No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river,
and he’s not the same man.
December 29th, I was at home relaxing and having some alone time — then COVID consciousness started creeping in. It prompted me to write this panegyric in admiration and to show gratitude to a man who had been an influential person during a crucial time in my life. I have thought of him so many times in the last three decades — but much more recently after reading his son’s amazing words about him which triggered this.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” Alexander Pope famously stated in his poem — an essay on humanity. From a religious vantage point, that means it’s inherent in existence and beyond, not something that manifests itself by attending school, clergy, or voting some perceived saviour into office. How did these unique human blessings come to be? They were provided by men and women with stout hearts, strong beliefs, and stiffer spines, who stood tall and strong together to nurture the ideals of humanity and to defend human values that we teach our children and cherish today. In my case, it was a military officer who brought me that gift.
Humans generally accommodate and acquiesce, with the contrived hope that things will be fine without intervention. The truth is that leaders are born, not made. They are not clones, but all of them share one special personality trait: a passion to lead — and, to be human even when politics gets in the way. Colonel Dudley Fernando was one of those rare men. I used to call him Uncle Fernando. A man who inherently understood that humanity thrives on hope. I met him when I was maybe nine-years-old. He was my father’s friend and my father rented a part of a house from him. Every morning I would see Uncle Fernando draped in his military colours, with shiny shoes, looking sharp and strong as he waited to be picked by his driver to attend his military duties.
Even as a kid, I knew beneath the strong and tough exterior of him beat the warm heart of a lion with infinite humanity. He was a mensch force with a sense of dignity. I have many fond memories of uncle. He was a kind man and a quintessential gentleman. He was so kind to me when I was a young kid. I can still remember his big smile and firm voice. Life was so much fun for me as a kid. Uncle and aunty Swarna had six boys. And, us two in the Ratnavel clan — me and my brother. We used to cause so much chaos by playing cricket, rugby and yes, hide and seek.
As my brother and I were forming our friendship with the Fernando boys over games — he was strengthening his own with his friend, my father, over a few scotches while discussing the current affairs of the country. Tamils and Sinhalese had a respectful relationship — as humans, as Sri Lankans. We humans like to think that all our decisions are purely based on rationality and reason. In reality, a good dose of emotion is always included whether we realize it or not. What transpired after, falls into this category. It has been said that war doesn’t decide who is right, war decides who is left. It is certainly true of this sad epoch in history.
My mother, brother and I lived in the coastal town in the northern tip of the island called Point Pedro — and, my father stayed in Colombo in the South to make a living. From then on, he became a “commuter” father — and, I only saw him few times a year. The war intensified around 1984. By then, I had lost any contact with the Fernando Family. Then 1987 rolled around and ‘Operation Liberation’ was activated — a military offensive carried out by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces to recapture part of the territory in the Jaffna peninsula from the Tamil Tigers — which included my ancestral town, Point Pedro. When the soldiers came to our town — I was arrested along with many of my friends for being 17, while being Tamil, and I was sent to prison.
At a very young age I faced many humiliations in prison. Unspeakable assaults of all kinds. When you are facing death by a thousand cuts — sometimes a machete is mercy. I was hoping for one. I can’t write down how I feel about all this, even after all these years — because they haven’t invented the bloody words for it. So much so, that I used to think death was a kindness, compared to what I was facing. My future was grim — because I was in the infamous Boossa camp, not knowing what the future holds. The treatment they gave us was barbaric. And our courage in rising above it — was remarkable.
While in prison, I was lucky to meet then Defense Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali’s wife Srimani, who came to visit the prison on a charity, media photo-op tour. I managed to get some one-on-one time with her to pass a message on to Uncle Fernando along with his home phone number, 58XXX0. Good thing I never forgot that number. After she left, I remember thinking that she may very well not bother to reach out to him, as she owed me nothing. But, unbeknownst to me, she did. Later I was told when Uncle Fernando got the call from Srimani and she asked him if he knew me - he answered, “He is my son and where is he?”
When uncle Fernando found out I was imprisoned, he immediately drove many hours and showed up to the prison to release me. I had no idea any of this took place. I heard my name being announced via the PA system. Whenever you hear someone’s name in that manner, you never see them ever again. They are either dead or released. So, understandably I was so scared walking towards the entrance.
What I saw when I got to the entrance, was the same man I knew years ago and had forgotten about. So handsomely dressed in his military getup and of course the shiny shoes. His son Sanjaya recently wrote that his father “...practiced the 3 F’s — firmness, fairness and flexibility.” Well his son described him to a tee. I agree. That’s why he showed up. I believe that there is an imperative within humans, all humans, to make a mark. Action is what defines us. Uncle Fernando was always about firm, fair, flexible action. He ultimately knew it’s not what you get or even what you give. It’s what you become.
For a kid who lost all hope in humanity — he represented a flickering spark of humanity in a world that had gone dark. He was the first friendly person I had seen in three months. I immediately ran up to him. He almost kneeled and gave me a big bear hug and said, “Welcome home පුතා (Son).” We both teared up. To know that he did this for me, after his own son Milroy, who was killed in action in the North a few years prior — but, still he helped his friend’s son who was potentially facing the same outcome. A remarkable man. At that very moment I realized — the world is not necessarily a bad place if there are people like him around. His words still echo in my ears — “Welcome home, son.” I still believe that single act of kindness is why I’m alive today. And, to-date, I believe he gave me a second lease on life. I’m indebted to him forever. In my early 50s, as a husband and father — I realize this now more than ever.
He was a patriot who served his country honourably without losing his humanity — while doing so. The great basketball coach John Wooden once noted, “You can't live a perfect day until you do something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” Well — uncle you won that round. I obtained such enormous blessings unknown previously in my life, up to that point. And, it was the soldier with a heart of a lion who protected my freedom at great personal sacrifice of his own. I will never be able to repay you. Maybe I will show similar kindness to someone else who crosses path in my life — so your legacy can live on through my kindness.
It has been said that a man isn’t defined by his enemies. He is defined by his friends. Our relationship is a filigree of a thousand tiny threads woven together by humanity, friendship, and loyalty. Fealty, allegiance and devotion to our family and friends is what binds us together. Sri Lanka’s son said adieu to us in 1989 — after a long, distinguished service to his country and while carrying enormous burden of the premature loss of his first-born son. Heraclitus words are apt to describe uncle, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man."
Well, friend — a big thank you for giving me a second chance by showing humanity to a frightened kid. I will never forget you. Rest well uncle — now, you belong to the ages.
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