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Raking memories on Mother’s Day with my father’s letters

Handwritten letters on crumbling aerogrammes or paper thin airmail paper are precious items storing vignettes of family life that are often forgotten. Combined with photographs 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. My father’s birthday falls on the 13 May, so inevitably anything I write for Mother’s Day has to include my father too.

My mother Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe in her twenties after her marriage to my father. rephotographed from a copy. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In a letter to me in the 1980′s when I lived In Kuala Lumpur, my father Bennie had written “I left the house early morning by CTB [bus] from Hikkaduwa like Prince Siddharta. It was a sentimental journey after 40 years. In 1940, I made the same pilgrimage to ask God Kataragama to give me a wife. In 1941, I got one and married in ’44.”

Their wedding photograph. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

On this trip he was retracing his steps to complain to God Kataragama that my mother was “too bossy and makes no LOVE (his capitalisation)”. He wanted to “ask him [Kataragama God] what’s the next step?“

“When I arrived at the Devale, the doors were not open but there was a Boy Guard waiting. I heard the ‘VOICE’ say the ‘Unbeliever’ has come, send him first to me. As the doors opened the priest beckoned me in, I was told to enter and be close to GOD. When he heard my story HE laughed and said it happened to him also and in fact to many people and directed me to his brother ‘Ganesh’ – for Nuwana ( knowledge) and Advice. Home life is back to normal.”

In an earlier letter he had 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.

Bennie Kirtisinghe rephotographed from a tsunami damaged photo. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

“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.

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. Four days ago I saw the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  Then he writes about a “Close Encounter” he asked for”with my latest girl friend (my present wife) !!!.

Portrait of Amma – original photographer unknown but probably a tourist who came to Hikkaduwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In the late 1970′s through to the 1980′s they started renting out rooms to tourists to top up the dwindling finances as my father had whittled away his inheritance. They made many friends among the tourists during the boom hippie years and a few even follow these blogs. Only yesterday I got a mail from an American tourist who said “Was listening to Prokofiev, Opus 31 as I read your “Letters from my father Bennie & Bala Malli.” It all comes back….It all comes back.”

Father relates how an English lady showed him this passage by Harry & Anne Austin [next word not clear] team in a 1977 Air India travel book, where Sri Lanka and Hikkaduwa were featured: “the paying guest accommodation of Mr. & Mrs B. Kirtisinghe’s cosy old home (306, Galle Road, Hikkaduwa) – a 3 minute walk from the railway station. the back of their house is only 20 metres from the ocean and separated by their private garden.”  Rs.10/- (84 cents USD then) for a single room and Rs. 20/-; 30/- and 40/- for the three doubles the higher price being for attached bathrooms. The real attraction we are told is Mrs. Kirtisinghe’s fabulous five course meal for Rs.10/- ( 84 cents)., which would tempt the most sophisticated palette  and satisfy the largest appetite, truly the best food in the sub-continent.’

Yes, my mother’s food was legendary and she was always the generous hostess. A pragmatic business woman, Amma did very well taking up a vocation as a successful insurance agent late in life. Born in this day and age she would be running a successful business empire. In another letter my father says “We have a German girl who is without her top [blouse] and when I tell her to cover her top, she puts the thumb and forefinger together (nearly) and says ‘My two pips [sic tits] are very small.’ Amma says ‘let them be as they want, otherwise they will leave.’  My father resigns himself to the inevitable and says “That is how everyone tolerates nudism in S/Lanka,“

Amusing, provocative, his letters weave a rich tapestry of family life – foibles and all.  Interestingly somethings remain the same — specially comments about politicians. In a more sombre tone he writes amidst the turbulence of the JVP years and political upheavals of the 80′s “The world and its people are changing so much that I wish I don’t have to see all this.”

See also: The Flower of Love: Bennie Meets Manel

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