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.

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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.

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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

Analytics of a Wedding Photo

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Bennie Kirtisinghe married Manel Chitra Fernando on 8 June 1944 at the Dissanayake Waluwwa, Panadura. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It was on a day like yesterday, 8 June 1944 Manel and Bennie, my parents got married in Panadura, at the Dissanayke Waluwa, home of Manel’s illustrious Great grandfather. Yesterday, was spent looking at this photo, thinking of my parents, reading old letters and trying to deconstruct this photo to savour a day long past. A day and events that are now mostly forgotten.

She was 22 and he was 26. He the lover of poetry quoted Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Today, only the two flower girls – my aunt Nimal on the left and my cousin Punya are alive from this wedding retinue.  Bennie’s Best man, his lifelong friend Ariyapala — Prof. M.B. Ariyapala, the bridesmaid on the left Manel’s only sister Irangani,  the other bridesmaid Enid, Bennie’s cousin and the cute page boy Senaka are all gone. Faintly visible to the left is the Waluwa buggy cart and on the right Bennie’s car, a Renault.

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani, who was a very clever seamstress would have sewn the bridesmaids and flower girl dresses. She would have poured over English mail order catalogues and magazines to get ideas for designing the saree blouses. If I look closely, I can see her famous embroidered roses on the frills of the blouses which look more like a top portion of western bridesmaid dress.

Nimal, the flower girl says she can remember a long luncheon table with a white linen cloth where the plates were set surrounded by red and green croton leaves and being told sternly by an aunt not to touch the decorations. She also remembers a large marquee – “Magul Maduwa” set up in the garden. It had Areca nut – Puwak trees decorated with green vines,  red and green dyed reeds ( used in traditional weaving mats we call peduru) adorned with arum lilies and barberton daisies.

Cooks and caterers would have been cooking and making preparations at least two days before the event. The wedding eve is also a huge party for all bride’s relatives, and is celebrated with much gusto in Panadura. I remember well Irangani’s wedding eve in 1957 and as my thoughts turn a cavalcade of laughing relatives faces drift past in my mind.

Bennie wearing the national dress was strange to Manel’s family in Panadura and the even more westernised Anglican cousins in Moratuwa. Cousin Ranjani in a letter written in 1994, at their 50th wedding anniversary recalled how the bride looked radiant, young and sweet and the groom was smart in his national dress  — something that was “new” to them. Manel didn’t wear a veil as a bride as most brides did, and still do, irrespective of religion. Contrary to this, the bride and bridesmaids succumbed to the western tradition and carried bouquets of flowers. The flower girls wore half sarees or lama sarees — a long skirt and a blouse and wore garlands. So a mixture of imbibed Western bridal customs and some influence from neighbhouring India. Manel’s hair ornament on her centre parting was also not very common and her brothers and younger male cousins used to make fun of it saying it looked like “a crow crapped on her head!”

Ranjani Mendi's letter

In 1940 Bennie had asked for a favour from God Kataragama, at a shrine in the Southern jungles of then Ceylon. His wish was for a lovely woman for a wife. Bennie was in Kankesanturai (KKS), the northernmost part of Jaffna, nursing his brother Lionel recuperating from TB for almost two years.  In 1941, he was back at Siriniwasa, taking a break from his lonely existence in Kankesanturai. Two of his mild flirtations one with a young girl who used to ride on the bar of his bicycle and another with a Ms. Udagama had come to naught.  His friends like Tarzie Vittachi had been writing about how they chased girls in Colombo and he too very much longed for a girlfriend. So in 1941, Bennie was ripe for love.

Bennie emerged from the back garden at Siriniwasa to greet his sister-in-law Meta’s relatives from Panadura, who were on a pilgrimage to Kataragama. And there at the doorway to the sitting room he saw Manel. Stung by the cupid’s arrow, hin his mind this was the woman sent by God Kataragama. The door became his doorway of love.

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 1941. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The road to Kataragama from Tissamaharama was a dirt track that meandered through thick jungles in the 1940s and travel was on bullock carts. Manel, many years later, recalled how the elders travelled in bullock carts and the young followed on foot. On the return journey from Tissamaharam Bennie and Ariyapala travelled on the same bus to Hikkaduwa. “Bennie sat with Sepal ( Manel’s brother) on his lap, and we had a huge comb of bananas hanging in the bus that we helped ourselves to when we were hungry.” 

