A star danced when my Amma was born

My mother Manel Chitra in her mid-twenties. Rephotographed from an original . Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My mother Manel Chitrawathy Kirtisinghe in her mid-twenties. Rephotographed from an original . Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Born on 22 August 1922, my mother Manel Chitrawathy was the eldest daughter of Romiel Anthony Fernando, a dashing handsome man and Eva Engelthina Dissanayake, a quiet daughter of the Dissanayake Walauwa, Panadura,   She as the lotus she was named after was a picture (Chithra) all her life.

Now she is gone from us, it’s hard to put into words her life and our loss. When I saw her on the 21 Dec. 2013, she was getting weaker and more feeble. For a once feisty strong woman, it must have been hard to be dependent.

Amma weak but can still walk and her memory was sharp as ever. At Siriniwas, kotumidula on the 21 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma weak but still insisting she can walk. H er memory was sharp as ever. At Siri Niwas, kotumidula on the 21 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

We talked as we always did of old times in this house that she had come as a bride. She recalled again one of her favourite stories of how her mother-in-law, my grandmother had called her the most obedient daughter-in-law. She was undoubtedly my grandmother’s favourite daughter-in-law and had trusted her with her wardrobe (the traditional Birawa Almirah) keys. On the 7th day almsgiving to the Buddhist priests, she had given the keys to my father’s eldest brother Edmund Kirtisinghe’s wife Meta and my grandmother’s sister — Jano Hamy as requested by them.  The two on opening the almirah had discovered the LKR 40,000 that my grand mother had hidden among her linen.  My uncle had chided his wife and aunt and said the money should rightfully go to my mother, who had nursed my grandmother. My mother in turn had not used the money for herself but had built a ward in a hospital at Ambalangoda, my grandmother’s birth town. When relatives and friends wanted her to put her name on a plaque in the hospital, she had refused and said “I didn’t do this “pinkama (a donation)” for publicity.”

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 tsunami of 2004. Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

She aged gracefully, and was always tastefully dressed, her long stresses combed into a traditional konde (bun)on the nape of her neck.

Amma probably in her late 50s re -photographed from an original phot. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma probably in her late 50s re -photographed from an original phot. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Many will remember not only  her beauty but how she kept family relationships going, how she helped the women in Hikkaduwa during difficult periods, what an efficient methodical business woman she was, her generosity etc. I learned recently, how she had written love letters on behalf of our neighbhour Anula’s daughters to their boy friend in Denmark.

For our family, she was the rock, everyone depended on — in times of adversity, as well as joy. There were times she stubbornly did things her own way.  This was apparent till the last days when she refused to sit in the wheelchair my son Ranil gave her or even use a walking stick.

Her cooking was legendary —  the simple “kirihodi”  of coconut milk gravy, made with fresh coconuts from the garden was my favourite. I’d carry back bottles of this yummy gravy, ambul thiyal from tuna fish to Nugegoda to hoard and eat to my hearts content.

Amma Manel Kirtisinghe in the sitting roon at Ranjana, 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda. c. 1990s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma Manel Kirtisinghe in the sitting room at Ranjana, 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda. c. 1990s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Her 90th birthday was a land mark event as well as her 91st, when friends and relatives gathered and good wishes poured in. She lapped up all the attention with her usual grace.

Amma on her 90th Birthday. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma on her 90th Birthday. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It’s hard to describe the many facets of her extraordinary personality. Having lost her favourite son Prasanna in the tsunami, I didn’t think she would survive long. She became quieter, but turned to quiet meditations and adjusted to a different life away from the familiarity of the house she loved at Hikkaduwa. During the time when the family first moved to Elpitiya and then to Galle, she had maintained a daily log — sort of a blog.She recorded neatly in note books what the family did and the detail record of the policeman who was stationed at the residence of my brother Pradeep — a district judge then.

Amma's daily diary for 4 July 2007. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma’s daily diary for 4 July 2007. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

She was remarkably liberal in her outlook and adjusted well to many of the changes that life dealt with stoic acceptance. Losing Prasanna was the greatest tragedy in her life. Once when my father complained about topless tourists they had as guests in the house, she quietly said, “Let them be, we will only lose customers.”

