A century ago, my father is born and I still miss him…

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe was born on a day like today 13 May, a century ago, in 1918. He was the second son to be born in the house “Siriniwasa” in Hikkaduwa. My grandfather K.H. Bastian De Silva built the house by the sea, and later my father inherited it. Hikkaduwa, then would have been a sleepy little town, with a few brick houses, a few thatched houses but the sea within the fringing coral reef would have been clear with beautiful corals and swarming with exotic fish.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002 the year my father died. Photo© Chulie de Silva

My father is not with us anymore. Even as I write, I think where are you now? Can you see us from a lofty perch or have you been born again somewhere? My father and I had a long correspondence from the time I first left his house to go to school in Panadura and then after I married and left his house when I was 19 . My mother once scribbled on the margin of an aerogramme “The second daughter is father’s best friend.” He was a father who mothered me, who named me, the second name being Lakshmi as the horoscope readers told him that I would bring him luck. A fact he believed in all his life and it was not unusual to get a call or a note to visit him, hoping his luck will change or I could magically sort out some family quarrel.


Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Photo Copyright Chulie De Silva

Replying to a birthday card I had sent in 1981 he wrote on the 29 May 1981: “Thank you for the birthday card and the letter. These things mean a lot for the ego. Every year you ask me when I was born; I was born in 1918. The year the First World War ended. My uncles had told my parents that I was from the Western front (the belief in rebirth among Buddhists). That’s why I marched to the front in the Second World War.” The Birthday card was a real eye opener. Yes, I can do what I did 50 years ago.”

Manel & Bennie

My parents -Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Amusing, provocative, his letters weaved a rich tapestry of family life – foibles and all.  In one letter he said,  “I have got my photo in the driving license enlarged – just a reminder of my days when I first met my Waterloo” – a reference to when he met my mother. “I was 23 then,” my father writes. “Sweet empty face.”  This was a photo he had given my mother when he was courting her and Amma apparently had said many years later during a squabble that she was “cheated” by the sweet face.

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My father Bennie Kirtisinghe as a young man. The photo he gave my Amma when he was courting her. Photo©Chulie de Silva

My mother said my father had cribbed this poem to me, but I didn’t care.  The scrawled handwritten letter is much treasured.  Written in 1981, after a visit home to see an ailing aunt it was addressed to a Dear daughter

“What am I thinking of 
this golden evening (of my life).
It is the daughter of my heart 
who flits across my mind.
Her innocence 
so like a lotus bloom. 
She came to visit me just yesterday. 
She left her darlings for awhile and came to savour
yet again (and again)
the love that spreads and smiles.
within her childhood home.
She writes to say 
she loves both Ma and Pa.
I’m glad to see she had her priorities intact.
She had to go back to her kids and home (abroad)
She left with me her youthful happiness.  
She took with her
the love that Ma and Pa 
will always give her.
Now I wait, 
until she is home again
like the bursting glory
of the coming 
of a flower in spring.”

An inveterate storyteller he would keep us engaged and many were family stories we were not supposed to hear. He and I would argue and often his comments would have us laughing and many were the ones that shocked my relatives. “ I’ll cut off your ponytail”, was a constant reminder during my teenage years to behave or else … Then, there was the one comment he kept mumbling through out my engagement “Marry in haste and regret at leisure,” (dead right on that one!), and later “Why do you need a divorce, can’t you get a knife and do a Bobbit….” I am sure you are laughing from some vantage point of how my life has turned out!

Bennie K with Multipla

My father with his Fiat Multipla. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Interestingly some comments are still relevant, specially, comments about politicians. Amidst the turbulence of the JVP years and political upheavals of the 80’s, he wrote “The world and its people are changing so much that I wish I don’t have to see all this.” You might not have been happy to witness what is happening now but you sure would have revelled in my brood of vivacious, grand children. I hope you can see all the fun we have and I would have loved to have shared stories about them.

