Lakshman Tilakaratna (1947-2019): Gentleman and engineer

Tuesday, 10 September 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Rajan Philips

Engineer Lakshman Tilakaratna passed away quite suddenly more than month ago, on Tuesday, 16 July. For nearly 35 years, Lakshman was associated with Eastern Merchants, a Colombo public limited company and a major trading house, as Director and as Head of two of the company’s subsidiaries, namely, Asia Brush and Asia Woodware Company. But Lakshman was a great deal more than an engineer. He was a ‘full man’, in the old Baconian sense, and he embodied the finest attributes of Sri Lanka’s traditions and contemporary universal culture. 

Lakshman was raised to become what he became – a gentleman and engineer. Lakshman was the oldest of three sons of Anuradha Tilakarartna and Rajalakshmi (nee Ehambaran) Tilakaratna, both of whom were teachers and got all the fundamentals right for their children. The family lived on Templers Road, Mount Lavinia, not far from St. Thomas’ College where Lakshman studied.  

I first met Lakshman in 1967 as first-year engineering students at Peradeniya. There were about 150 of us from all across the island entering what was then the only university faculty for engineering education in the country. Now, 52 years later, in the shared memories of mutual friends, Lakshman stands out as ‘The cultured gentleman of the batch’; ‘a gentleman with nothing but kindness both in action and thought’; and this one came from Kesara Gunawardena in Australia: “Always calm and well-spoken. Never raised his voice. Never spoke ill of anybody. Would run for rugby, never for a bus!” 

Yes, Lakshman would rather wait for the next bus. He captained the university rugby team. He was President of the Engineering Students Union. A lover of outdoors, he was a ready recruit to any group venturing on mountain hikes or hinterland excursions. To a lecturer who told him that engineering students should supplement each hour of lecture with two hours of evening study, he said: “No, sir. We have a life besides studying.” 

Lakshman lived a full and blissful life as a student and for all his life thereafter. Far more important than getting a degree, it was at Peradeniya that Lakshman met Chandini (nee Karunaratna), his future wife and partner for life. She was a Western Classics student on the other side of the Mahaweli, and their campus tryst became the perfect marriage made for life. 

After Peradeniya and brief stints in Singapore and Zambia, Chandini and Lakshman settled down in Sri Lanka, in their beautiful Jawatha Road home in Colombo. They lived there for decades, raising their two daughters, Samantha and Namali. Samantha, married to Mark Kemper, lives in Sydney, Australia, with their children Sanjay and Lia. Namali, married to Shamil Mohamed, lives in Singapore with their son Shah Ayaan. 

As grandparents, Chandini and Lakshman had started dividing their time between Colombo, Singapore and Sydney. Lakshman fell ill in Australia and returned to Sri Lanka, determined to spend his last days at home. He was surrounded by loving family and friends, nursed by all, especially his brothers Loka and Raja and their families. 


Campus life

To hark back to our Peradeniya days, the Engineering Faculty had come into being in Colombo in 1950, using the facilities of the Colombo Technical College, and was relocated to Peradeniya in 1964, three years before our admission. The picturesque Peradeniya campus was already built on the east bank of the Mahaweli. The Engineering Faculty found its home on the west bank. And there it stood before our teenage eyes, in its lonely eminence on an expansive plateau, with its colonnaded entrance portal, orthogonally laid out buildings, and a training curriculum modelled on Cambridge and the London Imperial College where most of the faculty members used to go for their postgraduate studies. 

Our time at Peradeniya was a time of transition at the Engineering Faculty and even the whole university. We were fortunate to have our rites of passage guided by both the founding fathers of the faculty, as well as their very worthy successors. It was still the age of the slide rule and seven figure logarithms. The faculty got its first mainframe computer as we were leaving, and we did not get into pocket calculators and personal computers till five to ten years after we graduated.  It is a different universe now. Nonetheless, the training we received at Peradeniya and the collective faculty experiences have shaped our professional and public lives, as much by way of our general world view and way of thinking as in the applying of all the training we received. No less, the memories of campus life and the friendships we forged have also stayed with us for the rest of our lives. 

