‘Ray’ was a radical who few knew about. Sadly, Sri Lankans never quite understood his worth, and his inventions were only taken ‘seriously’ by the Japanese and the British, who went on to produce his legendary invention the ‘hand tractor’ and as history’s irony would have it, have them imported to Sri Lanka !
A little boy’s dream come true
My first introduction to Dr. Ray Wijewardene was as a ‘little boy’ of eight or nine. My mother worked at the Arthur Clarke Center – and the ‘Center’ in conjunction with the University of Moratuwa held an annual ‘Science Workshop’ for young undergraduates. It was three or four days of lectures, demonstrations and many ‘cutting edge’ principles – which I was privy to in awe (none of which I understood of course, but tagged along with Ammi during the holidays as I had no place better to go !)
It was at one of these events that Ray gave a demonstration of his famous bicycles and ‘hand made’ flying ‘contraptions’ (his words not mine – for a two seater small plane powered by a motorcycle engine.)
I was wrapped. I could not take my eyes off it. I howled and cried and insisted that I go on it. My mother was petrified, and needless to say, utterly embarrassed. But I persisted, and nothing my mother did or said stopped my persistent howling.
Ray heard me, and walked up to me, and asked me ‘you want to go ?’ and I was ecstatic – ‘yes !’ was all I could mutter ! He turned to my mom – nearly fainting at this point, and assured her that it was ‘perfectly safe’ and off we went – for nearly half an hour over Ratmalana and Colombo !
He came back, got me out of my seat – gave me back to my mom and made a passing remark ‘cheeky bugger isn’t he ?’ with a twinkle in his eye. This was my first flight ever – and his generosity never fails to astonish me !
Many many years afterwards, Fayaz and I tagged team to do a series of interviews on MTV called ‘Nothing Personal’ and Ray’s name was floated as a possible candidate for an interview. I could not believe it – I will meet him again ! He refused – and asked Fayaz and me to make an ‘appearance’ to ‘get to know us’ and ‘find out why we wanted an interview’
I went along with Fayaz to his residence, and was greeted by a rather older Ray – who beckoned us to his ‘den’. He insisted we had a ‘drink’ with him – and punned jokes at Fayaz who politely refused !
At the end of the evening, he accepted the invitation – but warned us ‘I am not really all that interesting son – but if you REALLY want to interview me – talk a little loud – I am tone deaf !’ He laughed – looking at our surprised faces ‘I am not joking son – I am actually quite hard of hearing !’
Such humility is rarely seen in people – and when it comes our way, it truly is refreshing !
‘Replacing the ox’
Probably the one thing Dr. Ray would be most remembered for is the ‘hand tractor’ that he so ingeniously invented. I guess we will never quite know exactly how the inspiration came, but, in an interview we had with him, he did mention in his jovial way that everyone, including the then government of Sri Lanka thought it was simply ‘stupid’ and that the tractor had to have 4 wheels – and that if he comes up with something with 4 wheels, they would take a look at it at that point ! (I guess the absolute short sightedness of our government is a legacy !)
So, not quite knowing exactly how to commercialize his idea, he went on a small tour – armed with a short film about his invention. The British and the Japanese took instant interest, and gave him the opportunity to produce his invention : and so came the Massey Ferguson and Kubota tractors – and, ironically, they are now imported en masse to Sri Lanka !
I remember Dr. Ray telling us that he severely underestimated the interest in his invention. One of the plant managers told him he had to produce 500 – and he actually meant 500 thousand !!! Dr. Ray had almost died of shock – and he admits fondly that he had no idea how he was going to sell so many units !
With production being sorted out, Dr. Ray took a world tour, all across Asia and agricultural countries around the world, talking to governments and organizations about the ‘hand tractor’ that will replace the ox in many countries ! Today, in most rural communities around the world, his invention works tirelessly to bring much needed economies of scale to poor farmers !
Probably one of the little known facts about Dr. Ray is that he was the inventor behind the ‘flying machine’ in James Bond – Octopussy. He was put to the task by his good friend Arthur Clark – and he admitted that he was thrilled – and at the same time, quite nervous about the challenging task of making the ‘toy’ that James Bond would use personally !
Dr. Ray ought to know – he has been making planes and helicopters almost all his adult life – and of course, ever so often, crash landing them on utterly unsuspecting places ! He did tell us the story of one time crash landing on Geoffrey Bawa’s residence in Lunuganga !
On another occasion he landed his aircraft on Dharmapala Mawatha – and when astonished cops asked him what he was up to, he simply remarked ‘I want to go to the gents – and so, landed to go to my toilet (his house was across the road). When the police started telling him he was doing something illegal, he has (legend has it !) simply got back into the plane and said ‘that is why I am getting out’ and flew back out !
Living life to the fullest
When I met Dr. Ray last he was in his eighties – but yet, a man full of life and a great zest for all life has to offer. I remember him talking about taking a ‘steam engined’ raft along the Maha Oya a couple of weeks before we met him. I pictured him in khaki shorts, white socks, boots and hat, smoking a pipe and enjoying a bourbon and navigating the ‘contraption’ like the voyagers and explorers of old (my mind pictured Indiana Jones !)
What struck me most was his enthusiasm and daring. He was not afraid : he was not wasting time : he was not going to waste a single moment : traits I solemnly promised I would take on to my own life !
For many years, Dr. Ray has talked about alternative energy sources, and for years he had a live ‘model’ of an energy source powered by burning fast growing types of timber (cutting only the branches and allowing the tree itself to grow) in his estate. No one sadly took note – but probably, someone will, and like his tractor, we may one day import this technology to Sri Lanka ! (oh bitter double irony should it happen !)
Fair-well – till we meet again…
It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that Dr. Ray is no more. I had long wanted to take an expedition with him – and to coax him to taking me up on his plane again : all of which I must now never know the joy of having done with him.
Rest in peace Sir : you will forever be someone I would cherish and remember…
Fair-well, until we meet again…