By Malinda Seneviratne –
There’s dust in the universe that come together in ways no one really knows. This dust interacts with other dust particles, is transformed for a fraction of time in a universal clock of whose dimensions are known only in their enormity. We choose lifetime as a unit for manageable purposes and in such dimensions we can find coherence. And integrity. We call it a person. A personality. They are born, they decay, they perish. And the dust that they are scatters across the universe in ways we really cannot predict.
That’s Carlo we are talking about. Carlo Fonseka.
I first met him when he was visiting his son, my friend and housemate, Suranga, in Boston. This was in the Summer of 1991. I took him to see John Kenneth Galbraith, then Emeritus Professor of Economics and considered a leading figure in 20th century liberalism. I was a mere spectator at that brief meeting where Uncle Carlo spoke one of Galbraith’s books. He had read it and had written to Galbraith about it. Uncle Carlo also admired another Harvard don, E.O. Wilson, a pioneering theorist who held there was a genetic basis for social behavior.
Prof. Carlo Fonseka
Uncle Carlo was a physician and a teacher. A Marxist. A rationalist. He liked things pinned down based on that which was tangible. Naturally he wasn’t impressed when I told him that the Sociology Department at Harvard seemed to think that everything could be reduced to numbers. He responded, ‘in that case you would end up as a wooly-headed sociologist’. I didn’t end up as a sociologist, wooly or otherwise, but years later I told my postgraduate committee in the Development Sociology Department at Cornell University that I find it hard to distinguish sociology from literature and philosophy. I should have told him about that exchange. I’m sure he would have laughed.
Uncle Carlo spoke about his nephew Vijaya Kumaratunga over a cup of coffee at the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. With passion and sorrow. He dismissed the notion of ‘historical inevitability,’ pointing out that the Bolsheviks let Finland go by a majority of a single vote. He was dismissive of Christian beliefs too: ‘Rising from the dead, immaculate conception…I mean, that’s medieval isn’t it?’ Such sentiments he did not express in public to my knowledge. He recited for me, however, a long ballad on the logic of opposing capitalism which was based on the Buddha’s fire sermon. Apparently, that was an integral part of speeches he made during election campaigns for the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
He reveled talking about his lyrics, mentioning in particular a buduguna song he had penned for Pundit Amaradeva. He recalled the line ‘thanhaave doshaa’ (the folly of greed) and told me how had queried the maestro about his (Amaradeva’s) decision to repeat the line. Amaradeva had pointed out that the point can be driven home through emphasis, dragging the second word the second time. He was excited at being taught something salient. He was humble.
In later years, we had a brief exchange on the pages of the Sunday Island during the heady days of the Ceasefire Agreement between the then Government and the LTTE. Carlo, as per his convictions and his vision for Sri Lanka was all for devolution of power, never mind that geographical, historic, economical, demographic and archaeological factors rebelled against such formulation. He said at the time that it was the moment that the Sinhalese could be magnanimous.
He was magnanimous most of the time. He was not when it came to beliefs he held close to his heart. He drew from a larger picture, but of course one which was a product of subjectivity. He was dismissive of ideological opponents. Interjecting in a debate in ‘The Island’ between Dayan Jayatilleka and myself, Uncle Carlo while referring to me in fond terms, gave Dayan 10/10 and gave me 0/10. Carlo was in agreement with Dayan, ideologically, again on the subject of devolution. I understood. My father joined this battle, despite my objection (‘I am a citizen, I have the right,’ he said) and the move was read as me getting ‘papa to come to my defense’ (as Dayan put it, I believe). That quote has made the rounds.
He knew my father who at one point shared his ideological preferences. ‘I was attracted to the LSSP due to its intellectualism and I am sure so was your father,’ he told me in Boston. I respected him for all of this, his age, his commitment to the truths he believed in and most of all his largely tender ways of engagement even when it was laced with political repartee.
I still recall meeting him in the office of Prabath Sahabandu, batchmate from Peradeniya University and then the Deputy Editor of ‘The Island’. Uncle Carlo recognized me, smiled, and said ‘I read your articles for style, not substance!’‘Those whose articles you read for substance no longer talk about class, but I do,’ I offered. He said ‘I know and I appreciate.’
He was kind. A few years ago when he was in charge of the Medical Council, I went to see him with a set of poetry collections. He wrote me a short letter, summing up his sentiments which happened to be quite generous.
He loved defending the truths he believed. On one occasion we both had to speak at the launch of Nalin De Silva’s book ‘Batahira Vidyaava Deviyo Aasanik’ (The West, Science, God and Arsenic). I had to leave before Uncle Carlo spoke. I was told that Nalin had requested him not to touch on a particular chapter. Naturally, that’s exactly what he did. Naturally, too, Nalin had responded. There must be innumerable anecdotes that indicate his zest for debate. Innumerable anecdotes about his humanity too. And of course innumerable anecdotes about glaring contradictions when it came to certain choices, political and personal, which of course he would defend with zeal if he had to do so.
It is not easy to write about such a man, such a unique configuration of dust particles, especially since our interactions were random and brief. There is perhaps one conversation which, to me, marked Uncle Carlo’s politics, philosophical bent, other factors which informed his engagement in all matters ideological and political, and of course his commerce with fellow creatures.
It was at the Borella Kanatte. I can’t remember who had died. I saw him and as was always the case, went up and said ‘hello.’
‘I read your piece about that boy who stabbed that girl in Kiriella. I read it three times trying to find a contradiction or something that was wrong. I couldn’t. It would have taken me three hours to write something like that and I’m sure you just wrote it in one go.’
‘Maybe that’s because you are trapped in a Cartesian frame,’ I suggested.
‘What to do, I’m a doctor!’
‘I know. That’s probably useful in medicine, but not in life.’
He laughed. We parted.
And now his constituent particles have reconfigured. That which he has become is unrecognizable. That which he was is scattered to the extent possible given his last wishes. That which he left behind, by and by, will be forgotten or disfigured and misrepresented. Something, though, will remain in everything and everyone he touched one way or another.
What can one say to one who believed what Uncle Carlo did about life, death and things that remain and things that will disappear? Nothing. To ourselves and each other, we can say things. And we will, until we too disappear in the verity of transformation. He was a speck of dust but one which was inimitable and unmistakable. A speck of dust that nevertheless dwarfed many of us. This too we will remember.