Bennie, the Gentleman in Disguise!

Benniw Godwin Lakshman 700

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe at the wedding of his good friend Wimalatissa Indrasoma on the 28 Aug 1952. On the extreme right his good friend Godwin Witane and next to him, Dr. MWV Lakshman de Silva. Girl Guide HQ, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka. Copyright Asoka Indrasoma

Almost a birthday gift, the photo above came quite unexpectedly from a cousin Asoka Indrasoma. My father, with a cigar in hand, in national dress was at the wedding of his good buddy Wimalaya, Wimalatissa Indrasoma, (Asoka’s father) in 1952. A photo like this, unravels a lot of memories. He would have been 34 years old at this time and looks very happy and in good spirits.  The fact that he is the only one in national dress does not seem to bother him. However, his lifelong friend Godwin Witane, on the extreme right has a certain smile on his face and I wonder who the photographer was. My father, Uncle Wimalatissa and Uncle Godwin remained good friends through out their lives. Today, 13 May would have been my father’s 99th birthday.

Wimalatissa Mala

Wimalatissa Mama/Uncle with his sister late Dr. Mala de Sylva at Arachchikanda house of Mr. MW Surasena de Silva. Photo probably by Bennie Kirtisinghe

Life is a retrospective, a continuous flow of images and thoughts. Usually, my mind has constant flashbacks of what life was like with my father. I’d often get woken up on holidays at Hikkaduwa, with a banging on the window “rise and shine, get up, get up!” Giving a boost to these episodic memory wanderings, I had the unexpected bonus last month, of hearing his voice and see him come alive in Rupavahini’s teledrama Palingu Menike, as the “Iskoley mahattaya” — school master.

However, it is his words, often humorous, mixture of Sinhala and English for punning and tongue-in-cheek comments in his letters to me, that I see him in my mind’s eye.

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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

His letters were gold then and now. Where ever I was —  Liverpool, Penang, KL or Brunei –  life in the Hikkaduwa house would come alive to me. Often his letters would make comments of the tourists staying with them, painting a lively picture of his life, that never failed to bring a smile to my face. In this letter written in January 1993, he would have been 75. “An old friend, a guest from Holland brought me a Gin- Bols, which satisfies me after a bath with tonic and crushed ice.

In the same letter he talks of two Dutch men. 34 and 44 years old, who are tobacco smokers and roll their own cigarettes.  “I have taken to my old pipe and smoke often after meals,” and says “one of the Dutch men an engineer “marvels” at his building construction and water and sewage systems which are contrary to all norms and accepted laws!” Many a times have we moaned about his disastrous skills in construction – very far removed from his father, my grandfather. “The two [Dutch] men and I argue about philosophy and religion.” The parting comment of one of the Dutch was, “Bennie is a gentleman in disguise,” while the other had concluded that “Bennie is like the old fox who has not lost his tricks, though he has lost his hair.

Probably perked up by the Dutch comments he says, “I am enjoying good health in fine weather and of course the old man sea is ever so timid.” I have “Kola Kanda” herbal porridge with green vegetables like Gotukola for breakfast.” His special recipe includes Quaker oats and he complains that my Mum doesn’t give him access to the electric blender, but she or my sister-in-law Padmini will grind the veg in the old fashioned way in a pounding stone to make his breakfast. “If I had taken Kola Kanda much earlier, I would have taken another wife. But for the present this one is enough…”

My father with Malika at 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda.

My father Bennie with Malika, his grand niece on one of his visits to our house then 39, Chapel Road, Nugegoda.

Prophetically, he ends the letter I have in my hand saying, “even if I don’t write, you can read my old letters, which you will do even if I am no more. Bye Bye, don’t cry for me.”

 See Also:

Godwin Mama called Bennie, my father “The most popular citizen of Hikkaduwa” in an appreciation written after his death in 2002.

Appreciation Benny Kirtisinghe by Godwin Witane

My blog post on “On Chasing Jade Dragons with Mao Tsetung “ was based on a book that was a gift to my parents from Wimalatissa Mama.

Wimalatissa 2

Wimalatissa Indrasoma on the right with an unknown friend. From our family albums.

With Love Father

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe as a young man. The photo from his driving license and the one he gave my Amma when he was courting her. Photo©Chulie de Silva

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every 13 May I wake up often far away from my town of birth Hikkaduwa, my mind clouded by memories, fragments of conversations drift past, and my brain’s neural networks are on an overdrive. This was the day my father was born in 1918 – second son to be born in the Siri Niwasa house at Hikkaduwa, but the 6th to KH Bastian de Silva and SK Pinto Hamy.

He and I enjoyed a long correspondence, sometimes as much as two or three letters a week, the first time I was away in England. In all his letters to me he used to sign off as Father, Father B, BK and some times in Sinhala “Thatha.”

Some of the letters have survived. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Some of the letters have survived. Photo©Chulie de Silva

As a father, Thatha embodied the Sinhala term “pithru snehaya” — a love of a father to a child – he was an incurable romantic, sensitive, and what mattered most were social interactions — family, friends, our friends, villagers, tourists he met  — well in short everyone he came across mattered to him.

The Siri Niwasa house was an open house 24/7.  No one who came to the house, left without some refreshments.   Mostly it was an invitation to stay for lunch or dinner and Amma learned to stretch meals and cook in anticipation of visitors.  Many were the ones who trooped in for sea baths, and stayed to have a fresh young coconut, “thambili” water — plucked straight from the trees he had planted.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970's. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. This view is sadly no more. Photographer unknown.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970’s. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. This view is sadly no more. Photographer unknown.

There were stories to be told, laughter to be shared, and plenty of sharp, caustic, witty comments.  He was in today’s terms a “wyswyg” – what you see is what you get character.  Sometimes the comments were far too sharp and his foot in the mouth comments hit sensitive spots and made some relatives angry. His life was probably too laid back for this day and age where success is measured by the wealth you accumulate. A sea bath in the waters just beyond the back garden of Siri Niwasa, a good book, a home-cooked meal preferably prepared by his Manel, and family and friends to chat with were his needs. He was not without his faults specially when it came to managing finances and never had enough in his bank but his life was rich with love — the love he gave generously, was repaid by many with dividends.

Bennie K with Multipla.jpg

My father with his funny Fiat Multipla — he was very proud of it. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

I remember the dreaded call I received from my brother Prasanna as I was leaving work one day. His voice was somber -“Please come immediately, Thatha has not opened his eyes the whole afternoon, he won’t speak and is not eating.” With shaking hands I quickly packed, picked up my Poddi – my Aunt Irangani in Panadura and it was by then nearly 7 pm. The drive along on the mostly ill lit coast road seemed an eternity. The sea roared but I could barely see the waves. I drove mostly through memory and remember the jolt of the railway tracks as I drove over the Payagala Railway crossing that was barely visible. I counted towns as we used to do as kids coming home for the school holidays just as anxious now to reach Hikkaduwa as I was then.

It was just past 9 pm when we got there and Amma as usual was waiting for us on the front verandah. “Bennie, Bennie, see who is here, Chulie is here,” she called out as we entered his room. Then he opened his eyes and started crying – large rasping, heart-rending sobs. I had never seen him cry all my life. He was scared – scared of dying and probably knew his life was sapping away. I sat on his bedside held his hands talked and talked till he calmed down. The sobs eased, Amma bought soup. “I’ve been listening to your footsteps on the “kotu midula,” he said and wanted me to travel to work in Colombo daily from Hikkaduwa. I wanted to recite some pirith for him but he shooed me away. “You might have grown up at the Walauwa, but you haven’t learned the correct intonation. Send Amma.” So it was his Manel’s lilting voice that lulled him to sleep that night.

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970's. Photographer unknown from the family albums.

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970’s. Photographer unknown from the family albums.

