A Local Barber’s Secret History As A Sri Lankan Sporting Hero
A former football star from Anuradhapura was forced to flee during the civil war. Now back in his hometown, he explains how his sporting status helped him survive.
He was once a hero in his hometown. Krishna Pillai Devasarayam Pillai was the captain of the football team at St Joseph’s College, a prestigious school in Anuradhapura, the capital of Sri Lanka’s North Central Province.
Pillai – who is more commonly known by his nickname Rasaiah – went on to captain the district team and played at the national level too, before becoming a coach.
I will never forget how helpless we felt as the thugs surrounded our house.
But the Sri Lankan civil war changed all that. Many of his team mates have left the country, moving to India and even Europe to escape the violence. But not Rasaiah.
His father, a former native doctor, ran a barber’s salon in Anuradhapura, where Rasaiah says, “everyone was welcome”.
“In those days, football was my life,” Rasaiah recalls.
In 1985, armed men broke into the barber shop. Thankfully our lives were saved by our Sinhalese friends, Rasaiah explains. By then he was married to his wife, Seetha, a Sinhalese woman he had met at a football match.
“I went to see the match with some friends and he was very good, and very popular,” says Seetha Ranjani Gunawardena. “I consented due to his good qualities.”
Back in 1985, the family’s Sinhalese friends took them to a safe house and then helped them reach a military camp.
“I will never forget how helpless we felt as the thugs surrounded our house,” Rasaiah recalls. “That day, the Sinhalese hurt us, but they also saved and protected us.”
The family fled but even then, his football career helped, Rasaiah says. A colonel, and then various influential civil servants, recognized him as a sports hero and helped find him and his family a place to live, after they spent several weeks sleeping out in the jungle.
Eventually Rasaiah and Seetha – they now had two children – ended up in Batticaloa where Rasaiah opened his own barber salon. The fact that he was there became known to the local football association and Rasaiah ended up coaching teams in the district, as well as playing himself.
In 1991, the family made it back to Anuradhapura even though there was not much left of their former business. Once again, his friends helped. Today Rasaiah has opened another barber salon on the Anuradhapura Airport road and he and Seetha have three children, the last born after they returned to Anuradhapura.
“We lost many things and we suffered a lot,” Rasaiah says. “But we didn’t move toward hatred. We had patience and compassion for those who were so angry and we do not hate anyone for creating the things that troubled us. As a result, we have been able to see our children grow up.”