There was some concern that Bennie’s Mum, Pinto Hamy would veto a proposal. She scorned love and had arranged marriages for 4 of her sons. The fifth Vinnie stood up to her and married his lady love, but earned her wrath. Bennie, however,  had collected valuable Brownie points looking after the TB ridden Lionel. In Manel’s favour was her lineage from the Great grandfather Mudaliyar Wijesuriya Gunawardene Mahawaduge Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake

Ariyapala in a study for his PhD points out that the Pancha Tatntra advice which says “the wise give their daughters to those endowed with seven qualities: viz.caste or family character, protection, learning, wealth or power, beauty and health or youth.” Bennie fittingly qualified and Manel’s rather quiet and docile parents had no objections to the union. In fact they might have been overjoyed that their pretty daughter had attracted such a handsome man. However, life was to show that Bennie’s most enduring quality was his love for his relations and friends.

On his 50th wedding anniversary another lifelong friend of his, Godwin Witana, had sent the wedding invitation to Bennie and Manel’s wedding, back to them. A precious souvenir! For Bennie, this invitation and the letter from Cousin Ranjanii were the best golden wedding anniversary presents.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday in Nuwara Eliya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy.  Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel did turn out to be the winner, that Bennie predicted and among many other accomplishments she did get him to wear western clothes too. While memories are fragile and sometimes unreliable, the written word lives on. “I got my wife to sing the song she sang on our honeymoon,” wrote Bennie. after one anniversary. He was ever the romantic.

“The day hath passed into the land of dreams
O summer day beside the joyous sea!
O summerday so wonderful and white,
So full of gladness.”

– H.W. Longfellow/A summer day by the sea

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.

Hikkaduwa memoirs through American eyes

Last night, well past 1 am, while my Nugegoda neighbourhood slept and pole cats frolicked on my rooftop, I sat listening to a lesser known Dvorak piece:  “Zypressen for String Quartet”.  The sender Dale Hammond had said “…helps me to feel words and to see and feel characters in a story…almost like with the music I can reach out and touch them.  So, I searched around a bit and came up with a lesser known Dvorak piece. Click on the time line just before 2:00 minutes.  That helped me to sense and feel the people in the following “Letter to Aruni,” which I love. I begin to see the expression in their faces, the movement of their hands, light and shadow, a breeze thru a cotton shirt or sari.  I got the strongest image at 2:59, but that theme only runs for about: 17 before I lose the image. However, another way I can see is by starting the Dvorak at 00:00, move thru the intro and then begin to read at :13 or :14.”

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002.

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002.

“Overall, the sections of the Dvorak above  approximates what I often get in your writing…optimism, youth, light–gentle–sinuous–smooth–curving movement, shyness, necessary and very appropriate formality , sweetness, caring, memory, humor that is always kind….”

What was this letter to Aruni, and who was Dale Hammond? First The letter –purportedly written by my mother Manel in her teens to an agony columnist of the Sunday Observer.

Dear Aruni

I am the eldest daughter in our family, unblemished as the lotus flower I was named after and was brought up by my maternal grandmother in a Walauwa in Panadura. While on a pilgrimage to the shrine in the jungle, we stopped at a house of a relative of mine in Hikkaduwa. There I met this handsome young man at the doorway to his house and he served us tea. He reappeared as we finished bathing in the river before going to the shrine, and he made us marmite soup with just a touch of lime. On the way back he sat with my brother Sepal in our bus. Now he visits our school on the pretext of visiting his aunt who is the Principal of the school. The problem is that my friends call him “Redda” for wearing national dress and I hear his mother will veto a proposal. What should I do?

Aruni’s reply: “Get him to wear western dress and hope his mother will die soon, you are sure to be a winner.”

The letter and the reply both were humorous concoctions of my father Bennie Kirtisinghe and was embedded in a blog post “Flower of Love: Bennie Meets Manel” by  Bala Malli . 

