I have been walking on the lonely Ratmalana Airport road every evening almost daily. If I miss this routine, I hardly sleep and come the next morning, I eagerly wait to be in the familiar surroundings. The deserted stretch calms my mind and my brisk stroll is not without the blessing of a comfy breeze [...]


In a flash, a daily evening stroll turned into a nightmare


I have been walking on the lonely Ratmalana Airport road every evening almost daily. If I miss this routine, I hardly sleep and come the next morning, I eagerly wait to be in the familiar surroundings. The deserted stretch calms my mind and my brisk stroll is not without the blessing of a comfy breeze that often flows across the vast openness of the airfield.

Light aircraft take-off or land on training missions and Government and private helicopters descend with VIPs which makes the sentries manning the watchtowers cock their guns and stand alert. The road runs parallel to the only runway and the incessant roar of turbines fails to cause much disturbance since my ears have now got used to it.

At times I nod to the sentries gazing down at me as I pass the watchtowers and also to other walkers like myself. Since there isn’t a pavement, a few had warned me of the danger of speeding vehicles, and I remember scoffing at them as being overcautious. There was a greater risk of trampling a crawling type, I would add. There are fitful pools of light of course, but they are not to guide wanderers like me but for the benefit of the watchtowers to act on emergencies.

If the walk was the highpoint of my long and lazy days, it was also most useful to maintain good health.

It was a day in December and the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun sank early and I was on full throttle, heading home as the sky turned scarlet. Years of following the same routine in the dark had made it possible for me to identify a beam of a headlight from a push bicycle to a monstrous bowser carrying aviation fuel to the dump and as such, I had mastered as to what extent I should allow space between the passing vehicle and my strides. I knew how important it was to consider all odds against my safety.

I had just passed one pool of light and was approaching another when I noticed a single light and the sound of a running motor.  I knew it had to be a motorbike and changed my path a fraction as I usually do, stepping on to the well-maintained grass on the sidewalk. The bike was just about to pass me on the left when suddenly I felt something striking my left shin bone as if the poor shin had been dealt a hard blow from a sledgehammer. There was an instant flash of blinding light in my brain and an excruciating pain gripped my heart which was all I could remember.

When I regained consciousness, I was surrounded by medical staff; doctors in surgical masks, and theatre attire. I felt the cold, strong smell of disinfectants and realized it had to be a hospital. I could move only my eyeballs. I desperately wanted to ask for my wife, but after an injection instead went into a deep slumber once again.

“How are you feeling?” My wife’s sweet voice rang in my ears like relayed from heaven. Everything was so blurred; I went mad with myself for not being able to focus my eyes toward where the sound had originated.

Finally, her anxious face became clearer by the bedside as if through a mist. I could vaguely observe another bed without a patient next to me and a few more with patients and visitors beyond. The layout and the advanced medical equipment in place suggested it had to be an ICU.

“Think I am alright. Which hospital is this darling?” My quiver didn’t seem to have much strength. It was then that I saw my daughter and my son-in-law, tears rolling down my daughter’s cheeks and her husband of just one year – who is such a cheerful fellow had a glum look.

“We are in the accident ward ICU where you were brought in by the Air Force the day before,” she whispered, weighing every word carefully as if reading from a script.

By now my brain had reactivated.

“Air Force? I wasn’t hit by an aeroplane! How bad is the injury?” I asked jokingly.

“You mustn’t think of it since all was done with best intention and attention. Your classmate doctors had passed the word around and they treated you like a VIP. They said you will go home under a couple of weeks.”

“But you didn’t answer my question!” I showed my annoyance.

“Well, you must be glad that you had such a narrow shave darling. Your left shin was smashed beyond any mending and the leg had to be amputated from the lower shin. Your orthopaedic surgeon friend visited the ward and went through all the reports yesterday. He said nothing could be done to salvage the leg and instructed the team here to carry on with the planned action. He was against transferring you to a private hospital though the insurance was quite willing to foot it,” I saw beads of sweat forming on her forehead, while my daughter was stroking and kissing my head.

