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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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,
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.