Tributes | Sunday Observer


S. Vamadevan : An unassumingly simple and friendly man

“Shoot, if you must,
this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

The lines from the poem of Barbara Frietchie by John Greenleaf Whittier spoke of a remarkably brave woman whose love for her country during the American civil war formed the basis of the poem.

Now over a century later, the words repeated in cursive writing on a sheet of paper by an 84- year old man before a doctor in Sydney made the physician break into laughter. “Nothing seriously wrong with his memory,” the doctor told the man’s wife of 54 years.

He had asked the man to write anything that he recollected without assistance from his wife and the lines from the poem resulted. Asking that he be brought back in about a year to check for the onset of dementia, the doctor commented on his extraordinary memory.

It was April 2017, and the man before the doctor was as remarkable a person as the character in the poem, if not more so.

Subramaniam Vamadevan, fondly known as Vama by many was from Chundikuli in Sri Lanka’s North. He made a name for himself wherever he went. At Peradeniya University he Captained the football team and perhaps was the only barefoot player.

I came to know him when as a young cub reporter, I used to regularly visit the office of the Commissioner of Police Colombo, situated at the then Echelon Square in Fort. Other than when he was busy with his senior officers, Vamadevan always welcomed me with a smile. After chatting away he sometimes gave me a story to work on. Unlike today, the biggest robbery around the mid 70s would amount to about Rs.30,000 and the number of killings island-wide reported to Police Headquarters would be few and far between.

An unassumingly simple and friendly man, he could sometimes be seen riding to work on his white scooter. I am sure, the site of this senior officer slowly pulling up on his scooter alongside motorists parked at a traffic light and smiling at them would have given many a driver an inadvertent shock. Riding along on his scooter also gave him a feel for the road, problem spots and possible bottlenecks and of course the errant driver or two. Upon arrival at his office he would take remedial action to rectify the problems by getting in touch with his relevant officers.

He also did the right thing by his men who did their duty without fear or favour. Once the late Lionel Karunasena, a former Commandant of the Special Task Force (STF) --one of the most incorruptible officers of the force—earned the wrath of a then VVIP to be, for not heeding instructions from one of the politico’s favourite businessmen. Lionel had ordered him out of his office. Everyone expected poor Lionel’s ‘goose to be cooked’ and for him to be kicked out of the Dematagoda Police Station, where, as the OIC, he had been doing some brilliant work against the underworld.

As expected, Lionel’s transfer was almost immediate. But, what was puzzling was the choice of police station! It was a transfer cum promotion. From Dematagoda he was sent as Headquarters Inspector to Wellawatte, an A-1 police station where he did yeoman service. A notable incident was his finding foster parents for an infant girl abandoned at a shop front.

Years after retirement, Vamadevan admitted his hand in the transfer, to the writer, though he remained non-committal during the time he was the Commissioner of Police.

Among the notable achievements of ‘Vama,’ as he was known among friends, was the establishment of the Hewisi Band of the Sri Lanka Police Reserve (SLPR). It took Edinburgh by storm with its performance at the famous Edinburgh Tattoo in 1974.

Flown especially in a Royal Air Force jet from Sri Lanka, Vama’s troupe of 48 and administrative staff were billeted in the famous castle.

The band was established in 1972 taking advantage of a recruitment drive to supplement Police strength in readiness for the Non-aligned Nations Conference in 1976. Vama, then the Deputy Commandant of the SLPR decided to fan out into the country in search of youths averaging 23 years of age rather than having them come to Colombo. It was then that he and his trusty band of men discovered that in a particular village most of the youth were experienced drummers. An idea germinated in Vama’s mind.

Known for thinking outside the box, he decided it would be easier and beneficial to the police to ‘train a drummer to be a policeman than a policeman to be an experienced drummer.’ And thus was born the Hewisi band that brought fame to the island by performing in Tasmania, Sydney, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Peking and Oman following its highly acclaimed visit to the Edinburgh Tattoo.

After much coaxing by the writer,Vama who was retired and living in Sydney wrote about the SLPR Hewisi Band for a Lankan newspaper in 2001. True to form due credit was given to those deserving but nowhere was his name evident other than in the byline.

Writing about the versatile standard of the Police Reserve Troupe at the Tattoo Vama recalled how eight girls of the band within a few hours mastered the Scottish Highland Dance, donned Tartans and provided traditional Scottish entertainment to the amazement of the crowd.

