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

Death as a mirror of life

The narrow road from Pinkande to Katudampe was shiny black newly tarred, clearly marked on the edges with white unbroken lines.On either side we passed lush green paddy fields, houses surrounded by small garden plots with coconut, mango, banana and fruit trees. A solitary young Buddhist priest walked briskly, the bright orange of his robes, matching the setting sun that burned brightly beyond the fringe of trees. This was quintessentially rural Lanka at its best. We were mostly silent on the way to the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple at Katudampe in Dodanduwa.  On the seat with me was a small clay pot with a white cloth over it. This was my mother’s ashes — all that remained of a once vibrant, energetic, mother.

The river by the temple was silent. Nothing moved. The silence had an aura of its own as if it paid homage to the nearby temple.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I stood beside the bamboo grove, and watched the still waters. This was where we would leave my mother’s last remains by the temple she worshiped and also close to the Polgasduwa hermitage where she gave alms annually sometime ago. Returning ashes to a river is not  Buddhist custom. It’s a borrowed ritual from Hinduism. Rivers like the river Ganges is the embodiment of all sacred waters and the Sinhales use of “Ganga” for river probably stems from it. All rivers are supposed to have descended from heaven and the belief is that they are also the vehicle of ascent into heaven.

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

As I stood crouched near the bamboo grove, my mother’s life passed through my mind. The breeze was gentle, calmed by the peace enveloping the river, I could let my sorrow seep into the water.  I heard a quiet splash in the water near me and turned to see a river snake  slid into the water, less than a foot away from me.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I wondered whether the snake was an omen, a relative of the past, maybe my own mother come as an incarnation but any such thoughts I had were snuffed completely by Rev. Hikkaduwe Tilaka, the chief priest of the temple. The novice priest on the other hand was very excited. He and I looked around for more snakes but there were none.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

In my sorrow, I had turned to re-read the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that had been a gift from my younger son. I was reminded about the central concept of Tibetan Buddhism — of  life and death being seen as one whole, where death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

In the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, life and death are presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos. So from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view and my understanding our entire existence — something like we know as our travels through samsara — is divided into four continually linked realities (1) life, (2) dying and death (3) after death and (4) rebirth. The greatest and most charged of these however, is the moment of death. Scriptures of Theravada Buddhism too, states that your “chethana” loosely translated meaning your mindset at the moment of death is the all important karma that drives your rebirth.

Many of the rituals performed at funerals like the one of pouring water on to a cup, till it overflows is passing on blessings to a dead person to benefit her/his after life

As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.”

7th day almsging in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

7th day almsgiving in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

As the evening shadows deepened Matheesha, my brother Prasanna‘s younger son and my mother’s youngest grandson, stood patiently for the signal from the priest. The time had come to let go.

Samsara is your mind, and nirvana is also your mind
All pleasure and pain, and all delusions exist nowhere apart from your mind”

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers as the river waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers to be sprinkled on to the river that waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Reflections & Refractions

Tranquility at Katudampe temple, Ratgama, Sri Lanka 8 Feb 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Reflections and Refractions by the river at  Katudampe temple, Ratgama, Sri Lanka 8 Feb 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Know all things to be like this:
a mirage, a cloud castle,
a dream, an apparition,
Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.

Know all things to be like this:
As the moon in a bright  sky
In some clear lake reflected,
Though to that lake the moon has never moved.

Know all things to be like this:
As an echo that derives
From music, sounds, and weeping,
Yet in that echo, is no melody.

Know all things to be like this:
As a magician makes illusions,
Of horses, oxen, carts and other things,
Nothing is as it appears..

–Buddha’s teachings on death and dying.

 

Mel Gunasekera – an eulogy

Mel Gunasekera. Photographer Unknown

Mel Gunasekera. Photographer Unknown

By Rohan Samarajiva
Feb 02, 2014  – On the morning of the first Sunday of February 2014 I felt as though the ground I stood on suddenly disappeared.
I learned from a tweet that my friend and leading economic journalist Mel Gunasekera had been murdered in her home. How could this happen?She was in the prime of her life. She was not sick. She was not run over by a bus.She was stabbed and killed in her home, a place I had dropped her off at. How could this happen? Let posterity settle the why question. But how could this happen to someone so good, so vivacious, with so much to give?

