Dr. H. A. I. Goonetileke
Unfinished Journeys

by Gamini Seneviratne - Sunday Island Jun 29 2003

Ian Goonetileke journeyed far through several continents, far farther than most people engaged in any one or more disciplines, in any generation anywhere, have sought to traverse. For him each journey was part of the one exploration, a singular experience of the one universe. And yet, he used that phrase, "Unfinished Journeys" in a personal communication to me; it referred to how incomplete such communications can be.

His efforts to put his friends ‘in the picture’ regarding his own life and work arose from his respect for context as a/the defining instrument of e/valuation; it was informed, as everything he said or did was, by the irreducible clarity of his perception of what was ‘right’. He was not given to delivering "Awful Warnings", but he always made his position clear.

If a poll were to be taken among scholars and students of Sri Lanka’s well-wrought urn of history and culture on who was and remains the most remarkable and well loved guide to their labours, Ian Goonetileke would be the clear winner. I take that sentiment from the opening lines of his bio-bibliographical commentary on Robert Knox in the Kandyan Kingdom, a subject close to his heart and on which he contributed the most comprehensive studies yet published.

Ian’s bibliography was a meticulous recording and evaluation of how people who wrote in the English language had viewed Ian’s native terrain, Sri Lanka, her history and her culture. He was conscious of the stimulation that could lie in seeing ourselves as others see us, and put together first person accounts by travellers from America in Images of Sri Lanka Through American Eyes and Lanka, Their Lanka, writings of westerners of non-US origin, his introductory annotations contributing to the coherence of those selections. Both books, the first published by the USIS and in its third edition, are virtually out of print.

He carried out his work "with the sensitivity of a poet and the precision of a scientist" as was said of Ananda Coomaraswamy with whom he believed that "diverse cultures are fundamentally related to one another as being dialects of a common spiritual language". The western notion of the ladder of love that was illumined by Plato, and which Ian personified so fully, escaped many of our tutors. In a more absolute sense, Ian, like Sartre, took the view that he was "not able to quarrel with history - because it led up to him". The antecedents to his personal history and its evolution, and of his agnosticism perhaps co-existed with a perception of a divine presence in the universe.

I first met him, to speak with, in 1962, when Stanley Kirinde and I called on him regarding an exhibition of paintings we planned to hold in Badulla where we were stationed at the time. I came to associate with him only in the last quarter century of his life, that is, after he had resigned from the service of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, as its Librarian, after a quarter century there. His service was to ‘the university’ in a sense that was wider than ‘the idea’ of one held by people from ‘Oxbridge’ — including Ivor Jennings. It encompassed, of course, the faculty and students past, present and yet to come and provided for their use convenient, even nudging, physical access to worlds of learning as recorded in books and journals, with a particular eye for those that had to do with the broad culture that fed learning and reflection at Peradeniya. The journals included, besides the academic journals in which, in the western tradition, fresh contributions, however trivial, (as in most Ph.D theses nowadays), to the sum of human knowledge first appeared, the commentatorial texts of ‘little magazines’ and periodicals published here. For many years Ian had the good fortune of a knowledgeable and supportive faculty in carrying out this task. When they failed the University, Ian left.

In the opening episode of Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, a snap shot of a party in academia, Robert James Waller has this: a middle aged professor, variously put down as ‘incorrigible’, ‘eccentric’, ‘a great teacher’, and just back from India is asked about cobras. "Yes, the snake charmer in the marketplace had one in a basket. The snake’s mouth was sewn shut to keep it from doing any damage." / "How did it eat?" / "It didn’t. It eventually dies. Then the snake man goes and finds another one and sews its mouth shut, too. That’s the way it works" / "My God, that’s cruel, even though I abhor snakes." / "Yeah, working conditions have gone downhill all over. On the other hand, it’s pretty much like the university. We just use heavier thread, that’s all."

Ian Goonetileke declined membership in an academic free masonry, hell bent on playing footsie with the mafia that has enthroned itself. He backed up his views with concrete actions. The circumstances of his leaving Peradeniya are well known; the following may not be.

