By W A Wijewardena –
The man unburied
Not many soldiers have written about their experience about the 30-year-long disastrous war in Sri Lanka. One exception was General Kamal Gunaratna who has penned a couple of books on the war giving his personal experience in not only how it was done but also how strategies were designed to reach a decisive conclusion. The excuse given by many soldiers is that it is traumatic to relive in those fearful experiences which are best to be left forgotten forever, especially after its risk is no more. Hence, there is a mental as well as physical barrier to make up the mind to recount the same. But this barrier has now been effectively broken by another field soldier, Brigadier Ranjan Wijedasa, who has penned his experiences as an autobiography in Sinhala.
The title of the book, Mihidan Novu Minisa, or The Man Unburied, tells us the full story. This should be followed by other soldiers with experience to create a rich war literature on an era which is being forgotten fast by many. I recall General Kamal Gunaratna inviting all soldiers to follow Wijedasa when he addressed the a
udience at the book launch the other day.
Losing a limb
Why this unusual title to the book? Wijedasa whose left arm from the shoulder blades has been robbed by gruesome war has explained it in the preface as follows: “On many occasions when I pass by the Colombo cemetery, I get the chilling memory that some parts of my body have been buried under that undisturbed earth. This is a good example to demonstrate the impermanence of life. When we realise that this body which we care for by cleaning, adorning, and loving should one day be buried in this earth, we do not get the feeling that we should cause pain to some other person. Hence, when I pass this cemetery, my good right hand spontaneously starts rubbing my lifeless prosthetic arm” (Translation mine).
The general feeling among many is that soldiers, armed to the teeth, are heartless species ever ready to pull the triggers. Yet soldiers are also people with hearts, as observed by Wijedasa. He has told us in black and white that anybody who feels that life is impermanent should think twice before choosing to inflict pain on another. This is a message which we all should take seriously because it has come from a man who has suffered from enormous pain himself.
Futility of repenting over past losses
Wijedasa’s life as a soldier as well as a human being has been guided by one principle. That is, not to repent over the spilt milk in the past. Instead, one should cultivate the habit of keeping on trying until one reaches one’s goal. One should not be a burden to the mother earth which holds his weight without any complaint. He has reminded us of the Chinese saying that a successful man should have accomplished three tasks: fathering a son, writing a book, and planting a tree. Wijedasa has accomplished all these tasks. Hence, he is contented about what and who he is today. He invites all those who are not happy about their past to read his autobiography. I also share this view with him.
According to him, the best way to succeed in life is to use the disasters which a person would have in his life as points of learning for a better future. In this sense, one’s stupidity is one’s best teacher. This reminds us of the common saying that there are no disasters but new opportunities for action. For a soldier of tenacity of purpose and tough determination, it is certainly true.
Equanimity at the highest level
I do not claim that Wijedasa’s life is unique and there are no others who have been to the traumatic experiences which he had gone through. But there is a uniqueness, because Wijedasa has looked at them with a total equanimous, impartial, and blame-free mind. There had been many who had done him good as well as bad things. An ordinary person might love the first category, while hating the latter. But Wijedasa stands above them. He treats both categories with the same sympathy and empathy. However, he has been a soldier of principles. He has on numerous occasions fought with his superiors whenever his boys have been ill-treated. Sometimes, he has done this at the risk of disciplinary action being taken against him. But he has not repented about the stand he has taken.
Human side of soldiers
Wijedasa has talked about the poor facilities afforded to soldiers: “There is a proverb that ‘Prisoners are also human beings’. But it seems that there is a tendency to forget that soldiers are also human beings. It is important to keep them happy and motivate them properly to get the best out of them. That is because they are fully exhausted after doing an invaluable service to the nation. There are many methods to improve their courage. Among them, the most important are providing them with an adequate and nutritious diet, clean and pure water facilities, comfortable accommodation, facilities for sports and entertainment that will make their life in camps happy and enjoyable. This should have been the top priority of the high command in the army.
Further, they should be given leave facilities to enable them to see their loved ones. If it is not possible for any reason, an efficient machinery for them to communicate with them either by telephone or by mail should be established. In the Punareen camp, none of these facilities had been provided to them, let alone the senior officers. Hence, it is not unnatural that many soldiers may choose to desert the camp” (Translation mine).
Wijedasa has been born to be a soldier. His father had served the army as a commissioned officer. Then followed his elder brother who also joined the army after the school. Wijedasa who had been a school cadet had developed the mentality to be a soldier after seeing both the father and the elder brother in military uniforms. The young mind always develops desire and curiosity for things that are around him. This is true for Wijedasa too. So, he joined the army as a cadet and was trained in the army’s prestigious training camp at Diyathalawa. One of the instructors at the training camp was his elder brother who did not show any mercy to him. When it came to task accomplishments, or punishments for failures, there was not any brotherly sympathy for him.
