The Good Son – Vinnie Kirtisinghe

“We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.”
― Liam Callanan, The Cloud Atlas

He was my most obedient good son, but he did the most disobedient thing,” my grandmother Pinto Hamy  had lamented, talking of my Uncle Vinnie. Born on a day like today, 102 years ago on 20 Nov. 1912, Vinnie or Vincent as he was named at birth was my grandmother’s 5th son. He also grabbed the honour of being the first Kirtisinghe to be born in Siriniwasa, our seaside house in Hikkaduwa. Most of the time he was the quiet stay at home son, pottering around with radios and hardly caused any trouble to my grandma. So, what on earth did he do to earn his mother’s wrath?

Wedding photo of Vinnie &  Somi Kirtisinghe. circa 1943. Photographer unknown. Flower girl Malini and the Page boy Ranjith Ratnapala. This image reproduced from a copy by Chulie de Silva

Wedding photo of Vinnie & Somi Kirtisinghe. circa 1943. Photographer unknown. Flower girl Malini and the Page boy Ranjith Ratnapala. This image reproduced from a copy by Chulie de Silva

We might very well laugh but his crime then was to marry his sweetheart Somi Ratnapala, without Pinto Hamy’s consent. This would have been circa 1943, when Pinto Hamy ruled the roost and traditions and customs were more strictly observed. The opposition was because of caste differences, and my autocratic grandma who highly valued the scholarships of her sons, failed to recognize that here was her first graduate daughter-in-law.

The matriarch Pinto Hamy (aka as Lensi Nona) had arranged the marriages of her first four sons, so she could hardly see reason, when her favourite son, turned the tables on her. She didn’t attend the wedding, nor did she allow her other sons to do so. Despite fearing her wrath the quiet son, showed inner strength and toughness that Pinto Hamy herself was well-known for. He stuck to his guns and went ahead with the marriage and later visited her with the traditional gift of a saree. She had been polite and graciously accepted them at Siriniwasa. After lunch, when they were leaving she herself had given a gift to the daughter-in-law and the younger siblings had heaved a huge sigh of relief that all was now well. That however was short-lived when they learned that the mother-in-law had repacked the same saree and given it back to the daughter-in-law!

My grandmother Pinto Hamy with my late cousin Anoma. Photograph Dr. Ritchie Kirtisinghe. Circa 1947.

My grandmother Pinto Hamy with my late cousin Anoma. Photograph Dr. Ritchie Kirtisinghe. Circa 1947.

However, Pinto Hamy came around later to accept the daughter-in-law. certainly didn’t show my Grandma in good light, but good or bad we heard most of these stories from my garrulous father.

There are two other anecdotes that followed the passing away of my grand mother. The first is about my grandma’s special gold necklace, mostly worn by the women of her Karave caste that she had once said should go one day to Vinni’s wife. She didn’t give it to Aunt Somie during her lifetime, but after her death my uncle’s brothers gave her this gold necklace. So I suppose some wrongs were corrected here. The second story surfaced after the death of my mother, when I found my brother drowning his sorrows with a bottle of brandy – apparently he was following the footsteps of my Uncle Vinnie who had retired to the outhouse that stored firewood by the sea, to drown his sorrows.

Vinnie Mahappa circa 1940's -- a photo now resides on the top left corner in a collage of family photos compiled by my sister.

Vinnie Mahappa circa 1940’s — a photo now resides on the top left corner in a collage of family photos compiled by my sister.

Vinnie was a science graduate from the Colombo University and later took the Sinhala name of Vidyasara, yet he remained Vinnie to all who knew him. He had stayed with one of his older brothers in Kotte and had cycled to the University as a young man but at the slightest opportunity would rush back to the Hikkaduwa house as most of us do even now.

He had met Aunt Somi when he was a teacher at Ananda College, and she a teacher at Ananda Balika. It was my grandma’s brother S. Kularatne who had helped cupid to fire an arrow by asking Uncle Vinnie to check the accounting books at the girls’ school. Kularatne’s English wife Hilda Kularatne was the Principal at Ananda Balika, but she was also the Principal at Sri Sumangala Girls’ School, Panadura. When Hilda Kularatne was away at Panadura, Somi Ratnapala had been the Acting Principal. In later years Uncle Vinnie became the Vice Principal at Ananda College and Aunt Somie the Principal of Ananda Balika.

