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
” 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
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 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.
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
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.
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 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.