Michael Roberts, courtesy of Groundviews
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.
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 — 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.
SSC PAMPHLETS 1992-93 *
1. Michael Roberts: Ethnic conflict in SL and Sinhalese perspectives: barriers to accommodation
2. E Val Daniel: Three dispositions towards the past: two Tamil, one Sinhala
3. Vijaya Samaraweera: Land, labor, capital and sectional interests in the national politics of SL
- Michael Roberts: Tambiah or de Silva? Apocalypse or accommodation? Two contrasting views of Sinhala-Tamil relations in Sri Lanka
5. Bruce Kapferer: Nationalist ideology and a comparative perspective
6. Jonathan Spencer: Collective violence and everyday practice in Sri Lanka
- Michael Roberts: Noise as cultural struggle: tom-tom beating, the British and communal disturbances in SL, 1880s-1930s
8. L. A. Wickremeratne: Religion, nationalism and social change in Ceylon, 1865-1885
9. Kitsiri Malalgoda: Millennialism in relation to Buddhism
10. Elizabeth Nissan: The work of anthropologists in Sri Lanka – a review in 1987
11. Gananath Obeyesekere: Sorcery, premeditated murder and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka
12. Donald L Horowitz: Incentives and behaviour in the ethnic politics of Sri Lanka and Malaysia
13. John D. Rogers: Cultural nationalism and social reform: the 1904 temperance movement in Sri Lanka
14. Kitsiri Malalgoda: The Buddhist Christian confrontation in Sri Lanka, 1800-1860
15. Gananath Obeyesekere: Science, experimentation and clinical practice in ayurveda
16. Mick Moore: Economic liberalisation, growth and poverty in Sri Lanka in long-run perspective
17. Paul Alexander: Malu mudalāli: monopsonies in southern Sri Lanka fish trading
18. Ranjini Obeyesekere: Violence, censorship and the Sinhala theatre during the eighties
19. Deborah Winslow: A political geography of sacred deities: space and the pantheon in Sinhala Buddhism
20. H. L. Seneviratne: The Asela Perahara in Kandy
21. Steven Kemper: J. R. Jayewardene, righteousness and realpolitik
22. Michael Roberts: ‘Our duty to act’: brown sahibs in universal suits. The story of the abortive coup d’etat in 1962
23. Gananath Obeyesekere: The social background of the April 1971 insurgency in Sri Lanka: a comment
24. James Jupp: The revolutionary challenge of the JVP in 1971
* As far as I recall 21-24 were never printed