Ajit Kanagasundram

There were many prominent members in the extended family – Civil servants, doctors a Queens Counsel, an Admiral and commander of the Navy and a Foreign Minister. Even among these eminent family members his father   stood out – a brilliant student, tall and fair and handsome and charming to people of all stations in life, an excellent chess and bridge player and tennis player – in other words a Man for All Seasons. He won the Latin and English prize at school but was denied the History prize as the Head Master suspected that he had cheated as he had reproduced some sections of the text book word for word – this was till he demonstrated that he could repeat this feat in front of the Head master as he has a photographic memory! He got a first class Honours in the University of London and passed first into the Civil Service during British times. He rose fast in the administrative service as he was the blue eyed boy of our first Prime Minister D S Senanayake, who made him, at age 39 the Chairman of the Gal Oya Board the largest development project in the country, and equivalent to the Bakar Nangal Dam in India. His mother was a society beauty and his  parents  were the “Golden Couple” –  the glittering stars of Colombo High Society. This idyllic childhood was interrupted when the government changed and this was followed by the communal riots of 1958. His father was removed from his powerful post in Gal Oya purely on the grounds that he was a Tamil, but since he was a respected Civil Servant the new government appointed him as the Deputy High Commissioner in London – a plum post. But my father was not interested in dinner at Buckingham Palace or diplomatic parties – his heart was in agricultural development in Ceylon and Gal Oya and he died a few years later of a heart attack while playing tennis (my mother always claimed it was of a broken heart)- a disappointed and bitter man. This example of how he fell from grace through no fault of his own, was taken to heart by Ajit and he never forgot it.

Ajit was sent to an elite boarding school in England, but life was tough for the only brown boy in school, who was moreover not good at cricket or Rugby. But this experience made him tougher and take life more seriously and while he was an indifferent student in Ceylon, here he was considered a scholar,and applied himself to studies  and at the end of his school days won a place at Cambridge university – one of the most competitive Universities in the world. At Cambridge he enjoyed him self and worked hard. Here for the first time in his life he came across people as smart or smarter than him and he  was exhilarated by the challenge of competing with them,. He also discovered parties and pretty girls and realised, also for the first time, the mutual attraction to women. He passed with a good honours degree, despite his partying, and was offered a place at the Central bank of Ceylon, the elite institution in the country. Here he was placed in the Economic Research department and was soon awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to do a PhD in the US. But at this time the Bank had just installed the first computer in the country and he became interested in this subject. This was even though the Governor of the Bank, who was a colleague of his father called him to his office and told him “ You have had an expensive education in one of the best Universities in the World. Why waste it on a “technical” career ?.” But he persisted and was trained in computers by the Bank in the UK, Canada and Japan and found that he had a flair for this work and also tremendously enjoyed it. Computer processing power was limited in those days but despite these limitations he computerised the Employees provident Fund with 3 million members, the National Savings Bank with 4 million customers and the foreign exchange monitoring system. All this with a computer that was only as powerful as a modern PC today and the most amazing thing is that the systems he designed and coded are still in use today.

He married Shyamala,  the daughter of the most prominent anesthetist in Sri Lanka and lived a comfortable life – played tennis or badminton at the Otters club  every evening, servants to look after his three children, and most of all he enjoyed setting up and running a dairy farm  in a beautiful estate he had inherited from his uncle. It had all the fruit trees you can think and he established the best dairy farm in Colombo with imported Freisen cows from Australia and Mura buffaloes from India to make curd. But once again his idyllic life was shattered by the anti-Tamil communal riots of 1983, where his farm was burnt and the cattle slaughtered – this hurt him more than anything and he decided to leave Sri Lanka, and took his young family and moved to Singapore.

The estate had been in the family for 3 generations (his grandfather would ride horses there) and his grandparents had planted all the fruit trees one can think of – mangoosteen trees, Sapadila, Rambuttan, Thambily  and many others not for commercial use for  family and friends– the mainstay  was coconut and rubber.  It was in verdant, undulating land, with a small stream an attractive house at the highest point with a large verandah. Ajit’s family would spend many happy week-ends there, and the village women would bring freshly made hoppers in the morning. Ajit started a large poultry farm for eggs and his real love a dairy farm – probably the best in Colombo. It had imported Freisen and Jersey cows and Mura buffaloes from India for curd.

Ajit also had excellent relations with the local villagers, helped them to get bank loans and always employed them on the estate in preference to outsiders (some had worked for the family for generations and it is even rumoured that one of his uncles had fathered a child there with a village girl ! ). He gave a monthly Dhana to the local Buddhist temple and was friendly with the monk. He was once invited to distribute the prizes at the local school prize giving. Ajit never felt or behaved like an outsider, feeling that they had integrated after 3 generations and were not outsiders but part of the fabric of village life.

