Madura Kulatunge isn’t naïve. He doesn’t know fame the way others do. Doesn’t bother him. He still does what he’s always done. He knows his stuff and my guess is that nothing short of ‘perfect’ will ever suit him. Ordinarily this would unnerve anyone. Not with Madura. He can appear friendly, but he’s shrewd enough to spot out anything that jars and disturbs. In his line of work that’s natural. It counts.
He is known as creator of probably the most useful dictionary a Sri Lankan can find online. He takes and everyone else gives him credit for that. He deserves more. But I reserve judgment. For now.
Madura was born on March 23, 1980 in Matara. He was educated at Royal College. I ask him whether his school imparted to him a love for computers and software, and he readily affirms that. “We had a computer society,” he tells me, “But that was more or less limited to those who came from the necessary background. We didn’t know much about software. Our only experience was limited to visits we made to an internet café in Union Place, where we’d surf the web every day.”
He sat for his A/Levels in the Commerce stream (“I didn’t even pursue Science!”). This was in 1999. But his journey really began a few years after leaving College, when he pursued a Diploma in Computing at the National Youth Centre in Maharagama. “Back then I didn’t know how to operate a computer, next to nothing about hardware, and absolutely nothing about software. It was a big deal just to know how to power one up!” His stint at the Youth Centre apparently changed all that. He explains how.
“We had teachers who knew their stuff. They taught in English and I admit I found that hard, given my deficiencies in that language. On the other hand, they taught me so well that I took in everything they said. There was one Korean teacher who managed to get us all interested in what he said. None of them came and taught with the intention to earn. We could see they loved what they did.
“I remember playing a music file with my friends once. There were four people to one computer, as I recall. Back then, we didn’t know how to use Media Player. We used another program. Either way, listening to music was prohibited. But when a teacher saw what we were doing, he just came up to us and played that file for us! That showed how readily they inferred and approved of our ‘thirst’ to know more.”
In the meantime, he got his first computer. “We were not rich back then. Both my parents were civil servants. We paid for the computer using my father’s gratuity. It cost about 55,000 rupees back then in June 2001: a Pentium III 733 Mhz PC, quite advanced for its time here and certainly worth its weight in gold.”
I ask him how he found the Diploma useful those days. “Most people would go there to just pass, because the exams certainly weren’t easy. I on the other hand loved to attend lectures. I always wanted to more than pass, because I guess the subject got close to me. The teachers were encouraging as well. You see, computing isn’t a subject you learn just to pass. There’s something beyond that you aim at.”
There are other anecdotes. Other memories. Madura reveals them all. “Soon after completing my Diploma at the Youth Centre, I was enrolled at Abacus Computers. That was for a Special Diploma in Information Technology, which like the previous diploma wasn’t well recognised. But I learnt much about programming there. Like Visual Basic.”
This is where he met his first turning point. “I remember going to Sarasavi and buying a book on VB. Back then we were recommended those ‘Sam’s Teach Yourself’ tutorial books. In fact that is what I tried to get that day. But my eyes fell on this other book, and for some reason, after quickly going through it, I found it much more endearing. Yes, it was in English. But based on all those illustrations and on what I was learning at class then, I found it interesting. That is why I bought it.”
Apparently, Madura hadn’t found it easy to read the entire book. But he did one thing. He read it from page one, which, as he tells me, benefited him in the end. “The book, even in the first few chapters, went through the logic or rationale behind programming and coding. We weren’t really taught that at class. There were also those grey areas our teachers didn’t really look into. The book explained those as well.”
His language-deficiency remainded, however, and for this reason it remained a barrier for him. That is why he resorted to referring dictionaries, particularly the Malalasekera English-Sinhala dictionary, in reading that book. “That was when I realised the value of those books,” he tells me, “Because we didn’t have quick reference guides through the internet, for the simple reason that we didn’t have internet. Dial-up was expensive and not many people could afford it. Certainly not us.”
After teaching himself the finer points of Visual Basic, Madura then decided to apply what he’d learnt. He made a program. A dictionary. He admits he had to resort to Malalasekera to find the words and transcribe them, but at the end of the day, the idea for the program remained his. Besides, another point stood in his favour. This was the fact that not many Sri Lankans were designing apps like that during his time.
He explains what happened next. “I tested my program on several friends’ computers. The trial period lasted for about one month. When my friends started calling me back and telling me how useful it was, I decided to release it.” I ask him here whether he had any intention to earn from this venture. “Not at all,” he says, admitting however that he had a rather egocentric desire to see others use and be happy with his program.
And so, on November 23, 2002, he launched the dictionary. “The program was priced at 300 rupees by the seller. I gave it to him for 200 rupees. The cost built up to about 75 rupees after factoring in the printing and packaging for it. So in the end I earned about 125 rupees as profit, although there was some vital equipment I had to spend on. Everything was pretty expensive back then, after all. A mere CD writer cost about 10,000 rupees, mind you! So it wasn’t all easy-peasy.”
Madura has other qualifications. He has passed out as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer in 2005. He pursued a MSc in Computing from the Sikkim Manipal University, through ICBT campus. When his product began soaring, he was also recognised by the University of Moratuwa when he was invited to address a symposium. This was after he had launched his product on the web in 2008.
The symposium (which was held in September 2009)had been a career-turner. “Professor Gihan Dias, who was pretty well known in the country, actually called me to address the gathering. He told me to just come and present my website. But I wanted to do more. Instead of just unveiling something, I made a presentation and explained to the audience the entire backdrop to my program. They were enthralled. I remember Professor J. B. Dissanayake congratulating everyone gathered there.”
It was around this time that he began to realise and appreciate the concept of intellectual property. “When we were small, we didn’t know much about copyrights. We thought that software was freeware, essentially. That is why I didn’t have inhibitions in using Malalasekera. But when I realised what I was doing was wrong, I began respecting what others had created. That work put into creating something can’t be measured. To copy it is wrong. I have made that a principle in whatever I’m doing right now.”
There were other milestones of course. Last year he released the Android application for his program (“I designed it on April 9 and released it 11 days later”). His website is now currently among the 50,000 most visited websites in the world (“competing with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, mind you”), and the 50th most visited in Sri Lanka (“competing with outside websites accessed by local and foreigner alike here”) at www.alexa.com.
His credits are impressive. It’s as simple as that.
I ask him whether it’s all been worth it. He hasn’t enjoyed fame the way some others in his position would have, after all. Before answering that he reflects back a little. “I was asked to sell what I designed at various points. I could have. But I didn’t. Businessmen and companies undercut what my concept really meant to me. I don’t intend to part with it. That is what I created, and while I remain thankful to those who made it possible, I admit that my creation is my own. So yes, it’s all been worth it.”
You don’t see people like Madura Kulatunga every day. Certainly not here. He is different. That is because he sees things radically. He can spot out a fake and I know for a fact that he has made this a guiding principle in his life and career. That, at any rate, is enough to commend and recommend him.
Let me be more clear. He has verve. He’s friendly. And inventive. A rare combination, you must admit.