Wedding day 8 June 1944 portrait of my parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe. Photographer unknown. Waluwwa, Nalluruwa, Panadura, Sri Lanka. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Wedding day 8 June 1944 portrait of my parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe. Photographer unknown. Waluwwa, Nalluruwa, Panadura, Sri Lanka. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

 Manel, my Amma, did turn out to be the predicted winner but couldn’t get Thatha to wear western dress on the wedding day.  The wedding took place in the ample and beautiful gardens of the Dissanayake Waluwa in Pandura on June 8th 1944.  Amma was 21 going on 22 and Thatha was 25 at the time of marriage – I guess my grandma didn’t veto the proposal in the end. …

So how did this listening to music and reading blogs come about and who was Dale Hammond?

On 11 May, 2013, I received this comment on my blog Hikkaduwa Chronicles, on the post Return to Hikkaduwa 7 years after tsunami” and said:

“Was listening to Prokofiev, Opus 31 as I read your “Letters from my father Bennie & Bala Malli.”  It all comes back….It all comes back…  I trust your mother, you, all of yours are well.”
Dale H.

Yes, it all came back for me too. Dale H. was Dale Hammond who first got in touch with me in 2010 to say:

Ms Desilva,

My name is Dale Hammond and I live with my wife Anna in Santa Barbara County, California. I am assuming you are Chulanganie, daugther of Bennie and Manel Kirtisinghe of Hikkaduwa.

Recently I was remembering your parents and came upon your Hikkaduwa Chronicles. I noticed the last comment on the link below was from 2008, so I wanted to make sure you are aware of the comment I left at the bottom of the link. That is why I am writing.
http://chuls.wordpress.com/2008/06/30/the-flower-of-love-bennie-meets-manel/#comment-101
Best Regards,
Dale Hammond
Lompoc, California

His comment coming out of the blue was:

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

Chulie,
I stayed with the very kind and gentle Bennie and Manel 42 years ago. A few days ago I wrote the following to my wife Anna, who is touring round-the-world….

One night while you were in Singapore I began to dream of my own trip thru that part of the world 42 years ago. Somehow, my mind got to what was then Ceylon and a little west coastal town there named Hikkadua [sic Hikkaduwa]. I had it so good there…so much so that its memory has receded into my mind to a special place that today makes me wonder if I was ever there at all. For a couple of dollars a day I stayed with a very kind man and his wife: a house they called “Siri Niwasa”, a wonderful room that looked on a garden, a short path to the sea with a magical coral reef, 3 meals a day, and a young man who climbed the trees for young coconuts when I was thirsty in the heat of the day. It was a peaceful town, and the only foreigners I saw during my 2 week stay were a couple of young Germans with a quirky way of looking at life.

My host and hostess were Bennie and Manel. After so many years, a few days ago I found them again….http://chuls.wordpress.com/2008/06/30/the-flower-of-love-bennie-meets-manel/
Love,
Dale

Dale’s message arriving so close to my father’s birthday on 13 May, was as I said to him then a “wonderful posthumous gift”.

I updated him on family news and promised to tell my mother, which I did but I forgot to respond to Dale and tell him that my mother remembered him.

So the 2013, comment came again three years later almost to the day again of my father’s Birthday and yet again a delight.  My mind jumped back to the earlier correspondence I responded immediately, again giving him family news and photos. Dale came back with this:

“….and…thank you for your reply. Yes, it has been awhile. Where we left off, I think,  you were on your way to your Mother to ask if she remembered me. When I heard nothing about her response, I did what I tend to do. That is, I assumed she did not remember me in a good light. When I look back at that period of my life, I think of myself as young, brave, and very foolish, with a less than healthy emphasis on the latter quality. Hence, in my logic, I indicted myself in your mother’s eyes. In truth, I hope it would not be so, or, at the very worst, she does not remember me at all. 

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

I do remember your mother and father. They were kind and gentle and to me embodied connection and hope, and I know now, for what was then my reality, they were “what the doctor ordered.” They have long been and will always be in my memory.  

I thoroughly enjoy your writing and believe there is much in it to savor. You speak of a time and of a place that few of us could otherwise only imagine. But more, I see in your words a story of people who are real, and special, yet possess qualities to which, I think, many are now and will be drawn. Most of all, at least for me, your words transcend more than just years and memory, but also those human differences in which we so often mire ourselves. All of us are after all, so much alike, and I believe few could not look to Bennie and Manel and recognize the best in themselves. 

