Ranbanda Seneviratne is a man who never abandoned the ordinary and especially subjugated segments of this country, not where the Yoda Ela bends and not anywhere else either. He died on December 5, 2001. The mortal remains of this lawyer cum lyricist and self-confessed ‘bayya’ from Mahakanadaragama, Anuradhapura was cremated a couple of days later.
‘We should ask why Gunadasa Kapuge was sitting in a far corner of the cemetery, all by himself, and weep copious tears,’ a friend told me a few days later when we reflected soberly on the loss the nation had suffered. That question was produced by a history.
Gunadasa Kapuge had done what no one expected him to do. He had sold his aathmaya or soul. He had signed a contract to do produce an album with the band ‘Sunflowers’ which according to some was more about profit and less about being sensitive to the human condition. The connection with Ranbanda was this: he wrote the lyrics for what became one of Kapuge’s most endearing songs, ‘Davasak pela nethi hene’ which is about the unfailing quality of a mother’s love. Whereas even a wife’s love could pass one by ‘where the Yoda Ela bends’, a mother would wait by the wicket gate outside her humble home until the son, reviled, ridiculed and abandoned, returns home. That was the line. The point was this: Ranbanda was appalled by Kapuge’s decision and didn’t mince his words when expressing objection. Hence the tears or so we thought.
Kapuge passed on a year and a half later. He did not explain, he did not apologize, he did not defend himself. He wasn’t one to complain. He kept his sorrows private.
Last week, randomly, a group of artists spoke about Kapuge [yes, he enters conversations without notice, stays without intruding, leaves without saying ‘bye’]. Two anecdotes.
The first. This was when Kapuge was either staying in a boarding house in Nugegoda or visiting friends who were boarded. Saman Athaudahetti, we were told, would vouch for the veracity of the story. It was night. Kapuge had stepped out to get something. He had returned without his shirt. His friends had quizzed him.
‘There was a man without a shirt and he was shivering. I knew there would be a shirt for me at the boarding.’ Simple.
The Second. One night Kapuge had been walking along Bauddhaloka Mawatha. Night. It was raining. He was walking towards the Kanatte. He noticed a man struggling to fix a polythene sheet over the shack that was clearly his house. He stopped. The man apparently was taking care of pideli or clumps of grass that were sold by the piece. He had explained that the sheet was too small to cover the entire hut, but that he didn’t want his three children to get wet. He didn’t mind getting wet, he said. Kapuge had asked how much it would cost to get a better roof, for example one made of cadjan. ‘Ten thousand,’ the man had answered. Telling the man that he will check if he got the roof fixed, Kapuge gave him Rs. 10,000. It was his annual bonus that year. Simple.
There’s a third story and it gave a rare definition to his humanity.
Kapuge had collected the payment for his part in the ‘Sunflower samaga (with) Kapuge’ album, a few hundred thousand rupees, and gone straight to visit a friend who was suffering from cancer and needed money for surgery/medication. He left the money with his friend. Then he went home. Simple.
The friend/patient has a name. He died less than a year after Ranbanda Seneviratne passed away. Sugathapala De Silva.
What were those tears shed in Anuradhapura that evening in December 2001, then? Was it for the loss of a friend or the inability of the general public to understand him, he who gave so much with voice and melody? And what of those who thought there’s a question that should be directed at the lonely man grieving in a corner of a cemetery?
There’s a question that needs to be asked. It’s not about Kapuge. It is not about how we read the man. It is a question we can ask ourselves in the language and tone of our choice. We can word it as we will. It doesn’t matter when or where or how we fashion the question. To me it is inspired by a song; a lyrical blend of several lives caught in the vicissitudes that make the human condition, threaded by some random incidents in a man who left us more than ten years ago, but stays and stays and stays.