There are some events in life that are too horrible to think about, when even happy memories bring little comfort. When you lose people in one hideously cruel blow, you will live in shock and denial for years to come.
Such was the case with C. V. and Sheami Gooneratne, whose warmth, bubbling laughter and goodness were cut short by a suicide bomber 10 years ago.
Reams can be written about the couple’s illustrious public life. My wish, however, is to share vignettes of their sporting life, and highlight what a delight they were on and off the playing fields.
Let us start with the “Deduru Oya herd”. In the early Sixties, a herd of elephants was running wild in that area. Meanwhile, here in Colombo, another herd was running wild in the field of girls’ school athletics: the Bishop’s College relay team was taking on the invincible Ladies’ College relay team. The Bishop’s team lived up to its name as the “Deduru Oya Herd”: not only did they destroy their nemesis, Ladies College, they also smashed the public schools record.
The “herd” that won the 4x100 and 4x 200 relays comprised speedster quadruplets Gillian Ingleton, Valerie Lieversz, Sheami Gooneratne and her twin sister Kanthi Gooneratne. Whether they rampaged like elephants was a subject for locker room discussion, but they did win, and in style.
Sports writers were swept off their feet. Records tumbled. Sheami was the Bishop’s Athletics Captain. She excelled in sprints, long jump and hurdles. Fast on her feet though she was, she was not too fast to escape the amorous run and tackle of CV, the six-foot Royal College ruggerite, and later company executive, and finally Cabinet Minister.
The discipline and regimentation CV’s father, the late Major L. V. brought to the Gooneratne home is part of Dehiwela folklore. That’s how the boys CV and Jed were made into men.
As captain of the Royal side, CV got through the rough and tumble of the game with a wonderful mix of fun and humour. His exploits as a sportsman reflected in his leadership in the mercantile sector, as an executive at Hayleys, and then as a successful and much-loved politician.
Puggy, as CV was fondly called, played for the CR&FC as both wing forward and Number 8. He earned the nickname “Corner Flag” because as lock forward one of his duties was to secure the corner flag. This focus on the corner flag meant he was safe from getting messed up and mixed up in the mauls. Asked about his dodging tactics, he would say, “I rise above the fray and focus on the goal” --- a truism that distinguished him as a statesman.
There was, of course, the mischievous side of CV.
Mohan Sahayam, his partner in fun, recalls how CV once suggested to the CR& FC ground secretary that it might be a good idea to put the fertiliser in the well. This way, the fertiliser would come out via the sprinklers, and you wouldn’t have the job of laboriously spreading the stuff on the ground by hand.
That evening, the ground secretary is said to have dumped 50 bags of fertiliser in the well.
CV had to give up club rugby early in his career because of a torn cartilage in his knee. He then formed the MCC – Members of the Cartilage Club. This cartilaginous MCC boasted a large membership that included Mahes Rodrigo, Malcolm Wright, Kavan Rambukwelle, Lal Senaratne and Mohan Sahayam.
With his eloquence, CV was a star attraction at the Old Royalists’ Annual Rugby Dinner, where he proposed many a toast, while the Dom Perignon Champagne flowed.
Entry was strictly limited to Royal First XV ruggerites. For years the debate raged as to how CV got his closest buddy, “Doc” Maghalingam, whose only involvement in rugby was as a spectator, into this exclusive annual dinner. Always ready to defend the underdog, as he did so well in politics, CV spun a story that when Doc Magha played as “hooker”, he was instructed by CV to beware of the “feet up rule”. According to CV’s story, Magha kept his feet firmly planted to the ground in the scrum and thereby conceded possession to Trinity.
During another of his toasts, CV recalled how “old boy” Dr. Sunil Wickremasinghe was attending to a supposedly concussed Trinity player.
As a test, the doctor asked the player whether he could remember the score. The player muttered the right score, “10/4 Royal.” The doctor said: “Son, you can get back on the field, but you had better not remember the rest of the match – simply look ahead”, adding “Respice Finem” – the Trinity College motto, which translates as “Look to the End.”
In Parliament, CV never missed an opportunity to promote sports. While in the Opposition, he championed the Bill to set up the Duncan White Foundation, to Prime Minster Ranasinghe Premadasa’s dismay. Apparently, Mr. Premadasa was upset that the Bill had not originated from the Government side. Once again, sportsman CV rose above the fray.
Whenever CV visited Washington, he did our country proud. He was the quintessential communicator. Washington culture has a tendency to discount most politicians. You have to make your mark to be credible and effective. For Cabinet Minister CV, standing tall was no stretch. He elevated the profession he was proud to call his own.
There was always – always – the light side, the quality that endeared CV and Sheami to everyone. There were stories galore.
Here is one: the couple arrived at my Bethesda, Maryland, home in 1999, baggage and all. When the bags were opened, a strong smell swept through the air-conditioned house. It was the unmistakable smell (some would call it aroma) of arrack.
CV’s eyes were shining, but he was clearly embarrassed. He knew he was in a Muslim home. So he questions Sheami, who says: “Clement, what can I do? I put two bottles of arrack for Burriya [her brother-in-law] in the bag and now they are broken.” CV looks round the room and exclaims: “Now see what you have done – even the Koranic inscriptions on the wall are shuddering.”
In Parliament, CV’s eloquence and sense of humour delighted members. The CV-A.H.M. Azwer interactions are part of Parliamentary lore.
During the famous Air Lanka-Emirates debate, Azwer addressed the Speaker, saying: “Sir, I first greet that red handkerchief and then my friend Mr. Gooneratne.”
Cracks CV: “You have nowhere else in myself to greet?”“No, Sir,” shoots back Azwer. “I have never gone the wild way that Oscar went.”
Shoots back CV: “Sir, I am afraid my friend Azwer may soon try an Oscar Wilde if his focus goes wild.”
CV and Sheami had a large global network of friends. Despite being accustomed to the bright lights of high places in Sri Lanka and the world’s capitals, they valued simplicity. They would entertain their constituents every morning in their home. They called it the OPD. They would have a quiet drink with Himendra and Saroja Ranaweera in their Talangama home, or visit the hospital to see ailing constituents, or visit the homes of the bereaved to console them.
It is now 10 years since the couple left us. It is hard to imagine CV without Sheami and Sheami without CV.
CV was a politician who had the courage of his convictions, and he was a straight bat. Such politicians are rare.
And rarer still are those politicians who, like CV, can stand above the horizon like a star and help the rest of us to raise our sights.
Sheami stood by that “star” and made it brighter.
To paraphrase Elton John:
“For it seems to me they lived their lives
Like candles in the wind:
Never fading in the sunset
When the rains set in.”
CV and Sheami knew how to take and give a tackle. One can picture them in Seventh Heaven, enjoying Paradisal Bliss.
Ten years ago, on June 7, 2000, CV and Sheami Gooneratne were killed in an attack by a male LTTE suicide bomber. The tragedy occurred on the Galle Road, near Soysapura, in Ratmalana. CV was leading a War Heroes’ March that day.
M. V. Muhsin