She and I had last locked horns when as a child  of 5 or so I had refused to wear a dress with a scratchy organdie collar to a wedding. She had said “no wedding” if I didn’t wear that dress, and I had happily stayed at home. Many years later when my in-laws complained about me she had remarked that she had stopped telling me what to do after this dress episode.! My divorce did pain her, but she  had remarked to a nosey relative “it was her wish to get married, and now its her wish to dissolve that marriage.” She never complained about me taking off to Bangladesh and not being around but was always delighted to see me.  Ever the professional, she would always say “Do your job well and look after your finances.”

She was my most willing model, always ready to face the camera, poised and collected.

All smiles with my son Ranil on 28 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

All smiles with my son Ranil on 28 Dec. 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

But I was struggling to photograph her as I saw her life ebbing away, yet I wanted to capture all the little things I wanted to remember her by. However, uppermost in my mind was the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and the dreaded day of parting.

Amma getting quieter by the day and the smile was less forthcoming. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma getting quieter by the day and the smile was less forthcoming. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma sleeps at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa 31 Dec 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma sleeps at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa 31 Dec 2013. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Even after she returned to Siriniwasa, our house at Hikkaduwa, she refused to go to the back verandah or to walk on the beach. She once peeped out recently but wouldn’t venture out and refused to go out saying “Not today.” Probably the memories of the laughter she shared with Prasanna my brother was too much for her o bear.

On 16 January, I had held her hand in mine. I could see the similarity between our hands. I was her but not her — as she is now, one day, I would be this too. Shakespear’s classic words “Eyes, look your last!, Arms, take your last embrace!,” was ringing in my ears, but yet I was hoping I’d be able to get back on Saturday early morning to hold her hand.  I  stroked her silky silvery hair and gave her my last kiss and cuddle.

Amma's hand still warm on 16 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma’s hand still warm on 16 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

But my wish was not to be.  When next I saw her she lay cold. The face was younger, and  she looked very different. Only the hair was still silky to the touch. We brought her home at 3:45 am on the 18th to lie in front of the doorway of love, where she had first met my father.

"Death lies on her, like an untimely frost Upon the sweetest flower of all the field." -- Sakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. 18 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

“Death lies on her, like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.” — Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. 18 January 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My mother was cremated on the 19 January, the 66th death anniversary of my grandmother. My grandmother’s last meal was given by my mother her daughter-in-law. My mother was last fed by my sister-in-law Padmini, her only daughter-in-law. Like my grandmother, my mother had trusted her wardrobe keys to Padmini. As things change, somethings have remained constant.

 Addhuvam jivitam, dhuvam maranam -- Uncertain is life, certain is death. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Addhuvam jivitam, dhuvam maranam — Uncertain is life, certain is death.
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Aniccā vata saṅkhārā,
Uppajjitvā nirujjhanti
tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.

Transient alas! are all component things,
Subject are they to birth, and then decay
Having gained birth to death the life-flux swings
Bliss truly dawns when unrest dies away.

See Also:

Home Sweet Home

Flower of love: Bennie meets Manel

On your marks, get set, Hambantota

Today, I have the singular pleasure and honour of posting “On your marks, get set, Hambantota” by Capt Elmo Jayawardena, award winning author and founder of CandleAid Lanka (formerly AFLAC International) that I met accidently via this blog.  

In his email sent out yesterday to his friends he says “ I have no allegiance to anything political – never had. I wrote this article as a Sri Lankan and thought I will share with you. If you feel I have some validity in what I am saying, please pass this on.” 

 A captain pilot in his professional and personal life, he charts the course for CandleAid skillfully and signs off  every e-mail  wishing for “Blue Skies.”  Thank you Elmo for permission to repost this and a chance to pass it on.  Here’s wishing for a more united Sri Lanka and for blue skies.  

Capt. Elmo Jayawardene


Following text  copyright  Capt. Elmo Jayawardene . Contact:elmojay@sltnet.lk  





Blue Skies and Stilt Fishermen on the Road to Hambantota. Photograph©Chulie de Silva


The Delhi pre games debacle is over and the spectacular finale was a triumph for Mother India where many an expert had to eat some of the very un-savourable words they said about the incredible samosa land and its capabilities to run the Commonwealth Games. True a dog may have run across the track and this was splashed on prime time TV in ridicule. So what? Don’t forget the pizza stand girl who sprinted stark naked through the center court at Wimbledon finals stunning Roger Federer.

