While one group of Colombo’s bold and beautiful gathered at the Lakshman Kadirigamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies to listen to a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, protected by riot squads of Police who looked like they would welcome some excitement after almost an year of inaction, another section of Colombo’s bold and beautiful met at the Balmoral Room of the Kingsbury Hotel to celebrate the life of an important Sri Lankan, Deshamanya Vidyajothi Ray Wijewardene, and to present The Ray Award for Innovation 2015. Just before both those events, yet another group, this time a group of Colombo’s intellectuals were at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (ICES) listening to Kumari Jayawardene, Farzana Haniffa, Ahilan Kadirgamar and Vijay Nagaraj with Harini Amarasuriya moderating, reflect on the past ethnic and religious riots, the impact it had on the individual and the collective, and speak about some of the causes and consequences, and explore ‘non-recurrence’. It is not to say that the bold and the beautiful cannot also be intellectual or vice versa, or that those not yet able to let go of colonial apron strings and listening-to-a-spent-Labour-politician may not have preferred to get that feel-good-feeling-vicariously-through-Ray-and-younger-innovators (or vice versa). Just shows what a lot happens in Colombo on a Monday evening in August!
I was at the Balmoral, having missed the ICES event because of a clashing mixture of personal and professional activity. A video clip from an interview Ray had done with Sujatha Jayewardene on Rupavahini in 1990, brought the man back into the room. It was as if he was there with us once more, with that characteristic stammer, and self-deprecating sense of humour. I loved hearing the story of how, at seven years, he decided to fly, using the umbrellas of the Buddhist priests who had come to his grandmother’s house for a dane (almsgiving) as parachutes as he jumped off the first floor balcony, landing repeatedly in the flower beds! This early landing experience was a prelude to other unusual landings made in the aircraft he built, such as on the lawn in front of the Town Hall (with the excuse that he needed to go to the toilet!) or on to Geoffrey Bawa’s roof in Lunuganga.
I got to know (and love) Ray Wijewardene, when I was the Country Director of Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) now called Practical Action, an organization started by Fritz Schumacher of Small is Beautiful fame. Ray was, like Schumacher, a thinker who dared to imagine a different world – and it was to this imagination that we at ITDG looked for inspiration. Ray was a regular participant in all our discussions on renewable energy, alternate means of transport and the like. When I left ITDG to lead the team at the International Forum on Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD) in London, interactions with Ray became less frequent, though I tried to make it a point to meet him on my annual visits to Colombo. Imagine my delight when it was Ray’s name that was drawn from that of many who had responded to a readership questionnaire in IFRTD’s newsletter, Forum News. The draw entitled him to a prepaid flight ticket to South Africa. Ray was delighted that he was able to visit the country (even with the penance of attending an IFRTD meeting as a condition), and in his characteristic old-world gentlemanly style insisted that he treat me and my colleague, Mike Noyes, to a slap up dinner. To Ray, like my dad and others of that generation, chivalry came naturally, and while I do not necessarily bemoan its disappearance, I certainly loved the way it manifested itself so easily in their actions.
I believe Ray was a little bemused how I, a woman, could be so interested in technology – in micro hydro or dendro energy, in alternate means of transport, in labour based road building etc – to head an organization like ITDG. I don’t think I ever let on that my interest was not in the science, the electrics or the mechanics, but in the social aspects of technology development and use – for whom is technology being developed, and by whom. Ray may have twigged this somewhat when he attended a Balancing the Load workshop IFRTD organised in Marawila. Balancing the Load was a programme of research in Asia and Africa , that looked at issues of gender, women and transport. Many of the women participants came from a strong feminist background, and at one point in the workshop deliberations I found Ray and John Diandas (another great in the field of transport) seated dejectedly on a step outside the meeting room, “why do these women hate us (men) so much?” they wanted to know!
I have talked about Ray’s legacy in a previous blog post. The presentations at the Balmoral last evening brought out memories of the man that he was – quick to flare up, but equally quick to apologise, a perfectionist able to learn from (and admit to) his mistakes, a scientist with no inclination towards ‘guru mushtiya’ or for hoarding knowledge but happy to share it with others, a great man who supported rather than patronised young people, a man with a sense of humour and a naughty twinkle in his eye. Ray was not anti-establishment in the sense that some revolutionaries are – but he engaged with the establishment critically, recognizing what many eminent Sri Lankans are still to recognize, that business as usual is no longer viable, that we need to re-imagine our economy, our development in the context of a changing planet. I was really pleased that the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust chose Otara Gunewardene as the Chief Guest, and that her message emphasised the need to respect our natural heritage. I wish that there could have been more people reflecting on Ray than hosting the Blairs, and can only hope that in this changed political environment, Ray’s work will provide a backdrop that will influence the politics and economics of the country he so truly loved.