At home, he was always the gentleman with a leaning towards classical music. However, I have heard many stories of a much more robust teacher of Physics at Ananda College with a penchant for story telling – most of them being tall tales of how he was a crocodile catcher in Gonapinuwela and many more. … He was popularly known as Kiththa. After his retirement from Ananda College, his cousin Dulcie De Silva nee Kularatne, Principal at Museus College coaxed him to join the staff as the Physics teacher. He was quite a hit there I hear. He has also to his credit compiled an English-Sinhala Glossary of Physics terms. I learned today that my copy of this, as well as my other glossaries were air lifted to Brisbane by my sister when she emigrated with a lot of the family photos. This for my sister was a way of hanging on to the happy memories of those childhood days.

Vinnie Kirtisinghe's car. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Vinnie Kirtisinghe’s car. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The couple lived happily and I think was the first working couple in the family. Every school holiday they would trek back to Hikkaduwa. At first my mother used to say with two fat maids who looked after their twin boys. The twins were our closest cousins and there were many escapades and fun catching fish in the small rock pools behind our house. Evening walks on the beach was when we’d get lessons on the clouds and cloud formations and by nightfall my uncle would be twiddling with the Siriniwasa radio—the one he had built. He is credited with first introducing radio to Hikkaduwa and in later years would talk about the crystal radio he had built with which he could listen to BBC radio broadcasts during WW2. This was a time when radio was unheard of in little villages like Hikkaduwa.

My nephews Matheesha, Suneth and nieces Anagi and Dinithi explore the old car. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva. M

My nephews Matheesha, Suneth and nieces Anagi and Dinithi explore the old car. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva. M


Suneth & Dinithi and Anagi with Matheesha in Vinnie Mahappa's car, now owned by Pradeep. 22 Aug 2008, Galle.

Suneth, Dinithi, Anagi & Matheesha examine Vinnie Mahappa’s car, now owned by Pradeep. 22 Aug 2008, Galle.

Most will remember his last car the Austin Cambridge. When he bought it he actually drove all the way to Panadura to show us his new car. Most of our holidays too ended at their Greenlands Lane house or joining my uncle and family on short pilgrimages.  My brother Pradeep was not around then but he more than made up for lost time, spending time chatting to him during his undergraduate days. After his passing away in 1994, Pradeep bought the Austin Cambridge and has lovingly restored it twice. The second time after it was found up a tree in Matara, post tsunami of 2004.
Poster - Bridge on the River Kwai, The_02

My own best memory of him is the time when we went to see the film Bridge on the River Kwai at the Savoy cinema. We were waiting in the lobby for the 3:30 pm matinee to finish and from inside the theatre strains of the Colonel Boogey March drifted. Vinnie Mahappa stood there in his white suit, and whistled in tune, eyes half closed, totally immersed in the music. I can never listen to this tune without a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, and love in my heart for this gentle and loving uncle.

See also Dear Mr. Kirtisinghe — a lovely tribute to him from one of his pupils Sujata Gamage.

President Roosevelt’s Pet Scottie, Fala

Boy and his Dog at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memoria, Washington DC, 18 May 2008.  Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Boy and his Dog at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memoria, Washington DC, 18 May 2008. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The immortalising of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ‘s Scottie Fala in a statue at FDR’s musuem caught my eye instantly. As I was focusing, a young boy moved to sit next to Fala with his own Scottie.  A quick nod from his father gave me permission to click too and I was lucky to catch this photo.

Coming across this photo many years later got me searching for more info and thinking of the doggies who’ve been our pets. All dog lovers will have their favourite stories of their pets but few I doubt had bronze statues or even a written bio. At best we all have photos. When I think of pet doggies in our family names like Nick ( in fact we had a series of dogs who were called “Nick”) and  there was my uncle’s Bulldog “Bullet” who went with the family to Hong Kong when they emigrated. Another on that springs to mind was my twin cousins Athula and Aruna Kirtisinghe’s Alsation “Trigger.”  We morphed Trigger into a lion and would ride on his back when we built a tree house on the Araliya tree and played Tarzen in their Greenlands Road House. Later on we had a Doberman cross we named Benjie and was Ranil’s pet in Nugegoda. He was my favourite and a hunter par excellence. In Hikkaduwa we had Lassie, who floated on a cushion and survived the tsunami of 2004. Unfortunately except  for a collection of anecdotes and my photos of Lassie, we do not have interesting full bios for our faithful companions.

My search on FDR’s Scottie, landed me on the site of the Presidential Pet Museum  — yes, there is one in DC! and there on the site is a whole biography of FDR’s Scottie.

Fala -- reproduced with permission from

Fala — reproduced with permission from The Presidential Pet Museum 

Born on April 7, 1940, the Scottish terrier was a gift to the president from Mrs. Augustus G. Kellog of Westport, Connecticut through Franklin Roosevelt‘s cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. At first he was called Big Boy, but then FDR renamed him  giving him the  grand name Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after a Scottish ancestor.

