Features
IN MEMORIAM
by Carlo Fonseka

Having acquired no less than six prestigious medical qualifications MBBS (Ceylon),MRCP (UK), DMJ (Lond) Path, DMJ (Lond) Clin, MDForensic Medicine (Colombo),FRCP (Glasgow)], Professor Chandrasiri Niriella knew far too much medical science not to be acutely aware that he was terminally ill during the last few months of his existence.

For several years he had endured with equanimity the ravages caused by a hidden cancer. Even during that period he conducted his life with unyielding courage and grim determination as though it were a forensic duty. I used to bump into him from time to time at various academic and social gatherings. Every now and then I spoke to him by telephone. It is not all together easy to talk with someone who knows that you know that he knows that you know his death is imminent. So I didn’t talk with him as often as I should have liked to.

Professional Integrity

One occasion I felt impelled to talk to him, however, was in 2003 after he announced his post-mortem verdict on the case of the telegenic, charismatic, reverend Buddhist monk who died during a visit to Russia. Concerning his death conspiracy theories were rife. It was loudly rumored that Christians had somehow — to use a variation of Liza Doolittle’s expressive phrase in My Fair Lady — "done him in". Professor Niriella’s post-mortem demonstrated to the world that the death of the severely diabetic reverend monk was directly related to a huge thrombus (blood clot) in a coronary artery. Prof Niriella’s authoritative and unambiguous verdict defused a highly inflammable situation.

He was under subtle pressure from various quarters to queer the pitch for Christians. He incurred a lot of flak from some misguided nationalists for the verdict he delivered. For my part, I was filled with admiration for the way in which he exercised his professional integrity on that occasion. I phoned him and told him that as one of his old teachers who had contributed a bit to his medical education, I felt proud about the grace he displayed under pressure. Chandrasiri always had the courage of his convictions.

Good bye

One day during the last few months of his life he phoned me to say that he wanted to come and see me to wish me good bye. I knew that of his three brilliant sons (two doctors and one architect) one was in Australia. So I jumped to the conclusion that his medical son in Australia must have persuaded Chandrasiri to come and live his last days with him. But I was completely wrong. Chandrasiri wanted to bury his bones in his motherland. I gradually sensed that what he wanted to do was to bid me farewell forever. I fancied that it was his way of telling me what the fatally poisoned Hamlet told his friend Horatio a little while before he died: "Horatio, I am dead/ Thou livest/ Report me and my cause aright/ To the unsatisfied."

Mathubariya

Knowing the state he was in I told him that I will come to see him in his home at Karapitiya. I did so a few weeks before he died. That visit will remain etched in my memory so long as it lasts. There he was looked after lovingly and tenderly by Chitra his wife. I never cease to be edified and moved by the self sacrificing devotion and goodness inculcated into our wives and mothers by our culture. Chandrasiri, in the fashion of the culture habitually called his wife, not Chitra but "ammi". She certainly fitted the Buddha’s description of a "mathubhariya" — kind and compassionate, protecting Chandrasiri like a mother protecting her son.

I spent several hours with them during that visit. One thing he told me was that before his panchaskhanda disintegrates into its constituent elements, he wanted to see me one last time because he did not believe that we would ever meet again. Over the years he had come to regard me as something of a father confessor. He said that he came to this world without his will; that he will soon leave it against his will; but he was glad to have been in it, and gladder to go before any of those whom he loved including me, went.

I did not know what to say. I remained silent. At that point I was reminded of the way that one of Chandrasiri’s teachers at Thurstan College, Dr. Abraham Kovoor, also stricken with a terminal cancer faced death with total composure. But then Kovoor was 80. Chandrasiri was only 65. My belief that there is no justice in this world was reinforced once again.

Biography

Born in 1940, Chandrasiri was the son of a well-known Ayurvedic physician called Niriellage Premadasa from Kiriella. He became orphaned in early life and was brought up by his mother’s sister in Colombo. Educated at Royal Primary and Thurstan College, he gained entrance to the Colombo Medical Faculty in 1962, the very year I joined the Faculty as a teacher. So I got to know him really well and followed his eventful career with a paternal interest. He graduated MBBS with honors in 1967 and before long chose a university career in forensic medicine as his life’s mission. He began in the University of Peradeniya in 1970. In 1981 he was appointed to the Chair in Forensic Medicine at the University of Ruhuna and served it and the nation until he retired in the fullness of years in 2005.

Productivity

His 35 years in university service were enormously fruitful. In 1989 — the year of murder and mayhem —- when no one was willing to function as the dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Ruhuna University, he volunteered to do so. Soon he was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna and served in that capacity from 1989 to 1995. Despite his numerous teaching, service and administrative duties he regularly published quality work. An early convert to the discipline of modern medical education, he pioneered the introduction of objective methods of assessment in our medical faculties. The year 1988 witnessed the publication of a textbook titled: Medical Evidence and the Role of the Judicial Medical Officer (Forensic Pathologist) in Culpable Homicide. His opus magnus grew out of his professional maturity in 1999. It was titled: Textbook of Clinical Forensic Medicine and Forensic Pathology. A work consisting of 56 chapters, it has come to be regarded as the standard work on the subject written by a Sri Lankan.

International Recognition

Professor Niriella gained international recognition as a forensic expert and was invited to serve on several high-powered international forensic teams. Thus he conducted critical forensic investigations in countries such as Bosnia (1996), Cyprus (1999) and East Timor (2000). He also conducted some much publicized exhumations and identifications in this country, notably at Suriyakanda(1994) and Chemmani, Jafna(1999).

Controversial

Chandrasiri Niriella’s cast of mind was controversial and he did not hesitate to exercise it whenever he felt that he perceived injustice or unfairness in society. By natural inclination he was an anti-establishment man, but as an administrator he was firm and authoritative. His bilingual dexterity, his prestige as a formidable medical personality and his forensic skills made him a redoubtable opponent in debate. Those whom he worsted in debate and in courts of law naturally disliked him, but he enjoyed a wide public esteem.

Preeminent Forensic Scientist

Professor Niriella was an indefatigable and committed popularizer of forensic medicine. He was in great demand as a public lecturer and rarely did he turn down an invitation to speak. He was a prolific writer to the newspapers on forensic subjects. In 1998 he published a collection of 16 short stories titled Nihanda Sakshi. These stories served to illustrate the applications of forensic medicine in the solution of assorted medico-legal problems including crimes. He invited me to speak at the launch of the book (which sold over 6,000 copies). I took the opportunity to assess his position in the field of forensic medicine in our country. My judgment was that he was by far the most distinguished and famous forensic medical scientist that this country has ever produced. That indeed is what he was, and that is how I will always remember my erstwhile pupil. The pity of it is that the pupil predeceased his old teacher.

 

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