This is a day and age when technology and the machine have such a say over the course the world takes that it is easy to forget the power of the human spirit: the difference a single human being can make upon his or her environment. We’ve seen and unfortunately are still witness to, negative examples. How wars can start because of the decisions of individuals, for example. But there have been others. They have lifted the level of human beings as a whole a little – a notch maybe, just the environment they have lived in, maybe, but somewhere, we’ve become better as a species because of them. Mohammed Younus, Gandhi, Bill Gates. . . these are human beings because of whom the world changed. There may be others who we don’t know of, of whom the world at large may never sing – but they have lived nevertheless and wrought a difference.
In Sri Lanka there lived such a man and he died a few days ago. The suddenness of his death took our breath away – even though the ailment of his heart was known, the willpower which carried him through to work till the very end, making people forget that an end like this was possible.
He was deeply loved by those who knew him. Admiration and respect was there, of course, but above all, I feel, there was love – of his family, of his colleagues, of his students, of his friends, of people like my husband and I whose lives he touched briefly but for which we are so much the richer. And with the nation whom he served and changed because of his service, we mourn Professor V.K. Samaranayake.
Known as the Father of Information Technology in Sri Lanka, Vidya Jyothi V.K. Samaranayake was Emeritus Professor of Computer Science. At his death, he was the Chairman of ICTA, the Information and Communications Technology Council of Sri Lanka. He was also the founder of the University of Colombo School of Computing. The towering building which houses the School seems symbolic of his spirit for it was he who was instrumental in its creation, both physically and conceptually, for staffing it with the most excellent academics and researchers in the field, for making it the key for people to learn about Information and Communication Technologies in Sri Lanka through its undergraduate, postgraduate and external degrees.
He was first Professor of Mathematics, at 35 years, one of the youngest to be ranked such, and then went on to be Senior Professor in Computer Science. He had held the position of Chairman at CINTEC, the Computer and Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka for many years. He was the founder director of the Institute of Computer Technology (ICT) in 1987, established with JICA funding and his work earned him such respect that the funding continued to come so that an impressive building could be put up to house his institute.
It was this that later became the University of Colombo School of Computing, the first School to come up in the Sri Lankan University system. In an effort to get others to share the excellent facilities that are available at UCSC, Professor Samaranayake began a training programme that enabled participants from Asian, Pacific and later African countries to study here, and thereby creating a network where they took away the skills to teach and benefit the people in their own countries.
Reaching out to people who had no previous access to IT was always a concern in the Professor’s work. He was not one who ignored the underprivileged as not being worth his attention, a characteristic that, if more widespread among the decision-makers of this country, will surely lessen the divide between the haves and the have-nots in Sri Lanka. Just as there are photographs of V.K. Samaranayake with Bill Gates in his album, there are photographs of him in a mobile computer laboratory at Dambane in 1990, demonstrating its use to the Veddah Chief Tissahamy. With Sarvodaya, he helped in the creation of Sarvodaya Telecenters, which took computer technology to the rural area, to people who could not afford to pay for it otherwise. It was Professor Samaranayake who took the initiative of using available resources like the radio, to propagate the use of the internet to the rural sector, demonstrating his proactive nature of working with limited resources to achieve almost impossible dreams.
A list of Professor Samaranayake’s students make impressive reading. There are doctorates from the leading universities in the world, they themselves have become professors and lecturers who are taking the work started by their teacher further ahead. Professor Samanayake is known to have been personally interested in the careers of his students – many a hundred times has he acted as referee and been instrumental in gaining scholarships for the deserving. “He had an incredible knack of spotting talent and developing it,” says a former colleague and his felicitation volume is dotted with grateful acknowledgements of students who remember this man whose guidance has made a difference in their lives. In fact, it was difficult in the early years for any student of information technology, not to have been influenced by Professor Samaranayake. Dr. George Sadowsky, an expert in the use of the internet, says, that in 1994, when he met a delegation from Sri Lanka in Prague, at a training workshop in internet technology, and asked them if they knew of “Dr. Sam”, “it was somewhat like asking a group of Catholics whether they knew of the Pope.”!
Despite his career in teaching, in building institutions, in spearheading movements to take information technology to the village, the Professor still kept abreast with his research.
He was named Fellow of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, USA in 2001; Research Fellow at the National Center for Digital Government at Harvard University USA in 2003 and Visiting Fellow in the Digital Vision Program at Stanford University, USA in 2005. His meeting Bill Gates and his request to Microsoft that Sinhala be included in their OS led to the language being implemented on MS Vista released in 2007. Then there were other contributions that he had made which were lesser known like his contribution to the reform of the law relating to Information Technology.
People who worked with the professor attest to his unwillingness to say “No” and his unwillingness to admit to the impossibility of anything. The use of computers in elections is something he introduced to Sri Lanka and the telecasting of results as they were counted was something that was hardly done at that time anywhere else in the world. And he envisioned it at a time when even the raw materials needed were not available – not just in Sri Lanka but anywhere else in the world. He had worked with successive governments closely in all IT related matters, his vision and excellence being appreciated by all heads of governments and for once, being put to use without political undercurrents.
His academic service too was not confined to the University of Colombo alone. He served as Dean, Faculty of Science and then President of the Vidyodaya Campus (now Sri Jayewardenepura University) for a few years in the 70’s, when its need called him there. He has been appointed visiting Professor at various international universities, and his chairing of international conferences is a matter of prestige to the country.
And over and above all this, he remained a man with a deep sense of humility whose respect for the individual human spirit, his willingness to lend his towering strength to others so that they in turn could be strong, was something that made him so very unique, so very precious to all those who knew him. He leaves his wife and two sons who are now following in their father’s footsteps in the world of IT, and he leaves also a larger family, of people scattered across the globe who mourn his loss. It is part of his legacy, however, that he has created scholars who are able to come forward and continue the work he has begun, in its manifold aspects, though there may not be one who could combine everything in him or herself like he could. But the path has been laid for them by this pioneer and to walk it, is the greatest honour that they would be able to do this man.
As an epitaph, perhaps to quote Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe who succeeded him on his retirement as Director, University of Colombo School of Computing, in an article in the Felicitation Volume for Professor Samaranayake, brought out just four days before his death, is best: “Professor Samaranayake had a kind of righteous anger. He just could not stand people who obstructed the path to progress, whether it is in the University or in industry or in the country as a whole. . . . He fundamentally had a belief in Sri Lanka and thought that we could build this place up, we could build the nation, we do not need to rely entirely on donors and other countries. We have the potential to actually bring out the best in Sri Lanka itself.”