Remembering Dr. Tissa Wickremasuriya

It is just over an year since the sad departure of our very dear friend Dr. Tissa Wickremasuriya. On August 21, 2020, just a few weeks before his 80th birthday, he moved on leaving his family and friends forlorn that he is no more. Tissa, to all who knew him and more endearingly ‘Tissa Baby’ to his mother and his siblings, was born at “Carlton”, Tangalle , the ancestral home of the Wickremasuriyas, until it changed hands a few years back. He was the youngest of the seven Wickremasuriya siblings, the versatile progeny of leading lawyer of Tangalle Charles Wickremasuriya and Riseena, sister of the legendary Sri Lankan cricketer, ‘Sargo’ Jayawickrema. An elder sibling, Carl , after whom the ancestral home had been named, “Carlton”, had died early. Tissa was the last of the rest of the brood of six siblings and was also the last to move on. Tissa used to proudly tell this writer that he was the ‘Bada Pissa’, a traditional description of the last born, hinting that he was his mother’s pet.

Tissa Visaka Abeysingha Weera Wickremasuriya, to give his full name, was also called ,in his young days, as Colin, because he, young as he was , loved to imitate that famous Australian spinner, Colin McCool. He was treated as the mascot of the KKK ( Kollupitiya Catchers’ Klub) formed by his elder brothers and their friends to play cricket and have fun. That was in the early forties when his mother set up home at Pendennis Avenue (now Abdul Cafoor Mawatha) to enable her to educate her children at Royal. According to legendary sportsman , Summa Navaratnam, a close friend of the family and schoolmate of Tissa’s elder brothers, the KKK was formed by such contemporaries as Tissa’s elder brothers, Nihal, Sunil, Wimal, V.T.Dickman , Selva Nagendra, M.Kasipillai et al of similar ilk and, of course, Summa himself. Tissa more actively belonged to another KKK (Kolombo Katchers’ Klub) in the early sixties, a club formed by Tissa and a few others like his classmate and former Royal cricket captain Sarath Samarasinghe (SS) , Sidath Jayannetti et al with Tissa’s prospective father in law, ‘Uncle’ L.C. Perera as the jolly patron. The club was formed to play fun-cricket at the then Brownrigg Park as the base. According to SS, they once travelled all the way to Bandarawela to play a team of planters led by former Royal captain Ubhaya de Silva.

Tissa attended Royal from his Royal Prep days, where he was also known by his classmates as ‘Wickarey’, a shortened version of his surname. The nickname also appeared to aptly fit the funny and outlandish things Tissa was always fond of doing and saying! Once his mother wound up the Pendennis Avenue home Tissa moved on to Queen’s Avenue, the residence of his maternal uncle Cyril Rodrigo, of Green Cabin fame. It is at this residence that Tissa first encountered two of the famous three legendary West Indian Ws, Everton Weeks and Clyde Walcott, when they were hosted by the Rodrigo family way back in 1949. There is a photograph showing little Tissa in the centre hanging onto the two Ws. An interesting sequel to this is another photograph taken on Tissa’s 50th birthday in Barbados. Shanthini, his dear wife, pleasantly surprised him by inviting the same two Ws for the party. The historic photograph shows Tissa flanked by Walcott and Weeks to form another set of three Ws: Walcott, Wickremasuriya and Weeks!

Tissa entered Royal College in 1952, and apart from regaling his friends with his splendid company, he made a useful contribution to the general life of the school by participating in many school activities. The challenge before him was clear. All his brothers were achievers in professional life. The eldest George was one of the early Ceylonese planters to enter that profession , two brothers, Nihal and Wimal were practicing lawyers at Tangalle while another, Dr Sunil, was running his own clinic at Carlton itself. The one just above him, Dr. Rony, was a renowned petroleum scientist.

