SUJATHA Kuruwita has been the head librarian at Kandy’s Trinity College for close to three decades now. She looks the part too. She’s draped in a tropical print cotton saree while her jet-black hair does a great job of concealing her age — and Sujatha does insist on you trying to guess how old she is. The dark-circles under her tiny eyes, however, give away the long hours spent in the naturally-lit medieval-style library with wooden flooring, keeping her beloved books, chronicles and magazines in order.
As elite private schools in Sri Lanka go, Trinity stands like a beacon, and as school libraries go, there are few that can match this one. Inaugurated in 1875, it’s not only well-stocked with the finest books from around the world, the Trinity College Library also houses rare historical renditions of the earliest settlers in Ceylon, and their teachings. Over the last 15 years there’s been a new addition, even though it is yet to go up on the shelves. Sujatha simply calls it the ‘Kumar Sangakkara dossier’, her most “prized possession”.
For now, it’s nothing more than a thick, bound grey office folder pregnant with newspaper cuttings and scrolls — their ends peeping out from the bottom and jutting from the sides, some worn out, most faded. And even now, there is a tiny 15-minute window in Sujatha’s busy morning schedule, where she scans all the newspapers — English and vernacular — and cuts and files any article, regardless of size or content, in the ‘dossier’.
A true allround sportsman
On the inside part of the dossier cover is a printed CV — which reads like a portfolio — of one of the College’s most illustrious alumni and his plethora of accomplishments as a student here.
In many ways it is a window into the early life of Kumar Sangakkara, long before he transformed from a gutsy wicketkeeper-batsman into a cricketing legend. Long before he became modern-day cricket’s most aristocratic ambassador.
The CV reveals how long before Sangakkara was looked up to by left-handers the world over as a role model, he had an entire school looking up to him during his time as the Senior Prefect in 1997. A year earlier he had won the prestigious Ryde Gold Medal awarded to the best all-round student. It was the same year he had started captaining his school cricket team. But it also reveals that until he was around 14, every single one of his sporting glories was achieved on either a badminton court or a tennis court. That is before former principal Leonard de Alwis decided that cricket was his true calling. But he was also a regular in the library, recalls Sujatha.
“The library was Kumar’s playground whenever he wasn’t out playing — he was good at all sports you know. He had a penchant for history, medieval and otherwise, and also a great eye for art,” says Sujatha. “Getting into university here is not as easy as in India. But Kumar aced his preparatory exams even while scoring hundreds for school and country.”
Her sole reason to be here on this August afternoon in middle of school vacations is to beef up the dossier with the Sangakkara tributes. “Tharini, was Kumar very popular with the boys? He would not speak to all of them no?”, she suddenly screams across from her office to a young lady, who is busy arranging a few documents in the reading hall next door.
The name Kumar Sangakkara evokes different sentiments from different corners of the globe. For his peers, he was the consummate professional, and a tough batsman to dismiss. For his fans, he was the kosher demi-god, to his teammates he was the captain who promoted youth and prompted change in their attitudes. For Tharini, who is a couple of years younger than Sangakkara but has worked here as assistant from the time he was in school, it stands for a boyhood crush who became the heartthrob of the nation.
She blushes every time you ask about ‘Kumar’. And she lowers her eyes and says, “He was always around here looking at books or the paintings that are found in our archive. But he was a shy boy too. He had his clique of friends but otherwise he hardly spoke much. But still the boys looked up to him.”
Sujatha interjects with her observations about Sangakkara’s days as the most popular student at Trinity. “I wouldn’t say it went to his head but he was choosy about who he spoke to and didn’t want to be seen hanging around with those not of his calibre. Funnily, as he’s gotten more and more successful, he’s gotten more and more humble and modest,” she says.
Later, on the day before his final Test at P’Sara Oval, when Sangakkara is told about the visit to Trinity, his eyes light up. He reveals that he and his 1996 batchmates have started a project to refurbish the library, and bring in Kindles and more state-of-the-art facilities. He also talks in detail about the historic chapel — considered one of the prettiest in Sri Lanka — and its beautiful murals and headstones that have been donated by some of the top schools in Britain. It’s almost like he’s been whisked away back to a time when life was simpler and he wasn’t yet keeping wickets. That new addition to his cricketing repertoire had come on the day he met Upananda Jayasundera.
