Last night, well past 1 am, while my Nugegoda neighbourhood slept and pole cats frolicked on my rooftop, I sat listening to a lesser known Dvorak piece: "Zypressen for String Quartet". The sender Dale Hammond had said “…helps me to feel words and to see and feel characters in a story...almost like with the music I can reach out and touch them.
Handwritten letters on crumbling aerogrammes or paper thin airmail paper are precious items storing vignettes of family life that are often forgotten. Combined with phtographs they bring to life the person and paints an unmatched portrait of the writer and the rest of the family members. Often outrageous, frank, funny, my father's letters are a portrait of the romantic he was.
In an era where there was no email and when even an international telephone conversations had to go through an operator the letters from my father- Bennie (Bhasura) Kirtisinghe--were my umbilical cord to the family. I used to get 3 letters a week in the period 1966-1969 from my father.They kept home sickness at bay and I would carry the last letter with me in my bag and take it out and read on the long bus journey to work in Liverpool.
Unlike many of the other tsunami anniversaries my heart is lighter this year. We have moved past a threshold of pain. Maybe we are propelled by a natural release of energy that they say happens every seven years , which encourages you to move forward and make changes. Seven years after the tsunami of December 2004, the Kirtisinghe family seems to have found this energy to move back to their much loved home Siriniwasa.
“There is a space between man's imagination and man's attainment that may only be traversed by his longing.”
Everyday before I drifted off to sleep, in the waking hours as I moved into consciousness, rumbling along in a rickshaw in dusty Dhaka and often bored at office meetings, my thoughts would be on this this reunion and return to Siriniwasa.
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.
Four years after the tsunami the trek back to Siriniwasa is filled with poignant flashbacks. Sadly, the memory is as sharp as ever, the pain a trifle dulled by a stoic acceptance, but the eyes still have a mind of its open and fill with tears.
The road just before Peraliya, where the train got swept away is now repaired.
but the road sides are dotted with the graves of lost ones.
I think the young hip crowd call Hikkaduwa, Hix and thay are the ones now taking over Hix. Walking across from our house to the smart little cafe, I asked the lass there how people are faring after the tsunami. “Oh, they are waiting for another tsunami — all the poor made money, and only the better off were losers.” A pointed reminder that everyone has built back better, except us.
Across the street I see Lily, my mother’s loyal friend, in the traditional “kabakurutthu” worn in the South and reflected in the glass behind her was the reflection of our house now occupied by the Coast Conservation.
Behind our house divers were pushing off for a dive.
The sea was azure, clear and the water inviting.
Oh, how I miss thee Siriniwasa.
If you haven’t read: Ashes of thoughts what the tsunami took away is my story of the 2004.
And the brother I lost in the tsunami:
All Photographs© Chulie de Silva
Yasoja @ 15 or 16 at Hikkaduwa
Hi! My name is Yasoja, Bennie and Manel’s first born and the first girl to be born in Siriniwasa after the 7 first generation Kirtisinghe sons. I thought I will share some memories of mine on Nungi’s blog.
I now live in Brisbane, Australia, with my husband Ranjith Rupesinghe, two children – Ranmali (shoterned to Rum by the Aussies) married to Aaron and Arjuna ( whittled down to Arj) married to Melanie and have two grand daughters Ella and Mia ( Ranmali & Aaron’s).
I don’t use a PC, nor e-mail or text messages. Instead I handwrite my letters. I do own a 10 year old mobile phone, which most of the time I forget to charge or leave it at home charging and forget to take it when I am going out. It’s probably an obsolete model, the rate at which new models come into the market. So I am one of those old fashioned “chicks” caught in a time warp. Frankly, it suits my life style to be on the slow lane. Oh! By the way, I don’t drive either. I take buses or taxi’s, and the family car sits secure in the porch while I run for buses.
I did drive Bennie’s car and – a blue Fiat Multipla was what it was called. He had a bug fiat before that and a motor bike and a Renault car before I was born. Bennie had no petrol for his Renault car to take my Mum to the Galle Mahamodera Maternity hospital for my birth as there was petrol rationing during World War II. So they tipped the bike over and collected the petrol from it, put in the car and that’s how my Mum got to hospital.
Bennie and Manel used to take me on the bike wedged between them but that did not please Hikkaduwa Achchi, my grandmother, the matriarch of the family. As the first born girl, I was much loved by her, the uncles and aunts in the family. Hikkaduwa Achchi died when I was three. But I do remember her propped up in bed with pillows and my Mum feeding her Rice Kanjie — hot broth made of rice in the long room (Diga kamarey). There was Dr. Mahappa – Uncle Ritchie her fourth son by her side popping a small piece of sweet juggery into her mouth. I believe she died soon after, – not from tha feeding but from a bad attack of asthma. My sister and I were bundled to Dr. Mahppa’s house in Ambalangoda. Children were often kept away from funerals.