Next day he was better and Prasanna, Pradeep and I sat in the back garden talked about longtime nursing care for him. All this time it was Prasanna who had cared for him bathing, shaving and attending to his every need with a liberal sprinkling of jokes as well as anecdotes about everyone in Hikkaduwa. Most were concocted by Prasanna but it seemed to be the best medicine for him. Thatha had no diagnosed illnesses and was not on any medication and we thought we would have him with us for a couple of years more.

However, on 30 Aug. when I came down again he had his eyes closed. This time my arrival didn’t change anything. His breathing was heavier, face more gaunt and much as I talked he wouldn’t open his eyes. His skin was like thin parchment and I could see he was getting dehydrated. There was no GP in Hikkaduwa and so we with great care we took him to Arachchikanda Hospital to get a saline drip inserted. As he was carried out, he opened his eyes and looked around and up the front verandah almost as if he was saying goodbye to the house he had been born in. He had never wanted to die in a hospital and so the drip inserted we brought him back to Siri Niwasa.

The ceiling on the front verandah Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa, Photo©Chulie de Silva

The ceiling on the front verandah Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa, probably what he saw last of the house. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Back in his room, his breathing eased and we hoped he would pull through this. Next morning Amma called me and said in a shaking voice tears brimming in her eyes, that a little bit of blood has trickled from his mouth. As we all rushed to the room, Pradeep whispered “Is he going to die?” I could only nod. He and Prasanna went to fetch our family priest.

Amma and Padmini recited pirith ( Buddhist stanzas) at the foot of the bed. I sat near him stroking his head and talking to him that we were all there with him, and also Lassie, our pet doggie. Amma had chased her away a couple of times but she refused to be removed from the room. Finally, we let her be. Lassie lay curled under the bedhead, her head buried in her paws. Thatha must have heard us as tears were building up under the eyelids – tiny, tiny, glistening tears like dewdrops on a parched leaf.

I held his hands and watched every breath as he took it in the life giving oxygen and the slow letting out of it. He looked so frail. I tried to etch into my mind this poignant moment. Breathing became slower, more laboured. Then there was this one deep breath and I watched and waited but no breath came out. That was the last breath.

The slender fragile thread we had clung to, unable to let go, was gone. I turned to Amma and Padmini who were still reciting pirith and shook my head and they understood. Padmini came with her stethoscope checked for a heartbeat and a pulse that was not there. The thin hands, the forehead I kissed was still warm. He didn’t like anyone kissing him or even worshipping him at his feet. The thought that he would have laughed at me crossed my mind but this was now the shell that once held my Thatha. The priest Rev. Tilaka, the scholar priest, my father had respected arrived. He and I sat silently by the bedside till the hands I held went cold.

Instructions for the funeral by father. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Instructions for the funeral by father. Photo©Chulie de Silva

After the tsunami, in Amma’s birawa almirah, we found this note with instructions for his funeral. Thatha had repeatedly mentioned all this to me but I didn’t know such a note existed.

If I get bumped off (no regrets) don’t take the ‘body’ home.  Keep it at CBO Florists (Kalubowila) and ‘fire off’ at Galkissa as early as possible. 

Inform the eye donation society and give the cornea (the consent papers are at Hkd iron safe left drawer). Get the cheapest paraphernalia and only Bougainvillea Flowers. No music & no carpets. No “sokaspraksha” (speeches at funerals). Only family members to handle

BK (signed) 19.12.77

Did we follow his instructions? Some we did – like donating the eyes, and there were no “sokasprakasha” but there were no Bougainvillea Flowers. The Bougainvillea Tree was no more at Siri Niwasa but Hikkaduwa had a crematorium. I wanted to cremate him the same day or at least within 24 hours – but the family, true to village traditions, howled with protests. “If we cremate him like that the villagers will think we were too stingy to feed them,” said Amma.

So we had the biggest funeral I’ve ever seen in my life.  For 3 days we hired a cook and with thanks to the owners turned the Poseidon Diving Station next door to a large dining room.   And we catered on average for 350 people who were around for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  For 3 days and nights people came and went and we scrambled to buy food, work out menus, make tea and coffee.

They came from near and far the long lost relatives, friends’ friends who had all enjoyed the hospitality of Uncle Bennie. There was his Best man and best friend Ariyapala and wife Neela, his last surviving brother Ritchie, his bridesmaids Enid and Irangani, and the flower girl Nimal. There were the old and feeble ones, escorted and propped up like Aslin Akka, the front house neighbhour, who had insisted on coming to pay her respects. She had to be carried in on a chair. Among the mourners were the ones he had given money regularly from his pension.  Amma only then realised why he never had much money left in his pension.

Once Thatha had shared his bottle of cognac with the man who came to pluck coconuts from our trees. A village “hard nut,” who was used to the sharp illicit brew “Kassippu” for his daily tot. He possibly found the cognac very mild to taste and had polished off most of the bottle.  The coconut plucker never made it home that evening. He was found by his family curled up and sleeping at the railway station. The burning question of the day then in Hikkaduwa was, “What exactly did Bennie Mahattaya give him to drink?” for this seasoned imbiber to collapse!

Then there was Liyanage, the son of a schoolteacher parents who had not done much with his life.  But he was at our house to take Thatha to the Arachchikanda hospital and as soon as he heard of Thatha’s death. He was there when we handed his body to the undertakers and he stayed at the funeral parlour keeping an eye on the body for good measure.

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

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

It had been three harrowing funeral days where I had kept vigil by his coffin. Emotionally, I was spent. After the cremation Liyanage sat with me on the back verandah steps on the floor at Siri Niwasa. I sat staring out at the inky night, and the tears were not far behind.  The roar of the waves was gentle but didn’t soothe me as it normally did.  Liyanage broke the silence and said he wished he had a gun to give him a gun salute at the crematorium. Memories of the number of times Father had advised him to tread the straight and narrow path was still fresh in his mind.  He told me how this advice had helped him to pull his life together. Liyanage pointed to the top of the coconut trees my father had nurtured lovingly in the back garden. “He told me that when the crests of the trees are as high as the roof of the house, I’ll be gone.”  Sure enough the top leaves were as high as the roof on that day.

The coconut trees at Hikkaduwa, 11 October, 2012. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The coconut trees at Hikkaduwa, 11 October, 2012. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Chasing Jade Dragons with Mao Tsetung

The birds, squirrels and the monkeys that greet me every morning have deserted me and I sit a tad forlornly watching the rain pelting down.  Hmm, the grass will need cutting soon, but the more urgent need is company with the morning cuppa.The one I select is past its prime. A bit battered and worn out the outer skin crumbles at my touch. I remove the dust cover gingerly, savouring the touch of the deep red hard cover. The gold embossed letters glistens, beckoning me inside.

The deep red hard cover  with gold lettering.  Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The deep red hard cover with gold lettering. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Chairman Mao springs to life in a cool portrait photograph, giving a sideways glance as if he is acknowledging his readers. Here is the legend, the rational politician and the romantic poet, a good choice to breakfast with.

Inside photograph covered with a transparent tissue paper of Mao Tsetung. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Inside photograph covered with a transparent tissue paper of Mao Tsetung and a part of his handwritten poem “Laushan Pass.” Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The photo is not a printed page but is an actual black and white photo affixed to the page with a printed signature below it. I nearly miss the next page – a thrice folded paper. Open it out, and it is a facsimile of the poem Loushan Pass  in the poet’s handwriting.The book was printed by the Foreign Language Press, Peking in 1976, the same year Chairman Moa died and is minimalistic in design. Each poem’s headline is in red and the collection has 36 poems and a couple of author’s notes. Translators are not credited but there is a note on the verse form at the end of the book.

A section of the facsimile of Loushan Pass.Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

A section of the facsimile of Loushan Pass.Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Loushan Pass was written in February, 1935, during the Long March. The Pass is a gorge among mountains in Guizhou province, China. Mao wrote this poem after the Red Army defeated the local government army after a fierce battle and occupation of the pass.

