22 April 2014

He sang a few songs fought the good fight

He was quiet, most times.  Courteous but quiet.  The only time he was not quiet was when he sang.  The man could sing. And sing and sing.  He could not be stopped and he would not stop.  He sang long after the alcohol was consumed and after the alcohol had consumed the consumers.  Late into the night.  I was one of the privileged few who sat with ‘Witha’ and sang along when the song was familiar or just listened.  He had his favorites.  That list he would go through but in the interim he would add voice to render listenable the songs that others liked but could not really sing,  He knew all the songs of Milton Perera and he knew dozens of hits from Hindi movies. 

Dayawansa Withanachchi, however, was not just songs and good company.  He was a tireless worker.  He took on additional responsibilities without a murmur of protest and delivered to the best of his ability.  He was a tower of strength to the sports desk of The Nation, handling the re-cast on Saturday nights and also subbing the sports pages during an experiment with a daily e-paper that lasted for more than a year.  Coincidentally, that exercise was abandoned around the same time that Witha fell ill. 

‘What to do boss, this is how it is,’ he told me when I called him the moment I heard that he was diagnosed with cancer.  What could I say but wish him courage and full recovery?  I told him he had no reason to regret anything in this life and that he has no control over the effects of what he had done or not done in previous lifetimes.  He laughed and agreed.  He was a man of reason. 

He was a cheerful colleague. He didn’t joke around, but would laugh the good laugh.  He never spoke ill of anyone, never judged.  He accepted people as they were.  Pasan Indrachapa, a young man who has known him for only two years, put it best perhaps: ‘eya thamai mata hamuvunu hondama kenaa’ (he is the best person I’ve ever met). Few at The Nation, where Witha worked until he was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago, would disagree.

Witha lived through his illness the way he’s lived his life.  There was a certain degree of acceptance but this was coupled with great courage and will do give it his best shot. Even during his last days he had said that once he comes out of hospital he would write about the things he had observed. 
Death may have been lurking somewhere at the back of his mind, but he never fully acknowledged its presence.  Through the considerable pain and the unhappy and frequent changes of address (Soysapura Flats and Maharagama Cancer Hospital), Witha struggled on.  He read about his illness, ate whatever he was given even though he had lost his appetite and took whatever miracle medicine his family brought for him.  He was courteous, cheerful and grateful whenever someone visited or called him.  He kept his pains private and as he always did spread whatever good news he was privileged to disseminate.  He made people smile.

I first met him when he was working as a ‘Reader’ at The Island.  He joined The Nation a few months after the newspaper was launched and not long after I had left.  When I rejoined in October 2011 Witha was still here. He hadn’t changed at all. Not in appearance or in his ways.  It was hard to think of him in lesser conditions and this is probably why many who were fond of him, including myself, did not visit him in hospital.  But there was no holding back of affection or concern.  Some prayed for his recovery, some conducted a bodhi pooja invoking blessings. Only he would have known how these things affected him.  He was appreciative. 

His neighbors loved him.  They didn’t want his remains to be kept in a funeral parlor.  They insisted that he returns one final time to his humble home at Soyzapura Flats. They will miss him. 
My last conversation with him was on April 14, 2014.  This was just after the traditional partaking of kiribath.  He was the first person I called to wish.  I wished that this year would be the year of recovery and a return to the folds of The Nation family.  He sounded weak but there was enough ‘bubble’ in his voice.  I could see him smiling.  That was it.  A few hours later his condition deteriorated dramatically.  The following morning he was gone.

He hasn’t been around these offices in the last three months.  The work didn’t stop.  It won’t stop now that he’s no more.  There’s a voice that’s missing, nevertheless. It was the sweetest voice, I am willing to wager, that The Nation has ever known.  It will sing again, I am sure.  In a much better place too, considering the life he has lived, among us all and elsewhere. 




Ravi Nagahawatte said...

well written Malinda. It brought out the Vitha we knew. May he rest in peace.

Nilooka Dissanayake said...

What a lovely tribute. You brought to life someone I have never known. May he attain Nibbhana! Please share this tribute with his family too.

samiddha rathnayake said...

A worthy tribute to the most humble man I had met at The Nation during my stay there. We all would miss him dearly....