In Appreciation of Nandasena Ratnapala, A Professor who Begged in Anthropological Mode

Ned Dean and Ranat

“We meet and we part

In this journey through sansara

But the meeting or parting does not end with time or years

It is a long stretch of an eventful road

Where milestones matter more than rises or falls

We have travelled together on this hard, endless road

Where milestones matter more than rises or falls

The journey was neither smooth nor full of magical moments alone

But many achievements reached more worth than monuments in gold

Leaving a fragrance that would linger on and unfold

Gifting a memory of a life rich and rare

Now you are gone as you wished on a fateful morn

While family, friends and students remember and mourn

A warm tear drops that none would see or feel

As I ponder about you, while my memory unfolds your sight.”

Neetha S. Ratnapala

 Let me begin this appreciation of a man I did not have the good fortune of meeting in person; Professor Nandasena Ratnapala was a truly wonderful teacher who dedicated his entire life to the cause of emancipation of those that, are downtrodden.

About twenty years ago, I met the professor through his book entitled the courageous beggar and to this dayI remember a particular sentence in this book …….. Wherein he says: “whilst I was on the pavement at Maharagama begging, my mother came by to deposit all the change she had into my begging bowl.”

I’ve carried the poignancy within this statement in my thoughts ever since. In fact this grown man unashamedly remembers tears in his eyes when he red these lines then.

Nandasena Ratnapala ….. May you attain Nibbana

Ned Dean

****  *****

Ranat in Daily FT, 17 November 2018, where the title runs “The courageous ‘beggar’ Professor”

Glancing through the collection in my library, I came across a book I read with great interest about 20 years back. I knew the author – a simple, unassuming individual who never boasted about his educational and professional achievements. The subject matter of the book is rather unusual. Above all, it is an authentic story of what the author experienced himself.

To refresh my memory, I picked ‘The Beggar in Sri Lanka’ which relates the experiences of Professor Nandasena Ratnapala (NR), who was in the streets as a beggar for several months. He ‘became the beggar’ when he was Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Sri Jayawardenapura University.

Quite apart from his findings, NR’s reaction when he met friends and relations itself is fascinating.

In his Preface, NR discusses a few ‘near misses’ during his adventure. One is how when he was begging at Maharagama, his mother – a retired school-teacher – having come to the post office to collect her monthly pension, gave him some coins in sympathy.

“She little thought that this beggar was her own son! At that moment I felt like crying out loud and telling her who the ‘beggar’ really was. As long as she lived she did not believe it, and laughed off the entire episode by calling it ‘one of my jokes’.”

On another occasion, he had gone to the University where he was teaching. His students saw him and gave him some money out of sympathy. They did not recognise him.

“Even my own colleagues having seen me, never suspected that I was the dirty beggar seated at the entrance. But a dog which I fed together with my friend, the late Professor T.B. Kangaharachchi, came and sat by my side, affectionately wagging its tail. Professor K saw the dog seated by me, flashed an inquiring look, but went away without identifying me. I immediately left the campus.”

At the gate he had met a close friend – a reputed bookseller, a sympathetic man by nature. He had given him a packet of rice without recognising him.

NR had slept at the Fort Railway Station where hundreds of beggars slept in the open space. He relates how one night at about 2 a.m. the fire brigade came and aimed water cannons at them. While the beggars – young and old, men, women, children – ran away, he enjoyed the ‘water bath’ and waited until morning in wet clothes. It had its repercussions when he started suffering from chronic bronchitis a few years later as a result of repeatedly getting wet and remaining with wet clothes for a considerable length of time.

There was at least one friend – his contemporary at Peradeniya campus, Amaradasa Gunawardeana – to whom he revealed himself when begging near his office. “When I met him, I called him ‘Amare’. He looked at me with surprise. I told him who I was.”

‘The Beggar Story’ was a sell out when he launched it in 1976. He had several editions and what I have is the 1999 edition in which he had revised the text. By then he has had more freedom in adjusting the copy because some of the characters had died and he was at liberty to write about them.

In what he calls “the greatest surprise”, he writes about a female who had read his book, had told him at an international seminar that she “understands beggars now, and since then I do not support them”. He was shocked and had felt miserable.

“My book was written in order to make others understand the beggars and sympathise with them. It is this understanding and sympathy that could lead to a reasonable solution of this social problem. My purpose was never directed against supporting all beggars. I myself help them even today, because the majority of them deserve our support. In supporting them, we in a way at least prevent anti-social elements from being born,” he stresses.

The book was received well, not only in Sri Lanka but in several other countries.  Professor Ratnapala’s findings are a separate story – to be related another day.

Pity we lost a researcher early in life who would have done much more studies had he lived.

A Note from Arun Dias Bandaranaike in Colombo, 28 December 2019

I remember Dr. NR well, and had a short interview for TV possibly about 1999 recorded on ‘the streets’, and focused on some aspects of his method and his experiences collecting the data for his research on beggars in Lanka.
While NR was evidently passionate about scholarship and hard work in regard to both teaching and studies at a personal level, he was also rueful about the parlous state of higher education and institutions of learning.  He observed that education was largely focused on qualifications for employment opportunities and rarely about thinking and reasoning on ideas and concepts.  His remark on camera is memorable: ” Today, students enter these gates at the university and leave their brains just outside the gate on the pavement, and forget to collect their brains again when they have graduated and leave the university “.
[My conversation with him was recorded in Sinhala for a current affairs show I hosted then, called “Kadtha-Malla”;  I’ve interpreted as ‘brain’ what the professor called “oluwa”]


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2 responses to “In Appreciation of Nandasena Ratnapala, A Professor who Begged in Anthropological Mode

  1. Tony Donaldson

    Very interesting to read this article on Professor Nandasena Ratnapala. It brings back memories of my time in Sri Lanka in the 1990s. I had the good fortunate to know Professor Ratnapala and met him frequently during my doctoral fieldwork in Sri Lanka in the years 1997 to 1999. He gave me signed autographed copies of several books he had written including “The Beggar in Sri Lanka;” a book on anthropological methodology; and an anthropology book on sex workers in Sri Lanka which he also researched with a combination of intellectual rigor and sensitivity. He was knowledgeable on Buddhism and featured in a British film on Buddhism in Sri Lanka which was produced in 1980s. I liked his stories which he always shared whenever I met him. He was unlike several other Sri Lankan academics I knew at the time insofar as he was honest, straightforward, open-minded and reliable.

    – Tony Donaldson

  2. Gigi

    I have just discovered about this man and I am just blown away by his commitment. Are his books available at Sarasavi or Vijitha Yapa? Thank you.

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