He led us with exemplary zeal throughout
M.T.Thambapillai, our Revered Guru , was on the verge of his 88th birthday when he passed away on April 19. Yet it is hard to believe that he is no more largely because of the tremendous impact he had on the lives of a good many of us, who came under his caring tutelage.
Moses Thirugnanasingham Thambapillai, to give his full name, or endearingly Thamba to all of us, was born in Jaffna on April 25, l910. He cut his initial teeth at Chundukuli Girls School and thereafter was nurtured at Trinity College Kandy. For good measure, he had attended Royal before circumstances compelled him to join Trinity. But what Royal missed in him as a student, she gained in ample measure later on when he joined her staff as an Assistant Science Master in 1946 and served her with dignity and distinction for well-nigh 25 years. He had a short teaching spell at STC before finally blossoming at Royal. He took over as master-in-charge of Rugby at Royal in 1947 when Mr.J.C.A.Corea, the principal was quick to recognise his capabilities. The principal could not have made a better decision as subsequent events were to amply demonstrate. Thereafter for over twenty years he was to influence not only the game of rugby at Royal, which he loved so much, but also the lives of every one of us, who had the good fortune to come under his care. During his stewardship there was nothing he cared for more than Royal rugby to make men out of the countless number of his protégés. To describe him as a teacher would not do justice to him. Rather, he was one, who created for us that essential learning environment both on and off the field, to enable us to learn of books, learn of men and learn to play the game.
He led us with exemplary zeal caringly guiding us to Man's Estate, as it were, along that straight and narrow path, exerting a rich influence of good, clean living with no rancour, no malice and, more importantly, no prejudices. He carried these wonderful qualities right through to the end. In his final hours lying in hospital following the accident that eventually proved fatal, he refused to give a statement to the police. I had occasion to ask him why he had so refused, which query, too, he dismissed with a characteristic shrug, referring to the bus-driver, who callously felled him at a pedestrian crossing as 'that poor fellow : he wouldn't have intended what he did'. Such was his magnanimity even in distress.
It is no exaggeration to say that he never spoke ill of anybody, though he was intensely critical, especially when he genuinely felt that an injustice had been perpetrated. This was especially manifest when any rugby referee made a mistake ( deliberate or otherwise), which proved costly for his team. Here, more than anything else, he was conscious of the sweat and toil that went into the hard endeavour at practice sessions, which was almost instantly negated by the referee's callous blast of carelessness!
His benign presence helped us to learn in no unmistakeable terms, to play the game of life, like the game of rugby he taught us, the only way he knew - in honour and dignity
His secret of good living, he used to always implore us, was a strict abiding, adherence to the four W's, as he called it, viz ;
Work : to which he was intensely dedicated. Those who were closely associated with him in school, particularly on the rugby field would assert with what meticulous care and concern he set about the tasks at hand, not the least of which was his untiring effort to set up the schools rugby section of the Rugby Union, assisted by Commander Eustace Maththysz and Dr.Larry Foenander and others who were in the higher echelons of rugby administration, who were his personal friends.
Walk: He walked miles on end to sustain a vigorous health, which he had in ample measure to the end. Ironically, it was his fervour for walking, in spite of admonition to the contrary, that proved eventually fatal.
Water: which he took in plenty to, as he asserted, cleanse the system .
Worship: which he did most assiduously to cleanse his mind and keep it on even keel. None can deny that he did things with supreme equanimity, treating everyone alike with no fear or favour.
Of course, he used to invariably add in a lovingly enthusiastic whisper the 5th W : the woman in his life, Lolita , his Lolita, the one behind his bliss, who stood by him in unrelenting support, unobtrusively for well-nigh 55 eventful years: years filled with the joy of living and caring, years with the bliss of nurturing four dutiful and discerning sons, who are now themselves excelling in their own chosen professions, while deriving the best of the qualities of their rare and wonderful father. Indeed, it would not have been easy for a humble schoolmaster with no supplementary income, and for whom teaching was a calling in life and not a private tuition business, to nurture them into the four quality products that they are. Yet, that he did so, while at the same time caring for all his protégés with equal enthusiasm, was his crowning achievement, so ably supported by his Lolita.
He also had the supreme ability to have a good laugh especially at himself, while laughing along with others, often recalling, with that very special cherubic smile of his, the rugby misdemeanours of a Bulla de Silva; a Ralph Wickramaratne; an irrepressible Puggy Gooneratne; a Summa Amarasinghe or an Abeysinghe ( Singho, as he was called ), who bound his rugby boots assiduously with coir rope for greater security! Yet he loved them all with a very genuine sincerity. His continued contact with his protégés was mutually rejuvenating. He was much sought after at most gatherings of old Royalists, here and abroad, not only because he was loved and respected by one and all but also because he was a superb raconteur, a more than welcome speaker and a good singer, whose stentorian voice helped to wrap the gathering together with a gorgeous rendering, inter alia, of 'Among My Souvenirs' or the 'Song of the Hypotenuse.' At all these gatherings he was most deservingly an honoured guest. For, by his simple approach to life and the concern for his pupils, which never wavered, he was able to reap a rich harvest of goodwill, a reciprocal concern and unmitigated respect from them.
