by Nilakshan Perera
(continued from last week)
On July 23, 1983, when the LTTE ambushed 14 Army personnel including Lt Waas Gunawardena, we were at Ratmalana Air Force hangar to receive and assist Security Forces personnel. We will never forget the tragic scene of the special Y-8 plane carrying 14 dead bodies wrapped in polythene landing at Ratmalana. The next day onwards we were deployed for Internal Security duties. That was a somber period that opened our eyes to the stark realities of military life. However, no sooner the situation in the country became somewhat normal we too reverted to our usual routine.
Though we could move around with other students at University we were strictly instructed not to engage in any form of ragging as it will lead to the suspension of our studentships as well as being discharged from KDA. Among the next batch of university students, a few happened to be the daughters of some senior officers. For ragging, we asked them to bring us packets of home-cooked lunches wrapped in “kehel kola” with dhal, pol sambol & fried dried fish and asked one of them to get us a good machete so that our midnight operation (plucking kurumbas) could continue after the machetes used earlier had been confiscated. We also asked themto take us to Hotel Rahima (biryani), Venice Ice cream Parlor, or Shanthi Vihar for dosa. They were all good sports and readily obliged.
After one of the dinner nights, we were tasked the next day to rearrange the tables and chairs (we were the juniors throughout our cadetship at KDA as no new cadets were admitted due to protests over KDA entry by various student movements), and the job was going to be quite a task as long distances had to be covered with the tables and chairs. Fortunately, the Duty Officer of the day told us to use the Army 1210 TATA truck provided there was a volunteer driver. Only two of us could drive during our cadet days, but we grabbed the chance and did the unloading and rearranging and then drove back via Airport Road, Borupone Rd, Ratmalana Station Rd – a journery of about two hours. The truck was perfectly parked at the vehicle yard with all 14 of us seated comfortably inside at the end of the assignment.
Lt Dushantha Chelliah of Sri Lanka Navy (he retired as Commander in 1995 and migrated to Canada) took over as our Troop Commander. He came directly from Naval Maritime Academy where he was the Asst Division Commander (the Course Officer of Admiral Ravi Wijegoonawardane, former Chief of Defence Staff). He was a great cricketer who played for Royal College, Sri Lanka Navy, and Defence Services as an opening batsman. He was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t tolerate any nonsense. We were fortunate to have played either football, cricket or rugby matches with teams of several foreign naval ships visiting Sri Lanka. These games were played either at Welisara Navy grounds or S. Thomas’ College grounds, Mt. Lavinia, thanks to Lt Chelliah.
In addition to sports, he also helped us with our studies and with his
contacts. We had our very first sea experience of a voyage from Galle to Colombo onboard SLNS SAGARAWARDANA. (Sadly now it’s at the
bottom of the sea). We were given on-board training of most naval operations We all loved the food that was served on board the vessel with all kinds of fresh seafood on offer. Lt Chelliah had also introduced us to maintaining a Journal. We had to write details of events that took place daily and submit our records to the troop commander by Monday morning at 0700hrs before leaving for campus. He returned the journals marked and corrected the same evening when we returned. Before doing anything else, we read and redid the corrections knowing the consequences if we did not do so. It was a great lesson we learned and we still maintain historic information and important dates.
Few of the most undisciplined cadets were made to measure the depth of Sir John’s lake near the summer hut as punishment. The water was not that salty but the smell of muddy water and different types of rotting vegetation and small fish lingered in our overalls. That was all part and parcel of our training and we still cherish the experiences.
Changing uniforms for parades had to be done to split second precision. We had to get ready in 30- 40 seconds and report to Sir John’s bungalow in a couple of minutes – a maximum of two to three minutes for running back to billets which were 750 meters away and returning to stand at attention in a place where a spotlight was focused. Cadets couldn’t move beyond that point. Lt Chelliah would come to the balcony and see/instruct us on the next kit change and timing. This will go on for about 20-30 minutes. Some tried shortcuts by placing all kits – civil, white PT, battle order uniform and recreational kit – under a coconut tree on the grounds and changing there rather than running back to billets.
Our profound gratitude to you Sir, for who we are today – dedicated disciplined gentlemen officers. Though he was a strict disciplinarian he always respected us cadets and trained us to be the best. He punished us when we did wrong with the good intention of making us better officers so that we too will train our subordinates in the same way in the future.
Normally on Poya Days, we had bana for about an hour, preached by one of the Buddhist monks from Bellanwila Raja Maha Viharaya. Having this in mind, on the day before Poya, we took our civil clothes and left them at a friend’s place on the other side of runway of the Ratmalana Airport.
This particular Poya day in Dec 1983 also happened to be a Saturday which suited us fine for our escapade. While the rest of the cadets were plucking araliya flowers for the bana, five of the worst rascals crossed the runaway to our friend’s place for a quick change into the civilian clothes left there and then scooted off on trip to Sri Pada. We caught the 9.40 am Udarata Menike express train and got to our destination.