What’s the difference? The dog and the Grand Slam Godiva were both clad in their birthday suits. The tennis went on and so did the Commonwealth Games. Pity that the first world’s goose brought laughter while the third world gander got laughed at. Too bad that we have always been served with different spoons dating back to colonial times. It is a legacy of belonging to the so called “lesser people” and accepting the role without protesting for equality.   

Now a new race has begun, Brisbane against Hambantota. Apart from a Sri Lankan I do not think many outsiders could even pronounce the name of the probable 2018 commonwealth venue. They sure would not know where in this planet Hambantota is. Conclusion- Brisbane has the pole position.

The Sri Lankan Commonwealth Games site was only salt pans and Leonard Wolf and flattened totally by the tsunami. The rebirth of the town began only a few years ago. On the other hand, Brisbane and the Gold Coast are well known and so well patronised, from skimpy bikinis to starched Savile Row. Yachts twiddle in anchor and golf balls roll seeking holes in lush green fairways while the sun drenched holiday homes of the rich and the famous line the water’s edge.  True, a far cry from Hambantota.

That is the starting line up of the ‘Brisbane against Hambantota’ competition and the winner will host the 2018 Commonwealth games.

Let’s forget politics for once. Let’s be Sri Lankans, the same as we were when Arjuna and his boys took us to the limelight in world cricket. United we all celebrated; it was us, the Sri Lankans who had beaten the mighty to reach the pinnacle. Weren’t we proud? Man I remember what it was like; the euphoria rocketed to the zenith.

Why not apply the same formula for Hambantota 2018?  

Sad to say that while all Australians cheer and support Brisbane, we Sri Lankans have   already started the negativity fuelled by the medium of electronic communication. It is us who sling mud and look up and spit at ourselves and come out with all kinds of criticism at the very thought of Sri Lanka vying to host the games.

“Look at the poverty, how can we afford?”  “Why can’t we use the money and build houses for the homeless?” Great inference, but isn’t it somewhat a one sided evaluation. If the generous and charitable Vatican thought similar they could have sold a few renaissance paintings from the Sistine Chapel or auctioned Michelangelo’s Pieta and built houses for all the hard-core Roman Catholics who live around the world in ramshackle shanties. Maybe the G-8 can cancel one of their champagne drinking caviar eating meetings and give the money to the poor. Such things do not happen; this is the real world, less said the better, let’s go back to Hambantota.

 Brisbane no doubt is a great place for any sport. But the Australians have had the games twice. So why not give the opportunity to others? Yes, the world may not know Hambantota but this is one wonderful possibility for Sri Lanka to showcase and herald the peace cemented new dawn we are all hoping for. What does it really matter in this equation who the President would be in 2018 or who will declare open the games? Who cares which colour would be the ruling power in parliament or who’s son will run with the last baton to light the flame? The Commonwealth Games is a Sri Lankan vision, of you and me, the ordinary, being possible facilitators in a country that will host the event. Let’s focus on that and leave the politics out.

Yes, then there is the much talked about corruption, the mega word that flashes in neon when anything big happens anywhere in the world; true, there certainly will be bushels of that in our own backyard too. Where in the world is corruption not rampant in one form or the other? When Marian Jones collected Gold Medals in Sydney, wasn’t that drug corruption?  What about all the pedal pushers touring France in their fancy bicycles? Who knows? Maybe Filipe Massa is secretly giving a fix to his Ferrari for the next Grand Prix. All this is corruption, exchanging of the thirty pieces of silver.

When Delhi Games cost sky jumped through the roof, wasn’t it corruption? What about match fixing, buying umpires? All this and more make corruption a creed that is an  accepted norm of worship from gilded altars of the high and the mighty to the pavement podiums of the poor. 

The world we live in is running on wheels that are greased by corruption unless you are locked away in a Carmelite Convent or meditating in Mount Athos. There would be someone in Hambantota too who will fix inferior taps and charge superior rates and drive himself in a Chevrolet Cabriole or buy a penthouse  in an uptown condominium . So what? Corruption in one form or another is a world order? Isn’t it the acceptance of the inevitable that we have learnt to live with? Let’s not kid ourselves of a corruption less land simply because someone stands in line carrying a bucket punished for dealing under the table. Less said about such the better, let me stick to Commonwealth Games and leave the bucket argument for a fairer dawn.  

