Dr. Cyril Paranavitana: An Appreciation from Many Hearts & Hands

Piyasiri Wickramasekara, Chandrasena Maliyadde and HMG Palihakkara ++

It is with profound sorrow that we, the class of 1968 in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Peradeniya, came to know of the untimely departure of our great friend Dr. Cyril Paranavithana (Parane), just two days prior to his 75th birthday (28 July 2021) in New York, USA. The warm
greetings intended for this landmark birthday event had to be hurriedly turned into heartfelt condolences.

 

We entered the University of Peradeniya, described as one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, together with Paranavithana and several hundred other youngsters from all corners of the country in 1964. We found the university environment quite enchanting with beautiful green scenery studded with blooming flowers and adorned with impressive buildings and halls of residence named after famous people – a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the Kandy city. Paranavithana, one of the so-called “freshers”, selected Arunachalam as his hall of residence where students from all disciplines freely mingled. Paranavithana soon became a popular friend of ours with his easy going, humble and charming manners. For us, he was always ‘Parane’.

Parane was born on 28 July 1946 at Mabotuwanage Watta in the village of Metaramba, Unawatuna in the Southern Province. His well respected family had links to the famous Sri Lankan scholar and archeologist, Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, who was born at the same address 60 years earlier. Parane never forgot his roots, and fondly recounted the great support he received from his mother and the sister after his father departed at an early age. A brilliant student from the inception, he first studied at Unawatuna Maha Vidyalaya, and later proceeded to the Hikkaduwa Sri Sumangala Central College on a prestigious Fifth Standard Government Scholarship to continue his studies. He is one of the few who managed to continue the same scholarship till the end of undergrad days. He also studied mathematics with arts subjects in his first year – again a rare combination.

Coming back to Peradeniya days, Parane came out with flying colors at the General Arts Qualifying Examination in 1965. Those qualified to follow the special degree in economics were asked to indicate their preferences for a major field. Most of us bet on the well-trodden tracks and chose familiar subjects offered. But Parane dared to be different. With his background in mathematics, he had been planning all along to specialize in Statistics while being fully aware of the lack of facilities for that subject in the Department. Prof. H A De S Gunasekera, the Chair and Dean of Faculty of Arts at the time, himself from the Unawatuna area, told Parane: “Sorry Mr. Paranavithana, we cannot allow that as there are no lecturers qualified in statistics to teach you”. Any one of us would have meekly nodded in agreement and withdrawn. But not Parane.He persisted and kept on insisting: “Sir, I can do it on my own with self-study”. Prof. H A De S perhaps never expected a response of that nature from a 19-year old student, and finally said
‘Yes’, probably with some annoyance as well as admiration.

Parane got much closer to us being in the group of 40 or so students majoring in economics. He was meticulous in his studies. The University Central Library became one of his favourite hangouts. We can still remember seeing him frequently in the main reading room, the fifth floor journal section or the Ceylon Room of the library. He combed through the iconic seven storied university library to ensure that he did not overlook any book on Statistics. He spent the next three years rigorously following his studies, and sharing his knowledge with peers, as well as enjoying campus life like all of us. He sat the final examination in 1968 with nearly 1,000 students who, unlike him, had access to lectures and guidance on all subjects. He was recruited to join the academic staff of the Department of Economics and Statistics even before results of the final examination were released. Parane secured a Second Class Upper Division Honors Degree in Statistics – the first student to do so in many years. There is absolutely no doubt that his Second Upper was worth more than a first class given that the University failed to provide him proper lectures and academic guidance. He was immediately and readily absorbed into the permanent academic staff of the Economics Department at the time. Professor Gunasekera (Secretary of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs at the time)appreciated his econometric and modelling skills and got him down to Colombo on part time basis for work in the Perspective Planning Division of the Ministry. Proceeding to the UK for postgraduate studies on a Commonwealth Scholarship in 1971, he earned his MSc in econometrics and quantitative economics at the University of Manchester, and his Ph.D. in econometrics from the University of Southampton in 1977. Unlike most Sri Lankan postgraduate students who opted to research on familiar Sri Lankan issues, Paranavithana carried out research on the UK situation, and submitted his Ph.D. thesis on “A quarterly econometric study of the U.K. labour sector 1955-1966”.

Parane returned to Peradeniya with the coveted three letters (Ph.D.) added at the end of his name and resumed teaching and research. It was largely through his efforts that economic statistics and econometrics became a popular mainstream subject in the Department of Economics and Statistics. He loved teaching, and in turn was loved by all of his students as a model teacher. Several academics from other faculties also attended his statistics courses with a view to applying statistical principles in their research. Few are aware that that he carried out a major research surveying Kandyan villages and revisiting the famous publication, “The Disintegrating Village” authored by former Peradeniya University dons, Sarkar and Tambiah in 1957. Unfortunately, he left before the project could be completed. We recall that a short article on research findings was published in the Marga Institute Journal many years back.

Parane was among a number of great academics that the Peradeniya University failed to retain. We still do not know what motivated him to leave the comfortable and cosy haven of Peradeniya University. It could have been a combination of factors – low pay (university academic salaries were raised to competitive levels much later), monotony of teaching undergrads only, lack of promotion prospects, and increasing interference by politicians in university affairs, among others. Our loss was a gain to the global community. We know that he pursued his favourite academic career at the University of Maiduguri, Nigeria, having been lured there by the famous geography professor – George Thambyahpillay – another great academic who had left Peradeniya earlier.

After a few years there, Parane moved to the USA. Surprisingly he did not pursue a university career and preferred to work in the US corporate sector. He worked in several high tech companies in the private sector where his expertise in statistics, programming and quantitative
analysis proved to be an asset. Parane served as the EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) Administrator at the reputed US and global IT company, Verizon Wireless, before his retirement. He developed pioneering and innovative software and protocols for electronic data interchange (EDI), tracking applications, networking and the emerging mobile phone industry.

