian would horrible misunderstand and be angered if Ranjan were to present him a bottle of White House for Christmas. We went timorously to Ian's cottage at Peradeniya and, finding him out, left the gift with his wonderful and wonderfully devoted wife Ros. Our anxieties were dispelled by the Ian chuckle, a few days later. "That was a thoughtful gift for Ros and me; we hardly go out. We will ride this horse together - you see what I mean?".

You see what I mean? figured in his speech regularly. Not everyone really saw what he meant. Not completely or every time, at any rate. I certainly didn't. Not because what Ian said was abstruse but because it contained within it interleaving, interconnections and interstices which would have been beyond the ken of someone who had not been in tune with his experience and thought every step of the way. The sequences would tumble out in such a jet of recollection that one could not grasp it in the cupped palms of a single conversation.

At first sight one would have thought he and Ros could not have been more dissimilar. In fact they exemplified what Nirad Chaudhuri told me in Oxford in 1995 when his wife passed away. "A successful marriage has to be like a necktie - either a perfect blend or a total contrast".

No two persons could have been more contrastive than Nirad Chaudhri and his late wife either, the very inward Chaudhurani. I remember my mind going numb when Niradbabu, then in his late Nineties, said to me," I had never seen death in my life. Not death as in dead bodies - those I had seen - but I mean a person dying in front of you. She died in front of me.. just like that and she and I were alone in the house".

Ian and Ros, who could understand English but spoke only Sinhala, were as contrastive as the Chaudhuris and they too made a perfect pair. When Ros died, I was back in Colombo. Twenty years had elapsed since the Peradeniya days. Our good and mutual friend Tissa Jayatilaka rang and told me Ros had gone. At the funeral, a bereft Ian, looking like a storm-fallen tree, rose to embrace me and said "Gopal, thank you for being here. You knew her so well and, and ... you know what I mean?" On that occasion, I did.

Many are the books where Ian's help has been acknowledged by the author. Many more, I am sure, where it has not. Ian was aware of the greed in the world of scholarship, greed for morsels of information, scraps of information, cubes of interpretation. This made him wary of those who came to dig his mental mine for an intellectual quickie - at times, Ian's assemblage of books and archives seemed like a stern aunt's hermetic larder, it was because the world has more than a few larder-raiders.

Ian was a master of English prose. Consider this sentence from his Introduction to Nihal Fernando's 'Sri Lanka - A Personal Odyssey': "When the ragged banners of daring are furled and the tangled webs of yearning resolved, the precious residue of life has been worth all the lows for the sake of the highs. So Nihal's book unlocks a host of memories of my own restless spirit thirsting to know the enduring contours of my island home in countless miles of unconventional travel from North to South, and West to East in times before the fissures of atavistic violence, civil commotion, and racial strife made such passages hazardous".

Books mattered to Ian as nothing else, he had a surfeit of them. Friends mattered to Ian, they were few.

Tissa and Father Paul Caspersz were among my Kandy friends who had known Ian for much longer and had unfailingly kept in touch with the couple. I, a late entrant in Ian's life would know of only a few of Ian's friends but could see they were special: they included among men of the cloth, Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe and Chaplain Sydney Knight. Among those of the camera, Nihal Fernando and Laxshman Nadaraja; those of the easel, George Keyt and Stanley Kirinde; those of the pen, Ashley Halpe and A.J. Wilson. But he could also make friends with those who were not 'special'.

Once, when my wife Tara and I had sent the car across to fetch him for lunch at India House ("Gopal, will I have to bring an ID for security and suchlike?") he showed real warmth to the chauffeur in a manner the man at the wheel will long remember.

One of my visits to his cottage happened to be around election time. I was told a group of young campaigners had spent an hour or more with him, seeking clarifications on Marixist dialectics but also getting, in return, some strong views on the importance of a composite vision. It was not only beside the point to see in Ian an ethnic stereotype, it was unthinkable. He was a complete Lankan but beyond that he was himself - a universalist and an individualist. At a function to unveil a portrait of his (by Kirinde) at the main Library at Peradeniya, on May 5, 1997, Ian said, "And what are libraries and librarians for? They have a signal role to fulfil in educating people away from dependence on invalid precept and outdated belief".

I once took an Indian visitor, Ram Guha, the distinguished sociologist and historian to see him - without notice. Ram's specialisation in the anthropologist Verrier Elwin came up in our talk. Ian was up in a trice, like a paddy bird, and produced from a shelf with a couple of deft wing manoeuvres 'The Tribal World Of Verrier Elwin - An Autobiography', complete with some old correspondence between Ian and Calcutta University about admission to its anthropology course, tucked inside. "See what I mean?

Elwin has been one of my earliest interests!"

My last meeting with Ian, shortly before I left Colombo for Oslo was painful. It was late in the evening. Ian's Athurugiriya cottage in the city's outskirts was deserted save for the rows upon rows of his books, almost each with a letter or review or some other relevant scrap placed carefully inside it, and the lines upon lines of George Keyt originals. Few words were spoken. "Thank you for everything", he said.

Everything? What had I given, nothing. Only received. From affection, conversation, knowledge about technical things like the Dewey system of library classification and Tanganathan system of colons, to inner things like impermanence and the folly of attachments. I brought my palms together in the namaskar which India shares with Sri Lanka to say goodbye to this gentle genius. And to thank my stars - as also Godwin Samararatne - for having turned my vulcanised tyre tracks so common, towards his foot-tracks so rare. Formed over the years by a pair of nimble but very sure feet, his and those of Ros -her's not following his, but in step.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Ambassador of India, Norway.



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