The 30th of November, 2014 was a Sunday I wish never came. The 29th of November, Saturday, was a long day but not atypical as those who work for Sunday newspaper know. Sunday was therefore a day to sleep late into the morning. Slow recharge of batteries. It was not to be.
Around 5.45 am I received a call. There was only one reason for anyone in the editorial staff of ‘The Nation’ to call me at that hour. So I picked up the phone.
Pushpika, graphic designer, wanted to know where I was.
‘Office,’ I said. Yes, those were days when I spent many nights in my office. Typically Saturdays.
‘Api dan ohata enava (we are coming there now).’
We. So I knew she wasn’t alone. And I knew she was in a three-wheeler.
‘Api Ragamata yanna ona (we need to go to Ragama)’ she continued.
‘Rukshan?’ I asked.
By this time I knew she was in a three-wheeler and I figured out she was not alone.
‘Rukshan nathi vunada (has Rukshan passed away)?’
I sensed it.
He had died the previous night, maybe a short while after we put the paper to bed, so to speak. I wasn’t shocked but that’s not because it was something expected. I was exhausted and not because of a long and tedious Saturday. I was tired and so were we all, i.e. Rukshan Abeywansa’s friends at ‘The Nation.’
Five months earlier Rukshan met with a tragic accident which left him paralyzed neck downwards. We were devastated. We would have been as upset had it been anyone else and would have certainly expended the same efforts to make sure that the best treatment was obtained, I am sure. At the same time I cannot think of anyone who was more loved by one and all not just at ‘The Nation,’ but the entire Rivira Media Corporation (Pvt) Ltd.
Rukshan was the best photojournalist we had. He was adjudged Photojournalist of the Year 2013 while he was in hostpital; his wife Sharm had to collect the award on his behalf and we His photographs lifted the newspaper. He was indefatigable. Never once complained. Always, always smiled.
The hospital bills continued to mount during those long months at Asiri Central Hospital. Almost at the same speed contributions towards meeting these expenses poured in. The entire newspaper fraternity chipped in for Rukshan was known by fellow photojournalists in other newspapers. He was known by others too. Friends asked other friends. Unknown people responded to requests. Kumar De Silva contributed all proceeds from his exhibition ‘Nostalgie.’ In fact he continued to help Rukshan’s family even after Rukshan passed away channelling whatever was earned from subsequent editions of ‘Nostalgia.’
I remember the then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa calling me one morning over something. As was his way he asked me how I was. I told him, in Sinhala, ‘I am ok, but something has happened and I feel absolutely helpless.’ And I told him about Rukshan.
‘Oh my god,’ he said and told me to send him all the details. He released Rs 1.4 million from the President’s Fund. Dian Gomes, a friend, responded to an email almost immediately, asking for the account numbers. He made a substantial contribution.
It may have eased the minds of Rukshan’s family, but then again, we had told them, especially his mother, ‘all you can give and should think about giving is love; we will take care of all other matters.’
Rukshan melted people’s hearts during those months when he was rendered helpless and immobile. When we rushed to the Accident Ward, he wanted to know if Kavinda Vimarshana, who was riding the motorcycle that fateful morning, was alright. Then he asked if he had lost his legs because he had lost all feeling. Then he smiled at me and asked ‘thaaththata kohomada?’ He knew my father hadn’t been too well. He was like that.
About two years before the accident, Rukshan came to my office and said ‘boss, mama vena rassaavak hoyagannada (is it ok if I look for another job)?’ I told him to wait, because we were understaffed and were in the process of putting together a good team of journalists. He smiled and said ‘ok, boss.’ A few months before the accident I called him to my office and told him that it is time he thought of developing his career somewhere else. He smiled and said ‘ok, boss.’
The last time I saw him, he told me that all he wanted was to recover some control over his fingers so that he could use a touchpad and select photographs for an exhibition. He knew that chances of recovery were close to non-existent. He was resigned to this and yet had lost none of his zest for life.
‘Such courage,’ I told myself. As always, I spoke a few words which I felt would offer some comfort and left.
And then came that Sunday. Rukshan, who had been transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Ragama, had passed away. A few days earlier when a friend, who happened to be single, visited him, Rukshan had told him that there are lots of pretty young nurses there. He always found ways to make people smile during those terrible days. And they all cried after leaving his bedside.
And then we tried to find consolation, each in his or her own way. I thought back on all the prayers murmured in all places of religious worship — Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, churches — the blessings, the bodhi poojas etc. We had prayed individually and collectively for Rukshan. We wanted him to heal. He did. Nine years ago I wrote a note:
‘He brought into this world a karmic life expectancy. He paid for ancient sins. He paid all his dues, I am convinced. When the final payment was made, however, the physical body was beyond repair. There was no reason for him to suffer. He left. It was not the ‘escape’ or the ‘healing’ we wanted, but it was freedom nevertheless. Rukshan went well.’
Sunday the 30th of November, 2014. I remember that day clearly, although nine years have passed. Our Nation lost its heartbeat that day. We were left diminished. And since then, almost every single day, I think of Rukshan and hope he is making more tender the regions he travels now, unencumbered by paralysis of any kind.