I met Mel in 1998. I had come from the US and just started work at the Telecom Regulatory Commission. She was also recently returned from the UK after her degree and was working at the Sunday Times.

I recall her telling me how she walked home from work preferring the exercise to being groped in the bus.

I got to know a lot of journalists during my time at the TRC, but she and Asantha Sirimanne were special. In these young people I saw the possibility of an enlightened public discourse on economics, a subject sadly neglected by our media.She then moved to Lanka Business Online to become its editor. She kept suggesting that I should write a column when we met on and off after my return in 2002.

And finally, a month after the 2004 tsunami over dinner at my house, I said yes. Thus began my Choices column in LBO, now going for almost nine years. What she told me in the nicest possible way about keeping it short and having lots of paragraphs, I followed. Mel will live on in my head, telling me to keep it short.

She should be writing my eulogy, not me hers. The young should not predecease the old. We should have built a country where a young journalist could take the bus with no fear and spend a Sunday morning in her own house without getting murdered. The war brutalized us. Killing became nothing.

We built fortified houses that were death traps should the perimeters be breached. What should we do? Put electric fences and fortify them further like my friends in South Africa have done? Or break down the walls and encourage eyes on the street?

I would have so loved to have this and many other conversations with Mel. Why were we too busy to enjoy her company while she was alive?

You lived well, Mel. We are bereft.

Bookmark and Share

How blue was my sea

The primordial sea was very much a part of our life, but it was only recently I learned that the stretch of sea beyond the reef directly in front of our cinnamon stick fence was named Benny’s point  by surfers.

Surfer at Benny's Point. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Surfer at Benny’s Point. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

On 16 January of this year, I had sat with my mother in the front verandah and watched her as she dozed.

Amma dozes in her wheelchair. 16 Jan. 2016. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma dozes in her wheelchair. 16 Jan. 2016. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

As we we brought her back to the room, and Nilu the carer, was settling her on her pillows, I walked to the back verandah to photograph her through the window.

Nilu the Carer, gently rearranges Amma's pillows. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa, 16 Jan. 2014Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Nilu the Carer, gently rearranges Amma’s pillows. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa, 16 Jan. 2014Photograph© Chulie de Silva

As I wandered to the beach I wish she could have seen the blue sea through the coconut trees. The sea was a deep blue and for the first time I could see Surfers at Bennie’s Point.

The white foam contrasted sharply with the blue of the sea as the waves broke on the reef. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The white foam contrasted sharply with the blue of the sea as the waves broke on the reef. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The sea changed colour as the sunlight dimmed but watching the surfer, a sight I had not seen in recent days, I wondered what the message was.

Riding the waves at Bennie's Point. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Riding the waves at Bennie’s Point. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The sea always had a message, but I couldn’t decipher it.

The waves dipped and the foam spread out as the energy got dissipated. Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The waves dipped and the foam spread out as the energy got dissipated. Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Next day my mother breathed her last.

The window to Amma's room stays closed. 24 Jan 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The window to Amma’s room stays closed. 24 Jan 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A star danced when my Amma was born

My mother Manel Chitra in her mid-twenties. Rephotographed from an original . Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My mother Manel Chitrawathy Kirtisinghe in her mid-twenties. Rephotographed from an original . Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Born on 22 August 1922, my mother Manel Chitrawathy was the eldest daughter of Romiel Anthony Fernando, a dashing handsome man and Eva Engelthina Dissanayake, a quiet daughter of the Dissanayake Walauwa, Panadura,   She as the lotus she was named after was a picture (Chithra) all her life.

Now she is gone from us, its hard to put into words her life and our loss. When I saw her on the 21 Dec. 2013, she was getting weaker and feeble. For a once feisty strong woman, it must have been hard to be dependent.

