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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Some enduring and endearing memories of my family

By Nihal Amerasekera

For the first half of the last century we were under British rule. They were uninvited guests in our country. The British were in Ceylon not to give us financial aid but to take away what we had without our permission. With the rich pickings from the Empire they made their country Great. However, they established the rule of law in Ceylon, a just and efficient administration and Western style parliamentary democracy and personal liberties. Both my parents were born during the British Period and were largely influenced by their presence. The Christian Missionaries established many schools. The schools of the time glorified British rule. The Western way of life pervaded the lives of the upper and middle classes in Ceylon.

My father lived and died in the 20th century. The 2 world wars, Russian revolution and the rise and fall of communism and fascism must have affected the lives of that generation enormously. That was a generation which took pride in their sacrifice to their country, parents and their children. We are fortunate to be at the receiving end of their boundless generosity. For the later generations focus has sadly moved away from generosity and sacrifice into a selfish lifestyle. This has occurred worldwide and not only in my tiny island home. It must be said the later generations are responsible for the moral awakening and the enormous strides towards conquering disease. So perhaps the honours are even.

At the tender age of 14 he lost both his parents within the short space of 6 months. I am reminded of a quote by Oscar Wild  " To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." That was an unimaginable tragedy for a young family. With his 4 brothers and 2 sisters he moved into “The Castle” at Kudabuthgamuwa owned by his unmarried maternal uncle. The Castle was a large house in a coconut plantation with many fruit trees. In those days it was the duty of the close family to step in to help. The burden of the family fell on Uncle Victor. He was a slim short  man with a Hitler’s moustache. He believed in strict Victorian discipline, hard work and Dickensian punishments. All he wanted for the children was a good future.

Uncle Victor was portrayed as a miser and there are stories galore, some most amusing, about his tight fist. It may seem too unkind to relate them now. The kids were no angels and got into all sorts of mischief. Plucked fruits without permission argued, fought and often “forgot “ to give the needed respect to the elders. In those days children should only be seen and not heard. Punishments for misdemeanors came thick and fast. They had many good times too living together close to nature in that large estate. They relied on each other for their very survival.  Uncle Victor never married until all the children grew up and moved away. Such personal sacrifice must be a rarity now. Uncles 3 boys  became useful members of Ceylonese society. The middle son Asoka became the Professor of Veterinary Science and the Dean of the Faculty at Peradeniya. The old couple lived well into their 90’s. My father had grown rather fond of “The Castle” and its surrounds. It is here he acquired his lifelong love of the countryside. Time moved on and so passed his early years.

My father’s  eldest sister Hyacinth married Edward Ashley Peries and  settled in Kegalle. For her it was going back to her roots and from then on she never looked back. E.A.Peries had a thriving practice as a criminal lawyer and later became the Crown Proctor. He was a person with immense charm and charisma which endeared him to the people of the district. They made him Chairman of the Urban District Council. He mixed local politics and his busy law practice with tremendous ease and poise. I remember the lavish party they had when the Governor General bestowed on him the OBE. The great and the good gathered to dance the night away to the sounds of live music. Those were chivalrous times and was the era of Ballroom dancing made popular by Victor Sylvester. It was Champagne all the way. No expense was spared. The party ended with breakfast in the morning for the few survivors. 

The Peries family home was on Circular Road Kegalle and was called “Ashley Hall”. It was built on the side of a hill with a layout similar to an English Manor House. The house was hidden away from the road by a tall well trimmed Hibiscus hedge. There was a lovely manicured lawn in front carefully  maintained by a  gardener. The large elegant roses were always in bloom and gave the whole garden a lovely scent. Even now whenever I smell roses it takes me back 50 years to Ashley Hall. There was a pond with gold fish and lotus leaves, a magnet for kingfishers. The house had numerous rooms with a wide spacious verandahs and a separate servants quarters. The hall was beautifully carpeted and had chandeliers and a grand piano. The Philips ‘wireless’ had a green magic eye for tuning. It was a standard ritual to gather round the radio in the evenings. Amidst the hiss and the crackle we listened to the Ashes test match via the  BBC. Sunday Choice and House wives choice were popular programmes. His Masters Voice gramophone was a symbol of affluence in those days. I have always considered Ashley Hall  as my spiritual and ancestral home.

