Experience of a lifetime | Sunday Observer

Experience of a lifetime

11 April, 2021

My name is Maximin Indrajith Perera, an Associate Physician, working in England, with three daughters. My wife also works for the National Health Service. Throughout my life, I have found myself surprising. As a young boy in the town of Katuneriya, I would never have thought I would be where I am now.  

 So, let’s start from the beginning.   

 Elizabeth, a nurse, and Joseph, a police officer were living in Colombo, Kalubowila, when they had me, their first child, in 1968. But moving away from Colombo the year after, it was Katuneriya that I called home, moving to live with my grandparents and aunt Annie. This was where I grew up, in a small house, with a smallholding in the garden housing chickens from which we would get our eggs, pigs and bulls. 

I would not change my childhood for anything, growing up in an age where there were no electronic devices apart from the family radio. The day would last as long as the sun would stay up, with no light bulbs, only Crocin lamps to light the table at dinner.

I spent my days playing with other children in the village, getting into trouble, collecting fruit from the woods, swimming in the river and finding anything that made me happy.  


 Every now and then, I would go to the paddy field with my Grandad, a man I looked up to and still do – a jack-of-all-trades, who set the standard for the kind of person I wanted to be. He carved wood, fished using a net and treated me like any good grandad should.

I still remember laughing as I rode his shoulders all the way to the river and back, feeling like I was on top of the world. On a good day, we’d end the day with a basket of fish that he had caught but let me present with a huge smile and extreme pride to my Grandma. She would smile back and cook the best curry in the world out of the fish we caught. 

To this day, I am 52 years old, have travelled around so many countries, stayed in five star hotels but still have never tasted any cooking better than hers.  

 With my Grandad keeping me adventuring and my grandma keeping me fed, I grew into a fit and bright young boy, finding myself as a cub scout, passing the Grade 5 scholarship examination, dedicating myself to being an altar boy in the church. I led the children’s society in the church. That was when I found my first ambition in life: to be a priest. As you can probably tell by now, I quickly changed my mind. 

 In 1980, I started secondary school in Joseph Vaz College.

At this point, my parents had moved to Katuneriya, where we lived as a family, with my younger brother, Jagath, born two years after me, my Uncle Sarath, also two years younger than me, who grew up like a second brother to me and my adopted sister Suneetha.   

 Our home quickly became everyone’s home, our garden doubled as a badminton court, our kitchen became the hub for my friends, Jagath’s friends, Sarath’s friends, our living room became a boys’ club. We would spend days playing, shouting and laughing.  As a pupil, I can’t say I was the shining star, but always pulled through, finding more joy in being a scout and Army cadet, even playing hockey.

Eventually, my passion for becoming a priest faded, in year 10, deciding that Medicine would be the route for me. Quickly, I realised my academic performance might not be able to match this ambition, turning my heart, instead, to following the footsteps of my dad and his dad before him – to become a police officer.    With that admiration for the forces already in mind, in 1986, when the Science Exhibition came around, I and two friends decided to set our hopes high, building a light aircraft in a CTB workshop using scrap aluminium, taking the engine from a 150cc motorcycle for power.

Test pilot

Whether you call it reckless or brave, I took it upon myself to be the test pilot for our grand creation, confident that with our youthful determination and the sureness that flying was a ‘learn-as-you-go kind of skill, nothing could go wrong.

Sadly, to my extreme disappointment, the battle that was raging on at the time, meant that airspace was restricted (unless I wanted to be shot out of the air).

Looking back now, with 35 years more wisdom, I realise this was probably for the best and would only have ended in a disaster.  

 A/levels came along. As I said, I was bright, but found more appeal in being outside of the classroom than being in it, getting good grades, but not what was needed for Medical School.

Though I was accepted to one in India, the cost meant that I would have to leave my dreams of being a Doctor behind. So, a police officer it was, just like the men in the family before me. There I stood, having passed my interview with flying colours. With my father’s credentials and many contacts backing me, I knew I was ready to embark on the next stage of my life.  I would carry on the Perera legacy. Then, I was told the news thatI was half an inch too short.  

Next check

I was crushed. No matter how many stretches I did, no matter how long I hung upside down, the half an inch remained half an inch. And no matter how many people my Dad spoke to, height was one of those things that are hard to overlook. And even if the interviewers were to turn a blind eye, what then? What about the next check?  

 Convinced by my mum, I let this dream go reluctantly. The next option? Nursing training. I wasn’t happy with it honestly. But she told me: ‘just try it for two years. If you hate, it you can leave.’  

 I did it. But only to make her happy, joining the Kurunegala nursing training school in 1988. She was right, I didn’t hate it, finding myself new, lifelong friends and enjoying freedom away from home.    But deep down, I still didn’t feel like I was on the path.