When Ian was "inveigled and beguiled" by Michael Ondaatje to chair his Trust (which funds the Gratiaen Prize), he had expected that local writers would pursue "the interests of truth, justice, equality, and the overpowering need to bear witness". The last he translated, in Goethe’s words, as being "a primary responsibility of the creative writer": "One must repeat from time to time what one believes in, proclaim what one agrees with and what one condemns". Noel Gratiaen would have been horrified by the manner in which the literary award made in his name has been captured by a coterie whose interests are quite different. They are a group that for the most part has, with the aid of the establishment, projected its pretensions to "academic insight" and thereby into "creative writing". Patrick Fernando and Lakdasa Wikkramasinha are long dead, Gunadasa Amarasekera, Simon Nawagattegama, Sita Kulatunge, Henry Jayasena, Lakshmi de Silva, Ashley Halpe and a few others are around, and Yasmine Gooneratne has been away for three decades. The coterie that has bent its energies towards exploiting the handouts and energies of the neocolonial are not distinguishable from the kind of ‘government’ we have suffered. When Anil’s Ghost appeared, their published responses to the collapse of their hopes in Ondaatje was a display of their "felt need" to kowtow to an icon from which they had nourished expectations of quite another benediction. Since he had a high regard for Michael Ondaatje and his work, Ian quit that scene as gently as he could.

"All my letters are Unfinished Journeys", he wrote, the particular reference being to the title given to Shiva Naipaul’s last piece of writing before his death in 1985. Naipaul had begun what was to be a book on Australia with an account of a visit to Colombo, and recounts his efforts, through the British Council, to meet people from whom he could learn about Sri Lanka. They suggest he meets a Mr. Goonetileke who could tell him "everything he wants to know about Sri Lanka". At the address given he is directed to a Goonetileke whom he treats with "the deference due to a man who has recently brought to fruition a multi-volumed enterprise of scholarly research", but finds that the Mr. G. he meets is "altogether lacking in the austerity" he had associated with the man he had come to meet. Eventually, the man confesses, "I am the Goonetileke involved in development studies". That is the kind of ‘self-development’ that Ian exposed for what it was, - an enterprise that led, as he put it, to " a marga of no return".

Ian Goonetileke had travelled far. What had he left not done, which journey incomplete? There were some. His Bibliography, for sure, one might think. But bibliographies are never done. He had completed it up to 1978—and had kept going. Despite leaving Peradeniya and its resources prematurely, Ian continued to work on it.

I believe he had catalogued material for at least three more volumes, but he declined offers of assistance from his colleagues and friends, including myself, to have them made ready for publication. A couple of months ago, after suggestions made at long intervals, he told me he’d "think about it".

Ian did his best to bring Peradeniya before us through the preconditioned, often myopic vision of Ivor Jennings. In his introduction to Jennings’ The Kandy Road, Ian lent some tints to that scene of what seems like long ago, but his preferred mode was scrupulously scholastic, as would be evident when Jennings’ autobiography, edited by Ian, is finally brought out by a big-name ‘publishing’ company that demands pre-payment in full – including its profit margin. Such are surely not books for the vanity press. One thinks with gratitude of the little presses, including the Woolf’s Hobart Press in London and P. K. Siriwardena’s in Maradana that published works of value on a shoe-string budget.

His great dream was to have his unique collection of paintings by Lankan artists, and his manuscripts to the Gallery cum Museum that had been provided for at Peradeniya in its master plan. His books would go to the Library at Peradeniya that he adorned as its head. The site for the Gallery has been shifted desultorily, - from the entrance to the campus, to one between the gymnasium and the administration block, to the upper floors of the latter. When I last inquired, it was to be sited by the pond near Jayathilaka Hall, and a sod ceremonially cut for it in October last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the move to Peradeniya. Education, overall, has become a museum piece, left to reside in the old pirivenas. As a senior academic himself, he was Managing Editor of the Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, the heavy-weight journal that succeeded the University of Ceylon Review. It splintered later, without so much as a ‘by your leave’ into Modern Ceylon Studies, the Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities, the Sri Lanka Journal of Social Science and so on, in an unceasingly fragmented pursuit and absorption of knowledge into narrow specialisations.

Over the years, in letters and postcards in his exquisite micro-calligraphy, Ian gave me bits and pieces of his personal history. Such stories seemed to thin out for him a sense of aloneness that had enveloped him at a very young age. Perhaps he was making notes for an autobiography. In any case, a bibliography of Ian’s own work is long overdue. Perhaps the National Library will undertake that task.

