Channa Gunaratna, my friend

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by: Air Commodore- Retd- Ajit Jayasekera.

Sadness engulfed me a couple of days back, when I heard of the demise of my friend of over five decades, Channa Gunaratne. He was no ordinary friend. He touched so many people in so many ways with his ebullience and outgoing characteristics. Amidst the grief of losing a friend, many memories of our close association with each other over the years, flooded into my mind.

It was December 1982 and I was stationed at SLAF Base, China Bay. Channa and his family holidayed with us at Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we had to go for midnight mass. China Bay was a sparsely populated backwater of a town about a kilometer from our camp and there was a tiny church on a hillock opposite the Railway Station. It could accommodate barely 40 people, but on this day, there were people overflowing into its garden for the midnight mass. After all, it was Christmas. Channa’s wife Desiree, my wife Jacinta and I attended the mass. Channa and his little son Ruwinda stayed in the Jeep, which was parked on the road outside the church. Ruwinda was sleeping on the back seat and Channa remained with him. He was a Buddhist, so he had no compulsion to attend the mass. The service was in Tamil and there was no organ music but a parishioners’ choir sang the hymns. At Communion time, when it was very silent, we heard someone whistling the carol “Silent Night, Holy Night”. The sound of the whistling wafted loudly into the church in the still of the night. We knew it was Channa. The sense of occasion was brilliant. It was unconventional, but then Channa was an unconventional guy.

It was also in unconventional circumstances that Channa and I became friends. It was at the Ananda vs S. Thomas’ inter schools cricket match at Mt. Lavinia in 1969. He engaged me in unexpected banter about me being a ‘shit wicket keeper’ and upset me to the extent that I missed him three times before he got dismissed and when he was on his way to the pavilion, gave me a parting shot by repeating what he thought about my wicket keeping. It was the first time we had met and he greeted me as though we were long lost friends. His sincerity was striking and we hit it off from that day onwards. I always told him that it was he, who initiated sledging in cricket in Sri Lanka.

Channa and I joined the Royal Ceylon Air Force as Officer Cadets in January 1972. It was the first batch of Officer Cadets to be trained in Sri Lanka. Thus began a 30 year association of camaraderie and mate ship seldom experienced by many others, I can safely say.

We had adjoining rooms in the cadet billet and during afternoon ‘prep’ or study time, we kept a Rugby Songs book under the text book and learnt all the Rugby songs. This held us in good stead after we passed out as Officers, when we sang at Mess sing alongs, surprising the seniors with our repertoire. When we were thus ‘studying’, we asked the batman to keep a look out for ‘Nastase’ and warn us when he approached to check on us. The batman was nonplussed as to who Nastase was – it was the Officer in charge who, on his way for his evening game of tennis, would drop by the Cadet Mess to check whether we were studying. Nastase was the Wimbledon Champion at that time.

Another incident that comes to mind is the practical training we had in aircraft repairs, at the Aircraft Engineering Wing, Katunayake, on a grounded Jet Provost aircraft. After a session inside the cockpit, we emerged with the tools given to us for the repair and had to account for every single item. Channa could not trace a spanner he had been given. When the Sergeant had vented his spleen he asked how he was going to find and retrieve the spanner. He pretended to be thinking in mock dismay and told the Sergeant that the only way he could think of was to turn the aircraft upside down until the spanner dropped out. Needless to say, he had extra drill/doubles to contend with.

Channa first showed his class at sports representing Adastrians at cricket in the Sara Trophy tournament. He was a superb left hand batsman and a slow left arm bowler. He particularly enjoyed playing against the Army in the Defense Services tournaments, because he matched his wits and talents with his brother Lalith who was playing for the Army. There was no shortage of banter and camaraderie on and off the field. He also represented the Defense Services team at cricket.

Channa was restless, though. He firmly believed in the words of Noel Coward’s song “Only Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid day sun” and considered moving on to exploit his other god given sporting talents without wasting a whole weekend playing cricket in the mid day sun! He started playing Rugby football for the Air Force in the Clifford Cup. He was a very good full back, with his safe collection, booming kicks and motivation of the backs from his vantage position in the last line of defence. He played in the Clifford Cup Finals of 1975, a game we narrowly lost to Army. I am sure there would have been some hilarious exchanges with his brother Lalith about that contest. Not to be discouraged, Channa took to coaching Rugby and was in charge when we won the Clifford Cup in 1986. His cup would have been overflowing.

Cricket’s loss was Rugby’s gain but we managed to get his services for key games and were lucky to have him in the team when we won the Division 1 Raheman Hathy Tournament in 1981. He hung up his cricket boots thereafter.

He took to sports management when he stopped playing active sports and held important Command posts in Rugby and Cycling in the Air Force Sports Council and Defence Services Sports Board. He particularly enjoyed his involvement with Cycling, taking after his Father, the late Mr. Douggie Gunaratna, who when he was at Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL) was the prime mower in organizing the Tour de Lanka. Channa took Air Force Cycling to a new level and was instrumental in initiating the Guwan Sawariya cycling race based on the same concept as the Tour de Lanka.

Channa passed out as a Pilot Officer in October 1973. He retired as an Air Vice Marshal in 2006. His professional achievements have been touched upon by others who have paid tributes to him, so I will stick to writing about his exploits as a fun loving individual who was my great friend for decades.

He married his childhood sweetheart Desiree and had a son, Ruwinda and a daughter who sadly died at infancy. In his retirement, he doted on his two granddaughters.

The Great Scorer has now come to write against his name and written not on whether he won or lost but how he played the game. He played the game in an exceptional manner. He won. We lost.

May the turf on which he trod with panache, lie gently on him.