Juliet Coombe, on “Kumar Sangakkara, Professional Cricketer, Part-Time Philosopher” and The Game-Changer. at 76 Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort …. in her illustrated book, Around the Galle Fort in 80 lives, (2017) …ISBN 978-955-0000-005
“I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.” … Kumar Sangakkara deeply moved everyone at the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London in July of 2011, in his speech in which he explored the nature of Sri Lanka. It is this rich mix of religions and nationalities that attracted Kumar to Galle Fort, which has been a part of his life for almost as long as cricket has, a place that captured his father just as powerfully as it has entranced him. It was his father who, he says, “told me one day, if you’re ever thinking of buying property, the Fort is one place you should look at. He had a great appreciation for the Fort and the life of the Fort and the old families living in the Fort and ever since that day it’s stayed with me.”
Nasser Hussein, a friend from his school Trinity in Kandy and a Fort inhabitant, who is a member of the lucky seven Hussein clan, walked the streets of the Fort with Kumar, eventually finding him the house on Leyn Baan Street: “we did happen upon the house that I finally bought in 2010 and it was closed up. Nasser said you know this, out of every property that you’ve ever seen, this is actually the ideal property for you to buy: this is the one. But it’s not for sale!” Luckily for Kumar, fate was on his side as it was quickly established that he had played cricket as a youngster with the son of the owner of the property. So, after a brief discussion, the house was sold and Kumar became the proud owner of a little piece of Sri Lankan history: “It was serendipitous really.”
Serendipity has played a significant role in Kumar’s life made evident as he speaks about the fortuitous events that led to the purchase of his house, a cavernous wonder on one of the Fort’s five streets, just preparing itself for a long awaited transformation. You can tell that he has been mesmerised by the magic that surrounds the ancient citadel: “So you know, it’s all these weird little instances in life that tied up and came together for me to be able to buy this particular house. It’s strange, it’s funny but also I’m very happy that it happened that way. I think everything happens for a reason. Everyone is attracted to and finally settles on probably the property that they should have bought anyway.”
The house’s proximity to the Law Courts is significant because, in the time before Kumar’s face smiled out from every billboard, even before he captained his national cricket team, he was a humble Colombo law student. He still cannot, however, officially call himself a lawyer as, he tells me with a smile, he didn’t actually ever complete the course. He still has two exams left to sit! But education, for him, is something that he feels passionately about: “Education is not an end in itself. I think it’s a frame that will open up doors for you to seek real knowledge.” Kumar and his wife Yehali made the decision to educate their twins, a boy and a girl, at an international school, a decision that was not taken lightly. But ultimately, Kumar says, after much discussion they had to listen to what the children wanted, and that was to stay together. “I think when we really looked at schools the main reason that we ended up at an international school was that my children refused to be separated.” He is a man who sticks by his decisions, once carefully made, and so he is adamant that, regardless of what anyone says, “you get various pros and cons but at the end of the day you’ve got to take the risk, bite the bullet and forge ahead,” a philosophy that seems to be working for him.
Kumar is a risk taker, a game changer in more senses of the word having been the first batsman in history to score 150 plus runs in four consecutive Test matches. He is busy paving the way for the generations to come. He feels strongly that strong family values and morals should be at the basis of his own children’s lives and those of the Sri Lankan generation growing up right now. It is only with these foundations that people will have the means to affect a change for the better in others. “What the children in the current generation should be thinking about is what are the wholesome values that I must always hold constantly dear and as an integral part of my personality? You don’t have to change at all to do that because that is who you are. You are a product of your grandparents and your parents: you are a part of that legacy and you have to be able to hold what’s good and hold that very closely and dearly as it affects whatever you do in life. You can go out partying but do you make the right decisions at that party with what’s available, the alcohol, the drugs, what do you say no to? What influences do you let into your life? What influences are there around you that you’re impervious to because you have a great moral grounding? You can look at someone, even the best of your friends and understand that some things they do are wrong and you don’t have to follow peer pressure or be a part of the in crowd or the cool gang. So it’s a case of understanding where everyone comes from and being able to absorb things from that.”
This moral grounding is what Kumar is striving to highlight as he works closely with various charities, including a suicide support charity called CCC Line whose aim is to raise awareness and expand people’s understanding of mental illness. They run a twelve hour constantly manned phone line, enabling instant support to be provided for those most in need, wherever they are in the country. Kumar believes that behind the shocking statistics lie deeper issues, some of which are exclusive to Sri Lanka, to a country and a people that has been battered and bruised over the last thirty years. “People commit suicide under mental stress, from things like relationship pressures, exam failures, drugs, the tsunami, the effects of the 30 years of war. Many factors affect them but the real factor is the stigma that comes with mental issues in Sri Lanka. We feel awkward to talk about it, we feel awkward to put it in the public eye so we push it to the back: it’s kept in the family.”