At that time, Wijedasa was angry at his brother. But in hindsight now, he praises his elder brother for making the tough man he is today, a requirement for a good soldier. This is what he says about his brother: “My brother was the officer charged with the task of examining our uniforms. He examined me more thoroughly than others. I was subject to his hawkish eye examination from head to feet. That examination was so thorough that he was able to find some defect in my uniform every day. I was asked to announce those defects in my uniform aloud. Then, I had to spend the whole of my lunch time in accomplishing the punishment tasks which he imposed on me in performing various drills in the ground” (Translation mine).
His brother knew very well if Wijedasa was to succeed as a soldier in the future, he should develop the needed discipline in him. There was no compromise for that need. Says Wijedasa: “As a trainee soldier, I could learn an important lesson for my future life. That was, a soldier should follow military rules and disciplinary requirements without exception. In that respect, there was no place for personal friendships or relationships. That was how the two brothers who had come to this world by sharing the same womb and who had played together as kids became two unknown people when it came to observing discipline in the army.”
But does this mean that a soldier is pure objective without emotions or sentimental values. No, according to the life story presented to us by Wijedasa. Calling love is the medicine for exhaustion, he was yearning to see his lover while under training at Diyathalawa. On the passing-out day, he was highly thrilled to see his father adorning him with a star on the uniform. The warning given to him by his father after performing his duty was also an expression of fatherly love: “Don’t smear excreta on this star by robbing money from the army.”
Whenever someone died in the war zone, he was deeply aggrieved. He had loved his war tanks so deeply that when one was destroyed by an enemy landmine, he was subject to heavy pain of mind for days as if a family member had died. Wijedasa has put to words his deep sorrow, pain of mind and grief over these losses as follows: “In the war, soldiers, tanks, and planes that we lost had given us protection and support until they lost life. Hence, when these inanimate things had to sacrifice themselves, it was natural for us to feel that we had lost one of our war-mates” (Translation mine).
In another instance, he has clarified this feeling more elaboratively: “A war tank may be a heap of iron and steel for you. But we treated a tank as a mate made of blood and flesh who recognises our heart beats properly” (Translation mine). The amazing attribute of this soldier was that he was a good lover, husband, and father. These are not objective treatments, but emotionally guided sentiments. Hence, the saying that within every tough soldier, there is a gentleman living unseen has been proven by Wijedasa.
Using Sinhala proverbs expertly
When I read Wijedasa’s autobiography, I felt like reading Dharmasena Thera’s Saddharma Ratnavaliya. That was because he had used Sinhala proverbs so expertly that his message is driven to our hearts very cogently. Some of the examples are the following: “Don’t ask whether cotton wool remain intact in a house where iron has been burnt”, “From a bed of flowers, it is the most beautiful flower that is plucked”, “It was like a man facing threats of three deaths savouring a honey comb”, “The arm was lost not by cutting jackfruits but for fighting for the country”, “The night is longer for the man who cannot sleep”, “It is only the disrobed who know the tricks of the robed” (Translation mine)
A soldier turned academic
Wijedasa is a soldier who has lost a part of his body due to the war. Yet the war could not suppress his mental power. With one arm and a set of dentures fixed to his jaws in his re-shaped face, he began his work back at the army. He has shown that once a soldier is always a soldier. Still in his military uniforms, he has begun to serve the nation as an academic. He is a trainer, lecturer, and an instructor at the newly formed National Defence College. He enjoys his new work as he had enjoyed his past tough soldier’s life. But as I mentioned earlier, there is a lover, father, and husband living within him.
This is how Wijedasa has explained that side of his life: “I got my second birth after my wife ‘Ruchie’ joined my life. She never let me bear the burden of family life. She was a strong force behind my engaged life. My loving two children too supported my busy military life sacrificing most of the things they would have got. Whenever I got the opportunity, I turned myself into the role of the loving husband. It was my fortune that I got the opportunity to play both these roles successfully” (Translation mine).
A book for posterity
As General Kamal Gunaratna said it at the book launch ceremony, Wijedasa had done a great service to posterity by sharing his war experiences with them. It is easy and pleasant reading. The reader does not get bored after he starts reading it. The language and presentation style will compel him to finish it at a stretch. That was how I read the book. I am sure that others also who are set to read his autobiography will do the same.
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com