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.

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😄


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.

I cannot remember my mother

For all of us who remembered our mothers on Mother’ Day, there are an equal number or more of children who didn’t for reasons of their own. This beautiful poem by Rabindranath Tagore, is for them with love. …


Blue skies through the coconut trees at Siriniwas Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Blue skies through the coconut trees at Siriniwas Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

I cannot remember my mother,
only sometime in the midst of my play
a tune seems to hover over my playthings,
the tune of some song that she used to
hum while rocking my cradle.

I cannot remember my mother
but when in the early autumn morning
the smell of the shiuli flowers floats in the air,
the scent of the morning service in the
temple comes to me as the scent of my mother.

I cannot remember my mother
only when from bedroom window
I send my eyes into the blue of the distant sky,
I feel that the stillness of my mother’s gaze on my face
has spread all over the sky.