Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Reminiscing on Two Old Letters from Raveendranath

by Sachi Sri Kantha, February 14, 2008

[H]aving selflessly devoted his 25-year career for the development of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka since 1981, Ravi’s track record as an institution builder is exemplary and tough to match by Tamil folks like us, who have spent a quarter century or more in relatively safe niches.

Dr. Sivasubramaniam Raveendranath 1951 - 2006 On Feb. 22nd, my friend Sivasubramaniam Raveendranath (born in 1951) would have marked 57 years, with his dear ones. Since his unfortunate and contemptible abduction in Colombo on December 15, 2006, evidences has piled up that he is not alive now. Whether he was alive on Feb. 22nd, 2007 is also in doubt now.

As such, I pen this eulogy to Raveendranath with a heavy heart.

In post-independent Sri Lanka, Raveendranath is the third vice chancellor of a university to lose his life violently. In 1989, the JVP’s  violence-prone anarchists assassinated Prof. Stanley Wijesundara (the then Vice Chancellor of Colombo University) and Prof. C. Patuwathavithana. Of these two Sinhalese academics, Prof. Wijesundara was my biochemistry professor during 1973-74 when I was an undergrad. I don’t know anything about the credentials of Prof. Patuwathavithana. The reason for me mentioning these two names will become evident towards the end of this eulogy.

I became acquainted first with Raveendranath as a batch mate in our pre-university period, during 1970-71 at the Aquinas University College, Borella.

Two Letters in 1992

Like a bolt from the blue, on May 18, 1992, I received a letter from Eastern University, Sri Lanka. It was dated 6.5.92 [i.e., 6 May 1992]. The sender was Dr. S. Raveeendranath, then holding the position of “Head/ Agronomy” at this university. At that time, I was affiliated to the Osaka Bioscience Institute. The main details of the letter were as follows:

“Dear Sri,

I hope you may remember me. I am attached to the Department of Agric[ultural] Biology at the Eastern University. I have completed my Ph.D. in UK and returned to Sri Lanka in 1988. I got your address from the Food Insects Newsletter. My sabbatical leave is due in 1993/94. Although I tried to get placements in USA and Canada, the attempts were not successful. Hence I shall be thankful if you would inform the possibility of obtaining a place in any of the Japanese universities to spend my sabbatical leave.

Professor Bala [subramaniam] expired as the 4th of April 1992. It is a great loss for us. Thanking You.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. S. Raveendranath”

I was not sure, about to which Professor Bala, Ravi was referring. There was Prof. S. Balasubramaniam (botanist) at the University of Peradeniya. I was a student of this soft-spoken Professor and expert on the indigenous plants of Sri Lanka during 1977-78. Then, there’s Prof. K. Balasubramaniam (hard-working biochemist, with the endearing moniker ‘Coconut Bala’, since he researched and published on the biochemistry of coconut sap and liquor!), who had been at the universities of Peradeniya, Colombo and later Jaffna. This Prof. Bala, known to my father, was a mentor to me as well. In those pre-internet days, obituary messages from the island got transmitted via post and took time for clarification as well. I sent a reply to Ravi, dated May 22, 1992. The main details were as follows:

“Dear Ravi:

It was a pleasant surprise to receive your letter dated May 6. If I am not mistaken, you are my friend at the Aquinas University College (1970-71), and then you did B.Sc. Agric[ulture] degree in Peradeniya, while I was in the University of Colombo. Then, when I moved to Peradeniya in 1977, you were there. If this background information agrees with yours, I do remember well about you.

My story since I left Peradeniya in Aug. 1981 for my Ph.D. studies in the USA, is pretty interesting and a complex one, which I cannot describe in one letter. My current position at the Osaka Bioscience Institute is a temporary one, till early next year.

Regarding sabbatical placements for you, I cannot assure you complete success in Japan, though I will try my best to assist you in some ways.

Regarding the death of Prof. Bala, I wonder whom you are referring? Is it Prof. S. Balasubramaniam of Dept. of Botany, in the University of Peradeniya?

Ravi, I am glad that you located my name in the Food Insects Newsletter. I do look forward to hearing from you again. With best wishes.

Sincerely yours,

Sri ”

To this letter of mine, Dr. Raveendranath responded promptly with a letter dated 09.06.1992 [i.e., 9 June 1992]. It reached Osaka on June 18, 1992. The main details were as follows:

“Dear Sri,

Thank you for your letter which I received today. I am happy to note that you recognized me. I am the same old Ravi who studied with you at Aquinas. I can still remember the Flute arangetram. How is life in Japan?