We didn’t have any plans for meals but for our good luck, while climbing the mountain we made friends with a very nice family with four pretty daughters. They looked after us very well with food and soft drinks and all we did accompanying them to the summit. We returned their hospitality by carrying all their belongings down the mountain as we had nothing to carry ourselves. This was easy as we had carried heavy backpacks and weapons as punishments and for training and compared to those what we carried for our friends was nothing.
Two of the daughters of that family became popular pediatricians and one a well-known banker. We were fortunate to have met them and still are in touch. We managed to return to KDA secretly by 4.55 am on Monday to be mustered for PT at 5.30 am. All went well but the Air Traffic Controller at the Airport had spotted five cadets wearing PT kits crossing the tarmac. But he had not reported it to KDA as he was a good friend of one of the cadets. We owe him for not reporting his observation to our superiors; and also the rest of our batch-mates, who who covered for us by putting down our mosquito nets and pretending that all of us were asleep in our billet. The duty sergeant on his night round saw all nets down and thought 14 cadets, including us absconders, were sleeping soundly.
We were the very first Intake to decline the leave given for Sinhala/Tamil New Yearone year. We were given four days off but it was hardly enough time for Saliya Weerakkody, whose home was at Diyatalawa, to travel to and fro with the travel time alone two days. We requested more days of leave on behalf of Saliya but when this was refused, all of us said we’d stay back at KDA. Because of us many others from the training staff, naval catering, medical, and transport also had to sacrifice their leave. We were very well served for our ‘solidarity’ with pack-drills, in the morning, afternoon, and evening continuously on all five days. As a result of this became fitter and tougher and also well united and bonded.
Mess Assistants from the Navy and two waiters were dead scared of us as we used to complain about the quantity and quality of food etc. to duty officers who had to either instruct the catering staff to cook separately for us or reach the proper standard. Because there was only the 14 of us in the camp at that time, our unity and comradeship was very high. Only two of us had girlfriends when joining KDA and whenever a love letter was delivered by post, the recipient had to read it aloud for everyone to hear. Others hardly received any letters even from parents but on our own we posted letters to ourselves, just to pretend that we too were getting mail. Few of us were so well known at the Ratmalana Post Office that letters addressed with only a name and Ratmalana reached us. With no WhatsApp, Viber, FB, Twitter and Instagram then, we used to have many singsongs. Preethi would sing Amaradeva’s Minidada Heesara, and Upul Wijesinghe, Mal Warusawe. Just Walking in the Rain was Damian’s favourite while Thiru contributed Maha Re Yame. There were a lot of M.S. Fernando’s songs and baila sung too.
Shantha Liyanage used to do ‘bat drills’ as he played cricket for University and Lal Padmakumara, being a jack of all trades, advised even carpenters and masonry workers at construction sites at KDA. Manoj was glued to James Hadley Chase’s books, one after the other, but Dimuthu had other plans. He used to take us fishing at Bolgoda lake and Panadura bund. Whether we like it or not, we too went with him. He knew all the culverts in the Borupone area, where guppies breed. Only later did we learn that he had fished the best Mermaid of the Kanangara family consisting of three daughters who lived down Borupone Road. That was Nalika (Dr. Nalika Gunawardena, former Senior Lecturer at Medical Faculty Colombo and presently at WHO as National Professional Officer) Catholics among us were allowed to attend Sunday Mass at nearby St Mary’s Church in Ratmalana and Buddhists went to Bellanwila Temple. While returning to KDA we used to check if Dimuthu’s Dad’s EN 2876 black Morris Minor was parked under the portico of the Principal’s bungalow(highly respected Mr.
Cyril Gunawardane was the Principal of the Deaf & Blind school) and if the car was there we were sure of a good dinner and a free ride to KDA with Dimuthu. We’ll never forget Uncle Cyril and Aunt Dolly’s wonderful hospitality and unconditional affection for all of us.
Whenever we were invited for a birthday party (especially girls’ 21st birthday parties) or any other social gathering we got permission but had to return before the 10.00 pm roll call so that the Duty Cadet could report that all 14 of us were there and no one was sick. In case the Duty Cadet wanted to check, he would call them personally by 2200 hrs but not later. Whoever had gone out had to walk along the Kandawala Road would look at our top floor bathroom window. If a green towel was hung there, he could go back to the party and come for the next day’s PT by 5.30 am. A red towel signaled “return immediately.” Coming back we had to navigate a 12 ft. high barbed wire fence.
We were fortunate to have our first ever CADET BALL in December 1984. We were asked to bring our dancing partners and most of the pretty girls of Moratuwa and Colombo Universities were there on the floor. It was all organized by Cadets of Intakes one, two and three and we were well trained in all aspects of hosting these functions very well by our Officer Instructors.
