Imran Bisthamin: A Tragedy On Several Levels
By Emil van der Poorten
When I returned to an active role in the Kandy Sports Club (KSC) a short while ago, what I didn’t anticipate were events on the rugby field reflecting life in the broader Sri Lankan arena. When the league part of this season’s rugby was tapering off, KSC had what amounted to a ‘grudge match’ with the Sri Lanka Navy team, a game graced by the presence of the parents of three of the navy players, President and Mrs. Rajapaksa.
I have previously detailed events at that game, goings-on that didn’t provide what is often referred to as the Senior Service with much to take pride in.
In any event, what I didn’t refer to then was the presence at this game of Imran Bisthamin, a brilliant young rugby player who captained the rugby team of St. Anthony’s College, Kandy, as well as the provincial schools team in the early years of this century. From 2004 onwards, Imran successfully transferred his skills to the KSC team and on to the national level both in the ‘7s’ and the full version of the game. However, a career that promised to rise to even greater heights was cut off in mid-stride, as it were, by a near-fatal fall from the upper level of a restaurant in Kandy’s George E. De Silva Park to the concrete below.
How Imran and his friends came to be there in the first place could provide script material for a mini-tragedy for a movie or television.
In addition to playing classically well at his position of ‘Number 8’, half effective forward and half scintillating back, Imran earned the affection of his team-mates and everyone else who came in contact with him for his warm and unassuming manner and his loyalty to his club. He became an automatic selection for the national side and was considered a ‘shoo-in’ for the Asian 5 Nations Tournament to be held in Chinese Taipei in 2008. He was, in fact, selected.
However, the story took a typically Sri Lankan turn at this point.
A Powerful Parent of a player vying for the same position that Imran had been selected for, “put in a word” to those in control of the game at the time and, lo and behold, Imran was axed and the Powerful Parent’s son took his place on the roster!
A side-bar here might be appropriate: the Minister of Sport at the time, Gamini Lokuge, could not have, on the basis of personal experience, been able to differentiate between a rugby ball and the spherical object used in golf!
Even the selection committee resigning en masse in protest at this blatant irregularity and injustice did not shake the Minister. His decision stood. This chain of events began the slide to the depths of sycophancy of one of the few sports bodies that had displayed integrity up to then, a descent that has yet to find the bottom of that particular swamp.
While shock waves went through the rugby community at the blatant injustice of what had occurred, the impact on a trusting young man who had given his all to the game can well be imagined.
In a word, Imran was devastated as were his parents. Here was a brilliant young athlete having all that he believed in the matter of fairness and decency shot down before his very eyes.
The events that followed ensured that young Imran Bisthamin was to have a bright rugby career with almost limitless possibilities completely destroyed.
In an effort to soften the blow, that fairy godfather of KSC rugby, Malik Samarawickrema, made arrangements for a two-week holiday in Britain for the young player.
On his return from this brief sojourn, he and his friends arranged to go out for a meal at a little restaurant in George E. De Silva Park in the heart of Kandy town.
Shortly after their meal, “Bisthy’s” cell phone rang and he moved away from his friends in order to ensure quiet and privacy for his conversation. As was his wont, he leaned against what he thought was a peripheral half wall, except that there was no wall under the fabric that was draped at that point of the room! Imran went head-first onto the concrete a dozen feet below.
The surgeons, physicians and staff at the hospital stretched every sinew to save the young athlete’s life and, given the very serious head injuries he had sustained, did a truly remarkable job on the young man. In fact, the world-class surgeons in Singapore to whose care Imran was entrusted shortly afterwards, said that their Sri Lankan colleagues had done brilliantly and there was nothing they could improve on.
It has been a long uphill road to recovery in the nearly two intervening years. While “Bisthy” has done remarkably well considering the gravity of his injuries, the likelihood of his returning to competitive rugby is problematic, at best.
A large part of Bisthy’s successful recovery can be attributed to the devoted parents he has been blessed with. His mother, Faiza, very often accompanies him to the Nittawela grounds where, as a part of the rehabilitation which includes physiotherapy at the hospital, he insists on walking round the grounds several times until his friends insist that he does not “over do” that part of his exercise.
He began to attend KSC rugby matches this year, culminating with joining the team for the photograph taken on the podium after the presentation of the Clifford Cup at Bogambara on August 1. On that occasion, the attendant crowd greeted his presence with applause louder than even that accorded their national champion KSC team!
For me though, the most impressive and touching display of affection that I have ever encountered at a sporting event took place at the game with a reference to which I began this piece, when the Navy played KSC earlier this season at Nittawela.
My spouse and I, the presidential entourage and his security contingent were housed in the ‘Distinguished Guests’ area together with Imran and his friends and family.
During the course of the game, the word appeared to have reached the large crowd that Imran was in the stands and, by game’s end, they had located Bisthy and gathered, many hundreds strong, on the grounds below us, looking up and chanting the young rugby player’s name.
I could see several fans with tears welling in their eyes and, in some instances, they were weeping unashamedly as they acknowledged the young player’s presence.
These were not members of some elite clad in Gucci with expensive watches on their wrists. These were ‘ordinary’ folk from Kandy and its environs to whom the price of entry to a rugby game would have involved a significant financial sacrifice.
While the politicians and their hangers-on present on the occasion epitomised opportunism in the country we call home, here were ‘ordinary’ Sri Lankans displaying something worthwhile that still survived in our society: appreciation of a young man who had dazzled them with his rugby skills but who may never do so again. May I close this account with a couple of toasts?
Imran Bisthamin, may you make a complete recovery of the health that your parents and those who love you so want for you!
Kandy Sports Club fans, may you continue to demonstrate what true loyalty, affection and friendship is all about!