02 June 2020

Field Officer Jayatilleka Herath

A few young men randomly met at the 'Gemba' Canteen of the Arts Faculty, University of Peradeniya. It was in the early 1990s. They had just completed their final year and were awaiting results. Dreams of revolution shattered in bursts of gunfire and the splashing of blood, and acutely aware of the limitations of strength, individual and collective, they were sober about the future but hadn’t lost their humor.

The immediate post-university period, especially for Arts Faculty students is about finding a job. That’s how the Sunday Observer became a must-buy. And they shared anecdotes about applications and interviews, old ones passed from generation to generation and their own experiences too.

‘I got a temporary job as an RA,’ someone said. That’s ‘Research Assistant.’ In fact that was the first job for many. ‘I’m applying for an FO post,’ another said. That’s ‘Field Officer,’ probably in some NGO. ‘There are vacancies for SOs and SAs,’ someone informed; statistical officer and statistical assistant, respectively.

H.M. Jayathilaka Herath, the Baron Munchaussen of the batch with a considerable reputation for embarrassing his friends with distorted and/or exaggerated narratives of real events, had to have his say: ‘I am now a PFO.’

‘PFO? What’s that?’

Here’s his deadpan response: ‘Paddy Field Officer...machang…pathveema aave ela dige [the appointment [letter] came along the [irrigation] canal.’

It was not the first time he made his friends laugh. He had us in fits from day one and even today, 35 years later, ‘Hera’ or ‘Moona’ as some know him, never fails to raise our spirits. The stories of how he played tricks on friends who hadn’t seen him for years and therefore could not recognize him would make a book. 

Anyway, armed with an honors degree in Economics, he passed the ‘tax officer exam’ and joined the Inland Revenue Department. Not his cup of tea; the man wanted to work directly with people, helping them better their lives. A hands-on job was what he wanted. After a brief stint at Sarvodaya, he joined the Planning Service.

Hera considers his tenure as Director, Divineguma at the Ministry of Economic Development as his best years. ‘It was all about getting people out of the welfare-mentality,’ convincing them that they could do something for themselves. Today, Hera is the Director General, Department of National Community Water Supply. I have seen this tireless public servant help develop hands-on skills of graduate trainees. I know of his work at ‘Divineguma.’ A field officer in every sense of the word.

Hailing from Thumbulla, Nikaweratiya, he now lives in Malkaduwawa, Kurunegala. Forced to be home for a change (he’s spent his entire career criss crossing the length and breadth of the island) and unused to being idle, Hera went outdoors.

He has grown bitter gourd, snake gourd, ladies’ fingers, cucumber, kekiri, mukunuwenna, turnip, spinach, corn, pumpkin, string beans, brinjals and watermelon in a 15 perch plot of land overgrown with weeds belonging to his sister.  Apparently his son Dewmini Deshan Bandara had cleared the land. Hera, his wife Wyanga (Deputy Principal, Sir John Kotelawala Vidyalaya), their son and daughter Thilakshi Nishadi had turned into ‘field officers.’

All this in addition to what they’ve grown in their own garden: six coconut trees, nine pomegranate trees, two guava trees, two each of two varieties of mango and three jambu trees. They had grown ladies’ fingers and brinjals too. ‘Fifteen kilograms of bandakka. We distributed the harvest among those living in this housing scheme,’ he said. Typical of him. He has named the vegetable plot ‘Covid Garden.’ He has to make us laugh. Again, typical of the man.

That’s H.M. Jayathilaka Herath for you, ladies and gentlemen. A field officer. An FO. A special kind of public servant. 

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
When the Government lowered the bar The Theory of Three Chillie Plants The story of an aththamma and an aththa The underside of sequestering Potters, named and unnamed Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten  When the Welikada Prison was razed to the ground 
Looking for the idyllic in dismal times 
Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now  
There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love  
We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete
Vo, Italy: the village that stopped the Coronavirus  
We need 'no-charge' humanity 
The unaffordable, as defined by Nihal Fernando
Liyaashya keeps life alive, by living  Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer