An aunt, a house, and of joys on the beach at Hikkaduwa


I have always waited with bated breath for the holidays to begin at Hikkaduwa, to be embraced by the warmth of that house, Siriniwasa, hear in the winds that came through the grove of coconut trees whisper of the joys of many who have been here before us.

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photgraph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photgraph©Chulie de Silva

For me, Siriniwasa was not just a house of bricks and mortar – for it is a house that has lived with us, witnessing births, marriages, sicknesses and the pain of death. It has become a companion that walked with me whenever I was away from it, the joys of memories sustaining me in difficult times. It remains an integral part of all of us who have loved within it.  Many of us remember with a smile the spirit and all it stood for – solid family values and that Southern hospitality.  We all leave our footprints in the sand, embed our laughter in its walls and will leave in its virtual archives an unconditional love for the joys it gave us.

Then it was always summer. ... Photograph copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe.

Then it was always summer. … Photograph copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe.

Today I share with you this story by my aunt Maya Senanayake, which will resonate with many who have enjoyed the naturally rich playground of the sea and the beach behind Siriniwasa.

Her Hikkaduwa Nanda, was my paternal grandmother SK Pintohamy. She more than anyone set the values that my father followed of a house always open to visitors. I’ve been told that Pintohamy was a formidable matriarch and many stories abound of her but I can only doff my hat, so to speak, at this diminutive lady who brought up seven sons instilling in them values that are hard to find today.

Nostalgia and family stories are the grey literature, and these aural stories are often not penned. So it is a pleasure to read the story of my Maya Nanda.  She paints a picture of her a childhood filled with joy in her Kandy house and in our much loved house by the sea –Siriniwasa. Interestingly, although sands of time have shifted, our childhood was not much different and my brother Prasanna as a playmate was not much different from her Bertie Aiya. …

The sea behind Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa,  Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The sea behind Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa,
Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The sea roared in my ears. The waves hurled themselves at the reef with a boom. The breeze plucked at my hair and my white saree billowed out around me. I would have to go in soon, I thought, but not for a while. Everybody had gathered at the house – relations and friends of my childhood – my childhood, how it was bound up with this place, with Hikkaduwa.

Hikkaduwa nenda at her son Richie's house at Ambalangoda. With her is Anoma, Richies's eldest daughter. Photographer unknown. circa 1947/48.

Hikkaduwa Nanda at her son Richie’s house at Ambalangoda. With her is Anoma, Richies’s eldest daughter, who is also sadly not with us today. Photographer unknown. circa 1947/48.

As every child does, we would count the days towards the holidays, but not every child was as fortunate as we, my brothers and myself, to spend them by the sea.

The Cinnamon stick fence is still there, marking the boundary of the private property. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The Cinnamon stick fence is still there, marking the boundary of the private property. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Hikkaduwa Nanda, my father’s sister, lived with her family of seven sons right on the beach at Hikkaduwa, with her back garden ending with its fence of cinnamon sticks almost at the edge of the water. The little bay was sheltered from the waves by a curve of reef – strong enduring and protecting. Outside the sea was dark, unknown and sometimes menacing, but within it was calm, familiar and inviting.

My brothers and I only knew my aunt as Hikkaduwe Nanda. She was one of the three sisters who loved and nurtured my father, when their mother died four months after my father’s birth. I cannot at this moment recall her given name, I think it was Pintohamy. I only know that I loved all three aunts but had a special soft corner for Hikkaduwe Nanda.

Back row left to right: Richie, Albert, Edmund (who has returned from UK after his MA, Lionel & Vinnie; seated Bennie & Bertie with their parents. Photographer not known circa 1920's.

Back row left to right: Richie, Albert, Edmund (who has returned from UK after graduating with a MA, Lionel & Vinnie; seated Bennie & Bertie with their parents. Photographer not known circa 1920’s.