Being the President’s pet was a privileged one. There must have been good karma somewhere that took him far, far away from a normal dog’s life. Fala even had a secretary to answer his fan mail. He had a bone every morning brought up on the president’s breakfast tray and he was served a full dinner every night. During the day, Fala would beg for food from the White House staff. He was so cute that he was fed all the time and became sick. The staff was then asked not to feed him extra food. His bed at night was a special chair at the foot of the president’s bed.

Photo of FDR & Fala at Table in the Public Domain

Photo of FDR & Fala at Table. Photo in the Public Domain

Roosevelt doted on Fala and he was a constant companion with him on long and short trips by train, car, or boat. Fala  became a celebrity in his own right and was trained by Margaret Suckley. FDR introduced him to many famous visitors and Fala would rise to the occasion and entertain them with his tricks. He could even curl his lip into a smile for them. He met Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England in 1941 at the Atlantic Charter Conference in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland with the President.

Since Fala had to be walked during long train rides, Fala’s presence often revealed that President Roosevelt was on board. This led the Secret Service to codename Fala as “the informer.”  In September 1942 and April 1943, Fala went on inspection trips of defense plants and visited Monterey, Mexico and President Camacho. In August 1943 and September 1944, he went to the Quebec Conferences.

In an interesting episode that happened in 1944, Fala was with the President on a sea trip to the Aleutian Islands. Rumors spread that Fala was accidentally left on one of the islands. During the 1944 presidential campaign, the Republicans accused him of spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars in sending a destroyer back for him. The President answered the attack in his famous Fala speech while talking to the Teamsters Union. Roosevelt defended his Scottie, saying:

These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself … But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog. …”

Watch: FDR discusses Fala  

There was another incident on a sea trip aboard the ship Tuscalosa in the West Indies. It was a hot day. The sailors were trying to cool off. They were lying on the deck stretched out in a row. Their bare feet were lined up. Fala caused quite a commotion by moving quickly along the row licking and tickling their feet.

Fala's Collar. Photo in the Public Domain.

Fala’s silver and leather collar. Photo in the Public Domain.

And yet another time, Fala was with the President on a fishing trip to Florida. As the fish were caught, they were thrown in a pile on the deck. Quite a pile accumulated. They were all flip-flopping in the air as fish do. Fala began to flip-flop, too. It was such a fun game that he did it for several days.

In April 1945, President Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. In the minutes after President Roosevelt died at Fala behaved very strangely. FDR biographer Jim Bishop wrote about the death scene: “… a snapping, snarling series of barks was heard. No one had paid any attention to Fala. He had been dozing in a corner of the room. For a reason beyond understanding, he ran directly for the front screen door and bashed his black head against it. The screen broke and he crawled through and ran snapping and barking up into the hills. There, Secret Service men could see him, standing alone, unmoving, on an eminence. This led to the quiet question: ‘Do dogs really know?”

Eleanor_Roosevelt_with_Fala. Photograph in the Public Domain

Eleanor Roosevelt with Fala. Photograph in the Public Domain

Fala attended the funeral. He went to live with Mrs. Roosevelt at Val-Kill. He never really adjusted to the loss of Roosevelt. Even so, Val-Kill was in the country. It was a great place to run, play, chase squirrels, and even cats sometimes. Mrs. Roosevelt brought his grandson, Tamas McFala to live at Val-Kill, too, and be Fala’s playmate. Sometimes they would run off together and get into trouble. They came home hours later covered with burrs and mud. By the end of such a busy day, he was an exhausted dog. Sometimes he slept on his back with his feet in the air.

Mrs. Roosevelt  took great pleasure in Fala’s company, and the two became inseparable companions. She often mentioned Fala in her newspaper column, “My Day”, and wrote of him in her autobiography:

It was Fala, my husband’s little dog, who never really readjusted. Once, in 1945, when General Eisenhower came to lay a wreath on Franklin’s grave, the gates of the regular driveway were opened and his automobile approached the house accompanied by the wailing of the sirens of a police escort. When Fala heard the sirens, his legs straightened out, his ears pricked up and I knew that he expected to see his master coming down the drive as he had come so many times. Later, when we were living in the cottage, Fala always lay near the dining-room door where he could watch both entrances just as he did when his master was there. Franklin would often decide suddenly to go somewhere and Fala had to watch both entrances in order to be ready to spring up and join the party on short notice. Fala accepted me after my husband’s death, but I was just someone to put up with until the master should return.

