Enter Grandson Thomas

“When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered

as a fragrance about it.

Your tender softness bloomed in my youthful limbs, like a glow

in the sky before the sunrise.

Heaven’s first darling, twain-born with the morning light, you

have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you

have stranded on my heart.

As I gaze on your face, mystery overwhelms me; you who belong

to all have become mine.

For fear of losing you I hold you tight to my breast. What

magic has snared the world’s treasure in these slender arms of

mine?”

Rabindranath Tagore

Thomas Alexander Glenn

Nickie with new born baby Thomas Alexander Glenn. 20 March 2017, Sydney, Australia

I had been reading a few days ago Tagore poems and thought this was so apt for my daughter-in-law, when I saw this photo. Today, when she asked me “Aren’t you going to do a blog for your new grandson, like you did for Freya,” I was taken a bit back by surprise! “That blog came up faster,” said the son, a tad accusingly. Achchi is the self appointed family historian but lately, the Achchi has been accused of laying bare her life on the blog and FB, being addicted to techie gadgets and teaching granddaughter to take selfies! Besides, Achchie has not been blogging for a long time but said “Sure!” A good time as any to get back to blogging and writing.(No matter that I accidentally deleted the first draft pics and all an hour or so ago!)

Photos had been coming in thick and fast today. Looking at them I had a little time to reflect on how times have changed. For all those who talk about the good ole’ times, I say these times are greater. Dads have evolved a lot more and mothers go to work, keep their careers but still find time to have babies, nurture them and hold the family sacrosanct. Fathers, when we had babies stayed well outside the delivery rooms and had to be told to send flowers the next day! But now they are in the thick of the drama armed with the ubiquitous iPhones. So the Best Photo award for this year goes to my son Suren for capturing this decisive moment , when the grandson took his first breath and yelled his lungs out. This was awesome, and yes this was how Thomas Alexander Glenn de Silva, arrived into our family.

First breath & cries

Thomas takes his first breaths & yells his lungs out. Photo copyright Suren de Silva

“I wanted to call him Thor after Thor Heyerdahl,” says son. Good thing they didn’t, that would have been more difficult to explain to the Sri Lankan family than Freya! ( Thor in Sinhalese is a less refined form of you – to put it mildly).

Suren, Freya & Thomas

Suren, Freya & Thomas

Freya had a long preparation to welcome the baby brother. Gifts from baby brother were brought, etc and that reminded me that I too did that and we bought a train set for Suren to say this was what his baby brother brought him. However, after an initial showing, it went to live on top of the wardrobe, for the father to take down and play, when the kids were safely asleep.

Suren & Freya

Father and daughter bonding and building a toy cupboard, the day before Thomas arrived. Photo copyright Nickie de Silva

Will Thomas one day ask as Tagore said ”

“Where have I come from, where did you pick me up?” the baby asked

its mother.

She answered, half crying, half laughing, and clasping the

baby to her breast-

“You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.

You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games. …” Maybe the big sister will explain as she is almost ready to step into that role.

Bathing Tom day 3

Nickie with new born baby Thomas Alexander Glenn, and Freya joins in bathing baby. 20 March 2017, Sydney, Australia

A baby is a miracle of life, that gives joy unbounded and a new lease of life specially to grandparents.

Liz and Tom

Liz Thompson, Nickie’s Mum and the indispensable Nanna with Thomas. Photo credit Jacqui Thompson.

I will take back unequivocally what I told a colleague long time ago before grandkids actually arrived: “I won’t go ga-ga oover grandkids, all my mother instincts are satisfied!” Just looking at all these photos I turn again to Tagore for so eloquently saying what is in my heart today:

“I wish I could take a quiet corner in the heart of my baby’s very own world.
I know it has stars that talk to him, and a sky that stoops down to his face to amuse him with its silly clouds and rainbows.
Those who make believe to be dumb, and look as if they never
could move, come creeping to his window with their stories and with
trays crowded with bright toys.
I wish I could travel by the road that crosses baby’s mind,
and out beyond all bounds;
Where messengers run errands for no cause between the kingdoms
of kings of no history;
Where Reason makes kites of her laws and flies them, the Truth
sets Fact free from its fetters.”

One last request for all those Techie guys out there – can you please hurry up and get the “Beam me up Scotty” gadget into the market!

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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.

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

Analytics of a Wedding Photo

Chulie_094blog

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

Tracing Ancestors from Great Grandfather KH Babun Appu de Silva

Memory is not exactly memory. It is more like a prong, upon which a calendar of similar experiences happening throughout the years, collect.” –Stephen Spender.

There is a deep yearning and a hunger in me to delve into the past and trace my ancestors. In many ways, we are who we are, because they were who they were. I look down at my hands and I see my mother.  I sit on my bed, surrounded by books and think of my father who did the same. The birth of my granddaughter, the latest addition to our family, Freya Amelia de Silva was another reminder of how we all carry bits of our ancestors in us and then pass it on to the next generation.

So it’s time to present probably the oldest member of the clan from Hikkaduwa, that I have a photograph of  — my paternal Great grandfather Kaluappuwa Hennedige Babun Appu de Silva (GGF).

Kaluappuwa Hennedige Babun Appu. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Kaluappuwa Hennedige Babun Appu de Silva. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

On my mother’s side there was a Great Great Grandfather with an impressive long name —  Mudaliyar Wijesuriya Gunawardene Mahawaduge Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake from Panadura. I have written about him earlier. But unlike him, we have very little information on GGF Babun Appu.

Much of what I present here is culled from the family’s collective memory and my extrapolating or inferences might be considered dodgy, but this is the best we have at present, till someone else can come up with better facts.

For starters let’s take the clan name “Kaluappuwa Hennedige.” Kalu probably comes from having a darker skin tone — not considered a bad thing. God Vishnu statues in temples had a dark almost a blue black colour. Appu is supposed to be a derivative of Malayalam “Appa” meaning father. However, my father Bennie used to say it is not “Kaluappu” but “Kulappu” meaning hot tempered.

Babun Appu’s regal bearing is more in keeping with someone, who held a good position in the country. Anyway it’s the second name “Hennedige” that points to a vocation. Our family belongs to the Karava caste and Hennedige’s also Senadige’s were the house of the commanding officers. “de Silva” would have assigned by the Portuguese rulers .

Leonard Woolf named one of his chief characters in his classic novel “Village in the Jungle” Babun Appu — the name was then not unusual and is the Sinhalese transliteration of the Hindu honorific Babu. I have no clue as to his wife’s name as most of the records kept at Siriniwasa, our house in Hikkaduwa was lost in the tsunami. This included another valuable photo of him taken when my father’s eldest brother Parakrama ( aka Edmund) returned from England after obtaining an MA in Zoology from the University of London. My brother who remembers the photo says my uncle had a garland in his hand as in the photo below and GGF was also there. That photo had been taken near the railway line where his house was and I suppose this photo of Babun Appu was taken there too.

K H Bastian de Silva & S K Pintho hamy with their 7 sons. circa early 1930s. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

K H Bastian de Silva & S K Pintho hamy with their 7 sons. circa early 1930s at Siriniwasa. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What we know for sure is that my grandfather, KH Bastian de Silva was his eldest son. He had another son KH Henderick de Silva, and 4 daughters. One daughter Jane, married a wealthy businessman a Mr. Rajapakse from Ambalangoda and drove a Morris 8 Tourer and would come to visit Bastian driving her own car, dressed in the cloth (Kambaya) and Kabakuruththu as was the day dress for Karava women in that period. Jane might have looked some what like the painting below of a Sinhalese woman in a cloth and Jacket. By the way here in this painting the cloth looks more like a skirt. Most of the Western artists of the past didn’t accurately draw a woman in a Kambaya.

A woman in Cloth & Jacket, rephotographed with permission from author Rajpal Kumar de Silva from the book Pictorial Impressions of Early Colonial Sri Lanka: People and their Dress, Serendib Publications, 2014. This photo copyright Chulie de Silva

A woman in Cloth & Jacket, rephotographed with permission from author Rajpal Kumar de Silva from the book Pictorial Impressions of Early Colonial Sri Lanka: People and their Dress, Serendib Publications, 2014. This photo copyright Chulie de Silva

My grandfather seated on the front verandah with grandmother at Siriniwasa, would see her coming and say “Here comes the yakshini (she-devil)” and quickly retreat to hide in his room. The two sisters-in-law apparently got on well. Most likely they would have had tea and a good gossip. The Grand Aunt Jane was probably the first female to drive a car in the family and am told she had a handy hip flask of brandy and needed a swig from it for a bit of Dutch courage before starting on the drive back to Ambalangoda. She had 5 children — 4 sons and a daughter, according to my mother. The eldest son,  Dr. Sugatha Rajapakse, was a London qualified doctor who stayed on in UK and he in turn had a daughter Ajantha. The other 3 sons were Piyadasa, Jinadasa, Mahindadasa. My mother from whom I got this information was herself at age 90. She couldn’t recall the daughter’s name. Grand Aunt Jane, in naming her children had shifted from the Western names to Sinhala names.

Two other sisters of my grandfather married men from Magalle and one of them was Beatrice also known as “Bala Hami Nanda” and was the mother of Uncle Susiripala de Silva. There were aunts Leelawathi, Gnanawathi and Indrani who would visit us regularly at Hikkaduwa. Uncle Susiri, a much loved uncle, was quite a rebel in his youth. Meeting him in Singapore in the 70’s, he recounted how when he was boarded in a school in Hatton, where my Uncle Lionel was the principal, he scooted off from the hostel — I think after a caning from Uncle Lionel — and walked back to his mother in Magalle, Galle — a distance of over 200km.  He was packed off to Singapore as most incorrigible children were at that time, and fought with the Japanese in World War II before becoming a successful gem merchant. His story is another interesting tale that needs to be told.

Coast road to Hikkaduwa, near Peraliya, still showing the erosion of the beach 30 Dec. 2008.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Coast road to Hikkaduwa, near Peraliya, still showing the erosion of the beach 30 Dec. 2008.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The other daughter of Babun Appu married into a Peraliya family and my mother remembers my grandmother referring to her husband as “Peraliya Massina” — meaning Brother-in-Law from Peraliya. Peraiya in the last decade was where the train tragedy of the tsunami 2004 occurred. Most os us have lost touch with this branch of the family.

Brothers Bastian and Henderick were the best of friends and were building contractors. Apparently, the trust was so good that they shared one purse. Among many of the up country buildings alleged to be built by Bastian are the Hatton Post office, Labukele Tea factory and many tea estate bungalows. No doubt brother Henderick was there too, communicating with the British Planters, as he was the one more proficient in the English language. Bastian was also the first one to introduce electricity to Hikkaduwa. The big Chubbs iron safe we have at Siriniwasa, was a discarded one from an English Planter, that Bastian brought down to Hikkaduwa and installed it in the house.

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. According to Aunt Maya, my grandfather would light a huge hurricane lamp in the evening and keep it on top of the safe.The tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. According to Aunt Maya, my grandfather would light a huge hurricane lamp in the evening and keep it on top of the safe.The tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

However, things changed when Bastian married Sella Kapuage Pintohamy from Ambalangoda and Henderick married Patabendige Missinona.  Patabendige’s are supposed to be descendent of Kings, and the two women might have been competitive. Anyway, their quareling probably got to Bastian and he built Siriniwasa and moved his family to live by the sea in 1911.