I am enclosing herewith my CV for your information. It is not an outstanding one. From the time I returned from UK after my Ph.D, there are problems. First by the IPKF, then [by] the so-called movements and the current fightings. You could understand the difficulties that we undergo here.

You cannot expect anyone to do meaningful research under these circumstances. Despite all the difficulties I arrange[d] to get a grant from ODA for a project on synthesis of micro-herbicide from a fungi. However, owing to the disturbances in this area I have to abandon that research and the same work is being carried out in the Philippines now as the ODA refused to continue funding. That is the story.

My area of research is the field of biocontrol. I am dealing with vegetable pests and their natural enemies in the Eastern Region of Sri Lanka. Tentative duration [of sabbatical leave] Sept 93 – Aug 94.

Prof. Bala (Botany) attached [to] the University of Peradeniya passed away last month.

Yours sincerely,

S. Raveendranath”

I sent my reply to Raveendranath on June 20, 1992. The main details were as follows:

“Dear Ravi:

Thank you for your letter of June 6 and the enclosure, which I received here two days ago. I am glad that I recognized my old friend. I should first state that I salute and admire your courage and conviction, in returning to Sri Lanka and continuing to work in the ‘home atmosphere’, despite all the difficulties and unpleasant surroundings. I will try my best to suggest some practical means, which may lead to a placement for you in Japan. But I cannot assure you complete success, because I am still a stranger here.

I have left the area of agricultural biology (and entomology) long time ago. So, I am not keeping up with the research literature in these areas. Therefore, I also don’t know the names of professors or researchers in Japan who are specialists in your area of interest. I wonder whether you can help me in this regard. Can you recognize at least 3 or 4 researchers (professors in the universities or the national institutes in Japan) who are experts in bio-control? If so, the first approach I could suggest is for you to write an exploratory letter to them, expressing your interest in joining their research group for a period of one year. In Japan, there are some agencies which support researchers from developing countries (especially Asia), and these host scientists can apply for stipends for supporting the visiting researchers. I can try to provide some details, related to these agencies in due course. When you receive a favorable reply from one of your selected scientists, then you can negotiate the other details. So, as a first step, I would suggest that you should get the names and addresses of Japanese scientists who are specialists in the area of bio-control.

The institute I am currently affiliated, is a newly established institute and a small one. The research focus is not at all agriculture-related. So, I cannot find the names and addresses of professors who are engaged in research in bio-control. I am now doing research on neurobiochemistry; related to the role prostaglandins in sleep-wage regulation in rats. Life in Japan is really a ‘rat race’ and things are extremely expensive. Of course, material comfort is available, but it comes at a price.

It's good that you should start the process now itself. I will write again, once I hear from you, about the names and addresses of Japanese scientists, whom you can identify as bio-control experts. With best regards.

Sincerely yours,

Sri”

I felt sad that I couldn’t be of more help to find a suitable placing for Ravi in any of the universities in Japan. Then (as an exiled scientist holding a Sri Lankan passport), even my professional situation in Japan was rather tenuous.

Unfortunately, I didn’t hear from Raveendranath after this for a long time. The reason was understandable. I came to know subsequently that Lady Luck had smiled at Ravi somewhat belatedly and he was one of the recipients of the Commonwealth academic staff fellowship which allowed him to spend his 1994-95 sabbatical year at the Natural Resource Institute in the United Kingdom.   

Though we were not in touch via letters or phone calls, I had keenly followed the ascent of Ravi in the academic/administrative ranks to the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University and thereafter, until his abduction on December 15, 2006 in Colombo. I sympathized with his agony and ecstasy. I mildly surprised him when I talked to him on phone in November 2006, a couple of weeks before he was abducted. We also exchanged a couple of emails between that phone conversation and his abduction.

Spurious Concern from the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka

Last year, I was somewhat annoyed by the spurious concern exhibited by the fellow Sri Lankan academics belonging to the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL), the so-called “high level, non-governmental scientific body” of nearly 200-odd ranking academics of the island. In its home page, I read the message of concern on the abduction of Raveendranath, that was filled with a politically correct display of names, in addition to that of my friend. First thing to note was that Raveendranath was not an elected member of this Academy of political Poo-Bahs.

Secondly, I noted that the poster models of “LTTE terrorism” (Rajani Thiranagama and Neelan Tiruchelvam) were tagged in this spurious message of concern for Raveendranath’s plight. This selective recitation of Tamil names, at the expense of Raveendranath, was somewhat nauseating to me.

Inclusion of the names of Tamil victims at the hand of Sinhalese hooligans such as Dr. Somasunderam Rajasundaram (killed at the Welikade jail on July 27, 1983) and Dr. Kathamuthu Visvaranjan (killed near the Palaly Army base in May 1987) was equally nauseating to the Poo-Bahs of NASSL.

