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Portrait of a mother and son : 

Florence and Ranjith Goonewardene

SUNDAY ESSAY by AJITH SAMARANAYAKE - Sunday Observer Apr 6 2003

The death last week of Mrs. Florence Goonewardene at the age of 90 brought back fond memories of both herself as well as her late son Ranjith, surely the most idiosyncratic university lecturer of our times paralleled only perhaps by his colleague Gamini Haththotuwegama. It was no accident that both of them (joined by Dharmasena Pathiraja) had to languish for long in the outer realms of academia because they had not completed their post-graduate studies. Ranjith was finally able to secure his tenure at the Kelaniya University on the strength of his literary work principally the translations he did into Sinhala of poets such as Anthonio Machado.

Mrs. Florence Lilian Goonewardene was a sensitive, educated and cultured mother of four children, two of whom Ranjith and Oranee Jansz became academics. She was a throwback to the leisurely era of the country when the middle classes were the producers of ideology and culture, the bedrock of the emerging Ceylonese nation which was so tragically aborted at its birth.

Her husband Owen who retired as Superintendent of Mails belonged to that class which formed the backbone of the public service of the post-Independence era in Sri Lanka. Once Ranjith showed me a piece his mother had written about her childhood memories which we carried in the magazine pages of the Sunday Island where I worked then. In its sensitive evocation of a lost age it was one of the best of that genre.

an eclectic bunch

Mrs. Goonewardene lived for long at the Elvitigala flats in Narahenpita where she and Ranjith were surrounded by such literati as Bandula Jayawardena, Sirilal Kodikara and the late Ariyawansa Pathiraja, one of the best exponents of the 'hitivana kavi' on the political platform. Although belonging to the English educated middle class of pre-colonial Ceylon Mrs. Goonewardene was perfectly at home with Ranjith's many friends who were at best an eclectic bunch. It was easy to see from whom Ranjith had inherited his famous irreverence and sense of iconoclasm.

Ranjith Goonewardene who had his secondary education at Thurstan College, Colombo belonged to the first batch of students of the English Department at the then Vidyalankara University and was privileged to have as his teacher Regi Siriwardena.

Regi who had earlier taught English at Royal College, Colombo (among his students being the late Mervyn de Silva) had made an exciting foray into academia which was to take traditional University English studies by storm. In Ranjith he found a devout disciple and he more than compensated the expectations of his tutor when in due course he became the first student of the Vidyalankara English Department to become a lecturer in the same department.

existentialist writers

Ranjith who will be best remembered by his students of the 1970s (who affectionately called him Ranjith Goonda) relished in shocking them out of their upper middle class complacencies. The average English Department student of the time if he was male came from St. Thomas', Royal or Trinity and if female (which was more often the case) from St. Bridget's, Bishops or Holy Family Convent. Invariably they came from sheltered elitist existences and while teaching them English Ranjith was also intent on exposing them to the brutal realities of life.

This was the period of the Single University (an adventure spearheaded by a committee chaired by Prof. Osmand Jayaratne) under which the main English Department had been shifted from salubrious Peradeniya to the more mundane location of the Kelaniya campus. In this setting of culture shock Ranjith could be said to have come into his own. Inspired by the guidance of Regi Siriwardena, Ranjith introduced his students to a wide range of writings outside the set curriculum.

This consisted of not merely the existentialist writers who were in vogue then but also European, Latin American and Russian writers such as Machado, Anna Akhmatova and Mandelstam.

Ranjith was one of the few products of the English Department who was perfectly at home with Sinhala and the middle class Sinhala intelligentsia of the university system.

He married from Gampaha and although that marriage did not succeed that itself was a testament to his broad humanity. he wrote regularly to newspapers most famously taking the side of his guru Regi Siriwardena when the latter ran into a storm when in an anthology of poetry designed for the Advanced Level in the mid-1970s he included some lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Ranjith was tender and exasperating, acerbic and loveable in turn. He never conformed to the prissy codes of academia and tendered his resignation once too often. Exiled from Kelaniya he found a mentor in the late Prof. A. J. Gunawardena (himself one of Sri Lanka's most felicitous English writers whose early death has impoverished us all) who accommodated him at the Sri Jayawardhanepura English Department.

At the same time he was invited by Gamini Weerakoon to contribute a weekly literary page to 'The Island'. He was a familiar presence in the Blomendhal Road editorial office coming on his push bicycle at the crack of dawn to keep Chief Sub Editor Anton Weerasinghe company over a cup of tea and a cigarette which both of them devoutly puffed.

foreshortened life

The twilight of his sadly foreshortened life Ranjith led with his mother at the Elvitigala flats. This was the height of the reign of terror and counter terror of 1987-89 and from his modest abode Ranjith used to observe the soldiers at the check point outside his window. On his morning cycle rides he was often stopped at other check points.

Perhaps those callow young men may have wondered who this gaunt, tousle-haired early morning cyclist was with his burning eyes. At this time the literary page which he edited every Monday in The Island was for Ranjith a mission and it will be no exaggeration to say that the newspaper's popularity increased on that score. For Ranjith literature was inseparable from life and that life could be both lovely and tragic.

Ranjith died in 1990 soon after the twin terrors had exhausted themselves. From the A.F. Raymond's parlour we went behind his cortege and at a point within the cemetery we carried him up to the crematorium. In our company were Rajpal Abeynayake, Ariyawansa Pathiraja and Rohan Jayasena who was then on 'The Island' staff and is now a doctor in the US, a nephew of Ranjith.

This was soon after the killing of Richard de Soysa and we were making too many pilgrimages to Kanatte. As we bore Ranjith to his rest I remember among the mourners Prof. A.J. Gunawardena and Trilicia (both of them too sadly dead), Dayan Jayatilleke and Pulsara. Among those who wrote appreciations about Ranjith were Sirohmi and Manique Gunasekera both of them Ranjith's students.

Soon after his death his mother asked me to come home and make a pick of Ranjith's books. Among the books I brought away were two anthologies of George Orwell's essays (surely among the best in the language) and 'Miami and the Seige of Chicago,' 'Norman Mailer's masterly account of the Democratic and Republican conventions of 1968 which saw the ultimate triumph of Richard Nixon. I could not attend Mrs. Goonewardene's cremation last Wednesday at Kanatte but fixed in my memory will be the image of Ranjith's quietly sobbing mother as she walked behind his bier at the same cemetery 13 years ago.