The sea behind Siriniwas, a surfing point named  Benny's Point, after my father., Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan 2014.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The sea behind Siriniwas, a surfing point named Benny’s Point, after my father., Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Bastian and Pintohamy had seven sons — Edmund later took the name Parakrama (born 1903); Albert (born 24 June1905, the only one who kept his given name); Lionel later took the name Haripriya (born 1907); Richard later took the name Ratnasara (born 22 Aug.1910); Vincent later took the name Vidyasara (born 20 Nov 1912); Bennie later took the name Bhasura (born 13 May 1918) and Bertie later took the name Cyril (born 1920). All of them dropped the “KH” and the “de Silva” and took “Kirtisinghe” as the surname about the time my grandmother’s brothers took the name “Kularatne.” Here again 5 of them dropped the English names and took Sinhala names.

Henderick and Patabendige Missinona  had 3 sons and 3 daughters. The eldest was daughter Regina who married a lawyer Mr. Danister Vincent Balasuriya from Matara. Regina Nanda, as we called her went on to become the  Prinicipal of Sujata Vidyalaya. It is said that “the golden era of Sujath Vidyalaya dawned with Regina Balasuriya taking over the principal’s post.”

Henderick’s eldest son was KH Wilmot Oliver de Silva who married Vinicia Fernando. He himself was a renowned school Prinicipal and among his students that I knew ws one brilliant chap who achieved a first class degree in Science and now lives in UK pursuing an academic career.

Waldugala rocks seen at sunset on 1 Jan 2014, t low tide from Chaya Tranz. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Waldugala rocks seen at sunset on 1 Jan 2014, t low tide from Chaya Tranz. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Then came Uncle Lambert — full name KH Solomon Lambert de Silva who was a member of the then prestigious and exclusive Ceylon Civil Service. He married Dayawathie de Silva, a lady with the same name as his younger sister. Uncle Lambert was known for his prowess in swimming. A regular weekend swimmer at Hikkaduwa, he who would swim beyond the reef to the crop of rocks out at sea called the “Waldugala.”

Lastly, Henderick had twins, a boy and a girl he named Jinadasa and Jinawathie. Sadly, we didn’t know Jinawathi. She had died as a schoolgirl probably from TB. Jinadasa known as Jin Bappa married Bertha from Ambalangoda, related to us from SK Pintohamy’s side. However, my earliest memories of Jin Bappa was when he was sent by my Grand Aunt Missinona to “borrow me for a day.” Apparently Grand Aunt loved children but now when I look back am not sure what I did or how I qualified for this honour! However, my parents were probably happy to have some peace without my chatter and I remember holding Jin Bappa’s hand and walking across the railway line to go play in that house. Sometimes, Aunt Regina’s daughter Gayathri would be there and we would play “House” — take our dolls and dissolve toothpaste in water to make milk for the dolls and play under the shade of a mulberry tree. Come evening, Jin Bappa and I would walk across the railway line — me trying to jump from sleeper to sleeper, singing ditties out of tune with Jin Bappa joining in with a quite chuckle.

My eldest granddaughter  Tara Padme with my son Ranil de Silva. Sydney 24 April 2010.

My eldest granddaughter Tara Padme with my son Ranil de Silva. Sydney 24 April 2010.

Bastian and Pintohamy wanted a daughter so much but didn’t get one. When their first granddaughter Nimala was born to his eldest son Parakrama and wife Millicent,  Bastian was overjoyed.  On his first visit to see the baby, he had thrust two sovereign cold coins into her little hands and watched her with tears streaming down his face. My father used to say he was delighted to be told that he had another daughter when I was born. As I watch my sons with their daughters, I marvel at the love they show their daughters. I suppose times and places change but somethings will still remain the same.

Remembering Amma@1 year after

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A year without Amma has flown past. Early on 17 morning I could hear the sounds in the kitchen as Padmini, the resident chef Prema & the consultant chef hired for the event started the preparations. I wandered outside on to the verandah. It was still inky dark, a sliver of the moon was still visible.

The night readies to depart -the sliver of a moon still visible. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The night readies to depart -the sliver of a moon still visible. Copyright Chulie de Silva

Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Copyright Chulie de Silva

Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Copyright Chulie de Silva

By the time I returned from the beach the dawn was just breaking. The house will later fill with visitors – neighbhours, relatives – most will remember Amma with love.
The kitchen was the hub – the centre. I was wandering around photographing food , and Prema 1 & 2 would take a peak at my photos.

Potatoes and pickle -- preparations have started.Copyright Chulie de Silva

Potatoes and pickle — preparations have started.Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

The tuna awaits. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The tuna awaits. Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

Copyright Chulie de Silva

Copyright Chulie de Silva

“Now put that away and do some work, otherwise you will mot get any good karma,” said our bossy Prema. So I got the job of rolling into balls the fish mixture. My sis-in-law came to my help and speeded things up deftly rolling the mixture.

As more helpers trooped in, I escaped to pick up the camera.

The fruits were prepared and the Buddha puja was ready.

A circular dish containing mini potions of all food prepared that is offered in the Buddha Puja.

A circular dish containing mini potions of all food prepared that is offered in the Buddha Puja.

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Copyright Chulie de Silva

Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

Prema 2, the consultant stirs the huge pot of yellow rice with a freshly cut and washed young stalk from a coconut tree.

Prema stirs the yellow rice. Copyright Chulie de Silva

Prema stirs the yellow rice. Copyright Chulie de Silva

“Aren’t you going to take ‘potos’ (photos) of us with the proper camera like last time asked Prema 2. Obviously, they didn’t have much faith in phone cameras! So that had to come out too. But those are yet to be downloaded,

The next day Prema 1 sat with me looking at all the photos and trying to understand what this posting pics on FB was. Suddenly, she turned and said there’s no photo on FB of the salad I painstakingly prepared. Luckily for me i had photographed it although I had not posted it.

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Prema was suitably impressed. “You must take more and post on FB, so people will get to know our culinary skills,” said Prema. “Tomorrow, you must photograph my garden, so the ‘rata inna nona’ (the lady who lives abroad) can see what I have done with the garden. I now have a second PR job.

All photographs copyright Chulie de Silva

PS This is my first blog from the iPhone😄

 

Unboxing the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004

A  slightly shorter version of this post first appeared on the World Bank Intranet and the End Poverty in Asia blog. 

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

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

My mother Manel Kirtisinghe encapsulated what the loss of a loved one in the tsunami meant, when she wrote in her diary “What you deeply in your heart possess, you cannot lose by death.” On 26 Dec. 2004, Prasanna went away leaving behind for me a lasting vacuum and a silent aching grief.”

Prasanna Kirtisinghe in Saudi Arabia. circa 1980s. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Prasanna Kirtisinghe in Saudi Arabia. circa 1980s. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Prasanna was my brother and this year when we observe religious rituals in memory of him, my mother will not be there with us. She left us earlier this year. Prasanna was our bulwark and the trauma of his death was so intensely felt that it took us seven years to rebuild and return to our beloved house. My mother was happy to be back in the house she had come to as a bride in 1944, but she stubbornly refused to go to the back verandah or to walk on the beach – a ritual she did twice a day before the tsunami.

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

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

As my mother did, we all had our coping mechanisms to handle the pain. The grief is still with me hastily boxed and lodged inside me but about this time of the year the lid flies open and the horror spills out. The images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying. Like a slow moving movie, they appear…and the nightmares return.

Siriniwasa, after the tsunami. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, our house, after the tsunami. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Many who survived will not forget the swirling torrent of putrid smelling water and the paralyzing fear that rose inside with the thought “Will I survive this?” Prasanna, my brother and Cresenta Fernando, my colleague at World Bank Colombo office are but two out of the thousands the sea devoured on the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.  For many who lost loved ones, the scars wound go deep. It only needs a person that from the back who looks like Prasanna; or a girl playing tennis to remind me of Cresenta’s jokes about the view from my office, and the wound bleeds.