Loushan Pass
— to the tune of Yi Chin O

Fierce the west wind,
Wild geese cry under the frosty morning moon.
Under the frosty morning moon
Horses’ hooves clattering,
Bugles sobbing low.

Idle boast the strong pass is a wall of iron,
With firm strides we are crossing its summit.
We are crossing its summit,
The rolling hills sea-blue,
The dying sun blood-red.

Wikipedia’s article author doesn’t think that Mao was one of the best Chinese poets. However,  says that like most Chinese intellectuals of his generation, Mao received rigorous education in Chinese classical literature, and therefore his skill in poetry is of little surprise. “His style was deeply influenced by the “Three Lis” of the Tang Dynasty: poets Li BaiLi Shangyin, and Li He. He is considered to be a romantic poet, in contrast to the realist poets represented by Du Fu .

Portrait of Mao Tsetung in the public domain

Portrait of Mao Tsetung in the public domain- circa 1935.

The book opens with Changsha written in 1925 and continues in chronological order to ones written during the Red Army’s epic retreat during the Long March of 1934-1936. Mao continues his poetry writing after coming to power in 1949.  The Note on the verse form at the end says “Those which carry the subtitle to the tune of … belong to the type of verse called tzu. The rest are either lu or chueh, two varieties of the type shih.

Unlike my first reading, this time I search for more info and discovered that Orange Island mentioned in Changsha, is an island in the middle of Hsiang River (also referred as Xiang River) near Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Mao attended the Hunan First Normal University around 1912-1917 and it was at Orange Island that Mao met many of his friends and discussed the way to change the world. A huge statue of Chairman Mao now dominates the landscape of this island.

I can’t help but reflect that with a few words changed Chansha could fit the JVP insurrection of 1971.

Changsha (1925)

Hsiang (Xiang) River at night. Reproduced under the creative Commons Attribution.

Hsiang (Xiang) River at night. Reproduced under the creative Commons Attribution.

Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Hsiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide under the shallow water;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this boundless land
Who rules over man’s destiny?

I was here with a throng of companions,
Vivid yet those crowded months and years.
Young we were, schoolmates,
At life’s full flowering;
Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.
Remember still
How, venturing midstream, we struck the waters
And the waves stayed the speeding boats?

View to the east from the Yellow Crane Tower. The eastern part of the Snake Hill is in the middle; the red-brick compound of the Wuchang Uprising memorial is to the right of it.  Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution.

View to the east from the Yellow Crane Tower. The eastern part of the Snake Hill is in the middle; the red-brick compound of the Wuchang Uprising memorial is to the right of it. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution.

Page 3, with poem 2 of Mao Tsetung's Poems. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Page 3, with poem 2 of Mao Tsetung’s Poems. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Yellow Crane Tower, a building on the bank of Yangtze River in Wuhan, is very famous in Chinese history and literary tradition, says Wikipedia. It is one of the Four Great Towers in China. Its fame mainly comes from a poem written by Cui Hao in early Tang Dynasty, part of which is :

The yellow crane has long since gone away,
All that here remains is Yellow Crane Tower.
The yellow crane once gone does not return,
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.

Mao later discussed the historical context of his poem’s writing: “At that time (1927), the Great Revolution failed, I was very depressed and didn’t know what to do, so I wrote this poem”.

The searches on the Net, brings an amazing array of photos that bring alive Mao’s poetry. Interesting sentiments are expressed in his poem Kunlun which refers to the Kunlun Mountains.

Photo of Kunlun Mountains reproduced here under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Photo of Kunlun Mountains reproduced here under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

KUNLUN 

— to the tune of Nien Nu Chaio
October 1935

Far above the earth, into the blue sky,
You, wild Kunlun, have seen
All that was fairest in the world of men.
Your three million white jade dragons in flight*
Freeze the sky with piercing cold.
In summer days your melting torrents
Flood the streams and rivers,
Turning men into fish and turtles.
Who has passed judgement on the good and ill
You have wrought these thousand autumns?

In Kunlun now I say,
Neither all your height
Nor all your snow is needed.
Could I but draw my sword o’ertopping heaven,
I’d cleave you in three:
One piece for Europe,
One for America,
One to keep in the East.
Peace would then reign over the world,
The same warmth and cold throughout the globe.

At last in Kunlun I meet the jade dragons of mythical fame. In the author’s note to the poem in the book he says  ‘While the three million dragons of white jade dragons were fighting, the air was filled with their tattered scales flying.”  Thus he described the flying snow. I have borrowed the image to describe the snow capped mountain. In summer, when one climbs to the top of Minshan, one looks out on a host of mountains, all white, undulating as in a dance. Among the local people a legend was current to the effect that all these mountains were afire until the Monkey King borrowed a palm leaf fan and quenched the flames, so this mountain turned white.”

Dusk on the Yangtze River. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution

Dusk on the Yangtze River.
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution

So in the book I roam beside Mao, among the snow laden mountains and plum blossoms, rolling hills, deep gorges and blue seas to rejoice at the victory of the People’s Liberation Army capturing Nanking.

Amidst all this in the book, my attention is caught by a poem written as an inscription on a photograph and reveals why he admires the Chinese lasses.

Mao Tsetung Poems

The book was a copy I had pilfered away, from my father’s damp salt laden bookrack during the monsoon, a couple of weeks before he left us. I can only imagine now, how much joy my poetry imbibing father would have got from this book.

As always there’s another hidden story embedded in this book.  As  I remove the dust cover and look at the writing on the top left-hand corner, my thoughts drifts to a comment made by my younger son when I was gifting him a book.“Why do you need to write in the book it is from you. I know you gave it to me and you know you gave it to me -writing in a book is such an ego thing!.”  I didn’t disagree with him then. But, now I realise how a few words written inside a white ant eaten book cover can flood your memories of a very long and loving friendship.

Few words penned on the inside cover by my parent's friend Wimalatissa Indrasoma. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Few words penned on the inside cover by my parent’s friend Wimalatissa Indrasoma. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The book  was a gift to my father Bennie and my mother Manel by one of my father’s childhood friends Wimalatissa Indrasoma, fondly called Wimalaya by my parents. A gentle giant of a man, himself an author with a wonderful sense of humour. On the 27 August 1980, he would have been knocking on the long french doors of our house in Hikkaduwa, calling “Beniyo, Beniyo,” and my father would have come out as often he did, re-tying the knot on his sarong and smoothing his ruffled hair to greet him. My mother would have come out too, leaving her chores in the kitchen. There would have been laughter exchange of jokes, and an invitation to stay for lunch. … The past does come tumbling out, the clock gets put back, in expressive poetry, or even in a few words written with love.

Reflections on the Tsunami of 2004

The tsunami affected about one million people and devastated over two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline. The tragedy claimed 35,322 human lives, injured 21,441, and left 1500 children orphaned. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

The tsunami affected about one million people and devastated over two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline. The tragedy claimed more than 35,000 human lives, injured nearly 21,500 people and left 1500 children orphaned. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

The tsunami day is the longest day and the hardest night of my life and somewhere in the last ten years I neatly packed and put away my memories. So, why did I unbox them to look back at a singular tortuous experience that has haunted me for many years.

It was an invitation to speak about my experience at a Rotary Club meeting here in Colombo. No doubt, I could have declined but as the 10the anniversary draws near, there is a need — no almost a compulsion to go back over the bits and pics of this unforgettable event.

Only the outer shells of houses were left after the tsunami. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Only the outer shells of most coastal houses were left after the tsunami. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

True when my private film reel starts playing, the horror spills out. The images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying. Like in a slow moving movie, they appear… and last night the nightmare paid a return visit. But when preparing for the talk I realise that once the memories are unboxed there are things I didn’t write about when I wrote my experience of that day.