Strangely, the bad news failed to stir me as she may have anticipated. Instead, I felt glad to be alive. My overpowering desire to live with both of them on either side must have been manifest in my expression.

“Well, aren’t I glad you drive! Any other issue with me?” I asked sternly only to make sure.

“None whatsoever and they said you are fit as a fiddle!” My wife answered with a conciliatory smile.

“How bad are the riders” I asked.

“Scoundrels! They escaped with a few scratches. Nothing wrong with their machine either!” My daughter’s youthful frustration echoed across the ICU.

Later I was transferred to a paying ward on the first floor of a charming colonial building overlooking a manicured patch of lawn fringed by a flowery grove, so soothing to the eye. Since my recovery was remarkable, they walked me in crutches along the corridor. Though there was some pain and discomfort it was a great success, the trainer said. A second session was planned for the afternoon in the presence of my family.

“You are doing great Sir. Keep the right leg gently and let the hands bear the weight of the movement,” my trainer said.

“I am fairly sure they will discharge you soon.” Words of encouragement flowed from all and sundry.

It was then that I saw a cop lurking on the other side of the long corridor with a notebook in his hand. He was followed by two young men and they were talking to the ward clerk at the counter. I noticed that one was on a pair of crutches like me. He looked incredibly young and smart but had no right leg extending beyond his knee. The other slightly older sporting a radical beard had a prominent sticking plaster on his left wrist and another across his elbow.  They looked University students from a rural but decent background. I knew at once they had to be the culprits.

“Extremely sorry to disturb you Sir, I am the Sergeant from the traffic branch of the Mount Lavinia Police. I am doing the accident investigation on the Airport Road. This is the party who rode the bike Sir. We have seized their bike which is in our custody now. We came to have a preliminary discussion on the way to proceed with action,” the policeman went on apologetically, introducing the two young men who looked as if they were about to worship me.

My wife and the trainer were disturbed and but I waved them off and sat with the trainer’s assistance in one of the corridor chairs that offered a splendid view of the greenery through the railing.

“Just tell me what happened son. I have been doing this walk for several years now and had been always careful with approaching vehicles. I am very curious to learn where I went wrong!”

The boy began his confession with a bent head and closed eyes. He began by muttering a hardly audible apology and gradually increased the volume.

“Sir, first of all I must offer my sincerest apology to you. It was totally my fault Sir. My elder brother here rode the bike, and I was the pillion rider. I met with a serious bike accident four years ago in our village and lost my right leg. I am 23 and am an Arts Faculty student of Jayawardenapura Uni, Sir. My brother is a final year student of Colombo Uni, and the bike is his colleague’s. We have no parents Sir. We live in an annexe down Borupana Road and generally use the short cut through the traffic-free Airport Road. That night we were going home after buying our dinner at the Maliban junction since my grandmother was feeling unwell to cook. I had my pair of crutches resting on my lap, unfortunately placed horizontally Sir. This metal tip was the one that was jutting-out to my left which was the side where my good leg stood.”

“And…. I suppose…. I think……you can imagine…. yes, you can…. easily visualize…. the rest Sir!” he whispered.

“Please forgive me Sir. I am so accursed……….”   He broke down, tears pouring from his eyes. With his brother holding him for support, he leaned forward with difficulty and placed his trembling palms together to worship me at the emptiness where my left ankle should have been.

A plea for a pavement

The writer is a regular user of the Airport Road at Ratmalana on his way to reach the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) walking path, picturesquely built encircling a small lake. Since one has to walk nearly 1.5 km from Galle Road to reach it, a safe wide pavement at least on one side of the road would also serve immensely as a useful recreational track for either brisk walking or light jogging.
He wishes to draw the attention of the authorities through his own experience to build a safe pavement for the benefit of the community living around the Ratmalana Airport. More residents would be then encouraged to use the KDU track which is notably underused as of now.


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