Photograph by Sunny Nawagattegama, 1985

He wouldn’t have liked the idea of an obituary, and I’m no obituarist, but I feel that I must try. Professor Carlo Fonseka was all of 86 when he passed away days ago. He leaves behind a devoted wife, a son, a daughter, and a granddaughter. He also leaves behind one of the most packed libraries I’ve ever seen, and one of the biggest legacies a man of medicine can leave behind in Sri Lanka. In this he is not far behind P. R. Anthonis, with the caveat that P. R.’s was an epic life, whereas Professor Carlo’s wasn’t: with his interests, pursuits, and accolades, it was more episodic than epic.

My first memory of him goes back to 2013. I had written a book, a novella to be more exact, which I probably shouldn’t have written at all (that’s putting it mildly). Someone suggested that the Professor, given his literary interests, was the perfect person to pen down the foreword to it. At the time he was the President of the Arts Council, a post he held for quite some time. I naturally felt overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting him.

Eventually though, meet him I did. For those who haven’t paid him a visit, the first thing that strikes you is that architectural masterpiece that is his home in Pita Kotte. It’s the kind of home Frank Lloyd Wright or, closer to home, Bawa may have loved, with a touch of the tropical modernist and with many open spaces. The second thing that strikes you is his nondescript character. He has a knack for conversation, he enraptures you, but he doesn’t condescend to you. Tissa Abeysekara once compared Lester James Peries to a Bourbon Prince: short, but with a presence that exuded something immense. The Professor was like that.

Professor Carlo also never interrupts you when you’re opening up to him. You may be a blithering idiot who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about, but he listens to you. Perhaps that training came to him from his debating years at his second school, St Joseph’s. Or perhaps that came to him after he realised, after a largely Catholic upbringing, that nothing he’d been taught and nothing he’d learnt could ever be free from doubt. Either way, at that tender age of 18, I felt inclined to impress him. I’m pretty sure I spoke nonsense and made up things (literature, movies, culture, and science, though not politics) as I went along. But he still heard me.

I didn’t know, at the time, of his contribution to that debate between science and superstition in Sri Lanka. In this he was less a pioneer than a successor; the leading figure, of course, was Abraham Kovoor, who unlike Carlo was the offspring of Christian clergymen. But there were those debates, intermittent though they were, between him and Nalin de Silva. There was also the Sinhala translation of Kovoor’s book, Gods, Demons, and Spirits, the foreword to which was written by him. I came across both, and after the first meeting delved into his articles even more.

Over the next two to three months I visited him regularly. In this I was surely disturbing his routine, but he never got annoyed; on the contrary, every time I visited him there was always something new he’d planned to explain to me. True to his rationalist roots, in whatever he said to me, he’d always question what had been acknowledged as gospel truths; one day, for instance, quoting from memory the opening sentence in Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), he contended that read the other way around (“Unhappy families are all alike; every happy family is happy in its own way”) it meant the same thing, and concluded it wasn’t as great as critics had argued it to be.

Professor Carlo was not a student of literature, but he came from an earlier, gentler era when studying medicine didn’t mean cutting yourself off from the world surrounding you. He lived through a cultural revival. He joined the University of Ceylon in 1955 and graduated five years later; during those years there came Viragaya, Maname, and Rekava, and many other cultural masterpieces he never failed, even later, to see; writing on Victor Ratnayake’s Sa Prasangaya in 2012, for instance, he claimed that after the 1000th show he “stopped counting” and went on watching. He was as much a student of arts as he was of medicine. The two met and became one.

He was also bilingual, and advised me against thinking, writing, and speaking in English. For a man who’d obtained his entire education in the coloniser’s tongue, his grasp of Sinhala was, to say the least, impressive. If that seems like an exaggeration, rest assured it isn’t; like Nalin de Silva (who captained the debating team at Royal College), Professor Carlo was a formidable Sinhala debater at school and University. I remember the two of them fighting it out (as always, over science versus superstition) in Doramadalawa. The tensions were apparent, Nalin was venting out his fury at the Professor’s critiques of mysticism, and Carlo wasn’t budging.

At the same time he didn’t want his opponent to have the last say. He could have waited and launched a full frontal assault. He didn’t. Instead he came up with a classic rejoinder that to me, represented all that was right and flawed about the rationalist movement here: “Mahacharya Nalin, obathuma kiyana dewal wala aththak thiyenawa, aluth ewwath thibenawa . Mata pennee aththa ewa aluth naha, aluth ewa aththa naha. Echcharayi.” Had it not infuriated Nalin, audiences would have been shocked. As things stood, it did: while the closing credits rolled, Nalin stood up and went on accusing his opponent of wriggling his way out of the debate.

Regi Siriwardena, writing of the early Left movement in Sri Lanka, pointed out that many of its stalwarts, who came from English speaking backgrounds, subscribed to F. R. Leavis’s literary theories, which led them to think that the leadership for the revolution was destined to be in the hands of the select few. If Leavis made them believe in the infallibility of their dogma, in other words, Trotsky and Stalin reinforced that belief.