She was married to a very kind, loving land-owner of Hikkaduwa. He was tall and handsome and we all loved him too. They started their family with the eldest boy, Edmund, and ended up with seven sons and no daughters. Edmund, Lionel, Albert, Vinnie, Richie, Bennie and Bertie.

Portrait of Maya at 16 by Maisie de Silva, 1942. from the catalogue of the Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings & Drawings, Oct. 20-23, 2000.

Portrait of Maya at 16 by Maisie de Silva, 1942. from the catalogue of the Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings & Drawings, Oct. 20-23, 2000.

As a result I became Nangi (younger sister) to my 7 cousins as well as to my own two brothers, who were known as Malli and Andy. (The younger of my brothers, whose name was Parakrama, was better known to the cousins as Malli). Holidays spent at Hikkaduwa were a dream.

The youngest son, Bertie, lived with us during the term, schooling with us at the college in Kandy where my mother taught and my father was the Head. We lived on top of a hill outside the town where the school was, in a bungalow, which to me was the most beautiful in the world. It was appropriately called ‘Lake View’ as, on a clear day, it was a breath-taking sight to look out from the verandah over the lush greenery of the hillside and see, far below in Kandy Town, the Lake with its little island.

Bertie Aiya became a third brother to me. The boys too accepted him and he often had to be the buffer between us when their teasing got too much for me. He was a studious boy, determined to do well in life, but at the same time he would have us in fits of laughter at his jokes and clowning. The only photograph of him in our album is one in which he is standing on his head My father had a stream of his sisters’ sons staying with us through the years, but Bertie Aiya was the closest to us in age and shared our predilection for jamboos straight from the tree and unripe mangoes cut up with salt and chillies.

Ours was a happy household. Amma, wrapped up as she was in her teaching and her many pupils who needed her advice and guidance, left household matters in the able hands of Agida, who had come at the age of nine to be my companion when I was a toddler, and stayed to be our capable house-keeper, the mainstay of our house. To us kids, Amma was person who could always answer a question, who, at the meals, which we always shared together, would talk to us about any and every subject. She believed that a child’s question, however embarrassing the subject, should be answered truthfully and never turned aside. Sometimes on a Saturday or a Sunday, when everybody was relaxed, we would start with a late breakfast and sit on around the table after the dishes were cleared talking, laughing and playing games till it was time for lunch. Amma’s bed meant to us all the comfort and security in the world as we snuggled in en masse on Saturday and Sunday mornings – to read snippets from the newspapers and plan outings, or just to breathe in the powdery, sweet Amma scent.

Beautiful as Lake View was, once the holidays started it was without a backward glance that we packed up our bathing suits and a few beach clothes and left for the seaside. It is probable that it was with a sigh of relief that our parents saw us off at the railway station. They both needed a complete rest each vacation if they were to work with renewed vigour each term. Running a school and teaching in those days meant a daily battle for funds, for public support, and for a continuous renewal of their fund of tact, good humour and enthusiasm with which to inspire those who worked with them. At the same time, the teachers of that day dedicated their lives to their profession, making the progress of their pupils their personal responsibility and pride. Actually, I always felt that in the face of the energy and example of my parent, their associates had no choice but to give of their best.

So, from an atmosphere of academic authority – we children were never allowed to ‘cut’ school on any account unless a doctor had to be actually called in – from such at background, we were transported to a completely different life. Hikkaduwa meant the sea, first and foremost.

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa 31 March 2013. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa lovingly restored by my brother Pradeep Kritisinghe and my nephew Matheesha Kirtisinghe. 31 March 2013, Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The house ‘Siriniwasa’, was beautiful – built in a graceful, traditional style. No right-minded Southerner built his house facing the sea – it should face the road. There was more sense in this than you might think at first as, during the South-West monsoon in Sri Lanka the sea can become a fierce, angry enemy. The waves mount higher and higher even within the reef, to tear at the beach, carving out great scoops of sand, leaving the coconut trees on the beach bereft of their bearings. The raging winds take over, spreading a salty film over everything, sticky and corroding. Then one is glad to be able to close up the back of the house and sit tight, locked away from the sea till the winds die down and the waves subside.

