Ray: The last Renaissance man

By Sunela Jayewardene, Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

There will be many tributes to his soaring intellect and the trail of achievements he leaves behind; the inventor of the hand tractor, the ‘Father of Dendro Power’, the architect of SALT (Sloping Agricultural Land Terracing), the designer of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, the Olympic Sailor… academic extraordinaire! However, beyond the giant, in the quiet conversations and long letters of his twilight years, was the amazing man who called himself my, ‘Uncaray’!

His idol was no less than Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate Renaissance man! On a custom built stand in that wondrous study of his, rested the Works of da Vinci, a massive volume that was often referred and pondered. Not surprisingly, his own multiple interests resulted in experiences and exploits that covered all the bases, and I never ceased to be surprised by how versatile he was! One day we started writing letters…an uncle to a niece, on subjects of common interest (subjects unbearably boring to most others); we exchanged quotations and poems, philosophies and theories and even mathematical formulae…. Revealed by these exchanges, was a man who was intoxicated by knowledge. The very knowledge that allowed humans to become the superior race. In the extracts of the letters I have saved and from the tales I was privy to, perhaps I can hint at the man he was, and the gape of the chasm his absence will leave.

I talked of kayaking down the Mahaweli and he regaled me with the tale of his own adventure down that wide, wild river, in the company of no less than the famously, eccentric Major Raven-Hart! As their kayaks swept on a slow current beneath the Manampitiya Bridge, the locals who had gathered on the bridge were shocked into silence by the man waving madly at them; the curious Major Raven-Hart lying spread-eagled in the kayak, dressed in… absolutely nothing!

I stressed about my daughter Savera’s antics at water polo, and he wrote, ‘I was highly amused by the tale of your daughter who had been ordered out of the pool for ‘rough-play’ … It reminded me when our St Thomas water polo team of some 65 years ago… considered the best in the country until we came up against a team from the Australian navy (that was during WW2) and we didn’t know what hit us!. In five minutes we were struggling, almost drowned, hanging to the edge of the pool.… We then learned what rough play was… and how to use it ourselves without being seen by the referee!’ So, he had been a water polo player too!

Behind his desk, hung a Blow Pipe; once long ago, he had accompanied an anthropologist and Sarawak tribesmen as they pursued a cattle raiding tigress and standing behind a tree he watched the tigress brought down with a poison dart from a mere Blow Pipe. So inspired, he went to the extent of joining a club and learning the rare art of using a Blow Pipe (with no intent of bringing a Tigress down, of course!).

I was fascinated by ancient technology, and he didn’t disappoint me; ‘…As I know for sure that DaVinci never got air-borne in any of his technologies… Yet am quite acceptable to the claim that Ravana flew… WE (or rather I) would have been airborne SANS external power by now if we were not ‘grounded’ by ‘security’ rules. … Why?... even as far back as 1981 I flew with Prof Ponnamperuma from Bolgoda Lake to Kandy Lake – and back – which was even reported (somewhat incredulously) in the papers, and then using only the power of a small motor-cycle engine and about 6 gallons of petrol!

I was getting ready to do the same trip, two years ago, using only a VERY quiet electric motor and batteries, when the police came here and made a HECK of a shindig!’ This airborne escapade was in addition to the notorious landings of his ultra-light aircraft at Dharmapala Mawatha in Colombo where he informed the Police that he simply wanted to use his own toilet…and then on the roof of Lunuganga, where the homeowner, Geoffrey Bawa stepped out and asked the pilot who had crash landed on his roof, what he would like to drink!

And then surfaced the confident ‘ying’ of the evolved man when he wrote, ‘Sundi, dear, when next you visit a pharmacy in search of Lavender cologne, please search for me a picture (or bottle or ‘cover’) of the Mitchum Lavender label. This shows a picture of a lady with two children, selling sheaves of lavender… You may – as one of the VERY, VERY few I know with a taste for the subtle fragrance of Lavender - recall the picture. It brings back memories of my mother (also a lover of Lavender) who once attended a CMS Church-Missionary-Society with my sister Pamela and me in attendance, suitably attired for our role, to sell sheaves of Lavender for the CMS… A memory from some eight decades ago! I believe they were a ‘sell-out’ to the primarily English ladies who attended those CMS Sales at Ladies College!’

Despite himself he was humble, readily admitting mistakes. When at Harvard studying for his MBA, discussing his most famous invention the Hand Tractor, with the great futurist Buckminster Fuller, he admitted, ‘in hindsight, I mechanized the buffalo’! (He eventually believed, it was the harvesting he should have mechanized, not the ploughing!). On parenting he conceded ‘Families are prime-time in my thinking (having neglected my duties when I didn’t oughta!)’. Often he reminded me why a pencil has an eraser on the far end; because we make mistakes and must make fresh attempts!
I sent him a poem I had written, of night in an ‘Attale’, as the watch huts of farmers, set high in the trees of Matale District are known.

