Thursday, April 13, 2017

The three lives of Anudatta Dias

How does one condense a biography? What are the finer details, the subtle nuances, which are lost with the writer's attempts to sift away? These are controversial questions, and hence can’t really be answered. The best a biographer can do, then, is believe that what he writes is enough for us to infer and fill in. This is therefore an attempt at a biography.

The whole country knows of Chitrasena. The whole country knows of Vajira and of Upeka, right down to the generations that will take the mantle they have left behind. This is not about those who have danced and nurtured their art to near-perfection. This is about one among them who stands out by his commitment to other enterprises, who has not followed his father’s footsteps but who leaves behind footsteps discernible to the entire country. Anudatta Dias, the subject of my sketch, has lead three lives: as cricketer and ruggerite, as engineer and entrepreneur, and as mountain biker, kayaker, and cause-promoter. Let me begin with the first of these.

Anudatta’s story begins at Royal College. His sisters had learnt to dance. They continued to dance. The brother, on the other hand, had loved to play. So he continued to play. His first encounter with cricket had been as an Under 12 player, after which he graduated from House Matches to School Matches when his agility was “discovered”. A left-arm fast bowler, he had been in the Under 14 and Under 16 teams, thereafter being elevated to the First XI in 1972.

“We began with the third season matches and went ahead with matches against Ananda and Nalanda, culminating in Trinity before battling it out with S. Thomas’. The 1973 Royal-Thomian was captained by Ajitha Pasqual. I was the opening bowler and inswinger. In fact I always hit the wicket within the first three overs. The team knew what I was good at, so they never used me to fill in another slot.” From then on, barring the 1975 Royal-Thomian, he played, swung, and won.

Around this time he had been entranced by rugby. The problem was that he was a good inswinger. “My team knew me for who I was. So they didn’t want me to play rugby and injure myself. Besides, I had a back problem, which comes up with every fast bowler. In 1976, however, having missed the previous year’s Big Match, I brushed off what everyone was telling me and joined the team.” Coincidentally and luckily for him, it had been a terrible year for that team: many of the 15 coloursmen had gone to India to do their London A/Levels. Anudatta, along with Devaan Hallock, had vied for the second row. Both got in.

The First Season began. Anudatta and Devaan played. Not too long afterwards, the coloursmen returned. The second-row slots had to be restored. The two of them, put simply, had to leave.

What happened next? “Malik Samarawickrama and Summa Navaratnam got us to play against each other. We were basically contending against the coloursmen. Malik focused on the line, Summar focused on the pack. In the end, Hallock had to leave as a reserve and I retained my second-row slot after an encounter with Mayanth Kanagasunderam.” The rest of 1976, he tells me, passed away memorably, which had a lot to do with how the Royalists performed against competing teams. “We were actually called the Invisible Players. We broke the record held before by J. R. Jayewardene at that year’s Bradby. We also set a record at our match with Isipathana, unbroken even today.”

Encounters like this are often followed by stints at the National Team. Anudatta had become part of the Under 19 Squad. “We played some trials. I remember bowling out even Ranjan Madugalle. I was thereafter selected as the opening bowler for the first match against Pakistan. After being told that I would be taken in for the tour, however, I was left behind. Just like that.”

What happened next was predictable but disillusioning: he refused to speak for himself and get others to act on his behalf, so having waded through disappointment, he let go. “I don’t let people speak on my behalf,” he tells me by way of explaining his decision, “Not my father, not my sponsors. If my team left me, they did so for a reason, though I was a good bowler. I don’t try to regain what I lose in such circumstances.” Having left cricket, he left his country, arrived in England, and entered his second phase: as engineer and entrepreneur.

Anudatta entered the London Electronics College to study Video Engineering. “I was living in North Harrow. One of my friends was Ranil Abeynaike. I tried my hand at cricket through him, but owing to a stiff back and cold climate, I had to let go again. I soon forgot all that and concentrated on my education.”