But once again his idyllic life was shattered by the anti-Tamil communal riots of July 1983, where his farm was burnt and the cattle slaughtered – this hurt him more than anything. What he still cannot understand is how these same local villagers, incited by his “friend” the Buddhist monk, could have done this. Much later on one of his visits to Colombo from Singapore, Ajit visited Hokandara and found the villagers still friendly and extremely happy to see him and fondly enquired after the “Nona” and “babbala” (wife and children). They were now largely unemployed as Ajit had been the largest employer in the area– the women had no option but domestic work in the Middle East and the men were reduced to brewing “kasippu” (illicit liquor).

On the Monday while his estate was being burnt, Ajit returned home to Rosmead Place from the Central Bank early when he learnt of anti -Tamil communal violence, passing many cars from which Tamils were being dragged out, burnt alive and killed by mobs (his spoken Sinhala was good enough for him to pass off as a Sinhalese). The mobs were shouting to passing motorists  – “ Mahathaya – Rata Jathika beraganna petrol tikkak denna” (Sir –  give us some petrol to save the country and race ).

He found that his wife and children had been taken in by a Sinhala friend down the road for safety. Meanwhile a mob of thugs and hooligans, consisting of JSS members (UNP trade union – which was under the control of minister Cyril Mathew) and ex- convicts, were rampaging down the road looting and burning Tamil homes guided by a list of Tamil owned properties provided by government sources- the Police and Army were conspicuous by their absence. Ajit sheltered in a bedroom, with a Tamil servant girl, and he armed himself with a loaded 12 bore shotgun and .375 magnum rifle (as a keen hunter Ajit had a collection of licenced guns) determined to shoot when the mob came. If he had done so he would

undoubtedly have been killed by the mob or the Army as a Kottiya (Tiger). Fortunately for him when the mob arrived, his loyal Sinhala servants, who had been with the family for years, went to the gate and convinced the mob that his father-in-law Dr Ponnamblam had died (true) and the family had gone abroad. So the mob went to the next door house belonging to Mrs Sangarapillai, a Tamil widow, and burnt it and destroyed a container load of electrical and household goods brought back by her brother recently from England.

Ajit and the Tamil servant girl (see footnote below) escaped over the back wall and joined his wife and children and found refuge in his Mother’s house in Ward Place. There were 60 other relatives from all parts of Colombo there, as this was the only totally safe place in Colombo, when the city burned while the Police and Army watched, as the house was opposite president JR’s house! Although his Mother’s residence was a gracious and spacious old house you can imagine the living conditions with 60 people. This was when Ajit finally decided that despite his love for the country there was no future for him and his family in the land of his birth.

 So 4 days later he sent his wife and children to Singapore. They were driven to the airport by his  friend Anton Balasuriya , through streets littered with burnt out cars and  with mobs still roaming the streets and stopping the cars looking for Tamils – this was the infamous “Kottiya” Friday when the unfounded rumour was spread that the Tigers were infiltrating Colombo. Anton did this at great personal risk and Ajit will always be grateful to him for this.

Ajit chose Singapore as it is the only country in the world that accepts Sri Lankan citizens without visas and joined them a month later after resigning from the Central Bank and settling his affairs.

So despite his elitist background Ajit was now just another common refugee – no country, no job and no house, with a young family to support. This was a fate he shared with tens of thousands of other Tamils at that time and their number has since then grown to over one million- thus was created the Tamil Diaspora. They were the victims of a carefully planned action by the government ( the Army ambush  in July 1983 where 17 soldiers were killed by the Tigers was the excuse they had been waiting for ) as  the UNP under President JR  wanted to clear Sri Lanka of the Jaffna Tamil middle class through mob violence- because their hardworking and successful professionals  were seen as a “competitive  threat” by their Sinhala counterparts ( in this endeavor they largely succeeded), and also after getting rid of them they thought that suppressing  the Tamil masses would  be easy (no one foresaw a 25 year war).

So instead of having a docile and productive minority, who contributed to the nation’s progress and development, the actions of successive governments created the million strong Tamil Diaspora, who now use their political strength and considerable financial resources to influence Western media and the politicians against Sri Lanka. This actions of successive Sri Lanka governments were therefore both morally wrong and in the end counterproductive.

Footnote on the Tamil servant girl:   Her name was Jayanthi and she was an ordinary village school girl from Vadukottai in Jaffna. She was barely 19 when she came to work for Ajit’s family – a slim and extremely timid girl who spoke only Tamil. Actually her working as a domestic help was itself unusual as, unlike Tamil girls from the estates and Sinhala village

girls, Jaffna girls never go for domestic work. Shyamala was able to get Jayanthi as their

Pastor knew her mother who was in financial difficulties as her husband had abandoned the

family. Jayanthi was one of 3 girls whose only responsibility was looking after Ajit’s children (the other 2 were Sinhala)– one for each. It was thought that by speaking with them she would improve the children’s knowledge of Tamil (their medium of instruction at Royal College) which was quite bad as the family never spoke it at home. (Their Sinhala was actually better both by having Sinhala servants at home and by playing with the village children at Ajit’s estate at Hokandara during the many week-ends spent there).