Over moon coloured fields
The wind
Twists blackened limbs
Shakes silvered leaves
Tosses me then
Cradles me….

He saw an opportunity to erase a mistake and make a fresh start….

A few days later I received an invitation to his beloved Kohombe Estate, ‘where we shall be pleased to disclose to you the ATTAALE site (as inspired by your poetry… so you only have yourself, dear Sunela, to blame, for this additional ‘karadara’!!)’. Focusing on a dysfunctional water tower, he wrote, ‘I am turning this over to you so that you turn it into a magnificent little Atthaale cum ‘pad’… and you can make it as ‘cranky’ as you will, as the art will be yours, and the eccentricity will be mine!.... It will necessarily be both environmentally artistic and architecturally livable as well as (maybe) being a little functionally-eccentric! … Upon which one could even spend nights in pleasant contemplative company… (“A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou?”)’ Thus, we built an ‘Attale’!

To be easily inspired and then, driven by a unique passion, determined to take an idea to its ultimate end…. This, I believe, was his edge!

For a man as active and productive as he was, the physical disadvantages of ageing were depressing and in reference to my father (the late Dr. H.W. Jayewardene Q.C who passed away 20 years ago), he confided, “My cousin knew when to go; I have stayed too long!” One last day he took us sailing, and with the wind on the water, watching the aerodynamics of low skimming birds, he sat beaming, happy in a familiar medium, once again! This was the man who had revelled, with deep awareness in Theja, Vaayu, Patavi, the three vital elements, Energy, Wind and Earth; this was the cosmos! Finally, when he could fly nor sail no more, he presented the three elements ingeniously, in the geometric continuum of a Mobius strip which became his carefully designed, personal insignia! I sent him a quotation from Einstein, ‘The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity.

Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.’ And he replied, ‘The observation of Einstein is exactly how I feel. Perhaps it’s in the word ‘cosmic’… whatever that means… his word for God!’

In the maelstrom of the cosmos you understood better than most, Uncaray, I pray you fly high and ‘touch the face of God’… may you attain Nirvana!

Man of many parts: Ray Wijewardene

Internationally acclaimed, multi-talented, multi-faceted Revatha Wijewardene or Ray as he was fondly known has passed beyond the realms of time. Ray was a frontline engineering personality, with outstanding accomplishments in Sri Lanka.

Graduating from the University of Cambridge his engineering disciplines included Aviation, Mechanical and Agricultural Engineering. On his return from Cambridge, he took over as the Works Engineer at Lake House in charge of the newspaper presses and after a while, he struck out on his own.

Ray also laid claims to a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the prestigious Harvard Business School. Adding to all these accolades were two Honorary Doctorates DSc., from the Universities of Moratuwa and Sabaragamuwa. He served as Chancellor of the University of Moratuwa for several years.

Among his foremost engineering feats was the world’s first two-wheeled tractor – the Landmaster, which he pioneered in Nottingham in 1955. Not content to rest on his laurels, he initiated the designing, manufacture and flying of aircraft at home.

Ray was a man of many parts – he was interested in art and music and an avid sportsman. He was placed fourth in Yachting at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, but won a Silver Medal at the Asian Games in Bangkok. He could have been Sri Lanka’s first Rowing Blue but unfortunately because of an accident just prior to the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race, he was out of the selection.

A passionate agronomist, his coconut property in Chilaw was a model to the coconut plantation industry. He was dedicated to introducing innovative methods of farming suited to the tropics.

Though he deemed agriculture as his bread and butter and flying as his great love, he held many significant posts during his career, giving of his immense knowledge both to his motherland and to foreign countries. He was Head of Agricultural Engineering at the Agricultural Engineering Research and Development Institute, a FAO instituted body in Malaysia and went on to Nigeria where at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, he was the Head of the Agricultural and Engineering and Research Division from 1974 to 1980. He was also Chairman of the Tea Research Board and served on the Mahaweli Authority, Coconut Development Authority, Presidential Task Force on Science and Technology and the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies.

Widely regarded as the father of Dendro power in this country, Ray also authored many publications on conservation farming; his books include ‘Management of Weed and Fertility yielding Maximization of Agricultural Productivity’.

He was also an enthusiastic amateur pilot. His greatest joy was tinkering with and flying his many ultra light aircraft until security requirements of the war precluded him from doing so. He would build planes in his Dharmapala Mawatha home and one of his many scrapes was when he landed his plane on the Town Hall lawn. Questioned as to why he did so, he replied he needed to make a toilet stop.

He received many honours in his lifetime, receiving the Presidential Awards of ‘Vidya Jyothi’ and ‘Deshamanya’. He was also given an honorary Fellowship of Silsoe College, University of Cranfield.

Few could aspire and indeed achieve the heights Ray Wijewardena reached in a mere lifetime.

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