We had the privilege of associating with Military Academy Intake 16, 17, 18 & 19 Cadets on their Unit visits, and having a football match played at railway grounds and also several Cadet Intakes of Naval Maritime Academy Intakes 11 & 12 and China Bay Air Force Academy. Among these cadets, there were two future Army Commanders, Three Navy Commanders, and two Air Force Commanders.
We were also fortunate to have the remarkable company of a few great Air Force flyers like Jayanthalal Thibbotumunuwe, TTK Seneviratne, and Ruwan Punchihetti as they were attached to KDA while doing their flying training at Ratmalana. Sadly all three of them died in action later, (Wing Cmdr. Thibbotumunuwe in Nov 1996 at KKS and Pilot Officer TTK Seneviratne & Officer Cdt Ruwan Punchihetti in May 1995 during a Sia Marchetti training flight accident at Beruwala)
In our last year, five of our batchmates captained University teams.
Dhammika (rugby), Saliya (football), Damian (basketball), Dimuthu (rowing) and Ruwan Upul (athletics). After completing the University final exams in Nov 1985, four joined the Navy, another three joined Air Force and seven others joined the Army for their advanced and further training, saying goodbye to KDA, where we had spent almost three years and three months. Our passing out parade held in Aug 1986, with Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, Minister of National Security, as the Chief Guest.
Thanks to General John Kotelawela five of our batch-mates found their life partners from Colombo University and two got married to two
doctors from the Medical Faculty while two others wed lawyers from
the Faculty of Law. One found his bride in the Faculty of Science.
After joining the respective services our cadets excelled in their duties to the country at the highest level, especially at sea. Manoaj Jayasooriya, Preethi Vidnapathirana, and Dimuthu Goonawardena played aleading role in defeating Sea Tiger craft and engaging with Sea Tiger cadres face to face many times. For bravery and selfless acts, Manoj was promoted to the rank of Commander while at sea (Field/Sea promotion) by the Commander of the Navy in Feb 1999.
November 19, 1997 was perhaps the saddest day for the officers of Intake three when news was received that Lt Preethi Vidanapathirana, one of the most disciplined and adorable of our batch mates and a dear friend, has made the supreme sacrifice during one of the fierce sea battles in Mullaitivu.
The evening before, three batch mates Manoaj, Dimuthu and Preethi sailed from Trincomalee harbor as directed by the Commander Eastern Naval Area along with a flotilla of ships and crafts on an offensive patrol to disrupt an enemy movement that was due to take place between Thiriyaya and Mullaitivu.
Manoj who commanded the prestigious Fast Attack Craft Flotilla (FAF4) twice in his career after perfecting the art of naval battle, joined this important operation displaying his tactical leadership taking quick and vital decisions in battle. His presence in the theatre was undoubtedly a morale booster to all. Preethi was in Command of another FAC, P452 and Dimuthuin Command of a Chinese Gunboat SLNS Ranawickrama tasked to neutralize enemy launching pads along with SLNS Ranarisi. The two gunboats and eight Dovras engaged targets both at sea and on land to prevent a Tiger logistic move. The battle which is considered one of the bloodiest at sea lasted from approximately 2100 hrs on Oct. 18, to 0330 hrs on October 19, 1997. In the ensuing battle, Preethi having successfully attacked one of the enemy clusters was hit by a high caliber gun mounted on the bows of an enemy boat which immediately immobilized him, paving the way for two enemy suicide boats to ram his vessel sinking it within seconds approximately 3.5 nautical miles off Kokilai.
By this time, the enemy was forced to abandon its logistic move and return to base and what remained at sea were their two offensive clusters. Preethi was one of the best swimmers of his time and shone both in Ananda College, KDA and at the University of Colombo. As the incident occurred quite close to the shore, Manoaj and Dimuthu scoured the area for the next 24 hrs hoping to find and recover Preethi and his crew. But there was no sign of them.
Preethi was posthumously promoted to the rank of Lt Commander having been killed in action. We never forget to leave out Preethi’s beloved wife, Dr. Dayani Panagoda (Senior Technical Specialist Global Communities at USAID/SCORE) at our gatherings for she too is a part of our Intake family.
Manoj retired from the Navy as Commander in 2002. For his gallant and meritorious conduct in battle, he had been decorated fourteen (14) times by the President of Sri Lanka and he remains the most decorated officer in the Navy with this record has not been broken to date. He is a proud recipient of Rana Wickrama Paddakkama (RWP) seven times and Rana Sura Padakkama (RSP) seven more times. He is presently Executive Director of a well known Motor Company and Director/General Manager of a famous Engineering Company.
