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

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.

A star danced when my Amma was born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

See Also:

Home Sweet Home

Flower of love: Bennie meets Manel

Seenigama Devale and animistic rituals

Seenigama Devale at dusk. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Seenigama Devale at dusk. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My father claims that he planted one of the coconut trees at this temple you can see on the old coast road to Galle, in a tiny hamlet called Seenigama. The little temple – a half a mile or so into the sea with a clump of coconut trees is a veritable treasure trove of stories. It wasn’t built on the sea. The temple was originally on the beach on a mound of sand built by villagers to venerate God Devol, who apparently was able to use his powers to change sand into sugar — local name  for sugar is “seeni,” and “gama” is village in Sinhala.

The sea ate the “seeni” beach and the temple is where it is now. The severe sea erosion was due to coral mining extensively carried out in this area. Kilns burning coral spewing pungent smoke was a common sight in this region when we used to pass this area.  Kilns were present till the 1970s, I think. The damage to the marine environment was so grave that even the Devol Deiyo the patron god of the fisher folk in this area couldn’t prevent the wrath of the sea in the tsunami of 2004.

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

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

Briefly Devol was a Prince from India who was put on a boat by his father and sent off to  Lanka or maybe he was thrown out of the palace. … Looks like this was a punishment route that many princes from the subcontinent were forced to take by their fathers. One legend has it that Devol’s father – a King had seven sons by seven queens in his harem , all born on the same day.  Unable to decide on who the Crown Prince will be he put all seven into boats and pushed them out to sea — an outbound exercise to select a survivor to inherit the crown? This I suppose was one of the first lot of boat -borne asylum seekers. Then the coast guards were a pantheon of island guarding gods and the  all powerful Goddess Pattini, put Devol’s skills to the test before allowing him to land.

Devol is worshiped as a dual purpose God. He can bless a person or as the Lord of vengeance from his seat of judgement decide on punishment to evil doers. Cursing with Devol is referred to as “grinding chillies at Seenigama Devale.” The curse is moulded on the anvil — stone chilli grinder provided by the chief of the temple the “Kapurala”. Chillies the hot burning ingredient that causes burns, irritation and pain when a paste of which is applied on the skin becomes the vehicle for the curse.

From left: Vishnu, Kataragama and Devol Deiyo/Gods at the shrine at the Welle Devale, Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

From left: Vishnu, Kataragama and Devol Deiyo/Gods at the shrine at the Welle Devale, Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Devol’s entry into Lanka was granted by Goddess Pattini , after she was given a boon to cure diseases by Devol. “On the strength of this he got himself a visa,” says Srilal Perera responding to my blog  “Shrine on the beach “Welle Devale, Unawatune”  written after a visit to Unawatuna. Srilal also pointed out that in the annual all night “Gam madu” rituals in the villages of Sri Lanka this episode is enacted.

Gammadu means literally a village shed and the Sinhala Drama evolved from these rituals “The drama is only a bi-product of activities seriously directed towards the sustenance of the entire life of the community, namely the propitiation of gods and demons, and the performance of magical rites which are calculated to prevent diseases, ward of evil, bring plentiful crops and confer in general prosperity in the village.”which included music, song or recited verses, costumes, drama and masks,” says Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra in his scholarly work “The Folk Drama of Ceylon,”

This book (purchased for a princely sum of LKR 18/–, circa late 1970s) meticulously traces from the roots the rituals of folk religion and the fusion of village cults of exorcism with the culture emanating from Buddhism.

“Gam Madu,” “Pam madu” or “Puna Madu” are species of the same type of ritual with slight differences in each, says Sarachchandra adding that they are generally referred to as “Devol Madu.” All rituals are performed for general good luck and the expelling of evil.

Demons or Yakshas are portrayed as frightening creatures. A faded fresco at Welle Devale, Unawatuna, supposed to be of Agora. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Demons or Yakshas are portrayed as frightening creatures. A faded fresco of Siva-Vatuka with an elephant in his mouth at Welle Devale, Unawatuna.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva

So where did this evil enter the life of the Sinhalese villagers. Mostly from the belief that mysterious evil influences or evil powers of people and demons caused ill health, brought bad luck and caused hysteria and temporary insanity.

The prevailing concept Sarachchandra says is “vas, Vas or vas-dos,”  which affects people adversely preventing them from being healthy, successful in their undertakings etc. The malicious influence can come from people who have the ‘evil eye” (asvaha), evil mouth (katavaha); uttering envious words and lamenting over one’s good fortune (ando andiya) or from the entertaining of evil thoughts (hovaha). Evil influences can come from many demons — very colourful and too many to list here  but they can cause swoons, fits of insanity (murtu) and various types of hysteria.

