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.

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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.

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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

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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

Tracing Ancestors from Great Grandfather KH Babun Appu de Silva

Memory is not exactly memory. It is more like a prong, upon which a calendar of similar experiences happening throughout the years, collect.” –Stephen Spender.

There is a deep yearning and a hunger in me to delve into the past and trace my ancestors. In many ways, we are who we are, because they were who they were. I look down at my hands and I see my mother.  I sit on my bed, surrounded by books and think of my father who did the same. The birth of my granddaughter, the latest addition to our family, Freya Amelia de Silva was another reminder of how we all carry bits of our ancestors in us and then pass it on to the next generation.

So it’s time to present probably the oldest member of the clan from Hikkaduwa, that I have a photograph of  — my paternal Great grandfather Kaluappuwa Hennedige Babun Appu de Silva (GGF).

Kaluappuwa Hennedige Babun Appu. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Kaluappuwa Hennedige Babun Appu de Silva. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

On my mother’s side there was a Great Great Grandfather with an impressive long name —  Mudaliyar Wijesuriya Gunawardene Mahawaduge Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake from Panadura. I have written about him earlier. But unlike him, we have very little information on GGF Babun Appu.

Much of what I present here is culled from the family’s collective memory and my extrapolating or inferences might be considered dodgy, but this is the best we have at present, till someone else can come up with better facts.

For starters let’s take the clan name “Kaluappuwa Hennedige.” Kalu probably comes from having a darker skin tone — not considered a bad thing. God Vishnu statues in temples had a dark almost a blue black colour. Appu is supposed to be a derivative of Malayalam “Appa” meaning father. However, my father Bennie used to say it is not “Kaluappu” but “Kulappu” meaning hot tempered.

Babun Appu’s regal bearing is more in keeping with someone, who held a good position in the country. Anyway it’s the second name “Hennedige” that points to a vocation. Our family belongs to the Karava caste and Hennedige’s also Senadige’s were the house of the commanding officers. “de Silva” would have assigned by the Portuguese rulers .

Leonard Woolf named one of his chief characters in his classic novel “Village in the Jungle” Babun Appu — the name was then not unusual and is the Sinhalese transliteration of the Hindu honorific Babu. I have no clue as to his wife’s name as most of the records kept at Siriniwasa, our house in Hikkaduwa was lost in the tsunami. This included another valuable photo of him taken when my father’s eldest brother Parakrama ( aka Edmund) returned from England after obtaining an MA in Zoology from the University of London. My brother who remembers the photo says my uncle had a garland in his hand as in the photo below and GGF was also there. That photo had been taken near the railway line where his house was and I suppose this photo of Babun Appu was taken there too.

K H Bastian de Silva & S K Pintho hamy with their 7 sons. circa early 1930s. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

K H Bastian de Silva & S K Pintho hamy with their 7 sons. circa early 1930s at Siriniwasa. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What we know for sure is that my grandfather, KH Bastian de Silva was his eldest son. He had another son KH Henderick de Silva, and 4 daughters. One daughter Jane, married a wealthy businessman a Mr. Rajapakse from Ambalangoda and drove a Morris 8 Tourer and would come to visit Bastian driving her own car, dressed in the cloth (Kambaya) and Kabakuruththu as was the day dress for Karava women in that period. Jane might have looked some what like the painting below of a Sinhalese woman in a cloth and Jacket. By the way here in this painting the cloth looks more like a skirt. Most of the Western artists of the past didn’t accurately draw a woman in a Kambaya.

A woman in Cloth & Jacket, rephotographed with permission from author Rajpal Kumar de Silva from the book Pictorial Impressions of Early Colonial Sri Lanka: People and their Dress, Serendib Publications, 2014. This photo copyright Chulie de Silva

A woman in Cloth & Jacket, rephotographed with permission from author Rajpal Kumar de Silva from the book Pictorial Impressions of Early Colonial Sri Lanka: People and their Dress, Serendib Publications, 2014. This photo copyright Chulie de Silva

