A legend passes away

Ken Balendra (2009)

Carl Sepala Illangakoon Carl to some, Sepala to others, Sepa to many and always, “Sir” to me, a legendary tea and rubber industry stalwart passed away at the age of 86, in the early hours of Friday, June 26, whilst resting in his favourite armchair, at his Colombo residence. In compliance with his instructions to his family and the undertakers too, he was cremated at a very private funeral. The detailed, clear and no-nonsense instructions, including his own obituary notice, were typical of the perfectionist he always was. I wish I could read out three pages from one of his books under the caption ‘When I die’ but that will be too time consuming, though I must say that I do not envy his family having to comply with his numerous instructions at such short notice.

With your permission, I will refer to the great man as ‘Sepala’, lest you get bored with too many references to ‘Mr Ilangakoon’. In one of his books he says, “My firm belief in Jesus Christ makes me unafraid of death. All my responsibilities to everyone have been fulfilled. I have lived a full life. I am ready to die” – very crisp and to the point.

Sepala was charming, a gentleman to his fingertips, caring, humble and unassuming, born leader and distinguished personality. When Sepala entered any gathering, people noticed him. Erect, meticulously well groomed, with that slight bounce in his stride and always smiling. Right to the end he had a very firm fist and it was difficult to match his impeccable English, both spoken and written, as well as his in-depth knowledge of agriculture.

Sepala actively supported his old school, S. Thomas’ College, where he was the Head Prefect in the early ’40s, and was awarded the much-coveted Victoria Gold Medal for the best all-round student. I was surprised to note from his profile that he was also actively involved with Bishop’s College till I was told that several generations of Sunethra’s family hailed from Bishop’s.

Sepala gave up medicine at the university and moved to the School of Agriculture and then to planting. He passed out of the School of Agriculture, topping the batch with a 1st Class. He also won 12 out of the 16 prizes on offer. He says that it was at the School of Agriculture that he learnt to mix with the different strata of society. This motivated him to break the hierarchical order for the Sunday Holy Communion at the estate church on the second Sunday when he merely stayed back and joined the workers in the queue.

Sepala was, indeed, the best ever tea-cum-rubber planter this country has seen. He was among the earliest Ceylonese planters to join the exclusive Club of planters in the colonial era. I was told by old-timers that right from his very early days he had an abundance of self-confidence. The story goes that he was at the bottom of a steep hill, supervising the manuring of the tea in that area when his boss got off his car on the road above and called out to Sepala to come up and see him. Sepala wearing his hat and smoking a pipe, is said to have called back, “It is easier for you to come down and go up than for me to come up, come down and then finally go up again.” Apparently the boss took this near insubordination in his stride and went down the hill to talk with Sepala.

He effortlessly stood out in the two industries that he was involved in. His post-planting career as Chairman and Managing Director of Mackwoods Estates, Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, Chairman of the Tea Board and as Secretary-General of the Planter’s Society were exceptional spells in these entities where persons who worked with him still talk of him with great admiration It was during his term as Chairman of the Tea Board that, along with the then Minister in charge, the late Gamini Dissanayake, he worked round the clock on the clusterisation of estates, which was the fore-runner to the privatisation of the management of estates. In recognition of his services to the plantation industry he was awarded the title ‘Desabandu’.

I had the unique opportunity of working under Sepala for some six years at Hapugastenna Group, Ratnapura, in the early days of my working career, and I have kept in touch with him ever since. If I have achieved any little success in my career, a large part of it is thanks to the training imparted by Sepala. He is my super- hero.

Sepala was a stickler for punctuality which is another excellent trait I learnt from him. Sepala and Sunethra both come from highly respected, distinguished and aristocratic families, but there was never even a touch of arrogance in either of them. Just as an example, he has devoted one of the earlier chapters of the first book he authored to Kandasamy who was his Field Supervisor, when he commenced planting in 1948. He repeated to me Kandasamy’s advice to him on how to treat estate workers – “Estate workers should be treated like children, with kindness but firmness.” Another gem of advice from Kandasamy repeated to me was, “Rule over your subordinates more by practice than by precept – when you give an instruction, show them personally how to do it.” Both pieces of advice have stood me in good stead throughout my career

Sepala was courageous and was never afraid of anyone. Agency House executives who wrote to Superintendents at the drop of a hat, were very reluctant to write to Sepala because more often than not, they would get cornered into an onslaught from which they found it extremely difficult to extricate themselves. Once, however, the Visiting Agent had made an adverse comment on a particular rubber field and the Agency House executives thought this was an ideal opportunity for them to get their own back on Sepala. A letter calling for a detailed explanation was despatched. Sepala’s response was calm, short and precise: “Please note that when we drove past this particular field the Visiting Agent was fast asleep. My Assistant, Balendra, who was in the vehicle, will vouch for it.” That was the end of the story as far as that VA’s report was concerned.

Sepala was indeed fortunate to have lived to a full and rewarding age of 86, and with a very clear mind right to the end. I am told that two weeks prior to his demise, he had stubbornly (one of his characteristics) insisted, and driven his vehicle to church and back, despite his driver being available and sitting in the back seat.

Sunethra was the lady always beside the great man, and prodding him along for more than half a century. Marriages are described as ‘the high seas for which no compass has yet been invented’. Sepala and Sunethra certainly managed to invent their own special compass to guide them along and to create and enjoy a very successful union. Sunethra was perhaps the only person who could stand up to Sepala and I am sure she did so fairly often. Sunethra is not only charming but also a person to be admired in her own right. Please let me be clear - there is no Sepala without Sunethra.

Along with Sunethra he witnessed the success of their two wonderful children, Yevendra and Riyanjani, their marriages to two extremely accomplished persons in Ymara and Dhamitha, (the current Chairman of the Planters’ Association), who in turn have brought into this world five very talented grandchildren who are now all adults and professionals. Sepala was, and Sunethra is, extremely proud of the achievements of their descendants, and justifiably so. I believe it is only a question of time before we will be able to congratulate Sunethra on becoming a great-grandparent and we will all miss Sepala on that happy occasion.

In retirement Sepala became a prolific writer and his four books, all of which were published by Vijitha Yapa, give a detailed insight into the man and his capabilities. I would recommend that if you can lay your hands on them, you should read them, ignoring one and a half pages of his first book where he goes to town on my wife and me. I must, however, confess that I am delighted and proud that the respect was mutual.

With his unshakeable faith, Sepala has surely gone back Home to his Maker. Farewell Sir, and May you rest in peace.


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