A century ago, my father is born and I still miss him…

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe was born on a day like today 13 May, a century ago, in 1918. He was the second son to be born in the house “Siriniwasa” in Hikkaduwa. My grandfather K.H. Bastian De Silva built the house by the sea, and later my father inherited it. Hikkaduwa, then would have been a sleepy little town, with a few brick houses, a few thatched houses but the sea within the fringing coral reef would have been clear with beautiful corals and swarming with exotic fish.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002 the year my father died. Photo© Chulie de Silva

My father is not with us anymore. Even as I write, I think where are you now? Can you see us from a lofty perch or have you been born again somewhere? My father and I had a long correspondence from the time I first left his house to go to school in Panadura and then after I married and left his house when I was 19 . My mother once scribbled on the margin of an aerogramme “The second daughter is father’s best friend.” He was a father who mothered me, who named me, the second name being Lakshmi as the horoscope readers told him that I would bring him luck. A fact he believed in all his life and it was not unusual to get a call or a note to visit him, hoping his luck will change or I could magically sort out some family quarrel.


Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Photo Copyright Chulie De Silva

Replying to a birthday card I had sent in 1981 he wrote on the 29 May 1981: “Thank you for the birthday card and the letter. These things mean a lot for the ego. Every year you ask me when I was born; I was born in 1918. The year the First World War ended. My uncles had told my parents that I was from the Western front (the belief in rebirth among Buddhists). That’s why I marched to the front in the Second World War.” The Birthday card was a real eye opener. Yes, I can do what I did 50 years ago.”

Manel & Bennie

My parents -Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Amusing, provocative, his letters weaved a rich tapestry of family life – foibles and all.  In one letter he said,  “I have got my photo in the driving license enlarged – just a reminder of my days when I first met my Waterloo” – a reference to when he met my mother. “I was 23 then,” my father writes. “Sweet empty face.”  This was a photo he had given my mother when he was courting her and Amma apparently had said many years later during a squabble that she was “cheated” by the sweet face.

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My father Bennie Kirtisinghe as a young man. The photo he gave my Amma when he was courting her. Photo©Chulie de Silva

My mother said my father had cribbed this poem to me, but I didn’t care.  The scrawled handwritten letter is much treasured.  Written in 1981, after a visit home to see an ailing aunt it was addressed to a Dear daughter

“What am I thinking of 
this golden evening (of my life).
It is the daughter of my heart 
who flits across my mind.
Her innocence 
so like a lotus bloom. 
She came to visit me just yesterday. 
She left her darlings for awhile and came to savour
yet again (and again)
the love that spreads and smiles.
within her childhood home.
She writes to say 
she loves both Ma and Pa.
I’m glad to see she had her priorities intact.
She had to go back to her kids and home (abroad)
She left with me her youthful happiness.  
She took with her
the love that Ma and Pa 
will always give her.
Now I wait, 
until she is home again
like the bursting glory
of the coming 
of a flower in spring.”

An inveterate storyteller he would keep us engaged and many were family stories we were not supposed to hear. He and I would argue and often his comments would have us laughing and many were the ones that shocked my relatives. “ I’ll cut off your ponytail”, was a constant reminder during my teenage years to behave or else … Then, there was the one comment he kept mumbling through out my engagement “Marry in haste and regret at leisure,” (dead right on that one!), and later “Why do you need a divorce, can’t you get a knife and do a Bobbit….” I am sure you are laughing from some vantage point of how my life has turned out!

Bennie K with Multipla

My father with his Fiat Multipla. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Interestingly some comments are still relevant, specially, comments about politicians. Amidst the turbulence of the JVP years and political upheavals of the 80’s, he wrote “The world and its people are changing so much that I wish I don’t have to see all this.” You might not have been happy to witness what is happening now but you sure would have revelled in my brood of vivacious, grand children. I hope you can see all the fun we have and I would have loved to have shared stories about them.

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My father with my sons in the sea at Hikkaduwa. He taught us and his grandchildren to play “Ring-a-ring-roses” in the water. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

I miss you so much, the letters, the laughter and how your eyes used to light up on seeing me. During your last days at Hikkaduwa, you waited for me to visit and said you would hear my footsteps outside the bedroom in the kotu midula. I hope we will meet again as we travel through samsara. I will not fail to recognise you, as your eyes will light up. I wait for that day when I will be your lucky Lakshmi again.