Dr P R Anthonis – Obituary appreciation

Dr P R Anthonis’ 99th birthday anniversary fell recently. He was so universally known and revered that it should not surprise anyone that a mere engineer could claim to have known this distinguished surgeon so well as to write a humble tribute to his memory on this occasion. Moreover, this Tribute is different, as my acquaintance with this unique personality goes back to the early 1940’s when he was a medical officer in Avissawella where my father was Station Master or SM. It was not unusual in those distant colonial days for public servants in the ‘outstations’ to get to know each other in a social way, without too much class distinction of rank or title. For example the Post Master or PM and the SM knew the DMO and the DMA, and in the case of Dr Anthonis, the reputation of the brilliant Medical Officer was a cause for pride among all the government servants in Avissawella. Everyone knew that this young doctor was destined for greater achievements than serving as a medical officer in a provincial hospital. And when the handsome young surgeon became engaged to the beautiful daughter of a wealthy landowner in Kitulgala it was seen as quite in the natural order of things, and all in Avissawella rejoiced.

Among his other talents, Dr Anthonis had an unique memory for persons, so when in the course of time, my father’s only daughter entered University as a medical student, it was no surprise that the now world renowned surgeon who was her teacher, remembered the Station Master in Avisawella many years ago. Much later, my father having passed away, and my sister having emigrated, circumstances brought me to introduce myself to Dr Anthonis. It was in connection with the proposal to felicitate Mr S Arumugam, former Deputy Director of Irrigation, and Director / General Manager of the Water Resources Board, well known in connection with the project called A River for Jaffna, the Arumugam Plan, which Dr Anthonis knew about. Hence he was especially pleased when President Mahinda Rajapakse gave orders to have this proposal taken up for implementation even before the Vanni was liberated.

Dr Anthonis was very knowledgeable about our ancient irrigation works, and this was common ground between us. Mr Arumugam had been a victim of the civil disturbances in 1983, and had emigrated to London. Dr Anthonis responded immediately to my request for a Message to the Arumugam Felicitation volume, titled Water for People and Nature that I was compiling. His Message included the following:

‘The Arumugams were residing at Polhengoda at the time of the tragic reprisal against our Tamil brothers in 1983, with curfew declared. My wife asked the Inspector of Police, Cinnamon Gardens to fetch them and any others. The house was found to be empty. On inquiry from a Mr Fernando in the opposite house, the Inspector was told that the Arumugams were seen walking out in the morning. My wife not being satisfied, told the Inspector to tell Mr Fernando that it was Dr and Mrs Anthonis who had sent him, and that they were to stay with us. The Inspector went once again to convey this message. Mr Fernando had then produced both of them from a little passage inside his garage, and they were happily kept with us upstairs in our house for a few months before they were able to join their children in London’.

Dr Anthonis was the head of the Reserve Police at the time, with the rank of Superintendent of Police, which was why he could ask the Inspector in charge of Cinnamon Gardens police station to do his bidding. Mr Arumugam had a wonderful 90th birthday celebration in London on 31 August 1995 at which I was present and made a formal presentation of a pre-publication bound copy of the Arumugam Felicitation volume to him. He in turn gave me an autographed copy of his Water Resources of Ceylon. When I returned to Sri Lanka and showed Dr Anthonis this book with its inscription, he was really pleased, and he hoped that the Arumugam Felicitation volume would be published soon.

Sadly, this was not to be because the Institution of Engineers decided not to support it, and I had to find other ways and means to have it published. Dr Anthonis was very disappointed since he had written a tribute to Mr Arumugam who he knew well. He had described how he had known Mr Arumugam’s brother-in-law Dr Suppiah, as a batchmate in medical school. He wrote:

‘Every year I would take two weeks off – one week was spent in Jaffna, with Dr Suppiah – they had no children. Wherever they were transferred we used to visit them and stay for at least 5-6 days, ourselves, my brother-in-law and mother. Our intimacy erased off any inconveniences. In the course of time, Mrs Arumugam, who had a very young family of several children, both boys and girls, succumbed to a neo-plasm, too advanced, though I operated on her a year earlier, leaving Arumugam a widower. Dr Suppiah… succumbed to a liver disease. My wife who flew to Jaffna was at his bedside with his wife Thiraviam when he breathed his last. …. As time passed Arumugam found the arrangement for looking after his young family was too heavy with his official commitments, the children being neglected …… I suggested a second marriage and strongly suggested that Thiraviam his widowed sister-in-law and already known to his children would be ideal….. This turned out to be a very successful union to both Arumugam and children, their aunt looking after them, and the family progressed very happily without any step children.

Arumugam was a very pleasant person, peace-loving – never irritated anyone. He possessed a very analytical mind and always as a habit he would think out before answering any question, so that his judgment rarely went wrong. In 1969 he produced his classic book "Water Resources of Ceylon", as extremely valued as R L Brohier’s Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon’.

Mr Arumugam passed away on March 15 2000, and I was able to publish the book only as a Commemoration volume. Dr Anthonis was the obvious choice for the Chief Guest at the book launch, but this too was not to be because the launch was fixed for July 15 2003 to suit Mr Arumugam’s children, Engineer Thiru Arumugam and Dr Vimala Gunasingham who came all the way from Australia to grace the occasion. And, on this day, Dr Anthonis was already committed to be Chief Guest at the Inauguration of the new College of Surgeons!

A concluding anecdote - Dr Anthonis truly rejoiced when Jayantha Dhanapala became President of the international Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and I organized a Workshop on Learning from Ancient Hydraulic Civilizations to Combat Climate Change, in his honour. Among my cherished mementos is a hand-written letter from Dr Anthonis thanking me for the two volumes, the Dhanapala Felicitation volume and the Proceedings of the Pugwash Workshop. He wrote:

"I read with great interest the tempestuous lives of great Physicists in theorotical Nuclear Physics. The terrible lives they have led amongst other humans and nations, and their sad and empty family lives. When one goes through these two volumes, then only one can admire the great unsurpassed Wisdom of Lord Buddha’s silence when questioned about these matters……..

Thank you dear Mendis for your two magnificent volumes. With your physical disabilities I cannot think of anyone else in our country of your ilk. Kindest regards and deep respects to Mrs Mendis who is looking after you – Her great contribution in Sansara".

I treasure his memory. May he attain Nibbana.

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