My immediate role was to keep calm and help my family as well as the others who were injured. Remarkable as it seems now, an hour and a half after the tsunami stuck, all members within our immediate circle had seen a private medical doctor who dressed wounds, stitched deep cuts, gave tetanus jabs and medication. The village undertaker, who prepared my brother’s body, had burned all his clothes fearing infection and had found my car keys among the ashes. With practices like this, the country recorded no additional deaths because of tsunami related diseases or delayed medical treatment.

Cresenta Fernando, Economist, World Bank Sri Lanka Office

Cresenta Fernando, Economist, World Bank Sri Lanka Office

The World Bank office in Colombo too took a heavy blow with the loss of Cresenta. He was not only the clever economist; he was a much loved and admired co-worker. His wife Ariele Cohen survived but Cresenta’s body was never recovered. A poignant memorial service was held in Cresenta’s office and I remember his father stretching out his arms and telling me “I wore his clothes – shirts, trousers and even his shoes to make believe he is close to me.”

Rocio Castro, WB's Lead Economist in Sri Lanka, comforts Ariele, Cresenta's wife. His sister, neice, and parents are next to Ariel. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Rocio Castro, WB’s Lead Economist in Sri Lanka, comforts Ariele, Cresenta’s wife. His sister, neice, and parents are next to Ariel. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

 

This period also brings to mind support I received from the then Country Director Peter Harold and the South Asia External Affairs Advisor Dale Lautenbach. I got back to work 7 days after the tsunami and that period was a roller coaster where communications were concerned. I would often find Peter standing at the door to my office around 3 pm, urging me to stop work and go home early.

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

Garlanded photos at the funeral of my mother Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe. On the left as a young mother and the one on the right celebrating her 90th birthday.
22.8.22-17.1. 2014
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

I didn’t expect my mother to survive 6 months after the tsunami without her favourite son but she did live to celebrate her 91st birthday and for another six months more, surrounded by a caring family retinue and an extended network of family, friends and neighbhours.

My brother Prasanna and I. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 1950's. Photograph by M.W. Indrasoma (Wimalatissa mama).

My brother Prasanna and I. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 1950’s. Photograph by M.W. Indrasoma (Wimalatissa mama).

As I write my film reel rewinds: I am on a mat on the hard floor in Upal Soysa’s house we sought refuge and every bone in my body aches. My mind is flooded with memories from the happy childhood days, to the last conversations I had with Prasanna, minutes before the tsunami stuck. I am terrified to shed even one tear, fearing that I might not be able to stop. Bats cry, an owl hoots and the smell of a dead rat on the roof somewhere comes with the changing wind.  To keep my sanity I repeat over and over a phrase I learned from my father “even this day will pass into memory.” Daylight was a long way coming.

When we gather for Prasanna’s memorial on the 10th anniversary, Cresenta too will be remembered.  No doubt I will be swamped with memories but then as my mother said, “What you deeply in your heart possess, you cannot lose by death

Chasing Jade Dragons with Mao Tsetung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loushan Pass
— to the tune of Yi Chin O

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

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

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

Portrait of Mao Tsetung in the public domain

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

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

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

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

Changsha (1925)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KUNLUN 

— to the tune of Nien Nu Chaio
October 1935

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mao Tsetung Poems

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the Tsunami of 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siriniwasa, taken a few days after the tsunami.

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

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

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

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

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

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. According to Aunt Maya, my grandfather would light a huge hurricane lamp in the evening and keep it on top of the safe.The tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A unique incumbent of Siriniwasa was the huge Chubbs ironsafe my grandafther had built into this house. AThe tsuanmi damaged safe in 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

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

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

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

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

The cottage near the sea. Photo copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe

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

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

What remains. ... Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

What remains. … Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

Ashes of thoughts for what the tsunami took away

Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

 

Remembering Amma with love

Manel Kirtisinghe. 22 Aug.1922-17Jan.2014.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva. taken on 11 Oct. 2012

Manel Kirtisinghe. 22 Aug.1922-17Jan.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva. taken on 11 Oct. 2012

Sometimes our hearts borrow from our yesterday’s
And with each remembrance
we meet again with those we love.
Love’s last gift, remembrance.

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.