Whatever social stigma there is surrounding mental health in Sri Lanka, it cannot detract from the statistics that are shocking enough and speak for themselves. Within Sri Lanka 11 people each day die from suicide, unable to receive the help that they need because of a severe lack of support and resources and that is since the rates of suicide started falling. There is only one psychiatrist per 500,000 people and shockingly only three child psychiatrists are there in the entire country. These are figures that the CCC Line Foundation is trying to change, harnessing values that Kumar strongly believes in. For him, actions don’t have to be or even need to be grand or extravagant: “it can be an evening’s conversation that does that, it doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. It could be just a little chat that no one else hears about or knows about that affects that change.”
Kumar recognises that change is essential to the country as it steadily develops but it has the potential to have both positive and negative effects on Galle Fort. But, he says “I would move in a heartbeat to the Fort and live there. It’s just that life gets in the way of what you really want to do. My idea is that it is for friends and family to enjoy and to experience what the Fort has to offer.” His house is a special project that combines the ancient history of the Fort with his own present experiences in a blend that he feels is vital to Sri Lanka’s future success. He hopes the house will be someplace that he will never have to sell: “it’s a part of the history of Sri Lanka, it’s a beautiful piece of history and culture so I hope that there are always partnerships built between the old and the new.”
He has watched the Fort slowly develop over the ten years he has been walking its streets but he believes that it has the ability to thrive as a result of its changes, avoiding being damaged by them: “You know you can’t isolate yourself from the outside world but the thing is to be able to insulate yourself from all the negativity and the bad effects around you. You need to understand what’s going on around you and still make the right choices. In the Fort I hope that that will happen.”
For his children, the only change that they are concerned with in the Fort are the various flavours on offer within the ice cream freezer mounted on a blue bicycle, traversing the streets whatever the weather. “My children love the water, they love walking the streets. We had a picnic on the ramparts with them, packed up a picnic basket from Colombo, sat on the ramparts and ate a bit of bread and they loved it.” Kumar’s entire family has been captivated by the magic of the Fort, from its ancient, weightlifting mango sellers to their favourite restaurant in town, Elita, who, says Kumar, “makes a perfect omelette. It’s beautiful.” His wife has fallen equally in love with the old citadel as “she has a sense of belonging and she identifies with that. She gets a lot of peace and comfort from the Fort.” The feelings experienced by this little family are such that it seems like they have found their true home, a place where scampering goats still live in back gardens and children dominate the open spaces with their laughter and games.
The Fort has become a haven where Kumar is able to relax with his family and embrace the kindness that is so prevailing within the Fort community. He is striving to create a life for his children that ensures a balance between the old and the new, a balance that the Fort itself is also busy trying to establish. Kumar believes that “We are a product of our past as well, not just our present. The present shapes us.” Kumar is certainly a combination of both, a result of his present experiences but also the values instilled in him at a young age. As one of his closest friends, Mahela Jayawardene, who has also recently purchased a property on Lighthouse Street, retired from cricket, might Sangakkara be next to embark on a different path? “If you find different callings, different courses, different ambitions that you suddenly discover, I think that’s great. Again that’s part of evolving and rather than doing it alone you’re doing it now with a family. So it’s having a family that really helped me to make better decisions and to change certain parts of my personality. There’s lots more that I would like to do, I just need to choose!”
No doubt whatever choice he makes will benefit the community surrounding him. He is a soft spoken force to be reckoned with whose ideas and beliefs have the power to shake up an entire country’s psyche. He recognises that he is in a position to affect a serious change in Sri Lanka and the current developing generation. His face may be on every billboard in the country, from packaged noodles, which incidentally “I love!” to real gentleman’s shirt brands to one of the nation’s largest supermarkets. But Kumar’s greatest desire is to teach the next generation that it is the way that you conduct yourself in life that will leave the greatest mark.
“I think it’s really important to have more than one dream because I think any child, any person’s got amazing potential and talent. So it is important to find your calling. It could be cricket, it could be anything but whatever you do, do it well and never lose sight of the fact that you’re interconnected. You’re one piece in a larger puzzle where what you do and how you live your life does affect others. So if you live it well and in a wholesome manner, you are guaranteed that you will leave something good behind.”
“Sri Lanka In Style – Around the Galle
Fort in 80 Lives,” ….. You Tube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6KawacXe_g
“Around the Fort …,” 2008 edn, …..https://www.amazon.com/Around-Fort-80-Lives-Merchant/dp/9550000001