My grandfather seated on the front verandah with grandmother at Siriniwasa, would see her coming and say “Here comes the yakshini (she-devil)” and quickly retreat to hide in his room. The two sisters-in-law apparently got on well. Most likely they would have had tea and a good gossip. The Grand Aunt Jane was probably the first female to drive a car in the family and am told she had a handy hip flask of brandy and needed a swig from it for a bit of Dutch courage before starting on the drive back to Ambalangoda. She had 5 children — 4 sons and a daughter, according to my mother. The eldest son,  Dr. Sugatha Rajapakse, was a London qualified doctor who stayed on in UK and he in turn had a daughter Ajantha. The other 3 sons were Piyadasa, Jinadasa, Mahindadasa. My mother from whom I got this information was herself at age 90. She couldn’t recall the daughter’s name. Grand Aunt Jane, in naming her children had shifted from the Western names to Sinhala names.

Two other sisters of my grandfather married men from Magalle and one of them was Beatrice also known as “Bala Hami Nanda” and was the mother of Uncle Susiripala de Silva. There were aunts Leelawathi, Gnanawathi and Indrani who would visit us regularly at Hikkaduwa. Uncle Susiri, a much loved uncle, was quite a rebel in his youth. Meeting him in Singapore in the 70’s, he recounted how when he was boarded in a school in Hatton, where my Uncle Lionel was the principal, he scooted off from the hostel — I think after a caning from Uncle Lionel — and walked back to his mother in Magalle, Galle — a distance of over 200km.  He was packed off to Singapore as most incorrigible children were at that time, and fought with the Japanese in World War II before becoming a successful gem merchant. His story is another interesting tale that needs to be told.

Coast road to Hikkaduwa, near Peraliya, still showing the erosion of the beach 30 Dec. 2008.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Coast road to Hikkaduwa, near Peraliya, still showing the erosion of the beach 30 Dec. 2008.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The other daughter of Babun Appu married into a Peraliya family and my mother remembers my grandmother referring to her husband as “Peraliya Massina” — meaning Brother-in-Law from Peraliya. Peraiya in the last decade was where the train tragedy of the tsunami 2004 occurred. Most os us have lost touch with this branch of the family.

Brothers Bastian and Henderick were the best of friends and were building contractors. Apparently, the trust was so good that they shared one purse. Among many of the up country buildings alleged to be built by Bastian are the Hatton Post office, Labukele Tea factory and many tea estate bungalows. No doubt brother Henderick was there too, communicating with the British Planters, as he was the one more proficient in the English language. Bastian was also the first one to introduce electricity to Hikkaduwa. The big Chubbs iron safe we have at Siriniwasa, was a discarded one from an English Planter, that Bastian brought down to Hikkaduwa and installed it in the house.

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. 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

However, things changed when Bastian married Sella Kapuage Pintohamy from Ambalangoda and Henderick married Patabendige Missinona.  Patabendige’s are supposed to be descendent of Kings, and the two women might have been competitive. Anyway, their quareling probably got to Bastian and he built Siriniwasa and moved his family to live by the sea in 1911.

The sea behind Siriniwas, a surfing point named  Benny's Point, after my father., Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan 2014.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The sea behind Siriniwas, a surfing point named Benny’s Point, after my father., Hikkaduwa. 16 Jan 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Bastian and Pintohamy had seven sons — Edmund later took the name Parakrama (born 1903); Albert (born 24 June1905, the only one who kept his given name); Lionel later took the name Haripriya (born 1907); Richard later took the name Ratnasara (born 22 Aug.1910); Vincent later took the name Vidyasara (born 20 Nov 1912); Bennie later took the name Bhasura (born 13 May 1918) and Bertie later took the name Cyril (born 1920). All of them dropped the “KH” and the “de Silva” and took “Kirtisinghe” as the surname about the time my grandmother’s brothers took the name “Kularatne.” Here again 5 of them dropped the English names and took Sinhala names.

Henderick and Patabendige Missinona  had 3 sons and 3 daughters. The eldest was daughter Regina who married a lawyer Mr. Danister Vincent Balasuriya from Matara. Regina Nanda, as we called her went on to become the  Prinicipal of Sujata Vidyalaya. It is said that “the golden era of Sujath Vidyalaya dawned with Regina Balasuriya taking over the principal’s post.”