One remembers, while holidaying at “Carlton” in the early 60s, and enjoying the endearing hospitality of his mother, how a challenge was thrown to Tissa by his brothers to match their performances. Two brothers, Dr. Sunil and Wimal, resident at Carlton at the time joined by Nihal the other lawyer also resident at Tangalle and Tissa’s cousin, Dr.Sena (son of the famous gynecologist Dr. George Wickreamasuriya) threw that challenge at him. His brothers Nihal, Sunil and Wimal played cricket for Royal, while Sunil represented Royal at rugby as well. Tissa had to prove himself and prove himself he did. He represented Royal at Rugby in 1959 and 1960 playing in the third-row as a flanker and scoring a memorable try in the Bradby Return of 1959. He finally went onto captain the All University rugby team in 1967. He did play cricket, too, opening batting for Royal with SS in a match against St. Anthony’s College in 1959 under Royal skipper Michael Dias. He was also a very able debater and led the Senior English debating team in 1959. In the same year he was the secretary of the Senior English Literary Association and also won the Senior Best Speaker’s prize competing amidst very stiff competition; a competition judged by eminent lawyer, George Chitty Q.C. His smooth style coupled with subtle humour won the day for him. It is this same humour that rocked the audience much later at an Old Royalists’ Rugby Dinner (ORRD) when he was proposing a toast to the Game. He was describing how the Royal rugby team, when travelling to Kandy by bus, always paid homage to Dawson’s erection at Kadugannawa! In the same mode we heard him at a concert where he posed as a villager and declared that in his village the population was always constant because every time a woman got pregnant a man ran away!

After passing out as a doctor Tissa served in his own home town Tangalle, while also having a voluntary stint as a medical officer in the Navy before leaving our shores with his family to Jamaica to join the University of West Indies (UWI) as a lecturer. While there he also crossed over to UK and obtained his MCH and DTM &H from the University of Liverpool and later a Diploma in Mgt. Studies from the UWI. In his capacity as a lecturer in community medicine at the UWI he then moved over to Barbados. His final stint in the Caribbean was in St Kitts’ on a commonwealth assignment before returning to Sri Lanka to eventually join Asiri Surgical as its Medical Director.

Music was second nature to Tissa. He was an accomplished pianist , who could also lead the singing at the same time. His repertoire was as wide as it was varied ranging from perennial English favourites to popular Sinhala songs of yesteryear. He was quite adept at playing and singing rugby songs with gusto whenever rugby types foregathered around the piano. Whenever our University team played, our hosts were always eagerly awaiting the post-match Sing-a-Along led by Tissa on the piano. But such jollity was not confined to post-match fun only. One particular enjoyable evening, when dear friends Ken and Swyrie Balendra were hosting a group of Canadian tourists who were also rugby enthusiasts, Tissa rocked the place with some of the juiciest of rugby songs to the surprise and utter delight of the guests.

His talent also extended to composing lyrics in both English and Sinhala . His song “Hang Down Your Head, Somarama” describing the tragic murder of the prime minister of the day ,S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, in 1959 to the tune of Tom Dooley was a popular song of the day. Yet another favourite in our day composed by him in the early 60s was ‘ Apey Aanduwa, Mahajanayage’ Anduwa…’ which was his way of describing the Govt. of the day.

Latterly for reasons best known to him Tissa was shunning the piano. However, after a long lapse he did get on the piano one evening especially to give his grandson Noah and his friends a taste of the musical stuff of our times. His fingers moved so easily on the key-board that no one would ever have suspected that he had not touched the piano for quite sometime. This writer was thrilled to see him back in form bringing back memories in a gush of the wonderful times we had together on and off the field.

With all his talent and achievements, Tissa never forsook the bucolic touch of that guy from Tangalle, often chewing betel as if to show that he had not lost his roots, occasionally interspersing his chats with a typically southern dialect.

Though death is the most certain thing in life, it is sad to reflect on the manner he had to depart, silently going through a terrible trauma from which, he knew as a doctor, that there was no return. With his departure we lost a very dear friend, a well-rounded, deeply concerned, human being, full of wit and humour. Had he been given half a chance at departure time, he would surely have sung to us one of his old favourites:

“We’ll meet again, Don’t know where, Don’t know when , But we know we’ll meet again some sunny day….”

We will always keep him close and dear to our heart! ULK

Thank you

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