Sarachchandra gives an interesting alliterative phrase used by “Demon priests” as “asvaha, katavaha, hovaha, ando andiya turtu murtu pinum peralum avalum vevlum. I can remember this phrase among the many recited by our Dhobi — the laundry man — who would come at my mother’s bidding to get rid of of the Asvaha (or evil eye) from us.

The ritual called the “Dehi kapanawa” (cutting the limes) was performed in the mornings and is a lesser routine, out of all the animistic rituals. It is mainly performed if you had been falling sick often and is supposed to have got the “evil eye.”. For me usually this was performed on the back verandah of Siriniwasa. The Dhobi would be dressed in white with a white turban and he had a big basin of limes. He would take a lime and hold it  in the grip of an areconut cutter called a giraya.

Antique Giraya at my alter. Giraya is the metal instrument on the far right shaped  with a woman's head and legs. 24 Feb. Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Antique Giraya at my alter. Giraya is the metal instrument on the far right shaped with a woman’s head and legs. 24 Feb. Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Many many moons ago, when I had my last ritual, the Dhobi would hold the lime over my head, chant various phrases, cut the lime into two equal parts with a swift click and drop the cut lime into a basin. In this role he had a much higher status as a magician who can bestow good health. How much “Asvaha ” you had was measured by the way the limes floated or ended in the bottom of the pail of water.

Did my life get better or did I feel good after that? I must get another ritual done to check if lady luck will return!!! This time I will be armed with my camera and follow the ritual closely. As for the demons, they are a fascinating lot and needs a separate blog to write about them. The demons are supposed to loiter at twilight or early morning in grave yards, cross roads, lonely roads etc.  We were not supposed to eat fried food and run around at twilight as the “yakka’s” (demons) would get hold of us or enter our bodies. This theory, we did challenge and I have survived to tell the tale. Maybe I should attend a Gam Maduwa and experience it first hand before writing more about it but first to read more about the different Yakkas and then to visit a temple of the all powerful Goddess Pattini and follow up on her cult.

The moon and my father’s bike

if you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon, in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned to live” said a FB post by my friend Joe Qian, quoting Lin Yutang. A power outage meant a move into the cool of the garden. And, here was an afternoon, albeit slipping in to an evening of inky darkness, with my avocado tree playfully trapping and twirling the soft breezes. A learning to live lesson?

Blue skies, white clouds my avocado tree and the redundant TV antennae of my neighbhours. Taken before the moonrise. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Blue skies, white clouds my avocado tree and my TV antennae keeping a watching brief. Taken before the moonrise. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The chatter of my next door kids calling “Someone please give us lights,” quite the opposite of “Rain, rain go away,” had subsided. The suburban sounds muted, the moon seemed to have heard the call, as a long strip of soft moonlight fell across my garden. I watched the oddly disc shaped moon rise with a circular halo around it tinged golden.  When I held up the mobile camera on my shaky hand the moon came alive as a slippery dancing sliver.

Lying on the grass looking up at the moon, it looked as if it was in a might hurry sailing across the white clouds. The stars were pin dots. A balmy night, a romantic night, with a few flickering fireflies but I wasn’t getting up to get my camera. This was a night for savouring with your eyes and “mind wandering” — mine traversed to my father’s last bike — a tsunami survivor, that I had photographed last Saturday.

My father's bike at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

My father’s bike at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 12 Oct. 2013. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Lovingly repaired by my brother Pradeep, it now leans again the wooden staircase leading to the loft area on what in the “Siriniwasa”  house we called the “pita kamaraya” — the outside room to the left of the house. The loft room is now bare, but was once occupied by the young males in the family during vacation times when the house held as many as 60 relatives and friends!

The bike was photographed among the debris by a New York Times photographer who came to Sri Lanka to cover the 2004 Tsunami with the NYT reporter Celia Dugger. Soon after I received two sets of prints from Celia with a note, that I have misplaced now. This is a rephotographed copy of what the room looked like then.

My father's bike among the tsunami debris in the front room of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

My father’s bike among the tsunami debris in the front room of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa.
Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The bike survived, most likely as this room opened to the road and wasn’t facing the sea.

Siriniwasa, after the tsunami. The bike was found inside the room with the two windows to the right. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, after the tsunami. The bike was found inside the room with the two windows to the right. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

In the tales my father used to say, bikes were always there. He had told me about his flirtation with a 13 year old Burgher girl who used to ride on the bar of his bicycle, when he was in Kankesanthurai caring for his brother Haripriya who had TB.

My brother Pradeep says he used to ride on the bar of an earlier bike of my father’s. Pradeep must have been all of 6 years and he would sit on a cushion on the bar and the two of them would go to the family estate Malawenna, in the interior of Hikkaduwa. When it was an uphill climb, father would get down and push the bike but Pradeep would remain seated on the bar. There was one “Edanda” that they had to travel across. This “Edanda” is an elementary bridge and was made using two large coconut trees placed across the river. Then my father would get down and walk on one tree trunk while pushing the bike on the other.

Sometimes, they would stay the night in the estate, sleeping on a big four poster bed with a top canopy over which the mosquito net was draped. This had a provision for tucking in the mosquito net, so creepy crawlies like scorpions or even serpents couldn’t slither in. Pradeep still sleeps on that bed, but my father at one time had butchered the bed by cutting the 4 bedposts that held the canopy and using them as legs to build a table. The bedposts survived the tsunami, while the table top disappeared. Four poster beds are very much the rage now and Pradeep is musing about putting the posts back on the bed.

The route we used to go the estate in better times was by car/jeep. The vehicle would be left in a nearby house and we would yell to the boatman who would come and ferry us across. Re- Photograph by Chulie de Silva from an original probably by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe

The route we used to go the estate in better times was by car/jeep. The vehicle would be left in a nearby house and we would yell to the boatman who would come and ferry us across. Re- Photographed by Chulie de Silva from an original probably by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe

It was after such a bike visit to the estate that I received a letter in big childish Sinhala writing from Pradeep, which I think I have somewhere. He was giving me living in Liverpool the news — Next door Kumara Aiya brought home a woman — Kumara aiya ‘geniyek genawa” about our neighbhour getting married expressed in the very rural way of bringing home a wife. There were other interesting titbits of news — the toilet in the estate had no door and he didn’t like it!

Thatha had set his sights on a new bike and when he heard Odiris Silva (Pvt) Ltd was opening a shop at Hikkaduwa he had ordered the bike an “Avon,” probably made in India . It was purchased on the first day the shop opened a branch in Hikkaduwa in 1974 and he would happily cycle around, cycle clips holding his trousers in place and a beret or a cap shielding him from the sun. The question was why a ladies bike? The answer probably lies in what our front house neighbhour Lily told me on an earlier visit.

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a "Kabakuruththu" in  Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a “Kabakuruththu” in
Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Lily Nona,  has lived opposite our house since 1965, when these houses were built by the government for fishermen. Lily had come to Hikkaduwa from Hegoda in Boosa, after her marriage on the 23 February 1946 to S.K. Dharmasena aka “Sudda.”

During a long conversation I had with her, she told me that her mother had told her that my paternal grandfather — my Seeya — K.H. Bastian used to come on his bicycle to visit his estate at Deepagodawatte, off Boosa. The tales she heard were about how Seeya used to bring sweets for the kids in the village and that he rode a lady’s bicycle. Most likely as he used to wear a long cloth and a jacket, which was the customary dress for men before the young turned to wearing trousers.

My paternal grandmother, Achchi, Pintohamy (Second from left) and grandfather, Seeya, K.H. Bastian de Silva standing behind her carrying Uncle Ritchie, in her father’s house in Ambalangoda. The photograph circa 1911 was taken when her brother Heron de Silva Kularatne (centre, back row) took oaths as a lawyer on his return from London. Standing next to him is his youngest brother Patrick de Silva Kularatne who also graduated from the University of London. His first job was as the Principal of Ananda College which he took up in 1918. He retired voluntarily in 1943. Later he shed his western clothes and went on to become one of Sri Lanka’s foremost educationists. Re-photogrpahed from a copy by Chulie de Silva

My paternal grandmother, Achchi, Pintohamy (Second from left) and grandfather, Seeya, K.H. Bastian de Silva standing behind her carrying Uncle Ritchie, in her father’s house in Ambalangoda. The photograph circa 1911 was taken when her brother Heron de Silva Kularatne (centre, back row) took oaths as a lawyer on his return from London. Standing next to him is his youngest brother Patrick de Silva Kularatne who also graduated from the University of London. His first job was as the Principal of Ananda College which he took up in 1918. He retired voluntarily in 1943. Later he shed his western clothes and went on to become one of Sri Lanka’s foremost educationists. Re-photogrpahed from a copy by Chulie de Silva

There was a momentous outcome from these visits. My Seeya had bought the land where he built “Siriniwasa” from Lily’s mother’s or father’s family. It was a partitioned land and the story is that Seeya bought 100 perches at LKR 110/- paying what was a huge sum of LKR 11,000 for the land, when the going rate was LKR 110/- for an acre. A perch is a land measurement that is still in use in Sri Lanka. 160 perches make up an acre. Sadly, the sea has gobbled up quite a bit of the  original 100 perches that was Siriniwasa land.

Seeya must have loved the sea, to build on the seashore, when most people avoided building houses near the sea, because of the high maintenance. Lily’s family had celebrated receiving their portion from the sale and related her mother’s recollections of the family buying sacks of rice.  This was a time when a “seruwa” [an old measure of rice, less than a kilo] was 8-9 cents; Samba rice seruwa was 14 cents; and a “hundu” [another old measure approx 1 cup] of lentils was 5 cents, says Lily.