I wanted to join the Army. At that time, I felt that I would do a better service to the country by fighting the battle against terrorism rather than treating the ill. Reflecting on this, I couldn’t disagree more. It was my youth and pride that spoke back then, the desire to be like my Dad, to put on a uniform to have the authority and respect I always saw him get from anyone in the village who saw him.

Now, I understand the importance of healthcare, the impact on society and I put on my uniform and stethoscope every day with the same pride that an Officer puts on his beret and booths.  

 Anyway, I stuck with nursing training. My life could have been very different if I hadn’t. I didn’t only find an interest in anatomy and medicine at college, but I also found the person who would go on to become my partner for life. As you can tell, I loved to get stuck in everything and became the first student rep.

Nursing college

Spending my time organising events, I quickly became well-known and even popular by the college students. Since this was a nursing college in the 80s, the student body was dominated by girls.

As a young man, I wasn’t too upset about the attention- it was refreshing after leaving a high school for boys. I liked it so much that I even took a guitar to college, wearing the case on my back, feeling like a Rockstar and failing to tell anyone that I had no idea how to play the guitar!  

 Among the students at college, there was one that really caught my attention- a pretty but proud girl who kept her uniform white and clean and arrived on a moped every day. She was quiet but I could see that she had a kind heart and was actually the sister to one of my closest friend’s wife. I had already heard good things about her.

She wasn’t like the other girls who fell for my fake guitar skills or my loud jokes or my boyish (slightly arrogant) attitude and turned her head at my advances. But I didn’t give up. She told me she needed time to think. We ran in the same circles and would go on the same trips with the cohort and, over time, we became good friends. And, with even more time, her pride melted away and she became my lifelong companion.   

 We graduated in 1991 and so began the next stage of my life. In Colombo, I had my first experience of being a fully qualified nurse, working in the National Hospital’s Neurosurgery unit, while also completing a Diploma in English at Aquinas College. I was thrown into nursing headfirst and saw, first-hand, the impact that the battle against terrorism was having on the soldiers and civilians, treating everything from head to spinal injuries.

For a lot of people, seeing the awful consequences of the battle, the extreme pain that these people were in, would have frightened them. But seeing these civilians harmed by the war only fuelled my desire to join the army. I wasn’t scared, I was determined. Maybe it was naïve, but I knew that I could help.

I wanted to protect the people being hurt by a battle that they had no say in and get back at the people who were doing this.    It was on August 8, 1992, I remember, the then Army Chief Denzil Kobbekaduwa had been airlifted out of Jaffna to the National Hospital, Colombo, where I worked, following a landmine blast. He suffered fatal injuries and was pronounced dead in hospital. I had enough. I couldn’t sit around and just observe this anymore. I had to be in the action, I had to help.  

Joining the Army

 I decided to join the Army and completed the application within the day. There was no time to think about it any longer. Two interviews (commissioned board) and a fitness test later, I was an Officer Cadet. Finally, I felt like I was on the path that I was destined to be on. My parents, concerned about my safety, didn’t feel the same.

But I had a supportive girlfriend and a passion to serve the public, so I didn’t let that stop me.    In December 1992, my Officer Cadet journey begins. I slogged my way through Officer training at the Military Academy, which was possibly the most physically challenging year of my life.

Training to join the Army is probably exactly what you’d expect: waking up at dawn, running for longer than any human should ever be running, polishing shoes until they were shinier than any diamond you could buy from a jewellery shop, being shouted at by men with big moustaches and even bigger feelings of authority.

It wasn’t easy, but I made it. So, in July 1993, I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army pioneer Corps. 

  The life of an officer was something I quickly fell in love with. After a year of training, where the trainers were actually paid to treat the recruits like dirt, graduating with the pip felt better than anything I could ever imagine. Being saluted, being called ‘sir’, being respected, was like a dream come true.

There was even a part of me that was happy when I saw soldiers get nervous when I came into the room, wanting to make sure everything was to the standard of their Platoon Commander. During my brief military career, I was appointed as an officer instructor in Maduru Oya Army training school, detachment commander and was posted to Operation Rivirasa.

 Another perk of being an Army Officer is the Ceremonial Wedding that came with it. In May 1996, I married the girl that I fell in love with within the nursing college all of those years ago, holding hands as we walked down the aisle, lined, not with flowers, but with rows of my fellow officers, swords raised above our heads. With my new wife beside me, her hand over mine as we cut the cake with my Ceremonial Sword, I saw the happy life that was ahead of us. 

My military life was full of great, as well as sad, memories. I learnt so much from it. I realised that the sky is the limit, that I could do anything I put my mind to. It was in the training that I turned from a boy to a man, to a soldier, to an officer. I learnt how to go into strategising and survive with the bare minimum, how to go into a battle with confidence. I gained a family in my platoon and my colleagues and learnt, too soon, how to cope with losing one of them.  

