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.

13221276_10154825854189606_1589935319325818131_o (1)

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.

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

Analytics of a Wedding Photo

Chulie_094blog

Bennie Kirtisinghe married Manel Chitra Fernando on 8 June 1944 at the Dissanayake Waluwwa, Panadura. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It was on a day like yesterday, 8 June 1944 Manel and Bennie, my parents got married in Panadura, at the Dissanayke Waluwa, home of Manel’s illustrious Great grandfather. Yesterday, was spent looking at this photo, thinking of my parents, reading old letters and trying to deconstruct this photo to savour a day long past. A day and events that are now mostly forgotten.

She was 22 and he was 26. He the lover of poetry quoted Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Today, only the two flower girls – my aunt Nimal on the left and my cousin Punya are alive from this wedding retinue.  Bennie’s Best man, his lifelong friend Ariyapala — Prof. M.B. Ariyapala, the bridesmaid on the left Manel’s only sister Irangani,  the other bridesmaid Enid, Bennie’s cousin and the cute page boy Senaka are all gone. Faintly visible to the left is the Waluwa buggy cart and on the right Bennie’s car, a Renault.

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani, who was a very clever seamstress would have sewn the bridesmaids and flower girl dresses. She would have poured over English mail order catalogues and magazines to get ideas for designing the saree blouses. If I look closely, I can see her famous embroidered roses on the frills of the blouses which look more like a top portion of western bridesmaid dress.

Nimal, the flower girl says she can remember a long luncheon table with a white linen cloth where the plates were set surrounded by red and green croton leaves and being told sternly by an aunt not to touch the decorations. She also remembers a large marquee – “Magul Maduwa” set up in the garden. It had Areca nut – Puwak trees decorated with green vines,  red and green dyed reeds ( used in traditional weaving mats we call peduru) adorned with arum lilies and barberton daisies.

Cooks and caterers would have been cooking and making preparations at least two days before the event. The wedding eve is also a huge party for all bride’s relatives, and is celebrated with much gusto in Panadura. I remember well Irangani’s wedding eve in 1957 and as my thoughts turn a cavalcade of laughing relatives faces drift past in my mind.

Bennie wearing the national dress was strange to Manel’s family in Panadura and the even more westernised Anglican cousins in Moratuwa. Cousin Ranjani in a letter written in 1994, at their 50th wedding anniversary recalled how the bride looked radiant, young and sweet and the groom was smart in his national dress  — something that was “new” to them. Manel didn’t wear a veil as a bride as most brides did, and still do, irrespective of religion. Contrary to this, the bride and bridesmaids succumbed to the western tradition and carried bouquets of flowers. The flower girls wore half sarees or lama sarees — a long skirt and a blouse and wore garlands. So a mixture of imbibed Western bridal customs and some influence from neighbhouring India. Manel’s hair ornament on her centre parting was also not very common and her brothers and younger male cousins used to make fun of it saying it looked like “a crow crapped on her head!”

Ranjani Mendi's letter

In 1940 Bennie had asked for a favour from God Kataragama, at a shrine in the Southern jungles of then Ceylon. His wish was for a lovely woman for a wife. Bennie was in Kankesanturai (KKS), the northernmost part of Jaffna, nursing his brother Lionel recuperating from TB for almost two years.  In 1941, he was back at Siriniwasa, taking a break from his lonely existence in Kankesanturai. Two of his mild flirtations one with a young girl who used to ride on the bar of his bicycle and another with a Ms. Udagama had come to naught.  His friends like Tarzie Vittachi had been writing about how they chased girls in Colombo and he too very much longed for a girlfriend. So in 1941, Bennie was ripe for love.

Bennie emerged from the back garden at Siriniwasa to greet his sister-in-law Meta’s relatives from Panadura, who were on a pilgrimage to Kataragama. And there at the doorway to the sitting room he saw Manel. Stung by the cupid’s arrow, hin his mind this was the woman sent by God Kataragama. The door became his doorway of love.

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1940s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1941. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The road to Kataragama from Tissamaharama was a dirt track that meandered through thick jungles in the 1940s and travel was on bullock carts. Manel, many years later, recalled how the elders travelled in bullock carts and the young followed on foot. On the return journey from Tissamaharam Bennie and Ariyapala travelled on the same bus to Hikkaduwa. “Bennie sat with Sepal ( Manel’s brother) on his lap, and we had a huge comb of bananas hanging in the bus that we helped ourselves to when we were hungry.” 

There was some concern that Bennie’s Mum, Pinto Hamy would veto a proposal. She scorned love and had arranged marriages for 4 of her sons. The fifth Vinnie stood up to her and married his lady love, but earned her wrath. Bennie, however,  had collected valuable Brownie points looking after the TB ridden Lionel. In Manel’s favour was her lineage from the Great grandfather Mudaliyar Wijesuriya Gunawardene Mahawaduge Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake

Ariyapala in a study for his PhD points out that the Pancha Tatntra advice which says “the wise give their daughters to those endowed with seven qualities: viz.caste or family character, protection, learning, wealth or power, beauty and health or youth.” Bennie fittingly qualified and Manel’s rather quiet and docile parents had no objections to the union. In fact they might have been overjoyed that their pretty daughter had attracted such a handsome man. However, life was to show that Bennie’s most enduring quality was his love for his relations and friends.

On his 50th wedding anniversary another lifelong friend of his, Godwin Witana, had sent the wedding invitation to Bennie and Manel’s wedding, back to them. A precious souvenir! For Bennie, this invitation and the letter from Cousin Ranjanii were the best golden wedding anniversary presents.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday in Nuwara Eliya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy.  Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel did turn out to be the winner, that Bennie predicted and among many other accomplishments she did get him to wear western clothes too. While memories are fragile and sometimes unreliable, the written word lives on. “I got my wife to sing the song she sang on our honeymoon,” wrote Bennie. after one anniversary. He was ever the romantic.

“The day hath passed into the land of dreams
O summer day beside the joyous sea!
O summerday so wonderful and white,
So full of gladness.”

– H.W. Longfellow/A summer day by the sea