Recently the surgeon Dr. Athula Withanage translated into Sinhala for the first time, ‘Evgeni Onegin,’ a Russian romantic novel written in verse and a masterpiece of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Simultaneously, he translated it into English, making it the 46th English translation. This achievement by Dr. Athula Withanage can be hailed as a historical event, as it was declared impossible to achieve by many authors in the past including the great translator, Oruwala Bandu. This was because of cultural differences and the era (1880) when it was written, as well as the different meaning Alexander Pushkin gave his own poetic words. Dr. Withanage escaped the shackles of rhyming by producing the masterpiece in Sinhala using the unique form of ‘Nisandas Kavi’. The books were presented to the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Sri Lanka, and the Director of the Russian Centre, Anastasia Khokhlova at the Russian Centre Book Festival on 27 October 2021. This commendable literary mission was hailed as a historical event.The State Russian Language Institute in Moscow was named after Alexander Pushkin.
Dr. Withanage is currently working as a Senior Surgeon at the Malabe Neville Fernando Hospital. He worked in Wales (UK) for over thirty-one years, attached to the UK’s National Health Service. On his retirement, he visited Sri Lanka on a holiday and met with the late Dr Neville Fernando, who invited him to deliver a lecture at the Neville Fernando Auditorium.
Later, Dr Neville Fernando invited Dr Withanage to help his team to write the curriculum for the surgical faculty and for some guidance in perfecting the state of the art new theatre complex. With his knowledge and experience in the UK, Dr Withanage was able to do so (at the construction stages of the Hospital). He accepted a temporary position because of his commitments in the UK for teaching at the RCS (Surgical Membership in England) and WIMAT ( The leading Centre for the Welsh Endoscopy Training and Laparoscopic Colorectal Training Scheme) of Cardiff University. Later, he decided to stay in Sri Lanka because of the plight of the SAITM students faced at that time.The Sri Lanka Government took over the Management of the Hospital, at the request of the late Dr. Neville Fernando, to help the poor and the needy. At that time the Hospital was operated as a private teaching hospital. Anyone visiting the Neville Fernando hospital can see how methodically wards are assigned and the overall layout of the hospital.
Dr. Athula Withanage did his medical degree in Russia on a Sri Lankan Government Scholarship. He had to first learn Russian language before he commenced his medical studies. After graduating from Russia, he achieved FRCS recognition from England, Scotland, and Ireland. He holds the record as the only Sri Lankan to take part in a stage play in Ireland ( ‘Citi’), where he wrote down the dialogues in Sinhala as he could not speak a word of Irish. Dr. Athula Withanage is a versatile character committed to the Sinhala Culture like his brother, the late Bandula Withanage, an actor, writer, author, and drama producer.
Dr. Athula Withanage is exceedingly talented. After spending many hours in the hospital theatre attached to the NHS UK, he started writing books for relaxation and to keep his mind away from the stresses of surgical life. After one of the operations of a senior citizen, which ‘everyone thought he would certainly fail,’ the patient miraculously survived somehow. After a full recovery, the patient came to see Dr. Athula Withanage with a gift of a massive wall clock. After presenting the gift to the doctor, the old gentleman said: “Thank you, doctor, you gave me life and time on this earth, and I am symbolically giving you the time!”
Dr. Athula Withanage has published many books in Sinhala and English. His first medical novel “Living Capsule” was published by the Regency Press in London and New York. ‘Living Capsule’ dealt with a clinical problem any surgeon had to battle. In Sri Lanka, he published an educational book for doctors in every field of medicine called “Wound Care and Management,” which sold out among the medical fraternity like hotcakes, at the book festival at BMICH year 2020!
The plot of his latest novel ‘The Pond, Butterflies, and the Rainbow’ wraps around a doctor who oversees the COVID-19 ward during the pandemic. The author goes into graphic details about the intricacy of surgery on COVID-19 patients and the universal precautions one must take. He reflects the deadliest nature of the virus and the agony the staff go through, and how it affects their own lives. He must have acquired knowledge on COVID-19 after being apportioned to the Covid-19 ward, as a surgical consultant, in the Neville Fernando Hospital unit, the country’s second-largest unit at the height of the third cluster.
The book presents a rich and heart-warming portrait of an exceptional single parent doctor-father and his love for his seven-year-old daughter. In his vision, the father relates his Peradeniya University experiences and comes across an orphaned girl in the university library, who had been unsuccessful in her examination twice? Out of sympathy, he offers her help, but seemingly it leads to a romantic encounter. Out of the blue, the girl becomes pregnant while both are under-graduates. The boy’s father becomes irritated on hearing his youngest son’s romantic pranks, and finally, the son gets ostracised from the family, but tragedy strikes later on the happy-go romantic capsule. The young infant becomes his primary responsibility and later he becomes overprotective of his daughter.
While working in the COVID-19 ward at the hospital, a scuffle breaks out with a patient there, who was fully infected and who tries to enter a geriatric ward. In trying to save the elderly and vulnerable in the ward, the doctor, too, gets contaminated by the wound caused by the assailant during the scuffle and quarantined. Fortunately, he spends fourteen days in the same hospital. During his quarantine period; a young nurse comes to his rescue to look after his young daughter voluntarily. The daughter and the nurse become good pals to the extent she calls the nurse ‘mum’ at the end. Seemingly, the doctor being a bachelor for four years becomes involved romantically with the young nurse. He once explains to his daughter, when she urged him not to go to work again, that he had taken an oath (Hippocratic Oath) when he qualified as a doctor, and he must maintain that promise. Therefore, he was committed to take care of the sick and was unable to abandon patients for any reason.
Meanwhile, at the hospital, in a suicidal attempt a patient jumps out of the third floor of the hospital. The doctor without thinking and due to instant reflex action takes the risk and goes down on a drainpipe to save her. Unfortunately, the pipe collapses, and the doctor falls in a dramatic rescue attempt, while so many watch, and some curse him for taking unnecessary risks. Many bystanders urge him not to take a risk.
Being a medical man with experience, the author writes graphic accounts in his unique style of the dangers of the COVID-19, and how some of the general public’s behaviour. He points out how the Media and newspapers blame doctors and health workers for not recognising the risk everyone takes in dealing with COVID-19 affected patients. He also criticises the Media for insulting and blaming the doctors at the slightest mistake when a doctor or health workers commits mistakes, and how the Media attack and criticise. In his personal experience he says ‘Media, or the public never appreciate the dedicated service done by the health authorities or the departmental staff while they save many patients daily.’
The author displays his literal genius by his rich and heart-warming portrait of a medical man and a loving father. He makes the reader at various stages, laugh, cry with the sentiment, and sympathise with emotion-filled with warmth. Finally, the author opens his heart to the reader how the doctor becomes triumphant.
Dr. Athula Withanage is an excellent surgeon who spends more time with patients in listening to patients, a habit he learned in England. He never cares for money and most of the operations he undertakes are free of charge from poor and the helpless. When he concentrates on writing novels, he understands how to bring heroic visions to life. ‘The Pond, Butterflies, and Rainbow’ is a beautiful inspiring romantic story. The author has brought the beautiful heart-warming narration to a climax with subtle elegance.
The writer is confident that
Dr. Athula Withanage’s latest English novel “The Pond, Butterflies, and Rainbow, “ based on the Sinhala story ‘Ran Dola” will become one of the most up to date novels for book lovers in this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, and create a new form of COVID-19 literature.
picture credit: Dr. Athula Withanage