Losing best friend

You never think it will happen to you, but things become a lot more real when you see the dangers of war, first-hand. My best friend, killed in action. This was painful in ways I do not have the words to express, even more, painful when I was given the role of commanding the parade, with deep sorrow but a brave face, as my duty required. 

I almost made it to the end of the parade and was handing over his medals when his sister hugged me, crying my name. I couldn’t take it anymore. In full uniform, I fell to pieces, the realisation hitting me fully. He was gone.  

 More than anything, being in the Army taught me the value of life, seeing it drop away around me, even the lives of the LTTE fighters, who, often, did not choose the terrorist path, forced into it by others or by the idea of earning money to feed their family. We should remember them as young Sri Lankans, mislead and trapped in brutal LTTE terrorism, along with our brave soldiers on Remembrance Day. What they did was not right, it was not just, but you would have to be blind to say that everything the Army did was right. Warfare is messy. Each life is not a number but somebody’s son, daughter, sibling, aunty and friend. 

 My wife, Kumari, had different dreams, bigger dreams, her eyes set on travelling from the homeland. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t happy; we had so much here, we had it all set out for us, with a nicely paved road to good money, good food, a nice house, respect and authority. I could see us having children, who would grow up with soldiers as mentors.

 But she had her own plans, getting a nursing job in Oman and going, whether I liked it or not.

As I said, she wasn’t like some of the others at college, which was why she caught my eye in the first place. She had her own ambitions and dreams. And who was I to tell her no? She wouldn’t have listened even if I did- and trust me, I tried.  

Travelling to Oman

 In February 1997, I resigned from my commission. I hang up the beret and travel to Oman to be reunited with Kumari. Looking back, this was one of the best decisions of my life. There are certain points in a person’s life that shape their life, that completely transform the way their future will be. This was one of them.

Without my wife, I wouldn’t be where I am now and, even though I was upset, even angry about it then, today I see that moment and I don’t regret it in the slightest. I would make the same decision again and again and again, because the life I have now is worth 100 times more than a salute or an officer’s accommodation.  

 So, back to nursing for me. In the months leading up to joining Kumari in Oman, I re-joined the National Hospital, working in the neurosurgical theatre, simultaneously lecturing in a few private nursing trainings.   

Then the time came to leave the country that I called home for Oman, where finding a job was difficult. I can’t think of a bigger contrast to my life as an officer from being in command of a platoon, having soldiers salute me as I walked into a room, to being a farm labourer. My life had gone from shiny boots and polished rifles, to picking potatoes in 40 Celsius temperatures. It wasn’t easy but I did it, knowing that this was just a step on the way to finding a job I truly enjoyed. 

 Finally, I said goodbye to the farm, finding a job as, first a Factory Safety Officer and then as a Staff Nurse in Sohar Hospital.   Clearly, my brief stint as a farmhand influenced me more than I would’ve thought, because, moving into a small villa, with a reasonably-sized garden, I began planting my own vegetables. Our life really was looking up- a house, good jobs, fresh vegetables to feed us and, most importantly, our first child.   

In March 18, 1998, I didn’t know an hour could take so long, until that day.

My wife in the operating theatre, undergoing her planned caesarean section, I spent the longest 60 minutes of my life pacing outside the theatre, sweating with nerves or excitement or both.   

We called her Vimukthi. She was beautiful. After a couple of days in an incubator, she was finally allowed to come home with us and so began the next chapter of our lives. 


 Without the help of our own parents, it was difficult to navigate these new waters, all while trying to make a living for our new family. But we were lucky enough to have a kind nanny who made our life easier. In fact, more than easier, our life was great. Oman really was and still is, a beautiful country. Looking back, there is so much to love about it.

The bustling markets, the delicious food, the culture of giving and welcoming, the friendliest, warmest people you’ll meet and the beautiful, clean street. The hospitals were state of the arc and the scenery and architecture would take your breath away. But Omanisation meant that our jobs would never be permanent- we were just placeholders until a national citizen was qualified to take that job.    We did what we had to do and we set our eyes further.  

 To England

 Like most things in our life, it took hard work to get to where we wanted to go. We had hope, but more than that, we had determination.

We surrounded ourselves in the English Language, set on the idea that we had to improve our skills so that we would be able to tackle the interviews with as little accent as possible.

You would walk into our little villa and be immediately attacked by the sound of BBC World News which would play every hour of every day in the background.

We spent every minute not working, reading, writing, applying and reapplying to jobs.    We failed many times. But we only needed one success. In 2001, I got what I wanted- a stable job and a full UKCC membership.   Settling, first, in Ipswich, I started my course, eventually joined by Kumari in November. 

We wanted to set down some roots before bringing a baby into the picture, so left Vicky with my parents in Sri Lanka.

I joined Torbay Hospital with my wife and started building our new life in Torquay- where we have lived ever since, bringing our daughter to join us.