Posted on February 6th, 2010

Ananda W. P. Guruge

The death of Sri Lanka’s most eminent and renowned and deservingly legendary surgeon, Desamanya Dr. P. R. Anthonis, within days of reaching the hundredth birthday, engulfed thousands of his friends and well-wishers in depths of sorrow. We have all been beneficiaries of his superior talent as a healer and his remarkable generosity and example as a human being. It is but natural, therefore, that praise for and appreciation of his notable services should accompany our heartfelt condolences to his family and relatives.

I consider it my duty as a close friend and admirer of Dr. Anthonis to highlight an aspect of his many-splendored personality, which endeared him to several generations of his associates. He was a man of letters whose love for literature – especially modern Sinhala poetry of all forms – and Sri Lankan history and culture was deep-seated. He read widely and with his remarkable memory could quote appropriately from both classics and folklore.

My first meeting with him has left an indelible memory. It was a time of extreme anxiety for me. The surgeons in Kandy had come to the conclusion that my mother’s life could be saved only by the amputation of her right leg. I was so upset and desolate that my brother-in-law, Dr. Alick A. Jayasinghe, then Acting Director of Health Services, and one-time student of Dr. Anthonis took me early morning one day to his clinic in what was then called Turret Road. The tall, handsome and fair-complexioned doyen of surgeons received us most courteously. By his name and appearance, I took him to be a person of European descent. The two doctors discussed my mother’s case in their medical jargon in which the frequent use of the word “necrosis” conveyed to me the gravity of my mother’s problem. Dr. Jayasinghe was asked to get in touch with the doctors in Kandy.

While he was on the telephone, Dr. Anthonis switched on to Sinhala and asked me, ” Do you really think that the new form of blank verse in Sinhala introduced by G. B. Senanayake has a future?” To say that I was surprised beyond imagination would be an understatement. Why ask me that question? I thought. But he provided the answer. He had read an article I had contributed a few years ago as a student to the Sinhala Society Journal of the University on “Nisades Kavi” (meterless poetry). As we discussed the subject, my admiration for him as a purveyor of knowledge on Sinhala literature grew. His leisure time hobby was the study of Sinhala poetry. The result was instant friendship, which had lasted over five decades. Of course, he saved my mother’s leg and she could walk up to her death thirty years later.

A bigger surprise awaited me when I called on him to thank him. He produced from his drawer a bulky anthology of Sinhala folk poetry which he had compiled over years and neatly hand-written in his own pearl-like letters. He must have read it many times over. He could turn to whatever poem he wanted in seconds. Out meeting which turned out to be a prolonged literary discussion went on well past his time for lunch. I tried to excuse myself and his response to me was in verse:

“Sastre daenagat veda-mahatunta
Gostare naetiveyi  hari  velavata”

(A physician well versed in his knowledge
Never would have his meals in time)

He also recited a series of verses exchanged between his father and maternal grandfather. So poetry was nothing new to the Anthonis family.

How very intensely he had pursued his hobby. I was flattered that he had read and remembered much of my writings on the subject long before we met. Coming to know each other and sharing a common interest in all aspects of the national culture, he proved to be an exceedingly effective motivator for me to pursue my interest in writing. We met quite often. Hardly had he missed any of my TV, radio or public presentations. The day I retired from the Ceylon Civil Service in search of new pastures abroad, he was at the airport to see me off. Even when the plane was late by several hours he would not leave and that was at the height of his career when he was the most sought-after surgeon in the Island.

He had been a most remarkable correspondent whose letters were both newsy and stimulating. His last letter just a few months ago was on aerial vehicles in literature and folklore. He was asking me whether Wariyapola could really mean an airport. Age and professional engagements never dimmed his love and admiration of national literature, history and culture. Many an audience at several book launching ceremonies I have had in Colombo were thrilled to find this outstanding man of science and medicine speaking on literature and history with confidence and insightful mastery.

The day Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was assassinated, Dr. Anthonis came on the national radio to give the nation a medical bulletin on the Prime Minister’s condition. Repeating “Attanagalla” thrice with emotion, he drew the attention of the listeners and proceeded to announce the sad news with parallels in history. His oratory in both English and Sinhala was excellent. His interest in education was life-long. His period of service as the Chancellor of the Colombo University was marked by devotion and involvement. He did not treat his position to be purely ceremonial.

It is such a rare man of manifold talent and dedication that the nation lost with the death of Dr. P. R. Anthonis. May his journey in Samsara be short and may he attain the ultimate bliss of Nibbana.

Ananda W. P. Guruge

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