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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

I miss you so much, the letters, the laughter and how your eyes used to light up on seeing me. During your last days at Hikkaduwa, you waited for me to visit and said you would hear my footsteps outside the bedroom in the kotu midula. I hope we will meet again as we travel through samsara. I will not fail to recognise you, as your eyes will light up. I wait for that day when I will be your lucky Lakshmi again.

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


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

Remembering Amma@1 year after


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.


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.

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😄


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


Ashes of thoughts for what the Tsunami took away




Yasoja, my sister with the doll, me holding Prasanna with cousins Lucky & Pem

A photo taken when we came running in after playing on the beach in the good old days

Prasanna, my malli, my brother is never far away from my thoughts. We lost him tragically in the Boxing day tsunami of  2004.

Tomorrow, just 13 days short of the three years after the dreaded tsunami , Kanishka my brother’s eldest son will take his oaths as a lawyer. Mathisha sitting for his ‘O’ level exam won’t be able to make it.  Prasanna’s  absence will be keenly felt and tomorrow we will smile among the tears and remember the dreaded day. …


A View of the Sea at rest through the cinnamon stick fence

As long as I can remember I talked to the sea. The sea behind our ancestral house at Hikkaduwa on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was my friend. The sea listened to me, soothed me, fascinated  me. At the end of school holidays when everyone was ready to go back to my grandmother’s house to go to school and when everyone had packed themselves into the car, I would say please wait a moment, let me say a final goodbye to the sea. I’d run back to the beach, shoes in hand for a last touch of the sand, a last breath off the water. My father and family indulged me in this ritual.  A week after the tsunami, once again I went to talk to the sea. I had to walk through the next-door Poseidan diving station to get to the back of the house which gave directly onto the sand. Childishly I wanted to ask why it had turned into a monster which devoured my brother, Prasanna. He was the only one in this generation to have been born in the house itself. I have always been proud that I was born in Hikkaduwa, but Prasanna was the true son of the Hikkaduwa house; the house whose walls enclosed him in his last moments.


My grandfather built this house nearly 100 years ago and called it Siri Niwasa, “gracious house”. My father who inherited it called it The Garden on Sea. As I stood outside its brokenness that day nearly a year ago, chiding the sea, a solitary black high-heeled sandal of mine teetered on a broken slab of concrete. There were two middle-aged rotund foreign ladies wrapping themselves in bathing towels, the cinnamon stick fence was gone, the coconut trees that my father lovingly planted were stripped bare to the roots. The sea was ever so gentle kissing the beach, but had no answer for me.

This Boxing-Day weekend was like many hundreds I had spent in Hikkaduwa. Wherever we were, England, Malaysia, Brunei, or Australia, the pull of this house was very strong for all of us. When I first went to England, I used to write to my father three times a week, missing the love and warmth abundant in this house. I dreamt about the sea, the coconut trees, me lying in the back room reading, munching on hakuru nuggets, little sweet jolts of palm sugar. Once when I was late replying to a letter from my father he chided me: This account will be closed soon, and then you will have only memories – ashes of thoughts.

I was very tired after a heavy week of year-end work but all I wanted was to go back to Hikkaduwa, do a little bit of reading as before, walk on the beach, and talk to my friend, the sea. Hikkaduwa was celebrating Christmas with all the trimmings. Disco music mingled with laughter, fire crackers burst intermittently. The night was humid and sultry, there was no breeze to stir the coconut trees. I hung on the cinnamon wood fence and watched the moon streak the waves silver. I heard my 13-year-old nephew, Mathisha, telling my sister-in-law, wake me up at 6 a.m I want to jog, and I called across to him, hey, call me too, I’ll join you.

