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

Unboxing the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cresenta Fernando, Economist, World Bank Sri Lanka Office

Cresenta Fernando, Economist, World Bank Sri Lanka Office

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the Tsunami of 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siriniwasa, taken a few days after the tsunami.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cottage near the sea. Photo copyright Aruna Kirtisinghe

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

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

What remains. ... Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

What remains. … Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

Ashes of thoughts for what the tsunami took away

Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

 

The old man and the sea

Lonely fishermen post tsunami, Southern Sri Lanka. 12 Dec.2006. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Lonely fishermen post tsunami, Southern Sri Lanka.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

The moon and my father’s bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you to my readers!

It’s been an amazing digital romp keeping this blog going the last six years or so. Through the thick and thin days, I’ve appreciated your feedback comments. Taking stock today I now have 225 posts, 734 comments and over 135,000 hits,

So this is to say a Big Thank you to all who have supported and encouraged me to write. I miss the comments and feedback which usually came with a good dollop of characteristic humour, I got from Mike Udabage.  Sadly he is not with us anymore, but I can still see his comments and smile.

The image of the school children that landed me in trouble. 10 Nov 2007. Photograph copyright Chulie de Silva

The image of the school children that landed me in trouble. 10 Nov 2007. Photograph copyright Chulie de Silva

I started this blog in 2007, November with the first post  Shaken not stirred and my first experience of being hauled into a Police Station and having a ride with Police escorts in a blue jeep. At least, I got off without having to spend a night at the Royal Boarding House.

Prior to this in 2006, on the second anniversary of the  Tsunami in 2004, I started the Hikkaduwa Chronicles . This was supposed to be a jumbled memoir of a family that has lived in Hikkaduwa for over a century. The original intention was to keep the two blogs separate – one on family history and one as a photoblog. But once our web aggregator Kottu took Hikkaduwa Chronicles off its list, and with limited time it made more sense to keep the Chuls Bits & Pics going as my main blog. Now, I reblog on to Hikkaduwa Chronicles, the relevant pieces, as I still have some readers who follow that.

The smiling eyes, one of my favourite photos. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The smiling eyes, one of my favourite photos. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Gold winner on hits is:

Degas Little Dancer. The All time favourite blog with readers. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Degas Little Dancer. The All time favourite blog with readers. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The next favourite is:

The 200 year old Sri Lankan house photo on the blog that gets second most hits. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The 200 year old Sri Lankan house photo on the blog that gets second most hits. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

And the bronze goes to:

Birthplace of Martin Wickramasinghe. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Birthplace of Sri Lankan literary giant Martin Wickramasinghe. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The posts on this blog that got more than 1000 hits are:

Degas’ Fourteen Year Old Little Dancer More stats 10,194
Age Old Charm of a 200 year old Sri Lanka House More stats 9,530
Martin Wickramasinghe’s house, Koggala, Sri Lanka More stats 4,437
Kandyan Dancers & Drummers More stats 3,183
Selling Bananas and Discussing Climate Change More stats 3,169
The Not So Hi! Ladies of Sri Lanka More stats 3,093
Goddess Tara Time to Come Home ? More stats 2,809
Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe More stats 2,227
  Images of Jaffna More stats 2,201
Much ado about Hikka nudes More stats 1,893
Afghan Treasures Exhibition: a peep into a rich heritage More stats 1,860
Painful wakeup call@Lighthouse, Galle More stats 1,825
Colours of Dhaka More stats 1,231
Maugham, Miss Pretty Girl, Cabbages & Condoms More stats 1,162
Bomb in a Bra: Don’t Cry Baby, Don’t Cry More stats 1,137
Smiling Eyes More stats 1,075
The shrine on the beach “Welle Dewale,” Unawatuna More stats 1,043

For me it’s always interesting to see the WordPress summaries and receive comments from someone from a far away place. This interaction is what makes a blog more interesting, than even writing a book. It’s the icing on the cake.

In this melee of blog posts, I’ve found another Chulie — Chulie Davey whose parents lived in Colombo in the 50’s and we exchanged Dear Chulie emails sometime ago; Dale from US who was a visitor to my parents home in the 1970’s and sends me links on classical music pieces to listen to and to read my blogs again; Klaus from Germany who was a great support to the family in the post tsunami traumatic times; nephews and neices who have found me on the blog and asked “Are you my Chulie Nandi?” …. and many more. such interesting virtual encounters.  Happy too that a couple of stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines.

So, my friends,  thanks again, wherever you are and do stay, and keep reading. The following stats are reproduced here with many thanks to WordPress — 3 more months to go for this year and I am looking forward to more blogging. Focus will be more on local history and travel stories. Do click on the Follow link on the blog and as always look forward to hearing from you.

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Home Sweet Home

The sea is a dull green. The beach strewn with jetsam and flotsam — broken coral pieces, empty bottles, rubbish, green and white dried seaweeds. A little girl skips along the shore, followed by a man carrying a pensive sad looking toddler that he is trying to feed from a plastic milk bottle. I stop to talk to him and learns his wife is in hospital and the toddler missing his mum is not keen on bottled milk. No, he is not from Hikkaduwa but from Medawachchiya, but had married a lass from here. The little girl, his daughter is a joy to watch — carefree, happy with the gloomy grumpy monsoon sea at Hikkaduwa. Sentimental me. I note every facet of the day, for this is the morning after the first night I’ve slept at Siriniwasa after the fateful tsunami of 2004.

A little girl skips and plays along the shore. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. 12 August 2013.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A little girl skips and plays along the shore. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. 12 August 2013.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Further along I watch a scene I have seen many times before. A man brushes his teeth with sea sand, rinses his mouth and splashes sea water on to his face. A simple easy villager’s way of starting the day.

Then in a Déjà vu scenario a wiry sunburned man saunters up, and starts talking to me, mistaking me for a local tourist with a camera. “You like to see coral, take you on glass bottom boat.” I can’t help smiling as I see his face change when I say he can’t show me anything as I am a born here person.” He turns points to our house. I nod and his Whose Who knowledge kicks in and he slinks away.

Monsoon sea at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Monsoon sea at Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

So, were the tsunami ghosts disturbing? How easy is it slip back into a familiar world?

.Arriving last night, around 9 pm, it was a joyful reunion. My nearly 91 years old Mum was up at the door, all smiles to greet me.

Portrait of my Amma  Manel Kirtisinghe 12 August 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Portrait of my Amma Manel Kirtisinghe 12 August 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

There was much laughter as stories were retold, news bits updated as we sat chatting well into midnight. Out on the back verandah, I stood listening to the surf pounding on the reef. The garden was in inky darkness, with two little streams of light from the next door Poseidon diving station. Leaning against the slightly damp walls soaked with the salt breeze, I forced my eyes to see through the muted shadows till I could see the white foam on the reef as the waves broke. No twinkling lights of boats. Just the wind, the cool damp salty wind.

This morning my Mum proudly says “I am 93 years old now.” Padmini, my sister-in law gives me a knowing smile and says she was 102 years a few days ago. I quietly tell my mum she will be 91 soon not 93. Returning from my morning walk on the beach I find Amma sitting with a white paper and pen on her lap. Neatly written on it is 2013-1992=91. She looks a tad disappointed!

Padmini, my sister-in-law  combs and plaits Amma's hair. Siriniwasa, Photograph© Chulie de SilvaHikkaduwa. 12 August 2013.

Padmini, my sister-in-law combs and plaits Amma’s hair. Siriniwasa, Photograph© Chulie de SilvaHikkaduwa. 12 August 2013.

It was time for Padmini to get ready to go to open her Ayurvedha clinic.  I bring out the photo albums of Tara and Laxmi for my Mum to see her great grandchildren. Matheesha, my nephew and Padmini’s son is sweeping the garden. I try to pick my Mum’s brains on the ancestors from her Panadura side without much success but there are one or two new anecdotes of family that she recalls.

Later Mathhesha brings her to see photos of her great grandaughter Ella’s 10th Birthday on FB.  She reluctantly sits herself down in front of my computer and before long she has seen all her great grand children and two great grand nieces on FB. From this we move to see more photos on my computer. She recognises everyone and there are more anecdotes and she perks up as she sees her young beautiful self in the photos. Life and history and a cavalcade of relations roll by. This is family — the living and the departed, the ones near and ones far, the young and the old, intertwined network of strong bonds. This was like many other ordinary days that I have spent in this house without realising the value of such mundane days. One can say nothing much to write about —  but no, this was a day to be recorded. This was our family capital — our home sweet home, this was where I belonged.

Unbridled thoughts on Tsunami Anniversary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Lanka 2013: Lonely’s Planet’s Hot Destination

It’s great to see Sri Lanka has built back better after the 2004 tsunami and has put behind the conflict years to hit the Lonely Planet’s No. 1 spot as the hot destination for 2013.  It seemed right for me to rummage through my archives for some shots off the beaten tracks in Lanka I was lucky enough to visit as part of my work then. And I of course needs to add some recent pics of my favourite home town Hikkaduwa.

Post tsunami Paddy fields were thriving in Ampara supported by improved irrigation fields. Visiting the East coast of Lanka after many years and Ampara for the first time it was good to see that farmers now came to work on motorbikes.

Paddy field Ampara. 2010 Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Heeloya, Watawala  is a small village, that generates its own electricity from a micro hydro project under the Renewable Energy for Rural Economic Development Project supported by the World Bank in Sri Lanka. When we visited there were 52 households and the villagers manage the micro hydro project through their Electricity Consumers Association.

Fresh water spout on the path to the village of Heeloya, Sri Lanka. circa 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Sunset at Heeloya. circa 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Post tsunami Hikkaduwa is back in business.

Hikka hotel on the beach, Hikkaduwa. 10 October, 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Entrance to the Poseidon Diving Station next to our house. October 10,2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Dasu’s hut run by Aslin Akka’s granddaughter. Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I met the young lass who runs this place a couple of years ago post tsunami. It was then a one story cafe. Siriniwasa was still not repaired and when I asked her how she was she replied saying they had bounced back faster from the tsunami than us. I didn’t know who she was then. It was only later that I learned she was Aslin Akka’s granddaughter. When I was growing up in the 50’s, Hikkaduwa, was a small fishing hamlet. Aslin Akka’s house was opposite ours and then it was a coconut leaf thatched cottage. She earned her living from making coir ropes out of coconut husks. A hard working woman, we’d see her in the garden working.  I last saw Aslin akka, when she came to my father’s funeral about a decade ago. She herself was very sick, barely able to walk but had insisted on coming to pay her last respects for my father. Seeing this cafe and how her granddaughter has made a success of it is a joy for me. This is a living example of how in a span of half a century lives have improved in Sri Lanka through free education and poverty reduction efforts.

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.
 Bernd.

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