I was given the honour of talking to you about the many things my grandfather, AYS Gnanam, meant to me. I will be referring to him as Thatha, as that is the name I’m used to calling him by.
I have never heard anyone call Thatha by his first name. It was as if he was only Mr. Gnanam, a title that when used in reference to him seemingly demanded respect and admiration. I always knew he was special but how important he was I only realised at St Anthony’s 50th anniversary. As an 8-year old I was enlisted by my father to present a garland to the guest of honour and hadn’t the slightest clue what was going on, but people were making a big deal over this person. As his car door opened I realised that the mysterious person who everyone was applauding was (to my amusement) Thatha! I was curious as to what the huge fuss was. It was just my grandfather, the man who puts much food on my plate and expects me to finish it all. Yet all these people were clapping and cheering and staring and standing at attention and huddled around, trying to get a good look at him, as if he were some sort of celebrity. I learned later as I got older that he was much more than a celebrity; he was legendary for what he accomplished, admired for what he overcame, and loved for who he was – larger than life.
Thatha was a devout Christian; he studied God’s word thoroughly, prayed frequently and attended church service, well, religiously. He saw himself as a servant of the Lord, involving God in every aspect of his life, even naming his house “God’s Tabernacle”. Thatha’s prayers went on for what seemed like an hour, showing us that he not only had a lot to talk to God about, but a mesmerizing devotion; which comforts me, as he is now probably making use of the opportunity to converse with the Lord in person.
Thatha made up for his somewhat solitary childhood by having an enormous family of his own. Yet to him, family was not restricted to blood; anyone who visited 31 Collingwood Place was treated like they belonged. His warmth made them feel at home. He mandated Sunday lunches in the house where his children grew up, making them feel as if they had never left. He enjoyed the closeness of family, as he would do little things to show us we were always welcome – like stocking the freezer with ice cream and the fridge with coke (even though he was a diabetic). He shared with us his appreciation for simple things; whether it involved dragging us along his four mile walks on Kinross beach or watching him in action around the office. The closeness of family was evidently essential to him and it gives me great pride to be able to call him my Thatha.
Thatha had this amazing twinkle in his eye – they glistened, which gave him an essence of fantasy; something you would expect of Santa Claus, and much like Old St. Nic, he loved to give. He supported so many charities of various natures, not just by donating money but his time. But he would never boast about his altruistic actions which is why I’m doing it for him. Even as a businessman he made choices that made jobs, not necessarily profits. He always utilised opportunities to integrate his family with charity; from handing out lunch packets to the homeless to enlightening conversations about his hard, obstacle-ridden youth. Through him we learnt to give, and to be a little more selfless. As the man who sat at the head of the table, whether it be in the boardroom or dining room, he felt he had a responsibility to set an example of acting with impeccable morality, integrity and decency towards others.
Thatha never had a formal education yet was creative and incredibly hard working which made him a successful entrepreneur and subsequently leader of an 8,000-employee business empire; his ambition and perseverance still setting an incredible example to those around him. He showed so much insight and knowledge in everything, taking every opportunity he had, to learn more about foreign cultures and ways of life. As an intellectual, Thatha was always keen on experiencing as much as possible. He learned from every encounter, which allowed him to have an excitingly full and vibrant existence.
He was notorious for inventing elaborate tales for the amusement of his grandchildren. Stories of fiction that revolved around him winning boxing matches with Cassius Clay or wrestling sharks that would attack his submarine off Kinross beach. These stories of him winning battles echoed inside me when I thought about the life of this man of massive achievements. He’s fought circumstance of birth and the poverty that surrounded him through unfaltering persistence, hard work and incorruptible morals. When I visited his ICU room in a hospital, I witnessed him fighting again.
A. Y. S. Gnanam is many awesome things. Notice I say is? This is because when someone like Thatha passes, his journey doesn’t end there. He influenced all of us; his family, people that worked with him or for him, people that met him, people who his philanthropy has helped, people who’ve heard about him. He inspired everyone, and now through us he will live on. So although we mourn our loss, please also use this as an opportunity to celebrate his existence. Celebrate that at one point you actually met a man so generous and loving and ethically outstanding that something as trivial as death would never stand in the way of his gargantuan legacy and the heart that beats behind it. [island.lk]