Next morning he jogged, while I walked, with his faithful mongrel Lassie running ahead of us as usual. The sea was calm, the reef exposed, sky blue with lashings of pink. We exchanged customary greetings of good morning with other early joggers. School children were warming up for a swimming lesson and I smiled as they exercised with their little faces all screwed up in concentration. I stopped at the straw hat stand and chatted with a lanky boy as he was setting out the hats. I was happy to see my childhood friend, Laleeni, in her garden. She and I chatted across the fence as we had done over the years growing up and talked about getting together on New Years day, when her sister – and my bridesmaid – Vajira, would be in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps curiously for someone who chats to the sea, I have never learnt to swim properly. That day, too, I splashed around in the shallow waters and was pleasantly surprised that the water was quite warm. My brother was proudly playing host to my elder nephew Kanishka and his batchmates from the Colombo University Law faculty over the weekend. I watched the budding lawyers play cricket on the beach, a gaggle of boys, not yet men, burdens of life resting lightly on their shoulders. Floating lazily around I looked tenderly at our house through the coconut trees, my brother Prasanna reading the Sunday papers in the planter’s chair, my sister-in-law flitting around serving tea to the boys. I thought how blessed we were for the joy this house gave us.

The tide was coming in too fast, the little waves were getting a bit higher – funny this shouldn’t be, so I thought, fleetingly as I got out of the water and headed for my freshwater shower. As I came out of my room, Prasanna asked Akka, sister, when are you going back, give me your car keys, I’ll wash your car. This was another ritual. Whenever I came down for the weekend Prasanna, a car freak who loved everything about cars, would wash my car for me. I told him I was going after lunch and he replied that the Sunday English papers were in the main house. He returned to read his favourite, the Sinhala “Lakbima” on the verandah of the cottage. This separate one-bedroom cottage, located behind the main house, was just a few yards from the sea. This in the hey day of the Hikkaduwa house was the outhouse, where coconuts and cinnamon wood was stock piled. Now it was the favourite meeting place where all of us gathered for sundowners and an unbroken view to the horizon.

Having read the papers sitting in the kotu midula, the inside courtyard open to the sky found in many old houses, I went to the kitchen. My Amma, my mother, is a fiercely independent lady renowned for her cooking. Not only would she do her own cooking but would cook and pack enough curries to last me two weeks in Colombo. As I chatted to her, I was tucking into her stringhoppers and ambul thiyal, a fish curry specialty of the South. She was reminiscing about when she came to the house as a young bride almost 60 years ago. The 96-year old house was crumbling a bit at the edges but still charming; so was my mother, lines on her face more marked but still lovely and gracious at 82.

My sister-in-law Padmini had sent a plate of rice cooked in coconut milk. Kiribath is the closest Sri Lankan thing we have to a risotto. Made on special occasions, kiribath is a perennial favourite. Having dished out a portion, I went in search of her to ask for the hot lunu miris, the traditional fiery onions and chilli accompaniment to the rice. The time would have been about 9:20 a.m. Passing the back verandah where I normally have all meals, I noticed that I had not closed the door from the bathroom leading to my room. For a moment I hesitated wondering whether I should go in and close it. It can wait, I decided.

Back in the kitchen I barely had time to set my plate down when my younger brother, Pradeep shouted get Amma out quickly, the sea is coming in. At the same time I was forming the words to ask her what’s that noise? But I don’t think I had time to complete the sentence. Kanishka, my older nephew and two of his friends were there and we were all urging my reluctant mother to move.

None of us were prepared for the huge terrifying torrent of water that burst around us as we took the first few steps. We were thrown, pushed, and propelled with such an unbelievable force. Reactions were instinctive. The boys lifted my mother, held her above the water and swam with her. Huge concrete slabs, dislodged, came careening towards us but swung away miraculously. My mother was screaming what’s happening, what’s happening, has a big pipe burst? I just let my body go – this was not a force I could fight.

But my mind was swirling as fast as the water – odd thoughts, memories of a team leadership training we had done, an exercise in desert survival and I thought, good grief, this is exactly the opposite. Another thought was of a D.H. Lawrence story, The Gypsy, and its references to a flash flood. Not too far away was the thought, will we survive this? We shot pass my brother’s Mazda and I can’t remember how we went over the gate and a parked Pajero. I saw my mother being carried to dry ground close to the police station and a policeman coming out to help her, but I was being carried away by the current. A desperate lunge and I held on to a metal grid at the front of a hardware shop as dislodged metal sheets, iron poles, cars and bodies swirled past. A man across shouted at me “swim, here we’ll catch you”. “Can’t swim, I’ll hang on here,” I shouted back. My flip flop sandals were getting entangled in the debris and I kicked them off. Another man climbing on to the roof of the shop was shouting “follow me, climb up here.” I looked at the rickety pole and the derelict roof and decided to hang on as the current pulled me back and lashed me once more against the metal grid.

