Building a life away from home

Book facts : That Blue Thing – An Engineer’s Travel. Reviewed by Milinda Rajasekera

‘That Blue Thing – An Engineer’s Travel’ is the autobiography of M.G.Ratnayake, a Sri Lankan who left the country’s shores in search of better prospects for employment and higher education.

In this interesting story about his life, Mervyn recounts events and incidents in his early childhood in his ancestral village, Minhettiya in the Kurunegala District and the experiences he had gone through in different countries and different positions. He candidly describes his humble beginnings and shows his great affection and gratitude to his parents who, he says, had always been concerned about his welfare.

Having first received his primary education at his village school he goes to Ibbagamuwa Central College on a scholarship and later embarks on a series of jobs beginning as a teacher. He joins the Survey Department and thereafter the Public Works Department. In both these government departments he faces discriminatory treatment from his superiors.

While working in the PWD, Mervyn finds his future partner in life, Chandra and subsequently marries her. He next leaves for England for both higher education and employment. There he goes through a series of experiences in finding accommodation and employment encountering narrow minded people and selfish attitudes. He also finds people with genuine concern for the difficulties of their fellow beings.

He relates one occasion when he was in search for accommodation for his family of wife and two children. He arranges a $ 400 overdraft from a bank and having found a house, he goes to a solicitor to finalise the transfer of deeds.

He describes the meeting thus: “He asked me for 602 pounds, to my astonishment and dismay. ‘Good Lord, man,’ he said, ‘you are trying to buy a house with only 400 pounds! You don’t realize you have to pay my fee as well as stamp duty and the deposit?’ All I could reply was, ‘Sir, I am married and have two children, aged five and three. Our present home is inadequate, and we can find nowhere else. I had no choice. I borrowed what I could.’ “He sighed, raised his eyebrows, and looked heavenwards. ‘Well, tell you what … just pay what you can and we’ll forget about the rest.’ Mervyn says he was so relieved and happy that he could have kissed him. And he was determined to pay the balance. But when he went later with the money the solicitor had refused to take a penny. Mervyn says “Sometimes you do come across kind people.”

Mervyn’s account about his overland trip to Sri Lanka with his wife and two children crossing borders of several countries with different travel laws and challenges is full of interesting and exciting incidents that would keep the reader in suspense. He refers to an incident at a café in Turkey where the family had to spend a night. armed with bottles of lemonade to ward off a gang of hooligans. He also refers to the uncouth conduct of another Sri Lankan with whom he embarked upon the arduous journey to his homeland. Instead of being true companions providing physical and moral support in passing through unfamiliar and dangerous territories, the friend’s family, following the Ratnayakes in another car, had turned out to be a burden to them. At one stage this companion’s car rams into the Ratnayakes from behind damaging their car.

After this month-long journey, the family arrives in Sri Lanka and reaches Mervyn’s ancestral village where the parents, relatives and friends welcome them affectionately. Later, the family visit Chandra’s parents in Colombo where he sells his car and buys property. Soon after he returns to London leaving the family behind and obtains his MSc having done research on the topic of the liquefaction of saturated sands.

His second overland trip from London to Sri Lanka accompanied by a couple of close relatives is as interesting as the first. Once he had to leave his family in Alexandroupolis and fly 600 miles back to Athens to recover his passport which he had inadvertently left at a bank in Athens. As in the first trip, an accident delays this journey too. He describes it as follows: “While we were still in Austria, I found myself stuck for some miles behind a slow moving caravan. At last, an opportunity to overtake presented itself. I floored the accelerator, signaling to Sunil that he should not follow me and safely passed the caravan. To my horror, I saw Sunil behind me, as an oncoming vehicle sped towards him. There was a head-on collision and then a further five or six vehicles ploughed into the wreckage. Cars were now scattered all over the road and into the surrounding fields.”

All through the years away, his love for his motherland remains undiminished. Mervyn’s interest in the country’s affairs is evident from the short account of the country’s history in his book. He recounts acts of terrorism that the LTTE had committed and records events leading to the final elimination of this terrorist gang. The book gives a plethora of sources he has gone through to bring out these events with a high degree of accuracy. He seems unbiased and objective in his presentation of these details.

In the final chapter of his book, Mervyn gives an account of the social services he has launched in his village and how he was motivated to do this: “Born to a Buddhist family, the moral precepts of this religion were reinforced when I joined the Boys Scouts. As I have already suggested the scouting ethos of ‘helping others at all times’ was entirely in accord with what I had absorbed in the temple and what I had observed of my parents’ altruistic behaviour. As an adult, my motto became ‘to serve mankind’, and central to this was repaying the countries that had benefited me.”

Observing that there were many destitute elderly people without a roof over their heads or the means to get a square meal, he decided to build a home for the elders in the village using his life savings. He, of course, had to circumvent various problems and obstacles before he successfully accomplished his objective by setting up a place complete with all amenities and facilities to accommodate up to 28 persons.

‘That Blue Thing’ written in lucid and simple English, is strikingly readable and the author’s life and activities provide a good example for emulation by others who completely detach themselves from the affairs of their motherland and their obligations to the families, when they leave the country.

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