It was one of those phone calls that one would always remember, the shock it generates pervades all through a lifetime. On Monday 17 August 2009, I received a phone call from my mother, a teacher at Gateway International School, Kandy. In a deeply tormented but extremely strong, poised tone, and keeping her calm to the fullest, she said to me that at around 6.30 pm Sri Lankan time that day, my father, aged sixty-nine, passed away in a hospital in Kandy. She was there until the last minute, and saw him release his last breath, after thirty-three years of marriage.
A senior manager at the Bank of Ceylon, my father retired from BoC almost ten years ago. He was one of the kindest and most good-hearted individuals I have ever met, and will ever meet. Hailing from a rural household in the mountains of central Sri Lanka, he was a man who made his way to the island’s national bank through education and hard work. One memory of him that I will never forget was his deep affection towards less well-off segments of society. He never forgot his humble beginnings. Anyone who would come to him was a recipient of his kindness, and of his strong keenness to help people in need. He was also a man who led the simplest of lives. While other BoC officials of his level lived in architect-designed sumptuous houses and drove luxury cars, he never bothered about a fancy house, a fancy car or fancy anything. Until he passed away, he lived in a small house in Medamahanuwara, a village that lies 34 kilometres from Kandy city. He was never an ambitious individual. Having met my mother late in life, he had only one child, who, for purposes of education, had been away from him during the last few years of his life.
Another key factor about my late father was his love of scholarship. Despite the lack of a formal graduate education, he remained a constant learner, an apprenant perpétuel. Taking courses in Tamil, German and many other subjects, he was also an avid reader, with subscriptions to many local and international magazines and newspapers. During the twenty odd years spent in his house, I had access to all Sunday newspapers in Sinhala and English and to hundreds of books of Sinhala and English writing. He was an extremely discreet man of few words. As I write this in the thick of the night, I am reminded of a father who was hardly ever angry at me, who would give LKR 500 if I asked for a hundred, who ushered in a great deal of affection to all living beings around him. Over the last few months, brief phone conversations were marked by how sad he felt about the thousands of ‘our own people’ in internment camps. A man who always wanted to live in his country, who dropped down several opportunities to relocate abroad, he was a strong patriot. Nevertheless, he always believed that in Sri Lanka, we are all one people, and that ethnic, religious and racial differences were of no importance. That was the backdrop in which I grew up: Sinhala and Buddhist, open to the world and patriotic, while taking pride in the diversity of our society. Not a single word of abuse towards Tamils or Muslims would be tolerated in the Weerawardhana household.
A few weeks ago, ailing, he came to the phone to talk to me. It was the dead of the night in SL time, and as it often happened, I had woken him up from a deep sleep. After several short answers to my questions about his health, and despite being sleepy and weak, he still took a minute to ask about my work. When I said that I am writing a paper on devolution, he said, in a pale voice, that Sri Lanka needs ‘more devolution’. When I added that a political solution has to be based on mutual respect, devoid of the logic of ‘imposing’ one on the ethnic minorities by the ethnic majority, he endorsed that with an emphatic éeka nam etthamai (‘that is very true’). In hindsight (and now that I will never ever talk to him again) it occurs to me that my interest in peace research and conflict regulation has its origins in the years spent growing up under him.
That was my last proper conversation with him. Thereafter, I never got a chance to talk to him. Almost a week ago, my mother passed on the phone to him for a minute. His voice was thoroughly unclear, and he sounded very tearful. For the first time in my life, I heard the voice of a feeble father, not the lively voice I was accustomed to right from those earliest memories of life.
In a society where ‘brainwashing’ the members of the ethnic majority with a nationalist and ethno-supremacist discourse is the norm, my only hope tonight is that there be millions of fathers who think like him about being Sri Lankan. He will be sorely missed, and not having seen him in a good few years, it is extremely challenging to come to terms with the reality that I will never see him again, not in this life. If reincarnation exists at all, I heartily wish to be his son in my next life.