Then, just as it came, the water ebbed away.

My one thought was my mother. I went searching for her, pushing past the swarm of people screaming and crying. I found mum seated in a chair across the railway line. She stretched out her palms and feet and smiled: “See, not a scratch; your father must have looked after me.”

Unknown to us, probably the same time I was walking back to the dining room with my plate of kiribath, a wave slightly bigger than usual had washed the beach. The boys playing cricket cheered, the wave had cleared a good smooth pitch. The next slightly bigger one, still not yet frightening, brought the cinnamon fence down. Kanishka, though, had the presence of mind at that point to urge his 12 or so friends to run towards the house. The water swirled ankle deep in the cottage. Prasanna had called out to Padmini, my sister-in-law: “The sea is a bit rough today.” Padmini came outside to cover the plates that she had set out on the cottage verandah for the boys’ breakfast.

Curiously, no one looked at the sea. No one saw what was coming. Within seconds the water was six feet high, and then over the roof, tossing it away. Prasanna, Mathisha, and Kanishka’s friend Amila, caught in the swirling water, tried desperately to hang on to a beam. The torrent catapulted Padmini through the same corridor I had walked safely just minutes ago. A heavy six-foot long sideboard twirled around effortlessly and came at Padmini. With superhuman strength she managed to push it away with her shoulder. Amila lost his hold and Prasanna managed to pull him inside and shouted at Mathisha: “Buddhu putha go, my precious son, go.” The water pushed Mathisha and Amila out of the house and they clutched desperately to two coconut trees. Amila shouted to the younger Mathisha to hang in at all costs. Mathisha turned and saw the walls of the cottage collapsing, Prasanna, his father, crumbling under the falling rubble.

Padmini, struggling in the torrent of water sweeping her forward saw Lassie atop a floating cushion. She saw Pradeep, my younger brother, and together they turned back, frantically searching for Mathisha, jumping over toppled wardrobes they get to the back verandah to see Mathisha’s grip on the coconut tree loosening. He falls. But the waters are receding.

I settle my mum on the first floor of the house and run back to Siri Niwasa leaving a Belgian tourist lady who I had rounded up to keep an eye on mum. As I run down the stairs I hear the tourist telling Amma: “You must have been a very pretty lady”. And I hear my mum’s reply: “No, I was just pleasant.”


Only rubble remains where my room was

The front of the house is still standing but the death and destruction abounds.

The debris is all over the place. A brown layer of silt sits over everything like vomit – splintered glass, clothes, hand bags, a toilet bag, the empty box of an after-shave cologne I gave my brother last New Year, my favourite blue and white polka dot shirt. Beyond the kotu midula there is no house. I cannot find my room; it has collapsed like a pack of cards. There is no furniture in the house. I couldn’t go beyond the doorway; that doorway that my father had told us umpteen times was the doorway of love. He had first glimpsed my mother through this door and fallen in love with her. The electrical wires are down and broken furniture is piled high.

Through the gap, I see Pradeep, Padmini, and the two boys. I heave a huge sigh of relief. Prasanna, not visible to me at that moment, was the strongest one of all so at that time, I have no cause for worry. I run back to assist tourists who are cut and bleeding. My car that was under the porch sits outside the gate but I have no keys to take the injured to hospital. And no road I suppose.