He was so popular that he received thousands of letters from people. He even needed to have a secretary appointed to him to answer his mail. One letter dated August 5, 1947, was from a poodle named Abigail. Fala chased a skunk once, which was very unpleasant for everyone. The poodle scolded Fala for not acting with more intelligence and dignity. Abigail hoped that Fala would never, ever let that unfortunate incident be repeated.

In 1942, a movie was made about Fala and his life in Hyde Park. Children and other visitors who come to the Roosevelt Museum and Library in Hyde Park, New York still can enjoy this video.

Roosevelt statue, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C. Photograph Stefan Fussan Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Roosevelt statue, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C. Photograph Stefan Fussan Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Fala is probably the only president pet to be memorialized in statuary. A statue of Fala stands next to one of FDR at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C.

Text based on bio on The Presidential Pet Museum 

Fala FDR’s Favourite Pet

Text of Fala Speech and photos in public domain from the Wikipedia

More info on Fala can be found on the above sites.

The images in the public domain are works of employees of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As works of the U.S. federal government, the images are in the public domain.

Memories like the corners of my mind. …

Misty watercolor memories
Of the way we were

Chulie_001B1Scattered pictures
Of the smiles we left behind

Chulie_002 C1B1Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were

Port Erin Isle of ManMemories
May be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget

So it is the laughter
We will remember
Whenever we remember
The way we were

Chulie MemoirsSo it is the laughter
We will remember
Whenever we remember
The way we were.

Chulie Memoirs47 is an odd number to get nostalgic — it’s not a round number like 40 or 50 but then you don’t need that. Fragments of memories of the day my father gave away his second born daughter, a distant memory of Barbara Streisand singing. … I am told that there is a sense of loss running through my writing. That is so, but it is not wish to retrace steps — just a record of the way we were.

Words: Barbra Streisand Lyrics “The Way we were”

Photo 1 : Chulie at 19 on 7 Sep. 1966, waiting for the Poruwa Ceremony. Photograph reproduced from a slide by Aruna Kirtisinghe. This image Copyright Chulie de Silva.

Photo 2: 7 Sep, 1966. Bennie Kirtisinghe gives away his second born daughter. Photograph reproduced from a slide by Aruna Kirtisinghe. This image Copyright Chulie de Silva.

Photo 3:  7 Sep. 1967. Celebrating the first wedding anniversary. Port Erin, Isle of Man, September 1967. Photograph reproduced from a slide by Prof MW Ranjith N de Silva. This image Copyright Chulie de Silva.

Photo 4: First snow fall in Liverpool England. 7  Sunnyside, Liverpool 8, UK. 1 May 1967 with Girigori Antoncopulous from Greece and Ranjith. Photographer unknown reproduced from a slide. Copyright Chulie de Silva.

Photo 5: Ranjith & I at Rasa Sayang Hotel Penang, Malaysia.  Circa late 1970s. Photograph probably by Buddie Wetthasinghe. Copyright Chulie de Silva.

Return to Hikkaduwa 7 years after tsunami

Unlike many of the other tsunami anniversaries my heart is lighter this year.  We have moved past a threshold of pain.  Maybe we are propelled by a natural release of energy that they say happens every seven years
, which encourages you to move forward and make changes. Seven years after the tsunami of December 2004, the Kirtisinghe family seems to have found this energy to move back to their much loved home Siriniwasa.  Built a century ago in 1911, by my paternal grandfather Kaluappuwa Hennidige Bastian de Silva the main house had stood the wrath of the tsunami.  However, the tsunami had taken away the last Kirtisinghe son born in that house, my beloved brother Prasanna.

Siriniwasa. Hikkaduwa 2011. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Today when I spoke to my younger brother Pradeep, there is a very positive lilt to his voice.  They are out shopping for the almsgiving for the seventh death anniversary and the first to be held at Siriniwasa in his memory. Like last year, it pains me to be in Dhaka.  But in my minds eye I can picture the event, the extended family, Rev.  Tilaka will give his sermon and praise my mother and remember the dialogues on Buddhism that he had with my  father.  The photos and memories from the past are potent potions to ease  the loneliness of being far away from the family centre.

Prasanna in sunglasses and I in happier times with cousin Athula, and friends at the old rest house, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Aruna Kirtisinghe. Hikkaduwa circa 1963.

It is impossible to count the number of people who had trickled in and out of the house over this last century, to enjoy the sea, listen to my father’s yarns or call as relatives did unannounced in the good old days. Tea was served, fresh young coconuts were plucked from the trees to quench the thirst, an extra pot of rice was put on the hearth and my mother would somehow dish out a scrumptious meal. For us children, the sea was always our private pool.

