I remember our next move to a languid settlement in Horapola in proximity to Kekirawa then to Thambaala, a picturesque pastoral community on the road from Pollonaruwa to Seruwavila which was even then a town that bustled with comparative activity. My early schooling was thus spent subject to the migratory compulsions of my father’s career. Wherever we went my father would soon settle down to a busy agenda of teaching and social activity. We were never without visitors streaming in and out of our home. We lived in what was called a ‘Colony House’ a homestead with features essential for rustic living by people mostly relocated under the settlement schemes of the government in its drive for agricultural self-sufficiency and rediscovery of the ‘Rajarata’. At a recent event in that area where the President Maithripala Sirisena and I participated, I learnt that his family too had lived in a similar ‘colony house’.
My grandparents on both paternal and maternal sides were teachers and religious scholars. Apart from them and my father, I could claim the distinction of having several of my aunts, uncles and two of my own brothers as school teachers. My maternal grandfather Uthuman Lebbe Aalim Sahib was areligious scholar and was the Qatheeb of a mosque for 35 years continuously without a break. He was known for his honesty on mosque matters and funds. The family was known as the ‘alim sahib’ family members. His was the only burial that took place at the foyer of the Hapugasthalawa Jumma Mosque. He was an excellent exponent in Arabic Tamil (where Arwi, Arabic script is used) and wrote many books. The famous book ‘Badhr Maalai’ is a literary piece in Arabuthamizh written as praise and a rendition on the Prophet Mohamed’s companions who fought the holiest Badhr war. This was an annual week-long recital called ‘Burda Kandoori’ where they prayed for the Prophet and sang praises for him. My paternal grandfather was Noor Mohammed Abdul Rauff from Galagedera. He was a school teacher and a Sinhala poet. He translated portions of the Holy Quran to Sinhala for the first time. He was also the first Muslim to be appointed as Principal in a Sinhala school.
Our family was not affluent. Yet, they were abundantly content with their lot. Despite our modest means, my grandfathers and father were looked up to in our community as embodying the Islamic virtue of observing the Surah Al-Thariyaat. “…giving a rightful share of their wealth to the beggar and the deprived.”
When I was attending the school in my father’s village, Galagedera, I sat for the Navodhaya scholarship where I performed rather exceptionally well and gained entry to Royal College in Colombo in 1973.
At Royal I became the Chairman of the Tamil drama society. I was soon active in the debating society of Royal College and was a member of the Tamil debating team for four years and led the team, finally. I won the Ramanathan memorial award for best speaker in 1979. Leaving school, I entered Law College as by then I had decided that I would pursue a career in law as a profession and politics as my mission in life.
Mahathma Gandhi said “Be the change that you wished to see in the world.” That alas is the prerogative of giants amongst us. I should now relate how I met the Giant who influenced me to be the ‘change I wish to see in the world’.
I met our Leader M H M Ashraff for the first time while still in Law College. As law students we were assiduously reading his critique of the 1972 constitution written in Tamil. I plucked up the courage to walk up to him and engaged in a brief but memorable conversation. He was reassuringly patient with my bursting curiosity.
My second encounter was in the chambers of Presidents Counsel Faiz Mustapha. That was in 1985. In between my years of apprenticeship at the law firm K Sivanandam Associates where Mr Ashraff too served his apprenticeship. I developed an association that soon evolved into an enduring bond of friendship and coloration. He was that rare breed of leaders who had a far-reaching influence on those who came in to contact with. He made his followers feel powerful and able to accomplish things on their own.
Once when he was leaving a meeting at my law firm, he asked me what my father-in-law Ismail Quddus was doing. My father-in-law was a Municipal Councilor in Kandy who had been elected twice in the 1960s. He had once won as a candidate of the UNP, then from the SLFP and then moved to Colombo. At the behest of our leader I persuaded him to contest the parliamentary elections in the Kandy district from the SLMC. I was his campaign manager and he topped the list. But, the SLMC contesting on its own did not qualify for a seat. The effort however was not in vain. In 1994 I entered parliament as a National List MP. I later won contesting under the banner of the NUA in 2000. It was the first time that a Muslim won a seat contesting from a party independent of the mainstream national parties outside the north and the east. These years held some rewarding personal experiences. I won the Jaycees Outstanding Young Persons award (TOYP) in 1998 for political and Government Affairs. Unimportant but still interesting was my winning the Colombo District Billiards championship around the same time!
I am a fortunate father. My elder daughter had brilliant schooling at Visaka Vidyalaya and Ladies College, Colombo. She graduated in Business Management from the Nottingham University and is married to Milhan Mohamed, a lawyer. My younger daughter too had anexcellent schooling career in Visaka Vidyalaya, Colombo and is awaiting university entrance to read law.
As the leader of the SLMC, I paddle my canoe upstream. If I am allowed to think aloud in this narrative of the school teacher’s son from Galagedara I would echo the remarks of Theodore Roosevelt.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly” I am actually in the arena. I strive valiantly. I err and at times come short and short again. But then, as Theodore Roosevelt points out: “there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”