Amma weak but can still walk and her memory was sharp as ever. At Siriniwas, kotumidula on the 21 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma weak but still insisting she can walk. H er memory was sharp as ever. At Siriniwas, kotumidula on the 21 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

We talked as we always did of old times in this house that she had come as a bride. She recalled again one of her favourite stories of how her mother-in-law, my grandmother had called her the most obedient daughter-in-law. She was undoubtedly my grandmother’s favourite daughter-in-law and had trusted her with her wardrobe (the traditional Birawa Almirah) keys. On the 7th day almsgiving to the Buddhist priests, she had given the keys to my father’s eldest brother Edmund Kirtisinghe’s wife and my grandmother’s sister — Bala Achchi. at their request.The two on opening the almirah had discovered a bag of money, my uncle had chided his wife and aunt and said the money should rightfully go to my mother, who had nursed my grandmother. My mother in turn had not used the money for herself but had built a ward in a hospital at Ambalangoda, my grandmother’s birth town. When relatives and friends wanted her to put her name on a plaque in the hospital, she had refused and said “I didn’t do this “pinkama” for publicity.”

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 tsunami of 2004. Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

She aged gracefully, and was always tastefully dressed, her long stresses combed into a traditonal konde on the nape of her neck.

Amma probably in her late 50s re -photographed from an original phot. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma probably in her late 50s re -photographed from an original phot. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Many will remember not only  her beauty but how she kept family relationships going, how she helped the women in Hikkaduwa during difficult periods, what an efficient methodical business woman she was, her generosity etc. I learned recently, how she had written the  on behalf of our neighbhour Anula’s daughters, letters to Danish men, they were planning to marry.

For our family, she was the rock, everyone depended on — in times of adversity, as well as joy. There were times she stubbornly did things her own way.  This was apparent till the last days when she refused to sit in the wheelchair my son Ranil gave her or even use a walking stick.

Her cooking was legendary —  the simple “kirihodi”  of coconut milk gravy, made with fresh coconuts from the garden was my favourite. I’d carry back bottles of this yummy gravy, ambul thiyal from tuna fish to Nugegoda to hoard and eat to my hearts content.

Amma Manel Kirtisinghe in the sitting roon at Ranjana, 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda. c. 1990s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma Manel Kirtisinghe in the sitting room at Ranjana, 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda. c. 1990s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Her 90th birthday was a land mark event as well as her 91st, when friends and relatives gathered and good wishes poured in. She lapped up all the attention with her usual grace.

Amma on her 90th Birthday. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma on her 90th Birthday. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It’s hard to describe the many facets of her extraordinary personality. Having lost her favourite son Prasanna in the tsunami, I didn’t think she would survive long. She became quieter, but turned to quiet meditations and adjusted to a different life away from the familiarity of the house she loved at Hikkaduwa. During the time when the family first moved to Elpitiya and then to Galle, she had maintained a daily log — sort of a blog.She recorded neatly in note books what the family did and the detail record of the policeman who was stationed at the residence of my brother Pradeep — a district judge then.

Amma's daily diary for 4 July 2007. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma’s daily diary for 4 July 2007. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

She was remarkably liberal in her outlook and adjusted well to many of the changes that life dealt with stoic acceptance. Losing Prasanna was the greatest tragedy in her life. Once when my father complained about topless tourists they had as guests in the house, she quietly said, “Let them be, we will only lose customers.”

She and I had last locked horns when as a child  of 5 or so I had refused to wear a dress with a scratchy organdie collar to a wedding. She had said “no wedding” if I didn’t wear that dress, and I had happily stayed at home. Many years later when my in-laws complained about me she had remarked that she had stopped telling me what to do after this dress episode.! My divorce did pain her, but she  had remarked to a nosey relative “it was her wish to get married, and now its her wish to dissolve that marriage.” She never complained about me taking off to Bangladesh and not being around but was always delighted to see me.  Ever the professional, she would always say “Do your job well and look after your finances.”

She was my most willing model, always ready to face the camera, poised and collected.

All smiles with my son Ranil on 28 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

All smiles with my son Ranil on 28 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

But I was struggling to photograph her as I saw her life ebbing away, yet I wanted to capture all the little things I wanted to remember her by. However, uppermost in my mind was the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and the dreaded day of parting.

