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

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An aunt, a house, and of joys on the beach at Hikkaduwa

I have always waited with bated breath for the holidays to begin at Hikkaduwa, to be embraced by the warmth of that house, Siriniwasa, hear in the winds that came through the grove of coconut trees whisper of the joys of many who have been here before us.

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photgraph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photgraph©Chulie de Silva

For me, Siriniwasa was not just a house of bricks and mortar – for it is a house that has lived with us, witnessing births, marriages, sicknesses and the pain of death. It has become a companion that walked with me whenever I was away from it, the joys of memories sustaining me in difficult times. It remains an integral part of all of us who have loved within it.  Many of us remember with a smile the spirit and all it stood for – solid family values and that Southern hospitality.  We all leave our footprints in the sand, embed our laughter in its walls and will leave in its virtual archives an unconditional love for the joys it gave us.

Then it was always summer. ... Photograph copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe.

Then it was always summer. … Photograph copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe.

Today I share with you this story by my aunt Maya Senanayake, which will resonate with many who have enjoyed the naturally rich playground of the sea and the beach behind Siriniwasa.

Her Hikkaduwa Nanda, was my paternal grandmother SK Pintohamy. She more than anyone set the values that my father followed of a house always open to visitors. I’ve been told that Pintohamy was a formidable matriarch and many stories abound of her but I can only doff my hat, so to speak, at this diminutive lady who brought up seven sons instilling in them values that are hard to find today.

Nostalgia and family stories are the grey literature, and these aural stories are often not penned. So it is a pleasure to read the story of my Maya Nanda.  She paints a picture of her a childhood filled with joy in her Kandy house and in our much loved house by the sea –Siriniwasa. Interestingly, although sands of time have shifted, our childhood was not much different and my brother Prasanna as a playmate was not much different from her Bertie Aiya. …

The sea behind Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa,  Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The sea behind Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa,
Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The sea roared in my ears. The waves hurled themselves at the reef with a boom. The breeze plucked at my hair and my white saree billowed out around me. I would have to go in soon, I thought, but not for a while. Everybody had gathered at the house – relations and friends of my childhood – my childhood, how it was bound up with this place, with Hikkaduwa.

Hikkaduwa nenda at her son Richie's house at Ambalangoda. With her is Anoma, Richies's eldest daughter. Photographer unknown. circa 1947/48.

Hikkaduwa Nanda at her son Richie’s house at Ambalangoda. With her is Anoma, Richies’s eldest daughter, who is also sadly not with us today. Photographer unknown. circa 1947/48.

As every child does, we would count the days towards the holidays, but not every child was as fortunate as we, my brothers and myself, to spend them by the sea.

The Cinnamon stick fence is still there, marking the boundary of the private property. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The Cinnamon stick fence is still there, marking the boundary of the private property. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Hikkaduwa Nanda, my father’s sister, lived with her family of seven sons right on the beach at Hikkaduwa, with her back garden ending with its fence of cinnamon sticks almost at the edge of the water. The little bay was sheltered from the waves by a curve of reef – strong enduring and protecting. Outside the sea was dark, unknown and sometimes menacing, but within it was calm, familiar and inviting.

My brothers and I only knew my aunt as Hikkaduwe Nanda. She was one of the three sisters who loved and nurtured my father, when their mother died four months after my father’s birth. I cannot at this moment recall her given name, I think it was Pintohamy. I only know that I loved all three aunts but had a special soft corner for Hikkaduwe Nanda.

Back row left to right: Richie, Albert, Edmund (who has returned from UK after his MA, Lionel & Vinnie; seated Bennie & Bertie with their parents. Photographer not known circa 1920's.

Back row left to right: Richie, Albert, Edmund (who has returned from UK after graduating with a MA, Lionel & Vinnie; seated Bennie & Bertie with their parents. Photographer not known circa 1920’s.

She was married to a very kind, loving land-owner of Hikkaduwa. He was tall and handsome and we all loved him too. They started their family with the eldest boy, Edmund, and ended up with seven sons and no daughters. Edmund, Lionel, Albert, Vinnie, Richie, Bennie and Bertie.

Portrait of Maya at 16 by Maisie de Silva, 1942. from the catalogue of the Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings & Drawings, Oct. 20-23, 2000.

Portrait of Maya at 16 by Maisie de Silva, 1942. from the catalogue of the Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings & Drawings, Oct. 20-23, 2000.

As a result I became Nangi (younger sister) to my 7 cousins as well as to my own two brothers, who were known as Malli and Andy. (The younger of my brothers, whose name was Parakrama, was better known to the cousins as Malli). Holidays spent at Hikkaduwa were a dream.

The youngest son, Bertie, lived with us during the term, schooling with us at the college in Kandy where my mother taught and my father was the Head. We lived on top of a hill outside the town where the school was, in a bungalow, which to me was the most beautiful in the world. It was appropriately called ‘Lake View’ as, on a clear day, it was a breath-taking sight to look out from the verandah over the lush greenery of the hillside and see, far below in Kandy Town, the Lake with its little island.

Bertie Aiya became a third brother to me. The boys too accepted him and he often had to be the buffer between us when their teasing got too much for me. He was a studious boy, determined to do well in life, but at the same time he would have us in fits of laughter at his jokes and clowning. The only photograph of him in our album is one in which he is standing on his head My father had a stream of his sisters’ sons staying with us through the years, but Bertie Aiya was the closest to us in age and shared our predilection for jamboos straight from the tree and unripe mangoes cut up with salt and chillies.

Ours was a happy household. Amma, wrapped up as she was in her teaching and her many pupils who needed her advice and guidance, left household matters in the able hands of Agida, who had come at the age of nine to be my companion when I was a toddler, and stayed to be our capable house-keeper, the mainstay of our house. To us kids, Amma was person who could always answer a question, who, at the meals, which we always shared together, would talk to us about any and every subject. She believed that a child’s question, however embarrassing the subject, should be answered truthfully and never turned aside. Sometimes on a Saturday or a Sunday, when everybody was relaxed, we would start with a late breakfast and sit on around the table after the dishes were cleared talking, laughing and playing games till it was time for lunch. Amma’s bed meant to us all the comfort and security in the world as we snuggled in en masse on Saturday and Sunday mornings – to read snippets from the newspapers and plan outings, or just to breathe in the powdery, sweet Amma scent.

Beautiful as Lake View was, once the holidays started it was without a backward glance that we packed up our bathing suits and a few beach clothes and left for the seaside. It is probable that it was with a sigh of relief that our parents saw us off at the railway station. They both needed a complete rest each vacation if they were to work with renewed vigour each term. Running a school and teaching in those days meant a daily battle for funds, for public support, and for a continuous renewal of their fund of tact, good humour and enthusiasm with which to inspire those who worked with them. At the same time, the teachers of that day dedicated their lives to their profession, making the progress of their pupils their personal responsibility and pride. Actually, I always felt that in the face of the energy and example of my parent, their associates had no choice but to give of their best.

So, from an atmosphere of academic authority – we children were never allowed to ‘cut’ school on any account unless a doctor had to be actually called in – from such at background, we were transported to a completely different life. Hikkaduwa meant the sea, first and foremost.

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa 31 March 2013. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa lovingly restored by my brother Pradeep Kritisinghe and my nephew Matheesha Kirtisinghe. 31 March 2013, Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The house ‘Siriniwasa’, was beautiful – built in a graceful, traditional style. No right-minded Southerner built his house facing the sea – it should face the road. There was more sense in this than you might think at first as, during the South-West monsoon in Sri Lanka the sea can become a fierce, angry enemy. The waves mount higher and higher even within the reef, to tear at the beach, carving out great scoops of sand, leaving the coconut trees on the beach bereft of their bearings. The raging winds take over, spreading a salty film over everything, sticky and corroding. Then one is glad to be able to close up the back of the house and sit tight, locked away from the sea till the winds die down and the waves subside.

Coral that was used to build a wall at Siriniwasa, discovered when the tsunami damaged house was being repaired. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Coral that was used to build a wall at Siriniwasa, discovered when the tsunami damaged house was being repaired. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

This house had seen many monsoons come and go and weathered them sturdily. It was compact, the rooms ranged round the central courtyard – the’Meda Midula’, a feature common to most Southern houses of the period. On rainy days we loved to bathe in the rain that poured through a gutter into the paved central space. It compensated somewhat for losing a day of sea bathing.

