BATTLING THE WAVES
There are stories and there are stories.
Some of the people behind those stories fade away, others remain etched in your memory forever. The story of the remarkable Captain Elmo Jayawardena is one of those - that you will never forget once you hear it, that is.
News of his book launch came to me during the early days of my book segment, over two years ago. I'll be frank. I'd never heard of him or of his book 'Sam's Story' which had won the prestigious Graetian Prize, instituted by none-other than the Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje. The book had made waves internationally before being picked up Singapore-based publisher Marshall Cavendish. The press release also mentioned the fact that Elmo Jayawardena happens to be a full-time Singapore Airlines pilot who runs a humanitarian organisation when he is not flying planes or writing.
My curiosity to find out more about this man was adequately whetted. So on a rainy Saturday afternoon when I would have liked to be snug with a cup of coffee, I made my way to the book launch at the Library@Orchard. For a minute, I thought I had stepped into the wrong room. The room was packed. The seats were taken - not that I minded standing.
When Captain stepped on the podium, uttered his first line, it drew instant laughs. The first volley was about his best pal's tennis game and it was advantage Elmo. From there he went on to talk about how everyone in the room mattered, how they had in one way or another contributed to AFLAC - the Association For Lighting A Candle - an organisation he had formed to reach out to the less fortunate in Sri Lanka. In fact, all the proceeds from the sale of his book 'Sam's Story' were also to go back to the charity. Speaking of publishing dollars, he told a rapt audience. "I leave the issue of royalties, entirely to my publisher's conscience."
Just why does he do that? That question led me to unravel Elmo's life. 'Sam's Story', which had opened so many literary doors for him was only a small part of the bigger story that Elmo was telling the world. And what a story it turned out to be.
Elmo was born into a reasonably wealthy family. His father was a Sri Lankan fighter pilot who went on to work as a senior captain at Air Ceylon. But at 12, life dealt a cruel blow. His father lost his job and the Jayawardena world collapsed. By the time he was 14, he became the breadwinner, while attending school at the same time. All that was left of the family fortune was a small property where he plucked coconuts.
At the age of 17, he was making fan blades for the Brown's Company. A minor break came when he was working as an accounts clerk and someone showed him a newspaper advertisement calling for air stewards for Air Ceylon. Elmo applied and got the job. Though finding a suitcase for his first flight turned out to be a challenge. After walking through his hometown, he and his mother could only find a big canvas one, that had to be filled up with his and his brother's clothes for his first flight to Bombay. The suitcase turned out to be the butt of all the cabin crew's jokes. For Elmo, those jokes only turned out to be another one of life's many lessons that taught him never to look down on anyone.
Despite those leg-pulling sessions, kindness showed up in strange forms. When a senior colleague who had developed a fondness for Elmo suggested he take flying lessons, he dutifully followed. He went on to clear the prestigious Flying Nine exams and landed a job with Singapore Airlines.
The next couple of years were focused on raising his two children with his wife Dil. In 1995, when their children were older, Elmo and Dil decided it was payback time. Driven by a sense of purpose, but no clear idea of how it would all work, they formed AFLAC. Like all good things, it started small. Backed by funds from foreign and local donors, health and education were and still remain AFLAC's key priority. Since its formation the group has also diversified into the field of shelter, clothing and food.
People came forward from all parts of the world to help and AFLAC grew over the years reaching out to students, cancer patients and anyone in need. That was till the deadly tsunami waves lashed the coastal belt of Sri Lanka. Galle alone had over 5,000 displaced families. Given the enormity of the disaster that faced them, within days, a new direction was charted.
Post-tsunami initiatives included a housing project, a pre-school in the south of Sri Lanka, stipends for students, boats for fishermen.
Today, the charity stands out with the reach that only a gifted writer and an international pilot's connections can bring. While the work may be local, the donors who support it come from all parts of the world. Perhaps what draws them to it, is Elmo and Dil's belief in the proverbial saying : "It's better to light a solitary candle than to curse the darkness."
To think he does all of this between flying passengers on 747s to all parts of the world and writing. I have often asked him about it. "There is no secret formula," he always tells me, "it's all very simple, it's about connecting one person's generosity to another person's need."
I know all of this is easier said than done, which is why as AFLAC's 'Swim for Safety' project takes off on the second anniversary of the tsunami, I can only say a humble Salaam to this amazing Captain.
For more on AFLAC's work and how you can be a part of it visit : www.aflacinternational.com