Too numerous to mention, Vama’s achievements, including the writing of books, would be recalled with pride by those who knew him.

Today, he would be called a ‘legend’ along with some of those who served with him and whom he nurtured in the police force.

Sadly, the high position he held in the police did not spare him from racist thugs who were unleashed in 1983 by ‘so called’ government leaders lacking in statecraft. Vama’s house at Polhengoda, not far from the Kirulapone Police Station was razed to the ground.

From a visit abroad, Vama, wife Charmaine, and two children found nothing to return to. They had to seek the assistance of neighbour and friend, the late Wing Commander Noel Fernando to get to a safe abode. Jewellery that had been looted and melted were recovered by loyal friend and colleague the late Tyrrell Goonetilleka, who had earned a name for himself as a fearless investigator.

Vama retired and accepted the offer of citizenship extended to him by Australia.

Following 30 years of their arrival in Australia, daughter ‘Shivi’ visited Sri Lanka with her young children and Australian husband. Their car was stopped at a checkpoint opposite the Colombo Museum. A police officer looked in.

In spite of the passage of time, recognition was instantaneous. “Loku baby?” he exclaimed remembering the little girl who accompanied Vama to band rehearsals. Tears welled in his eyes as he mentioned that he was no longer a Police reservist, but now a regular.

A similar incident occurred on their visit to the ‘Dalada Maligawa’ in Kandy. ‘Vamadevan?’ a police officer uttered from a building. When Shivi acknowledged, the officer came down and escorted the family into a building. Adorning a wall was a photograph of a smart man in police uniform.

It was of Vama taken many decades ago. “Pa!” ( that’s what his grand-kids called Vama) the boys uttered in wonder. “Yes,” confirmed Shivi with pride as she tried to overcome the lump in her throat and control the tears that welled in her eyes.

“Officers like you have become a very rare breed Vama. Fortune rarely favours the bold nowadays.”

Panduka Senanayake 


Chitrasena Ananda Rodrigo: Tea gardens he managed with splendid efficiency

Senior planter, excellent human being, devout Buddhist, family man, jovial friend and great company, best defined Chitrasena Ananda Rodrigo who passed away four years ago on June 18 at the relatively young age of 67.

He had his primary education at Trinity College, Kandy and secondary education at Ananda College in Colombo. His father Wilmot Rodrigo himself a Trinitian and proprietary tea planter moved his son to Colombo in the hope of improving his chances of entering university so that he won’t have to depend on the family wealth to make a living. Wilmot believed, that in the wake of the spread of the Communist doctrine across many countries, notably in China, Ceylon too would become a Communist or Socialist state devoid of private ownership of plantations and other capital assets. He said, only doctors and engineers will be able to enjoy a reasonable standard of living and acceptance in society. He was right to the extent of the nationalization of plantations, land in excess of 50 acres, bus companies and many other enterprises, including, petrol import and distribution.

Chitrasena, Chitto to his friends in the plantation industry and Sena to his school friends and his cousins, did not take studies seriously despite the move to Ananda. From the age of six Sena was in the Trinity College hostel with his elder brother Janalal. At Ananda he was again in the hostel although many of his colleagues travelled to school from Panadura where his parents lived. His elder brother continued for some more years at Trinity.

Sena had two first cousins, of roughly the same age, Deva Rodrigo and Chandrasiri Jayaratne (CJ) in the Ananda hostel. It was great for fun but did not augur well for studies; and three years later, his father moved him out of the hostel to bring him up at home under his close supervision. About the same time Deva was expelled from the hostel and CJ was also taken out to go to school from Panadura. In the same year, for quite different reasons, Janalal was brought to Panadura from Kandy and admitted to Sri Sumangala College which produced excellent results at University Entrance examination.

If the three cousins in the hostel at Ananda were a maleficent combination for discipline and schoolwork, at Panadura they became a troublesome syndicate of four with Janalal. We coalesced as buddies and stepped into adolescence. These were some of the best years in the lives of the four of us.

His home Sirvilasa on Gravets Road, Panadura soon became a centre of attraction to Janalal’s friends from Sri Sumangala. Sena, CJ and I were accepted by them as equals. Every evening the badminton court at Sirvilasa had to accommodate about 10 of us. Experiences and best kept secrets of adolescence were shared with each other while waiting for our turns on the courts.