Coral that was used to build a wall at Siriniwasa, discovered when the tsunami damaged house was being repaired. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Coral that was used to build a wall at Siriniwasa, discovered when the tsunami damaged house was being repaired. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

This house had seen many monsoons come and go and weathered them sturdily. It was compact, the rooms ranged round the central courtyard – the’Meda Midula’, a feature common to most Southern houses of the period. On rainy days we loved to bathe in the rain that poured through a gutter into the paved central space. It compensated somewhat for losing a day of sea bathing.

The high roof and some of the decorative boards escaped the wrath of the tsunami. Nov.9 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The high roof and some of the decorative boards escaped the wrath of the tsunami. Nov.9 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

To build a good house in those days was to use plenty of decoration, and Siri Niwasa certainly a house of standing. The eaves were decorated with wooden patterns rather like the icing on a cake. The doors and windows were surmounted by arches of wood carved in intricate designs. There were more carved panels everywhere, which were works of art and lent an air of delicacy.

As there were no daughters to help my aunt, the brothers took up the tasks of buying the fish from the boats that used to be drawn up close the house, helping with the cleaning and management of the house, and, of course, looking after and entertaining us cousins. My Aunt had no qualms about leaving me in their care.

Choosing and buying the fish was a terrific responsibility. Their duty was to inspect the fish as soon as the boats were beached just behind the house. We would all crowd round the boat and admire their beautiful colours, and the experts would choose what their mother would approve of as they taught us their names.

Thrownet fisherman Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Rex Ian de Silva

Thrownet fisherman Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Rex Ian de Silva

The brothers took us swimming, sometimes in the morning and the afternoon – and the evening! I used to tell people that we bathed before breakfast, before lunch and in the afternoon. By the age of 5, I was a competent swimmer, but I loved to be taken by the elder boys to watch the fish – brilliantly coloured, swimming through the coral garden. The boys would make a box with a glass bottom and I would cling onto their backs so that, as they swam, they could tell me the names of the large variety of fish a few yards from the shore. Who could ask for more!! At times we would go up to the reef wearing canvas shoes to counter the sharp coral.

There must have been hundreds of species of fish as well as beautiful coral and fearsome poisonous fish such as the Scorpion Fish that had a very painful way of stinging any intruder.

I believe that my grandfather, Walter Francis Westbrook who came with my grandmother, Jessie Duncan Westbrook, from England in 1928 to visit their daughter, my mother, and family, was stung by one of these fish and had to go to hospital to be treated.

In my mind’s eye I can see our group preparing to go into the sea. Being only five I was allowed to go in my panties. I would speak to Nenda, my aunt, and race behind the crowd of boys, nine including my brothers and the tenth was my girl cousin Enid, who almost lived with us under the care of my mother at other times.

The house at Hikkaduwa was a masterpiece of design in the traditional fashion. It still stands by the side of the main road that runs through from Ambalangoda to Galle. The sad part is that the Tsunami that hit the eastern and southern coasts of our Island in December 2004 destroyed the reef that harboured the beautiful coral reef and the fish that lived in  its shelter. The black filthy water that overran the house and property destroyed the rear of part of the house.

In November 2007, I went back to Hikkaduwa. It took some time, courage, and longing to do this.

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. According to Aunt Maya, my grandfather would light a huge hurricane lamp in the evening and keep it on top of the safe.The tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. According to Aunt Maya, my grandfather would light a huge hurricane lamp in the evening and keep it on top of the safe.The tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Since the tsunami, my heart has been heavy with sadness and despair at the havoc it wreaked on our country, but I must admit that the thought that “Siriniwasa”, my beloved Aunt’s family house by the sea in Hikkaduwa, was a victim, ravaged by the sea’s fury, was foremost in my mind.