Yes, the conclusion would be as clear as crystal, a Judas or two will get rich, maybe a lot more, don’t tell me it won’t happen in Brisbane. But let the games come to Hambantota. The three decades of bloodshed that ended last May and the 2004 catastrophe that devastated coastal Sri Lanka gave rise to a breed of new rich or old rich getting richer. The war, the tsunami and even the rebuilding of a devastated nation had their share of instant Ali Babas. Hambantota may not be different, the forty thieves will be there, but let the Games begin, and let Sri Lanka have the honour to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

The race obviously is unbalanced, unknown Hambantota against the brilliance of Brisbane. We’ve already run a long race with the war and the tsunami, totally on bare feet that has all but worn us out, and now we are asked to run against ++horses. We sure are in David form fighting against a Goliath and that too without the benefit of a sling shot. 

But fight we must and fight collectively as Sri Lankans and not in our usual style of divisions through politics, race and religion.

Can we win? Of course we can, but it does need us all to stand and cheer as a nation.  Whoever heads the team needs support from the masses to win the venue. Each one of us is  a vote and strength to the team that is  running the race to bring the Games to Hambantota.

“If you are given lemons, learn to make lemonade,” such is the wisdom of a well used metaphor. The war is over, let’s not be happy sipping lemonade, but reach out and ask for oranges. We now have peace and we have to rise from a questionably condemned nation to where we rightly belong, a proud people, a land shared by all, irrespective of race and creed. Hambantota would be a great way to reach the world with this new visage.  

On a personal note, I hope the organisers won’t have age limits for volunteer workers.  Perhaps then, I too could be part of it, maybe drive a vehicle carrying participants and officials or get a job to shoot stray dogs with a catapult to keep them away from the running track.

Wouldn’t that be an improvement from Delhi? 

Or maybe we could arrange someone to streak across the green, naked as a new born baby and then people might think we too are from the flamboyant first world.


See also:

Hambantota article on Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hambantota

Images of Hambantota

Tsunami 5+: the longest day, the darkest night, memories that linger

“What good is all the reconstruction, when we have no parents” — orphaned boy in Hambantota Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

Emotions have a mind of their own.  It doesn’t respond well to reason or logic.  You can suppress them, hold them, seal them but once a year about this time the lid flies open, the jack-in-the box horror spills out.

Prasanna Kirtisinghe

Cresenta Fernando

Prasanna, my brother and Cresenta my colleague are but two out of the hundreds the sea devoured that day.  For the many I met  in these 5 years the scars of that wound go deep.

The wound is just below, a little scratch and the wound bleeds– a person that from the back looks like Prasanna my brother, a girl playing tennis reminding me of Cresenta’s jokes about the view from my office.

As the 26 Dec. draws near, the images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying.

My eyes were the video camera that I didn’t possess.  Like in a slow moving movie, they appear — the early morning walk on the beach;  the smell of sulphur in the water as I bathed in the sea at Hikkaduwa; the boys playing cricket on the beach; the time on the clock on the dressing table and above all the image of Prasanna in a red  and white striped T-shirt, a gift from my niece Ranmali and her husband Aaron.  I can still hear his voice “What time are you going back, give me your car keys, I’ll wash your car.  Your Sunday papers are on the table in the kotu midula. .. what? you still don’t know how to check the radiator water – want to do it now or later?” I wish for the millionth time, we had gone to check the radiator water at that time.  Then we would have been at the front of the house.

The sea behind our house where I bathed on 26 Dec.2004. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

 As I work in the office my mind shifts gears and I plunge into thoughts of the day that started off with so much laughter and joy and how it turned into a twilight zone horror  — the unimaginable scenes of death and destruction–bodies in trucks piled high,  bodies twisted and foaming at the mouth,  the body of Prasanna on the verandah at the  rural hospital in Arachchikanda, and the terror and helplessness in my mind in the face of this colossal tragedy.  Outside the perimeter of the hospital it is pitch dark.   There’s no electricity, no petrol, no mobile telephones and I have no money.  A Doctor cautions, “animals might come in the night for the smell of blood.”  We move Prasanna’s body further inside and leave a note on his body as an identification tag with instructions not to take it  to a mass grave. One of his faithful workers stand vigil while I get a lift back to the Annasigala Farm where we sought refuge.

There my friend Laleeni was up waiting for me and had kept dinner for me.  I eat a bit but the food has no taste. My mother, not knowing her favourite son was gone sleeps on the bed with my nephew Mathisha and his mother Padmini.  Later I learned that throughout the night Mathishsa had been touching his mother’s eye lids gently to check whether she was crying.