Wallowing in shallow water Prasanna wearing goggles with cousins Aruna, Athula, Anoma, Hemal, my sister Yasoja and I. Photograph by Benny Kirtisinghe

Some days, we will all troop off to have a picnic at the family estate.  For that we had to cross a small river on a catamaran. We had to park the jeep in the village, trek across a cinnamon estate to get to the river bank.  Once there we kids will cup our hands and holler “Hoooo” to the boatman. In old Sri Lanka a “hoowa” (the yelling shout) was a measure of the distance — i.e. if someone was close by  one would say he is only one “Hoowak” away — or ” Hoowak dura.”

Left to right standing Aunt Phoebe, cousin Punya and my mother, while Prasanna, Cousins Anoma, Hemal and Neomal, my sister Yasoja and I with the boatman in the rear. Photograph probably by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe

On 13 March this year I had a mail from a Dr. Bernd Hontschik  who left a comment on the blog I had written about Prasanna on the 3rd year anniversary of the tsunami.

Dr. Bernd Hontschik in the garden at Siriniwasa in 1979. Photograph© Dr. Bernd Hontschik

Dear Chuli,
 in november 1978 and 1979 I was a guest in the house of your parents Manel and Benny for many weeks. Both visits were the most sunshiniest times of my life. Both visits I shared many hours with your brother Prasanna. Once I travelled through the whole island with him as my chauffeur. I am very very sad that I must read now that he was a victim of the 2004 tsunami. I will never forget your parent’s house, Manel’s meals served on the veranda, and the tiny garden house, which was my home at that time. And I will never forget Prassana. All the best for you, sent from Frankfurt in Germany, and please put a candle from me and Prasanna’s German friends onto the grave of him, if possible.

The garden cottage at Siriniwasa, that collapsed during tsuanmi killing Prasanna. Hikkaduwa, 1979. Photograph©Bernd Hontschik

Prasanna with his beloved Audi and Tom and Julia. Sri Lanka, 1979. Photograph©Bernd Hontschik

Thank you Bernd for the good memories and here’s to lighting some virtual candles to remember Prasanna, Chrishanta and many others who died on the 7th anniversary of the tsunami.

Candles at Madhu Church, Sri Lanka. March 2010. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

2005:  Ashes of thoughts what the tsunami took away

2006:  A look back twenty four moons after the tsunami

2007:  Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

2008: How Blue was my sea at Hikkaduwa 

2009: Tsunami 5+: the longest day, the darkest night, memories that linger 

2010: Tsunami musings in Dhaka

One summer at Hikkaduwa

The paper was crumbling, in the journal I had kept in my teens.  The collection of photos was damaged. But they were special and had survived among my treasured possessions despite many home moves across countries.

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

The memories of the summers in Hikkaduwa can be only rebooted and read from a forgotten hard drive  — of sea baths, walks early morning with the high tide washed silky soft sand oozing through your toes; long chats sitting on catamarans; fishing in rock pools in the burning hot sun; plopping and killing the deadly jelly fish on the sand with sticks; walking at low tide hanging on to cousins to the big reef; watching at sunset the fishermen pushing their boats out to sea; cricket in the back garden and even doing geometry on the beach.

Then there were the long arguments and discussions on every topic –politics, religion, arranged marriages, and the voicing of doubts about what the future had in store for us — would we be happy, have enough money to travel; would we be rich enough to have shoes to match the dresses; would we marry out of caste and religion, —   the list went on. Accompanying us gyrating Elvis crooned Love me tender, It’s now or never; we wrote  love letters in the sand with Pat Boone, and star gazed trying as Perry Como did to catch a falling star. We loved itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini –  but bikinis were strictly taboo in the Kirtisinghe clan—room was made for the single piece swimsuits by the English ladies who married uncles, but jeans and shorts were out.  We’d sit on coconut tree trunks that had fallen across the beach as if in worship to the mighty sea and dream… about love and careers, marriage and children … Scrawled across the journal in my ungainly handwriting was the poem.  I hadn’t noted the author’s name, but I still remember coming across it — one summer at Hikkaduwa.

Then it was always summer, so it seemed,

As each day slipped to night

Softly the grasses stirred as if they dreamed,

And such a light

Lay in the noonday hour

As never was before

And will be nevermore:

And love was sweeter then, a flower

But now unfolding, holding

All the promise in its cup:

Then was the heart aware of every door

That opened on to beauty, where

Uncounted bluebirds soared upon the air:

That was the time when life was one long song

And we the singers, then…

They were the years when

We and the world were young.


This is my 110 blog post, posted on 11.11.11 @ 11.11 pm.