Joe Fernando

June 15, 1920 — October 16, 2005

It’s over a month since my last post. For good reason. My dad passed away on October 16th.

He never published a book, was never featured on TV, but he had a knack of infecting everyone around him with ideas, be it in English, Sinhalese, Tamil or Latin! He could talk non stop on George Orwell, Thomas Merton, Aristotle, Churchill, Robert Frost, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Senarath Paranavithana, or Shakespeare –sometimes in one sitting, if you didn’t watch out!

Which is another way of saying how hard it is to pigeonhole someone who juggled between being a solid teacher, philosopher, storyteller, uncle, husband, father-in-law, grandfather and dad.

He was a teacher at heart. (Just ask his attendant, whom he managed to teach some Latin!) At the height of his career, on humid Sunday afternoons, you would see him walk by the railway tracks, suitcase in hand, to the Wellawatte railway station. Destination: Galle. I always wondered what kept him going. Much later, when I would talk to him about his work, I came to realize the driving force behind this dedication was his students. Not just the ones at Thurstan College, Colombo, and St. Aloysius College, Galle, but anyone who turned up at our doorstep with an exercise book and an assignment. On a teacher’s salary, he always saw the poverty in others hungry for knowledge. If there was a lesson in it for me it was this: our problems pale into insignificance if we just look outside our window.

In a larger sense, we all sat in his class. Neighbours, nieces and nephews, my schoolmates, priests, vendors and the odd grownup that had happened to hear of the iskola-mahathaya (that’s ‘school master’ in Sinhalese) down Clifford Place. They would breeze in without any forewarning for help with essays and proficiency exams, notes for debates, and coaching for job applications, dissertations and interviews. He just loved to have them in his office room, crowded around a formica table with ginger beer stains. It was Aladdin’s cave, stuffed with books and papers, as one cousin described it. He always knew where to dig out and dust off that biography, anthology or encyclopaedia you were looking for.

To me, my dad was the equivalent of Google and Amazon.com; the human search engine when hunting down bits of history and articles, and on-demand library. If you cared for the sidebars, they would include a yarn or two, or some embarrassing details plucked from the family-tree.

Yes, life was a collection of colourful stories to him, as those who listened to his repertoire of ghost stories, war stories, travel tales and embellished family narratives know.

And so, I thought it was only fitting that I related a not-so-embellished story of a simple man who impacted so many of us. I miss him so much.

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