By Gomin Dayasri
It’s weeks since ‘Karu’ departed and the vacuum he left remains hollow and empty; unfair by any successor at Peoples Bank or Peoples Leasing or any institution he chaired, for such was his effervescent character that any substitute will pale into insignificance and any comparison uncharitable.
The many anecdotes or snippets exchanged fondly by multitude of mourners seated under hurriedly erected tents on a tarred lane whilst his body lay at rest at his Anderson Road flat upstairs was a telling testimony to a man, honest and straight: who kept company with the highest in the land but did not ever own a vehicle-two or four wheel, for he had no such craving and lived within his means. Integrity and ingenuity is written boldly when a man with easy access to the powerful, is a chairman of a bank, trusted friend of Presidents and Prime Ministers, but never cared to live in official or private quarters with the luxury of a garage. There lies the landmark of genuine greatness: where luxury is within easy grasp but will not stretch out to reach knowing the borders of propriety.
In the framed photo gallery of past chairmen of the Peoples Bank he should be remembered for that alone. Where lunch on a tray came previously from a five star hotel for the chairman, he changed tradition by picking his newspaper wrapped packet from the office canteen.
I walked for the first time to the SLFP headquarters in 1978 after a crushing defeat at the elections to be greeted by a chubby youth named W. Karunajeewa, administrative secretary (gradually expanding in girth but retaining that same mischievous cherubic smile) and our chemistry clicked to perfection to make it a life-long ‘romance’. It was his charm and wisdom that anchored me to Darley Road.
Probably the most influential Rajan of his generation forgotten by his Kandy school, he was the lovable President of the powerful students union at the Peradeniya campus loved by his contemporaries who enjoyed his company at functions of the alumni, the pin up boy in the SLFP who was a colossus in its most difficult days, outstanding counsel who won most of his cases by presenting his case always in the vernacular and the chairman of the provident fund who could withstand pressures from politicians. Karunajeewa was a man for all seasons; his versatility originated from his mind. He could bat bowl or field in any condition - stickier the wicket the better he performed.
In the 2005 presidential elections he was entrusted to lead the troublesome Galle district in a divided SLFP; just before he left for the South he told me he had to pick a majority of over 300,000 for Mahinda Rajapaksa to offset the lead Ranil Wickremesinghe will win in the North and East. Most thought winning the district will be an achievement. He returned surpassing the targeted majority. At any future election, the SLFP has lost its best strategist in field operations; his loss will be reflected when the votes are next counted.
Karu lost his post during the infighting in the SLFP due to his close association with Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was the beginning of his upward mobility. I thought he was shabbily treated and invited him to join me as a junior in the legal profession. It was exciting times with Karunajeewa, Lasantha Wickrematunga (private secretary to Mrs Bandaranaike) and Wijedasa Liyanaratchchi (of JVP fame) in the chambers. We knew that in the forthcoming presidential elections, the JVP was tilting in favor of a Premadasa victory because of Wijedasa’s talk. When Wijedasa Liyanaratchchi was eliminated we fretted as his last days, for security reasons, were spent mostly in our company. Through Lasantha’s and Karu’s contacts, Wijedasa’s 64 page ‘police confession’ was smuggled out within 48 hours of his being killed by state brutality. Either we were too insignificant for a mention in the mind of the Police or Wijedasa ensured our safety. Karu was the smartest in the threesome and was able to die of natural causes unlike the other two.
Karunajeewa in his younger days led a daring life but never was afraid to walk alone in the nights as he had so much confidence in himself -he knew he will always come out smelling roses. He could extricate himself from any difficult situation with his smart talk. He would have been so much richer if he did not accept the post of Chairman Peoples Bank to work for a salary to the fees he was earning in the profession. But he felt obliged to do a stint of national service. At his last dinner with me, a month before he died, he told me that he was retiring from the bank in end March 2013 and may do a token practice with his old team mate lawyer Manoli Jinadasa.
Karu was happiest talking of his daughter’s achievements which made him proud. He never took credit for himself or his wife but attributed it to the teachers at Visakha for inculcating the wisdom of the Sinhala Buddhist traditions which he revered. He married his campus sweetheart after saving her from police custody thanks to his SLFP connections when the innocent were rounded for alleged JVP connections from the Peradeniya campus. Karu would have never achieved such fame if not of Kusum’s understanding nature.
In the SLFP his closest friend was Halim Ishak- a gentleman politician from a different era. SLFP of the old which I knew had three clever men- Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Basil Rajapaksa and W.Karunajeewa. They lived in different worlds and operated on different wave lengths. Karu lived in content with his band of nondescript friends who were with him in times good and bad.
Brother, you and I are unlikely candidates to pitch tent in Camp Nirvana too early. So let’s meet again in this long journey through sansara for I always craved your company and learnt so much of contemporary history from you. Wish Peoples Bank as a tribute will publish a book on the life and times of W.Karunajeewa - the man who revived an ailing bank.