Bennie says when she died my grandmother had Rupees 40,000 tucked in between the sheets in her Birawa Almirah – a small fortune then. She made sure her younger sister, Bala achchi knew about it but my mother was also told where it was in her wardrobe. After the funeral, the story of the hidden loot was raised by Bala Achci and my mother who was entrusted with the keys had got the money and given it to Loku Thatha – the eldest son – who without a moment’s hesitation gave it back to my Mum saying it was hers for looking after the Mother-in-law. So smoothly did Loku Thatha resolve most family issues that the seven brothers and wives lived out their lives without any quarrels and fights - very rare among families nowadays. The money apparently went to build a ward at the hospital in her home town Ambalangoda which to my shame I have never visited.
My mother too as traditions go kept her money in the folds of her clothes and literally lost a pot of gold in the 2004 tsunami – although I hear some things she had in the Birawa Almirah was preserved. So what’s a safe place to keep your money? I keep mine in a coke can!!!
Notes from Chuls:
1. The motor bike was sold by Bennie according to my brother Pradeep for a grand sum of Rs 1000 to one Donald Peiris and in the 1970′s was traced to a garage/workshop in Beralapanatara, a town in the deep South of Sri Lanka and the JVP stronghold. But before it could be bought back by Bennie (or more likely Prasanna), the JVP insurgency broke out. The bike was taken by a ”Rathu sahodaraya” –a JVP comrade and never seen again.
2. So with this post the technophobic joins the blog world — changes do happen and a huge first step for this post as it formally opens and invites contributions and photographs with stories from other Kirtisinghe’sand relatives making this space a virtual meeting place for the clan. Some day we might be able to publish it:-)) . However, one caveat — no hate posts — it is not a space for attacking other family members and I reserve the right to edit stories but stories will need to queue up. I have two more from Yasoja to edit and look forward to the day, when she will shift from the long hand to Word. Hope springs eternal in the human breast:-))
The trouble with birthday cards is not that I forget to buy them but I never get around to posting them. birthdays are a good time to get mushy take another look at the baby snapshots, go down memory lane and wonder where did all those wonder years and your babies go …
35 years to this day, almost to the time of writing, there was a quick change of evening plans. My first love and I decided it was best to head to the McCarthy nursing home than the Hitchcock horror movie at the cinema. But the VIP after an initial brief announcement of arrival decided to stay where he was and delayed the screaming for another day.
Father-in-law read the horoscope again and declared confidently he will cut off his right ear if it was another boy. The first born pranced around quite oblivious that his supreme status as the heir to the family throne will get a little shake from the soon to arrive spare and the domestics were placing their bets on whether it was a boy or girl. I reminded the first love that he had to send roses – better a reminder than be disappointed!!!
Next day, the first love was outside the hospital room pacing the floor wondering whether I’ll do the honours before Noon to enable him to attend a lunch meeting with the Bank that is the World types. I did oblige — and certainly there were no conditionality that three decades later I would be happily slaving away for this very same Bank.
To go back to the events on 3 August — “It’s a baby born in in the caul” ( inside the amniotic sac), shouted the matron — There were lots of “Oohs and Aghh’s” and exclamations that this was a lucky baby, a rare occurence apparently. A few others rushed into the room to see this show but when I tried to get up Dr. Aunty growled ”lie back and be a good girl. “ Thus was I shut out from my very own production of a lifetime. Back in Nugegoda, in the “Ranjana” house named after the first love, Father-in-law was pouring over the ancient almanacs trying to find a loop hole not to be the chief guest at the ”Ear cutting ceremony.”
Legend has it that babies born in caul never drown, but we didn’t take any chances. Here you are Ranil with your brother and your Grandfather Benny or “Hikkduwa Seeya” as you called him, sea bathing behind Siri Niwasa.
During this holiday “Hikkduwa Seeya, “ taught Ranil three magic words — Thank you, Please and Sorry. Back in our house in Penang, Ranil all of 2 years pulled a table cloth, dropped a whole jug of water and ran out of the kitchen. Wagging my finger at him I called out What do you say, where’s the magic word – Ranil tuned back and said “Thank you.”
Yes, Ranil, thank you for the memories and Many, Many Happy and Healthy Returns of the Day.
Bedtime was “Three Billy’s Goats Gruff” story over and over and over and the ubiquitous bottle of milk
With Nugegoda Seeya, (M.W. R. de Silva) roots of the name Ranil came from his name Ranadeva and your father’s Ranjith — Ran also is gold:-)(note his right ear is intact) at “Ranjana”, 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda.
