“We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.”
― Liam Callanan, The Cloud Atlas
“He was my most obedient good son, but he did the most disobedient thing,” my grandmother Pinto Hamy had lamented, talking of my Uncle Vinnie. Born on a day like today, 102 years ago on 20 Nov. 1912, Vinnie or Vincent as he was named at birth was my grandmother’s 5th son. He also grabbed the honour of being the first Kirtisinghe to be born in Siriniwasa, our seaside house in Hikkaduwa. Most of the time he was the quiet stay at home son, pottering around with radios and hardly caused any trouble to my grandma. So, what on earth did he do to earn his mother’s wrath?
Wedding photo of Vinnie & Somi Kirtisinghe. circa 1943. Photographer unknown. Flower girl Malini and the Page boy Ranjith Ratnapala. This image reproduced from a copy by Chulie de Silva
We might very well laugh but his crime then was to marry his sweetheart Somi Ratnapala, without Pinto Hamy’s consent. This would have been circa 1943, when Pinto Hamy ruled the roost and traditions and customs were more strictly observed. The opposition was because of caste differences, and my autocratic grandma who highly valued the scholarships of her sons, failed to recognize that here was her first graduate daughter-in-law.
The matriarch Pinto Hamy (aka as Lensi Nona) had arranged the marriages of her first four sons, so she could hardly see reason, when her favourite son, turned the tables on her. She didn’t attend the wedding, nor did she allow her other sons to do so. Despite fearing her wrath the quiet son, showed inner strength and toughness that Pinto Hamy herself was well-known for. He stuck to his guns and went ahead with the marriage and later visited her with the traditional gift of a saree. She had been polite and graciously accepted them at Siriniwasa. After lunch, when they were leaving she herself had given a gift to the daughter-in-law and the younger siblings had heaved a huge sigh of relief that all was now well. That however was short-lived when they learned that the mother-in-law had repacked the same saree and given it back to the daughter-in-law!
My grandmother Pinto Hamy with my late cousin Anoma. Photograph Dr. Ritchie Kirtisinghe. Circa 1947.
However, Pinto Hamy came around later to accept the daughter-in-law. certainly didn’t show my Grandma in good light, but good or bad we heard most of these stories from my garrulous father.
There are two other anecdotes that followed the passing away of my grand mother. The first is about my grandma’s special gold necklace, mostly worn by the women of her Karave caste that she had once said should go one day to Vinni’s wife. She didn’t give it to Aunt Somie during her lifetime, but after her death my uncle’s brothers gave her this gold necklace. So I suppose some wrongs were corrected here. The second story surfaced after the death of my mother, when I found my brother drowning his sorrows with a bottle of brandy – apparently he was following the footsteps of my Uncle Vinnie who had retired to the outhouse that stored firewood by the sea, to drown his sorrows.
Vinnie Mahappa circa 1940’s — a photo now resides on the top left corner in a collage of family photos compiled by my sister.
Vinnie was a science graduate from the Colombo University and later took the Sinhala name of Vidyasara, yet he remained Vinnie to all who knew him. He had stayed with one of his older brothers in Kotte and had cycled to the University as a young man but at the slightest opportunity would rush back to the Hikkaduwa house as most of us do even now.
He had met Aunt Somi when he was a teacher at Ananda College, and she a teacher at Ananda Balika. It was my grandma’s brother P.de S. Kularatne who had helped cupid to fire an arrow by asking Uncle Vinnie to check the accounting books at the girls’ school. Kularatne’s English wife Hilda Kularatne was the Principal at Ananda Balika, but she was also the Principal at Sri Sumangala Girls’ School, Panadura. When Hilda Kularatne was away at Panadura, Somi Ratnapala had been the Acting Principal. In later years Uncle Vinnie became the Vice Principal at Ananda College and Aunt Somie the Principal of Ananda Balika.
At home, he was always the gentleman with a leaning towards classical music. However, I have heard many stories of a much more robust teacher of Physics at Ananda College with a penchant for story telling – most of them being tall tales of how he was a crocodile catcher in Gonapinuwela and many more. … He was popularly known as Kiththa. After his retirement from Ananda College, his cousin Dulcie De Silva nee Kularatne, Principal at Museus College coaxed him to join the staff as the Physics teacher. He was quite a hit there I hear. He has also to his credit compiled an English-Sinhala Glossary of Physics terms. I learned today that my copy of this, as well as my other glossaries were air lifted to Brisbane by my sister when she emigrated with a lot of the family photos. This for my sister was a way of hanging on to the happy memories of those childhood days.
Vinnie Kirtisinghe’s car. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.
The couple lived happily and I think was the first working couple in the family. Every school holiday they would trek back to Hikkaduwa. At first my mother used to say with two fat maids who looked after their twin boys. The twins were our closest cousins and there were many escapades and fun catching fish in the small rock pools behind our house. Evening walks on the beach was when we’d get lessons on the clouds and cloud formations and by nightfall my uncle would be twiddling with the Siriniwasa radio—the one he had built. He is credited with first introducing radio to Hikkaduwa and in later years would talk about the crystal radio he had built with which he could listen to BBC radio broadcasts during WW2. This was a time when radio was unheard of in little villages like Hikkaduwa.
My nephews Matheesha, Suneth and nieces Anagi and Dinithi explore the old car. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva. M
Suneth, Dinithi, Anagi & Matheesha examine Vinnie Mahappa’s car, now owned by Pradeep. 22 Aug 2008, Galle.
Most will remember his last car the Austin Cambridge. When he bought it he actually drove all the way to Panadura to show us his new car. Most of our holidays too ended at their Greenlands Lane house or joining my uncle and family on short pilgrimages. My brother Pradeep was not around then but he more than made up for lost time, spending time chatting to him during his undergraduate days. After his passing away in 1994, Pradeep bought the Austin Cambridge and has lovingly restored it twice. The second time after it was found up a tree in Matara, post tsunami of 2004.
My own best memory of him is the time when we went to see the film Bridge on the River Kwai at the Savoy cinema. We were waiting in the lobby for the 3:30 pm matinee to finish and from inside the theatre strains of the Colonel Boogey March drifted. Vinnie Mahappa stood there in his white suit, and whistled in tune, eyes half closed, totally immersed in the music. I can never listen to this tune without a lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, and love in my heart for this gentle and loving uncle.
See also Dear Mr. Kirtisinghe — a lovely tribute to him from one of his pupils Sujata Gamage.