On a related note, we live not far from Santa Barbara, CA. That is where I work. Annually, this city plays host to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It grows every year, although still small by relative standards. Happily so, as I have heard many say it is intimate in a way the Academy Awards, held 90 miles to the South, could never achieve. But, its size does not preclude it being a draw for great films and great actors: Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day Lewis, Robert Deniro, Jeff Bridges, Martin Scorsese, Jeffrey Rush are just the beginning of the list, year over year. 

But, beyond the big names and big films, are the lesser known films and actors and actresses that comprise the independents that grace the stage of the Arlington, the Lobero, and the Riviera, along with other venues. To the point, I believe the story of “Siri Niwasa” is more than worthy of standing with any story contained within those many Independents I have seen at the Festival over the years. It’s a great and wonderful story and I pray it will not end.”

The sea behind Siriniwas, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The sea behind Siriniwas, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Please, I pray you stay with this.  Hikka, when I saw it and experienced it, was extraordinary, as is the house, and the characters, and the river, and the people you remember.  It is a story that needs to be told. “How Blue Was my Sea”….”How Blue Was My Sea”….”How Blue Was My Sea”…

 

Raking memories on Mother’s Day with my father’s letters

Handwritten letters on crumbling aerogrammes or paper thin airmail paper are precious items storing vignettes of family life that are often forgotten. Combined with phtographs they bring to life the person and paints an unmatched portrait of the writer and the rest of the family members. Often outrageous, frank, funny, my father’s letters are a portrait of the romantic he was. My father’s birthday falls on the13 May, so inevitably anything I write for Mother’s Day has to include my father too.

My mother Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe in her twenties. rephotographed from a copy. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My mother Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe in her twenties after her marriage to my father. rephotographed from a copy. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In a letter to me in the 1980’s when I lived In Kuala Lumpur, my father Bennie had written “I left the house early morning by CTB [bus] from Hikkaduwa like Prince Siddharta. It was a sentimental journey after 40 years. In 1940, I made the same pilgrimage to ask God Kataragama to give me a wife. In 1941, I got one and married in ’44.”

Their wedding photograph. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Their wedding photograph. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

On this trip he was retracing his steps to complain to God Kataragama that my mother was “too bossy and makes no LOVE ( his capitalisation)”. He wanted to “ask him [Kataragama God] what’s the next step?

When I arrived at the Devale, the doors were not open but there was a Boy Guard waiting. I heard the ‘VOICE’ say the ‘Unbeliever’ has come, send him first to me. As the doors opened the priest beckoned me in, I was told to enter and be close to GOD. When he heard my story HE laughed and said it happened to him also and in fact to many people and directed me to his brother ‘Ganesh’ – for Nuwana ( knowledge) and Advice. Home life is back to normal.”

In an earlier letter he had said “I have got my photo in the driving license enlarged – just a reminder of my days when I first met my Waterloo” – a reference to when he met my mother.

Bennie Kirtisinghe rephotgraphed from a tsunami damaged photo. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Bennie Kirtisinghe rephotographed from a tsunami damaged photo. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I was 23 then,” my father writes. “Sweet empty face.”  This was a photo he had given my mother when he was courting her and Amma apparently had said many years later during a squabble that she was “cheated” by the sweet face.

Replying to a birthday card I had sent in 1981 he wrote on the 29 May 1981: “Thank you for the birthday card and the letter. These things mean a lot for the ego. Every year you ask me when I was born; I was born in 1918. The year the first World War ended. My uncles had told my parents that I was from the Western front ( the belief in  rebirth among Buddhists). That’s why I marched to the front in the Second World War.” The Birthday card was a real eye opener. Yes, I can do what I did 50 years ago. Four days ago I saw the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  Then he writes about a “Close Encounter” he asked for”with my latest girl friend (my present wife) !!!.

Portrait of Amma - original photographer unknown but probably a tourist who came to Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Amma – original photographer unknown but probably a tourist who came to Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In the late 1970’s through to the 1980’s they started renting out rooms to tourists to top up the dwindling finances as my father had whittled away his inheritance. They made many friends among the tourists during the boom hippie years and a few even follow these blogs. Only yesterday I got a mail from an American tourist who said “Was listening to Prokofiev, Opus 31 as I read your “Letters from my father Bennie & Bala Malli.”  It all comes back….It all comes back..”

