Features
DR. Nissanka Parakrama Wijeyeratne

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 January 2007.

Close Friendship

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.)

Lankesh

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.

Birthday Celebration

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.

Birthday Eulogy

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."

Peroration

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.

 

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