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Personality of the Week - DN Sat Jul 12 2003

Surangani Gunasinghe

by Ilika Karunaratne

If we had to nominate a "Queen of Species and Sauces" in Sri Lanka, the choice would undoubtedly be Surangani Gunasinghe. For she has been the pioneer in this field one who ventured forth to produce ready mixed species which make life much easier for the harried housewife. One letter can make a world of difference in the meaning of a word; if we left out the s at the end of both spice and sauce, the words would have a different meaning, which is I suppose, why I love the English language so much!

Surangani and her husband, Channa, are both science honours graduates. Surangani taught botany for several years and Channa was in plastics. "We thought we would put our heads together, combine our knowledge and experience, and start a business to which we could both contribute and run, too".

It was wise of them to do this while they were both working. I have found that if such decisions are left for after retirement, they invariably get postponed and sometimes don't get off the ground at all. One often is content to be a dilettante, dabbling in a myriad things, but being master of none.

"The need of the hour seemed to be an authentic curry mix. I have always been fond of cooking, trying out recipes as the mood took me, and I wanted to do something original.

If one prepares curries in the old fashioned traditional way, it takes hours. So I thought my curry mixes would be a boon to housewives especially with the growing shortage of domestic staff". Today, there are many others in this business too, seeing that it is a most lucrative field, but Channa and Surangani were the pioneers in the field. "We began with just four mixes for chicken curry, ambul thial, fish curry and pol sambol.

Today, we do mixes for vegetable, buriyani, pork and tandoori and we do canned curries like, kos, polos and tibbotu badung etc; our most recent one is the hopper mix.

Our canned curries are popular in the US, especially where there are Sri Lankans, as they long for the taste of traditional home cooked food. Other products we produce now are various sauces used in Chinese cooking as this is very popular here. Being a good cook is insufficient to produce quality mixes; one has to have a scientific background too, to put it all together".

Surangani and Channa first tried samples of their products out on friends, on whom they could rely for a candid opinion. The mixes met with many accolades and soon proved to be the flavour of the hour, both abroad and in the supermarkets here. The mixes sold out quickly which encouraged them to try new ones and increase their range.

"We now have a separate company for marketing and distribution which has done promotions in Dubai. They hope to do the same in Malaysia and Bangkok too. I am very quality conscious and see that our products are of the finest quality.

The response to the hopper mix has been very encouraging, but the buriyani mix is the firm favourite and is sold out almost as soon as it hits the stores. Our factory is still in Kesbewa, where we began and I have a workforce of about 50 people, mostly women, I have experienced people in charge and don't have to go on a daily basis any more".

Surangani and Channa have worked hard at both research and development before trying out a project... It is interesting to note that many of the spices Surangani uses in her mixes, have curative qualities. Cardamon., cloves, ginger and coriander are an effective remedy for indigestion. Cummin is famed as a wonder spice for many gastric ills and is said to induce sleep, when mixed with the pulp of a ripe banana.

It is also invaluable in amnesia. The aromatic flavour of cardamon is a good mouth rinse and coriander water fights blood cholesterol. These spices are all used in abundance in Surangani's mixes and pastes. I wondered how Surangani felt about having more time on her hands now. Teaching is a hands on profession and producing spices also requires time and energy. "I have started painting which I love and have always wanted to do.

Perhaps my background of botany inspired me. I play a lot of golf, knit, crochet and spend time, with my grandchildren. I enjoy helping young people who need assistance to get ahead and do this for students recommended by the Students Welfare Association in Peradeniya".

As a mother, and as the owner of a business which employs mainly women. I asked Surangani what she thought of the horrendous rapes and crimes which seem to be very much a part of life today. "Our girls in the factory are all from the neighbourhood and we see that they are taken home when they work late or on the night shift. I believe that girls should be taught self defence. In this day and age, being street smart is a dire necessity.

There should be citizens committees in the villages consisting of representatives from the school PTA's, senior citizens, teachers, priests etc, to play an active role in guiding and protecting schoolgirls., together with the police. The houses of those in the committee should bear a plaque, stating that this is a safe house and that anyone could come there by day or by night for help.

I feel that rape cases should be heard in a separate courtroom, like in chambers and should be a private hearing. There should be much more counseling for rape victims and for their parents Often the victim is made to feel the culprit and is ostracized while the perpetrator, gets off with a few years, will come out and do the same thing again.... Punishment should be more severe, at least 20 years, if not life".

Surangani has green fingers, probably again inspired by botany. This has helped her to create a garden which is a haven of green with foliage of infinite variety and in profusion; with flowering shrubs and creepers adding a touch of colour here and there. She has an innovative approach and high standards. With both her daughters, married and her business on its feet, she now reaches out to help people in need, believing that self improvement is very much on the agenda in these times of social change.

This has helped her to discover another world which is close to her idealistic heart. She believes that better education makes people want to extend their personal horizons and that it is our duty to help them on their way.

The lives and work of Surangani and Channa are intertwined., which in turn inspires a wonderful sense of comradeship. She has a clear head, is absolutely clear sighted and will meet everything head on with courage. An unique blend of talent of this husband and wife team have helped housewives, especially those who are working too. They have had relief in a trice with Surangani's spice.

Like the good samaritan, Surangani does not ask for character certificates before reaching out to people in need. She understands human frailties and foibles because her perceptions are well honed she is a truly compassionate person.