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Remembering Hema Nalin Karunaratne


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Hearing of Hema Nalin’s death from thousands of miles away filled me with immense sadness. He wasn’t a close friend and I hadn’t interacted with him for easily for a decade or even more. But none of that mattered. He is a guy you wouldn’t forget for the rest of your life even if you had met him just for few minutes.

The year was ’99. We were thickly into organising the Millennium March. One of our top priorities was to motivate the senior students. The school administration warned me they hardly get involved in any activity outside academics. I wasn’t happy about running an event only for the Royal Primary. Here was a serious challenge and damn it – I was going to conquer it by hook or crook (or both). And my goal was to create an unforgettable masterpiece. And the key depended on firing the imagination of thousands of teenagers who, when fired, could carry you up to the Everest. I was looking for a speaker who could galvanise them to action. Someone the seniors would take seriously and decide to follow as against making fun of.

I knew the perfect guy and my automatic choice was Saman Athaudahetti who helped my media campaign when I ran against Prasanna De Silva for the Presidency of Sinhala Sahithya Sangamaya in ’73 where Prasanna was highly favoured to win with almost five years seniority against my barely six months. And I ended up winning just by one vote! Saman contributed in no small way.

The school authorities turned my request down. The reason given was his long hair halfway down to waist (bad influence for current students!). To date I believe another important reason but unstated, was Saman’s close relationship with Ranil Wickremesinghe and by ’99 everyone avoided Ranil like the plague.

Now I was in a quandary. These guys would tell me who not to bring but not volunteer whom I can bring. So I went back to Saman and asked for recommendations and his instant choice was Hema Nalin. And he only smiled when I conveyed that the administration had closed Boake Gate on him!

Nalin happily accepted the invitation and addressed the middle and senior students at Nava Ranga Hala (in batches). It was a mastery performance. In his conversational style-very light, amusing and highly engaging – he got the full attention and maximum cooperation. His involvement was mainly limited to that appearance but I have no doubts he contributed in no small way in raising a record Rs. 5.2 m (and participation of over 13.5k – another record!). 

The last I remember is his hugging me near the Tamarind tree at the end of the walk. I was with my family, Gamini Edirisinghe and Lakshman Hettiarachchi. We were all still dazed, unable to comprehend how such a mega event and an absolute revenue success happened.

We lost touch in the ensuing years. Like with thousands more whom I got to know on ‘The March’.

I would look forward to meeting him again, creating beautiful events in the service of our children. See you Nalin and have safe and exciting journey!

Padmasena Dissanayake


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