Sri Lanka through the eyes of a surgeon

Book Facts: The Cry of the Devil Bird by Philip Veerasingam. Reviewed by Seneka Abeyratne

Philip Veerasingam’s second work of non-fiction (The Cry of the Devil Bird) is even a better read than the first (Remembered Vignettes). Like the first, it is written in the entertaining style of an autobiographical or anecdotal novel. The overarching theme is “incidents in the life of a surgeon, working in Ceylon, from 1965 to 2005.”

Some of the stories are extremely witty, while others are sad and moving. The author shuttles back and forth between past and present, thereby giving his book a non-linear temporal dimension. One of the most poignant stories he relates is that of a dying mother who breathes her last while breastfeeding her child.

Dr. Veerasingam is a fine storyteller. We are made acutely aware of the fact that doctors work in a sea of intense suffering and despair; and at times we feel ourselves being swept away by the tide. The author periodically indulges in introspective speculations cutting across politics, culture, religion, ethics, ethnography and history. These intellectual nuggets provide the novel with a rich philosophical perspective that greatly enhances its literary appeal.

They are like the sauces that give body and flavour to a buffet of real-life incidents and encounters. One cannot fail to appreciate the skilful manner in which the author has woven his thoughts, ideas, convictions and real-life stories into a sumptuous literary montage that delves into his professional and personal life and simultaneously provides fascinating insights into five decades of tumultuous Sri Lankan history.

In the sixties, foreigners who visited Sri Lanka would comment on how idyllic life was in this tranquil little island, no larger than the state of West Virginia. The JVP uprising of 1971 changed all that. From then on, Sri Lanka became a nation sharply divided along social and ethnic lines.

The late eighties was perhaps the bloodiest period in our postcolonial history with the JVP rampaging in the South and the LTTE wreaking havoc in the North and East. It took the State about three years to crush the second JVP insurrection and 26 long years to defeat the LTTE and vanquish their dream of a separate homeland. Finally, peace has returned to the island but fundamental values, beliefs, traditions and institutions have undergone radical and irreversible change. To compare the political and ideological landscape of today with that of the sixties would be like comparing apples and oranges.

How did an eminent surgeon like Dr. Veerasingam cope with all the bloody conflicts and upheavals that shook the nation and gravely affected public life for several decades? How did he perceive what might be called the brutalization of Sri Lankan society vis-à-vis the rise of gun culture and the breakdown of law and order? Why did he not pack his bags and leave the country, like many other doctors did? What made him cling to his lofty personal ideals and continue serving the country even though the gruesome communal riots of 1983 (engineered by the State) left the Tamil population utterly bewildered, terrorized and disenchanted?

To understand why he put service to the nation above all other considerations, we must read the book. We will then discover that men like Dr. Veerasingam belong to a dying breed of professionals who toil ceaselessly without seeking personal glory or aggrandizement and have metal in their soul. They will face any kind of hardship or adversity with true grit and courage. Furthermore, they believe wholeheartedly that actions speak louder than words and that professional integrity is something which should never be compromised; that we must give back to the nation more than we have received; and that compassion is one of the noblest qualities a human being can possess.

Dr. Veerasingam joined the Department of Health as a Medical Intern in 1965 and retired thirty five years later, after having held the post of Consultant Surgeon at the Colombo General Hospital for several years. At the GH he introduced many changes to improve efficiency and efficacy and quality of service. Through his rich anecdotes and narratives, which blend imperceptibly into one another, we learn about all the people who figured prominently in his life during this period – his mentors (some of whom are still living), colleagues, friends, companions, subordinates, patients, and last but not least, his family. He describes with deep feeling and affection all the places where he worked (Koslande, Kandy, Batticaloa, Ratnapura and Colombo) and the special moments and incidents associated with each of them. He touches on his sojourns overseas as well, and these charming little stories provide an interesting comparison of life abroad versus life at home.

The Cry of the Devil Bird is indeed a voyage of discovery and could well be titled Sri Lanka through the Eyes of a Surgeon. Few autobiographical novels written by local authors provide an in-depth, authentic account of life in the public service, and this is one of them. The wealth of detail, the profound insights, and the warm, humanistic sentiments, constantly expanding through the book like ripples in a pond, are what make it a fascinating read. I, for one, found the book “unputdownable” and was sad when it ended. I flipped through it again randomly, wishing there were a few more tasty morsels in this delectable buffet.

The book is written largely from a medical perspective, but in a language that could be easily understood by the layman. (It is a pity, though, that one encounters typographical or syntax errors at frequent intervals. The author is encouraged to clean them up before publishing the second edition.)
Dr. Veerasingam has a good story to tell, and from it one can discern that he is a larger-than-life kind of person and a humble, sincere and noble human being as well, who has served this nation in a way that few others have done. His thirst for knowledge extends way beyond the medical field and the book confirms that he is not just a surgeon but a man of great compassion and wisdom.

As part of the lectures on general topics he gave medical students who clerked with him, he used to include a talk on ‘Race as a Concept’ (reproduced in the chapter titled The Oneness of Mankind). Here is a quote from this lecture which illustrates the author’s deeply humanistic convictions: “Patterns of revivalism where ‘aesthetization of the past’, ‘ethicalization’ of the past’ and ‘validation of ancient knowledge systems’ as stated in reference to another situation elsewhere, seems to be the fashion and hobby in Sri Lanka, of the last few decades. This can only retard the progress of this multi-ethnic nation. It is bound to keep on creating fissiparous tendencies among its people. We need to rethink and re-orient our way, if we are to survive as a united nation.

This land belongs to us all, the children of Mother Lanka and we must give our best to her. We must first contribute towards the development of this land, before we ask for any extra helpings out of our combined wealth, citing being members of a mythical race or religious group, as the reason for obtaining this privilege…Try to get rid of this identity in your day-to-day dealings. We are all members of one human race. We can only progress if we respect each other’s rights and work together to build this nation.”

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