It was a voice I had never heard before, but one that belonged to a man who has been a political associate and a staunch friend for almost half my life. It was a call from London, a call I had not anticipated despite certain unhappy truths and was certainly not ready for. I found the voice strangely unfamiliar even though I knew who it was.
‘Krishantha, I am in London. I came here from Geneva. My daughter is not doing too well. The doctors have said they are going to stop medication and that she’s not going to make it.”
Karu Jayasuriya’s voice broke then as he tried to retain his legendary composure. The grief was too much. There was nothing anyone could do. Karu knew this. He said ‘my logical mind says there’s no hope, but my emotional mind is hoping for a miracle.’ There was nothing anyone could do for his younger daughter Indira, who was at that moment breathing her last in the Princess Royal University Hospital near Farnborough, Bromley. Karu has always been there in a moment of crisis; for many people and for me too. The best I could do was to be with Karu during this most tragic moment of his life. And so I immediately left for London.
Indira had been given approximately 24 hours to live, but survived for eight days, defying all logic and astonishing the medical staff of the facility. They said her response was absolutely atypical on all counts. Her father had been there right along, arriving around 5 am and leaving close to midnight on most days. I saw things in that hospital room that were truly unbelievable, things that were unutterably sad and things which told me there was hope for humanity. This is a short account of those eight days. I saw Karu Jayasuriya by his daughter. He held her hand throughout the time he was there. On the other side of the bed was his older daughter Lanka, holding her sister’s other hand, never once leaving the hospital. Every now and then Karu would get up, kiss his little girl and sit down. He would cry softly for a while and then go quiet.
Indira’s husband Martin would arrive and give an account of his day and that of their children to his unconscious wife. He held in his grief. His love was apparent. Clearly they had always been there for each other and were very much in love. I was to learn during those eight days that Indira, until her last moment of consciousness and clarity, had planned everything to the extent that planning was possible: her funeral, the songs she felt should be sung at the weddings of her children, although they were just four and one-and-a-half-years-old and how life after she was gone should be. Meticulous and duty-conscious were the words that came to mind. They invariably brought to mind the ways of her distraught father.
Lanka’s husband, Navin Dissanayake, would come in with their daughters. He consoled her. The love and caring in that room was beyond description. Navin’s girls were probably old enough to know what was happening. They wiped their aunt’s face. I couldn’t help admiring their charm, their caring and the way they conducted themselves. Obviously, Lanka and Navin had brought them up well and I believe something of their maternal grandfather is embedded in their genes. It was the same with Indira’s children. Something told me they were very blessed and special children considering the extraordinary circumstances in which they were born and the incredible courage and humanity of their mother.
Amazingly, throughout this difficult time, Karu never failed to attend to his official duties as much as possible. He answered or returned almost every call he got. Some inquired about his daughter, while others, oblivious to what he was going through, talked business, were it parliamentary issues or matters of the Constitutional Council. Karu never once betrayed, in either voice or word, the immense grief he was suffering. He was cordial, composed and as always, efficient. His face was that of an inconsolable father, his voice was that of a duty-conscious public servant. It was as though his heart and mind were absolutely unconnected. How he managed, I cannot understand, unless it had something to do with his deeply Buddhist upbringing and the quality of equanimity he had cultivated over many years.
From time to time, he would inquire about people around him, whether they had eaten, whether everything was okay. He would even ask me about the situation in the country and despite his emotional state, he went to the extent of inquiring about my family back home and how my wife was managing with the kids without me. He was thankful to the doctors, nurses, medical staff and everyone else who did something, however small, to help his daughter.
I could not think of a worse thing to happen to a father. I just could not fathom how he could be so thoughtful towards a world that had been so unjust to him.
But he thought, imagined, uttered his regrets. His ‘emotional mind’ persuaded him to note Indira’s temperature and tell Lanka, a doctor herself, ‘nangige una vadi vela vage’ (her temperature has gone up’) or ‘nangige una bahala nahane’ (her temperature is not coming down). He worried about Lanka too, whether she had enough rest and was eating well. He made sure he spent time with his grandchildren, Lanka’s as well as Indira’s.
" He held her hand throughout the time he was there. On the other side of the bed was his older daughter Lanka, holding her sister’s other hand, never once leaving the hospital"
Indira survived eight days. Those closest to her were present; her father, sister, brother-in-law, husband, children, nieces, cousins and friends. Even the friendships I saw were extraordinary. Towards the end there was mostly silence except for the soothing chant of pirith.
How she survived for so long and why she had to suffer will always remain a mystery. Indira was a vegan. She lived an unblemished life. She overcame a cancer and thereafter had a child. She was pregnant with her second child when a second cancer was discovered. She postponed treatment because she wanted the baby to have the best chances possible for a healthy life.
She sacrificed much and never complained. She suffered but even in her suffering, celebrated life, or rather the lives of those who were closest to her heart, her husband and their two children. Perhaps Karu would draw an explanation from Buddhism. Perhaps he would tell himself that it was the karmic power one brought into this life that determined how long one lived, how one lived and the quantum and temper of the joys and sorrows that had to be endured.
Lanka perhaps had an inkling of what was happening for at one point, she said gently, ‘thaaththa, nangige athin allagena innakota nangita yanna amaaru athi’ (it might be difficult for her to let go while you hold her hand). She probably felt that the release from the burden of her impossible condition was being held back by love and that love required her family to let go.
Karu’s response was soft and immediate. His ‘logical mind’ and ‘emotional mind’ reconciled their differences. ‘Ehemada loku duwa….ow mata therenava... eth thava poddak allan indala atha arinnada?’ (Is that so…. yes, I understand... but is it alright if I held her hand for just a little while longer?).
He let go. And she let go in return. And in that letting go, they made peace with themselves and one another, I felt. She passed away in the presence of loved ones. Peacefully. The Jayasuriya family was there for each other in their most tragic moment. They faced the entire process with love and dignity. I felt that in some inexplicable way, Indira would have left in peace, knowing that her entire family and all those who cared for her unconditionally were together, strong and united.
I accompanied Karu back to Sri Lanka. I uttered whatever words I felt might help alleviate his sorrow, even though I felt I would fail miserably. And I remembered the voice that came over the phone, the voice from London that I had heard eight days before, the unfamiliar voice of someone who had been like a father to me. It was the voice of a wonderful and utterly distraught father. It is not a voice I want to hear again but I am glad I heard it. It was the voice of an incredible human being. A father to two girls, both beautiful and wonderful, one by his side and one gone beyond the reach of caress, both forever resident in his heart. I am glad I was privileged enough to be by his side for the long, sad and educational eight days in a hospital room.