Nandasiri Jasentuliyana’s ‘odyssey’ in space law: “Same Sky, Different Nights”

Ishara Jayawardane  in Daily News, 5 June 2013

NJasentuliyana Cover “It dawned on me how vast the length and the enormity of the journey was that I have travelled. From those early years when the sky had fascinated me to the present when I have taken part in creating laws and regulations to tether the infinite plains of outer space.” Young Jasentuliyana looked up at the sky and its myriad stars from Ambalangoda. So many stars! It seemed as if he could rise up and be one with them. And as he looked at them, he had no idea that his fate was already being carved out in the Universe.

Award recipient: The light from these stars reaching him, as he stood mesmerized by them. Perhaps these stars were already dead, their light reaching him only then. A little boy on a lonely planet in the Milky way in such a vast universe, how could he know what the cosmos would have in store for him? For one day, he would not only be a proud son of Sri Lanka but a gift to the world of academia and science.

NANDEYNandasiri Jasentuliyana was the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and President International institute of Space Law. His career at the United Nations spanned almost 40 years. He possesses advanced degrees in law and international relations from the University of Ceylon and University of London. He is also an attorney at law. He was formerly a Deputy Director General of the United Nations office in Vienna.

He is also the recipient of the 1982 Testimonial award of the International Astronautical Federation awarded annually in recognition for important contribution to space law and policy.

Space is miraculous but the human mind does not fully know Outer Space or understand its vastness and possibilities. The brain cannot fully comprehend its immense potential for learning and the knowledge that it contains. Black holes, entire galaxies, planets, solar systems, have been discovered.

But the incredible possibilities of space are more than all of this. Is space timeless and infinite? Can our further understanding of space help us understand life itself and origins? Can our knowledge of space help us discover different realities or different worlds?

Scientists and Lay people are now talking about time warps and parallel universes. Time warps that can transport us from one end of the Universe to another. Is there life on other planets? Nandasiri Jasentuliyana is one such man who inspires us to ask these questions. His book ‘Same Sky, Different Nights’ was launched last Tuesday.

Accumulation of lives: Former Judge of the International Court of Justice serving as vice president and former Judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka and currently an Emeritus Professor at Monash University, Justice Christie Weeramantry spoke at the occasion. “This is an occasion of great importance not only to Sri Lanka but to the world in general. It is in fact a small piece of history. History is mainly an accumulation of lives. Together they make history. Some outstanding people have been involved in history. The author of today is one of those distinguished people.

Because history is shaped not only by current events but also by the thoughts and words of those who have planned. And here we have in our midst, we are privileged to have in our midst one of those who by the means of today has put in thought, effort and dedication to planning the future of humanity.

nANDEY AND vASIBecause humanity has lived for long on this planet earth. Planet earth has been our only home. We have had charge of the affairs of planet earth for tens of thousands of years and we have plundered it.

We have not created a just and peaceful world here on earth. And now as we begin to visualize outer space. We must think in terms of introducing some order into outer space. Some law and order. There must be architects of that law in the future. And here we have in our midst one of the prime architects of the future.

Work that you and I do may have impacts on the following years but work by people of his caliber do in regards to topics of that nature will have there impacts for hundreds if not thousands of years.


“Twined, entwined” — by Aditha Dissanayake

It is hard to read an autobiography without making yourself supremely judgmental. Harder still, not to ask yourself one critical question: is this someone I would like to emulate?

When I read Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my Father,” the answer was, no. When I read Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s ‘Pin athi Sarasavi Varamak Denne’ the answer, still, was no. I am not sure if I was asking this question from myself when I took Dr. Nandasiri Jasentuliyana’s autobiography, ‘Same Sky, Different Nights’ into my hands. But if I had done so, I would easily have found the answer within the first pages of the book where Dr. Ananda Guruge introduces the writer, leaving no room for debate. Reminding one that “there is nothing in the whole world which could not be achieved through dedicated concentration on goals and well-directed hard work,” Dr. Guruge says, Dr Jasentuliyana, President Emeritus, International Institute of Space Law (IISL) whose ‘achievements on the world scene are as wide-ranging as they are inspiring” is an ideal role model for any aspiring young person.

