At the age of two, little Udeshika had developed a white fungus on her right eye. On medical consultation, the parents were advised to have the eye removed as she was suffering from cancer. Agreeing to the operation had been a difficult decision for the couple, who nevertheless had given their consent.
The operation which was carried out six years ago at the Colombo Eye Hospital turned out to be their worst nightmare turning the child from a healthy two-year-old to a vegetable over night.
This is what the parents of eight year old Udeshika Nilmini have had to live with for the last six years, after the little girl underwent the eye operation.
According to the parents, the failure to administer Oxygen during the surgery had resulted in the childs nerves being affected. For two days Udeshika had been unconscious. Finally when she did make some kind of movements, the family was relieved. But their relief was to be short-lived because despite over eight months of receiving treatment in hospital, Udeshika has been confined to the bed, unable to talk or walk, only able to make animal like sounds.
Last week The Sunday Times visited Udeshikas home in Pilimatalawe, situated on a steep hillside. What welcomed us was not the usual chatter of an eight year old but a deep choked cough. Her mother was trying to settle her to sleep, but she began screaming and kicking if the mother left her on the bed even for a few minutes. After another fifteen minutes Udeshika calmed down but refused to sleep on the bed. This is what we have been going through for the last six years, but we will never give up on our baby," were the words spoken by Padmini, Udeshikas mother.
Udeshika may not be able to talk or walk but the attention she demands from her parents is immense. Once her mother began talking to us, sensing that her attention was elsewhere she started screaming and making funny noises.
Her actions are those of a baby, a few months old. Unable to take any solids, she is given only milk foods, and has to be fed every two hours.
She has sight only in one eye, the right eye being removed. We suspect her vision is blurred. But she can hear us. She does not have any movements. We are the ones who know when she needs to be taken to the toilet. The two of us are needed especially when it comes to lifting her, Padmini said.
Udeshika spends her day lying on her bed, making animal like noises when she gets hungry and irritated. The most difficult is putting her to sleep. At first the doctors prescribed sleeping tablets. This helped for year or two but now her body is immune to it. There are times when we stay up throughout the night, which reminds us the times when she was a few months old. The difference is we knew things would change in a few months, but now we cannot hope for anything, said Indumini Priyantha, her father.
Hope is something the couple has lost. "There are times I tell my husband that if I could get hold of some poison I would give it to the three of us, so it would be over. But looking at my baby I know we have to be there for her to give the love and warmth, which she needs, said Padmini.
It is clear the couple has lavished immense love and patience on their child. They have refused requests to hand over the child to a home for the mentally retarded.
"The two of us have decided to care for the child till we die. How can we give up on our baby? We were fortunate enough to have a healthy baby for two years. Things perhaps, would have been different if our daughter was born retarded, said Indumini.
The family is in financial difficulty since the father has no permanent job, due to the constant attention Udeshika demands.
"Making ends meet is the most difficult. We have totally given up on a good life. When ever I get some money the first thing I do is buy a packet of milk. We only give her Nestum and Anchor milk. She needs 21 Nestum packets and 11 Anchor milk packets a month, which cost nearly 3000 rupees.
The family received official intimation of the mishap three months after the operation. The letter from the Health Ministry, dated 1993, 5. 12 said they regretted the childs death, but it was not due to a medical mishap. A month later the parents received another letter from the Ministry saying they wished to withdraw the earlier letter and that disciplinary action was taken against the person who had sent it.
The parents then demanded an inquiry, but are in doubt as to its outcome. They believe disciplinary action was taken and the nurse who regulated the oxygen was transferred. But this is not what the family needs. They need compensation to help them cope with the strains of looking after their child. Since we cannot meet the financial demands we appealed to the Presidents fund. Now we get 600 rupees per month. I know demanding compensation will not restore my daughters health but we need the money to look after her, concluded her father.
Winitha Fernando has spent the last three years in England, in the peace- ful atmosphere of Canterbury, Kent but there is nothing of her life there in her forthcoming exhibition which will be held at the Lionel Wendt from June 18 to 22. Titled Recollections, the exhibition focuses almost exclusively on the artists preoccupation with her homeland, which she says, is never distant from her minds eye.
Winitha Fernando is perhaps one of the countrys most accomplished artists and one who has achieved international recognition. Building on the foundation of her early training at the Government College of Fine Arts, she went on to win a scholarship to do her postgraduate studies in England. The list of her achievements, detailed impressively in the catalogue of her exhibition, is far too long to reproduce here. Suffice to say that she has exhibited in Europe and the United States, holding solo exhibitions at the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, the Galerie Vallombreuse, Biarritz, La Mandraore Galerie, Paris to name a few, not to mention numerous group exhibitions. In 1994, she was invited to exhibit as a representative of Asian art at the Greenbelt Art Festival in Northants which was attended by around 20,000 visitors and last year she won the Pastel Portrait Award in Kent.
So, the past three years have been productive ones. A time in which she has worked with master painter and sculptor Vincent Borghesi of Turin, also doing many sculptures which unfortunately she was not able to bring here. Her present work, she terms a return to basics, where the focus has been a study of the human figure. "I have done a lot of life drawing, (drawings from a live model) after returning to England," she says " and over the years I have realised that the human figure cannot be compromised for the sake of modernism. Although I have stylized my figures in the past, as I get older, I find myself dropping the various isms that we find in modern art," she says.
Left: Waiting for the groom. Right: Journey to BethlehemAn artist, she says, naturally finds inspiration in what is closest to her heart and a glance at the catalogue will leave the viewer in no doubt as to where Winithas heart is. The titles will be all too familiar to a Lankan but a few like Journey to Bethlehem, Waiting for Groom and The Good Samaritan also reflect her strong Christian faith. She is not one to speak of this lightly, but says her paintings are all done prayerfully, begun with a prayer and that the colours seem to fall into place without much effort. Winitha mentions that her colours are brighter now than in previous years and attributes this also to her use of mixed media, pastels, acrylics and oils in her work. This exhibition is devoted to oils, mixed media, water colour paintings and life drawings.
A little known fact about Winitha is that she is the niece of David Paynter, one of Sri Lankas greatest artists, who however, gained recognition very late. He was her mothers cousin, "they came from the same Weerasuriya stock" and he, in fact, lived at her home in Lunawa while painting the famous mural on the transfiguration of Christ at the Chapel of St. Thomas College, Mount Lavina. Winitha relates how Paynter , principal of the Government College of Fine Arts while she was a student had once organised a contest among the class for the best portrait. The judging completed, the best portrait was found to be Winithas work and Paynter realising this had said, "I cant judge this." So Stanley Abeysinghe was called in but he too found Winithas entry to be the best. Finally she received her prize - Rs 1.
Interestingly Winitha says that Paynter showed a marked interest in life studies and adds that most of his models were in fact members of his family, uncles, aunts and cousins, dressed up in cloth and jacket and other costumes, posing for him.
While obviously regretful about not making her home in Sri Lanka, Winitha finds the atmosphere in England is immensely conducive to the arts. Not only are there many opportunities for learning, and exhibiting, there is also no shortage of the artists tools, paints, canvas, etc., which constrain artists here.
This homecoming is, necessarily, a short one. She leaves shortly after the exhibition and is unable to say when she will be able to exhibit here again. So we will not see her work again for some time, not for another five years probably, she says adding that the costs of organising an exhibition are prohibitive, without sponsorship of any kind. "This time we carried all the 48 paintings with us in our luggage and this was a most hazardous and anxious experience," she adds. But it is important for her as an artist to be able to show and have her work appreciated here. "I want Sri Lankans to have my work," she says. "It is important that people of my country should relate to it."
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