Ranil left wth his father (Prof. M.W.R.N. de Silva) and his brother Suren at 2, Solok Glugor House, Penang
And being a mother 34 years ago. in Solok Glugor, Penang
As told by Bala Malli
Amma and Prasanna Aiya were just about to leave for Colombo early morning, when Thatha still in bed shouted “Wait, wait I have a letter for Chulie.” Prasanna Aiya puffing on his cigarette raring to go rolled his eyes upwards. Amma grumbling, but ever indulgent went to collect the letter muttering under her breath ” Don’t know what he writes to the daughters, never shows me.”
“Read it quickly and see if you need to buy anything for him and whether we need to take it back,” said Amma handing the letter to Podi Akka, in Nugegoda.
The letter was scrawled on the back of a photocopy of an article. Thatha was always making photocopies of his favourite articles, posting them to friends or the akka’s and his bed was usually littered with papers and books. He read a lot. Poetry, western mostly, which he liked to quote, and books on Buddhism and philospohy – Krishnamurthi being a favourite at that time. He once advised Podi Akka to do a “Desai” — drink your own pee first thing in the morning to stay healthy, like a former Indian Prime Minister.
Thatha could and did write anything and everything to Podi Akka that came to his head — in Sinhalese and English — no censoring. This particular one was a gem. The letter purportedly written by Amma in her teens to an agony columist of the Sunday Observer said:
I am the eldest daughter in our family, unblemished as the lotus flower I was named after and was brought up by my maternal grandmother in a Walauwa in Panadura. While on a pilgrimage to the shrine in the jungle, we stopped at a house of a relative of mine in Hikkaduwa. There I met this handsome young man at the doorway to his house and he served us tea. He reappeared as we finished bathing in the river before going to the shrine, and he made us marmite soup with just a touch of lime. On the way back he sat with my brother Sepal in our bus. Now he visits our school on the pretext of visiting his aunt who is the Principal of the school. The problem is that my friends call him “Redda” for wearing national dress and I hear his mother will veto a proposal. What should I do?
Aruni’s reply (written of course by Thatha):
Get him to wear western dress and hope his mother will die soon, you are sure to be a winner.
And they tied the knot nearly 3 years after the first memorable meeting in 1941. Amma did turn out to be the predicted winner but couldn’t get Thatha to wear western dress on the wedding day. The wedding took place in the ample and beautiful gardens of the Dissanayake Waluwa in Pandura on June 8th 1944. Amma was 21 going on 22 and Thatha was 25 at the time of marriage – I guess Hikkaduwe Achchi didn’t veto the proposal in the end, but the fact that Amma was brought up by her maternal grandmother — a strcit disciplinarian, stood her in good stead with an autocratic and exacting mother-in-law. And I think it did help that Amma was an excellent cook bringing wth her all the culinary skills the Waluwa folks were famous for.
Although Thatha would refer jokingly to Amma as “my (n)ever loving” wife in letters to Poddi Akka, they were together for 58 years. When he lay sick and bedridden it was only Amma’s cooking he wanted . He would chase Podi akka away from his bedside saying she can’t chant pirith with the same intonation and lilting tone as Amma. Thatha was lucky — Amma was chanting pirith by his bedside when he took his last breath on August 31, 2002. For Thatha his Manel was eternally sweet – Manel Suwandamaya. …
Hikkaduwa Achchi died on January 19, 1948 after a sudden acute attack of asthma. Amma is probably the only one who still remembers the death anniversary of her mother-in-law and gives a “dane” in memory of her.
In the photo from Left to write: Flower girl Nimal Podi Amma — Amma’s cousin from Panadura ; bridesmaid Podi Amma Irangani ( Amma’s only sister fondly called Poddi by the two akka’s); page boy Senaka – the boy genius, the youngest son of Loku Thatha and Loku Amma died tragically never realising his full potential; Amma wearing no veil as most brides did then and now (even Buddhists) in keeping with Thatha’s national dress; Bestman Honda Mama Thatha’s lifelong best friend – Professor M.B. Ariyapala lived 90+ years and died after Thatha; Bridesmaid Enid Kudamma Thatha’s cousin and Bala Achchi’s daughter now deceased; and flower girl Punya Akka ( eldest daughter of Albert Hong Kong Mahappa and Naela Mahamma).
Faintly visible in the wedding photo — left hand side the hood of the Waluwa bullock drawn carriage and on the right corner Thatha’s Renault car. The original photo in our house was lost with the tsunami. This was the photo that was with the Bestman Honda Mama, which Neela Nanda passed on to Amma.
Photographs©Chulie Kirtisinghe de Silva