Sailing down the sea of reminiscence | Sunday Observer

Sailing down the sea of reminiscence

The couple after years of married life
The couple after years of married life

Some say, age is simply a number. Being able to reflect on a fruitful life would indeed be a great reward. On an assignment to Jaffna I met a retired Naval officer now residing at Uduvil.

We traversed the long road towards Marathanamadam and reached Uduvil town. The heat of the noonday sun was intense. After a short drive on a sandy stretch, we reached a house with a large open verandah. Seated on a wheel-chair was a gentleman with grey hair. “Good afternoon, please come in,” he said in a voice that resonated with military experience. His wife greeted us with an unassuming smile.

Maylu George Kanagaratnam is a man who had seen the victories and vicissitudes of life. At 83 years, he is the oldest living sailor in the Northern Province. He recalled his days as a robust young man, “I was born in Uduvil and had my primary education at Mann English School, where I sat my SSC (Senior School Certificate) exam. I learnt Sinhalese from a kind bhikkhu Ven. Panyananda Thera, and then decided to go to Colombo, as my brother, a policeman, was serving in Negombo at that time. I found a job as Assistant Manager, at the Regal cinema.

“I enjoyed reading the Sunday Observer at that time, and still do. I used to drop in at the General Post Office, and one day I saw a notice in the gazette calling for staff to join the Royal Ceylon Navy. I applied immediately and was enlisted in June 1957. My Navy number was XS1767”.

His granddaughter then walked in with a tray of chilled cordial. The old sailor continued with zest, “We had to undergo a tough training. The drill instructors were Anglo-Indian men. The officer in charge, Lt. Commander Henricus was a man who desired perfection. After six months of training I underwent another three months training learning Naval administration. My first posting was to Navy Head-quarters. In those days the Chief of the Navy was known as the Captain. My first salary was Rs. 72 of which I had to pay a rental of Rs 30 for my lodging at Slave Island. But food was reasonably cheap those days. Subsequently, we were sent to Trincomalee for sea training. This was a wonderful experience.

I was posted to the battleship RCYN Gajabahu. During this era the Navy had three vessels in her fleet, the other two were Mahasena and Vijaya. Our vessel was commanded by an Anglo-Indian named Captain Murray”.

The handsome young sailor attracted many Tamil girls. He fell in love with 23-year-old Pushpamalar and married her at Uduvil Church on March 16, 1963, when he was 27. By this time Kanagaratnam was popularly known in the naval fraternity as ‘Kennedy.’ His skills in the English, Tamil and Sinhalese languages caught the attention of the then Navy Commander, Rear Admiral Kadirgamar, who gave him a new posting as translator - which required him to work at the Immigration desk of the Colombo Harbour. The seaman said: “By now we had two children a son and a daughter. I wanted a transfer to the Karainagar Naval Base, but Rear Admiral Kadirgamar refused my request twice, citing my language competency and kept me in Colombo. He finally acceded to my request. Unfortunately, in 1968 while I was at the SLNS Gemunu Navy Camp (Welisara) I suffered a heart attack. This came as a surprise, as I was quite a fit and healthy person.

By this time we had another daughter. Again in 1974 I had a second heart attack which was rather serious. I was sad when I had to go before a medical board and was discharged from the Navy on a system known as, SNLR- service no longer required. This was a shock to me and I was forced to return to Uduvil after many years. My village had changed and it was hard to find employment.”

Kanagaratnam never imagined that Sri Lanka would be torn apart by an ethnic conflict. He reminisced, “This was a dark chapter for us. There were three other retired colleagues from the Navy. We had to abandon our home and were displaced for six months. I lost my Navy certificates and documents which plunged me deeper into sorrow. But life went on and we survived.

Finally, we returned home. I am thankful for my Navy pension. During 2017 President Maithripala Sirisena met us at an event in Polonnaruwa and appreciated our services.” He paused to sip some water, and pointed to a framed photograph of him with the present Navy Commander Vice Admiral Piyal de Silva. Overwhelmed with emotion he said, “This Commander found us,” he remembered us. He visited the Northern Naval Command (Karainagar) and organised a lunch for us. We will cherish this day forever. The care shown by Admiral de Silva was a great boost to my morale.”

Finally it was time to bid farewell to this valiant sailor. He gripped my hand and said, “Son, my days are numbered. My final wish is to be buried in Navy uniform, when I die.

My village and the young men must witness the dignity and decorum of Naval service. The Navy was my life. Love your country. For me it was always duty first”.

As the Naval Petty Officer and I exited, George Kanagaratnam held up his feeble right hand in a saluting gesture, with loyalty and pride.

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