The lover of books and ecumenical Sri Lankan patriot: Ananda Chittambalam

Photo courtesy Foreign Correspondents Association Sri Lanka

Way back in the 1980s when I was on research work in Sri Lankan and based at my sister’s place in Wellawatte I received a phone call from a total stranger who introduced himself as “just a businessman” and a reader of books who was impressed by my four-volume work Documents of the Ceylon National Congress (1977). Ananda Chittambalam sold himself short at that moment. He was not just a “reader” of books, but in fact a lover of books — books political, historical, sociological and sensational.

He lived at Kensington Gardens then. I was privileged to be a regular invitee for his soiree dinners or Sunday lunches devoted to “Men and Matters.” These assemblages brought together well-placed Sri Lankans with wide interests and considerable acumen about affairs of state. They ranged from army officers to administrators and extended to well-read politicians (a rare breed). Needless to say we were always well fed by Nafeeza and their old reliable Ammay.

It was here at Kensington Gardens that Ananda introduced me to Victor Ivan in the late 1980s — interaction that invariably encouraged exchanges of information and opinion on the play of caste in Sri Lankans politics. Through both I was also brought into the world of insurgency and counter-insurgency, gathering fascinating and/or bloody fragments of information that were not accessible to the average person.

While his residential hospitality ceased when he moved from Kensington Gardens to Bambalapitiya and then to Wellawatte, Ananda remained a generous host and took me out for dinner at either the Capri or the Colombo Club, both elitist institutions. On some occasions these sessions were tete a tete. On others there were other guests, invariably journalists or academics or political activists. Along the way I gathered from snippets of information that Ana had been a political activist himself in the heady 1980s and 1990s, working alongside Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa and others on the side of the good centrist and liberal people. In more recent times his political position — pressed in no uncertain terms — was alongside that of the Centre for Policy Alternatives and aligned with the thinking of such individuals as Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Mangala Samaraweera and K. Kanag-Isvaran. This made for fierce debate when we met — with me as mostly silent listener to declamations forthright.

Reader and Book man: Ananda Chittambalam, therefore, was a not only a voracious reader, but also an ardent political gossip who tapped a wide range of friends and influential personnel, while being judicious in the where and the when of tale passed on. His memory was prodigious and precise. I believe this was based on methodical note-making in the privacy of his working desk after guests had left or when he had returned home after ‘voyages of discovery and conviviality.’

His political activism, record keeping and reading was matched — and even overwhelmed — by his book collecting. He knew the market prices of rare Ceyloniana and kept a weather eye out for all new academic books on Sri Lanka. Our friendship may have flowered because I kept him informed on this front and also supplied him with photocopies of articles in journals.

His love of KNOWLEDGE knew no limits. This meant an avid effort to encourage journalists and scholars of all sorts. One can truly say that he was unique: a “civil society man” who did not derive his profession from politics or academia, but was thoroughly engaged in investigative work and public discussions, whether in private or in forums, directed towards the furtherance of knowledge. My own research endeavours in the island have benefited in ways that I cannot recollect in detail, but can summarize as MASSIVE. I know for certain that the inputs and leads from Ana were considerable and immeasurable.

Ana Chittambalam was a financial whiz-kid of sorts and assisted friends and firms in their business negotiations. His consultancy work with Mobitel in the mid-late 1990s enabled him to negotiate a deal via Cathy Aston (an Aussie) for the extra print-runs of Crosscurrents. Sri Lanka and Australia at Cricket (Sydney: Walla Walla Press, 1998). This critical middleman role was extended in the period 2004-14 by his negotiation of arrangements with Vijitha Yapa for the production of several of my books.[i]

Since Ana Chittambalam did not write or edit books himself, it is a tragic irony that there is no work that inscribes his name in the annals of Ceyloniana. But for those so attuned let me point to Studies in Society and Culture (or SSC for short). This was a brainwave between the two of us in 1992 seeking to make available to Sri Lankan readers some of the outstanding research articles on the island by reprinting them as pamphlets. Through Haris Hulugalle Ananda arranged for the Leader office at 85 Ward Place to be our public-face; while the funding was assembled by dipping into three pockets: his, mine and that of Willa Wickramasinghe, a businessman with an erudite and committed Leftist background.

Some twenty SSC pamphlets were produced over two or three years in 1992/93 and marketed cheaply. Though we recovered our costs, we simply ran out of steam — or rather I did as my other commitments overwhelmed me[ii] — and the project petered out. However, this series, embracing the work of Paul Alexander, James Brow, E. Valentine Daniel, Donald Horowitz,  James Jupp, Bruce Kapferer, Steven Kemper, Kitsiri Malalgoda, Mick Moore, Elizabeth Nissan, Gananath Obeyesekere, Ranjini Obeyesekere, myself, John Rogers, Vijaya Samaraweera, HL Seneviratne, Jonathan Spencer, LA Wickremeratne and Deborah Winslow, can NOW serve as a testimonial and epitaph for ANANDA CHITTAMBALAM. May they encourage new generations to carry the flag of investigative endeavour that Ana always encouraged and sometimes even inspired.

These works highlight the endeavours of a unique guy, an intellectual who did not publish essays, but who tirelessly and widely engaged with and supported studious explorations and a man who created archives and ferreted out material. Ananda Chittambalam was a ferret of sorts, not only exploring pathways, but also building edifices.

Above all, however, for those who believe that books maketh the man (and the woman), Ananda Chittambalam was the quintessential book man.

###

[i]Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1818 (Colombo: Yapa Publications, 2004 — ISBN 955-8095-53-2); Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, LTTE & Others (Colombo, Yapa Publicarions, 2009 — ISBN 978-955-665-035-8); 2010); Fire and Storm: Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, (Colombo:  Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010 -ISBN 978-955-665-134-8) and Incursions & Excursions in and around Sri Lankan Cricket, (Colombo:  Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010 -ISBN 978-955-53198-0-5).

[ii] As far as I can recall, the projected numbers 21-24 by Kemper, Jupp, Roberts and Obeyesekere never saw print … but this note is subject to correction.

  • Fitzpatrick

    I might add that this author wrote on GV several weeks ago ”
    Generating Calamity, 2008-2014: An Overview of Tamil Nationalist Operations and Their Marvels”
    His writing was badly exposed as biased and unfactual by “sri lanka campaign” and myself (among others as well). GV editors explicitly and formally asked for a comment. He has chosen to ignore that request and no reply has been forthcoming. I suspect in hopes that it will be forgotten !!!
    While it is not on this topic I hope the moderators would allow this as it reflects on the author and it is important readers who have not seen the previous article are aware/conscious of his behavior in reading this piece.