There can be no doubt that his professional work as a bibliographer would be the most widely consulted, willy-nilly, by academics the world over. It is a record of the publications in which truths, falsehoods and misunderstandings about Sri Lanka and her people have been presented by those who have been subject to a ‘European’ view of the world. In his other writings Ian addressed other truths about supposedly humane societies and how they are engineered on this planet. They are as important a contribution to our understanding of the interior / anterior energies that influence social relations as the work of thinkers such as Thoreau, James, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. Ian did so as much by his stance on matters related to the responsibilities of the academic as by his writings in S. P. Amarasingham’s "Tribune", Mervyn de Silva’s "Lanka Guardian", in his pithy annotations in his great bibliography, as that on other subjects and events including the 1971 insurgency, which provided a macro-picture of what will surely remain a landmark in post-colonial Sri Lanka, as well as in his fictionalised accounts of kindred spirits such as Justice Rajaratnam.

When some of his friends proposed to put together a collection of essays by diverse hands in Felicitation, Ian declined it. Instead, he wrote, "the only headstone or memorial I wish to leave behind ... is a collection of my essays, articles, introductions, prefaces, forewords, reviews and appreciations of dead friends", and asked me to write the Preface for it. That collection is yet to be put together.

As they grow old, people tend to regard their lives with a variety of emotions, some expressive of higher rationality, some rationalisations reflective of emotions, often negative, that had proved unconquerable; assessments of ‘what remains to be done’. Ian demonstrated that each moment is at our disposal, that each offers/demands the possibility of making an ‘authentic choice’. He made as full use of his time as circumstances allowed.

Such assessments of self tend to occur most explicitly when somebody of around one’s age, whose life has touched one’s own, dies. As one approaches or passes the average life-expectancy in a given time and place, many people tend to look to the record of their contemporaries for reassurance. Even if such had ‘done well’ from the general perspective, one could subject the ‘well done’ to scrutiny, apply to those lives demands one has not made of oneself, or reveal, unconsciously, one’s own envy and other inadequacies (as was painfully evident in a recent article on Dr. Gamani Corea), satisfy oneself with some notion, as the phrase goes, of one’s own immortality.

Ian Goonetileke had no anxieties of that kind. Right to the end he viewed people whole. He gave the impression of being aloof from the lives that were lived around him other than in the essentials needed for interacting with them. That was not so. He spoke with people within their range of interest as made evident to him. He did not intrude into the lives of others, however he perceived them. Quite early in his last, extended, stay in hospital, he said to me, ‘Take care of yourself’. His choice of words was, as always, impeccable.

He was careful of his health, generally, taking the medications that were prescribed for his several ailments, was particular about meal times and the food he ate. Roslin, his wife and help-mate of over 50 years, made all that possible. Her niece and great nieces were as caring as his own niece as were his siblings, and, always, Roslin and Ian had friends.

Closest to him were those who, in the intellectual and physical ambience of Peradeniya, came to be their family friends: academics in the humanities and the social sciences spread throughout the world, artists, connoisseurs of art, poets of every cast. Among them, Ranjini Obeysekera and her husband, Gananath were perhaps the closest in all respects. Gananath’s latest book, Imagining Karma, a take on the idea of reincarnation, was dedicated to Roslin and Ian. Ian’s association with George Keyt spanned many decades. He helped Lakdasa Wikkramasinha nourish his great gifts. (Ian was bestman at Lakdasa’s marriage ceremony at Harry Peiris’s; Lakdasa’s mother in law, Theja Gunawardene, Harry, Stanley Kirinde and I were also conscripted into that bridal photograph). Roslin and Ian were fond of my wife and those of our children who had the privilege of knowing them, Malinda and Ruvani, and of my niece, Nadeera. Ian refused to give up on me despite my long absences, all of which were precisely documented in his head. Of their younger friends, Tissa Jayatillke remained, over many years, the most consistently supportive.

Despite my relatively close association with him, or rather the opportunities for such an association to become close, much closer than it did, there were whole sheaves of his life as embodied in his work that I failed to pay due attention to, choosing instead to regard his continuing presence as inerasable: he’d be around for our generation and the next, a Methuselah.