Amma getting quieter by the day and the smile was less forthcoming. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma getting quieter by the day and the smile was less forthcoming. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma sleeps at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa 31 Dec 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma sleeps at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa 31 Dec 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Even after she returned to Siriniwasa, our house at Hikkaduwa, she refused to go to the back verandah or to walk on the beach. She once peeped out recently but wouldn’t venture out and refused to go out saying “Not today.” Probably the memories of the laughter she shared with Prasanna my brother was too much for her o bear.

On 16 January, I had held her hand in mine. I could see the similarity between our hands. I was her but not her — as she is now, one day, I would be this too. Shakespear’s classic words “Eyes, look your last!, Arms, take your last embrace!,” was ringing in my ears, but yet I was hoping I’d be able to get back on Saturday early morning to hold her hand.  I  stroked her silky silvery hair and gave her my last kiss and cuddle.

Amma's hand still warm on 16 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma’s hand still warm on 16 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

But my wish was not to be.  When next I saw her she lay cold. The face was younger, and  she looked very different. Only the hair was still silky to the touch. We brought her home at 3:45 am on the 18th to lie in front of the doorway of love, where she had first met my father.

"Death lies on her, like an untimely frost Upon the sweetest flower of all the field." -- Sakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. 18 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Death lies on her, like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.” — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. 18 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My mother was cremated on the 19 January, the 66th death anniversary of my grandmother. My grandmother’s last meal was given by my mother her daughter-in-law. My mother was last fed by my sister-in-law Padmini, her only daughter-in-law. Like my grandmother, my mother had trusted her wardrobe keys to Padmini. As things change, somethings have remained constant.

 Addhuvam jivitam, dhuvam maranam -- Uncertain is life, certain is death. Photograph© Chulie de Silva


Addhuvam jivitam, dhuvam maranam — Uncertain is life, certain is death.
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Aniccā vata saṅkhārā,
uppādavayadhammino.
Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti
tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Transient alas! are all component things,
Subject are they to birth, and then decay
Having gained birth to death the life-flux swings
Bliss truly dawns when unrest dies away.

See Also:

Home Sweet Home

Flower of love: Bennie meets Manel

Some Don’t Forget and Some Do

Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe 22.8.22-17.1. 2014 Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe
22.8.22-17.1. 2014
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Some don’t forget and some do-
the memory of the past
Some cry of sorrow
and some sing to forget.

Some see in the cooling clouds
the lightening of thunder
For some, they bring to blossom
Their dry garden paths

Looking at the stalk of a lotus
some see the thorns
… and some the lotus
Some trample flowers under their feet
some go on weaving garlands
with them as usual.

Some no longer light a lamp
During their ever-sorrowful nights
Some stay awake with their doors open
Wishing for the moon to rise again.

Kazi Nazrul Islam

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.

Drik: Murder not tragedy / Tragedi Noi Hottakando

Alal O Dulal

Murder not tragedy
A project at Drik Gallery

An exhibition of observations, both witnessed and imagined of the rana plaza collapse.

View original post 319 more words

The night before Eid-ul-Azha in Bangladesh

A bull tethered outside my apartment block awaits sacrificial slaughter at Eid. Lalmatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 6 Nov. 2011 Copyright Chulie de Silva

Oh! Look see how cute that goat is” said my friend as we bounced over dodgy roads in a rickshaw.  Yes, the goat was unusual black with speckled ears.   He and another goat were being led to their sacrificial alter.

Tonight I hear the plaintive bleating of a goat not too far away, piercing the stillness of the night. The bulls that cried out last night are quiet now.  I dread tomorrow morning when much as I try to shut it out, I will hear the thump on the wooden blocks as sacrifices are made. The look of pain and anguish in the eyes of the animals on death row will haunt me for a long time.

“Sabbe sankhara dukkhati – Yada pannaya passati

Atha nibbindati dukhe – Esa maggo visuddhiya.”

“All conditioned things are painful – when with wisdom this one realizes, then is one repelled by this misery; this is the path to purity.”  — The mirror of Dhamma by the venarables Narada Maha Thera and Kassapa Thera;  re-edited 1975 by The venerable Kassapa Thera.

See also:  Sacrificial appeasement of gods