BY Krishantha Prasad Cooray
There are things one can say and things one cannot say about a friend. There are things that can be said in private and not in public. There are things that can be said at a specific moment in time but never before or after.
Today, I sit and write about my friend, Sisira Mendis, because the time is right to say out loud what needs to be said about this extraordinary officer of the Sri Lanka Police.
Sisira retired from service a few days ago. Retirement is as good a landmark as any for a man to look back on his life and reflect on the vague, indeterminate, relaxing and awesome foreboding called the ‘future.’ It is a good moment for someone like me who has known Sisira for more than two decades to give voice to my memories holding nothing back, fearing the censure of a modest man or being worried about embarrassing him.
I met him, as I said, 20 years ago through his wife Sharmalee, who was at the time one of my colleagues and a dear friend. We have been very close ever since that first meeting and Sisira has never been too far from my thoughts even if circumstances put physical distance between us.
He was DIG-Narcotics when he retired, but was and always will be known as a ‘CID person,’ having spent around 35 years in that sphere of police work, holding in turn the posts of Deputy Director, Director and Deputy Inspector General.
Sisira is not the only senior police officer I have known and associated with closely. Sisira is not one to ask and I am not one to tell, so he might not know of the warm, endearing, respectful and admiring terms that his colleagues, superiors and subordinates use to describe him. They only reaffirmed what I already knew: that he was a driven, passionate human being, possessing exceptional skills, hailed quite rightly as a man of discipline, integrity and a wonderful work-ethic and as such, a rarity not just in the Sri Lanka Police but in the country as well.
Much has been said about Sisira’s prowess in the police force and how he distinguished himself in that field; so I would like to dwell instead on the human being I am privileged to know.
As a person who spent a few years in the media industry, I can say without hesitation that friendship with a man of his stature would be considered an asset by anyone interested in gathering facts and information. This was not the case though with Sisira. He never divulged unnecessary information, not even amongst those he considered intimate associates.
His first and last point of reference in everything he said and did was his responsibility to the police and the need to do justice by his position. He never compromised himself because he knew this would damage his employer and the institution he loved and dedicated his most productive years to serve.
I remember him hanging up on me once when I called him on his mobile. He was driving and rattled out the following words: ‘I will call you back…there are cops on the road!’ He did call me back. I teased him: “You are a rare policeman Sisira. You are DIG/CID. You could have easily picked up the call and talked to me. You could have said ‘I will call you back’ but needn’t have said ‘there are cops on the road.’” I will never forget his response. “As a senior policeman, I should not insult subordinates and I should always respect the law.”
Those words epitomize Sisira Mendis through and through; his profound sense of honour and conscientiousness at all times, never bending the rules for reasons of convenience. Sisira never put himself in a position that would compromise his integrity, even in a matter of perception. If someone wanted to meet him for some ostensibly social purpose, Sisira would invite the person to the Senior Police Officers’ Mess, because in that environment, he would be in control. He would foot the bill. Always. He was a rare professional of exceptional quality. His word was his bond and he never promised what his ability and his integrity did not permit him to deliver. Here was a man who walked the line unafraid; Truth and Justice were his raison d’être and simplicity the sine qua non of his existence.
We live in times when political loyalty is the bottom line. This is true of all sectors of the public service. There are officers who align themselves with one or another of the political parties. They leave themselves open to be used as tools and indeed they are more than happy to oblige. Sisira, was in a class by himself. He was not arrogant. But he was not interested in being a foolish hero either. He did his job, making sure that the law was fairly interpreted and justly executed.
One recalls a different era when a parent would be proud to have a son in the police and so too a child whose father was an officer. Times have changed and now there is as much pride as there is embarrassment and sadly, probably more of the latter. It is people like Sisira Mendis who keep hope alive and give stature to an institution that ought to stand much taller than it appears to today.
In all the years I have known him, I have understood that Sisira sets a great store by friendship. His loyalty to his friends is beyond question; beyond reproach. He would put his own hand in the fire for you, even if the whole world was against you, yet Sisira believed you were in the right. I know this through personal experience. He saved my life. Justice was important to him and while he would stick his neck out to defend you because you were right, he would never venture to defend you if he felt you were in the wrong. He would stand beside you and ensure you did not feel isolated and abandoned, but would never support what he felt was an erroneous decision or wrongful course of action, especially if the law was somehow compromised in the process.
We all retire. In this vein, I am reminded of the wise words of Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet: “If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: The readiness is all.’ Sisira was always ready. There are a few public officers we wish were excused from retirement-regulations. Sisira is one of them, but that would be beyond the bounds of his humble and rational thinking. Those of us who know him, know better. During his illustrious tenure of service to the nation, Sisira has acquired such a wealth of knowledge on all things human and the intricacies of running an institution and managing human resources efficiently, that there is no doubt that he leaves the Sri Lanka Police hopelessly impoverished in the wake of his departure.
I am no clairvoyant so I don’t know what life after the police would be like for Sisira Mendis. I am certain of a few things, however. I know that Sisira will remain an honourable human being and a man who will undoubtedly continue to serve, with distinction, any organisation or community that is privileged to next count him among its ranks. Speaking strictly for myself, as far as I am concerned, Sisira has not retired and never will.
Friendships don’t have expiry dates outside of those imposed by the laws of nature. Fate brings us together, friendship keeps us close. I am richer for having the privilege of his friendship. For that I am grateful.