One of my fathers brothers affectionately called ”Tiny”  was a Superintendent at Etana Estate Warakapola. The estate was a 900 acre rubber plantation managed by Mackwoods Ltd. Every rubber tree had a peeled strip of bark from which oozed the latex which collected in a coconut shell. The workers collected the latex and deposited in the factory where it was weighed before payment. The Rubber Factory was a large building made of corrugated iron and contained all the machinery to process the rubber. I still remember the noisy rollers and wheels that worked throughout the day. For the humble workers the pay day was their best day to get drunk and beat the drums and dance. This was the only release from their dull and monotonous life. We could hear the drums deep into the night. They lived in the “lines”( a single room for a whole family)  in abject poverty. I still recall those naked children with bright eyes looking at us with envy. For them there was no escape from the cycle of poverty. Such were the undignified lives of the underclass that propped up our economy.  We live in such an iniquitous world.

I remember spending a happy April holiday at Warakapola knowing well it was to be my last at Etana.  My uncle retired and moved away from Etana Estate in 1961 thus ending yet another chapter of my rollercoaster life. Although I resolved to visit this idyll I never had the opportunity to see Etana again.

Time passed relentlessly as always. After a gruelling 5 years in Medical School I emerged as a doctor in 1967. By now I had learnt to mix work with pleasure and enjoy the fruits of my labour.
Uncle Tiny died suddenly in 1971 at the General Hospital Colombo aged 58 when I worked there as a junior doctor. He was a gracious host at social functions. If surrounded by a sea of turmoil  he was an island of calm. It was a great shock to us all and a sad loss to many who knew him.

Once when I was in Kegalle  in 1988 I revisited Ashley Hall. With the passage of time Uncle and aunt had passed away and the younger folk moved to the metropolis.  Ashley Hall was on lease to a Government Department. The house and garden were in ruins. The turf had been dug up and the roses were gone. The garden was a temporary store for unwanted tables and chairs. The pond was dry and its wall had caved in. We walked into the house which was then empty . There were puddles of water inside the house from a leaking roof.  An old man who was the caretaker took us round and there was an all pervading eerie silence. It was sad to see Ashley Hall in such decline. In place of the gorgeous chandeliers in the hall there was just a naked bulb. It was all too much for me. We told the man we spent our childhood there and he seemed to know the past too. Through the cobwebs of the rear window Saradiels Utuwankanda rose majestically into the sky unchanged in all those years.   Before I left the caretaker said he and several others hear music and voices and see apparitions in that house. Knowing the past they have learnt to accept it as the norm. They all say that about old houses. Many yesterdays of my youth are buried in Ashley Hall.

When my father was ill I remember returning to Sri Lanka and the painful journey home. He was conscious drifting into silence from time to time. We spent a warm and happy time together at home. I remember well seeing my father alive for the last time. I had to say goodbye to leave for England. He was now well into his 80’s and had several minor strokes. His mind was not always clear. The bright eyes and the chubby face I knew as a boy was gone. He was partly bald and the hair was silver. Lines and furrows crossed his face and there were dark shadows round his eyes. His final illness has taken its toll. He never spoke but knew he would not see me again. His face grew calm. The eyes said it all. It was a long sleepless flight back to London. I reflected on his stories and the love and  kindness since the very beginning. I never saw him again.

