TRIBUTES | Sunday Observer


Prof Carlo Fonseka:

The humane healer

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

Prof Fonseka recites the prologue of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography from memory. My every trip home over the last 25 years included a visit to Prof Fonseka’s. If my father is the hero of my universe, Prof Fonseka was his. ‘Mekane Gamini…’ he would start in his unhurried, soothing voice. ‘May horu tika…’ he would lament about the state of affairs in the country. The conversation would move from politics to poetry and from medicine to mindfulness. It invariably left us fascinated and filled with awe.

“Putha, when you come next, please bring me the book ‘A Pocket Popper’ by David Miller”, he requests. Several books are neatly arranged on his writing desk. I recognise some of them: ‘What the Buddha Taught’ by Ven. Walpola Rahula, ‘A Guide to Alternative Medicine’ by Donald Law, ‘Prisoners of Geography’ by Tim Marshall, ‘The ECG in Practice’ by Johan Hampton and Hamlet. These are not gathering dust on a shelf. He is reading or re-reading all of them at 86.

He inquires about the latest research in my own specialty. He is interested in how an MRI scanner works and when you would use one instead of a CT. He is curious about the impact artificial intelligence will have on health care.

The first time I met him was on a trip to Hambantota 40 years ago. He and my father were on a speaking tour organised by my late uncle W G Mitraratne, a civil servant attached to the Department of Social Services. Our families shared a VW Kombi van and have enjoyed a treasured friendship ever since. I remember his generosity of spirit and his ability to make even a small child feel valued and appreciated.

The van broke down along the way. We were in the middle of no-where and the nearest garage was several miles away. A passer-by, who happened to be the village headman, stopped to help and recognised Prof Fonseka by his name. This was in the early eighties, before even television was widespread. Even then his name and fame had reached the farthest corners of the land. We were invited to the headman’s house and were well looked after while the van was being repaired.

I had recurrent debilitating joint pains as a child. My father, then a young assistant lecturer, sought the advice of Prof Fonseka, the only doctor he knew personally. I remember climbing up the steps to his office at the Colombo Medical School with my father. Prof Fonseka would listen attentively to the history, examine me and write a letter to a specialist colleague. We were among the thousands he helped, always free of charge. My parents’ love and respect for him must have been a strong subconscious influence in my own ultimate choice of career.

Once I was admitted to the Lady Ridgeway hospital with a sports injury. My father was overseas and my mother was stricken with grief. Prof Fonseka allayed her fears, but had told my uncle that he was concerned. I was in a lot of pain. This was made worse by my legs extending beyond the end of the bed as I was tall for my age. After Prof Fonseka’s visit, a longer bed was wheeled in from somewhere. While I cannot recall any treatment I received, I vividly remember the sense of relief I felt. In hindsight, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from this. Even if they forget the treatments we give, our patients will always remember how we make them feel.

It is ironic that in an era where we can offer more than ever to our patients in the way of prevention, treatment and cures, they are increasingly disappointed with the medical profession. In spite of the modern medical armamentarium, an essential ingredient in medial care has been neglected.

To many patients that essential ingredient is compassion. Our neglect of humanities in the pursuit of scientific knowledge is partly to blame. The other cause is, to paraphrase Prof Fonseka, our embracing of the secular religion of consumerism and hedonism. Having never followed this sect and being the embodiment of compassionate care, Prof Fonseka remains an inspiration to many medical practitioners.

When I visited him in January, he gave me what is now one of my most prized possessions. It was a beautifully illustrated copy of the ‘Rubaiyat’. It was a gift to him from an old acquaintance, who had written the following on the inside cover: “In remembrance of the happy hours spent with Old Khayyam”.

Like me, there are many who found the time spent in his company immensely rewarding and memorable. One was left with the feeling of having been in the presence of true greatness.

The great physician William Osler, who died 100 years ago, wrote: “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head”. Osler believed that knowledge of the science of medicine must be supplemented by familiarity with the Humanities. Prof Fonseka’s command of the Humanities that shines through his poetry, lyrics and prose made him the ideal humane healer.

The last time I saw him was three weeks before he passed away. He was in the Coronary Care Unit at the National Hospital and was sleeping comfortably when I visited. It felt as if everyone looking after him considered it a great privilege to do so. As I was about to leave, the physician on duty asked me to wait saying Prof Fonseka might wake up momentarily. When he did, he recognised me and the usual beaming smile returned. He asked after my father and apologised for not being present at my friend Dr Duminda Handapangoda’s recent book launch. Just before I left he said “Putha, when you come next time, please bring me the book ‘Deep Medicine’ by Eric Topol.”

