Plus - Appreciation

Mapping the life of a fine man and outstanding Surveyor General

Dr. T. Somasekaram

Retired Surveyor General (SG) Dr. T. Somasekeram passed away a couple of months back. A man for all seasons, the late SG was a surveyor par excellence, brilliant scholar, writer, and much more.
Between his birth in Jaffna and death in Colombo, in a life spanning more than the Biblical three score and ten, Dr. Somasekaram did much in the service of humanity.

I wish to pen a few lines in praise of this learned man with whom I had the privilege of associating for quite a long period, both in the metro and in the Institute of Surveying and Mapping, in Diyathalawa.

Soma, as he was affectionately known to his close pals, graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1956 with a BSc, which paved the way for a long career in the Survey Department, which he joined the following year as an Assistant Superintendent of Surveys. After training for one year, he went to Cambridge, England, and on his return, in 1967, he was promoted to Superintendent of Surveys.

From here his rise was phenomenal. In 1971, he was promoted to Assistant Surveyor General, and two years later to Deputy Surveyor General. The new appointment made him head of the Institute of Surveying and Mapping.

A UN fellowship in 1976 took him to the University of Ohio, in the US, to do his MSc, specialising in geodesy and cartography.

I had the privilege of working under Dr. Somasekaram both at Diyathalawa and again back in Colombo, in the ’80s.

I continued to work under him as Assistant Secretary to the Secretary of the National Atlas Committee, where he was chief editor. Our relationship was strengthened when his daughter, Mrs. Jayanthie de Alwis, and my daughter-in-law, Ms. Pabasara Mahaarachchi, played together on the Hatton National Bank netball team.

The Sri Lanka Atlas – the first of its kind – was Soma’s brainchild. He excelled as chairman of the atlas project, co-ordinating the manifold activities required for the massive venture. In 1990, he was awarded the Sri Lanka Sikhamani.

Dr. Somasekaram was a member of the Canadian Institute of Geomatics, and he was president of the Surveyors’ Institute of Sri Lanka. He was also president of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), and participated in many international seminars. He served as Surveyor General in 1991 and retired the following year.

He was a strict disciplinarian, brooking no nonsense. Desultory work displeased him. As a workaholic, he made us extra energetic. His organising skills earned him the admiration of many. His students at the institute learnt the disciplines of geodesy, astronomy, etcetera, and discipline itself. He did much to liven up things at the Diyathalawa survey camp, which would otherwise have been a dull place. He organised club nights, film shows and variety entertainment.

Men and women of different ethnic and religious backgrounds lived in amity at the Diyathalawa camp. Even during the years of communal and other conflict, when education institutions across the island were closed because of the insurgencies of Sinhala terrorists and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Institute of Surveying and Mapping was the only place of learning that remained open. That speaks volumes of a man who could rule when misrule was everywhere, and who was a member of a minority community himself.

Despite standing six feet tall and possessing a robust physique, Dr. Somasekaram suffered from asthma. The salubrious climate of Diyathalawa did not suit him.

In his retirement, he kept himself busy with publishing work: his many publications include Arjuna’s A-Z Street Guide; the Travel Map of Sri Lanka; Facts About Our Land; The National Atlas of Sri Lanka; the Students’ Atlas, Sinhala and Tamil, and Surveying Stories. He was chief editor of the last four works.
Dr. Somasekaram was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, UK, in 1998, and conferred a PhD (honoris causa) by the University of Jaffna in 1998. He was vice-president of the Organisation of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka (OPA) from 1985 to ’91.

He had a good sense of humour, and enjoyed a game of bridge, counting among his bridge pals the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force based in Diyathalawa.

His heart was as large as his physique. He never refused a favour and he empathised with people who had troubles.

My little son died on Christmas Day, 1976. Heartbroken, I went to the incumbent Surveyor General, Mr. S. J. Munasinghe, and asked for a transfer. Mr. Munasinghe contacted Dr. Somasekeram at the Institute of Surveying and Mapping, Diyathalawa, to ask whether he would take me in. Dr. Somasekeram immediately created a vacancy and asked that I be sent there. That was the type of man he was.

Irresponsible academics once accused Dr. Somasekeram of drawing the map of Sri Lanka in favour of the Northerners. They later realised how wrong they were. In his long career, Dr. Somasekeram was never guilty even once of displaying or harbouring ethnic sentiments. He was a great Sri Lankan Tamil. He would not tolerate division among colleagues.

If the surveyors ever showed a superior attitude towards the cartographic draughtsmen, Dr. Somasekeram would make sure the two teams came together and worked in a spirit of amity.

He organised a felicitation to mark the 83rd birthday of the former Surveyor General, the late R. A. Gunawardene, his colleague and mentor. The event was a huge success, attended by academics and former Surveyors General. I wrote about the event for this newspaper. May Dr. Somasekeram attain Divine Bliss.

Leonard R. Mahaarachchi

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