On this Blog I have narrated many of my adventures though life. I hope this narrative will bring it further into view. It is difficult to write as a detached onlooker when being so much a part of it. So it is coloured by my vision and how I saw it long time ago. It is a story of progress and regress, of hubris and humility. When I look into the life and times of the many players who took part in my life’s drama.  I see the awesome force of destiny that fashioned and molded their lives.
The swift  passage of time never fails to amaze me. The river of life runs on when youth passes into middle age and old age and then on to the vale beyond. I dedicate these memoirs to all those of my family who have now crossed those pearly gates. May their Souls Rest in Peace.

I close with the wisdom of Omar Khayyam from the Rubaiyat.
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and–sans End!


  1. Dear ND, What a wonderful tale.You have woven a rich tapestry of life,times and personalities of mid twentieth century SriLanka.I have read it over and over.
    Like your father ,my mother was orphaned at an early age;.lost her father at the age of six and her mother at thirteen. Like your grand uncle Victor,she was very fortunate to have had a benovolent "Lokuamma (her mother's sister) and her husband who brought her up as their own daughter.They gave her away in marriage too with a large house and spacious garden.My brother and I grew up there as children and young adults.She never forgot their generosity to the end of her days.In her daily prayers she would offer merit to them first and then to her own parents.
    It's so ennobling even to hear or read of such selfless individuals.
    My maternal grandfather was a well known Ayurvedic physician from Habaraduwa a hamlet beyond Galle.His ambition was to make her a doctor..
    As this did not eventuate,the next best thing ,for my mother was to persuade me to do medicine.I had wanted to become a writer or archaeologist.She told me not to be silly and indulge them as hobbies.I have never regretted her wisdom and advice.
    My maternal GM and her sister were ardent nationalists and wore sari from a young age .My paternal GM however wore the in vogue Portugese puffy long skirt and long sleeved blouses to the end.She was the only grandparent I saw.
    My paternal GF who was a village chieftain tied his hair in a knot topped with a tortoise shell comb .He looks very formidable in portraits..Sometimes I regret that I have not inherited his traits.
    It was sad to read to read of the decay and neglect of Ashley Hall which you remember so vividly.
    To quote our mutual favorite poet Omar Khayam
    "They say the lion and lizard keep,
    The courts where Jamshyd gloried ad drank deep,
    And Bahram that great hunter,
    The wild ass stamps over his head,
    But cannot break his sleep.
    Such is life.

    1. Dear Kumar, it is fascinating to read your colourful life story and it is thanks to Nihal putting pen to paper. This is the beauty of it all. We learn the interesting tidbits and gems of other contributors' lives. e.g. we learn the recent history of attire. I like the picture of your paternal grandma's fluffy puffy Portuguese dress and long sleeved blouse. And thanks for educating me o Omar Khayam poetry, although it is a bit high brow for me. Zita

  2. Kumar
    Thank you for the comment and the lovely personal tale of sacrifice and gratitude. We now have the time and the ability to peek into the lives of our loved ones who were such an integral part of 20th Century and do so with love and affection. The imperfections and tragedies of our lives have made us bolder and better.
    I look forward to your next contribution

  3. Another nstalgic account from our master story teller. I am fascinated by your abioity to rewind without losing much detail. If only we could fast forward - may be not. I agree entirely with your sentients on how our parents generation sacifced so much for their chidren but I think that still goes on as the instinct is basic. The needs are different, of both te giver and the taker and the all important context.

    I bet your "Tiny" uncle was a tall man! We had a little baby squirrel once (found injured under a tree) and we called it Jumbo!
    About colonisation, it is nevee done for the good of the exploited, as exploitation it is. But there were some benefits too as you pointed out. One can only surmise as to how Sri Lanka would have turned out if never had foreign invasions. Thailand to the besy of ny knowledge, has none and haven't done badly.

    On a personal level,I owe my parents a lot but I also owe a lot to my uncles and aunts who helped us in innumerable ways. We were a large family, seven of us and my parents were not well off financially. The biggest benefactor in material terms was the State, Without free education, we would have been lost. This is one reason why I didn't want to leave Sri Lanka till I completed my 5 years compulsory service and even after that it was my intention to retturn and serve Sri Lanka, and I did, for a short time, till the "Awesome Force of Destiny" took over!