He never missed our annual '54 Group rendezvous, except when abroad, where he used to regale us as usual with his wry humour and the never ending fund of stories of the past and the present, in the company of other great teachers of our time such as Lennie de Silva, Harold Samaraweera, Viji Weerasinghe et al. His one regret at our '54 Group gatherings was that he couldn't meet his schoolmate, and probably the oldest living Trinity rugby lion, John Hill, who was also on the staff at Royal and who now understandably prefers to lead the life of a recluse in spite of many invitations.
His contribution to Royal rugby cannot be easily measured. With an unswerving devotion he dedicated himself to developing rugby at Royal towards sustainability ably assisted by such great men in the game as Sidney de Zoysa, Summa Navaratnam, Mahesa Rodrigo, Geoff Weinmann, and Stanley Unamboowe for others to follow later on. It is that same devotion that impelled him to learn the finer intricacies of rugby football as the years progressed. When Royal was on the field his figure was unfailingly seen, with umbrella in hand, strutting up and down the touchline in a frenzy of enthusiasm urging his team onto greater success. Mrs.Thambapillai would surely have had to keep account of the number of umbrellas that were sacrificed in the name of Royal rugby!
It was hell to pay for those who made the silly mistake. These were reminded in no unmistakable terms that rugby was played not only with brawn but with brains also - a point that was sadly missed on some. But he never failed to compliment the good work done as well - all this in the interest of Royal rugby and with avowed concern to make men of us all
In the evening of his life, it caused him much pain to see his country getting dismembered and his fellow Sri Lankans maiming and mangling each other. Indeed, he was a true Sri Lankan. Everyone was equal before him - his sole yardstick being honesty, integrity and merit. None can ever forget those efforts he made to get his pupils at Royal to visit Jaffna to interact and integrate with their dear Sri Lankan brothers and sisters in the Peninsula. Royal cricket teams of the past would recall these visits with nostalgia. He was not entirely free of peccadilloes either; such as the ones he used to commit, in retirement, at glorious bridge sessions at a Royal nook at Nawala, especially when partnering his life-long pal, Harold Samaraweera, with whom he had a bridge partnership of over fifty years! Channa Gunasekera, a former Royal cricket captain and his pupil, could say more of these bridge sessions and the accompanying indiscretions!!
When I visited him in hospital along with his youngest son, Nirmo, he certainly was in some pain going through a traumatic experience, though seemingly stable and on the way to recovery. I had taken with me some photographs from last year's Old Royalists' Rugby Dinner, where he was honoured with a felicitous publication. In those photographs he was in the effervescent company of Summa Navaratnam, Mahesa Rodrigo, and Geoff Weinmann, three of his most loyal accomplices at Royal rugby, and who were among his best friends off the field as well. The photographs were an instant elixir! His face lit up as he livened to the occasion. Stories started rolling out in smooth, multi-faceted succession, his memory sharp as ever, never failing to touch on the minutest of detail of the glorious days of yore. He talked lovingly of his charges: of Roti and Bala, the reference being to Ratna Sivaratnam of Aitken Spence and Ken Balendra of Keells. He talked of mercurial Maurice Anghie, brilliant fly-half/centre in his day. He talked of H.S.de Silva as a fine chap and an equally fine forward; of Dudley Fernando, who, he said, was a special son; of Ralph Wickremaratne, who had unreservedly declared to him what a wonderful father he had been to him.
These and many more, who were nurtured to manhood under his magnificent influence. Indeed, he was a father to every one of us, who came under his care. He talked most endearingly of the men whose photographs he was now fondly scrutinising and whose unfailing and tireless endeavours helped him to make rugby flourish at Royal. Yet, for all that, those who really knew him would readily assert that he was not a man just for the rugby season alone. Rather, he was a man for all seasons: a veritable colossus who bestrode our world with a calm dignity and whose influence was very much a boon to all who knew him. Now, death has taken him away from us. There will never be another Thamba. But death has not, and cannot, take his spirit away from us. The Sanguine Spirit of Thamba will live on in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew him and loved him- and they were many and countless, the world over. He could count among his protégés, here and abroad, many who have reached the pinnacle of their careers or are well on the way to doing so. To say that he walked with the highest and the best is only to say half the truth. The highest and the best came in search of him for guidance, succour and the privilege of his delightful company.
Yet, he remained the humble self he always was with that Fussels Lane humility of a simple school master- the type of humility that was to shower blessings on all around him, after having thanked his God, just before he closed his eyes for the final time in the wee hours of that fateful Sunday morning.
With such credentials behind him, it is hardly surprising that the Angels would sing unending Hosannas for a man, whose life was well meant and well spent in the service of his fellow beings.
Vale! Sir. Fare-thee-well.
' To us you were so wonderful,
So wonderful and true 'We will always keep that cherubic smile that spoke a million among our souvenirs. May you reap the Rich Rewards that you rightly deserve.