Henderick’s eldest son was KH Wilmot Oliver de Silva who married Vinicia Fernando. He himself was a renowned school Prinicipal and among his students that I knew ws one brilliant chap who achieved a first class degree in Science and now lives in UK pursuing an academic career.

Waldugala rocks seen at sunset on 1 Jan 2014, t low tide from Chaya Tranz. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Waldugala rocks seen at sunset on 1 Jan 2014, t low tide from Chaya Tranz. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Then came Uncle Lambert — full name KH Solomon Lambert de Silva who was a member of the then prestigious and exclusive Ceylon Civil Service. He married Dayawathie de Silva, a lady with the same name as his younger sister. Uncle Lambert was known for his prowess in swimming. A regular weekend swimmer at Hikkaduwa, he who would swim beyond the reef to the crop of rocks out at sea called the “Waldugala.”

Lastly, Henderick had twins, a boy and a girl he named Jinadasa and Jinawathie. Sadly, we didn’t know Jinawathi. She had died as a schoolgirl probably from TB. Jinadasa known as Jin Bappa married Bertha from Ambalangoda, related to us from SK Pintohamy’s side. However, my earliest memories of Jin Bappa was when he was sent by my Grand Aunt Missinona to “borrow me for a day.” Apparently Grand Aunt loved children but now when I look back am not sure what I did or how I qualified for this honour! However, my parents were probably happy to have some peace without my chatter and I remember holding Jin Bappa’s hand and walking across the railway line to go play in that house. Sometimes, Aunt Regina’s daughter Gayathri would be there and we would play “House” — take our dolls and dissolve toothpaste in water to make milk for the dolls and play under the shade of a mulberry tree. Come evening, Jin Bappa and I would walk across the railway line — me trying to jump from sleeper to sleeper, singing ditties out of tune with Jin Bappa joining in with a quite chuckle.

My eldest granddaughter  Tara Padme with my son Ranil de Silva. Sydney 24 April 2010.

My eldest granddaughter Tara Padme with my son Ranil de Silva. Sydney 24 April 2010.

Bastian and Pintohamy wanted a daughter so much but didn’t get one. When their first granddaughter Nimala was born to his eldest son Parakrama and wife Millicent,  Bastian was overjoyed.  On his first visit to see the baby, he had thrust two sovereign cold coins into her little hands and watched her with tears streaming down his face. My father used to say he was delighted to be told that he had another daughter when I was born. As I watch my sons with their daughters, I marvel at the love they show their daughters. I suppose times and places change but somethings will still remain the same.

Enter Freya Amelia de Silva

Welcome Freya Amelia de Silva, the latest addition to our family. You burst into our lives yesterday and it was joy unlimited after an anxious 24 hours or more wait. As photos of you, my new granddaughter came through late last night, the years fell away as I saw in you a replica of my son, your Daddy. Through the cool winds that drifted in from my garden, I could smell the fresh baby cologne and powder on him as I used to gently put him down to sleep after his bath many many year ago. Then, I used to sit on the bed and just sit and watch your Daddy sleep and that pert little nose just like yours in this photo.

Freya Amelia de Silva -- first day on planet earth. Photo copyright Suren de Silva

Freya Amelia de Silva — first day on planet earth. Photo copyright Suren de Silva

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are named after Freyja, the Norse goddess of beauty, love and fertility and mythological wife of Odin and Amelia Earhart, the American Aviator. A lot to live up to but one thing we are sure is that you will have your Daddy wrapped around your litte finger. Dad on the other hand must be thinking when can I start on her karate training!

The proud parents Suren and Nickie (nee Thompson) de Silva. Photo Copyright Jacquie Thompson.

The proud parents Suren and Nickie (nee Thompson) de Silva. Photo Copyright Jacquie Thompson.

So, now you will make trio of goddesses with Tara Padme and Laxmi Elin, my two other granddaughters and have a whale of a time growing up doted by all.