Dimuthu retired as Rear Admiral in April 2018, and presently functions as Director Communications and Publications at the Institute of National Security Studies having served in several senior positions in the naval hierarchy with his distinguished naval career recognized with awards on several occasions. Shantha Liyanage retired as Major General in Feb 2018 and held the prestigious appointments as Colonel Commandant Army Service Corps and former Commandant Army School of Logistics. He is recipient of PSC, and LSC.
Lal Padmakumara retired as Major General in Sept 2017 and was the former Director Budget & Finance Management of the Army, also the recipient of PSC and HDMC Damian Fernando retired as Rear Admiral and was the former Director-General Budget and Finance of the Sri Lanka Navy, proud recipient of USP, VSV, Purna Bhumi Medal too. Major General Dhammika Pananwela retired in Nov 2018, functioned as Commander Security Forces East, also a proud recipient several times of RSP for bravery, NDU for academics and was trained to bring death to the enemy from the sky. A qualified combat parachutist. Palitha Sirimal retired as Lt Col in 2002 and is at present he is a Director of a semi-governmental organization.
Ruwan Upul Perera retired as Wing Commander in Aug 2005 and is looking after his coconut plantations and other properties in Marawila.
Upul Wijesinghe is the Deputy Chief Executive of one of the largest Life Insurance Companies in Sri Lanka and also former President of the Sri Lanka Insurance Association. Others are well settled abroad like Thiru Amaran (Sydney) Shantha Edirisinghe ( London) Saliya Weerakkody (Melbourne) and yours truly in Singapore.
We salute all our senior officers of Intake one and two for their insightful guidance and patience, tolerating all our acts of misbehavior.
I take this opportunity to thank from the bottom of my heart my fellow batch mates of Intake three for the wonderful memories and camaraderie and humbly salute my brother officers who made the supreme sacrifice. During these past 38 years, we were united not just in friendships but in brotherhood and comradeship.
You guys truly are The Best
Dialectics for a fast evolving scenario
by Kumar David
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory; it is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the ‘this-sidedness’ of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a scholastic question”. Second Thesis on Feuerbach
Don’t turn away, this is not going to be a boring treatise in abstract Marxism. I will quickly get to my topic, which is that the political circumstances we are living through are evolving rapidly and we should be alert and adjust to changing situations. First however allow me a few paragraphs about Lenin’s most dynamic years, from February 1917 till he fell seriously ill in late 1921. He died in January 1924 due to complications from bullets lodged in him in Fanny Kaplan’s August 1918 assassination attempt. The February Revolution, (old Julian-style last week of February to early March, new Gregorian-style second week of March) took Lenin and the Bolshevik Party by surprise. When first the women and then the workers of Petrograd fired up leaderless demonstrations which overthrew the monarchy, the Bolsheviks who had prepared the proletariat for revolution for 30 years were stunned! Except Trotsky the general expectation among socialists was a Two Stage Revolution; first Tsarism would be replaced by the rule of the bourgeoisie, then it would be the turn of the subaltern classes – a common at the time static misreading of Marx’s dialectical thinking.
I see developments in Sri Lanka moving fast with unforeseen changes and a regime that most of us last year considered strong and stable, now tottering. Of course it’s going to fall tomorrow but it’s wobbling and the domestic environment is changing unpredictably. Catholics are visibly angry about an alleged “cover up of Easter bombing organisers” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA2Zl1mVrOo); the in the Buddhist clergy have counter-attacked the Cardinal (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC0WcSiJiJs0). Farmers in several areas are on the warpath according to News First. Furthermore nobody foresaw in 2019 the havoc covid would wreak, and the ferocity of UNHRC denunciations was unexpected. It is true that red lights were flashing about debt servicing and that the economy was in hopeless straights, but the convergence of bad news has been more rapid than foreseen and the regime has quickly gone belly up. All who join a mission with a single simple objective, to protect democracy, perforce, have to adjust to a fast changing scenario. The ability to think and act on one’s feet is what makes Lenin of 1917-1921 interesting. He remains the star disciple of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, a fifth century BC classic on strategy. While shifting and manoeuvring Lenin never lost sight of his final objectives. This is why I call him the dialectic on two feet.
Often in this column I have referred to the dialectic as the scientific method; true but how boring! Yes true enough Darwin, the best example in science was an assiduous and utterly trustworthy accumulator of data but with a mind that was alive to how phenomena change and evolve. Gautama Buddha pointed out that nothing is permanent and that all things are evolving but it took Darwin to work out the precise mechanisms by which this was happening in biology. Still, the dialectics of science and nature are slow moving. It is not exciting, it won’t keep you awake at night. Conversely, jumping from Two-Stage theory to instant proletarian revolution on April 1, 1917, capturing state power in October in defiance of scholastic Marxism, pushing back against attempts to militarise the trade unions and the refusal to give the Germans whole swathes of land so as to commit to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (on both Trotsky erred), and in 1921 forcing through the New Economic Policy, a key market oriented concession to capitalist farming, these were momentous strategic transitions, quite breathtaking.
