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

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Clouds and Waves

Children play with a ball at sunset at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Children play with a ball at sunset at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Mother, the folk who live up in the clouds call out to me-
“We play from the time we wake till the day ends.
We play with the golden dawn, we play with the silver moon.”
I ask, “But how am I to get up to you ?”
They answer, “Come to the edge of the earth, lift up your
hands to the sky, and you will be taken up into the clouds.”
“My mother is waiting for me at home, “I say, “How can I leave
her and come?”
Then they smile and float away.
But I know a nicer game than that, mother.
I shall be the cloud and you the moon.
I shall cover you with both my hands, and our house-top will
be the blue sky.
The folk who live in the waves call out to me-
“We sing from morning till night; on and on we travel and know
not where we pass.”
I ask, “But how am I to join you?”
They tell me, “Come to the edge of the shore and stand with
your eyes tight shut, and you will be carried out upon the waves.”
I say, “My mother always wants me at home in the everything-
how can I leave her and go?”
They smile, dance and pass by.
But I know a better game than that.
I will be the waves and you will be a strange shore.
I shall roll on and on and on, and break upon your lap with
laughter.
And no one in the world will know where we both are.

Rabindranath Tagore

Hikkaduwa memoirs through American eyes

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Aruni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms Desilva,

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

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

His comment coming out of the blue was:

The verandah at the back of Siriniwas, facing the sea. Circa 1970's. Photographer unknown. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The verandah at the back of Siriniwas, facing the sea. Circa 1970’s. Photographer unknown. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970's. Photographer unknown from the family albums. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970’s. Photographer unknown from the family albums. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Clenched Soul

Evening glow over Sabaragamuwa hills. Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. 18 January, 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva.

We have lost even this twilight.
No one saw us this evening hand in hand
while the blue night dropped on the world.

I have seen from my window
the fiesta of sunset in the distant mountain tops.

Sometimes a piece of sun
burned like a coin in my hand.

I remembered you with my soul clenched
in that sadness of mine that you know.

Where were you then?
Who else was there?
Saying what?

Why will the whole of love come on me suddenly
when I am sad and feel you are far away?

The book fell that always closed at twilight
and my blue sweater rolled like a hurt dog at my feet.

Always, always you recede through the evenings
toward the twilight erasing statues.

by

Pablo Neruda