01 April 2014


Ask an American of the United States what association first comes to mind upon hearing ‘Ray’ and some might say ‘Charles’, perhaps less because of the man than the film about the man, such is the nature of things in this Kaliyugaya.  ‘Ray’ is the title of a biographical film focusing on the life of the blind rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles, starring Jamie Fox (as Ray). 

Some might say ‘Ray’ is short for ‘Raymond’.  It is also possible that the respondent might pick one of many definitions of ‘ray’.  One might say, for example, ‘a line of light proceeding from a radiant or reflecting point’, or say ‘it is the syllable naming the second note of any major scale (the ‘English’ equivalent of the ‘Ri’ in North Indian Classical music)’.  Some might say ‘a column of light that emanates from a beacon’.  All correct.  All absolutely inadequate in describing the ‘Ray’ whose life I am contemplating at this moment.  And no, I am not talking about Charles, great man though he was. 

This is not about another Raymond among thousands of Raymonds affectionately called ‘Ray’.  It is about a man called Philip Reyvatha Wijewardene. Another ‘Ray’ among thousands of Rays who is no more but unlike the vast majority of those other thousands left the trace of his passing (but not his name, tellingly) across vast swathes of this island, its geography, its economy, culture and most importantly its future. 

In the early days of this millennium, I wrote a series of articles profiling people who had excelled in their chosen field, tracing their lives and work through anecdotes and achievement as they recollected over 2-3 hours of conversation (Dr. P.R. Anthonis took 7 hours and Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera 6, in two 3 hour sessions on consecutive days).  There were three people I wanted to write about but could not: Gamini Seneviratne and P.A. Kiriwandeniya (both related to me) and Dr. Ray Wijewardena (for reasons of reticence).  Now Dr. Ray is no more.  And yet he’s in so many places and few would ever know. 

In the coming days, people who associated with him closely and professionally would not doubt nutshell his biography. Suffice to say, here, that if certification and titling mean anything, he could have unloaded a lorry-load of papers, IF he was into certificate-collection that is.  If it is about ‘positions held’, they are too numerous to fit into a 1000 word essay.  He was all over the place, all kinds of ministries, authorities, institutions, academic and otherwise, but not in a superficial, number-making, way. He was on committees because he knew what he was talking about and because he didn’t come to pocket a ‘participation honorarium’. He came with ideas.

Someone, somewhere in Sri Lanka is at this very moment using a two wheeled tractor, commonly known as ‘Landmaster eka’.  That was Ray. Being practical. Being patriotic.

He was a root seeker in every sense of the word.  He delved deep, figured out cause, employed knowledge and innovative genius and came up with solutions so simple though profound that they probably left many wondering why they themselves couldn’t have thought of it before.
He was placed fourth in Yachting at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, and won a Silver Medal at the Asian Games in Bangkok.  I didn’t know this, but that too was Ray, enjoying life to the fullest.   He designed and made aircraft and flew that.  I knew this. Yes, that’s also Ray.  Living. 
Dr. Ray understood development. He understood underdevelopment. He knew about globalization.  He knew about dependency.  He knew about inter-dependency. He knew of the worth of self-reliance, its limits and how to push these limits. He knew about food security and how this was tied to independence and sovereignty.  He knew about nutritional needs, good health and well being. He knew about energy, related dependencies and ways out.

He was not the only one of course. Here’s the difference: he spent less time talking about it than doing something about the problem. His work therefore was not about placard-holding or slogan-shouting, but practical, on-the-ground intervention to restore and develop indigenous and sustainable technologies. 

He is known as the Father of Dendro Power, but that’s essentially caricature. His life and work encompassed much more than such power generation projects, vast as they no doubt are.  He was a determined man.  An optimist. A pragmatist.  He got things moving along directions others did not have the eyes to see.  He set out for destinations that others lacked heart to walk towards.

Ray Wijewardena was a patriot. A man who had no quarrel with earth nor with those who desecrated it, a man who went about righting all manner of wrongs, tirelessly, even effortlessly, without malice and most importantly, without branding the things he touched, the things he planted and coaxed into growing with name, telephone number and email address.  He was one of those very rare human beings who does not do business with tomorrow or the good earth.  He lived and how! 

There’s music. It must be Ray.  Somewhere.  Ray Wijewardena, ‘antheming’ his love for this land in the most sustainable manner: the turning of a million little wheels in the manner of regeneration.