Bearded boring Bolshies 100 years ago, what’s it got to do with us you ask? I’ll tell you. The commonality is that quite unexpectedly we find ourselves in a very fast changing scenario. Lenin in 1917-1922, was an embodiment of the dialectic because he was able to think on his feet and keep his side united using his singular ability to deal with a swift change while the other side (sides to be more accurate) were confused and splintered. This is a useful example for those who seek a democratic, plural and united Sri Lanka because to date this side (I call it ‘we’) have managed to keep our message consistent and united while the ‘other’ side is splintering. President Gota bemoans his unpopularity and his inability to address challenges because “there is no unity” or some such words. I don’t have a clue what skulduggery is going on within the Royal Rajapaksa dynasty, though now is just the right time to make visible adjustments. The public is persuaded that Gota failed because he is inexperienced and his inner circle is dumb; Mahinda and Basil deftly keep out of the limelight. Less and less do you hear from those you marvelled 18 months ago that Gota as the incarnation of a strong leader who would lead Lanka to harmony and splendour? Lee Kuan Yew was a frequently quoted prototype. Where have all those people gone? On the other hand the opposition to an authoritarian new constitution, to excessive deployment of retired military brass and those worried that democracy is under threat (harassment of rights workers, fear in the mind of critics, damaging the judiciary) have succeeded in retaining a degree of commonality.
The shot in the arm for ‘our’ side was the UNHRC Commissioner’s Report and the Geneva Resolution which has de facto created a united front of Sri Lankan domestic forces and international opinion. The uprising in Burma and the opposition to authoritarianism in Sri Lanka must not allow themselves to be intimidated by reactionary nationalists who shriek about foreign support and anti-national traitors. International assistance should be accepted on our terms and in any case democracy is a universal clause. Remember that when the Germans offered to transport Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in a sealed train (“Like a bacillus” in Churchill’s words) he did not hesitate for a moment to accept the offer. The rest is history. In Burma as in Sri Lanka the defeat of the Junta or the containment of an assault on democracy are transnational tasks. “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” when it is used to conceal the machinations of dictators.
You may recall Marx’s quip about standing Hegel on his head which in today’s language we would say has gone viral. It is about the relationship between real life on one hand and theories and philosophies on the other. Tamil agitation and at an extreme the LTTE was not an ideology of a separate state and Tamil cultural-civilisation finding expression in an uprising. Quite the converse, it was the practical conditions of a community creating such angst that it gave rise to extreme nationalism among a large number. That Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist extremism which is holding this country hostage is about ancient civilisation, about hela jathika abimane is humbug. There were class, economic, employment in the late colonial capitalist and state economies, and education sectors which turned Sinhala blood blue with national pride. The nationalists who pontificate the opposite need to be stood on their heads. This critique of what is called the idealism (Ideas and philosophy is what determines the principal features of the real, material world) is very well known now and I think modern bourgeois sociology goes a long way towards recognising it.
What is perhaps not quite so well appreciated is that Marx was more a pupil than a critique of Hegel (not the post-Hegel epigenomes of course) in respect of the dialectic. He speaks of Hegel as a “mighty thinker” in the 1873 post-face to capital I. Certainly spurned the “the ill-humoured, arrogant, and mediocre epigones” who treated Hegel like “dead dog”. What Marx took away from Hegel was how to understand change, the dynamics of how change progresses. The conflicts and compromises in real social and human relations which at times mediate and at times determine how the history of societies evolves. The sociological companion to Darwinian evolution.
We are now live in a fruit salad world of international relations where three powers will decide our fate – over which we have little control – India, China and the US. They are each no doubt pondering what to do about our fruitcake regime. Competition among them to one side, it is in the interests of all three to unscramble this tabbouleh and avert this country’s descent into a failed-state abyss, which thankfully we have still not reached. It is not possible that they each do not have calculations up their sleeves about how to sort out this mess but an initiative from the regime itself proposing a via media to the UNHRC and to the aforementioned powers as proof that Lanka will accept its reconciliation-accountability responsibilities and will maintain a foreign policy balance which will not discomfit any great power will ease a compromise.
The Double-Paksa (two Rajapaksa) regime must forget about enacting a divisive new constitution to claw power into the grasp of the Executive; if firing military sorts already hired for top slots is infeasible at least it must give an undertaking that there will be no more sounding brass speaking in garbled tongues; it must put scientists in charge of pandemic control and win, as Biden seems to be doing; dump this squalid and reckless foreign policy team; it must stop manipulating the judiciary and halt asinine Presidential Commission circuses; it must stop pandering to extremists since this impedes a deal with the minorities. All this is doable if the executive is restructured and a plural orientation is adopted. If the government wishes to pull itself up by its bootstraps it must undertake the policy changes outlined in this para, restructure its personnel, pray much harder and offer trays of mangoes to the deities superintending Sri Lanka. The $64K question is whether Gota has the appetite for this healthy and fruitful menu. Those with no confidence that Gota’s Executive, Mahinda’s government or Basil-in-waiting can extricate themselves from their predicaments, must plan and act on their own outside this purview. The sole self-imposed condition is that change must be constitutional; what’s the point of a fight for democracy if one begins by abrogating it?