Unifying a nation
As you move northwards from Colombo and start approaching Kandy — the distance is barely 120 km but the roads are steep and narrow — you are in what the locals call ‘up-country’. You cross a row of hilly towns, each specializing in export-quality products. One specializes in cashew-nuts, the next is renowned for its spice gardens, where tour guides give you a complete lowdown on the health advantages of cinnamon and turmeric while also trying to sell you very expensive ‘local-made viagra’ — a blue glue like substance packed in a box. And as Kandy gets closer, the roads get steeper. You could easily get stuck behind a bus for an hour with no overtaking opportunities on offer.
The first sign of Kandyan grandeur comes to the fore through the many shops showcasing images of the jewel-adorned wedding attire — with the groom donning an upturned boat shaped headgear, massively puff-sleeved jacket glittering with gold and the bride in an equally glistening saree. In contrast to the southerners, the up-country folk are also considered to be rather snooty in their ways. Some say it’s because they were the last conquered region of the island.
There have been those in Sri Lanka and elsewhere who have found Sangakkara to be the quintessential Kandyan in that regard, especially at the start of his career. But over the years, it’s not just his batting that has evolved to meet the demands of the modern era, it is also his personality. He might still get chided for ‘his accent’ or his inability to make the same home-grown connect that his bromance buddy, Mahela Jayawardene, has managed to, but his aura and his cult has over the course of his career encompassed these minor disparities.
And Sangakkara, who was mobbed in Jaffna when he went there as part of Muralitharan’s charity work campaign and mobbed in Colombo, in many ways has been a unifier. In 2015, he’s as adored in the formerly war-torn and still Tamil-dominated north as he is in the overwhelming Sinhala-belt of the south — from Jaffna to Matara.
Jayasundera, now 70, is a freelance journalist and can be often found in a busy courier shop down the road from the Senanayake Veediya, which houses the sprawling Trinity College — its campus almost akin to one of the IIT ones in India. He is busy scribbling scores of local school matches, tennis and cricket, stuffing them into envelopes and couriering them to the local papers. His face is wrinkled, but his gait is still intact, and he tells you about the 5 km daily walks and about having been a boxer in his time. It was he who saw the potential in Sangakkara to be efficient both behind and in front of the stumps.
“Kshema Sangakkara, Kumar’s dad, had seen me coach Dharmaraja College and asked me if I would provide private sessions for his son. The first thing that struck me about Kumar was his athletic ability,” he says, having insisted on sitting down for a cup of tea next to the swimming pool of a posh hotel in the area.
“We were looking for a keeper, and the first hand that went up was Kumar’s. He had great hands and he soon began contributing immensely even in terms of leadership, “Jayasundera adds, “But I still feel if he had chosen athletics over cricket, he would have represented Sri Lanka at the Olympics.”
Like Father, Like Son
The sloping and snaking EO3 highway is the only road that connects the capital and the tea capital of Sri Lanka. It’s the same one that Sangakkara would take to reach Colombo once his cricket career and his love story started to blossom — with many stories doing the rounds at Trinity about him requesting his prefect to allow him to skip a class or two so he could meet Yehali and be back at Asgiriya Stadium for practice.
These days Sangakkara smiles at you from a hoarding every two km away, and that Jayasundera cannot get his head around. “We used to call him chutti malli (little boy) and he was never comfortable posing for the camera. Whenever there was a team photo clicked, Kumar would give some excuse or the other and disappear from the scene. To see him shoot advertisements is unbelievable,” he says.
While Jayasundera and Sangakkara would generally meet only at the Asgiriya stadium, which doubled up as Trinity College’s home ground and also the only Test venue in Kandy, they also met occasionally at Sangakkara’s house, Engeltine Cottage. If traveling through Sri Lanka can feel like flipping through a book of postcards, then the Engeltine Cottage certainly will be the one you pick out, blow up and put up on your mantelpiece. Once you’ve driven around Bogambara Lake and reached the other side, it’s also an address that’s not too difficult to find.
Kshema Sangakkara doesn’t carry a cell phone. According to him, he’s never needed one. He doesn’t even have an email id. At 73, he is suffering from high blood-pressure, has to visit the doctor every other week, but is far from shutting up his practice. A civil lawyer of repute, he still meets his teeming clients at his ‘office’ located inside the residence.