It was on the steps leading to the kitchen wing of this enormous house that we plotted bicycle rides to all corners of the Panadura electorate and the neighbourhood, including, Bandaragama and Piliyandala; what film we should watch; how to get permission to go out and what mischievous adventure we should embark on. Cycling was a great way of exploring rural life, paddy fields, the shrub-lands and waterways, including, the Bolgoda Lake that bordered about a third of Panadura from Hirana to the Panadura River that flowed out to the sea at the ‘Moya Kata’. A few years later after our GCE (Ordinary)Level examinations, Sena’s father encouraged the two sons to obtain their driving licence and allowed them to take the car out with friends on Vesak day or to watch cricket matches. The boys couldn’t have asked for more and nothing could have spoilt them any further.

When we were in senior forms at school, Sena’s mother and father went on a long European tour by ship. His sister Janaki was boarded at the house of one of our aunts and his youngest brother Kamalsiri was also given in charge to her. That released the house to Sena and Janalal with a few domestic helpers. That was a period of intense play followed by drinks, baila sessions and chats on the veranda of Sirvilasa. Those who indulged over the limit could recover on a bed overnight. Friday evenings were special and it went past midnight till stocks lasted.

After our failed attempts at the university entrance examinations Sena and his brother were packed off to the plantations to train. They were paid only a ‘Sinna Dorai’s’ salary but were allowed to occupy the magnificent proprietor’s bungalow at Kabaragala. One of their maternal uncles, a former officer in the Army was the estate manager and he understood the youthful life of the two teenagers. Sena and his brother had a great time at the estate bungalow. So did his cousins and the innumerable friends who visited them.

The boisterous years ended and Sena sobered up after his marriage. He was fortunate to find Dilani Mendis from Moratuwa, an attractive and accomplished girl from Ladies’ College. She changed his life but allowed (or had to allow) him to party with his friends the way planters knew best. Dilani gave him the greatest gifts; daughter Diluka and son Preveen.

Sena was the Superintendent of Gallella tea plantation in Maturata when the estates were taken over by the state. With the blessings of his father he joined the State Plantations Corporation where he held progressively responsible positions. He was a cluster director at SPC when the plantations were privatized. At that point he was absorbed by Aitken Spence Plantations and thereafter by James Finlay & Co., where he was employed as a Superintendent of some of their finest plantations. Delma Group in Halgranoya, Duckwari Estate and Madulkele Estate were among the tea gardens he managed with splendid efficiency.

What gave Sena a sense of great achievement was Diluka’s and Preveen’s success at examinations and in their places of work. He lived to see the day his daughter was admitted as a partner of the prestigious law firm Julius & Creasy and his son found employment with Millennium IT as a Systems Engineer. Sena lived to see the birth of his granddaughter Aheli, who filled the last two and a half years of his life with immense happiness. She remembers him to this day with fondness and still refers to him affectionately as ‘Seeya Boy’.

Diluka by her marriage to Ranil Angunawela gave Sena a new friend, her father in law, Brian Angunawela. Their attitudes, traits and interests were a perfect match and they became an inseparable pair.

The additions to Sena’s family and the new friendships enriched his retirement.

On coming back to reside in Colombo Sena rekindled his interest in the Rodrigo Family Friend in Need Society Limited, established in 1838, and served as a vice president until his death. Today, there is a fund established in his memory at this Society to educate children as he did when he was still among us.

He reactivated his connections with Rankoth Viharaya, Panadura where his father and grandfather had been key Dayakas. In conversations with the erudite chief incumbent Ven Prof. Kahapola Sugatharathana Thera he enhanced his knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha. Before long he was in the shoes of his father as the first point of contact for all needs of the temple. He led the teams that repaired the roof of the 100 year old Dharma Salawa (Hall) and re-laid the floor of that building. In 2005 and 2012 he persuaded his first cousins to shoulder the responsibilities of the Vassana Pinkama to look after the monks during the rainy season of four months and attend to all their needs. He was thus, for many years before his passing away, a devout Buddhist and a spiritual man. He gave generously to those in need and helped them in innumerable ways. I was myself a beneficiary of his munificence many years ago when I was building my house. He lent me a large sum of money without hesitation and without interest. He provided for his mother until her death at the age of 90.

His untimely death following a month in hospital unable to recover from a stroke that affected his brain stem was a great loss to many friends and relatives. As a first cousin, neighbour, hostel mate and buddy he was special to me. I miss him deeply.

Chitrasena Ananda Rodrigo was a wonderful man.


Deva Rodrigo