S. A. Welgama – A man amongst men
On the one hundred and tenth birth anniversary of my father-in -law S.A.Welgama I pen this tribute with much affection and pride.Affection as he was a second father to me and pride as he was a man amongst men;a man who stood tall and erect,a man unbowed ,unconquered and unsullied.Of him I could truthfully echo Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome,”let men see,let them know a real man,a man who lives as he was meant to live”.
He was born in the hamlet of Ovitigala,in the verdant county of Pasdun Korale,the county of five yojana (sixty kms in Vedic measure),created by Parakramabahu the Great,by draining the basin of Kalu Ganga.
His mother was fair and comely and taught in the village school ,and the father a farmer tilled his own land.SAW never forgot his roots and even at the height of his fame and wealth would often say,I’m the son of a poor farmer.This alone would have tagged him for greatness, for according to John Ruskin “the first test of a truly great man is his humility.”
The origins of the Welgama clan are shrouded in the mists of time.One school of thought says that they were the caretakers of the Welgama vehera in Kinniya ,Trincomalee.Grateful kings had donated land to them in distant South.The stupa was built by King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C.and remained unscathed till the end of the Polonnaruwa era.Even the Chola marauders,who razed all they saw ,left it alone as it was a place of worship for Hindu devotees as well,the Navatar Kovil.
Another school is of the view that they were soldiers in the service of the Sinhala kings as evidenced by their ge name Welgama Hewage.This is likely too as the Welgamas were tall and had a martial bearing.
They migrated to the villages of Ihala (upper) and Pahala (lower) Welgama villages separated by a fast flowing river.This could only be forded by a ferry ,until SAW persuaded a friendly minister of state to build a bridge.
SAW had his early schooling in the Ovitigala village.His heart was ,however not in books but in machines and motor vehicles.Many a day he played truant with his classmates,one of whom was to later become an eminent Buddhist monk and a mentor to me and my brother.When I was being screened as a prospective son -in-law ,he made enquiries, from his friend the Rev Kevitiyagala Dhammasidhi.The priest had categorically stated ,’Sir do not look any further,he is the best of the best’.My fate was sealed.
While still a teenager he apprenticed himself to a local workshop and then came over to Colombo to gain further experience and skills.He had fifty cents in his pocket.The friend who accompanied him returned to the village after two days.But SAW soldiered on and joined the workshop of an English engineer.He worked long and hard and became a master of his trade and also earned the respect and goodwill of his employer,whose pet name for him was Pattison.
Being thrifty he regularly added his wages to a till which was well hidden.With his savings and some help he bought a car for the then princely sum of two thousand rupees ,and plied it for hire between Gampaha and Kaluthara.
As the war clouds gathered in the horizon in the late 1930s he sensed an opportunity in road haulage and this became his trademark.At one stage he owned and controlled over one hundred and fifty trucks and became a trusted agent of the colonial government;transporting goods to and from the Colombo harbour to the massive godowns built in anticipation of wartime food shortages.SAW and Sons became synonymous with road freight.With foresight he bought land at Panchikawatte,an emerging commercial hub for his headquarters.Later with the help of his son Nimal he extended this to a much larger holding.
A prized possession of his was the luxury tourist bus,which he imported when Mr J.R.Jayawardene inaugurated the push for tourism.This was used for family outings too and Kanthi and I remember vividly the visit to his estate with business associates.We also accompanied a group of visiting American cardiologists and spouses to Kandy.On the way ,the ladies started a singsong
to which we had to respond.My contribution was “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” which I had learnt at school.Our guide was a personable young man who later married a young French traveller and settled down in France.Although his fluency in English was not optimal Father saw in him the makings of a good escort.
Having reached the top of the greasy pole ,he knew the value of skills and hard work.He instilled these into the many young men he trained.They were accepted anywhere.The truck drivers employed by him needed two licences;one from the department of motor transport and one from him.He would personally conduct the driving test.In later years his son Mahinda assumed this role.
He had a fondness for new cars especially Mercedes.An exception to the run of Mercedes was the Holden Statesman which he purchased after the Non-Aligned Leaders conference in Colombo.When it was due for repainting,the original colour Salamanca red was not available in SriLanka.Kanthi and I shipped it from Brisbane where we were then living.
The first occasion we met was when he arrived at our house in his magnificent Mercedes.He was accompanied by his beautiful wife Beatrice and his eldest son Melvin.An imposing man dressed in an immaculate white sarong and shirt he was keen to meet the young lad who had been highly recommended as a prospective son in law.After the usual pleasantries ,I joined Melvin who became a close friend.SAW had been much moved that I too was dressed in sarong and shirt.