I tried to think why this should happen but could find no answer to console me.

My cousin Bennie’s wife who lived there with her elder son and his family, was devastated at the death of her elder son who was struck down by the wave as a part of the wall fell on him. Manel and her daughter who was with her at the time, managed to escape the tide with the help of the younger boy and his friends who came to the rescue.

My heart still turns to Hikkaduwa when I remember that when my Aunt came to my wedding she brought with her a beautiful gold and pearl bangle as her present and insisted on giving it to me herself.

When my new husband Stanley Senanayake and I returned to Colombo, it broke my heart to hear that my Aunt had passed away. I had to go to the funeral alone as it was not considered auspicious for me to go together with my husband.

The beach behind Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The beach behind Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

As I walked on the beach that day in my white saree alone I was filled with sorrow and regret that everything would not be the same for me without her.

Postscript:

My grandmother SK Pintohamy had insisted on taking the gift for Aunty Maya to be given on the wedding day. When my father has said you can give the gift when she comes after the wedding to visit you, she had said “who knows whether I will be living then!”

She fell sick after a visit to her son Richie in Ambalangoda. On her return she had had a bath and supervised the plucking of coconuts from the back garden at Siriniwasa. She probably caught a chill, fell sick and sadly died from a cardiac arrest following an asthma attack, on the 19 January 1948. She was 62 years old and was cremated on the 20 January 1948, against the locally held belief that funerals should not be held on a Tuesday.  Not sure whose decision it was, but probably the Western educated sons but that’s another story.

At the funeral, a Hikkaduwa poet has sung her praises in a long poem — comparing her to a string of pearls that adorned the neck of Hikkaduwa. My late maternal uncle Nissanka could recite the long verses from memory. Sadly, that part of history is lost now.

Related Stories:

One Summer at Hikkaduwa

A century old family photo. …

Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

Letters from my father Bennie: travels with Rati

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7 thoughts on “An aunt, a house, and of joys on the beach at Hikkaduwa

  1. Very nicely written. Grand memoirs. BTW, P De S Kularatna was SKP de Silva when he was young and his name adores Richmond College name board for academic excellence. Another great product who won the Medal was CWW Kannangara- Father of Free Education. Even today it is hung in the Hall. You may take a photo when you visit Galle. Just mention my name to the Principal Mr. Ekanayake or VP Mr. Gamini Jayawarena they will open the hall for you for a photo.

  2. Thanks Austin, will do. The good news is that I started rummaging through a second box of letters from my father. Lo and behold, the second letter I opened had three verses of the “shoka prakshaya” by Hikkaduwe Amarasena at my Achchi’s funeral:-) Will post later.

    • This may be interesting. I remember walking to Sinhala Iskole passing Hikkaduwa poet of repute BH Amarasena’s house down the road. Now that road is called BH Amarasena Mawatha running across Kirahandigoda. The Shoka Prakaasha of the old days had died. The usual practice was to distribute the printed Shoka Prakaasha for which there was a mad rush, and we as brats used to jump up to get hold of one, competing with the elders!

  3. It certainly is. I don’t think the printed ones survived — am so happy to have found these three verses:-) B.H. Amarasena is listed as a great poet who entertained the people with his impromptu verses and poetry from 1925 to 1951. I traced that there is one published book of his poetry.

  4. Chuli, Thank you.
    You speak of the end of an era, when people were ‘human’ and generosity in born,
    only memories remain. Glad you are recording it. Ashley

  5. Aloha Chuli,
    I agree with Ashley re that era. My ancestry comes from Don Hendrick Stuge DeSilva of Henegama Akuressa. I am sorry to say the generations in the lineage that followed would have been a disappointment to him if he was alive to see them, starting with my father’s generation, who was his, grandson who he brought up.
    It was great reading your childhood memories and just to mention that my partner’s name is Maya. We had a Chubbs safe in our tea factory office as well as in the bungalow I grew up in.
    Thanks Ajith

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