Professor Chelva Kanaganayakan passed away in Montreal Saturday 22 November 2014. He was 62.
The first time I saw him was at TSAR’s fall launch in 2009, when his English translations of Tamil poems was released. Subsequently, I got to know him better when MG Vassanji invited me join the managing committee of the Festival of South Asian Literature and Arts (FSALA) that is now called the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts.
I met him formally in 2010. Vassanji had called for a meeting at his place, and just before the meeting was to begin, he remembered he had to pick up his son from the airport. So, Chelva and I, meeting for the first time, both guests of one of Canada's preeminent authors, chatted for an hour about literature in the absence of our host.
Chelva spoke of new writing in India, especially since the 1980s to the present. We discussed Allan Sealy, who Chelva thought deserved more attention that he had got. When you are in the company of someone who is both knowledgeable and erudite, time loses its meaning. By the time Vassanji returned home with Kabir, Chelva and I had become good buddies.
During the festival Chelva contributed with ideas, arranged for the different venues, and was instrumental in getting eminent authors and film makers from South Asia to participate in the festival, these included, among others, Mahesh Dattani, the eminent Indian playwright; and Prasanna Vithanage, the Sri Lankan filmmaker. He was also instrumental in getting Hari Krishnan’s InDance involved with the festival, and getting Dalbir Singh, his student, to interview Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani in 2011.
The literary festival got together highly individualistic bunch of people to work together. This inevitably led to friction. At the end of the 2011 festival, Chelva threw up his hands; he had had enough, he had decided to quit the committee. When I heard about it, I wrote to him the following note:
I cannot claim to be your friend, but over the last year or so that I've come to know you a bit better, I've begun to respect you as a person. I knew about your professional and literary achievements in a very general sort of way till FSALA-11, and then I heard you recite poetry and deliver a speech. I was particularly impressed with your rendition of Cheran’s poetry in English...
You make scholarship and creativity sit lightly on your shoulders, which I think is a mark of any extraordinary human being. You prefer to be in the background, even while you make sure everything falls into place and works.
Chelva, this long and meandering preamble may confuse you and try your patience, so let me come straight to the point. I want you to reconsider your decision to quit FSALA organising committee. If there is anything I can do to change your mind on your decision, I’d be more than happy to do so.
I cannot imagine FSALA without you, so please don't quit. I look forward to a positive response from you.
He responded immediately:
Thanks very much for your kind words. They mean a lot to me. And the feeling is mutual. You tread lightly, but you have been a very important presence. And you are a good friend.
My intention in writing the note was simply that I was finding it increasingly difficult to budget my time. But your point is well taken. I will continue to be part of the team although during session time, I might not be able to attend meetings regularly.
With warm wishes,
After the 2013 festival, everyone was tired and nobody wanted to take the initiative to start the preparations for the 2015 edition. I met Chelva at the Munk Centre when Mahesh Dattani was in Toronto last year to release his book Me and My Plays. He insisted that we should start working for the 2015 edition, and galvanized everyone to work together.
We met at Sawitri Theatre Group’s stage shows, and on occasions at the Munk Centre, where he would critique an insightful dissertation on postcolonial literature. I met him a few weeks ago when I attended the performance of Dance Like a Man.
Yesterday, Vassanji informed me of his appointment as the Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (the highest literary recognition in Canada), and we planned to have a small get together to celebrate his achievement.
In the evening, Chelva left us forever, without even a goodbye.
He will be missed.