Mallikarama Temple, Ratmalana held its monthly donation of artificial limbs to disabled war veterans on Saturday (24th Nov. 2007). The programme has been held every full moon (poya) day since 1995. The event is short a simple affair – conducted after the evening’s usual religious ceremonies were over. The gathering consists of the donors, the recipients, and a smattering of devotees still hanging around. Yet it gives a interesting complicated window into an usually inconspicuous part of Sri Lankan life.
The “handing over” part takes place in the wall-less pillared sermon hall. Eight young men in off white Sarongs and long sleeve shirts sit on a low bench, crutches neatly stacked under it. They are about my age or younger. Eight different moods despite the uniform attire and short hair cuts. The most jovial looking of the group seems to be saying something reassuring to his concerned looking bench mate. Something about it reminded me of school assemblies.
The donors and other attendees sit on the floor. A heavily meddled, moustached lance corporal waits by the table with the limbs. The footwear on each limb has a shoes that corresponds to the shoe on each veteran. However, nothing is left to chance – each limb is well labelled.
The Venerable Ranasgalle Gnanaweera Thero “erhms” into the mike and gives a brief history of the ceremony followed by a short sermon. Each donor is asked to step forward. After paying their respects to the thero, they are given a limb by the lance corporal.
The recipient’s name is called – no mention of rank, regiment, or location of where the wound occurred. A thinnish guy with a shot hair cut stands with practised steadiness on his remaining leg. Sort of similar to this picture (minus the dog and seated monk. The recipient didn’t have to move away from the bench).
The rigid artificial limb, despite its cool metallic feel, is surprisingly light. It is presented and accepted with both hands. There is a sentence or two on each donor’s motive. Mostly to incur some meritorious karma on a relative who is in ill health. Or recovering from something nasty. A pair of donors make the odd exception.
After the handing over is complete, the recipients put on their limbs. Yes, it feels odd to write that sentence too – I made it a point to avoid the “leg up” puns when writing this post. Each artificial limb has a foam core padding inside. The foam core is slipped onto the bandaged stump of the missing limb. Then the padded stump is inserted into the hollow of the artificial limb. It looks simple as putting on a shoe. All eight get up and walked about. Some quite naturally, others with a slight limp. One veteran whose entire right leg is gone carries his crutches but manages to stride about with an occasional wince.
You’d have to be an emotionally dead psychopath not to be “moved”.
Once the newly mobile veterans take their seats, there is a short blessing and it is over. People mingle about and steady trickle out.
I speak with two of the recipients. Both lost their limbs in Jaffna. One in 1996, the other in January 2007. The 1996 veteran – now a father of 3 – said this is his second limb. The limbs wear out with use. He said he only uses it when travelling. At home it is still the crutches. For the other, this ceremony is perhaps one of many firsts. After experience of the taken for the wound to heal, the rehabilitation, and the waiting list. He is still in the army, stationed at the regimental HQ after the rehab training.
Each limb cost about 10,000 rupees (less than a plane ticket for a crony on the entourage of the president’s state visits). The army makes them but the materials have to be purchased from elsewhere. Clearly there are budgetary issues though I don’t know the details.
It is time to go. One of the recipients jumps down from the raised platform of the sermon hall, landing firmly on both feet and walks off with a poorly suppressed smile. We amble to our chariot and wiggle ourselves into the Galle road traffic.