February 14, 2010, saw the passing of someone who was a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word. That date also marked a milestone, signalling the end of an era when people who stood for what is right and decent, brooked no mediocrity or malpractice, reached the highest positions, and never lost their touch with the earth and the common people.
G. B. Paranagama, better known as Gilbert, stood tall among his peers, winning their respect and affection. Above all, he was loved and admired for the values he stood for.
Gilbert was born in 1923 to an aristocratic Kandyan family, and like many in his family, he was nurtured at Trinity College, which he joined at the age of six. He always credited his teachers at Trinity for moulding him and preparing him for life’s challenges.
He was a senior prefect and a sportsman, excelling at boxing and rugby. He was also captain of the University of Colombo rugby team.
But Gilbert will be most remembered for winning Trinity’s much coveted Ryde Gold Medal, which he received in 1942. The medal is given for outstanding scholastic achievement and all-round development. Donated by the Trinity Old Boys’ Association in memory of former principal Rev. R. M. Ryde (1900-1902), this award has very strict criteria and allows no campaigning on behalf of a candidate. There are only three votes: one from the student body, one from the staff, and one from the principal. The awardee is unanimously approved by all constituent voters.
Years later, Gilbert donated his Ryde Gold Medal to the school that had formed him. The medal is kept in the College Museum. Gilbert served on the College Board of Governors in the 1980s, and was an active member of the OBA Colombo branch, holding office as president for a term.
He graduated from university with a BA in Economics and joined the Central Bank, where he was Assistant Controller of Exchange, and also Assistant Controller of Food.
Gilbert Paranagama will also be remembered as being among the first Ceylonese to enter the British-dominated mercantile sector. He was welcomed as an executive trainee at Whittal Bousteads and Bosanquet & Skrine, organisations that reeked of typically British “old Ceylon”. He retired as managing director of Whittal Boustead and Company.
During those years, he was also director of a number of sterling tea companies. He followed Mr. Mallory Wijesinghe as chairman of Ceylon Cold Stores. During his tenure there, he was instrumental in opening a new bottling-plant at Kaduwela. He was also a director of Ceylon Nutritional Foods, now known as Nestle Lanka.
Gilbert played a pioneering role in Sri Lanka’s then burgeoning hospitality industry. As managing director of Ceylon Holiday Resorts, he converted the Bentota Resthouse into the resplendent Bentota Beach Hotel, with expert creative input from the late Geoffrey Bawa. Gilbert did the same in Hikkaduwa. The Coral Gardens Hotel is a legacy of his vision.
He was also a director of the Mount Lavinia Hotel, and was behind the setting up of Sri Lanka’s first beach restaurant, La Langousterie. He was duly elected chairman of the Ceylon Tourist Hotels Association during its early years.
Gilbert helped secure valuable land in Trincomalee for his company. These are the same properties hoteliers are considering as part of a grand plan to expand the country’s tourism infrastructure.
During the 1971 JVP insurrection, Gilbert Paranagama left his comfort zone in the mercantile establishment to serve as a volunteer Army officer. He helped set up the National Service Regiment (NSR), with headquarters at the former Eighty Club. He later served as aide de camp (ADC) to the former Governor General of Ceylon, William Gopallawa MBE.
Gilbert Paranagama’s life was based on simplicity and that indefinable quality we call “genuineness”. He cared and shared. People turned to him for counsel and guidance. He never feared to speak the truth, and yet remained dignified and courteous at all times. We have learned much from Gilbert Paranagama. Knowing him has made us richer human beings.
Gilbert is survived by his wife Krishnie (nee Divitotawela), son Thusitha, daughters Laleenie and Nandanie, and grandchildren Lalindri, Ravindri, Suhanya and Wiranya.
Arun Dias Bandaranaike