Cousins Laxmi, Tara with Aunt Jacqui holding Freya. Photo copyright Suren de Silva

Cousins Laxmi, Tara with Aunt Jacqui holding Freya. Photo copyright Suren de Silva

Your Aunt Annemarie is celebrating the arrival of  her “brand new niece.” “I hereby pledge to kiss her tiny nose, her little pink toes and her round tummy until she begs me to stop; to pinch her cheeks and give her lots of those snuffly kisses that aunties are wont to dispense; to spoil her shamelessly and love her forever! Welcome Freya Amelia!!

Aunt Annemarie was your Dad’d playmate and kept an eye on him when he was busy chucking her kittens through windows etc. So she says she is going to be your Super Aunty.

This Freya is your Daddy 2 years +. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

This Freya is your Daddy 2 years +. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

I am so looking forward to holding you but in the meantime this sums up what I feel — although I am a grandparent.

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Remembering Amma@1 year after

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A year without Amma has flown past. Early on 17 morning I could hear the sounds in the kitchen as Padmini, the resident chef Prema & the consultant chef hired for the event started the preparations. I wandered outside on to the verandah. It was still inky dark, a sliver of the moon was still visible.

The night readies to depart -the sliver of a moon still visible. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The night readies to depart -the sliver of a moon still visible. Copyright Chulie de Silva

Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Copyright Chulie de Silva

Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Copyright Chulie de Silva

By the time I returned from the beach the dawn was just breaking. The house will later fill with visitors – neighbhours, relatives – most will remember Amma with love.
The kitchen was the hub – the centre. I was wandering around photographing food , and Prema 1 & 2 would take a peak at my photos.

Potatoes and pickle -- preparations have started.Copyright Chulie de Silva

Potatoes and pickle — preparations have started.Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

The tuna awaits. Copyright Chulie de Silva

The tuna awaits. Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

Copyright Chulie de Silva

Copyright Chulie de Silva

“Now put that away and do some work, otherwise you will mot get any good karma,” said our bossy Prema. So I got the job of rolling into balls the fish mixture. My sis-in-law came to my help and speeded things up deftly rolling the mixture.

As more helpers trooped in, I escaped to pick up the camera.

The fruits were prepared and the Buddha puja was ready.

A circular dish containing mini potions of all food prepared that is offered in the Buddha Puja.

A circular dish containing mini potions of all food prepared that is offered in the Buddha Puja.

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Copyright Chulie de Silva

Copyright Chulie de Silva

 

Prema 2, the consultant stirs the huge pot of yellow rice with a freshly cut and washed young stalk from a coconut tree.

Prema stirs the yellow rice. Copyright Chulie de Silva

Prema stirs the yellow rice. Copyright Chulie de Silva

“Aren’t you going to take ‘potos’ (photos) of us with the proper camera like last time asked Prema 2. Obviously, they didn’t have much faith in phone cameras! So that had to come out too. But those are yet to be downloaded,

The next day Prema 1 sat with me looking at all the photos and trying to understand what this posting pics on FB was. Suddenly, she turned and said there’s no photo on FB of the salad I painstakingly prepared. Luckily for me i had photographed it although I had not posted it.

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Prema was suitably impressed. “You must take more and post on FB, so people will get to know our culinary skills,” said Prema. “Tomorrow, you must photograph my garden, so the ‘rata inna nona’ (the lady who lives abroad) can see what I have done with the garden. I now have a second PR job.

All photographs copyright Chulie de Silva

PS This is my first blog from the iPhone😄

 

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.
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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

The Good Son – Vinnie Kirtisinghe

“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

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.

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 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.

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

My nephews Matheesha, Suneth and nieces Anagi and Dinithi explore the old car. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva. M

 

Suneth & Dinithi and Anagi with Matheesha in Vinnie Mahappa's car, now owned by Pradeep. 22 Aug 2008, Galle.

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.
Poster - Bridge on the River Kwai, The_02

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.

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

 

Remembering Amma with love

Manel Kirtisinghe. 22 Aug.1922-17Jan.2014.  Photograph© Chulie de Silva. taken on 11 Oct. 2012

Manel Kirtisinghe. 22 Aug.1922-17Jan.2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva. taken on 11 Oct. 2012

Sometimes our hearts borrow from our yesterday’s
And with each remembrance
we meet again with those we love.
Love’s last gift, remembrance.