About twenty five years ago a young graduate from the University of Peradeniya got a teaching appointment in Dutuwewa, which is close to Galenbindunuwewa in the Anuradhapura District. Rangawadi Gedara Wickramasuriya is not from Dutuwewa. He’s from a small village called Kotaligoda close to Menikdivela in the district of Kandy.
Wickramasuriya, ‘Wicky’ to his university friends, was an alumnus of Peradeniya Maha Vidyalaya, Wicky was a Stubbs Shield boxer. There is no boxing in our universities. Wicky, although of small stature, took up the sport of weight-lifting and was awarded university colors for his efforts. He read Geography for his degree.
Quiet by nature, Wicky had reasons to keep to himself. His younger brother was abducted, tortured and killed during the bloody days at the end of the 1980s. It is only on the rare occasions he had a drink that Wicky would express himself without reservation. I have seen him ‘erupt’ on one of these occasions.
It was at a party given by one of our batch-mates to celebrate her wedding. As was usually the case, the boys got to singing. At one point, they sang Pundit Amaradeva’s ‘Sasara Vasana Thuru’ (‘While on the sansaric journey…’). Just after we sang the line, pin ketha hela ran derane yali upadinnata hethu vasanaa vevaa (may I be blessed enough to be reborn on this sacred and golden land, the Island of Hela), Wicky gave out a full throated scream. He pushed everyone away, ran to a corner of the room, and beating his chest exclaimed, eth me hela derane mama nam aye ipadenne naha (I, however, will not be reborn on this land, ever).
Then he sobbed: ‘Un mage mallita dasa vada deela maruve!’ (they murdered my little brother after subjecting him to untold torture!).
Tragedy followed tragedy. A few years later, another brother, also younger to him, committed suicide over a love affair gone sour. Wicky had to come all the way from Dutuwewa. I am not sure if he was told the whole truth. I was already there when Wicky arrived. I saw the look of absolute anguish on his face.
Wicky taught in Dutuwewa until 2001. He was later transferred to a school closer to his ancestral home. Today, married with two children, he’s close to retirement and teaches at the Danture Madya Maha Vidyalaya, not too far from Menikdivela.
Almost twenty years later, I visited him. Again, a funeral, that of his father. He was not distraught. Perhaps, he’s suffered too much for there to be an outpouring of grief or perhaps it was an expected death given the old man’s age. He was upset however that he hadn’t come to see his father on the day he died.
All this is back-story. Here’s the story.
It was close to midnight when I got to Kotaligoda, with a couple of our batch-mates. We followed the white flags. We found the typical funeral scene. Quiet. Lights. Some people playing carrom, some playing cards. There was betel and areca nut. Mostly neighbors. Most of Wicky’s closest university friends had come as had his colleagues; some had left and some remained.
Nothing unusual there. What was unusual was that there were 15 teachers who had come in a van all the way from Dutuwewa, close to Galenbindunuwewa, in the District of Anuradhapura. They weren’t however people who had been on the same teaching staff. They were his students who had gone on to become teachers and had, every single one of them, decided to teach in schools close to their village, some in the very school that Wicky had taught them.
They had heard about the funeral. They had remembered a man who had shared his knowledge with them. They came all the way to share a moment of sorrow with a man they hadn’t seen in 18 years. Wicky must have been some teacher!
Such things happen in our country which has known so much tragedy. There are people like Rangawadi Gedara Wickramasuriya who, in retrospect, were forced to suffer the greater tragedy of surviving and who, regardless of all the terrible bludgeoning, gave unstintingly and beyond the call of duty.
I have never asked Wicky about that ‘sansaric decision’ and neither has any of our friends. We try to steer the conversation clear from those tragedies. All I know is that I am with Amaradeva (and of course Mahagama Sekera) on this and I want Wicky with me, in this ’Hela Derana’ and in whatever forms we may take in the lifetimes to come.
This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [February 19, 2020]