My bosom friend Tissa Abeysekara, his family and I had planned a very different celebration for the day on which he would have achieved the Biblical span of three score years and ten had he yet been with us physically. Tissa was understandably thrilled by the publication in the United States of a collection of stories including the old familiar tale about Bringing Tony Home.
With this particular 2008 publication, I know, Tissa finally also brought himself home! I am sorry we could not celebrate the 7th of May, as originally planned but, then, our best laid plans often go awry!My family and I were away from Sri Lanka seeking some respite from the continuing assault on our nerves and our conscience, when I learnt of Tissa’s sudden illness and subsequent passing. Grieve, of course, we all must at Tissa’s departure and most of that grieving will be by Asanka, Svetlana and Dmitri. But alongside this grief must also be the recognition of the need to celebrate Tissa’s life and his many splendid accomplishments. He was husband, father, delightful and congenial fellow-traveller, fine filmmaker, scriptwriter and felicitous author--in both Sinhala and English--indeed a man of many parts. And he was unfailingly the sum of all those parts at all times.
Tissa, like some of us, though not a religious person in the conventional sense, was a spiritual person. He believed in the essential goodness of all religious philosophies and his outlook and world-view were shaped by them. Hence, I know he will be pleased that Asanka and the family arranged this service at the chapel of his daughter Svetlana’s school. Asanka, was the calm centre of Tissa’s turbulent earthly existence. He told me on a number of occasions whenever we had quiet, private moments together (and I had the good fortune to spend many such moments with my namesake) that the happiest years that he has known are those spent with Asanka, Sveltana and Dmitri. He loved all of his children dearly, but he especially cherished Asanka and their two children. I think the past 25 or so years of his life were those that afforded him peace of mind and heart and the ones in which he found contentment.
I first met Tissa Abeysekara way back in 1978 at a seminar on the theme “From Novel to Film” I had organized at The American Centre in Kandy. Over the years, our acquaintance blossomed into an intimate friendship and deepened further in the period 1985 - 1990 when we both served as judges of the annual Sinhala Drama Festival organised by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. We subsequently became fellow-conspirators on many a cultural and literary project. I was quite comfortable playing second fiddle to him. I worked closely with Tissa when he served as Chairman of the National Film Corporation as did my good and dear friend Nirmalie Wickremesinghe who is here with us this evening.
He was a regular at orientation programmes, seminars and lecture/discussions at the United States - Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission where I work. Consequently, American scholarvisitors and U.S.
Embassy personnel have been the richer for becoming familiar with Tissa Abeysekara’s insights and wisdom. He could never say ‘no’ to a friend no matter how otherwise busy he was. He was generous to a fault especially to aspiring young artistes and writers. Madhubashini Ratnayake writing to me from New York where she and husband Pradeep are spending a Fulbright sojourn has told me for the umpteenth time that Pradeep owes so much to Tissa’s encouragement and guidance. And Pradeep Ratnayake is just one among the very many to benefit from Tissa’s generosity of spirit.
This is not the place for a full blown assessment of Tissa Abeysekara the man or artist. What I have attempted to do is merely express some thoughts and share a few words of re-collection, albeit inadequate, on this occasion of celebrating and giving thanks to the life and work of a man who was warm, generous, and like most of us, fallible.
One day, soon I hope, the literary and academic establishment of Sri Lanka will pay more than lip service to Tissa Abeysekara for his outstanding service to our country and acknowledge his due and proper place within our cultural firmament. We shall await that day expectantly.
Meantime I wish to end my tribute to my departed friend with a definition of life, love and death that my mother shared with me many moons ago which I wish to share with you, and especially with Asanka, Svetlana, Dmitri and other close members of Tissa’s family.
Life is eternal, love is immortal and death is only a horizon;
and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.
(Remarks made by Tissa Jayatilaka at the Service of Remembrance held at the Chapel of the Hope of the World, Ladies’ College, Colombo, on May 7, 2009)