A century ago, my father is born and I still miss him…

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe was born on a day like today 13 May, a century ago, in 1918. He was the second son to be born in the house “Siriniwasa” in Hikkaduwa. My grandfather K.H. Bastian De Silva built the house by the sea, and later my father inherited it. Hikkaduwa, then would have been a sleepy little town, with a few brick houses, a few thatched houses but the sea within the fringing coral reef would have been clear with beautiful corals and swarming with exotic fish.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002 the year my father died. Photo© Chulie de Silva

My father is not with us anymore. Even as I write, I think where are you now? Can you see us from a lofty perch or have you been born again somewhere? My father and I had a long correspondence from the time I first left his house to go to school in Panadura and then after I married and left his house when I was 19 . My mother once scribbled on the margin of an aerogramme “The second daughter is father’s best friend.” He was a father who mothered me, who named me, the second name being Lakshmi as the horoscope readers told him that I would bring him luck. A fact he believed in all his life and it was not unusual to get a call or a note to visit him, hoping his luck will change or I could magically sort out some family quarrel.


Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Photo Copyright Chulie De Silva

Replying to a birthday card I had sent in 1981 he wrote on the 29 May 1981: “Thank you for the birthday card and the letter. These things mean a lot for the ego. Every year you ask me when I was born; I was born in 1918. The year the First World War ended. My uncles had told my parents that I was from the Western front (the belief in rebirth among Buddhists). That’s why I marched to the front in the Second World War.” The Birthday card was a real eye opener. Yes, I can do what I did 50 years ago.”

Manel & Bennie

My parents -Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Amusing, provocative, his letters weaved a rich tapestry of family life – foibles and all.  In one letter he said,  “I have got my photo in the driving license enlarged – just a reminder of my days when I first met my Waterloo” – a reference to when he met my mother. “I was 23 then,” my father writes. “Sweet empty face.”  This was a photo he had given my mother when he was courting her and Amma apparently had said many years later during a squabble that she was “cheated” by the sweet face.

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My father Bennie Kirtisinghe as a young man. The photo he gave my Amma when he was courting her. Photo©Chulie de Silva

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 it 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.”

An inveterate storyteller he would keep us engaged and many were family stories we were not supposed to hear. He and I would argue and often his comments would have us laughing and many were the ones that shocked my relatives. “ I’ll cut off your ponytail”, was a constant reminder during my teenage years to behave or else … Then, there was the one comment he kept mumbling through out my engagement “Marry in haste and regret at leisure,” (dead right on that one!), and later “Why do you need a divorce, can’t you get a knife and do a Bobbit….” I am sure you are laughing from some vantage point of how my life has turned out!

Bennie K with Multipla

My father with his Fiat Multipla. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Interestingly some comments are still relevant, specially, comments about politicians. Amidst the turbulence of the JVP years and political upheavals of the 80’s, he wrote “The world and its people are changing so much that I wish I don’t have to see all this.” You might not have been happy to witness what is happening now but you sure would have revelled in my brood of vivacious, grand children Tara, Laxmi (Ranil & Aileen did choose the same name but with the spelling you liked), Freya and TomTom. I hope you can see all the fun we have and I would have loved to have shared stories about them.

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My father with my sons in the sea at Hikkaduwa. He taught us and his grandchildren to play “Ring-a-ring-roses” in the water. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

I miss you so much, the letters, the laughter and how your eyes used to light up on seeing me. During your last days at Hikkaduwa, you waited for me to visit and said you would hear my footsteps outside the bedroom in the kotu midula. I hope we will meet again as we travel through samsara. I will not fail to recognise you, as your eyes will light up. I wait for that day when I will be your lucky Lakshmi again.





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

Tracing Ancestors from Great Grandfather KH Babun Appu de Silva

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

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

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

Kaluappuwa Hennedige Babun Appu. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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















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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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

Letters From my Father Bennie: Travels with Rati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rati- Goddess of love, lust and pleasure.

Rati- Goddess of love, lust and pleasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note on Rati from Wikipedia.

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

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

Out of the womb of sightless night – bring out the word of healing strong

“There is a space between man’s imagination and man’s attainment that may only be traversed by his longing.”

Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Everyday before I drifted off to sleep, in the waking hours as I moved into consciousness, rumbling along in a rickshaw in dusty Dhaka and often bored at office meetings, my thoughts would be on this this reunion and return to Siriniwasa.

Boats at Sunset. Hikkaduwa. 11 Jan 2012. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Boats at Sunset. Hikkaduwa. 11 Jan 2012. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The need to see the house had become a permanent gnawing ache, a longing, an avatar that travelled with me from the time I heard it had been restored.  In my minds eye every door of the house opened on to a memory – voices, faces, laughter, tears, friends and foes, all floated by – a kaleidoscope that I never tired of.  When I traversed it in my dreams, stuck in Dhaka, the nights more than paid for my hopeless longing in the day.