Siriniwasa as it stands now. Still difficult to maintain, but restoration goes on. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa as it stands now. Still difficult to maintain, but restoration goes on. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

While my grandfather rode a ladies bicycle, his sister who had married a wealthy Ambalangoda businessman, drove a Morris Tourer I let my mind wander to a time in the past when my grandfather and grandmother would be sitting in the verandah having a friendly chat about their brood of seven sons. In drives the feisty sister — Rajapakse Aunt or Rajapakse Nanda– as she was referred to, dressed in a Kambaya ( the traditional long cloth worn as a wrapped around skirt) and the jacket Kabakuruthuwa like Lily’s.

Up jumps the grandfather saying “Here comes the she-devil,” and moves inside, leaving the two sisters-in-law to have a good gossip.  Unperturbed by the chauvinist brother, she would enjoy her visit, take a swig of brandy from the hip flask she kept inside the door, and fortified, drive back to Ambalangoda. I suppose there is another lesson to be learned there!

Haripriya’s story

In my hand is a pale blue aerogramme with a coloured photo of a beach scene at the back. The year 1977, the address  on it is 2, Solok Glugor Penang, Malaysia, the sender B. Kirtisinghe , 306, Hikkaduwa, with a scrawled arrow from the word Hikkaduw on the sender’s address pointing to the beach photo.

Inside my mother had penned a one liner on the side of the aerogramme “Thatha’s best friend is the second daughter – Amma.” My Mum’s one liner is a debatable statement. However the letters from Thatha was  a precious link to my family when I lived abroad, especially as these were times when there was no email and cost of international phone calls were exorbitant. Embedded in the writings were family values — threads to weave a fabric of the past.

Letter from Father Bennie 27 March 1977. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Letter from Father Bennie 27 March 1977. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

I hope you’ll read my letters again when I’m dead and gone. My time is fast running out. … “ my father said in 1989. Little does he know how often I do. Reading them I hear his voice, see his smile as he jumps out of the fragile faded blue aerogrammes. 

Portrait of Bennie Kirtisinghe. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Bennie Kirtisinghe. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A second cousin Nalin, I met recently, recollected how his mother spoke well of my father’s sacrifice to look after a sick relative. This got me scrambling among my father’s letters for the story he had written about this period in his life. The relative in question was my father’s elder brother Lionel.

Haripriya, is the name Lionel took with the wave of Sinhala nationalism, and means loved by God Vishnu. Hari was another name for the powerful Hindu diety Vishnu. Haripriya was the 3rd in the string of Kirtisinghe 7 sons of KH Bastian and Pinto Hamy, while my father was no. 6. The story spans a period between 1930- 1944.

The Haripriya saga was a turning point in my father’s life. He never got back to complete his engineering studies and remained as he often said a “nikama” — the non-achiever in a clan of educated brothers — Edmund the eldest was the Zoology Prof. at Colombo University; Albert the second, an Inspector of Schools and probably the first in the family to venture out bravely from Sri Lanka to became a successful businessman in Hong Kong; Lionel whose story this is, later worked at the Dictionary Office; numbers 4 & 7 Richie and Berty were doctors who did well in private practice; and Vinnie the 5th was the Vice Principal of the famed Buddhist school Ananda College, Colombo.

My paternal grandparents with their 7 sons. Standing L to R Richie, Albert, Edmund, Lionel & Vinnie. Seated Bennie & Berty. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My paternal grandparents with their 7 sons. Standing L to R Richie, Albert, Edmund, Lionel & Vinnie. Seated Bennie & Berty. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My father was a compulsive storyteller. Considering the number of famous and infamous people who passed through the doors of Siriniwasa for sea baths, these were interesting tales.  Some possibly we were not supposed to hear too. …

Father also created an avatar brother for me called “Bala Malli” (younger brother) who was a fly on the wall at our house “Siriniwasa” in Hikkaduwa.  It was Bala Malli who gave ball by ball commentaries on the days at Siriniwasa. These included arguments between my mother and father, comments often witty about the visitors — about the stuff that life was made up of — births, weddings, romances and the peccadillos. What flowed from Bala Malli’s pen was uninhibited — the voice was sometimes naive, sometimes incisive, but often it was tongue in cheek writing.  He probably  enjoyed this, satisfying an underlying need to say things in this manner.  Maybe he could not produce the same frankness writing in the first person.

The story is narrated as heard by Bala Malli and opens with the justification that there is a need to pen Haripriya’s story as he often wrote very cleverly about us.

"Haripriyage Kathawa" from Father B. undated.Photograph Chulie de Silva.

“Haripriyage Kathawa” from Father B. undated.Photograph Chulie de Silva.

The opening verse above is a modification of one from the Sinhala classic grammar “Sidath Sangarawa” and says:

My heart is the altar where I worship the enlightened one [Buddha] and pen this ‘Haripriya Kathawa’ for novices and [my] children.”

Thatha can remember from his very young days his favourite elder brother Punchi Aiya who used to come home occasionally. He was forever speaking about the importance of education and about going to the University of London.  Haripriya was very scared of  illnesses. However, one day Thatha heard him say ‘If I get TB, I will live in the dry zone and write books.’

Later, he became a bookworm on botany.  On vacation, he would bring home a microscope, cut leaves and place them between two pieces of glass, and did something with the pieces of glass till something went crunch. Thatha and his parents were highly impressed, never mind the fact they little understood what he was doing.

Haripriya was Colombo [Univesrity’s] Professor Ball’s star student. As his right hand pupil, Thatha thought he will top the batch and graduate. Just as Thatha thought he did pass out “top” with B.Sc (Hons.) – No, not a first, or a second but the top 3rd Class!

His first appointment was at “Goda Beddey” — Principalship without pay at the “Parama Vidyartha Company.”  Just like his illustrious uncle P. de S. Kularatne, he also wore national dress to work.

Next appointment was with pay as the Principal of Hatton Vidyalaya.  This was also when he went into politics, and got the Minister, S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike to appoint him as a nominated member to the Hatton Municipal Council. Then plague spread across Hatton. It was Haripriya who got this information in to the [Ceylon] Gazette as the Municipal Chairman was bribed not do so. However, Haripriya got scared he  had got the plague and spent sometime at the Galle General Hospital “Under observation.”  At that time Thatha’s Thatha said “What’s his B.Sc. worth?  He doesn’t have the brains or the salary Albert gets as a trained teacher!”

In 1934, our Seeya (Thatha’s Thatha) died. Before that Haripriya had sent Thatha to Dharamraja College in Mahanuwara (Kandy). Then there was malaria in Mahanuwara.  So with Haripriya’s support Thatha at 15 , got malaria and nearly died.  Fever used to go up to 107 degrees, it seems. Thatha suffered with 30 others in one room.  A sick room was built at Dharamaraja following Thatha’s agitation. That wasn’t all. He next succumbed to chicken pox and was close to death again – “elowa gihin melowa awa!”

Front verandah, Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Christine Kirtisinghe

Front verandah, Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Christine Kirtisinghe

But Haripriya at that time was living like a lord at “Siriniwasa”. He got the house wired for electricity and was in charge of all the estates. When it was the season for cinnamon peeling, he changed his car.

In the Tucker & Company he had a friend “Rupey,” and he would give Haripriya a car for Rs.500.  Petrol was Rs.1.50 a gallon. When one day Thatha had a ride in the car, at Kahawa, Haripriya asked him to watch the speedometer.  He saw with his own eyes the needle touching 30!. That is one mile in two minutes!!!  Thatha told me that this was seven years after an American pilot called Lindberg had crossed the Atlantic traveling at 90 mph.  So Haripriya traveling at 30 mph in Kahawa was a big thing for Thatha and he used to boast about it at school.

Even with malaria Thatha did athletics won two trophies and passed his Junior matriculation in 6 subjects.  He also passed his Matric [Matriculation exam] in 5 subjects, one of which was Botany.  But Haripriya told him to do Engineering.  So the fool that Thatha was, he shifted to do engineering. Then he was asked to join the Volunteer Force so his school fees would be halved.  But in three months Thatha got dragged away to Trincomalee to fight the war [World War II].

Royal Air Force Operations in the Far East, 1941-1945. A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV of No. 11 Squadron RAF, takes off from Racecourse airfield, Colombo, Ceylon. circa1941-1945. Photograph copyright Dickson (S/L), Royal Air Force official photographer. This image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Royal Air Force Operations in the Far East, 1941-1945.
A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV of No. 11 Squadron RAF, takes off from Racecourse airfield, Colombo, Ceylon. circa1941-1945. Photograph copyright Dickson (S/L), Royal Air Force official photographer. This image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Then everybody started blaming Haripriya. But Haripriya got the golden brained NM to free all the students serving in the war.  Back at school for the second term, Thatha found it difficult to cope with his studies. In the third term, he took tuition, still, he says all his Inter lectures came in from one ear and whizzed out through the other.

While Thatha was in Trinco, Haripriya married into a very rich, well connected family. Thatha’s mother looked at the bride and had said “She is not one who can can give a pillow for a headache even!”

By the time Thatha was finishing his third term, Haripriya was ill. Thatha was asked to look after one estate at first and then as the illness turned serious he had to look after all the family estates. Inter engineering [course] was in the wilds and so was Thatha.

By 1941, Haripriya was gravely ill, almost terminal. The Colombo general hospital said they couldn’t do anything more.  Dr. J.H.T. Jayasuriya’s father-in-law was a friend of Thatha who told Thatha surgeons can cure TB.  So Thatha  put Rs. 100 in an envelope and gave Dr. Jayasuriya and requested him to see  the patient. He did some surgery and said to take the patient to the Sanatorium at Kankesanthurai.. Thatha reserved a special carriage in the train and took Haripriya to Kankesanthurai. As  everyone else had a morbid fear of TB no one else came with him. Then Uncle Damon from Galle was a medical student.  Haripriya was given oxygen and brought in an ambulance to the Fort Railway station by Uncle Damon.

Thatha spent two years in Kankasanthurai with Haripriya. Thatha had a “love part” [a small flirtation] with a Miss Udagama at the hospital. Away from the hospital he had a 13-year old burgher girl friend who rode on the bar of his push cycle. She later eloped with an engine driver of a train.  The matron at the hospital snitched about this to Haripriya. On hearing this Haripriya had asked the matron to find him also someone like that. Thatha was then 21 years old and there was no BCG vaccine then. An egg was three cents and he used to eat six eggs a day to prevent getting TB.

For three years Haripriya wouldn’t get down from his bed, saying it was not good for him. He had special nurses tendering him day and night and everything in his life happened on the bed.  He ate only samba rice, although this was the time of the second world war.  Hikkaduwe Achchi [grandmother] said “Never mind, save one, sacrifice one.”  Our Thatha was the sacrifice. Estates were not fertilized etc.  Then one had to pay Rs.200 as advance for a bag of rice which came from Velvetithurai in India. Another Rs.100 had to be paid on receiving it.  Our Thatha was the good boy who ran around  doing all this work.

Haripriya’s days were all spent in the paying wards like “Merchants’ “Siemonds. Suddenly,  in 1943, Haripriya moved to a non-paying ward and told Thatha to go home, but the attendant and the oxygen was by his side. But when he had to go for X-ray’s to the Green Hospital, in Mannipay Thatha  had to carry him to the car and on arrival carry him to the X-ray room. The doctors at this American Hospital would come out to see this strange “animal.” [The Green Memorial Hospital was founded by the remarkable American medical missionary Dr Samuel Fisk Green]

Thatha with his bride. Dissanayake Walauwa, Panadura. 8 June 1944. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Thatha with his bride. Dissanayake Walauwa, Panadura. 8 June 1944. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Thatha came home and got “entangled” with a lass from Panadura. When Haripriya was told that Thatha wanted to marry, he lamented “Now, who will look after me?”  This is because Thatha used to go to see him twice a month to Kankesanturai. On the day Thatha got married, Haripriya sent a telegram to Vinnie Mahappa to stop the marriage. Thatha’s first trip to Kataragama with his new bride was aborted as there was a telegram asking him to come to Kankasanturai. Thatha left his bride at home and went by train to see Haripriya. When he arrived the whole hospital was in an uproar. Haripriya was behaving like a raving lunatic.  He was ranting about a woman who was permanently at the hospital and was “everybody’s darling,” and was called “virgin”.

Postscript: As in a TV drama the story which was to be Part 1 ended on a cliff hanger. Bala Malli didn’t write anymore — maybe he felt he got it out of his system. We heard verbally that the hallucinations were side effects of antituberculosis therapy. I am glad father got “entangled” in Panadura and didn’t end up being a doormat.

Uncle Lionel recovered and lived well although was always extra vigilant about his health. His controlling streak was felt by many cousins who went to him for tuition. Commenting on my rebellious streak and free spirit he had told my father that I would draw circles over his head! Happy to say the comment had zero effect on my father or me and I have no recollection of him trying to control me. After spending a number of years in Hikkaduwa, Haripriya moved to Dehiwela and died in his sleep peacefully.

Probably, what rankled with father was that Haripriya had referred to him as the “Black sheep in the family.” Despite the lack of educational credentials, Father was well read and very well respected in Hikkaduwa.

Note 1: See also an earlier early post: Remembering Father B-Bhasura, the lion of Hikkaduwa

Note 2: See also a very interesting comprehensive report on the Plague in Ceylon in the British Medical Journal of April 4, 1914 by Aldo Castellani, M.D, Director of Bacteriological Institute  and Clinic for Tropical Medicine, Colombo & Marshall Philip. M.B.,C.H., Medical Officer of Health of Colombo.

Note 3: For anyone interested see an English translation of Sidath Sangarawa by James de Alwis, member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society available on Google Books.

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to my friend Chanuka Wattegama for enlightening me on the source of the verse and help in translating it and giving me the meaning of the name Haripriya. This of course set me off reading about the Sidath Sangarawa.

And the river sang. …

Eleven years ago, on the 31 August, death came silently taking away my father. More than a decade later, I still feel the events of that day with a stark loneliness that is hard to describe.

TPhotograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

That morning at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa there were no need for words. I sat holding his thin hands, stroking his head. I was the parent, he the baby. Our faithful mongrel Lassie was under the bed with her head on my feet.  My father’s face was thin and gaunt with a prickly growth of a faded beard. His breathing was laboured with a rasping sound. Tears were building under his eyelids and I felt he could hear my mother and sister-in-law chanting pirith at the foot of the bed. He had no words for us. A thousand images streamed through my mind and I kept them all to good thoughts of what he did not only for me but many others too. I watched him, recording to memory every breath he took. Then there was the this deep filling of the lungs, I waited for the breath to be let out. But none came. This was his last breath. Lassie raised her head and licked my feet.

From the Exhibition "My City of Unheard Prayers" by Sayed Asif Mahmud

From the Exhibition “My City of Unheard Prayers” by Sayed Asif Mahmud

Partings are poignant, never easy. Like Herman Hesse’s Siddartha my wound still smarted.

Many years ago, Thatha had introduced me to Hesse and his book Siddhartha. He himself was probably told about it when he was a dayaka  at the Polgasduwa Hermitage where there were German Buddhist priests.

Siddartha of Hesse is not Lord Buddha but a handsome Brahmin son who lived in the same era as Buddha. In Hesse’s story Siddhartha does meet Buddha and although very impressed by the revered teacher, he takes a decision not to follow Buddha.  A rare occurrence no dobt but notes to the novel say ‘it is in keeping with Neitzsche’s statement in Also sprach Zaruthuustra (Thus Spake Zrathushtra0 that … one repays a teacher badly if one always wants to remain nothing but a pupil’.

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests pay homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests paying homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The story is about the conflict between the discipline and the heart, the desire to ‘go it alone‘, and the courage to listen to one’s own inner voice.  Siddharha’s search for spiritual knowledge tests the friendship between Siddartha and his friend Govinda, who “loved him more than anyone else.” In a very interesting dialogue in the last chapter of the book he tells Govinda “I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust — a reference to his long relationship with Kamala the beautiful courtesan.

Siddhatha’s wounds are self-inflicted, as in the case of many of us.

Yesterday, I turned to the balm of its beautiful  prose and the subtle distillation of wisdom in this novel. It’s hard to say which part of the story that traces Siiddhartha’s quest for spiritual fulfillment I like best. However, the images of a quietly flowing Hikkaduwa river and this book has been uppermost in my mind. Thus, it seems appropriate to quote here the passages of Siddhartha as he learns from the river and the wise old ferryman Vasudeva, following the death of Kamala and the parting from his son.

One day , when the wound was smarting terribly Siddhartha rowed across the river, consumed by longing, and got out of the boat with the purpose of going to the town to seek his son.The river flowed softly and quietly, it was the dry season, but its voice rang out strangely.  It was laughing, it was distinctly laughing!. The river was laughing clearly and merrily at the old ferryman.

The river flowed softly and gently. ... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river flowed softly and gently. … Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha stood still; he bent over the water, in order to hear better. , He saw his face reflected in the quietly moving water, and in this reflected face there was something in this reflection, that reminded him of something he had forgotten, and when he reflected on it, he remembered. His face resembled that of another person, whom he had once known and loved and feared. It resembled the face of his father, the Brahmin. He remembered how once, as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go to join the ascetics, how he had taken leave of him how he had gone and never returned.”

This leads him to question his own behaviour and to the realisation that his father must have suffered by his departure as much as he was suffering now because of his son.

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Desolate and depressed Siddhartha seeks Vasudeva to talk and confess to this wise guru. Vasudeva, a true sage who speaks only when necessary leads him to a seat on the river bank.

“You have heard it laugh,” he said, “but you have not heard everything. Let us listen; you will hear more.”

They listened. The many-voiced song of the river echoed softly. Siddhartha looked into the river and saw many pictures flowing in the water. He saw his father, lonely, mourning his son; he saw himself, lonely also with the bonds of longing for his faraway son; he saw his son, also lonely, the boy eagerly advancing along the burning path of life’s desires, each one concentrating on his goal, each one obsessed by his goal, each one suffering. The river’s voice was sorrowful. It sang with yearning and sadness, flowing towards its goal.

“‘Do you hear?’asked Vasudeva’s mute glance. Siddhartha nodded. ‘Listen better!’ whispered Vasudeva.

The river's voice was full of longing.... Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The river’s voice was full of longing…. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala’s picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became a part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river’s voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. The river flowed on towards its goal. Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. …”

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The many voiced songs of the river echoed softly. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“. … He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt now he had now completely learned the art of listening. … He could no longer distinguish the different voices – the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish from the manly voice; the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of the indignation and groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.”

“When Siddhartha listened attentively to the river, to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om perfection.”

… His wound was healing, his pain was dispersing; his self had emerged into unity.”

