Remembering Ray Wijewardene


At a time when society in general has reason to be disappointed with those who go as leaders among them,  one is struck by the avalanche of tributes that continues to flow on the demise of one of Sri Lanka’s most remarkable sons – Ray Wijewardene.   I heard of him when a friend of mine bought his house near the Town Hall in the early 1970s – that I visited several times thereafter.  To learn of a fellow countryman piloting a plane – the construction of much of his –  by his own hands was something that caused a flow of adrenaline in my own nationalistic genes at a time I was beginning to travel the world in the quest of my commercial career. Almost two decades later , I gained proximity to him. I was in the Board of Directors of a State body -  graced by  his presence and strengthened for a long time through  his enormous knowledge and experience. I knew my place in that Board as a green-horn and chose to remain as one settling more to listen and learn. When the few occasions that came by when my own views were sought in matters of commerce, world trade and so on I expressed mine.  He watched me on occasions would engage in courteous conversation with me. I saw a man of much learning, social charm, culture and breeding (if I may) and virtually giving the word versatility a new face.  He could talk of many things with a degree of above-average knowledge but did so without appearing to be condescending. He did not try to dominate the meetings and spoke only on occasion – and when he did, they remain akin to those cast in stone. Came a document for Board approval for an official to visit Europe at a cost of over half a million rupees (a huge sum 20 years ago).

Ray exploded, "Why and where is he going. If we approve this will we get a return on investment? He’s already 54. How much can he impart of what he learns and knows to his younger colleagues?"  The would-be sponsor was baffled and was mumbling in retreat.  Ray then came out with his knock-out blow assuring us he had studied the paper all too well "He went to …costing… but there is little evidence we have benefited by that visit"  said Ray –  unruffled.  That Board Paper was never presented again.  In one stroke, the country was saved of  un-necessary expenditure and other negatives in the process one need not elaborate upon.  This, one gathers as you read from the press, is daily fare now.  Many a times later  I was left to wonder if we had more men like Ray the country would have seen its State institutions run efficiently, gross corruption and waste checked and the reputation of State bodies enhanced by the inclusion of able and learned men – an era since the preserve of square pegs in round holes.

The next occasion I ran onto him was in 2006 when one of his daughters – a talented lady of the arts  of world recognition – presented to Colombo audiences an incredibly beautiful and moving art-photographic exhibition promoting peace and reconciliation. Its acceptance was heralded by the fact some of Colombo leading foreign banks and corporates enthusiastically came out as sponsors. As I heard other guests remark it was one of the most effective exercises in our effort to regain our lost  tranquillity and equilibrium. I was fortunate to find myself  enriched by the event  largely because my daughter, then living in Mumbai, had come down to make her own contribution.

Cambridge, Harvard, Aeronautics, Agricultural engineering, flying, Olympic sailing, Varsity Don and chief, Inventor, Planter are merely a few of his enormous persona.  Despite all of this,  he remained a simple man moving with the high and low with equal charm and ease.  Aldous Huxley will find fault with me "Is that all?"   Or in the streets of New York – not unfamiliar territory to this much travelled man – one would hear in what would be quintessential  young American "Man! Is he real?"  

Goodbye, Ray, as you fly to that great beyond. You lived for us all – to make our lives better.

A. Kandappah

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