The high roof and some of the decorative boards escaped the wrath of the tsunami. Nov.9 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The high roof and some of the decorative boards escaped the wrath of the tsunami. Nov.9 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

To build a good house in those days was to use plenty of decoration, and Siri Niwasa certainly a house of standing. The eaves were decorated with wooden patterns rather like the icing on a cake. The doors and windows were surmounted by arches of wood carved in intricate designs. There were more carved panels everywhere, which were works of art and lent an air of delicacy.

As there were no daughters to help my aunt, the brothers took up the tasks of buying the fish from the boats that used to be drawn up close the house, helping with the cleaning and management of the house, and, of course, looking after and entertaining us cousins. My Aunt had no qualms about leaving me in their care.

Choosing and buying the fish was a terrific responsibility. Their duty was to inspect the fish as soon as the boats were beached just behind the house. We would all crowd round the boat and admire their beautiful colours, and the experts would choose what their mother would approve of as they taught us their names.

Thrownet fisherman Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Rex Ian de Silva

Thrownet fisherman Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Rex Ian de Silva

The brothers took us swimming, sometimes in the morning and the afternoon – and the evening! I used to tell people that we bathed before breakfast, before lunch and in the afternoon. By the age of 5, I was a competent swimmer, but I loved to be taken by the elder boys to watch the fish – brilliantly coloured, swimming through the coral garden. The boys would make a box with a glass bottom and I would cling onto their backs so that, as they swam, they could tell me the names of the large variety of fish a few yards from the shore. Who could ask for more!! At times we would go up to the reef wearing canvas shoes to counter the sharp coral.

There must have been hundreds of species of fish as well as beautiful coral and fearsome poisonous fish such as the Scorpion Fish that had a very painful way of stinging any intruder.

I believe that my grandfather, Walter Francis Westbrook who came with my grandmother, Jessie Duncan Westbrook, from England in 1928 to visit their daughter, my mother, and family, was stung by one of these fish and had to go to hospital to be treated.

In my mind’s eye I can see our group preparing to go into the sea. Being only five I was allowed to go in my panties. I would speak to Nenda, my aunt, and race behind the crowd of boys, nine including my brothers and the tenth was my girl cousin Enid, who almost lived with us under the care of my mother at other times.

The house at Hikkaduwa was a masterpiece of design in the traditional fashion. It still stands by the side of the main road that runs through from Ambalangoda to Galle. The sad part is that the Tsunami that hit the eastern and southern coasts of our Island in December 2004 destroyed the reef that harboured the beautiful coral reef and the fish that lived in  its shelter. The black filthy water that overran the house and property destroyed the rear of part of the house.

In November 2007, I went back to Hikkaduwa. It took some time, courage, and longing to do this.

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

Since the tsunami, my heart has been heavy with sadness and despair at the havoc it wreaked on our country, but I must admit that the thought that “Siriniwasa”, my beloved Aunt’s family house by the sea in Hikkaduwa, was a victim, ravaged by the sea’s fury, was foremost in my mind.

I tried to think why this should happen but could find no answer to console me.

My cousin Bennie’s wife who lived there with her elder son and his family, was devastated at the death of her elder son who was struck down by the wave as a part of the wall fell on him. Manel and her daughter who was with her at the time, managed to escape the tide with the help of the younger boy and his friends who came to the rescue.

My heart still turns to Hikkaduwa when I remember that when my Aunt came to my wedding she brought with her a beautiful gold and pearl bangle as her present and insisted on giving it to me herself.

When my new husband Stanley Senanayake and I returned to Colombo, it broke my heart to hear that my Aunt had passed away. I had to go to the funeral alone as it was not considered auspicious for me to go together with my husband.

The beach behind Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The beach behind Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

As I walked on the beach that day in my white saree alone I was filled with sorrow and regret that everything would not be the same for me without her.

Postscript:

My grandmother SK Pintohamy had insisted on taking the gift for Aunty Maya to be given on the wedding day. When my father has said you can give the gift when she comes after the wedding to visit you, she had said “who knows whether I will be living then!”

She fell sick after a visit to her son Richie in Ambalangoda. On her return she had had a bath and supervised the plucking of coconuts from the back garden at Siriniwasa. She probably caught a chill, fell sick and sadly died from a cardiac arrest following an asthma attack, on the 19 January 1948. She was 62 years old and was cremated on the 20 January 1948, against the locally held belief that funerals should not be held on a Tuesday.  Not sure whose decision it was, but probably the Western educated sons but that’s another story.

At the funeral, a Hikkaduwa poet has sung her praises in a long poem — comparing her to a string of pearls that adorned the neck of Hikkaduwa. My late maternal uncle Nissanka could recite the long verses from memory. Sadly, that part of history is lost now.

Related Stories:

One Summer at Hikkaduwa

A century old family photo. …

Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

Letters from my father Bennie: travels with Rati

Unbridled thoughts on Tsunami Anniversary

Today is the 8th Anniversary of the 2004 tsunami. Stuck yet again in Dhaka — unbelievably, for the 3rd year running, its easy to let my mind run free, raking up the images of the tsunami from the past.

... with burning eyes and outstretched arms we cry out to the sea....beach at Kalutara, Sri Lanka. Photo©Chulie de Silva

… with burning eyes and outstretched arms we cry out to the sea….beach at Kalutara, Sri Lanka. Photo©Chulie de Silva

On December 19th this month, Tharaka Devinda had left this message for me  “Years later your blog continues to echo through the hearts and minds of people. I wandered off here from a google search. Epic tale this one is! “Even this day will pass into memory”. what an idea to have in the mind when going through such times. …”
 Yes, it’s passed on to memory but it is still a memory that is fresh in my mind.

The lone armchair at Siriniwas, back verandah. Hikkaduwas, Sri Lanka, 21 August, 2012. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The lone armchair at Siriniwas, back verandah. Hikkaduwas, Sri Lanka, 21 August, 2012. Photo©Chulie de Silva

He was my kid brother, Prasanna. The only one who died on our stretch at Hikkaduwa. The only one who was born into this house I loved so. As a kid I was envious of that fact and that he was precious in my mother’s eyes. It mattered naught as we grew up. My last memory of him was sitting in this chair and reading his favourite Sunday Lakbima newspaper.

He was a bratty brother that we all loved so. He was my lucky mascot. Thousands of memories floated in my mind these last few days filling up  spaces disturbing my concentration as I tried to write. I remembered how at siesta time we used a long stick to slide under my grand aunt’s pillow to hook and steal the keys to get at the cupboard that held delicious sweets that were made in Panadura. We tucked in and  would return the key in record time before my aunt woke up. Or the time I had to stand outside the store room while he another cousin and a young domestic boy tried to make a stink bomb we could release under the chair of another grand aunt who was grumpy.  One could say now no chemicals were involved and it was a natural process of a good old farting that he was forcing himself to do and catch the fumes in a tin!!!. He was the one who got the shiny red bike for his birthday. Girls only got dolls and not bikes those days and there I was arguing why not one for me! But when he went to boarding school I was the one who got to enjoy the bike most.

Our lives have been so interlaced with the sea, the house and cherished by the love of our extended families. The years of childhood play, the disquieting teenage years, the 20’s when I had my kids, consultations over car repairs and the last months of my father’s illness — days and links, forged over laughter as well as trials and tribulations we had shared had formed bonds that went deeper — more like searing of a stamp into flesh.

So what could I do in Dhaka — miserable and cold in an empty house? Dredge up photos from the past?  Could a photo capture the joy, the fragile moments of happiness?

Padmini, Matheesha, Prasanna and Kanishka at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. c. 1990s. Photo©Chulie De Silva

Padmini, Matheesha, Prasanna and Kanishka at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. c. 1990s. Photo©Chulie De Silva

I had searched and found this image I had taken sometime in the early 1990s with my little Olympus camera –pre-digital, pre-Shahidul/Drik era. No knowledge except focus and click. As I look at it now I see that I am not there but yet I am there — in the back garden with them, in this garden where we first played catch and then cricket. The nights we were up during my father’s illness and then the funeral. The hilarious time we had preparing for my father’s first almsgiving. Prasanna kept plugging the cook he had hired with liquor and the man was up the whole night cooking and Prasanna was up too joking cajoling the man and ever willing to taste the food. The man cooked an amazing feast complete with two huge trays of wattalappan.

The cry within me silently says “I can’t let you go..”

As Tagore says it’s the oldest cry, the saddest lament…

Since creation’s currents
Began streaming relentlessly towards extinction’s sea
With burning eyes and outstretched arms
We’ve all been crying out in vain endlessly,
“Won’t let go, won’t let you go!”
Filling earth’s shores with laments
As everything ebbs inexorably away.
The waves up front cry out to the ones in the rear,
“Won’t let go, won’t let you go!”—
But no one listens. . .

The sea through the cinnamon stick fence that I never tire of photographing. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The same spot in 2012 — sea through the cinnamon stick fence at Siri Niwasa. Everything ebbs inexorably away. . Photo©Chulie de Silva

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day too!

My parents Manel and Bennie Kirtisinghe on the steps of the back verandah at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. circa 1990. Photographer unknown.

The beep from the sms woke me up early.  Still submerged in my dreams I debated whether to ignore it and go back to sleep but out here in Dhaka my brain kept nudging me to wake up — an sms at an odd hour doesn’t normally bring good tidings.  Still half in a stupor I read it through bleary eyes –it was Mother’s Day greetings from my first born Suren and his partner Nickie in Oz.   It was 13 May —  Mother’s Day was not uppermost in my mind but the thought that it was my father’s birthday was.  If he was alive he would have said “nonsense, rubbish” to Mother’s Day, saying “it’s mother’s day every day here and with a wink would have added a comment about my (n)ever loving wife. Their constant jabs at each other was legendary but so was their love story.

This photo was a delightful surprise from the past and had arrived at my desk a few days ago from my sister Yasoja, from Brisbane.  She had ferreted away most of the family photos when she migrated in the 1980’s to Australia.  We grumbled but after the tsunami of 2004, when we lost most of our treasured photos, we were overjoyed that her Brisbane archives had kept safe quite a cache of the family photos.

Photos like these are both a point of connection and a point of separation.  It captures a moment that I might have witnessed many a times and is now played back in a slow review of a life gone past.  I am there, sharing the cup of tea my bare bodied father is enjoying. I too am bathed by the amber light of the evening setting sun seeping through the coconut leaves over the back verandah. I feel the wetness of the towel on my mother’s knee, smell the freshness of the cool silky swathe of long wet hair, the tangy salt on my lips. The tape being played back stops as I linger over memories of how my mother and I tired of the salty sea water leaving our long hair a tangled mess, would go for a fresh well bath into the interior of Hikkaduwa.  I smile quietly as they do and wonder who the photographer was – a family member, a friend, a tourist?

Many are the photographs taken on that back verandah, many are memories of interesting visitors, even more interesting conversations.  My earliest recollections of a photo being taken and of course kept alive by the fact that a framed photograph of this one stood on the wooden radio set my uncle Vinnie had built at Siriniwasa.

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

It was taken by my father’s bosom friend Uncle Wimalatissa on one of his visits to Hikkaduwa from Singapore.  My brother Prasanna and I were playing — he wearing the cap of a visitor who had gone for a dip in the sea.  I was trying out a swimming cap left by a lady who had finished her sea bath.

My mother said my father had cribbed this poem to me, but I didn’t care.  The scrawled handwritten letter is much treasured  —  written in 1981, after a visit home to see an ailing aunt and was  addressed to a Dear daughter

“What am I thinking of
this golden evening (of my life).
It is the daughter of my heart
who flits across my mind.
Her innocence
so like a lotus bloom.
She came to visit me just yesterday.
 
She left her darlings for awhile and came to savour
yet again (and again)
the love that spreads and smiles.
within her childhood home.
 
She writes to say
she loves both Ma and Pa.
I’m glad to see she had her priorities intact.
 
She had to go back to her kids and home (abroad)
She left with me her youthful happiness. 
She took with her
the love that Ma and Pa
will always give her.
Now I wait,
until she is home again
like the bursting glory
of the coming
of a flower in spring.”

At the end of this letter, my father had chided me for taking long to reply one of his letter, and said that “This account will be closed soon, and then you will have only memories
(ashes of thoughts).”

Family photos and letters my father wrote to me are my most treasured possessions, not just ashes of thoughts. More a kaleidoscope of love – I peer into —- my own private theatre to ruminate and enjoy yet again (and again) in the humid heat of Dhaka.