Back at Siriniwasa, we slid ever so easily into its embrace — it was as if we had never left it. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Suren had come back to Sri Lanka, after 16 years, it was Nickie’s first visit and my first for the tsunami +7.  The drive had to be the sea hugging coast road and not the new fast highway.   How could one not drive past the old school haunts of Panadura,  cheekily breeze past the Kalutara Bodhi thinking of Father Bennie who never used to stop but eagerly stop at the perennial favourite Monis.   I peered at the portrait of the old man founder remembering him counting out the Monis biscuits from a tall jar.  I think then we got  100 biscuits for Rs. 10 or so. While he  fished out the “monis”, we would very politely ask if he could add more of the top biscuit halves than the bottom ones.

The walls smiled, the doors welcomed with wide open arms, I tenderly touched the glass doors with the decorative woodwork . …. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Christine Kirtisinghe

Nothing was amiss.  Amma was sitting on the front verandah waiting for us and I could barely park the car when Suren bounded out.  Even at 90 years she had no problem recognizing her eldest grandson with tears of joy.  The walls smiled, the doors welcomed with wide open arms, I tenderly touched the glass doors with the decorative woodwork “mal leli.”  The one piece we broke playing football in the sitting room, had been left unrepaired.  Only I noticed it had got slightly shifted from its original position. The salty sea breeze whispered, there was thambili to drink, the cinnamon stick fence was up, the iron safe stood guard and the Birawa almirah quietly watched us as it had done for 100 years.

The return is never complete without the memory of my father. In 1989, he had written to me ” I hope you’ll read my letters again when I’m dead and gone. My time is fast running out. .. Kanishka has evening school so we have a sea bath and go to school.   I have nothing else to do – the car and the grandson.”

Kanishka my nephew and my father on the beach behind Siriniwasa. Hikkaduwa circa 1989. Photographer unknown.

When I was a dayaka for the Polgasduwa hermitage there was a monk weighed by asthma,” wrote my father. ” He used to work hard at his studies to forget his asthma. Two years ago my birthday gift from you was an English translation of “Visuddhimaga” – the original [a Buddhist Pali Canon] is lost forever. In the preface were these poems this monk had written one night at 2 a.m. because he believed in wearing out than rusting out.”

Out of the womb of sightless night – bring out the word of healing strong

And put to flight the evil thoughts – that stood betwixt the eye and light

Where lies, friend, the golden mean? In giving up

Where’s the heart forever clean? In giving up

Where is life at its best seen? In giving up

Where reaches one peace serene? In giving up.


On 22 January 2012, the day when these photos were taken, Siriniwas welcomed Kanishka , and his bride Chamila, a doctor from Ratnapura.  Kanishka is the eldest son of my late brother Prasanna and as my father used to say the 10th male Kirtisinghe brought up at Siriniwasa.

Kanishka and Chamila at the traditional poruwa ceremony on their wedding day 19 January 2012. Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Return to Hikkaduwa 7 years after tsunami

Unlike many of the other tsunami anniversaries my heart is lighter this year.  We have moved past a threshold of pain.  Maybe we are propelled by a natural release of energy that they say happens every seven years
, which encourages you to move forward and make changes. Seven years after the tsunami of December 2004, the Kirtisinghe family seems to have found this energy to move back to their much loved home Siriniwasa.  Built a century ago in 1911, by my paternal grandfather Kaluappuwa Hennidige Bastian de Silva the main house had stood the wrath of the tsunami.  However, the tsunami had taken away the last Kirtisinghe son born in that house, my beloved brother Prasanna.

Siriniwasa. Hikkaduwa 2011. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Today when I spoke to my younger brother Pradeep, there is a very positive lilt to his voice.  They are out shopping for the almsgiving for the seventh death anniversary and the first to be held at Siriniwasa in his memory. Like last year, it pains me to be in Dhaka.  But in my minds eye I can picture the event, the extended family, Rev.  Tilaka will give his sermon and praise my mother and remember the dialogues on Buddhism that he had with my  father.  The photos and memories from the past are potent potions to ease  the loneliness of being far away from the family centre.

Prasanna in sunglasses and I in happier times with cousin Athula, and friends at the old rest house, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Aruna Kirtisinghe. Hikkaduwa circa 1963.

It is impossible to count the number of people who had trickled in and out of the house over this last century, to enjoy the sea, listen to my father’s yarns or call as relatives did unannounced in the good old days. Tea was served, fresh young coconuts were plucked from the trees to quench the thirst, an extra pot of rice was put on the hearth and my mother would somehow dish out a scrumptious meal. For us children, the sea was always our private pool.

Wallowing in shallow water Prasanna wearing goggles with cousins Aruna, Athula, Anoma, Hemal, my sister Yasoja and I. Photograph by Benny Kirtisinghe

Some days, we will all troop off to have a picnic at the family estate.  For that we had to cross a small river on a catamaran. We had to park the jeep in the village, trek across a cinnamon estate to get to the river bank.  Once there we kids will cup our hands and holler “Hoooo” to the boatman. In old Sri Lanka a “hoowa” (the yelling shout) was a measure of the distance — i.e. if someone was close by  one would say he is only one “Hoowak” away — or ” Hoowak dura.”