Father relates how an English lady showed him this passage by Harry & Anne Austin [next word not clear] team in a 1977 Air India travel book, where Sri Lanka and Hikkaduwa were featured: “the paying guest accommodation of Mr. & Mrs B. Kirtisinghe’s cosy old home (306, Galle Road, Hikkaduwa) – a 3 minute walk from the railway station. the back of their house is only 20 metres from the ocean and separated by their private garden.”  Rs.10/- (84 cents USD then) for a single room and Rs. 20/-; 30/- and 40/- for the three doubles the higher price being for attached bathrooms. The real attraction we are told is Mrs. Kirtisinghe’s fabulous five course meal for Rs.10/- ( 84 cents)., which would tempt the most sophisticated palette  and satisfy the largest appetite, truly the best food in the sub-continent.’

Yes, my mother’s food was legendary and she was always the generous hostess. A pragmatic business woman, Amma did very well taking up a vocation as a successful insurance agent late in life. Born in this day and age she would be running a successful business empire. In another letter my father says “We have a German girl who is without her top [blouse] and when I tell her to cover her top, she puts the thumb and forefinger together (nearly) and says ‘My two pips [sic tits] are very small.’ Amma says ‘let them be as they want, otherwise they will leave.’  My father resigns himself to the inevitable and says “That is how everyone tolerates nudism in S/Lanka,

Amusing, provocative, his letters weave a rich tapestry of family life – foibles and all.  Interestingly somethings remain the same — specially comments about politicians.  In a more sombre tone he writes amidst the turbulence of the JVP years and political upheavals of the 80’s “The world and its people are changing so much that I wish I don’t have to see all this.”

See also: The Flower of Love: Bennie Meets Manel

Letters From my Father Bennie: Travels with Rati

In an era where there was no email and when even an international telephone conversations had to go through an operator the letters from my father- Bennie (Bhasura) Kirtisinghe–were my umbilical cord to the family. I used to get 3 letters a week in the period 1966-1969 from my father.They kept home sickness at bay and I would carry the last letter with me in my bag and take it out and read on the long bus journey to work in Liverpool.

The shoebox of old letters.  10 March, 2013. Nugegoda, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

One of the shoeboxes of old letters. 10 March, 2013. Nugegoda, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Sadly, most of the letters from this period are lost but some remain from the time when we lived in Penang and then Kuala Lumpur and later in Brunei Darussalam.

The aerogramme of 3 April, 1983.  Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The aerogramme of 3 April, 1983. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The letters are a rich chronicle of family life that has faded from my memory, but to read again his scrawling hand writing is to relive the past.

He didn't hold back when he wrote to me, and his frank writings often were hilarious. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

He didn’t hold back when he wrote to me, and his frank writings often were hilarious. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The box not only contained letter from him, but there were some from my sister Yasoja before she emigrated to Australia, my mother relating her anguish at finding her only sister had cancer and from friends too. There’s a wealth of family history archived in the letters. However, the most interesting were from my father, who was an inveterate storyteller. He would write to the edge of the aerogramme, and often sign as Father B or just BK.

He didn’t hold back when he wrote to me.  I would wait eagerly for his letter and  I would even share his outrageous comments with friends in Malaysia who got to know him from these letters. His wanton imagination often went on wild romps. The letters I suspect were also an escape from the boredom of life that he often complained to me about as he aged. He knew however outrageous his comments were, that I wouldn’t censure. “Yes, I am now expensive. At 65 it has to be that. I am an unhappy man, nothing is done in this house (my house) as I wish.” In their marriage, power had shifted over the years to my mother, the matriarch. She very knowingly would say I am not sure what rubbish ( in Sinhala the term she used was manasgatha) he is writing to Chulie. He would refer to my mother as his ‘(n)ever loving wife’ but close to death, he only wanted food cooked by my mother and would listen only to pirith chanted by my mother – as only she had the proper intonation that she had learned in her hometown of Panadura.

I plan to edit and post his letters on this blog. Today, I give extracts from a letter that was written on the 3 April in 1983 and is probably a response to my writing to him about the transcendental meditation I was practising and my inquiry as to whether he was meditating.

No, I am not meditating. Meditaion is not sitting stiff for 10 or (5mins) repeating one word & thinking of nothing (or trying). One day at meditation Mara sent her [sic his] cleverest & most sexy daughter “Rathie” to seduce me. In fact at that moment any female could have won me over. She took me back to my late teens and early 20s. She took me to all my girl friends. ..Some disported front opening brassieres & some did all the wiles of women. Little hands without rings on their fingers and with one or two gold bangles at the wrists. They went round my neck and some said “I won’t let you go.”

Rati- Goddess of love, lust and pleasure.

Rati- Goddess of love, lust and pleasure.

On the 19th I went on a sentimental journey to the past that Rathie took me as a voyeur. …I went to see my ‘alma mater ‘ Dharmaraja College, Kandy. Like a schoolboy I climbed to school hill (1000ft +). It was a Sunday, and I went all over my haunts with my camera.  The swimming pools were abandoned. The tennis courts that were cut and laid by my friend and I were not there. Some classrooms were there. There were no trainer’s court at all. On the staff court was built a shrine room. ‘Our Principal’ a mighty man who married an English girl was not there.”

The Principal was his maternal uncle P.de. S. Kularatne and the English lady his “Aunt Hilda.” He has oft repeated stories of his time when he and my Uncle Bertie were boarders at Dharmaraja. It was while they were here they received a telegram of the passing away  of their father, my grandfather K.H. Bastian.

My father seated in front of my grandfather and Uncle Bertie in front of my grandmother with the 5 elder brothers when the eldest P. Kirtisinghe returned from University of London after obtaining his M.Sc.  Rephotographed from an  original©Chulie de Silva

My father seated in front of my grandfather and Uncle Bertie in front of my grandmother with the 5 elder brothers when the eldest P. Kirtisinghe (Loku Thatha in the middle) returned from University of London after obtaining his M.Sc. Left to right Uncle Ritchie, Uncle Albert, Loku Thatha, Uncle Lionel and Uncle Vinnie. Rephotographed from an original©Chulie de Silva

However, the obituary notice had mentioned only his five elder brothers, and left out the two younger children. Not sure what the logic of this was, but on their return to the boarding after the funeral they had been teased by the other children that they were adopted and not really nephews of the principal.

In the last story of his, he relates how an English couple sitting in front of him on the train journey from Kandy to Colombo lost their money and passports. He had explained to the railway authorities their lack of tickets at the exit point and given them Rs100/- to get them to their hotel. He says a week later he had a letter from them with Rs.150 in it and an invitation to visit them in London.  Winding up he says ” I have no brandy” — an obvious hint  for a gift and reiterates “ I don’t mediate but takes a ride to the past with Rathie.”

See also: Remembering Father B – Bhasura the lion of Hikkaduwa; Kirtisinghe Geeration1: Loku Thatha Comes Home. 

Note on Rati from Wikipedia.

Rati (Sanskrit: रति, Rati) is the Hindu goddess of love, carnal desire, lust, passion and sexual pleasure.[1][2][3][4] Usually described as the daughter of PrajapatiDaksha, Rati is the female counterpart, the chief consort and the assistant of Kama (Kamadeva), the god of love. A constant companion of Kama, she is often depicted with him in legend and temple sculpture. She also enjoys worship along with Kama. Rati is often associated with the arousal and delight of sexual activity, and many sex techniques and positions derive their Sanskrit names from hers.

The Hindu scriptures stress her beauty and sensuality. They depict her as a maiden who has the power to enchant the god of love. When the god Shiva burnt her husband to ashes, it was Rati, whose beseeching or penance, leads to the promise of Kama’s resurrection. Often, this resurrection occurs when Kama is reborn as Pradyumna, the son of Krishna. Separated from his parents at birth, Rati – under the name of Mayavati – plays a critical role in the upbringing of Pradyumna. She acts as his nanny, as well as his lover, and tells him the way to return to his parents by slaying the demon-king, who is destined to die at his hands. Later, Kama-Pradyumna accepts Rati-Mayavati as his wife.