Now when I look beyond that trauma, I see now that I can section the disaster into 4 stages. This I think applies to most instance of calamities and disasters like flash floods too.

It was happy days when I snapped this photo of Prasanna, Padmini and the young Kanishka and Matheesha. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

It was happy days when I snapped this photo of Prasanna, Padmini and the young Kanishka and Matheesha. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The first stage is the environment you were in immediately before it happened – a nostalgic look back, remembering last words exchanged, memories of the person or persons you lost and thoughts like if I did this or that could the outcome be different.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970's. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photographer unknown.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970’s. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photographer unknown.

The way we were at Siriniwasa. as happy go lucky children. L to R My sister Yasoja, myself, Prasannna with cousins Lucky & Pem. Circa 1950s. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The way we were at Siriniwasa. as happy go lucky children. L to R My sister Yasoja, myself, Prasannna with cousins Lucky & Pem. Circa 1950s. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The second stage is the actual disaster – what thoughts went inside your head, how you survived, how you reacted at that moment, along with the shock and disbelief that it is actually happening to you and your family.

Third is what you did immediately after the disaster – for most caught in the tsunami this is the poignant bit when you confront the destruction, death and the slow walk through the twilight zone of devastation.

Then you finally come to the short term and long term coping mechanisms – something all of us worked at quietly. Most of these I have written about — a sort of a cathartic of memories.

Siriniwasa, taken a few days after the tsunami.

Siriniwasa, taken a few days after the tsunami. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

The house, our house at Siriniwasa was the stage where the drama unfolded. This our ancestral house in Hikkaduwa, built by my grandfather K H Bastian de Silva in 1911, was not just a house. It had over nearly a century imbibed the laughter, the tragedies and indulged my father Bennie who inherited it. My grandfather — Seeya — had bought this land then for LKR 110 per perch and the whole block was 100 perches. The sea has eaten most of It away. Seeya, even then was thought a bold man to build a house with the back garden ending on the beach and he called it “Siriniwasa.”

My grandfather and grandmother with their seven sons. My father Bennie is seated on the left. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

My grandfather and grandmother with their seven sons photographed in front of Siriniwasa. My father Bennie is seated on the left. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

He was a building contractor by profession and is supposed to have built many bungalows for British planters and even the Hatton Post office.We have no written proof of his skill as a builder, but the main house he built stood strong against the wrath and fury of the tsunami. That’s proof enough for me.

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. AThe tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

He had a huge Chubbs iron safe, which was discarded by one of the planters. He must have got that down then by bullock cart. It was referred to as the “Yakada Almirah,” yakada being the Sinhala word for iron. My aunt Maya Senanayake remembers the evening ritual he conducted of lighting a huge hurricane lamp and placing it on top of the safe. All our valuables, including jewellery and even more precious the first letters we wrote as kids to my parents while at school in Panadura were in this safe. As a child I used to claim the safe was mine, because the first 3 letters were in my name too.

The mangled inside of the safe . The tsunami ripped the metal into shred. Photograph copyright Chulie de Silva.

The mangled inside of the safe . The tsunami ripped the metal into shreds. Photograph copyright Chulie de Silva.

My father who inherited the house called it the Garden on Sea and he converted the old “dara maduwa” (hut for keeping firewood) to a seaside cottage and added more rooms. However, the tsunami would show that he could not hold a candle to his father as a builder.

The cottage near the sea. Photo copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe

The cottage near the sea, which collapsed completely killing my brother Prasanna who was pinned under the collapsing walls.. Photo copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe

One year after the first anniversary I trekked back to be there at Hikkaduwa the time tsunami stuck to light lamps and bless my brother Prasanna who died here. Tragically, Prasanna was the last child to be born in this house and he is the one of our generation who closely resembled my grandfather. He was my lucky mascot, the one who made us laugh, the one person who was most of value to all in the family. The loss is huge and thoughts of him still brings tears.

What remains. ... Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

What remains. … Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Lying on the hard mat on the floor that night in the house we sought refuge every bone in my body cried out. I dare not shed any tears for fears that I might not be able to stop.  I remember the bats crying, an owl hooting, the the smell of a dead rat that came with the changing wind on the roof somewhere. The film of the day’s events run and rerun in my mind’s eye. I keep repeating over and over a mantra I learned from my father “even this day will pass into memory”.  Daylight is a long way coming.

Lassie, our faithful pet. 16 Oct.2005. Elpitiya, Sri Lanka

Lassie, our faithful pet. 16 Oct.2005. Elpitiya, Sri Lanka. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

t was after we moved to safer grounds that Kanishka, my nephew went looking for our pet Lassie. Padmini, my sister-in-law through grief of losing her beloved Prasanna, remembered Lassie floating on a cushion as the tsunami waters ripped through the house. Kanishka found him still keeping guard underneath the rubble of the house. Left with friends at a house slightly away from the sea, Lassie refused to eat the food that was offered to him and threw sand into his plate or turned it upside down.

Finally, when we brought him home to Elpitiya Lassie went berserk licking everyone and running around.

High among our material losses is this photo, which disappeared without a trace. I can only think it was a photographer who knew the value of a lovely composed old photo, who took it as a souvenier, not realising that it was a much valued family treasure.

Wedding photo of Romiel Anthony Fernando and Eva Edith Engelthina Dissanayake, among the tsunami 2004 debris at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 28 Dec. 2004.

Wedding photo of Romiel Anthony Fernando and Eva Edith Engelthina Dissanayake, among the tsunami 2004 debris at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 28 Dec. 2004.

What's left of my room at Siriniwasa after the tsunami of 26 Dec. 2005. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

What’s left of my room at Siriniwasa after the tsunami of 26 Dec. 2005. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

Post tsunami, I grieved over the debris but no one wanted to repair and come back to the house.

What was left of the house where additions to the main house was made. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

What was left of the house where additions to the main house was made. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Amma at 82 was vibrant and active till the tsunami stuck.  The pain of losing Prasanna was a heavy burden for all of us. Gradually she became quieter and more fragile. She didn’t like Elpitiya or Galle and always wanted to get back to Siriniwasa.

Amma in front of the Birawa Almirah, which survived the tsuanmi of 2004. Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma in front of the Birawa Almirah, which survived the tsuanmi of 2004. Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

I didn’t think my mother would survive 6 months after losing her favourite child but she did.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Seven years after the tsunami, the main house was repaired and the family moved back. However, Amma never ever stepped on to the back verandah. All the coaxing couldn’t get her to go for a walk on the beach, something she did twice a day without fail before the tsunami.  When I tried to take her, she would peep out side, but gently and firmly say “Not today.” She always  wanted the window of her bedroom that opened to the sea closed. The “today” when she would walk on the beach never came and she passed away on the 17th January this year.

Related Posts:

Ashes of thoughts for what the tsunami took away

Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

 

The moon and my father’s bike

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?

Blue skies, white clouds my avocado tree and the redundant TV antennae of my neighbhours. Taken before the moonrise. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Blue skies, white clouds my avocado tree and my TV antennae keeping a watching brief. Taken before the moonrise. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

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.

My father's bike at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

My father’s bike at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

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.

My father's bike among the tsunami debris in the front room of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

My father’s bike among the tsunami debris in the front room of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa.
Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The bike survived, most likely as this room opened to the road and wasn’t facing the sea.

Siriniwasa, after the tsunami. The bike was found inside the room with the two windows to the right. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, after the tsunami. The bike was found inside the room with the two windows to the right. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

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.

The route we used to go the estate in better times was by car/jeep. The vehicle would be left in a nearby house and we would yell to the boatman who would come and ferry us across. Re- Photograph by Chulie de Silva from an original probably by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe

The route we used to go the estate in better times was by car/jeep. The vehicle would be left in a nearby house and we would yell to the boatman who would come and ferry us across. Re- Photographed by Chulie de Silva from an original probably by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe

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.