Left to right standing Aunt Phoebe, cousin Punya and my mother, while Prasanna, Cousins Anoma, Hemal and Neomal, my sister Yasoja and I with the boatman in the rear. Photograph probably by Dr. Bertie Kirtisinghe

On 13 March this year I had a mail from a Dr. Bernd Hontschik  who left a comment on the blog I had written about Prasanna on the 3rd year anniversary of the tsunami.

Dr. Bernd Hontschik in the garden at Siriniwasa in 1979. Photograph© Dr. Bernd Hontschik

Dear Chuli,
 in november 1978 and 1979 I was a guest in the house of your parents Manel and Benny for many weeks. Both visits were the most sunshiniest times of my life. Both visits I shared many hours with your brother Prasanna. Once I travelled through the whole island with him as my chauffeur. I am very very sad that I must read now that he was a victim of the 2004 tsunami. I will never forget your parent’s house, Manel’s meals served on the veranda, and the tiny garden house, which was my home at that time. And I will never forget Prassana. All the best for you, sent from Frankfurt in Germany, and please put a candle from me and Prasanna’s German friends onto the grave of him, if possible.

The garden cottage at Siriniwasa, that collapsed during tsuanmi killing Prasanna. Hikkaduwa, 1979. Photograph©Bernd Hontschik

Prasanna with his beloved Audi and Tom and Julia. Sri Lanka, 1979. Photograph©Bernd Hontschik

Thank you Bernd for the good memories and here’s to lighting some virtual candles to remember Prasanna, Chrishanta and many others who died on the 7th anniversary of the tsunami.

Candles at Madhu Church, Sri Lanka. March 2010. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

2005:  Ashes of thoughts what the tsunami took away

2006:  A look back twenty four moons after the tsunami

2007:  Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

2008: How Blue was my sea at Hikkaduwa 

2009: Tsunami 5+: the longest day, the darkest night, memories that linger 

2010: Tsunami musings in Dhaka

One summer at Hikkaduwa

The paper was crumbling, in the journal I had kept in my teens.  The collection of photos was damaged. But they were special and had survived among my treasured possessions despite many home moves across countries.

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

The memories of the summers in Hikkaduwa can be only rebooted and read from a forgotten hard drive  — of sea baths, walks early morning with the high tide washed silky soft sand oozing through your toes; long chats sitting on catamarans; fishing in rock pools in the burning hot sun; plopping and killing the deadly jelly fish on the sand with sticks; walking at low tide hanging on to cousins to the big reef; watching at sunset the fishermen pushing their boats out to sea; cricket in the back garden and even doing geometry on the beach.

Then there were the long arguments and discussions on every topic –politics, religion, arranged marriages, and the voicing of doubts about what the future had in store for us — would we be happy, have enough money to travel; would we be rich enough to have shoes to match the dresses; would we marry out of caste and religion, —   the list went on. Accompanying us gyrating Elvis crooned Love me tender, It’s now or never; we wrote  love letters in the sand with Pat Boone, and star gazed trying as Perry Como did to catch a falling star. We loved itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini –  but bikinis were strictly taboo in the Kirtisinghe clan—room was made for the single piece swimsuits by the English ladies who married uncles, but jeans and shorts were out.  We’d sit on coconut tree trunks that had fallen across the beach as if in worship to the mighty sea and dream… about love and careers, marriage and children … Scrawled across the journal in my ungainly handwriting was the poem.  I hadn’t noted the author’s name, but I still remember coming across it — one summer at Hikkaduwa.

Then it was always summer, so it seemed,

As each day slipped to night

Softly the grasses stirred as if they dreamed,

And such a light

Lay in the noonday hour

As never was before

And will be nevermore:

And love was sweeter then, a flower

But now unfolding, holding

All the promise in its cup:

Then was the heart aware of every door

That opened on to beauty, where

Uncounted bluebirds soared upon the air:

That was the time when life was one long song

And we the singers, then…

They were the years when

We and the world were young.


This is my 110 blog post, posted on 11.11.11 @ 11.11 pm.

A century old family photo on my 100th blog post

100th blog — is it significant? Not as significant as this 100 year old photo, but still a good time to bring it out. When I first saw this photo, I sat momentarily transfixed.  Here was a slice of history, frozen in a quiet gentleness, a significant moment in the lives of my ancestors, whose blood flows through my veins. I saw my grandmother, probably still in her twenties wearing the jewellery that my mother gifted to me.  I could see what excitement there would have been in this house of my great-grandfather S.K. Issack de Silva (circa 1860–1930) of Degoda, Ambalangoda  (seated next to my grandmother third from Left).

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

The same stream of life that runs through my veins

night and day runs through the world and dances

in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of

the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks

into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of

birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this

world of life.  And my pride is from the life-throb of

ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Translated from Bengali by  Rabindranth Tagore.