‘From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. …”

Vasudeva seeing the serenity of knowledge reflected in the eyes of Siddhartha, says that he has waited for this hour to come, and bids farewell to the hut, the river and Siddhartha and retreats into the forest.

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

 Note:  Extracts are from a copy I have of “Siddartha” by Herman Hesse, translated from German by Hilda Rosner.

The full text of the book is available at The Project Gutenberg EBook of Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. Translator: Gunther Olesch, Anke Dreher, Amy Coulter, Stefan Langer and Semyon Chaichenets Release Date: April 6, 2008 [EBook #2500] Last updated: January 23, 2013.

Thanks to my two friends from Drik, Dhaka days Sayed Asif Mahmud and Nirvair Singh Rai for the use of the two photos.

Fleeting Moments at Hikkaduwa

Then there was the soft rain in the morning – falling gently, the morning drink for the parched grass after the blistering sun of yesterday. The planter’s chair  left on the back verandah is wet. Why should I be surprised?– It’s after all the monsoon and I love rain washed mornings. Beyond the fallen browned coconut leaves, beyond the sun hood of the boat bobbing on the gentle waves, the sky is turning blue.

Waves break on the coral reef at Benny's Point at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Waves break on the coral reef at Benny’s Point at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Waves form almost out of nothing, curls beautifully and lovingly break on the reef. I can watch these waves for hours. The beach too is washed, the sand damp and it is yet to be invaded by noisy screaming herds of children, youth peeing on our fence and their barking dogs. Calm before the human storm. Time for an early morning swim.

Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The inviting  sea.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The avocado my sister-in-law has got for breakfast is unblemished and had cost only 30 LKR compared to the 60 or 70 LKR I pay in Colombo.  The spot rupee had ended at 131.85/132.00 per dollar, on the 19 Aug. — its lowest since Sep. 17, 2012. So in dollar terms the avocado is good value. A bit of it ends up on my face — a cooling mask. Then I hear the drums — the steady beating and the sounds of a trumpet drifts in. In all our lives, there are sounds, words, phrases and images that resonate deeply. I hastily wash the impromptu stuff from my face and not quite knowing what it is but sensing a photo op., run out with the camera.

Young drummers set the scene for Buddhist Perahera. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Young drummers set the scene for Buddhist Perahera. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It’s all happening across the road. The new Honda shop is a far cry from the little shop with a metal grid that I had clung to save myself in the tsunami. Certainly, Hikkaduwa has built back better. …

Children get ready with Buddhist flags for the start of a perahera to the temple. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Children get ready with Buddhist flags for the start of a perahera to the temple. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Girls stand in the hot sun holding colourful Buddhist flags eager to get going. It’s dress time for a little boy, who doesn’t seem too happy with his dress.

A mother wraps her young son in a shimmering red cloth for the perahera. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A mother wraps her young son in a shimmering red cloth for the perahera. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

What’s it all about, I ask the kids. It’s a “Kiri Amma almsgiving” says one kid. This is usually an offering to Goddess Pattini to invoke her blessings for breast feeding mums, or the weak, sick and infirm. Goddess Pattini is partial to women devotees and has a strong following here. Mostly illnesses like chicken pox, measles and mumps are called “Deiyannge leda”- or gods inflicted diseases.

Boys hold the colourful canopy under which the devotess will walk to the temple at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Boys hold the colourful canopy under which the devotess will walk to the temple at Hikkaduwa. Siriniwasa, our house  is visible across the street. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The Nikini poya that falls today is also called a “Shudda poya.” This is something new that I had not heard before. Houses are washed, cleaned and a vegetarian meal is served on banana leaves in villages.

The little boy now holds a sheaf of peacock feathers and waits for the procession to start. A part of the newly renovated wall of Siriniwasa is in the background. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The little boy now holds a sheaf of peacock feathers and waits for the procession to start. A part of the newly renovated wall of Siriniwasa is in the background. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Mother’s dressed in white carry trays of food, beautifully arranged flowers — the symbol of impermanence.

Flower offerings for the temple  at Hikkaduwa.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Flower offerings for the temple at Hikkaduwa.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

‘Once in a Blue Moon’ expresses the idea of a rare, special time when magical things can happen. According to astrologers there are conflicting definitions of what makes a Moon blue. Some say it is when we get two full moons in a row, both in the same sign. Other say it doesn’t matter if they are in the same sign as long as they both occur in the same calendar month. And there’s a third definition. Usually, there are three full moons between the date of the solstice and the date of the equinox – if you get a fourth, the third in the sequence is a Blue Moon too. By that definition, this Full Moon is blue!

Nikini Moon rise over Siriniwasa. Hikkaduwa, 19 Aug. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Nikini Moon rise over Siriniwasa. Hikkaduwa, 19 Aug. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva