Bennie, the Gentleman in Disguise!

Benniw Godwin Lakshman 700

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe at the wedding of his good friend Wimalatissa Indrasoma on the 28 Aug 1952. On the extreme right his good friend Godwin Witane and next to him, Dr. MWV Lakshman de Silva. Girl Guide HQ, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka. Copyright Asoka Indrasoma

Almost a birthday gift, the photo above came quite unexpectedly from a cousin Asoka Indrasoma. My father, with a cigar in hand, in national dress was at the wedding of his good buddy Wimalaya, Wimalatissa Indrasoma, (Asoka’s father) in 1952. A photo like this, unravels a lot of memories. He would have been 34 years old at this time and looks very happy and in good spirits.  The fact that he is the only one in national dress does not seem to bother him. However, his lifelong friend Godwin Witane, on the extreme right has a certain smile on his face and I wonder who the photographer was. My father, Uncle Wimalatissa and Uncle Godwin remained good friends through out their lives. Today, 13 May would have been my father’s 99th birthday.

Wimalatissa Mala

Wimalatissa Mama/Uncle with his sister late Dr. Mala de Sylva at Arachchikanda house of Mr. MW Surasena de Silva. Photo probably by Bennie Kirtisinghe

Life is a retrospective, a continuous flow of images and thoughts. Usually, my mind has constant flashbacks of what life was like with my father. I’d often get woken up on holidays at Hikkaduwa, with a banging on the window “rise and shine, get up, get up!” Giving a boost to these episodic memory wanderings, I had the unexpected bonus last month, of hearing his voice and see him come alive in Rupavahini’s teledrama Palingu Menike, as the “Iskoley mahattaya” — school master.

However, it is his words, often humorous, mixture of Sinhala and English for punning and tongue-in-cheek comments in his letters to me, that I see him in my mind’s eye.

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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

His letters were gold then and now. Where ever I was —  Liverpool, Penang, KL or Brunei –  life in the Hikkaduwa house would come alive to me. Often his letters would make comments of the tourists staying with them, painting a lively picture of his life, that never failed to bring a smile to my face. In this letter written in January 1993, he would have been 75. “An old friend, a guest from Holland brought me a Gin- Bols, which satisfies me after a bath with tonic and crushed ice.

In the same letter he talks of two Dutch men. 34 and 44 years old, who are tobacco smokers and roll their own cigarettes.  “I have taken to my old pipe and smoke often after meals,” and says “one of the Dutch men an engineer “marvels” at his building construction and water and sewage systems which are contrary to all norms and accepted laws!” Many a times have we moaned about his disastrous skills in construction – very far removed from his father, my grandfather. “The two [Dutch] men and I argue about philosophy and religion.” The parting comment of one of the Dutch was, “Bennie is a gentleman in disguise,” while the other had concluded that “Bennie is like the old fox who has not lost his tricks, though he has lost his hair.

Probably perked up by the Dutch comments he says, “I am enjoying good health in fine weather and of course the old man sea is ever so timid.” I have “Kola Kanda” herbal porridge with green vegetables like Gotukola for breakfast.” His special recipe includes Quaker oats and he complains that my Mum doesn’t give him access to the electric blender, but she or my sister-in-law Padmini will grind the veg in the old fashioned way in a pounding stone to make his breakfast. “If I had taken Kola Kanda much earlier, I would have taken another wife. But for the present this one is enough…”

My father with Malika at 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda.

My father Bennie with Malika, his grand niece on one of his visits to our house then 39, Chapel Road, Nugegoda.

Prophetically, he ends the letter I have in my hand saying, “even if I don’t write, you can read my old letters, which you will do even if I am no more. Bye Bye, don’t cry for me.”

 See Also:

Godwin Mama called Bennie, my father “The most popular citizen of Hikkaduwa” in an appreciation written after his death in 2002.

Appreciation Benny Kirtisinghe by Godwin Witane

My blog post on “On Chasing Jade Dragons with Mao Tsetung “ was based on a book that was a gift to my parents from Wimalatissa Mama.

Wimalatissa 2

Wimalatissa Indrasoma on the right with an unknown friend. From our family albums.

Calverley House in Old Colombo

The photos are from the now out of print “Images of British Ceylon” by Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin-Thome published in 2000. Gives us a peep into the gracious living of the past.

Thuppahi's Blog

Rohan de Soysa

Calverley House, built in 1868, was the residence of a famous barrister, Frederick Dornhorst KC (1849 to 1926), in whose memory there is a much coveted prize given each year at Royal College to the most popular student. It was situated in what was then Turner Road, later re-named Turret Road, and now called Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha. It was a substantial colonial style mansion typical of such late 19th century/early 20th century houses, well-suited  for such an eminent person.

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Marriage Fatigue and the Taboo Divorce

Hikkaduwa Chronicles

  Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet and so are you….
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“Please can you have a boring life this year,” said Mohini my friend, after she heard about the private bus that slammed into my car two days before Christmas. 

The question I often ask myself is: Where would I be if every action of mine was impeccable, that I had been right about absolutely everything and had never made a dubious choice in my life and lived a life as “Visakha” practising norms learned from childhood, religion etc…   Would I be happy now?  I doubt it. I would be bored and, worse, I would be boring!

Well, it has been dodgy living the past few years. If I took stock from 2004, there was the tsunami, followed by the  flash floods with my little suburban hut going under 2 feet of water in 2006.  Then there was the time…

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My Mother’s Ambul Thiyal 101

foodkatha

When we first took a young friend of ours for a sea bath and lunch to Hikkaduwa in the early 1970s, my father was surprised that the visitor was already a Professor at the University of Colombo. My father being from the earlier generation where they wanted to know the roots of the people, then put his foot-in-the mouth and asked where he came from.  Our friend nonchalantly replied Panangala. To which my father said “you must indeed be a clever man then!” referring to some obscure held view that Panangala is the abode of fools.

While I cringed, the visitor did not take offence.  He indeed was clever man and did go on to become a highly respected academic.  He was none other than Vidya Jyothi Prof. V.K. Samaranayake. Good naturedly he laughed the episode off, had his sea bath, king coconut water from my father’s…

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Peaches & Port for Desert!

foodkatha

This recipe goes back to our days in Brunei, when my two sons – the heir & the spare — were in boarding school in a town called Kooralbyn off Brisbane. I used to get them to buy me magazines, when they came for holidays. The cookery ones were purchased with much enthusiasm as they got to taste the stuff but the Cosmo’s were  bought with much grumbling and moaning, as they got teased by their mates. Still I did get both!

I’ve searched high and low for one of my photos of this desert. I did find a whole lot of pics I’d forgotten but not the one where the desert becomes the pièce de résistance at the end of a party. I used to switch off the lights, pour the warmed brandy over and light it before bringing it to the table. The little blue flames dancing on top…

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Homemade Malaysian Chicken Rice

foodkatha

Chiken rice lunch with cucumber, ginger & Chillie sauce. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva Chiken rice lunch with cucumber, ginger & Chillie sauce. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

The chicken for this favourite dish must be fresh said my teacher in Penang. Getting a fresh chicken there was not a problem. All I had to do was call me favourite Chinese grocery store and they would deliver. “Male or female’ the lass in the shop would ask me. Once overhearing this conversation, my perplexed spouse asked “what the hell are you ordering a female for?”

It is a dish adapted from early Chinese immigrants originally from Hainan province in southern Chinas and is called Hainanese Chicken Rice. Of course, there are plenty of shops that sell the authentic stuff in Malaysia, Singapore and the belt of Asian countries and it’s easy enough to go buy this. But I haven’t found any restaurants serving anything close to this even here.

However, when I used to take…

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On a Street Art Trail in Colombo

A side of Colombo I didn’t know — fascinating a must read!

A Life of Saturdays

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A man (Gihan, he tells me his name later) catches sight of me surveying a stencil of a smiling child sandwiched between a photocopy shop and a dilapidated building on Dawson Street, and signals from across the road: “There’s more over here”. Cheerfully appointing himself as my guide and with a number of wide eyed, bashful children in tow, we weave our way through a path punctuated with bird droppings, ceramic bathroom fittings, criss-crossing clothes lines, concrete debris, drains and enter the unlikeliest of art spaces.

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Lately, I’ve been juggling multiple lives. I secretly revel in the bustle that working divergent jobs bring. One line of work brings in a hint of order and solidity that I’ve spent a good chunk of my life shying away from. The other brings in an element of uncertainty and creativity — never know if I’ll land up at a fish market, a five star…

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“Charmed: I’m Sure” … do Manners Maketh the Modern Woman?

Campari and Sofa

showbiz-modern-manners-liv-tylerThose of you familiar with my occasional ranting on the subject will know that I have ‘a thing’ about decent manners. I’m not talking about the laborious English process that has you talking about the weather as the house burns around you, nor the baffling French protocols involving vous voudrais, how many times to kiss an acquaintance and when it is polite to sleep with your hostess’ husband … No I am talking more about the common or garden variety – the one that has you thanking people, saying please, returning calls, letting people through doors ahead of you, respondevou-ing ‘yes, please’ or ‘no thank you’ rather than waiting to see if something better comes along, then honouring your social engagements, calling to cancel rather than sending a text etc.

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Death as a mirror of life

The narrow road from Pinkande to Katudampe was shiny black newly tarred, clearly marked on the edges with white unbroken lines.On either side we passed lush green paddy fields, houses surrounded by small garden plots with coconut, mango, banana and fruit trees. A solitary young Buddhist priest walked briskly, the bright orange of his robes, matching the setting sun that burned brightly beyond the fringe of trees. This was quintessentially rural Lanka at its best. We were mostly silent on the way to the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple at Katudampe in Dodanduwa.  On the seat with me was a small clay pot with a white cloth over it. This was my mother’s ashes — all that remained of a once vibrant, energetic, mother.

The river by the temple was silent. Nothing moved. The silence had an aura of its own as if it paid homage to the nearby temple.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The river by the Sri Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa. 8 Feb.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I stood beside the bamboo grove, and watched the still waters. This was where we would leave my mother’s last remains by the temple she worshiped and also close to the Polgasduwa hermitage where she gave alms annually sometime ago. Returning ashes to a river is not  Buddhist custom. It’s a borrowed ritual from Hinduism. Rivers like the river Ganges is the embodiment of all sacred waters and the Sinhales use of “Ganga” for river probably stems from it. All rivers are supposed to have descended from heaven and the belief is that they are also the vehicle of ascent into heaven.

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The bamboo grove by the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

As I stood crouched near the bamboo grove, my mother’s life passed through my mind. The breeze was gentle, calmed by the peace enveloping the river, I could let my sorrow seep into the water.  I heard a quiet splash in the water near me and turned to see a river snake  slid into the water, less than a foot away from me.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

A river snake slides into the Katudampe river. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

I wondered whether the snake was an omen, a relative of the past, maybe my own mother come as an incarnation but any such thoughts I had were snuffed completely by Rev. Hikkaduwe Tilaka, the chief priest of the temple. The novice priest on the other hand was very excited. He and I looked around for more snakes but there were none.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Looking for water snakes in the river by the Sunandaramaya Temple, Katudampe, Dodanduwa with the Podi Hamuduruwo. 8 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

In my sorrow, I had turned to re-read the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that had been a gift from my younger son. I was reminded about the central concept of Tibetan Buddhism — of  life and death being seen as one whole, where death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.

In the teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, life and death are presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos. So from the Tibetan Buddhist point of view and my understanding our entire existence — something like we know as our travels through samsara — is divided into four continually linked realities (1) life, (2) dying and death (3) after death and (4) rebirth. The greatest and most charged of these however, is the moment of death. Scriptures of Theravada Buddhism too, states that your “chethana” loosely translated meaning your mindset at the moment of death is the all important karma that drives your rebirth.

Many of the rituals performed at funerals like the one of pouring water on to a cup, till it overflows is passing on blessings to a dead person to benefit her/his after life

As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.”

7th day almsging in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

7th day almsgiving in remembrance of my mother. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 24 Jan. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

As the evening shadows deepened Matheesha, my brother Prasanna‘s younger son and my mother’s youngest grandson, stood patiently for the signal from the priest. The time had come to let go.

Samsara is your mind, and nirvana is also your mind
All pleasure and pain, and all delusions exist nowhere apart from your mind”

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers as the river waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Matheesha holds the ashes in a pot with a bag of white flowers to be sprinkled on to the river that waits silently. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

A star danced when my Amma was born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

See Also:

Home Sweet Home

Flower of love: Bennie meets Manel