Lanka Nesiah passes away: LANKA loses a perceptive scribe and ecumenical patriot

A Tribute in Colombo Telegraph, with title “No more Shanie column”

Lankanesan-NesiahColombo Telegraph is sad to announce the death yesterday (Aug. 11) in London of one its recent and most respected columnists, Lankanesan Nesiah. As a writer he used the pseudonym Shanie, a pseudonym derived from all six letters of his surname Nesiah, saying he did not wish to be “white-vanned.” His precision and the use of language through elegantly employed turns of phrase, were clearly from his father, Kunasekaram Nesiah. who was Head of the Department of Education at Peradeniya and, as a school boy at St. John’s, the proud recipient of the runner-up prize for essay writing in the British Empire.

Lanka leaves behind his wife and first cousin Malathi (née Somasundaram),  daughter Sangeeta (married to Benoit Pasquereau with their daughter Arundathi) and son Nagulan (married to Dhushyanthi Jayawardana with their daughter Aanya). The youngest of Mr. K. Nesiah’s children, Lanka’s siblings in order are Devanesan Nesiah (married to Anita Seevaratnam), Pushpadevy Seevaratnam (married to Frank Seevaratnam) and Nimaladevy Joseph.

Born on May 17, 1940 Lanka schooled at Chundikuli Girls’ College to Grade 5 and moved during grade 5 to St. Thomas’ College when his father moved from St. John’s College Jaffna to teach there. Lanka excelled in sports (boxing and swimming) and studies at St. Thomas’ and read sociology honours at Peradeniya.

Lanka’s father K. Nesiah, based on his wide writings and newspaper observations on the education scene while a teacher at St. Thomas’, had been invited by first Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings to teach at the university which was on temporary premises in Colombo. Then just before Lanka entered the university, as if to keep him under his mother’s loving care, the department shifted to Peradeniya in September 1957 according to his sister Pushpadevy’s recollection, and after a brief stay in the St. Thomas’ hostel, Lanka was back at home for his four year undergraduate sojourn at Peradenya. He graduated in 1964 or 65 with the last English medium BA class, the last class of BA graduates to secure high level positions. He is remembered for his comment that while studious Buddhist monks mugged through several books day and night to get an ordinary pass degree, he enjoyed life reading Time and other current affairs material that helped him understand society well-enough to get a class.

After a brief stint in Jaffna, he joined People’s Bank as Branch Manager Paranthan. Moving to the Commercial Bank, he was Branch Manager Jaffna and soon rose to be the Loans Manager at the Head Office, just shy of the top, when his world collapsed during the 1983 riots. His residence in Mount Lavinia was burnt. He lost everything and barely escaped with his life. At St. Thomas’ as a refugee he witnessed one person being killed.

He preserved his equanimity through suffering, escaped to Malaya where his cousin sister, Padma Kathiravetpillai, and other cousins and brother-in-law in Singapore helped him. Canada had open asylum for those like him, and try as his sister Pushpadevy did to get him to take a flight, he declined. For he knew that unlike those in the Middle East and other Third World countries, those going to western countries are unlikely to return home. His love for his country was as in his name in Tamil, the way he signed the marriage register as a witness to a marriage at St. James’s Church Nallur – Ilangainesan, or Lover of Lanka.

Securing a job as a Bank Manager in Oman he rose again to the top and engaged in teaching and training locals to replace himself and other expatriates through night classes, while many expatriate officials ensured that locals never acquired the skills to take over. That was Lanka Nesiah.

After retirement he returned to Sri Lanka where, as before, he threw himself into various activities. He worked for the YMCA and was a member of the Council first of the University of Moratuwa and then of the Open University.  He took up full-time work as the Personal Assistant to the Bishop of Colombo. In faith he was Anglo-Catholic from his days at St. Thomas’ and could be seen genuflecting at the appropriate point of the Creed when worshipping in Anglican Churches of other traditions too.

Within the family everyone turned to him and his brother Devanesan for help and advice. Lanka would remember every birthday within the family and turn up to wish the person celebrating.  From placing obituaries to booking a van to go somewhere to getting someone wrongfully arrested out of prison, it was Lanka and his brother who always knew what to do.

Lanka had strong LSSP sympathies from the old days when NM Perera on his trips to Jaffna in the 1940s and 1950s would hold meetings at the Somasundaram house in Chundikuli which was passed down to the Nesiahs as dowry. But after 1970 he was disappointed with the party as judged by his rarely speaking up for it among his impressionable younger cousins as before. Yet he never lost interest in social justice issues. When others started recording what happened during 1983 for example, it was difficult to get people to talk for they were in fear. It was Lanka who arranged through his extensive connections for those who witnessed the sordid events to talk to writers. It was his way to help quietly and anonymously.

He became best known as Shanie, a weekly columnist for the Island’s Saturday issues. Few knew who Shanie was but many waited for Saturday mornings to read him. His articles, always for the oppressed and well-argued, are available on the Internet and need not be reproduced here. As space for free expression closed in Sri Lanka, one or two of his articles failed to appear through the newspaper’s self-censorship without his knowledge. That is when he began writing for Colombo Telegraph.

Unfortunately that short relationship between Colombo Telegraph and Shanie has now come to a close. Lanka was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs last October. He came to the UK for medical consultations and upon recognizing the rapid progress of the disease he stayed on in London with his daughter. He was to go to Sri Lanka soon and his wife Malathi went ahead to make their home down Milagiriya Avenue in Bambalapitiya ready for him. But the disease had progressed rapidly to the brain and Malathi had to hurry back. On August 11 at 3 pm, he passed away in the Oncology Ward at Charring Cross Hospital in London, having been admitted there 5 days earlier, when he suddenly needed more intensive nursing care.

As he himself arranged, there is expected to be a cremation without ceremony in London followed by a funeral service at his St. Thomas’ Chapel in Mount Lavinia and burial of ashes with his mother and father at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Chundikuli.

There are mixed reports on how much he suffered from this terrible disease. Reports speak of his being in pain when he went to Malaysia with Nesiah family members for a get together. Other reports speak of how he spent good quality time with his grandchildren, taking his granddaughter to Wimbledon to watch a tennis game just 2 weeks ago. He kept up with church and even wrote a letter reflecting on a sermon he had heard. Lanka probably hid any pain he felt to spread the cheer he was famous for. For his children and numerous nephews and nieces, the best way to honour him is to serve family, school, and Church as he did, and live for others in kindness and generosity of heart.


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