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a "Kabakuruththu" in  Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a “Kabakuruththu” in
Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

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.

My paternal grandmother, Achchi, Pintohamy (Second from left) and grandfather, Seeya, K.H. Bastian de Silva standing behind her carrying Uncle Ritchie, in her father’s house in Ambalangoda. The photograph circa 1911 was taken when her brother Heron de Silva Kularatne (centre, back row) took oaths as a lawyer on his return from London. Standing next to him is his youngest brother Patrick de Silva Kularatne who also graduated from the University of London. His first job was as the Principal of Ananda College which he took up in 1918. He retired voluntarily in 1943. Later he shed his western clothes and went on to become one of Sri Lanka’s foremost educationists. Re-photogrpahed from a copy by Chulie de Silva

My paternal grandmother, Achchi, Pintohamy (Second from left) and grandfather, Seeya, K.H. Bastian de Silva standing behind her carrying Uncle Ritchie, in her father’s house in Ambalangoda. The photograph circa 1911 was taken when her brother Heron de Silva Kularatne (centre, back row) took oaths as a lawyer on his return from London. Standing next to him is his youngest brother Patrick de Silva Kularatne who also graduated from the University of London. His first job was as the Principal of Ananda College which he took up in 1918. He retired voluntarily in 1943. Later he shed his western clothes and went on to become one of Sri Lanka’s foremost educationists. Re-photogrpahed from a copy by Chulie de Silva

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.

Siriniwasa as it stands now. Still difficult to maintain, but restoration goes on. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa as it stands now. Still difficult to maintain, but restoration goes on. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

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!

Haripriya’s story

In my hand is a pale blue aerogramme with a coloured photo of a beach scene at the back. The year 1977, the address  on it is 2, Solok Glugor Penang, Malaysia, the sender B. Kirtisinghe , 306, Hikkaduwa, with a scrawled arrow from the word Hikkaduw on the sender’s address pointing to the beach photo.

Inside my mother had penned a one liner on the side of the aerogramme “Thatha’s best friend is the second daughter – Amma.” My Mum’s one liner is a debatable statement. However the letters from Thatha was  a precious link to my family when I lived abroad, especially as these were times when there was no email and cost of international phone calls were exorbitant. Embedded in the writings were family values — threads to weave a fabric of the past.

Letter from Father Bennie 27 March 1977. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Letter from Father Bennie 27 March 1977. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

I hope you’ll read my letters again when I’m dead and gone. My time is fast running out. … “ my father said in 1989. Little does he know how often I do. Reading them I hear his voice, see his smile as he jumps out of the fragile faded blue aerogrammes. 

Portrait of Bennie Kirtisinghe. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Bennie Kirtisinghe. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A second cousin Nalin, I met recently, recollected how his mother spoke well of my father’s sacrifice to look after a sick relative. This got me scrambling among my father’s letters for the story he had written about this period in his life. The relative in question was my father’s elder brother Lionel.

Haripriya, is the name Lionel took with the wave of Sinhala nationalism, and means loved by God Vishnu. Hari was another name for the powerful Hindu diety Vishnu. Haripriya was the 3rd in the string of Kirtisinghe 7 sons of KH Bastian and Pinto Hamy, while my father was no. 6. The story spans a period between 1930- 1944.

The Haripriya saga was a turning point in my father’s life. He never got back to complete his engineering studies and remained as he often said a “nikama” — the non-achiever in a clan of educated brothers — Edmund the eldest was the Zoology Prof. at Colombo University; Albert the second, an Inspector of Schools and probably the first in the family to venture out bravely from Sri Lanka to became a successful businessman in Hong Kong; Lionel whose story this is, later worked at the Dictionary Office; numbers 4 & 7 Richie and Berty were doctors who did well in private practice; and Vinnie the 5th was the Vice Principal of the famed Buddhist school Ananda College, Colombo.

My paternal grandparents with their 7 sons. Standing L to R Richie, Albert, Edmund, Lionel & Vinnie. Seated Bennie & Berty. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My paternal grandparents with their 7 sons. Standing L to R Richie, Albert, Edmund, Lionel & Vinnie. Seated Bennie & Berty. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My father was a compulsive storyteller. Considering the number of famous and infamous people who passed through the doors of Siriniwasa for sea baths, these were interesting tales.  Some possibly we were not supposed to hear too. …

Father also created an avatar brother for me called “Bala Malli” (younger brother) who was a fly on the wall at our house “Siriniwasa” in Hikkaduwa.  It was Bala Malli who gave ball by ball commentaries on the days at Siriniwasa. These included arguments between my mother and father, comments often witty about the visitors — about the stuff that life was made up of — births, weddings, romances and the peccadillos. What flowed from Bala Malli’s pen was uninhibited — the voice was sometimes naive, sometimes incisive, but often it was tongue in cheek writing.  He probably  enjoyed this, satisfying an underlying need to say things in this manner.  Maybe he could not produce the same frankness writing in the first person.

The story is narrated as heard by Bala Malli and opens with the justification that there is a need to pen Haripriya’s story as he often wrote very cleverly about us.

"Haripriyage Kathawa" from Father B. undated.Photograph Chulie de Silva.

“Haripriyage Kathawa” from Father B. undated.Photograph Chulie de Silva.

The opening verse above is a modification of one from the Sinhala classic grammar “Sidath Sangarawa” and says:

My heart is the altar where I worship the enlightened one [Buddha] and pen this ‘Haripriya Kathawa’ for novices and [my] children.”

Thatha can remember from his very young days his favourite elder brother Punchi Aiya who used to come home occasionally. He was forever speaking about the importance of education and about going to the University of London.  Haripriya was very scared of  illnesses. However, one day Thatha heard him say ‘If I get TB, I will live in the dry zone and write books.’

Later, he became a bookworm on botany.  On vacation, he would bring home a microscope, cut leaves and place them between two pieces of glass, and did something with the pieces of glass till something went crunch. Thatha and his parents were highly impressed, never mind the fact they little understood what he was doing.

Haripriya was Colombo [Univesrity’s] Professor Ball’s star student. As his right hand pupil, Thatha thought he will top the batch and graduate. Just as Thatha thought he did pass out “top” with B.Sc (Hons.) – No, not a first, or a second but the top 3rd Class!

His first appointment was at “Goda Beddey” — Principalship without pay at the “Parama Vidyartha Company.”  Just like his illustrious uncle P. de S. Kularatne, he also wore national dress to work.

Next appointment was with pay as the Principal of Hatton Vidyalaya.  This was also when he went into politics, and got the Minister, S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike to appoint him as a nominated member to the Hatton Municipal Council. Then plague spread across Hatton. It was Haripriya who got this information in to the [Ceylon] Gazette as the Municipal Chairman was bribed not do so. However, Haripriya got scared he  had got the plague and spent sometime at the Galle General Hospital “Under observation.”  At that time Thatha’s Thatha said “What’s his B.Sc. worth?  He doesn’t have the brains or the salary Albert gets as a trained teacher!”

In 1934, our Seeya (Thatha’s Thatha) died. Before that Haripriya had sent Thatha to Dharamraja College in Mahanuwara (Kandy). Then there was malaria in Mahanuwara.  So with Haripriya’s support Thatha at 15 , got malaria and nearly died.  Fever used to go up to 107 degrees, it seems. Thatha suffered with 30 others in one room.  A sick room was built at Dharamaraja following Thatha’s agitation. That wasn’t all. He next succumbed to chicken pox and was close to death again – “elowa gihin melowa awa!”

Front verandah, Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Christine Kirtisinghe

Front verandah, Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Christine Kirtisinghe

But Haripriya at that time was living like a lord at “Siriniwasa”. He got the house wired for electricity and was in charge of all the estates. When it was the season for cinnamon peeling, he changed his car.

In the Tucker & Company he had a friend “Rupey,” and he would give Haripriya a car for Rs.500.  Petrol was Rs.1.50 a gallon. When one day Thatha had a ride in the car, at Kahawa, Haripriya asked him to watch the speedometer.  He saw with his own eyes the needle touching 30!. That is one mile in two minutes!!!  Thatha told me that this was seven years after an American pilot called Lindberg had crossed the Atlantic traveling at 90 mph.  So Haripriya traveling at 30 mph in Kahawa was a big thing for Thatha and he used to boast about it at school.

Even with malaria Thatha did athletics won two trophies and passed his Junior matriculation in 6 subjects.  He also passed his Matric [Matriculation exam] in 5 subjects, one of which was Botany.  But Haripriya told him to do Engineering.  So the fool that Thatha was, he shifted to do engineering. Then he was asked to join the Volunteer Force so his school fees would be halved.  But in three months Thatha got dragged away to Trincomalee to fight the war [World War II].

Royal Air Force Operations in the Far East, 1941-1945. A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV of No. 11 Squadron RAF, takes off from Racecourse airfield, Colombo, Ceylon. circa1941-1945. Photograph copyright Dickson (S/L), Royal Air Force official photographer. This image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Royal Air Force Operations in the Far East, 1941-1945.
A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV of No. 11 Squadron RAF, takes off from Racecourse airfield, Colombo, Ceylon. circa1941-1945. Photograph copyright Dickson (S/L), Royal Air Force official photographer. This image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Then everybody started blaming Haripriya. But Haripriya got the golden brained NM to free all the students serving in the war.  Back at school for the second term, Thatha found it difficult to cope with his studies. In the third term, he took tuition, still, he says all his Inter lectures came in from one ear and whizzed out through the other.

While Thatha was in Trinco, Haripriya married into a very rich, well connected family. Thatha’s mother looked at the bride and had said “She is not one who can can give a pillow for a headache even!”

By the time Thatha was finishing his third term, Haripriya was ill. Thatha was asked to look after one estate at first and then as the illness turned serious he had to look after all the family estates. Inter engineering [course] was in the wilds and so was Thatha.

By 1941, Haripriya was gravely ill, almost terminal. The Colombo general hospital said they couldn’t do anything more.  Dr. J.H.T. Jayasuriya’s father-in-law was a friend of Thatha who told Thatha surgeons can cure TB.  So Thatha  put Rs. 100 in an envelope and gave Dr. Jayasuriya and requested him to see  the patient. He did some surgery and said to take the patient to the Sanatorium at Kankesanthurai.. Thatha reserved a special carriage in the train and took Haripriya to Kankesanthurai. As  everyone else had a morbid fear of TB no one else came with him. Then Uncle Damon from Galle was a medical student.  Haripriya was given oxygen and brought in an ambulance to the Fort Railway station by Uncle Damon.

Thatha spent two years in Kankasanthurai with Haripriya. Thatha had a “love part” [a small flirtation] with a Miss Udagama at the hospital. Away from the hospital he had a 13-year old burgher girl friend who rode on the bar of his push cycle. She later eloped with an engine driver of a train.  The matron at the hospital snitched about this to Haripriya. On hearing this Haripriya had asked the matron to find him also someone like that. Thatha was then 21 years old and there was no BCG vaccine then. An egg was three cents and he used to eat six eggs a day to prevent getting TB.

For three years Haripriya wouldn’t get down from his bed, saying it was not good for him. He had special nurses tendering him day and night and everything in his life happened on the bed.  He ate only samba rice, although this was the time of the second world war.  Hikkaduwe Achchi [grandmother] said “Never mind, save one, sacrifice one.”  Our Thatha was the sacrifice. Estates were not fertilized etc.  Then one had to pay Rs.200 as advance for a bag of rice which came from Velvetithurai in India. Another Rs.100 had to be paid on receiving it.  Our Thatha was the good boy who ran around  doing all this work.

Haripriya’s days were all spent in the paying wards like “Merchants’ “Siemonds. Suddenly,  in 1943, Haripriya moved to a non-paying ward and told Thatha to go home, but the attendant and the oxygen was by his side. But when he had to go for X-ray’s to the Green Hospital, in Mannipay Thatha  had to carry him to the car and on arrival carry him to the X-ray room. The doctors at this American Hospital would come out to see this strange “animal.” [The Green Memorial Hospital was founded by the remarkable American medical missionary Dr Samuel Fisk Green]

Thatha with his bride. Dissanayake Walauwa, Panadura. 8 June 1944. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Thatha with his bride. Dissanayake Walauwa, Panadura. 8 June 1944. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Thatha came home and got “entangled” with a lass from Panadura. When Haripriya was told that Thatha wanted to marry, he lamented “Now, who will look after me?”  This is because Thatha used to go to see him twice a month to Kankesanturai. On the day Thatha got married, Haripriya sent a telegram to Vinnie Mahappa to stop the marriage. Thatha’s first trip to Kataragama with his new bride was aborted as there was a telegram asking him to come to Kankasanturai. Thatha left his bride at home and went by train to see Haripriya. When he arrived the whole hospital was in an uproar. Haripriya was behaving like a raving lunatic.  He was ranting about a woman who was permanently at the hospital and was “everybody’s darling,” and was called “virgin”.

Postscript: As in a TV drama the story which was to be Part 1 ended on a cliff hanger. Bala Malli didn’t write anymore — maybe he felt he got it out of his system. We heard verbally that the hallucinations were side effects of antituberculosis therapy. I am glad father got “entangled” in Panadura and didn’t end up being a doormat.

Uncle Lionel recovered and lived well although was always extra vigilant about his health. His controlling streak was felt by many cousins who went to him for tuition. Commenting on my rebellious streak and free spirit he had told my father that I would draw circles over his head! Happy to say the comment had zero effect on my father or me and I have no recollection of him trying to control me. After spending a number of years in Hikkaduwa, Haripriya moved to Dehiwela and died in his sleep peacefully.

Probably, what rankled with father was that Haripriya had referred to him as the “Black sheep in the family.” Despite the lack of educational credentials, Father was well read and very well respected in Hikkaduwa.

Note 1: See also an earlier early post: Remembering Father B-Bhasura, the lion of Hikkaduwa

Note 2: See also a very interesting comprehensive report on the Plague in Ceylon in the British Medical Journal of April 4, 1914 by Aldo Castellani, M.D, Director of Bacteriological Institute  and Clinic for Tropical Medicine, Colombo & Marshall Philip. M.B.,C.H., Medical Officer of Health of Colombo.

Note 3: For anyone interested see an English translation of Sidath Sangarawa by James de Alwis, member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society available on Google Books.

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to my friend Chanuka Wattegama for enlightening me on the source of the verse and help in translating it and giving me the meaning of the name Haripriya. This of course set me off reading about the Sidath Sangarawa.

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.

And the river sang. …

Eleven years ago, on the 31 August, death came silently taking away my father. More than a decade later, I still feel the events of that day with a stark loneliness that is hard to describe.

TPhotograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

That morning at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa there were no need for words. I sat holding his thin hands, stroking his head. I was the parent, he the baby. Our faithful mongrel Lassie was under the bed with her head on my feet.  My father’s face was thin and gaunt with a prickly growth of a faded beard. His breathing was laboured with a rasping sound. Tears were building under his eyelids and I felt he could hear my mother and sister-in-law chanting pirith at the foot of the bed. He had no words for us. A thousand images streamed through my mind and I kept them all to good thoughts of what he did not only for me but many others too. I watched him, recording to memory every breath he took. Then there was the this deep filling of the lungs, I waited for the breath to be let out. But none came. This was his last breath. Lassie raised her head and licked my feet.

From the Exhibition "My City of Unheard Prayers" by Sayed Asif Mahmud

From the Exhibition “My City of Unheard Prayers” by Sayed Asif Mahmud

Partings are poignant, never easy. Like Herman Hesse’s Siddartha my wound still smarted.

Many years ago, Thatha had introduced me to Hesse and his book Siddhartha. He himself was probably told about it when he was a dayaka  at the Polgasduwa Hermitage where there were German Buddhist priests.

Siddartha of Hesse is not Lord Buddha but a handsome Brahmin son who lived in the same era as Buddha. In Hesse’s story Siddhartha does meet Buddha and although very impressed by the revered teacher, he takes a decision not to follow Buddha.  A rare occurrence no dobt but notes to the novel say ‘it is in keeping with Neitzsche’s statement in Also sprach Zaruthuustra (Thus Spake Zrathushtra0 that … one repays a teacher badly if one always wants to remain nothing but a pupil’.

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests pay homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests paying homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The story is about the conflict between the discipline and the heart, the desire to ‘go it alone‘, and the courage to listen to one’s own inner voice.  Siddharha’s search for spiritual knowledge tests the friendship between Siddartha and his friend Govinda, who “loved him more than anyone else.” In a very interesting dialogue in the last chapter of the book he tells Govinda “I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust — a reference to his long relationship with Kamala the beautiful courtesan.

Siddhatha’s wounds are self-inflicted, as in the case of many of us.

Yesterday, I turned to the balm of its beautiful  prose and the subtle distillation of wisdom in this novel. It’s hard to say which part of the story that traces Siiddhartha’s quest for spiritual fulfillment I like best. However, the images of a quietly flowing Hikkaduwa river and this book has been uppermost in my mind. Thus, it seems appropriate to quote here the passages of Siddhartha as he learns from the river and the wise old ferryman Vasudeva, following the death of Kamala and the parting from his son.

One day , when the wound was smarting terribly Siddhartha rowed across the river, consumed by longing, and got out of the boat with the purpose of going to the town to seek his son.The river flowed softly and quietly, it was the dry season, but its voice rang out strangely.  It was laughing, it was distinctly laughing!. The river was laughing clearly and merrily at the old ferryman.

The river flowed softly and gently. ... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river flowed softly and gently. … Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha stood still; he bent over the water, in order to hear better. , He saw his face reflected in the quietly moving water, and in this reflected face there was something in this reflection, that reminded him of something he had forgotten, and when he reflected on it, he remembered. His face resembled that of another person, whom he had once known and loved and feared. It resembled the face of his father, the Brahmin. He remembered how once, as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go to join the ascetics, how he had taken leave of him how he had gone and never returned.”

This leads him to question his own behaviour and to the realisation that his father must have suffered by his departure as much as he was suffering now because of his son.

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Desolate and depressed Siddhartha seeks Vasudeva to talk and confess to this wise guru. Vasudeva, a true sage who speaks only when necessary leads him to a seat on the river bank.

“You have heard it laugh,” he said, “but you have not heard everything. Let us listen; you will hear more.”

They listened. The many-voiced song of the river echoed softly. Siddhartha looked into the river and saw many pictures flowing in the water. He saw his father, lonely, mourning his son; he saw himself, lonely also with the bonds of longing for his faraway son; he saw his son, also lonely, the boy eagerly advancing along the burning path of life’s desires, each one concentrating on his goal, each one obsessed by his goal, each one suffering. The river’s voice was sorrowful. It sang with yearning and sadness, flowing towards its goal.

“‘Do you hear?’asked Vasudeva’s mute glance. Siddhartha nodded. ‘Listen better!’ whispered Vasudeva.

The river's voice was full of longing.... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river’s voice was full of longing…. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala’s picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became a part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. …”

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“. … He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt now he had now completely learned the art of listening. … He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish from the manly voice; the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of the indignation and groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.”

“When Siddhartha listened attentively to the river, to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om perfection.”

… His wound was healing, his pain was dispersing; his self had emerged into unity.”

‘From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. …”

Vasudeva seeing the serenity of knowledge reflected in the eyes of Siddhartha, says that he has waited for this hour to come, and bids farewell to the hut, the river and Siddhartha and retreats into the forest.

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

 Note:  Extracts are from a copy I have of “Siddartha” by Herman Hesse, translated from German by Hilda Rosner.

The full text of the book is available at The Project Gutenberg EBook of Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. Translator: Gunther Olesch, Anke Dreher, Amy Coulter, Stefan Langer and Semyon Chaichenets Release Date: April 6, 2008 [EBook #2500] Last updated: January 23, 2013.

Thanks to my two friends from Drik, Dhaka days Sayed Asif Mahmud and Nirvair Singh Rai for the use of the two photos.

Sailing on Recollection Seas

If only we could set sail in ships whose cargo is memory….and thereby go out on recollection seas where all reality drifts and fades before great gentle beasts scaled by infinite possibility,” says my blog reader, one time visitor to Lanka and friend Dale Hammond. Words so apt – for the sailing I’ll go. …

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1940s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1940s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The photo was a scanned copy of a faded one. The figures a tad blurred. My Amma (Mum)  had not even worn her specs or seated herself in front of the computer, when she saw the photo. She peered and said “That’s me isn’t it? and that’s Sita, my cousin from Elivila (Panadura).”

Sita sporting a fashionable short hairdo and Amma with her classic long plait had been in Kataragama. This was before her marriage and she looks a bit coy, so maybe my father took the photo somewhere in the mid 1940’s. The date and time and who took it is not in Amma’s cargo of memories. However, what’s in her cargo is that a coconut fell on Sita’s head and she was ill – “very ill, but they saved her. Seetha was  my Great-grand mother Annie Caroline Disanayake’s brother’s daughter. No one of that family are alive today.

The ship with the cargo of memories was in full sail now “I came to Hikkaduwa as a bride of 21, not yet 22, in 1944 on June 11. The wedding was at Waluwwa,  Panadura on the 8 June. I had passed my Senior Cambridge Exam and was teaching at Sri Sumangala Girl’s school, Panadura.”  She was the Head Girl of the school too, I hear but no mention of it was made.

Manel Kirtisinghe with students at Sri Sumangal Girls' School, Panadura Sri Lanka. Circa 1940s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Manel Kirtisinghe with students at Sri Sumangal Girls’ School, Panadura Sri Lanka. Circa 1940s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The one who jumps out of the cargo most often is her mother-in-law, the formidable SK Pinto Hamy, who had told her “Your job is to look after the husband and any children you might have. You don’t need to go out to teach.”

While Amma obediently nodded her head, my aunt Leela, her first cousin was angry. “You are a fool, a right royal fool, to let your mother-in-law dictate terms to you.” No one messed around with Aunt Leela. She had a great sense of humour, a deep husky laugh and was a very assertive lady. Great grandma Annie had stepped in to calm Leela  and say “I will look for a man without a mother-in-law for you.”

11 June 1944, there had been a grand evening tea party to welcome my father and his new bride to Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa. On that day, my mother says a telegram ( the closest equivalent to today’s sms) had come for my father Bennie from my Uncle Lionel’s care giver Mr. Susamuththu in Kankesanturai (KKS) Sanatorium ” Lionel mentally deranged, Condition serious, Come immediately.”

Uncle Lionel was Father’s no. 3 brother, his favourite Punchi Aiya. His Punchi Aiya had contacted TB, soon after he got marriage. TB in the late 1930’s was a terminal illness without any known cure. Father who was following a course in civil engineering at the Technical College dropped out to go look after him in KKS. Although brother Richie was a doctor and Bertie was probably at medical college, Pinto Hamy turned to my father and had declared “I need to sacrifice one to save the other.”  Father’s love for his brothers was legendary and I don’t think he needed much convincing by my grandmother. Still  a major decision that changed forever the course of my father’s life.

