Never Say Die
By Priyangwada Perera
On the thirteenth day after that fateful night at the Mahamodara Hospital, Galle he finds out that there is not going to be a cure. Only physiotherapy. “I was going to be sixteen years old in two more months. It dawned on me that my childhood had collapsed into a woeful state. The wobbly ceiling fan went round and round squeaking, “Woeful…woeful...woeful…” writes Raja Arambewala in his autobiographical work I Flew Over the Mountain.
Born in 1946, as the youngest of a family with eight children Raja Arambewala quite correctly calls it a ‘journey of triumph.’ What the author leaves us with is that triumph while he has taken the hard journey on his own. We have the fortune of taking it easy. But if only we are sensitive enough, if only we are empathetic enough, we cannot help getting totally engrossed with the story - his story, the true story.
What little do we know about Polio? How much do we grumble about our little difficulties in life? When times are tough, we often give up. Our country is full of beggars who are out on the roads and in public transport speaking of various ailments and disabilities. While some are pretenders, some are not faking it at all. It tells us a lot about our country. What kind of a challenge is it to have a young teen collapse with Polio and that too at a time where no cure was possible?
Times have changed and there is more awareness and support for those with disabilities. In fact, it is no more ‘disabled’ but ‘differently-abled.’ However, regardless of fancy terms life can remain the same uphill climb. It would be a tough task to try and figure out what is more painful; to be born with a disability or to have enjoyed life as a perfectly normal human being and then have a tragic turn over of your entire life.
There is a thin line to differentiate the pain between one who is born with a disability and one who meets the same fate later in life. Luckily for Raja Arambewela, his father plays a role larger than life. In the prologue itself the writer pays special tribute to his father. “The words ‘No’ and ‘can’t’ were not in my father’s vocabulary. He also discouraged us using these words. Arambewela’s story is truly a transformation from ‘victim’ to ‘victor.’
The book is important in many ways. On one hand, it is very informative. What little do we know about Polio? Coming from Galle, attending Richmond College, which was a mere five minute walk’s distance from home, young Raja is very active. It is the same boy who overcomes the school bully that gets taken up by the “Crippling” disease in 1962. The ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ of Polio especially in the early days where no cure was certain leaves you with a strange feeling of fear and uncertainty. Disease in the eyes of a child and the rigorous task of overcoming the obstacles is a tale that has to be read.
But the most amazing part of it is not how he did not let Polio cripple him. Instead, it is how it set his spirit soaring, confidence blooming specially in terms of his physical strength. Every decision he makes is a bold one. Not only does Arambewela not let Polio cripple him but he also goes on to do the unthinkable. No, it is not how he becomes a successful professional or the fact that he finds true love. It is in Part 2 of the book that he becomes an outdoor adventurer that takes you by surprise. It takes you on a whole new journey where the daredevil Arambewela sets off through forests and waterfalls, caves and hikes, trails and rivers. He is accompanied by wonderful friends but these are no ordinary picnics. He has his narrow escapes. Becoming one with nature also means facing the unprepared and that is exactly what his experiences are all about. The entire second half is like reading an adventure story but Arambewela becomes your tour guide taking you on the most daring tours. You brave the untrodden paths and have those heart in the mouth moments.
In one sense, it is a story of triumph of a young boy. On the other hand it is the story of success of a strong, wise, determined father. I know people who shy away from reading autobiographies. Such tales are thought to be long, boring tales of self glorification. But I Flew Over the Mountain is much more. It is a tale of courage, finely interwoven with plenty of adventures venturing to the unknown. Definitely a story of courage. But a story where he climbs the unthinkable mountain and flies over to a whole new world.