Lakshman entered Peradeniya with quite a large group of his Thomian classmates – R.L. de Silva, Rajan Hoole, B.A. Mahipala, N.J. Perera, David Ponniah, B.L. Ramanyake and N.G. (Tanky) Wickremaratne. I came to know all of them at Peradeniya and along with other mutual friends have remained close to them over the years. Every one of them has made a mark in their professional and public lives. I was on the Engineering Students Union (ESU) committee as Editor, when Lakshman was its President. 

We published the ESU Newsletter, ‘Gauge’, which was in its second year, after its launch the previous year due to the efforts of Cassim (Bunchy) Rahuman, Lakshman’s predecessor, and my predecessor Jayanthan Ratnathikam. Remarkably, Gauge continues to this day, albeit in all its electronic effortlessness, worlds apart from the labour of love that we gladly went through – from handwritten and occasionally typed texts, to typesetting by hand, heavy-eyed proof reading, and finally offset printing at an old press in Kandy. 

Another longstanding tradition at the Engineering Faculty is Dean’s Day, an annual celebration when staff and students get together to discuss some serious non-engineering subject in the morning and have fun in the afternoon. Our final year, 1972, was the year the First Republic was born and through the intercession of Dr. Kumar David, we were able to invite Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, the architect of the First Republican Constitution, and Prof. A.J. Wilson from the Arts Faculty, for a panel discussion. 

Given the subject and the speakers, the large Engineering auditorium was packed with attendees from both sides of the river. It was Lakshman’s lot to preside over Wilson’s overview of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, and Colvin’s peroration on the new constitution – ‘The exposition of my product’, as he characteristically called it. 

Lasting memory

Before 1972, our university life had been interrupted by the student-army clash in 1969, the tumultuous election of 1970, and the JVP insurrection in 1971. Within five to ten years of our graduation, there was another even more tumultuous election, the Second Republic was born, the country was turned through 180 degrees from autarkic socialism to open market economy, and long simmering ethnic differences blew open into periodical riots and a prolonged civil war. 

More than a generation of Sri Lankans have lived through these upheavals along with a general growth in wealth, individual opportunities to prosper, and national opportunities that were missed. Sri Lanka also became one of the highest per capita exporters of professional talent. 

It is fair to say that our batch of engineers was one of the early ones to take up foreign jobs soon after graduation. I was a late leaver but turned out to be more permanent than I would have first thought. 

Lakshman, on the other hand, started his career at Browns as a Mechanical Engineer, went abroad for a few years, and returned to Sri Lanka for good. He joined Eastern Merchants, the company founded by Chandini’s father Winton Karunaratne and uncle Sumane Karunaratne. Lakshman added engineering value to the company’s products, in the time-honoured tradition of turning the island’s natural raw materials into industrial and consumer products. 

My lasting memory of Lakshman will always be that of Lakshman and Chandini generously and graciously hosting the periodical gatherings of visiting and resident batchmate friends. Most of our university colleagues are now settled in Australia, Britain, Canada, Singapore and the USA. Our batch has organised reunions in Sri Lanka, Australia, Canada and in Singapore. But in between, whenever we were in Sri Lanka, it was to Lakshman and Chandini that we turned for a convivial evening to reminisce and to reflect on our lives, as well as the goings-on in the country. 

The regulars at these gatherings, aside from the visiting variables, would typically include Bunchy Rahuman, Tanky Wickremaratne, Tissa Jayatilaka, R.A.C. (Charlie) de Silva, David Ponniah, Anil Cabraal, Srilal Perera and J.D. Mannapperuma. I would like to think of us as a microcosm, hopefully among several others, of what Sri Lanka could and should ideally have been. Lakshman was the unassuming centre of our little universe. 

I missed Lakshman in my last two visits to Sri Lanka, but we maintained email contact. I learnt from Chandru (Mirchandani) that he had taken ill, but it was quite a shock to get an early morning call from R.L. (de Silva) that Lakshman had passed away. 

It has been both a pleasure and a privilege to have come to know Lakshman at the university and to have remained friends ever since. It is more than that, for in anyone’s life, to paraphrase Belloc, there’s nothing worth the wear of winning than laughter and the love of friends. We are thankful for finding both and more in Lakshman.