When they were forced to leave Sri Lanka after July 1983, Ajit and Shyamala decided to take Jayanthi with them to Singapore as she had no future in Sri Lanka. In Singapore she became their only maid looking after a family of 5 (in Rosmead Place they had a staff of 7 for a similar workload)– an enormous amount of work given 3 school going children, laundering school uniforms, cleaning a 5 bedroom house, a garden to maintain, taking the family dog for daily walks, washing the cars –  and Ajit’s insistence on a freshly cooked dinner each evening- usually string hoppers, chicken curry and pol sambol!

She not only coped but thrived and became an excellent cook and all round worker. When it was no longer possible to renew her employment visa after 6 years she begged Shyamala not to send her back to Jaffna. In Jayanthi’s own words – “If you send me back, Madam, they will either marry me off to my cousin or I will have to join the LTTE Womens’s wing”.

So Shyamala contacted friends abroad and one in Germany was looking for an Au Pair – a live-in help. Jayanthis was sent off, leant German quickly (she is highly intelligent) and found a Tamil refugee boyfriend (she is also attractive). He runs a business delivering groceries in his van and they married, bought an apartment and settled in Osnabruk where there is a Tamil expat refugee community. She keeps in touch with Shyamala, who was rightly amazed when she was told recently the Jayanthi’s daughter had passed out as a doctor in Germany.

While the Tamil middle-class had relatively little problem settling in overseas as they were educated and their children are doing even better today, here one is looking at the extraordinary life of an ordinary village girl from Jaffna, who could just as easily have died in battle as a Tiger “terrorist”. Now she is a happy and prosperous Hausfrau (housewife) in Germany when she could just as easily have been another anonymous casualty of the war like thousands of others.

Similar stories are probably being replicated many times over in Europe and Canada. For example, recently on a visit to Switzerland Ajit was told by his host, who is an expert skier, that he buys his skis from a factory in Zurich owned and run by a Jaffna Tamil refugee, who also makes the skis for the Swiss Olympic team. Making high performance competition skis is a complex high tech affair using carbon fiber composites requiring specialized machine tools, and wind tunnel and computer simulations. How he leant these skills is a mystery. It is a pity that this type of enterprise, energy and ability has been lost to Sri Lanka forever.

But now back to Ajit’s story…

So here he was in Singapore, aged 39, a family with three young children under the age of eight, no job and no house. He had liquidated his life’s savings and taken it out in the black market at an exorbitant rate and that was all he had. He applied for a number of jobs and a was accepted by the National Computer Board, who were looking for foreign experts to jump start the Singapore government computerisation programme – he was tempted to take it but his wife, who believed in the power of prayer, told him “this is not the job I prayed for you.” So he waited and fortunately met a Cambridge friend who was with Citibank and urged him to apply. He did, and despite the reservations of the senior local Chinese management who did not want to hire a “third world candidate” was hired by a thoughtful Englishman, Nick Grenville, who was impressed by his Cambridge university credentials. He joined an all Singapore Chinese organisation as the Singapore Data Center manager. He was the only non-Chinese in the technology group and on his first day could feel the resentment. However he discovered another talent he had – excellent EQ – and once he had proved himself as technically competent he soon had the staff eating out of his hand. He spent two years in this position and then moved on as regional banking systems manager for Asia. Then he had his first big break .

Rana Talwar, the charismatic and super effective Asia Pacific Citibank head, had just launched  credit cards in 5 countries and was looking for a  technology head, and because Ajit had already established a reputation for getting things done, he offered him the job. Moreover Rana gave him a free hand to hire and a blank cheque to – in his words- “set up world class infrastructure and at the best possible technical team.” From this point on he never looked back

Ajit was thereafter responsible for a number of technical achievements that would make him well known not only throughout Citibank worldwide but also in the computer fraternity in Asia. His team developed a card system called Enhanced Card System that gave Citibank cards not only more functionality than any other bank but also the lowest processing costs per card in Asia. The system was initially deployed in all of South East Asia and Australia but then extended  to North Asia including Japan – making this first time a Japanese financial institution had been processed from abroad. The system was then deployed in Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East and finally in South America as well – the first truly international card system in the world. For this achievement Ajit was given a special award by the Chairman of the Bank.

Ajit was also responsible for deploying a standard banking system across Asia and the Middle East and building the most powerful computer processing center in Asia outside Japan. After leaving Citibank in 2005 Ajit was made the Managing Director of DBS Bank (the largest bank in South East Asia) responsible for both technology and operations.

After his retirement from Banking Ajit has been involved in renewable solar energy projects in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and hopes to establish the world’s first Ocean Thermal Energy project in Trincomalee. He also hopes to set up a software development center in Sri Lanka and a commercial dairy farm.