Ranjith Wiratunga, my friend and former colleague at the World Bank, passed away last week in Maryland, in the US. A devoted husband and father, he has left behind a wonderful family. Friends and colleagues in Sri Lanka, the US and other parts of the world had great respect for Ranjith, and never failed to acknowledge the contribution he made to the Bank.
I first met Ranjith in 1975, when he came to Dulles International Airport to meet me and my family. We had been corresponding through a mutual friend. We needed a place to stay until we found a house. Ranjith said we were welcome to stay at his home. His wife Christine and their son would be going to London to be with her parents for her second confinement. Ranjith proved a wonderful friend, from our very first meeting. We became so close that he was like the older brother I had never had, and he made me feel like the younger brother that he had never had. My wife would call Christine her “sister-friend”.
In the 35 years I knew Ranjith, I never heard him say a disparaging or hurtful word about anyone. He was a gentleman to the core, and deeply forgiving and religious. We could depend on him for anything. He was very much trusted, appreciated and loved by all who knew him.
As a professional, Ranjith’s work was exceptional. He spent four years in Rome as head of the financial control and disbursements division at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The World Bank was doing IFAD a favour by giving Ranjith leave of absence to get things started at IFAD, which was a young institution at the time. Ranjith was missed in Maryland, but many of us visited the Wiratunga family in Rome on our trips home or when we were in Europe on business.
Ranjith brought to his work the banking experience he had gained from working at the Bank of Ceylon, in Sri Lanka and in London, and from National Westminster Bank, a leading merchant bank in London. His work at the World Bank and IFAD took him to different parts of the world, from Latin America to Asia and to sub-Saharan Africa. He had a great empathy with the poor of the world. He saw it was part of his work to help them.
Ranjith liked to be with people. He would gather a group of friends for dinner or a party at his home. He loved to sing. He had a good voice, and was a natural tenor. We would joke that he could have become a nightclub singer. In fact, he won an amateur singing contest on board a P&O liner travelling to London in the mid-’60s.
He had a great sense of humour. He would say old age and death was a journey, with all of us waiting in the departure lounge until our flight was announced. Ranjith did leave us with great grace, in the arms of his beloved wife Christine and surrounded by his three children and his only sister.
Ranjith fought a hard battle with cancer in his last five years. He faced his illness with grace. I called him our hero, when friends got together to give thanks to God for granting him a fresh lease of life, following three complicated surgeries.
I reminded those gathered on that occasion that every hero had a heroine. In Ranjith’s case, Christine was his heroine. She looked after him with dedication and intelligence, having pointed discussions with his doctors and scouring the internet for the latest advances in cancer research. It was a hard and heroic fight that our friend and his family fought.
We are all blessed to have known and associated with Ranjith. On his departure from this world, we celebrate his life, so full of grace, empathy and compassion. We shall miss him to our dying day.