“if you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon, in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned to live” said a FB post by my friend Joe Qian, quoting Lin Yutang. A power outage meant a move into the cool of the garden. And, here was an afternoon, albeit slipping in to an evening of inky darkness, with my avocado tree playfully trapping and twirling the soft breezes. A learning to live lesson?
The chatter of my next door kids calling “Someone please give us lights,” quite the opposite of “Rain, rain go away,” had subsided. The suburban sounds muted, the moon seemed to have heard the call, as a long strip of soft moonlight fell across my garden. I watched the oddly disc shaped moon rise with a circular halo around it tinged golden. When I held up the mobile camera on my shaky hand the moon came alive as a slippery dancing sliver.
Lying on the grass looking up at the moon, it looked as if it was in a might hurry sailing across the white clouds. The stars were pin dots. A balmy night, a romantic night, with a few flickering fireflies but I wasn’t getting up to get my camera. This was a night for savouring with your eyes and “mind wandering” — mine traversed to my father’s last bike — a tsunami survivor, that I had photographed last Saturday.
Lovingly repaired by my brother Pradeep, it now leans again the wooden staircase leading to the loft area on what in the “Siriniwasa” house we called the “pita kamaraya” — the outside room to the left of the house. The loft room is now bare, but was once occupied by the young males in the family during vacation times when the house held as many as 60 relatives and friends!
The bike was photographed among the debris by a New York Times photographer who came to Sri Lanka to cover the 2004 Tsunami with the NYT reporter Celia Dugger. Soon after I received two sets of prints from Celia with a note, that I have misplaced now. This is a rephotographed copy of what the room looked like then.
The bike survived, most likely as this room opened to the road and wasn’t facing the sea.
In the tales my father used to say, bikes were always there. He had told me about his flirtation with a 13 year old Burgher girl who used to ride on the bar of his bicycle, when he was in Kankesanthurai caring for his brother Haripriya who had TB.
My brother Pradeep says he used to ride on the bar of an earlier bike of my father’s. Pradeep must have been all of 6 years and he would sit on a cushion on the bar and the two of them would go to the family estate Malawenna, in the interior of Hikkaduwa. When it was an uphill climb, father would get down and push the bike but Pradeep would remain seated on the bar. There was one “Edanda” that they had to travel across. This “Edanda” is an elementary bridge and was made using two large coconut trees placed across the river. Then my father would get down and walk on one tree trunk while pushing the bike on the other.
Sometimes, they would stay the night in the estate, sleeping on a big four poster bed with a top canopy over which the mosquito net was draped. This had a provision for tucking in the mosquito net, so creepy crawlies like scorpions or even serpents couldn’t slither in. Pradeep still sleeps on that bed, but my father at one time had butchered the bed by cutting the 4 bedposts that held the canopy and using them as legs to build a table. The bedposts survived the tsunami, while the table top disappeared. Four poster beds are very much the rage now and Pradeep is musing about putting the posts back on the bed.
It was after such a bike visit to the estate that I received a letter in big childish Sinhala writing from Pradeep, which I think I have somewhere. He was giving me living in Liverpool the news — Next door Kumara Aiya brought home a woman — Kumara aiya ‘geniyek genawa” about our neighbhour getting married expressed in the very rural way of bringing home a wife. There were other interesting titbits of news — the toilet in the estate had no door and he didn’t like it!
Thatha had set his sights on a new bike and when he heard Odiris Silva (Pvt) Ltd was opening a shop at Hikkaduwa he had ordered the bike an “Avon,” probably made in India . It was purchased on the first day the shop opened a branch in Hikkaduwa in 1974 and he would happily cycle around, cycle clips holding his trousers in place and a beret or a cap shielding him from the sun. The question was why a ladies bike? The answer probably lies in what our front house neighbhour Lily told me on an earlier visit.
Lily Nona, has lived opposite our house since 1965, when these houses were built by the government for fishermen. Lily had come to Hikkaduwa from Hegoda in Boosa, after her marriage on the 23 February 1946 to S.K. Dharmasena aka “Sudda.”
During a long conversation I had with her, she told me that her mother had told her that my paternal grandfather — my Seeya — K.H. Bastian used to come on his bicycle to visit his estate at Deepagodawatte, off Boosa. The tales she heard were about how Seeya used to bring sweets for the kids in the village and that he rode a lady’s bicycle. Most likely as he used to wear a long cloth and a jacket, which was the customary dress for men before the young turned to wearing trousers.
There was a momentous outcome from these visits. My Seeya had bought the land where he built “Siriniwasa” from Lily’s mother’s or father’s family. It was a partitioned land and the story is that Seeya bought 100 perches at LKR 110/- paying what was a huge sum of LKR 11,000 for the land, when the going rate was LKR 110/- for an acre. A perch is a land measurement that is still in use in Sri Lanka. 160 perches make up an acre. Sadly, the sea has gobbled up quite a bit of the original 100 perches that was Siriniwasa land.
Seeya must have loved the sea, to build on the seashore, when most people avoided building houses near the sea, because of the high maintenance. Lily’s family had celebrated receiving their portion from the sale and related her mother’s recollections of the family buying sacks of rice. This was a time when a “seruwa” [an old measure of rice, less than a kilo] was 8-9 cents; Samba rice seruwa was 14 cents; and a “hundu” [another old measure approx 1 cup] of lentils was 5 cents, says Lily.
While my grandfather rode a ladies bicycle, his sister who had married a wealthy Ambalangoda businessman, drove a Morris Tourer. I let my mind wander to a time in the past when my grandfather and grandmother would be sitting in the verandah having a friendly chat about their brood of seven sons. In drives the feisty sister — Rajapakse Aunt or Rajapakse Nanda– as she was referred to, dressed in a Kambaya ( the traditional long cloth worn as a wrapped around skirt) and the jacket Kabakuruthuwa like Lily’s.
Up jumps the grandfather saying “Here comes the she-devil,” and moves inside, leaving the two sisters-in-law to have a good gossip. Unperturbed by the chauvinist brother, she would enjoy her visit, take a swig of brandy from the hip flask she kept inside the door, and fortified, drive back to Ambalangoda. I suppose there is another lesson to be learned there!