Carlo’s background was manifestly different, though he also became a leading light in the Old Left. As a rationalist, he believed that nothing could be true unless and until verified beyond a shadow of a doubt; as a radical, he believed that the ultimate test of humanity was our ability to sift through cultural and political divisions to the common bonds linking man to man. He could well have quoted (as he did once), after Bertrand Russell, that the three passions governing his life were “the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

There were times when he believed, to the point of passionate intensity, what he liked and chose to believe in, often at the cost of ideological coherence. That was natural. He subscribed, for instance, to the homelands theory of Tamil secessionists, purely because he believed that Tamils had a right to certain parts of the country where they had resided for centuries. He was also against private medical schools, despite hailing from an earlier era where opposition to private education had only begun to emerge; he maintained this position even if, towards the end, he questioned no less a figure than Marx when reflecting on the matter and wrote that Marx “did not underestimate the productive power of capitalism.”

There were also times when he was wrong. He, and his colleagues from the Old Left, were vocal in their criticisms of the Jathika Chinthana school, by far the most misunderstood political and social movement this country has ever produced. As such when he was not locking horns with Nalin and Nalin’s colleague and mentor Gunadasa Amarasekara over science, he was taking them to task over their politics.

In this, however, he trod on uncharted waters, as could be seen when, replying to a contention by Amarasekara that unitary states with a unitary civilisation have no need of national anthems being sung in multiple languages, he distorted the argument to say that unitary states have no need of multilingual anthems, omitting the important unitary/multi civilisation thesis. With such distortions were more than half of the JC school’s theories flushed down the drain; there Carlo was in the wrong, like many of his Old Left colleagues. To say this isn’t to indict him, though: he was, as Nietzsche said, human, all too human.

In the meantime those debates over science and rationalism, which took the better part of his writings after he had left active politics even though he never gave up writing on politics, kept on coming. If it was a treat to read them in The Island every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday (and, occasionally, on other days of the week), it was, and remains, an indictment on the lack of intellectual rigour and the intellectual void in the debates we came across usually in the papers, particularly the English papers. Moreover the question was never who won or lost; the question was who took whose side. An awful lot sided with Carlo, but a great many sided with Nalin. Not being a man of science, I am not qualified enough to offer a verdict.

Perhaps the closest analogy I can come to with regard to these two implacable foes is not a scientific one, but a literary one. Isaiah Berlin talked of foxes and hedgehogs after an observation by Archilochus: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows only one big thing.” Without wading into controversy, my guess is that Carlo was the fox and Nalin the hedgehog: if Carlo’s overwhelming belief in science and rationalism, and liberal humanism, never deterred him from moving into subjects and topics that veered from his chief interests, Nalin’s repudiation of them did.

By that I am not condemning Nalin for the sake of putting down a few good words about Carlo. In any case Berlin never intended to promote the one over the other: for him, the world could survive and flourish only if both survived and flourished. To bring up a similar analogy Regi Siriwardena once brought up, if Carlo was a budding Mozart whose interests ranged far and wide, Nalin with his sense of infallibility was more comparable to Beethoven. But Mozart and Beethoven, despite their obvious differences, shared many experiences, and even learnt from each other. If Carlo and Nalin didn’t actually learn from one another, they at least shared a common experience: they defined each other by their differences.

The elderly Amadeus, regarding the youthful Ludwig, is said to have exclaimed in public (though the anecdote has since been disputed), “Mark that young man; he will make himself a name in the world!” There were times, over the phone, when Carlo praised his erstwhile foe too: not in the same tones perhaps, but with the same sense of affection the most sincere ideological opponents can feel for one another.

Thus it was only fitting that the first big tribute should come from that foe. After correctly pointing out that most laudatory pieces on the man will target him for his vituperative critiques of the Professor, Nalin goes on to say he feels no regret for being vituperative. It’s the kind of tribute Carlo himself would have loved to read, more than the multitudinous “Rest in Pieces” which he never brought up in the obituaries he himself wrote.

But even the foe has to regret, and Nalin, after criticising everything about Carlo he criticised before, and arguing that Carlo ultimately failed to prove an objective reality that existed outside the subjective confines of his mind, strikes a discordant chord: he got one thing, regarding whether the Kalama Sutta (beloved by rationalists as proof that Buddhism was a “scientific faith”) was rationalistic, wrong, and while he goaded his opponent over the scientific reconstructions of Buddhism, he never acknowledged the error or understood it until the morning after Carlo’s passing away.

Andrew Sarris, the redoubtable film critic who aboard The Village Voice began a lifelong feud with the more popular Pauline Kael, wrote one of the first obituaries for the latter. At the end of his piece he asks a question, which I think is valid in the context of Carlo’s passing away and Nalin’s reminiscences: “So which one of us was proven right in the long run?” The answer was something Carlo, even Nalin, would have agreed with, given their mutual belief in the mortality of human beings: “In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes or someone once said, we are all dead.”

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.