Lying on the hard mat on the floor, every bone in my body cries out. I dare not shed any tears for fears that I might not be able to stop.  Bats cry, an owl hoots, the changing wind brings the smell of a dead rat 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.

The next day ,  my younger brother  Pradeep finds an old school chum and his car takes us to my brother’s cinnamon plot where we plan to bury him.  There we had to carry Amma in a chair across the padi fields and up the terraces to the cinnamon peeling bungalow where the funeral was to be held.  In the hastily given instructions the previous day, I had asked for the coffin to be closed but the villagers had left it open as is the custom here.  My mother wails “this is not my handsome son, “when she sees the bloated distorted body.We hastily closed the lid.  Mathisha later said it was easier for him to handle it as he didn’t look like his father. Our family friend and scholar priest Rev. Thilaka is there. The sermon tries to assuage the grief – life can get snuffed out like the wind blowing out a lamp. …

A week later,  Rev. Tilaka directs me to the undertaker’s house.  The undertaker had burned Prasanna’s clothes fearing infection and found my car key in the ashes.  I meet him and introduce myself.  No words are spoken. He quietly gets up from his almchair, and searches between the rafters on the roof and fish out the singed key.

 Five years down the line how have we handled this tragedy?

Tsunami orphans in Hambantota. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

I wonder how the orphaned kids I met in Hambantota are doing.

Then there is Shanika that Shahidul Alam photographed and wrote about. couple of years later.  Last time I saw her she was growing up into a beautiful girl.

Then I despaired as to how we would manage without Prasanna’s larger than life presence in our lives.  I underestimated our strength and the human spirit.

Now I can look back and say thank you to Upal Soysa , Laleeni, and many in the family who helped us get back on our feet.

Amma on her 87 Birthday with Mathisha. Photograph©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva

Kanishka, Prasanna ‘s elder son graduated and took his oaths as a lawyer and is working now.  Mathisha  the younger has got through his ‘O’ levels  with flying colours . He is studying for his “A” levels and loves cars as much as Prasanna did but wants to be an accountant.  With the sons doing well, I see smiles on Padmini’s and Amma’s faces.  My mother at 87, is more fragile, more keen on the Dhamma but can still sing from memory the song that my father wrote to her in a letter in the 60’s.

My tsunami experience is my own private epic tear jerker movie.  Hollywood or CNN are poor imitators.  Every year the reels come out, gets re-edited, viewed from a different angle.  It’s cathartic, it never grows old.

2005:  Ashes of thoughts what the tsunami took away

2006:  A look back twenty four moons after the tsunami

2007:  Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe

2008: How Blue was my sea at Hikkaduwa

Tsunami 3 years on: Remembering Prasanna Kirtisinghe


Prasanna Kirtisinghe in Saudi Arabia. circa 19080s. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Prasanna Kirtisinghe in Saudi Arabia. circa 19080s. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.

Prasanna, my mother’s first born son was aptly named by her. The bonny ever smiling baby boy coming after two daughters and specially after grumpy difficult me was what my mother wanted. He was a beautiful baby, huge eyes with long curly lashes, blessed with a happy disposition as his name  he was an instant hit and my amma spoilt him shamelessly. Prasanna  did realize this early advantage and his special position. I did moan and protest at the unfairness but it was impossible not to love Prasanna.  Life and responsibilities rested lightly on him and we all adored him.

My sister Yasoja can recall the day he was born.  Apparently we were sent next door to Dr. R.H. de Silva’s house and recalled later to look at our new baby brother.  I of course can’t remember that day but remember the early days of going to school. in Panadura at the Sri Sumangala Girl’s school.  After school I’d hold his hand and we would stand at the road side hoping we would recognize an uncle who would stop and take us with them to Hikkaduwa.

Prasanna chatted non-stop and the senior girls called him the “Kata kachcheriya” – a Sinhala equivalent of Chatterbox. Evenings we would see him sitting with John aiya the carter as he mixed poonac –  a residue of coconut after the oil is extracted.  Poonac is mixed with water to form a gruel mix for the bull that pulled the carriage that we used on rainy days to go to school. Prasanna was not averse to dipping his hand into the poonac bucket for a taste.

