Ajith the Indomitable | Daily News

Ajith the Indomitable

Ajith C.S. Perera
Ajith C.S. Perera

A long, long time ago, in a letter to the editor of a Sinhala newspaper, a reader spoke about a group of young men ridiculing an elderly person. The reader was probably old. The title of his piece was ‘Vayasata noyana tharunayo (young men who will never grow old).’ The ‘Nimitta’ or impetus for the letter was an incident where the young men had called the elderly man ‘naakiya’ (old man). It is descriptive of course, but clearly derogatory and in poor taste.

Those young men, if still alive, would be over 60 years of age today. Maybe they’ve received what they gave, with or without interest. May be not.

I remembered this when thinking about a man who died a few days ago. He was 64 years old but never looked his age. Indeed, having been born on February 29, he could have legitimately claimed that he had celebrated only 16 birthdays. He went around in a wheelchair but never appeared to be incapacitated. Indeed, his was a life made of rare courage, absolute determination and splendid accomplishments.

Ajith C.S. Perera had a lot of things to say and it was all about doing. I met him for the first time eight years ago. He spoke to me of ability and disability, things taken for granted and things that should be changed. And so I wrote, “access denied is a handicap the nation cannot afford.”

Ajith opened my eyes. And this is what I saw (as I described in that piece):

“We do see ‘disability’ when it appears attendant with wheelchair, crutch or walker, but there are those who are not counted in official statistics: those who suffer from non-visible debilitating conditions such as heart disease. We do realize the difficulties of the elderly, whose physical frailties are clearly apparent, but we are for the most part blind to shortness of breath, arthritis, neuropathy, impaired vision or hearing, middle-ear imbalances, epilepsy, allergies, phobias, vertigo, urinary incontinence, etc.”

At the time, he informed me, only two percent of all buildings, private or public, had access for the mobility-impaired. Add those in the categories mentioned above and it is a blemish on the entire society.

Ajith also pointed out that this is not about tossing a coin to a beggar. He taught me that just as we are all disabled one way or another, or at least could become disabled, even temporarily, we are also able. There is more than one way each and every one of us can contribute to the betterment of society. And Ajith taught me that it is important to realize that we cannot move forward as a society if anyone is left behind or if we deliberately dismiss the support of a large segment of the population.

“That’s not nation-building; that would be nation-crippling,” I wrote.

I last met him at Asiri Central Hospital towards the end of 2019. He had just been to see Dr. Harsha Samarajiwa and I was accompanying my father to see the same doctor. Ajith C.S. Perera was easily recognizable. I had met him on several occasions, had lengthy conversations with him, and had even written about him and his work. However, it’s his smile and the wheelchair that made him stand out in a crowd, so to speak.

I said ‘hello,’ and he immediately stopped, held my hand and literally detained me for well over 10 minutes. With him it was always a gripping experience, metaphorically and literally. He just wouldn’t let go!

On that occasion, however, he was speaking not of himself or his work, but the fact that his mother had just passed away. We spoke or rather he did and I listened. A few minutes later, I took my father into Dr Samarajiwa’s consultation room and told the doctor that I had just run into Ajith Perera.

Dr Samarajiwa is one of the kindest people I’ve met and an excellent General Practitioner (GP) who takes a lot of trouble over his patients. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he essentially observed that there was more conversation than medical examination.

There will come a day when someone takes access for granted. Maybe there will be a day when no has to demand respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy, non-discrimination and difference or call for full and effective participation and inclusion in society. Maybe there’ll be a day when someone will not be ridiculed for being old or in some kind of difficulty and therefore there won’t be letters written to the editor of some newspaper about intolerance and rank stupidity.

Maybe people will remember Ajith, maybe they will not. However, if we’ve become a better society in this regard, then it is largely due to the efforts of a single man. Ajith C.S. Perera’s battles saw Sri Lanka ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which compelled signatories to “undertake to adopt immediate effective and appropriate measures to create awareness of the wider range of skills, merits and capabilities of persons with disabilities and to promote recognition of their proven abilities within disabilities and of their significant contributions of national importance.”

Ajith, for the record, was a chartered chemist by profession, a scholar, a senior manager in industry, a qualified training instructor and a cricket umpire. Sriram Veera explains why he never officiated in a Test match although he was the first Sri Lankan to qualify as a professional umpire after passing the final exam at Lord’s in 1985.

“On December 12, 1992, a 35-year old Ajith Perera got the letter he had spent years waiting for. [He was] about to stand in his first Test, between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. He read the appointment letter a few times and left the Board office to get back home to share the proud moment with his parents. He didn’t get home for the next two years. It was a stormy day and Perera was sitting in his car with the letter when nature intervened. A big wayside tree crashed against the car, killing the driver and instantly rendering Perera a paraplegic for life.”

‘Retired hurt, but not out,’ was the title of Veera’s article, published in the Cricinfo website 11 years ago.

Ajith played a gutsy innings. It was like he had to face the feared West Indian pace battery of the eighties, day in and day out. They couldn’t get him out. He caught a different kind of wicket-taking ball. As others have and as we all will one day.

What a legacy he’s left behind, though. Gripping. Indomitable.

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