An interesting quirk of his was the insistence ,that all his vehicle registration numbers should end with the figure five.It’s likely that his birthday being on the fifth of April,this to him was an auspicious number.The denizens of Panchikawatte named him the ‘‘Agata Pahe Mudalali i.e the tycoon with number five at the end.”
Being a man of the soil ,land was at the core of his soul,and he invested in a rubber estate in Kahawatte and then a two hundred and fifty acre rubber plantation” the Deniston” in Mathugama.For the children he bought land in the most fashionable suburb in Colombo and also in Nuwara Eliya a block adjacent to the venerable Grand Hotel.Kanthi and I once spent a night at Deniston in the hilltop estate bungalow.He had arranged for us to be blessed with a ” thovil”, a devil dance ceremony to dispel any unseen hands harassing us; this went on all night.We were exhausted before the performers ,although their colourful costumes,masks,gyrations and the drumming held us spellbound.
About the same time as his rise, there was a group of Sinhala businessmen who too made their mark.They were all southerners who began their careers at the bottom of the pile.SAW and Nawaloka mudalali (H.D.Dharmadasa) were the unofficial leaders of this closely knit cluster.They too never forgot their roots and were all noted for their conviviality,philanthropy and vivacity.Two of their major projects were the Ranweta the gold fence around the Sri Maha Bodhiya and the first coronary care unit in Ceylon.The Sri Maha Bodhiya is the only living relic of the Buddha who attained enlightenment in the shade of the parent tree in BodhGaya.It is the oldest ,historically documented tree in the world.The coronary care unit was built at the instigation of Dr Ivor Obeysekare ,the first cardiologist of Ceylon and a former chief of mine.
SAW was a mover and shaker and associated with the highest in the land.J.R.Jayawardane the first executive president of SriLanka was a good friend and was an attesting witness at all the weddings of his children.He did have friends across the political spectrum including ,Maithripala Senanayake the benign deputy to Mrs Bandaranaike and Peter Kueneman,the sophisticated Cambridge educated leader of the Communist party.Though he “walked with Kings ,he did not lose the common touch” and was equally at home with the masses in villages and the busy bazaars of Colombo.
At the age of sixty five he handed over the control of the trucking company to his sons,but still supervised the estate.The weekly sojourn in the plantation became his greatest pleasure and relaxation.Meandering around ,he may have got to know every tree and shrub,hillock ,valley and stream and mingling with the Indian Tamil workers and villagers gave him a lot of satisfaction.The elder brother whom he adored,lived in a homestead and sharing the customary village fare with him at lunch gave him much gratification.The Sunday visit to the estate was a ritual he maintained till the last week of his life.The bracing air ,the soft breezes ,the solitude and the rural populace seemed to revitalize him.The work was challenging but less so because of his passion and enthusiasm for the land and the labour.
He epitomised Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s words that “The heights by great men achieved and kept were not attained by sudden flight,but they while their companions slept,were toiling upward in the night.”
Unexpectedly,at the age of thirty three,he met a beautiful Kandyan teenager Beatrice Hidellarachchi.It was akin to Adam meeting Eve and was love at first sight.
Like John Milton,in “Paradise Lost”
“He saw grace in all her steps,
Heaven in her eyes,
In every gesture,dignity and love”
Beatrice being the cynosure of all eyes and adoration,delighted him ,and he encouraged her to dress herself in haut-monde finery.
It was a marriage made in heaven.and their happy partnership lasted till his passing away in 1990.
There were ten children in the family,five boys and five girls.He was a strict but adoring father.They were all brought up according to conventional Sinhala Buddhist values.Having missed out on a formal education,he made certain that they went to the highest ranking schools regardless of the denomination.For boys ,he chose S.Thomas’s College the famed school by the sea.Girls were admitted to the Holy Family Convent as he had the highest respect and admiration for the Catholic nuns and their discipline.But he also ensured that they got a Buddhist grounding through the Sunday school at the Vajiraramaya temple which was well known for its pious and erudite monks.
He would have loved for one or more of them to become doctors;instead he got two sons in law who achieved eminence in their specialties of medicine.However two sons became leading business men and chartered accountants.Another a prominent politician and one more a German trained gemologist.The youngest son Nalin was sent across to London ,while we were there, for further studies.
He did have reservations about girls attending universities ,but sent them to finishing schools where they became versed in social graces and upper class cultural rites.Later on he relented and permitted the youngest daughter Pradeepika to study at the Colombo Law school.
