by Carlo Fonseka
On his 1st Death Anniversary on 7th Jan. 2008
It was common knowledge that my contemporary in
the Colombo Medical School, future psychiatrist Cuda Wijeyeratne,
son of Sir E. A. P Wijeyeratne (former cabinet minister and
later ambassador), had two formidable elder brothers. One was
Tissa, the irrepressible Communist. The other was the
resourceful, high flying, nationalistic Nissanka. Born on 14
June 1924, Nissanka became a civil servant in 1954, a cabinet
minister in 1978, an ambassador in 1990, and he died on 7
It was in February 1988 that I got to know Dr.
Nissanka Wijeyeratne personally. On 16 February 1988, a member
of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna called Lionel Ranasinghe,
repeatedly pulled the trigger of the gun from which came the
five shots that killed Vijaya Kumaratunga on the spot. Vijaya
was a nephew of mine and because we were close allies in the
Left Movement in this country at that time, there was reason to
believe that I was myself a marked man of the old JVP. Dr. NW
was the Minister of Justice in the UNP government of the time of
which I was a vitriolic and relentless critic. That, however,
did not prevent Dr. NW from paying me an unexpected, unsolicited
midnight visit and offering sympathy and protection from the JVP.
Ever after we became close friends.
His midnight visit and all the rest of it had to
do with my sonís friendship with his school buddy Lankesh. As it
happened, Nagarjuna Lankeshwara Wijeyeratne, the lawyer, was the
son of Nissanka and Nita Wijeyeratne. (The others, namely,
former Diyawadana Nilame, Neranjan; current cabinet minister
Manodha, entrepreneur and provincial politician Anuradha and the
one and only personable and favourite daughter Nishangani, I got
to know in due course.)
Truth to tell, it was Lankesh that I was most
fond of among all the Wijeyeratnes. One of the tragedies of my
life occurred when Lankesh suddenly died at the age of 36 in
2002. The year before he died for some reason that defies reason
(mine at any rate) Lankesh resolved to celebrate his fatherís
77th birthday publicly and grandly. His intention was to give
Nissanka as a stunning surprise. As a virtual member of their
family, I was recruited as a fellow conspirator and we hatched
the plot which went according to plan. For the occasion Lankesh
had collected into one handsome volume titled Appey Appachchi
some 130 of the poems written from time to time by the
Nissanka Wijeyeratne and published in newspapers under the
initials "NW". They dealt with about almost everything
under the sun.
At the surprise birthday celebration NW
said: "A personís 77th birthday is not something to make a song
and dance about. My children have conspired to celebrate it in
this grand way because they doubtless believe that I will not
live to see my 80th birthday. You just wait and see. I will
prove them wrong". Alas, as it turned out, it was Lankesh who
did not live to see his fatherís 80th birthday. Lankeshís death
also seemed to kill Nissankaís will to live. He never recovered
from that cruel blow of fate. His 80th birthday came and went in
2004. He vetoed any manner of celebration. I think it was his
deep understanding of Buddhism that enabled him to regain
something of his mental equipoise.
I have just read over again the birthday eulogy
I wrote for him in 2001 at the request of Lankesh. It was
published in The Sunday Island of June 17, 2001. Nissanka
was very pleased with what I wrote about him on that occasion.
Nor can I improve it at this point so I will repeat in this
belated obituary, excerpts from the birthday eulogy I wrote.
"All those who have had the privilege of knowing
Dr. Wijeyeratne will confirm that he is a most amiable, warm,
generous, erudite and caring man of worldly sophistication. He
specialised in history at university and has never stopped
learning it. I immensely enjoy his company because he is such a
vivacious and amusing talker. Suddenly during a conversation,
when his bright eyes begin to twinkle mischievously, a flash of
delicious wit predictably follows. During conversation whenever
historical topics surface Dr. Wijeyaratne will always supply an
obscure albeit illuminating fact to elucidate matters. It was
from him that I learnt that the oratorical skills of
Demosthenes, the greatest orator in ancient Athens could not
save the city state and that he finally poisoned himself So much
for the power of oratory! After learning that from him I gave up
the practice of rehearsing my speeches in front of a mirror.
His interest in men and matters is impersonal,
objective and scholarly. His knowledge is extensive and in some
arrears profound. A few years ago he gifted me with a book
bearing the title "Life of Micropsycoanalysis". The book still
lies unread on my bedside table. I dare not read it.
Dr. NW is also profoundly interested in
religious philosophy. He was Diyawadana Nilame from 1975 to
1985, the highest lay office a Buddhist can attain. Immersed
deeply in the Buddhist tradition and ethos, Dr. NW seems to
regard the major religions of humanity as valid, culturally
conditioned responses to a mysterious transcendent reality. He
can expatiate with equal insight and ease on the Hindu belief
that temporal existence is beginningless and endless; on the
Buddhist belief that there is no eternal Atman or soul; and on
the Jewish, Christian and Muslim belief that the universe began
through the creative fiat of a God Almighty. More than once have
I urged- Dr. NW to write a book on his interpretation of
religion. He hasnít done it so far.
Pundit Jawarharlal Nehru says in the preface to
his "Glimpses of World History" that a busy life full of
political activity had prevented him from writing the book which
had already taken shape in his mind. Only a spell in prison gave
him the chance to put pen to paper. Perhaps Dr. NW should be
sent to prison for the crime of not writing a book on religion.
He may then actually write it.
He is a brilliant versifier as if to the manner
born. At the drop of a hat he, can produce an apt verse to
capture the essence of any character or situation...
Because this is a birthday eulogy, it is not
necessary to record here all the multifarious services
Deshamanya Nissanka Parakrama Wijeyeratne has rendered to our
country and our people. Given his cosmic overview,, his sense of
history and his lucid English style no one is better equipped to
document the life and times of Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne than
Nissanka Wijeyeratne himself."
One year after he passed away, it has to be
reported that he never committed to paper the masses of
historical material which was packed in his fertile brain.
Perhaps it does not matter after all. Having plumbed the depths
of meaning of existence Nissanka seemed to have realised,
especially after the premature death of his loving son Lankesh
that the truth is dukkha and the rest is vanity. At this point
what comes to my mind is Thackerayís verse:
Oh Vanity of Vanities
How wayward the decrees of fate are;
How very weak the very wise
How very small the very great are.