The appointment is fixed for 6 pm. The sun is on its way down as you reach the place. The gate is wide open.
Just like they were in 1983 when the senior Sangakkara housed 40-50 Tamilian neighbours to protect them from the ethnic riots where the Tamils were being targeted and killed. In many ways, Kshema Sangakkara is the Oscar Schindler of the mini Sri Lankan holocaust. In the movie, the Jews he saves present the German with a ring that reads “Whoever saves a life saves the world entire”. Kshema neither got any recognition — till his son mentioned it during the famous MCC Lecture at Lord’s in 2011 — nor did he expect any.
“I knew all of them. When communal riots break out it’s generally those unfortunately from the lower class who get affected the most. And I knew that they would never attack my house. It’s the least I could have done,” he says now.
The first thing that strikes you about the mansion is its pure size and then its grandeur. You wonder whether any international cricketer of the modern-era would have grown up with such opulence.
Engeltine Cottage was built in 1896 and still retains its English majesty — the walls are a rich off-white and the windows wooden and archaic — and it overlooks the city of Kandy with miniature cannons located every few meters away along the boundaries. A massive mahogany tree adds to the setting. It’s a spacious villa with a massive courtyard that has stood the test of time. But on this Friday evening, the lights are yet to come on in the veranda or front-yard, where the Sangakkaras, father and son, spent hours playing cricket. Kshema is yet to return from the hospital where he’s gone for a check-up, and there’s some nervous tension in the air. Then you hear the landline buzzing inside and the good news that he’s on his way home along with his wife Kumari and daughter Saranga who’s on vacation with her kids from the USA.
Kshema is frail, walks gingerly, taking small steps, and speaks in a small volume. His deep-set eyes blink sluggishly. His office is a commodious room with wooden bookshelves on either side, and the usual paraphernalia you would expect from a lawyer’s work-station. Behind his thick wooden desk are framed caricatures of some of the most famous lawyers in the world. To the right, however, is a massive picture of a smiling, young Jawaharlal Nehru.
“Looks like a young Rajiv Gandhi doesn’t he? I got that many years ago. I have always admired your politicians.”
It’s not too tough to decipher that the senior Sangakkara is an Indophile. And also that he hardly needs a trigger to start talking sport or any thing for that matter. One minute he’s telling you about the difference between the rich Tamils of Colombo and their role in the plight of the not-so-fortunate Ceylonese Tamils of Jaffna, and then he’s telling you about the flailing standards of the Indian cricket team or how India can produce great athletes if the country moves beyond its cricket fixation. The words he chooses are precise and delivered with eloquent prose. Now you know where Kumar got it from.
The conversation is interrupted by a couple of phone calls for his daughter Saranga, the former national tennis champion of Sri Lanka who won the title at 15. Saranga’s tall and lanky, unlike her illustrious brother, and is busy running after her two kids — a son and a daughter. Then Kumari walks in with a hot cup of soup.
“He needs to have soup. The doctor has asked him to eat on time. But once he starts talking, like his son, he just forgets everything else,” she says with a smile. That’s the cue to bid him adieu.
A legend, a statesman
As the curtain sets on Sangakkara’s 15-year reign as Sri Lankan cricket’s talisman it will be interesting to see what legacy he leaves behind or rather how he’s remembered. If Arjuna Ranatunga was the freedom-fighter who put Sri Lankan cricket on the map, the likes of Aravinda de Silva, Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and even Mahela Jayawardene were singularly, almost freakishly, talented individuals with a very obvious subcontinent flair.
Sangakkara in many ways is an enigma in that mix. Maybe you could call him the island’s first global cricketer.
But back in Kandy, he is still remembered as the ‘chutti malli’ who was forever restless and itching to get involved in any kind of sporting activity or debate.
Or ‘a nice boy, who always was keen on learning more so that he could be a part of every conversation’ like Sujatha puts it. She’ll soon be busy again collecting the final few articles to add to the Kumar Sangakkara dossier before which it becomes a part of the Trinity College Library’s treasured, Archive Section, located at a level above the reading room and where cameras aren’t allowed, only legends are. And we’ll let her have the final word.
“Look at him now, still has that same boyish face, and that same naughty smile. The boy has grown into a man, and the man into a legend, but the face hasn’t changed at all and nor has he.”