    I think it is good to reflect on the past as it stabilises us and helps us learn who we are but I never lose sight of the fact that it is now gone anfnothing can bring it back. Learn lessons and move on, as indeed you have done.

    Kumar, I enjoyed reading your contribiution too. Again, it features amazing sacrifices. Perhaps sacrifice is the wrong word and selfless giving is a better one.

  4. Mahen
    Thank you for that thoughtful comment. The danger of looking back is the possibility of regrets raising its ugly head. If we discard the regrets walk into the past is an immensely rewarding and fulfilling experience giving us the ability to remember and be thankful. The Reunion wouldn't happen if we don't care a damn about the past. But I see what you mean and agree that we shouldnt let it colour our present.

  5. Excuse all the typos in my prevoous comment. Was in a hurry and didn't check before posting. Funny thing is that whether we think of the past or gaze into an anticipated future, we do it all at the present moment! Yes, I agree that the past is important and we must not cast it aside but as you say the danger is to let regrets creep in, unless you can look at regrets in a totally passive manner almost as an outsider. I am enjoying this discussion!

  6. Dear Nihal, I am late in reading yet another of your masterpieces as I did not visit the blog for a few days. I always emerge from reading your wonderful biographical accounts having the feeling of really living and experiencing what you describe. So vivid and well written are they that I feel I am reading Dickens. Your characters are real, and my hero is your uncle Victor. He was a miser but he had a golden heart and looked after his sister's children with such dedication. I can almost visualise Ashley Hall with its simple grandeur, enjoy its beautiful gardens and even hear 'housewife's choice' on the radio. I really mean it when I say this: Please write a book of your memoirs and you will be Sri Lanka's 'Dickens' and you will leave a golden legacy for your readers to follow in the field of writing. Many thanks for this fantastic trip through decades of your clan. Zita

    1. Zita, your comments are also always worth waiting for. Very well written and I enjoy reading them. ND can truly paint a picture with words.I have a gut feeling, a feeling in my bones, that a literary masterpiece in manuscript form will follow to bring joy to allof us.

    2. Mahen and Zita
      I am naturally elated by your kind comments. These are just images which I paint with words as you rightly say and your positive comments surprises me in a nice sort of way. I wish all those who write so well but don't do it on this blog will come out of the wood work to impress us all and embellish our little space on this vast and endless internet. Thank you again for making my day

  7. Hello ND, Mahen, Kumar and Zita, I am joining this discussion a bit late because I was away from any internet connection over the past few days. ND, I enjoyed your narrative immensely, and I agree with Zita that you do paint a vivid picture with words. (You should think about writing a book!) I too found myself transported in time while reading your narrative as well as Kumar's. My paternal grandmother was a very prim and proper lady who always wore sari. Interestingly, she often draped the pallu (I think that is the technical term) over her head. I think the Indian ladies did that in those days. She had 5 sons and raised her brother's daughter when her sister in law died in childbirth. This sort of "adoption" was not unusual in those days. My maternal grandmother wore the long skirt with the embroidered long sleeved white blouse, just like Kumar's grandmother, a fashion acquired from the Portuguese, I think. They were both from Moratuwa, but were very different. My maternal grandmother was one of ten children whose father owned coffee plantations, but was wiped out by the coffee blight, and died rather young. My mother recalled walking by her widowed grandmother's house and seeing a small cloud of smoke rising from the back verandah. It was her grandmother enjoying a cigar!

  8. Srianee
    Thank you for those kind comments. I like your story of paternal grandma. I have bared my life on this blog. This is my autobiography. Writing a book is too much like hard work at my age. I like to chill out and think of sweet nothing. Anyway you guys give me great encouragement to write and thank you.