True to his socialist ideals till the very last, Prof Fonseka asked to be dressed in a simple red shirt on his final journey. At his request, the ceremony was devoid of rituals and pageantry. The simplicity and humility that embodied his life adorned his death.

Prof Fonseka continued quoting Russell from memory:

“Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be.

“I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer. This has been my life. I have found it worth living and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.” How true these words are of Bertrand Russell, and of Prof Carlo Fonseka.

Dr Udara Kularatne

Ranjith Weeraratne:

An indefatigable character

Those who are born with abilities superior to those of their peers are accepted as geniuses. They are very rare. One such great man was Ranjith Weeraratne whose life was snuffed at a time his service war needed for learners of English Literature. He passed away on August 9, 2019. For youngsters who had a thirst to learn English Literature in the original-setting, Ranjith Weeraratne was the erudite.

Born to a family of great repute in Maharagama, Ranjith started his career as an English Trained Specialist. He was talented enough to secure promotions and retired as a Senior Director of Education. He graduated with honours from the University of Colombo and took to teaching. He then got a scholarship to the University of Manchester, UK to obtain his M.A. in Education. His thesis was recognised as the best submitted by a foreign scholar.

I first met him at Hunupitiya Gangarama where he was assigned Lecturer, English Literature. He became the most popular lecturer in the English Unit. His flow of the language kept students mesmerised. He never carried notes with him to class yet delivered his stuff in such a way that students did not need to take down notes. He was a perfect disciplinarian. In his teaching career, he never forgot to touch the ideals of Thomas Gray in the poem, Elegy Written On a Country Churchyard. Rudyard Kipling’s If was another poem appreciated by him. His criticisms on poems made students gain confidence in studying poetry. Poems of Wordsworth and Shakespeare were his treasure.

He was simple, modest, diligent, devoted and dedicated to his task. His humbleness in thought, word and deed, adherence to truth, respect for others’ views are factors to be appreciated. He leaves behind his beloved-wife, two daughters and son. May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!

Dharma Kaviraj

Lt. Col. T M Rajudin:

Philanthropist who served the Malay Community

Lt. Col. T.M. Rajudin, popularly known as Tony Rajudin passed away on September 13, 2019 at his home in Hokandara and was buried the following day at the Kuppiawatte Muslim Burial Grounds. He was 82 years old.

Tony and my late father Tony Sourjah were cousins. During my childhood, my father spoke highly of his cousin, who was then serving in the Ceylon Light Infantry Regiment of the Army. When I joined the Police Department in 1979 and was first posted to the Northern Province, in the Vavuniya Police Division. Father said I might run into uncle Tony Rajudin, who was serving further north in the Jaffna Peninsula. My curiosity was stirred to meet this uncle, but our paths never crossed during our duty stints.

In 1979 I was sent on a short stint as Acting OIC of Mankulam Police, as its OIC was on leave. During my stay in Mankulam, the station master of the Mankulam railway station complained of intimidation and alleged assault against his staff by a few members of the Mankulam Army Detachment and was threatening to resort to strike if action was not taken. I immediately informed my superiors and commenced investigations. I had to enlist Army assistance to complete the task. Before the investigation was completed, I had to report back to my permanent station, Vavuniya. Later, I learned that the Army too had commenced its own inquiry and the inquiry officer was my uncle Tony, who had come to Mankulam from Jaffna for the inquiry two days after I reported back to Vavuniya. It was much later when Uncle Tony and I met at a family occasion in 1997.

Rajudin was a past Secretary General of the Malay umbrella body known as Sri Lanka Malay Confederation - SLAMAC. He joined several Malay regional associations to help. His Association with Kumpulan Malayu Battaramulla – Malay Association Battaramulla, is of special significance, as it was inaugurated at the suggestion of my father. I convened the inaugural meeting in 2000 at our home in Battaramulla.

He made me join the Sri Lanka Indonesia Friendship Association, where I served as Secretary and Vice President. In 2013, SLIFA appointed him Chairman and a Coordinator to the 2nd Congress of Indonesian Diaspora held in Jakarta in August 2013. Rajudin, Anura Perera – Exco member and I as Secretary of the SLIFA represented Sri Lanka at the congress.

He was a philanthropist. During the Ramadan fast, he was in the forefront of many charitable acts. He was well versed in the Holy Quran and demonstrated deep knowledge of Islam. He was also an active member of the Zikr Majlis (meditation circle), of the Battaramulla Jumma Mosque, which is led by Al Haj. T R S Marjan. May Allah grant him Jannathul Fridouse!

Wazir Sourjah