I ask him here as to what he learnt. “It was modelled on the City and Guilds curriculum, mostly having to do with things like colour theory and component repair-work. Those three years were followed by a brief stint at City and Guilds itself, though I never went beyond the second part of its syllabus. Given that television had just arrived in Sri Lanka, I was asked to come back. I was one of the first qualified video engineers who did return, in fact.”

In Sri Lanka, Anudatta was introduced by his father to D. B. Nihalsinghe, who advised him to master what he’d learnt and then start making money. Needless to say, he did just that, heeding Nihalsinghe’s advice to start at what was then the biggest electronics service centre in Sri Lanka, SIEDLES.

“By that time I’d applied to other places, which were ready to pay me more. But I realised that more than the pay, what mattered was how much experience I’d get. Having moved into SIEDLES, I was sent to Singapore to learn about cameras. When I came back, I was paired with a team of bright technicians, including Thevis Guruge’s son Wasantha. We knew our theory and we stuck to it, though we also thought outside the box.”

Apparently the Singapore workshop had taught him so much that when SIEDLES shifted to Ward Place, he was given the task of managing the new Service Centre. “We saved hundreds of millions for the company,” he smiles, “Because no one really knew what logical fault-finding was, they were content in throwing away components and boards. We taught the staff repair-work and soon enough, the new Service Centre was up and running at a profit. I stayed there for 12 years.”

He next moved into Nihalsinghe’s Telecine to handle the Telecine Service Centre, moving into his own workshop (which he began at his grandmother’s house in Nawala) and company (A & J Electronics) three years later, and thereafter joining Hayleys and remaining there for about 10 years.

After falling out with Hayleys, he shifted to importing gym equipment in 2005, becoming the main dealer for Preco under his own agency and becoming a distributor to over 25 clients in the country. When that too collapsed owing to problems with an unscrupulous competitor (which cost him more than 10 million), Anudatta worked on another company of his called Tough Stuff, partnering up with Nautilus and, last year, with Star Trac. “We just finished furnishing Jetwing Lake in Dambulla,” he tells me, “Business has picked up again.”

That’s Anudatta the player and the entrepreneur. What of his third life, as promoter of causes? Given his willingness to pursue only what he was and is good at (his philosophy in life, one can contend), he had given up cricket completely after his return to Sri Lanka and after a few Old Boys matches which had, so to speak, not fared well for him. In 1995, however, he had been introduced to another sport by his friend, Chanaka Rodrigo: mountain biking.

“I had raced with him and my other friends while at College,” he remembers, “But when he told me that we were going to bike down estates and plantations, I was amused.” He had been taken to one such race that year, however, and from then on, he had grown fascinated with this literally out-of-the-woods pastime. Not surprisingly, he pursued it, becoming a member of the Colombo Mountain Bikers. After a few races in Hambantota and elsewhere, he teamed up with (among others) Ajith Fernando, Yasas Hewage, Peter Bluck, Sarinda Unamboowe, and Charlene Thuring for Around the Pearl, in 2014.

Anudatta no doubt has his own Around the Pearl story and he sums it up for me: “We had to cover about 600 kilometres. It was tough. The final ride, from Dambulla to Kilinochchi to Point Pedro, was daunting to say the least. We were dehydrated every 15 minutes. I myself was so famished that I continually looked ahead for signs of a tower, just so I could convince myself that we were near a town!”

Around the Pearl of course ended with a flourish, and with it Anudatta had passed over another phase of his life. That had earlier compelled another pastime in him: kayaking, which took him across the country again, from Manampitiya to the Mahaveli, during and after the war. Another life, another phase, another chapter, and another task for the less sketchy biographer.

So what do all these congeal into? Anudatta the bowler, the ruggerite, the engineer, the entrepreneur, or the cause-promoter? As the son of our foremost exponent of dance in the 20th century, not a few would have expected him to take the mantle his family bequeathed to him. Barring a few performances in Kinkini Kolama and Nirthanjali, however, he differed and detoured. That is his wish, that is his fate, and with all those lives he’s led thus far, that may well be for his betterment and for the betterment of the country he continues to call his own, cover, trek, sail, and serve.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, April 9 2017