Prasanna’s role model was our neighbour  in Hikkaduwa, Will Soysa who managed the family estates while his wife Kathleen practised from home as a Doctor. Most of the time we would see Uncle Will, lounging in a chair reading a book.  “One day I too will have a wife who is a doctor and I can loll around reading books while she makes the money,” Prasanna said.

During his rebellious teenage years and the twenties all of us in the family gave up hope of reforming him and bringing him back to mainstream family life except my mother.  She steadfastly believed in him, supported him and miraculously he did turn around and found and married his lady doctor Padmini.

Prasanna Kirtisinghe carrying his youngest son Matheesha, with wife Padmini and elder son Kanishka at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa.  Modified January 18 2005. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Prasanna Kirtisinghe carrying his youngest son Matheesha, with wife Padmini and elder son Kanishka at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

In later life Prasanna was the bulwark that we all depended on.  When my father grew weak to have his daily sea bath on his own, Prasanna would tie a rope round his waist hold the rope and bath him.

Prasanna  shaved, bathed and nursed our father,  a daily ritual he lovingly performed while spinning stories to keep my father amused.  Once when my father inquired why I had not come to see him that weekend, Prasanna had told him that I had received a horse as a gift and had gone riding in Nugegoda  and caused a traffic jam and was nearly arrested.  For good measure he threw in a house in Nuwara Eliya too as a gift from and admirer! When I arrived the following week I was asked how Nuwara Eliya was and given a long lecture on looking after horses and told how faithful horses are by my father.  I did wonder why he was rambling and only later discovered the root of that advice.

Prasanna bore the brunt of looking after our father, while all we did during the week was to telephone  to find out how he was. Observing this he did gleefully remark to my mother – “See if I studied and was a top executive in a firm, all what I would have done was also to call you from office and ask Amma how is Thatha?.”  Among my most treasured memories are  one of a  hilarious morning bathing session,  and my father holding on to Prasanna’s hands and blessing him with tears in his eyes.

His jokes and repartees kept us as well as his huge band of Hikkaduwa friends amused. He was my lucky  mascot.  I would ask him to come with me when I went for important interviews as I believed he brought me luck.

He would happily chauffeur our younger brother Pradeep, the District Judge  to court and back. He was once told off by the other senior chauffeurs that he should pay more respect to the young judge.  Never did he reveal that he was the elder brother, but would seriously stand to attention and open the door for Pradeep henceforth. The younger generation visiting Sri Lanka have often remarked that he looked more like a judge than Pradeep.

His life at Hikkaduwa is what most hardworking executives  dream of attaining on their retirement.  He lived in the house by the sea, where he was born doted on by two women, his wife and mother.  The first part of his morning was generally devoted to his cinnamon estate,  a job he did well as a just but firm manager.

But on that fateful December 26, he did forgo this trip to play host to his sons friends from the Law Faculty.  He was reading the Sunday papers on his easy planter’s chair, Padmini was laying a long breakfast table in the garden for the young law students  who were playing cricket on the beach.  The time 9:15 am on 26 December 2004.

A Look Back@Tsunami

Shanika ( now 11years old) , the only lucky surviving child of Priyantha at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 15 January 2007. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Shanika ( now 11years old) , the only lucky surviving child of Priyantha, at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. 15 January 2007. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I met Shanika and her father Priyantha from Pereliya, when I went searching for Shainika at the request of Shahidul Alam who had first photographed her soon after the tsunami and written about her in a story titled the Human Spirit.

I was moved by the  tragic story, of this fisherman who had rescued his wife and three children  after the first wave and had put then on the ill-fated train, while he went to resuce others.  When the second wave came, Priyantha could only watch  in horror as  his young wife and three children were swept away.

Shanika who was 8 years old in 2004, survived as she was with an aunt but among the siblings lost was her twin sister.  My only clues were that she was from Pereliya and her father was Priyantha.  Armed with the photograph that Shahidul had taken I had gone around Hikkaduwa but no one recognised her. After many unsuccessful attempts, one day I spotted a little road side cafe called “Shanika” in Peraliya and stopped to inquire as to the owner. It was  a chance well taken.  The cafe was started by Shanika’s father Priyantha.

Priyantha has a new house and received a boat but it has no engine and he laments that he has no fishing nets.  He goes fishing  now in a boat owned by another man but his income now is not what  it was.  Shanika continues to live with her aunt, but there is a deep sadness in her beautiful eyes and she remains thin and fragile.

For many the Billion dollar question is what really happened to the massive amounts pledged.

