Short stories, Travel and Health Information
My father passed away on 31st August 2014.
Over the past week we have been staying at home, reflecting on his life and meeting the many folk who have come to condole with us. It is the traditional seven day period of mourning observed in Buddhist cultures – similar to the seven day period during which my Jewish friends observe the custom of ‘sitting Shivah‘.
While I was reflecting on my father’s long and fulfilling life, I was reminded about the conversation I had some years ago with the Ven Getamanne Saranapala Thero, the Chief Monk of the temple in my father’s birthplace of Getamanne, a small village in Sri Lanka’s deep South. The venerable monk had been my father’s classmate when they were little boys attending the village school. They used to walk to school together, my father from the big house that overlooked the village and his friend from a not so affluent house down the road. They were school friends and playmates from the age of six.
“Even at that young age” the monk told me, reminiscing, “Your father was always interested in his studies, always reading, always wanting to know more. From those days itself he understood the value of education”
Then he added with a chuckle, “He would never eat of the food that his mother had packed for him without sharing it with me. Even a thalaguli or a piece of pol dosi would be divided into two, half given to me before your father ate the other half.”
Then his face grew more serious. “Another characteristic I remember about your father is that he disliked bullies. Obviously, being Don Aelias Wijesinha’s son, nobody in that village would ever dare to bully him. But if he saw anyone being bullied, especially if that child was weak or of low estate, he would step in to protect them”
It is interesting how these childhood qualities of my father noted by his schoolboy friend shaped the values he later displayed in adult life – a love of learning, the desire to share with those less fortunate than himself, and accepting responsibility for protecting the underprivileged.
As a boy, I remember my father repeatedly reminding me ‘Knowledge is Power’. (usually when I was seated at my desk , unenthusiastically studying). He not only ensured that he and my mother gave Anila, Rajiva and me every encouragement to study and further our education – but this love of learning and desire to help others to educate themselves spread to the children of his siblings, the children of his cousins, the children of his village, the children of his friends and the friends of his children – in fact anyone in whom he saw the potential for education so they could better themselves.
He was a past master at finding places at good schools for deserving children – and scholarships for his staff as well as his nephews and nieces. I must explain here that for my father and mother, their nephews and nieces were not all related by blood or marriage. They had surnames as varied as Rajasuriya, Reid, Pathmanathan, Uvais, Mirchandani and Bhatkal – but he considered all of them his nephews and nieces, and so believed that he had every right to encourage and assist them.
When he was appointed Secretary General of Parliament, he commenced a scheme to provide free school textbooks for the children of his staff – obtaining money for this by selling all the old newspapers and outdated multiple copies of Hansard that had accumulated for years in the parliament storerooms. It was a method that did not perhaps comply with the government AR and FR, and probably would not have received the approval of the Treasury – had they ever been told about it. But he started that fund with about a million rupees – collected entirely from the sale of “parana paththara” (old papers) – and ensured that the children of his staff had the textbooks they needed for their studies. He would be so proud in later years when one of these children who had been helped by his free text book scheme and had graduated from university or obtained professional qualifications and was doing well in life came to see him.
He spent a lifetime not only encouraging people he knew to spend money on their children’s education – but in situations where he felt they could not afford the cost, he quietly delved into his own pocket to pay for their education.
The second quality that characterised my father was his belief that because much had been given to him by birth, education, personality and position, it was his privilege to use these resources to help others. Just as he used to share the piece of pol dosi with his school friend, he would freely share his time and knowledge – and even make use of his connections – to help others. He was not a rich man – but many were the occasions when he would pay out of his own pocket to help folk who he believed needed to be helped – for example to purchase their first house or to travel abroad for further studies.
After he retired as Secretary General of Parliament his appointment as national Ombudsman allowed him to continue exercising his belief that bullies should not be allowed to bully. The post of Ombudsman was established so that the public would have an independent and respected public officer charged with representing the interests of the ordinary citizen by investigating and addressing complaints of maladministration or violation of rights. He used not only his vast knowledge of the law but also his natural ability to mediate as well as his connections at the highest level throughout the country to protect individual citizens from being bullied, so assisting them to obtain redress of their grievances. Red tape and rigid Government regulations were creatively and pragmatically interpreted (sometimes even bent) so that someone deserving would not suffer injustice. As he once told me “Rules, son, are created for the guidance of intelligent people who appreciate the spirit of the law – not for blind and unwavering obedience to the letter of the law!”
If there is a single line from the Bible that epitomized my father, it is this verse from the Epistle of St. James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to assist orphans and widows in their affliction”
He was not enamoured by religious ritual but he was a very spiritual man who knew, respected and could readily quote from the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Talmud and the Buddhist scriptures of his childhood.
At his funeral, many were the folk who came up to me or my brother or my sister and said “I don’t think you know me – but it was your father who helped me …” and then go on to tell us how in various different ways he had assisted each of them and helped change their lives for the better.
My father was an avid cricket fan, and he knew the value of having a good partner when one is batting. Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Hayden and Langer, Sangakkara and Jayawardena – each of these cricketers were great individuals in their own right who became so much more successful because of the partner with whom they batted. Having a reliable colleague at the other end, who understood, supported and complemented the man facing the bowling, allowed each batsman in turn to score confidently while the other held their end up. My father was fortunate in this life to have as his partner our mother Mukta. Throughout their lives together, my parents formed a great partnership – and I am that sure without the freely given support of the other neither of them would have been able to do the great things that each of them did.
During the week before he died, he was watching the Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews scoring 93 in a one day international cricket match at Dambulla. His faithful attendant Chamara – who did so much for him during these last years of his life – was watching with him, and when Mathews got out Chamara said “Sha, thava tikkak hitiya nang, seeyakma gahanna thibuna, ne!”(meaning “Tsk, If he stayed just a little longer he could have scored a hundred, no” ) at which observation my father just smiled.
Like Angelo Mathews, even though my father got out at 93 and didn’t get a century, he batted brilliantly for that 93, he played an innings that was extremely valuable for his country and his people – and he eminently displayed the qualities of a bold leader whom we could all admire, be proud of – and look upon as our own.
There are some lines by the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson that could well have been written about my father:
“To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.”