Thirdly, though I grant that Dr. Rajani Thiranagama and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam were academics of some standing, both never held the vice chancellor rank of a university; and, both were not even elected to the membership of this NASSL.

Fourthly, in that spurious message of concern on Raveendranath, no mention was made to the 1989 assassinations of Prof. S.Wijesundera and Prof. C. Patuwathavithana by the JVP ultra-anarchists.

An Institution Builder

As he himself admitted in his 1992 letter, Ravi’s track record as a publishing scientist “is not an outstanding one.” But this certainly is not a proper reflection on the professional career of Ravi, which had been abruptly snuffed out by the anti-social elements flamboyantly promoted by the powerful ruling coterie.

When in 1992 Ravi confided in me that “You cannot expect anyone to do meaningful research under these circumstances.” I hardly doubted his sincere truth. What he stated is an open secret that gets published in Colombo dailies by practicing scientists, but under a cover name, for obvious reasons of rebuke and rebuff. Here is an excerpt from 2001, which I have saved in my files, contributed by a “Special Correspondent”, who began his complaint with a qualifier, “As a practicing scientist of over 35 years standing and nearing retirement, science is a serious matter for me.” There is no doubt that this ‘Special Correspondent’ was a Sinhalese. To quote, one paragraph,

“Sri Lanka is an unfortunate country in many ways. Our present predicament is self-inflicted. For as long as I can remember, the Ministers responsible for S & T [i.e., Science and Technology] have been rank ignoramuses (lawyers, historians, prehistorians, land owners, professional politicians etc. who knows nothing about S & T). The Secretaries of the Ministry they headed were no better. Mostly graduates in Geography, Economics, History, Pali, Sinhala (and their comic combinations) and what not. This is double jeopardy. I cannot remember ever of a trained scientist holding the post in the past. I have watched cynically as these ministerial worthies aimlessly glide from place to place in cool-comfort, in chaufferred, leather seated limousines (Volvos preferred), mouthing meaningless opinions through the media. Where will it take us?” [source: Island, Colombo, June 19, 2001].

When the political scums rule the roost, it is hardly of worth to speak about scientific progress. And there had been one or two ‘foreign-returned’ evangelists among the Tamil academics who back-scratched the political scums, to promote themselves as messiahs of higher education and after getting anointed themselves as vice chancellors, made a hasty return flight to their pleasure havens while wailing ‘death threats to family.’ Compared to these joker-nonstarters, having selflessly devoted his 25-year career for the development of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka since 1981, Ravi’s track record as an institution builder is exemplary and tough to match by Tamil folks like us, who have spent a quarter century or more in relatively safe niches.

I check the names of academics listed under the one-page description for ‘Batticaloa University College’ in the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook 1983, vol.3. The information available in a one-page [page 2126] description –as “information compiled as at 19/10/82” – provides the names of the following academics who planted the foundation stones for higher education in Eastern Eelam.

Agricultural Economics: S. Rajaratnam, E.D. Ford, A.N. Ahamed.

Agricultural Engineering: R. Sri Ranjan

Agronomy: S. Sivasubramaniam, K. Sabesan, K. Nithianantharajah, S. Raveendranath, A.R. Arulanantham, M.C.M. Iqbal.

Animal Science: M. Thamotharan.

Botany: U. Coomaraswamy, L.H. Cramer, T. Jayasingham, S. Thiagalingam.

Chemistry: D.R.M. Walton, S.S. Salam, N. Kohiladevi.

English (2nd Language Course): S. Kiritharan, S. Velupillai, B.M. Jeganayagam.

Mathematics: G.S. Thayagaran, M. Kathirkamanayakam. A. Sivapalan.

Physics: S. Sivananthan, S Thevuthasan.

Zoology: M. Sabaratnam.

These 22 academics belonging to the two Faculties (Science and Agriculture) were in charge of the inaugural batch of 77 undergraduate students (57 men and 20 women), who were admitted in Oct. 1981. Also of note was the fact that among the 22 academics, only four (S. Rajaratnam, U. Coomaraswamy, D.R.M. Walton and M. Sabaratnam) held professor ranks. Of these four, I had the privilege of being the student of academics Uma Coomaraswamy and Mano Sabaratnam at the University of Colombo between 1972 and 1975. Among the 22 academics who were in the faculty roster of the Batticaloa University College in 1982, Ravi had the distinction of being the young academic who commenced his professional career as an Assistant Lecturer at the Batticaloa University College and ended his life as the Vice Chancellor of the same institution. Long live the dreams of Sivasubramaniam Raveendranath.

*****