In the middle of the chaos and screaming, a tourist is coolly filming. I spot a mobile in his pocket and ask him whether I can use it. “It’s Danish, but if you can work it, you are welcome,” he says. I call my young friend Jan, who was supposed to come down with his friends to Hikkaduwa that morning. His voice is muffled, still sleepy, but he soon wakes up. I spot another young friend of Kanishka’s and ask: “is everyone OK?” I hear him say everyone, except Uncle Prasanna. I feel my knees weaken. And then I see Padmini with her head in her hands crying – my Prasanna is gone, my Prasanna is gone. I look in disbelief at my two nephews. Mathisha the younger is cut and bleeding, but the pain in his eyes is not from the cuts. I look at Kanishka and say “come, son we need to go to him.” We run across the road, jumping over deep freezers, boats. We cut diagonally across the cooperative house garden and I spot Pradeep standing where the cottage was. He is signaling us not to come. Kanishka is behind me, pulling me back. Don’t go, Nanda, aunty, I won’t let you go. I can think only of Prasanna trapped under the rubble. Then I stop dead in my tracks. The whole garden and the beach is a cavern. There is no sea as far as my eye can see. The reef stands exposed, a brown band of dead coral covered with the brown vomit. Now, I turn back, shouting at Kanishka and everyone: We’ve got to get to higher ground, the next wave is going to be worse and is not far off.

My mother comes down reluctantly, not understanding the gravity of the situation. “All the food I cooked for you so lovingly must be spoilt now?” she asks me. By the time I bring her down from the first floor, the second wave has struck. Pradeep is there but Mathisha had been sent off with some tourists to get his wounds dressed. There are more calls to get to higher ground, and people are running helter skelter. I worry that the house we are sheltering in will come down. We walk away slowly wading through the water to higher ground, Kanishka holding Padmini, and I, Amma.

Kanishka is dispatched to look for Mathisha. We drink warm tea and take refugee in a friend’s house. Hydrogen peroxide, antiseptic creams, Dettol are all brought out. We try to listen to the radio to confirm what we have heard, that the coastline is devastated. Pradeep finds our neighbour who comes in his van to take us further inland. Half way we meet Laleeni, my friend, and her daughter, walking. They join us. Mathisha is plucked from a bus destined for the Galle hospital. As our vehicle moves inland, we see troops of inland villagers – the looters – running towards Hikkaduwa. We end up at Laleeni’s cousin Upal, on his Annasigala Farm. There is some anxiety. Upal is waiting for his sister, Tamara and her daughter to arrive in the Samudra Devi train, the Ocean Queen. We switch on the TV for news. We are relieved to hear the train is safely at Hikkaduwa. Pradeep confirms to me that Prasanna is dead, that they pulled the body out, but had to drop him and run when the second wave came.

Brown country rice, curried lentils, Jak fruit – the lunch is hearty and generous but I cannot eat. I worry. How am I am to break the news to my mother that her favourite adored son is gone. The air is suddenly pierced by a young voice wailing: “Ammi is gone, Ammi is gone, I couldn’t do anything to save her.” Upal’s young niece has arrived in a tractor, with one British and three Scandinavian visitors. Sheth, British with Sri Lankan roots, has an open gash on his foot. One girl has been separated from her partner. The Sri Lankan man who brought them in a tractor has no idea whether his family is alive or not. Upal takes the injured to a doctor. I call State TV and tell them that the train is not safe, that over 2000 are dead, we are hearing.

We have no money, no clothes other than what we are wearing. But Upal’s Lanka Bell phone is working and I call many to tell them that my little malli, my brother, is gone from us for ever. As dusk falls, two of Kanishka’s friends turn up at the farm. Prasanna’s body has been found washed ashore near the police station and is now at the rural hospital. A family member has to identify and claim the body, before it is sent to the Galle morgue. Padmini, my mum and Mathisha are asleep, exhausted. I tiptoe out of the home. Laleeni comes around to give me her slippers, a thousand rupee note. Upals’ wife gives fresh clothes.

Part hitchhiking, part walking we reach the hospital as night falls. The bodies are all laid out on the verandah. Men, women, children – lives snuffed out in a few seconds. Many foaming at the mouth, the bodies twisted in agony, the struggle with death very visible on their faces. The stench of death is everywhere. My brother lies on his back, no shirt, his handsome face peaceful. I kneel near him, hold his cold hand, bow my head and struggle to say a few stanzas to bless his soul