My Father Bennie, in the first photograph he had given my mother before marriage. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My Father Bennie, in the first photograph he had given my mother before marriage. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Now Amma and I were pooling our joint cargo of memories. ….

A separate compartment had been booked to transfer the patient Lionel to KKS, through the Fort Railway Master, who luckily happened to be a relative. At the Fort Railway station, almost at the eleventh hour, Aunt Laura ( Father’s eldest maternal uncle H deS Kularatne’s wife) had asked her Doctor son Damon to go with my father in the train. My father and Uncle Damon, I remember had a very close loving bond — probably as a result of this kind of support.

My father’s eldest brother Edmund (aka Parakrama Kirtisinghe) who was a lecturer in Zoology at the Colombo University. He didn’t think his sick brother would last the journey.  So Edmund followed by car  journeying parallel to the train on the A9. At every level crossing they waited and watched the train they heaved a sigh of relief. The brother was still alive.The plan was that if he died on the train, the body would be transferred to the car at one of these crossings, to be brought to Colombo.

My father had rented a room in a house in KKS and had nursed Uncle Lionel for a couple of years. At times the medicine given for TB brought on hallucinations and controlling him had been difficult. Father was not unscathed. He contacted Malaria while studying in Kandy and this resurfaced in KKS and only got back to Hikkaduwa after Lionel was cured and was recuperating.

Thus the telegram was something that was not expected. It was not shown to Father or Pinto Hamy but Edmund had quietly dispatched No. 5 brother Vinnie to KKS to check on Lionel. Pinto Hamy was vexed. “Where has Vinnie disappeared to on this important evening?” she had kept saying. Lionel had felt insecure when he heard about the marriage and had dictated the telegram to Susumuththu. Lionel only needed the reassurance that he would still be cared for by the family.

Lionel’s Father-in-law Mudaliyar K T A de Silva was too scared to let his daughter Enid near him. So it fell to Amma, to prepare Lionel’s meals when he came back to Hikkaduwa, as well as for his attendant caregiver who needed a different menu.

Apparently Lionel was still poorly and Pinto Hamy in her usual way had said “Enough of Western medicine now let me take over.” She had got her horoscope reader who was adept at getting rid of evil spirits. He had chanted stuff with lime leaves, given him some concoction to drink, and he puked a lot of green stuff and a piece of metal, which they said was an evil charm.

Whatever it was, Lionel recovered ending the TB saga and worked in the Dictionary office translating scientific terms for the newly introduced Sinhala syllabi in schools thanks to his friend SWRD Bandaranaike. He was seen visiting his science colleagues frequently at the Botany Department of the Colombo University. He walked leaning to one side — the side where one lung had collapsed for the TB. Careful and always worried about his health he wore a hat and carried an umbrella too when he stepped out of his chauffeur driven car. This earned him the nickname “Hat & Umbrella Man”. He lived well into his 70s with Enid, the latter years in the Mudaliyar’s house and died peacefully in his sleep.

Benny’s Point

Benny's Surf Point, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Benny’s Surf Point, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Lounging on a “hansi putuwa” (planter’s chair) on the back verandah, watching a pair of blue kingfishers streak in and out among the coconut trees, sipping my morning tea, I am amazed at how relaxed I am. Gone with the wind are cravings to check mail or FB. There are  no deadlines to meet, no worries about strategies, budgets, Action Logs or Performance Appraisals. It is a painless transition to the stress free lassiz-faire lifestyle favoured by my father Bennie.

The coconut trees planted by my father have grown taller since my last visit, and the sky behind is a lovely porcelain Wedgewood blue. Beyond it the sea is multi-coloured — the pale jade green gets darker in the middle and turns almost a lilac where there are bands of coral. The horizon is smudged a deeper inky black and the thought that rains will come later in the day drifts into my mind.  But what am watching today is the white frothy topped waves – they come wave after wave, a never ending cycle. Eternally fascinating for me is the built up of energy as the wave rolls in, a moment of silence, followed by the huge thud as the wave hits the coral reef, splintering into a myriad bubbles.

This place I am watching behind our house has been named Benny’s Point and is listed as a Surf Point for Hikkaduwa, probably by early surfers when the back packing surfers of 1970’s flocked into Hikkaduwa.

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970's. Photographer unknown from the family albums. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970’s. Photographer unknown from the family albums. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

This was also when my father Bennie, the garrulous, sometimes pugnacious local with a never ending stream of stories used to rent out rooms of “Siri Niwasa” on a bed & breakfast basis. My mother Manel and he had regular loyal clientele of German, French, American and Italian tourists who kept coming back. They didn’t even have 3 star luxury but they loved my Mum’s cooking and the generally laid back home life ambiance of Siriniwasa.

The verandah at the back of Siriniwas, facing the sea. Circa 1970's. Photographer unknown. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The verandah at the back of Siriniwas, facing the sea. Circa 1970’s. Photographer unknown. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My sister-in-law Padmini had heard that Benny’s Point was listed in German travel guides years ago but my nephew Matheesha had only heard it, recently when they were in Panama in the East Coast of Sri Lanka.

Padmini says there was a Chef named Guido who copied my Mum’s recipes – specially her “Watalappan” — a steamed custard made of eggs, palm sugar and thick coconut milk flavoured with nutmeg. Like us, they used to refer to it as the “What will happen” pudding. Some modified form of this, plus other dishes like her fresh fish stew must have featured in some menus wherever Guido worked. Those days my Mum’s three course meal for Rupees 10/- — (costing even then probably less than US$1), was listed in a travel article as the best value for money meal, this side of Singapore.

Bennys_Hikkaduwa.10A quick search on Google brought info on Benny’s Surf Point up in an entry made by Shaka Sign Surf:

“Benny’s is one of the many surf breaks in Hikkaduwa. Named after a B&B property close by, on a perfect low tide day this should be your dream land in Hikkaduwa. Benny’s is a shallow break with a fast take off. Most importantly Benny’s is not for beginners.”

Another entry mentions the coral bottom and the fast left wave that is quite dangerous and how it breaks over a very sharp reef with shallow water. That entry too cautions: Only surf here if you really know what you are doing and at your own risk.

Bennie as he spelt his name might have been highly chuffed about this reference to him in Benny’s Point on the Internet. He himself at times signed off letter as “Foot in the mouth father”. Despite this he had a great sense of humour, was an avid reader and was very liberal in his outlook. Both he and my mother took the skimpy bikinis, topless sunbathing, see-through Kurtas, Oxford baths under the garden shower and gay couples in their stride. We were the ones returning for holidays from Kuala Lumpur and Penang who would go around  gobsmacked. I suspect some of the surfers had a soft spot for their host Bennie and if they had an interest in Buddhism they would have found in him a wealth of information although he hardly visited a Buddhist temple.

When I was flitting around countries in my not so distant working life, Father Bennie would say “Stay on terra firma, give up your ambitions, this place is your dowry to enjoy.” A tad too late to enjoy it with him. Walking along the beach, thinking of him, I waited for a spectacular sunset. Watching the watery sunset I was reminded of a reply by my father to one of my letters. ” Today’s house motto is Be satisfied with what you get [Lada pamaning sathutu wanna]. if not how can I be satisfied with this rag of a letter you sent.”

Sunset at Benny's Point, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. 14 August 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Sunset at Benny’s Point, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. 14 August 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It’s my house motto too. Gods don’t give you all pleasures. As I waited looking at the rather bland skyline with the camera in hand – a teenager after an evening swim runs past me shouting to his mates “Machang, machang (local for mate) walk this side if you want to be in the picture.” Good stuff, comes packaged in small sizes!!!

Beyond Benny's point to the left the beach stretches to the breakwater. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Beyond Benny’s point to the left the beach stretches to the breakwater. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

See also an earlier post: Much ado about Hikka Nudes