At the same time, we gather that Parane never gave up his passion for teaching and continued to teach statistics on a part time basis in several US liberal arts colleges despite low pay. We also understand that he was a very popular lecturer among both young and mature students there, and that the college management actively sought after his services. While in Maiduguri, Parane was able to acquire a rare treasure named “CORA” – his beloved wife from the Philippines. Cora was a constant pillar of strength for Parane – the livewire of Parane – always supporting him where needed. He managed life well and succeeded in the individualistic and competitive US environment thanks largely to the support of Cora.

Parane was a rare binary in human affairs. He was both self-made and self-less: self-made because he basically acquired academic glory sans lecturers and self-less because he shared that hard earned knowledge with his peers who themselves were actively competing with him for academic excellence. In an unmatched gesture of friendship and generosity of our time, he even shared with a large number of friends the new Peugeot 404 – a jealously guarded luxury those days and imported with his hard-earned savings abroad. He finally left it with the last user when he migrated.

Sharing and caring constituted Parane’s lifestyle. He saw positive qualities in all and went out of his way to help people never expecting anything in return. Parane’s hallmark was his broad and endearing smile and his humility. He grew in wisdom, maturity, and success over time. At the same time, he never forgot his Sri Lankan roots and managed to keep in touch with his friends through email and skype, etc., and during his return visits to the home country.

Parane’s dear mother passed away about 25 years back. Kusuma, his only sibling, cannot hold back her tears explaining how he meant everything to her and her family. He continued to support her and her two children even from thousands of miles away and got them to stand on  their feet. Kusuma still fondly treasures and jealously guards his school awards, trophies, past photos, and other memorabilia.

It is a piece of cruel irony that this jovial person bursting with life suddenly suffered a major setback in health. Cora brought him to Sri Lanka a few years back hoping that revival of his Sri Lankan memories and contacts with his relatives and friends will improve the situation. Her loving care and devotion obviously lightened his suffering, and she was ably supported in this task by her beloved sons – Feodor and Ravi. We are so grateful to Cora and Feodor who brought him over to Sri Lanka again in November 2019 for a final reunion with his close friends and relatives here. We still fondly recall his friendly smile and clear manifestations of his delight and warmth in seeing us.

Parane was a lifelong friend to all of us; a great teacher to thousands; a dedicated and competent professional to his employers in Sri Lanka and abroad; a true friend to many colleagues in different lands; and a truly remarkable and unique human being. His departure will create a big vacuum, and produce sadness and tears among many, but his memories will be cherished forever. Sadly, his body became cold just two days before his 75th birthday, and his funeral took place the day after his birthday. While fondly remembering that face with the never fading and endearing smile, we can but weep silently with heavy hearts, and note with gratitude and great admiration the excellent care, efforts and warmth given by his wife Cora and his sons Feodor and Ravi to keep him happy and entertained till his end.

To our dear friend, Parane: Farewell! Goodbye! We know you are in a better
place! Rest in Peace!

HIS THREE BATCHMATES … THE AUTHORS OF THIS VALE

ALSO NOTE

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7 responses to “Dr. Cyril Paranavitana: An Appreciation from Many Hearts & Hands

  1. PIYASIRI, …. This EPITAPH is as beautiful as thorough-going in its evoation of a life and career that was so fruitful and helpful. Icannot recall PARANE from the period 1966-75 when I was at Peradeniya; but your tale brings back fond memories. ….. Thank You. Michael Roberts, Editor, thuppahi

    • Sisira Jayasuriya

      Dear Michael,

      Many thanks for sharing this. Parane was a wonderful person – as Piyasiri was and Is – and this is sad news indeed. These are some f the people who made Peradeniya a place of beautiful memories for many of us.

      Best,
      Sisira

  2. Dear Michael
    Many thanks indeed for your kind words, and making this piece much more reader-friendly.

  3. Manel Jayamanna

    I remember the smiling face of Parane despite his moustache. He was so innocent and genuine at times witty. Although he was only one year senior to us, he was not bossy like present day lecturers of our Universities who want students to stand up and bow down to them when they enter the lecture hall. This distancing is one of the causes of the present declining situation in the universities. The era in which we enjoyed our freedom and joy at Peradeniya will never come back to the present and certainly to the next generation in Sri Lanka. Yet let us feel happy that we lived and studied in the golden era of our Universities especially at Peradeniya. While cherishing those memories with gratitude to our dear colleagues of Peradeniya I wish Dr. Paranavithana peaceful journey through Samsara until he reaches its ultimate end.

  4. pwick7

    Let me clarify that the tribute was a joint effort with Chandrasena Maliyadde (former Secretary to several Ministries) and HMG Palihakkara (former Foreign Secretary) – all Parane’s batchmates at Peradeniya.

  5. Kallinga Tudor Silva

    This was indeed a shocking news. He was our wonderful statistics teacher at Peradeniya and we became good friends after I joined the staff and he moved to staff quarters in Hilda Obeysekere Hall in the late 1970s. It was fun to walk with him from HOH to the faculty, Faculty Club, and the university playground where we strolled together in many evenings. As a student, I had an allergy to statistics initially but he was instrumental in changing my outlook. I remember his eagerness to convert all distributions to normal distributions for statistical purposes and one of the popular nicknames about him among his students was “Mr. Normal Distribution”. I visited him in Jersey City sometime in 2002 where I also met his Filipino wife and step son. It was great to see him back at Pera sometime in 2010 or so. We miss a great man, a sincere friend and a brilliant statistician cum actuary. Tudor Silva

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