A new catamaran fishing boat on the beach at Kalutara -- from an Irish benefactor? 13 Dec.2006. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A new catamaran fishing boat on the beach at Kalutara — from an Irish benefactor? 13 Dec.2006. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

As the third year anniversary of the tsunami draws near, the focus has naturally turned to assessments of the massive post-tsunami reconstruction effort.  Most programs are now winding down.  But there is a general sense of apathy and disillusionment among the aid beneficiaries along the southern coast, reports  IRIN news.

Many organisations will now release reports on their reconstruction efforts. UNICEF has released its 2007 Tsunami report highlighting progress made for children since the 2004 catastrophe.

There are many who built back better and moved from wooden houses to brick houses — like this couple in Ambalangoda.

A tsunami affected couple  now resttled in their new house in Ambalangoda. 12 Dec. 2006. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A tsunami affected couple now resttled in their new house in Ambalangoda. 12 Dec. 2006. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

However, there are some beneficiaries apparently who are just receiving relief and are disappointed that it has taken so long – a case of too little too late.  Some are frustrated as promised jobs have not materialized.  The tourist hotels are rebuilt but there are no tourists. Many feel that those who benefited from the tsunami aid most were not the tsunami victims.

For more beneficiary accounts see Tsunami Recovery: It’s the people that matter

Photographs © Chulie de Silva

Inside the Supreme Court’s Ceremonial Hall

flag-blog-x-dsc_0030.jpgThe silvery metallic flags – eight in all inside the Supreme Courts ceremonial hall depicts ancient Sinhala flags  and emblems but they stay as rigid and straight-laced as the Supreme Court itself.  The flags don’t flutter.

The room was octagonal, with ten white columns with a decorative carving in gold and has at its midst the government emblem in gold providing a solemn back drop to the red seats for the 3 judge bench.  The flags which reflected the magenta on the  wall gave  a curious silvery dull  glow to them. Quite impressive, if I ignores the monstrous yellow  chandelier hanging in the center. 

 The opportunity to venture into the corridors of power came yesterday when Kanishka, my nephew and Supun his good friend were taking oaths after completing their degrees in law and the attorney’s exams. The smiles were wide, the joy of success palpable. 


The young men in austere in black western style suits,  young ladies glamorous in white sarees and traditional Asian garb., were getting their photos taken.


Padmini my stoic sister-in-law looked happier that I had seen her  for a long, long time and even my 85 year old mum who finds it difficult to travel now, was there for the event, with two of our favourite aunts.


The steps up to the entrance were hard for my mum. Not that we had a wheelchair but I did wonder whether this building had access to the disabled since that provision is now a law in this country. Once inside lifts was there to transport us to the 5thfloor where a milling crowd of lawyers and relatives were gathered.  I had a hurried few minutes to scramble and take a few photographs before we were told to put the cameras away as the judges were approaching.  Each new lawyer, came up to a dais and took their oaths in Sinhala and English but no one did in Tamil.

Most names in the Sinhala tradition, gave a long clan name like – Mudiyanse arachchilage and easily three other names… the “ge” being the connection showing belonging to a family clan, followed by a couple of first names and then again surname in the western tradition. My father Benny once told me why our family decided to drop the “ge” bit . ” When you go up to receive your degree, it should be as you the person, there is no need for this generation to be encumbered with long “ge” names, Kirtisinghe, is sufficient as the family name.”

 Supun who with Kanishka had carried my mum to safety during the tsunami came over to greet my mother with the traditional worship bending at her feet.


After the tsunami, the sadness we felt overwhelmed us.  It seemed as our sorrow would last for forever. However, deep inside all of us, we had a need to grieve for Prasanna while recognizing the necessity  make it not a bottomless pit of despair.  I still worry about my mother for Prasanna was her favourite son. But My mum and dad were the ones who took Kanishka to school when both parents were working and there has always been a special bond between the Achchi and this  grandson too.  So, today for her there was much joy in seeing Kanishka become an attorney-at-law.


Kanishka, an excellent swimmer had despaired as he sat with me that unforgettable day when we stood guard over Prasanna’s lifeless body — “Thatha was so happy and proud when I got into the varsity.  I saved two lives from drowning but couldn’t save my father.” His triumph today is a tribute to Prasanna and  specially to Padmini, who faced the unexpected tragedy with much admired bravery and quiet dignity.

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