Especially so, because the journey which would eventually lead him to the high offices of the United Nations as the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and Deputy Director- General of the United Nations in Vienna, begins in the suburban town of Ambalangoda, where Dr. Jasentuliyana spends an almost idyllic childhood attending the village school, rowing back and forth in the Dodanduwa Oya in a catamaran, gazing at the Hawker Hurricane aircraft in the sky, totally oblivious of either the English language or the phenomenon called outer space.

Yet, the days were not always full of sunshine and laughter. In one of the most heart rending passages of the book he recalls losing his mother at the tender age of three. When he saw her lying in her coffin in the sitting room of his Seeya’s house in Ambalangoda, he says “Wondering what she was doing there, I remember going half way up the staircase to get a better look…” Since then the only link he has with his mother is when he visits her grave in the public cemetery but even this memento is lost in the devastations of the 2004 tsunami. He admits growing up; there were uncountable numbers of times when he had yearned for the love of a mother; when he had felt his whole life was a loveless void. Yet, he admits as if to make up for her early demise, in their own inimitable ways, his uncles, aunts and cousins had showered him with an infinite quantity of love and affection. He declares he “loved them back with the same fervour.”

Over time, a whole new world emerges: a world of growing up in the mid 20th century, as days turn to months, as new calendars replace the old. The memorable chapter titled “Thaththa” begins with this lyrical passage “A nine year old boy stands on the bank of the Dodanduwa Oya a few hours after the sun begins his journey westward. He stretches his arms in front of him, takes a deep breath and makes a clean dive into the crystal clear water…He is next seen on a catamaran mastering it across the same waters as the sun reaches his zenith. The boy feels the soft breeze caressing his cheeks, hears the soft splash as a kingfisher catches its midday meal, and finds an immense sense of peace, engulf his heart.” Dr. Jasentuliyana adds, “I know how he felt. More than seventy years later he still lives somewhere deep within me.”

Flashback to the present. A search light looking for him two years ago would have found him seated on the deck of his house in Los Angeles. It was here, under a starlit sky with his wife, Shanthi seated beside him in companionable silence that he had taken the first steps in the journey back into the past which would eventually end up as a book of over six-hundred pages spanning more than seven decades. “As I gazed at the full moon and the stars in the sky” Writes Dr. Jasentuliyana “it dawned on me how vast the length and enormity of the journey was that I had travelled, from those early years when the sky had fascinated me to the present when I had taken part in creating laws and regulations to tether the infinite plains of outer space.”

Quoting from John Donne’s Meditation XVII “No man is an island, Entire of itself..,” Dr. Jasentuliyana says he could not have made this journey from the small town boy who played on the banks of the Madu Ganga in Ambalangoda to the offices of the United Nations where he worked with Secretary General Kofi Annan, and met the likes of President Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Rev. Desmond Tutu, Buzz Aldrin etc without the help of family and friends. “The journey of my life is interwoven with the journeys of an uncountable number of others; family, teachers, colleagues, role models” he writes. “Each place I travelled through, each person I met perhaps by being at the right place at the right time, perhaps through sheer chance, moulded me into the person I am today.”

Indeed, ‘Same Sky, Different Nights’ is not only Dr. Jasentuliyana’s life story, but a collection of semi biographies of an uncountable number of others. Through his work he brings into the limelight the lives of all those who happened to cross his path from the two teachers who taught him in Dodanduwa, Kithsiri Kumarasinghe and Amaris, to Namel and Malini Weeramuni to Henry Jayasena to, Wickrama Weerasooria and many others, generously dedicating huge portions of the book to write about their stories, their achievements and the cherished moments he had shared with them.

Like the stars in the sky the book covers such a kaleidoscope of personalities you are bound to come across many, whose names would ring not one but several bells, and about whose lives you will get an intense glimpse rarely found in other biographies. Recalling his encounters with Henry Jayasena Dr. Jasentuliyana writes “At the time he (Henry Jayasena) visited me in New York the ‘Chalk Circle’ was staged at the famous Lincoln Centre Play House. I thoroughly enjoyed the play in his company. The next night after dinner when he was lounging on an armchair I asked him to sing the melodies from his version of the play. I still have a tape that I recorded with him strumming the tunes tapping on the chair…”

Dr. Jasentuliyana concludes the first paragraph of his prologue with the words “This then is as much their story as it is mine.”

As you read the book, ‘Same Sky, Different Nights’, will become not only ‘his story’ and ‘their story’ but your story too.

Witty, humorous, informative, lyrical – here is surely one of the most significant literary enterprises of our times.


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