As he grew older he mellowed and relished having a drink with Mahinda and me.The faithful domestic Gamini brought his bottle of whiskey and he poured the pegs to all of of us himself.In our younger days we never imbibed with our elders.When he desired company ,he went to the Automobile Association or the Angler’s club.One night he spied us,the two eldest sons in law enjoying a drink in the confines of a car ,with our wives and sent us a round of drinks and a tray of devilled prawns which was a specialty of the AA.
He was a believer in rebirth and would say with conviction that Kanthi his second daughter was the reincarnation of his beloved mother,perhaps because she looked after him like a mother;and Nalin the youngest son,the reincarnation of his father.While on a trip to India ,he insisted on selecting Kanthi’s wedding saree himself ,while mother selected sarees for the other daughters.Kanthi’s saree was more expensive than all the others.
A special relationship too was with his second granddaughter Sadia.I reproduce what she wrote.
“He loved to put his dark arm against mine and tell me we were the same colour.We were.
He called me Podi Sriyani.( Loku Sriyani was his daughter).
He was a wonderfully patient and loving grandfather.He had a warm hug which made you feel loved and how I loved sitting on his lap.It felt like a very safe place to be.
He had a twinkle in his eye and always wore his hat.He had good taste and style.I had a feeling that he had some great stories to share ,but that I was too young to hear them…
He was magic.I still miss that magic.”
SAW was large hearted and munificent primarily to but not exclusively to his village ,villagers and less affluent relatives. A monk told us how ,even Beatrice was not aware of the monthly emoluments he dispensed to the needy.
The Diyapattugama junior school,now named S.A.Welgama junior school was given a large assembly hall.He built a new Stupa at the Ovitigala temple;Kanthi and I joined in this meritorious deed by gifting the “Chuda Manikya” the large crystal placed at its very top.Electricity was provided to the shrine and its environs.The Bodhi tree in the temple (the prathana ,i.e supplication,Bodhi) was brought by him from Bodhgaya.
After his passing away Beatrice built a maternity home in his memory in the village of Wettawe.This had been a cherished ambition of his.His own mother is said to have succumbed at childbirth,and he wanted the impoverished women of his village to have easy access to modern medical facilities.
SAW of course provided employment to hundreds of villagers at his establishments.
In retirement he indulged in travel which he had long denied himself.He wanted to ” walk where he had never been and wonder at the beauty of this world”Kanthi and I were lucky that we were able to host him in Britain and also in USA.The long morning walks,the coach trips and the sundowners ,while the ladies cooked supper ,brought us closer in a way not conceivable before.He revelled in the sights and history of UK Germany and Switzerland and also Disneyland and Hawaii.One of the highlights was his visit to the Mercedes factory in Stuttgart.The automated production of his favourite cars enthralled him.Caravans enticed him,as did the miniature trains he rode in a fun park in Newcastle upon Tyne.He did not care much for shopping ,although Mother and Kanthi dragged him along,and grumble that he had become a ‘nattambi’,a carrier of goods.I feel however he secretly enjoyed seeing Beatrice buying apparel and wares unavailable in Ceylon at that time of austerity.For him ,all he wanted was a couple of hats.
The beauty of the Lake District,the Black Forest and Switzerland and the ancient cities of London Edinburgh and Freiburg fascinated him.
He was indeed a man for all seasons.
We rejoice in a life lived to the fullest and that we were blessed to be touched by this great man.
Emeritus Consultant Cardiologist
The Townsville University Hospital.
I acknowledge the help of Ven Suriyagoda Siri Dhamma,Nimal and Mahinda Welgama and Sadia Samarasinghe.
Some thoughts on Geneva
I was saddened by the events in Geneva having thought we were a popular country and our people well thought of internationally.To think that only 11 countries supported us in Geneva was indeed a cause for alarm and distress. Maybe the want us to take a step back and think of how to make Sri Lanka a better place.
Reams have been written about this resolution by erudite men and women. There is a common theme running through all of this: the UNHCR is against us; the western countries have ganged up against us. I beg to disagree.
Let us look at this resolution dispassionately. The high commisioner has made note of the very things we ourselves don’t like about recent happenings in our country. Did we want all Muslim Covid dead to be cremated? No. Once the WHO okay was given, we all agreed that religious customs may be followed.
Did we want our civil administration to be invaded by the military? No. Our civil adminitrtion is not the world’s best but we have no great issues over that. A military presence has not resulted in a marked improvement either. The public service meanders lazily as of yore.
As for killing of prisoners, what happened in Mahara is unfortunate. Surely there must be other ways of dealing with rioting prisoners than killing them? There are other pitfalls we could have avoided had we been less arrogant and a little more submissive. After all we are in UNHCR on our own volition
Our political leaders are very visible in the Buddhist scene, frequenting temples, prostrating themselves before Bodhi trees and participating in Buddhist rituals. All that is well and good. At the same time I wish they would embrace the Dasa Raja Dharma edict on governance of King Asoka. We will then have fewer problems with the likes of UNHRC.
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