Unexpected pleasures of old photos


It was a regular sound of a banging on a door or a window that woke me up in the middle of the night. Robbers, polecats?– snuggled nicely in bed I debated whether to get up or not but in the end commonsense got better of me and I switched on lights, peered from my window in to the garden. It was the howling winds with a full blown monsoon storm that was spinning my avocado tree in a crazy tango. Thankfully my road was not flooding and my house was dry — not like a couple of years ago when I stepped out of bed into a rising tide of water when a neighbhour woke me up saying “your house is getting flooded!”

Next day, the rain continued to pelt, I kept a wary eye open for signs of flooding but there was not much to lift the gloomy mood till I saw the FB post “Seeya’s Album” from my niece Avanthi in Canada. Her Seeya/Grandfather was my father’s no. 4 brother Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe.

I stayed glued looking over and over at the images — and all the joys of childhood, came stumbling out.

From left my brother Prasanna, my sister Yasoja, cousins Anoma & Hemal & myself with cousin Kithranee in the stroller with cousin Tara. Photo Dr.Richie Kirtisinghe, mid-1950's, Ambalangoda.

From left my brother Prasanna, my sister Yasoja, cousins Anoma & Hemal & myself with cousin Kithranee in the stroller with cousin Tara. Photo Dr.Richie Kirtisinghe, mid-1950’s, Ambalangoda.

We were playing at my uncle’s house in Ambalangoda, where he practiced as a GP. It must have been school holidays and probably a birthday party for my cousin Anoma, his eldest daughter. Looking at it I could even remember the favourite dress I was wearing. My aunt had sewed it for me and there was her embroidered bunch of cherries which would feature in clothes she sewed for my kids too.

Anoma in centre sits in a her toy pedal car with my sister on left and am on the right. Photo Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe.

Anoma in centre sits in a her toy pedal car with my sister on left and am on the right. Photo Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe.

My uncle also ran a clinic a couple of times a week in Hikkaduwa, so we did see him and the family frequently and the kids ended up on the beach.

Anoma and Yasoja building sandcastles. Photo Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe. circa 1950's, Hikkaduwa.

Anoma and Yasoja building sandcastles. Photo Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe. circa 1950’s, Hikkaduwa.

Hemal a tad grumpy that his sandcastle wasn't holding up. Photo Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe.

Hemal a tad grumpy that his sandcastle wasn’t holding up. Photo Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe.

It was not just fun looking at the childhood pics, but Avanthie has set us on a course to identify — who was in the photos. Interesting stories started emerging as my cousins Kithranee and Hemal recounted days with their father and the stories behind the stash of 87 pics.

This portrait of a teenage Anoma, who is sadly not with us anymore, was taken by my father’s youngest brother, Bertie, the second doctor in the family. He had a very good practice in Moratuwa and was the most prolific photographer out of the Kirtisinghe brothers. We all posed for him and some family group photos show that he had used wide-angled lenses too.

Portrait of Anoma by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe. circa 1960s, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka.

Portrait of Anoma by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe. circa 1960s, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka.

Uncle Richie or Richie Mahappa as we called him in the traditional form of address for a father’s elder brother, was very proud of his days  as a cadet and then later joined the Sri Lankan Army.

Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe, as a young cadet. Taken in a studio, photographer unknown. Circa late 1920s or early 1930s.

Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe, as a young cadet. Taken in a studio, photographer unknown. Circa late 1920s or early 1930s.

In the medley of pics of birthdays and the picnics were the ones of the start of his marriage to my aunt.  He had given this photo of himself in uniform to his betrothed Esmeralda, Esme for short daughter of Mrs. AP Fernando of Moratuwa.

Dr. Richie Kirtisnghe as a Doctor in the Sri Lankan Army. Photographer unknown. Circa early 1940s.

Dr. Richie Kirtisnghe as a Doctor in the Sri Lankan Army. Photographer unknown. Circa early 1940s.

She in turn gave him her photo when they got engaged.

Esmeralda Fernando before her marriage to Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe. Circa 1940's.

Esmeralda Fernando before her marriage to Dr. Richie Kirtisinghe. Circa 1940’s.

At the time of their engagement he was in the army and staying at the barracks where the Navy Headquarters are now in Fort. “It was the time the Japanese bombed Colombo. His batman had hid this photo under his pillow and had then run away,” says cousin Kithranee.

He was the longest surviving brother out of the 7 Kirtisinghe’s and whenever I visited him in later life, he recounted his days in the army.  I was surprised to learn that before his engagement, he’d go ballroom dancing in the night. My austere grandmother was better off not knowing about his dancing days but I suppose she effectively cut it short by finding him a suitable wife.

The dancing was in dancing halls very likely introduced by the Brits, for people to meet and socialise.  All dancers had a card which filled up with the partners names for each dance. Once he said a a young Burgher girl saw his card was blank for the last dance and asked him to dance. It was a difficult dance for him– a tango but he did well and only learned later that she was a dance teacher. After these night outs he would come back late to his barracks and then change into his uniform and go to sleep. That he would say with a characteristic chuckle got him for the morning drills in time!

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4 thoughts on “Unexpected pleasures of old photos

  1. Beautifully written Chulie Loku amma!
    Seeya loved to talk about his time in the army and growing up, I heard numerous stories about the dance parties. He had even saved his last dance card from sometime in the 1930s. My favourite though was the one he used tell me about how he almost married an Indian princess/nurse during the war but had to come home instead – I’m not quite sure how much of it was made up solely for my benefit but it was such a great story! 🙂

    • Possibly true — apparently Hikkaduwa Achchi’s word was law. The only one who defied him and married was Vinnie Seeya. Then she said “Vinnie was my most obedient son, but he did the most disobedient thing.” Though my parents marriage was a love affair — she approved of it — as Amma was a granddaughter of a Mudliyar!!! Lots more stories:-)

  2. Ancestors – particularly recent ones – are grear fun. The taller the tales, the greater the fun. The Army Officer belongs the “Ceylon Medical Corps” (CMC) and is a Lieutenant in the picture.. His hospital is now being built over by a Hotel site. My youngest uncle (now 96+), as an Apothecary, was a Warrant Officer in the same Unit and had his quarters at Echelon Barracks (Remember?)
    As a teacher at Ananda I worked with Vinnie who, it is said, explained how an A-bomb was made the day after Hiroshima! Tales get taller all the time!

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