Thursday, August 31, 2017
My Tribute to Podihamy
By Nihal D. Amerasekera
In 1955 I was a boarder at Wesley College. During those years of incarceration there was an epidemic of “jaundice” (hepatitis) in the boarding. In that confined environment, communicable diseases had the propensity to spread like wild fire. Like dozens of my friends I too contracted the infection. The matron asked my parents to take me home. Although the circumstaces weren’t ideal it was lovely to return to my parents. We then lived in Gampaha. When I stepped into the house there was a new face. She was our new maid from Pannala near Negombo. She was around 4 feet 6 inches tall and in her forties but had no teeth and her hair was all grey. I well remember her kindly face and the pleasant smile.
Due to hepatitis I had lost my appetite. I was confined to bed and the maid stayed with me a lot of the time. She told me her name was Podihamy and had 2 grown up children and a young son just 9 years old. Memories were still raw and she wiped a tear as she spoke of her children and her life back at home. It was poverty that drove her to seek employment away from her children, an unimaginable tragedy for any mother. My mother realised her plight and treated her with much kindness and courtesy. She taught her to cook the way we did and that was to be her main occupation. When my parents were away she was by my side. She had a huge repertoire of old stories of Kings and Queens and ghosts and goblins. She had the tremendous ability to create the right ambience and give life to those characters. These she related in such graphic detail until I fell asleep.
As the years passed I became very close to her. She was part of our family. My mother paid her more than her wage and bought clothes for her and her children. I was struck by her kindness, honesty and loyalty. She possessed an exceptional capacity for tolerance and forgiveness. Podihamy was a typical simple pious villager who went to the Buddhist Temple on Full Moon days and practiced the religion at all times. She wore white and took with her flowers from our garden. Podihamy impressed us with her fine cooking and keeping the kitchen spotless. She moved house with us to Katunayake then to Kolonnawa, Weligama and finally to Wattala. It was there she retired to return to her home town.
She returned to her home just once every year during Sinhala New Year when she was away for 2 weeks which she extended occasionally to a few more days to attend functions. On her return she brought me lots of sweets. It always took a her a couple of weeks to settle back to her routine as she was overwhelmed by memories of her children.
I developed a close attachment to her as she saw me grow up from a pimple faced teenager to a raucous medical student and a busy doctor. I was working my internship in Kurunegala when she left us after 12 long years of loyal service. By now she had collected enough money to live in the village with her elder son who was now in employment. On my visits home it was strange and sad not to see her kindly face.
Once when I was away working for the Blood Transfusion Service I wrote a letter to her giving the date when I will be in Pannala. She came to see me with a parcel of cashew nuts. From a distance I recognised her toothless smile. Age has taken its toll but her face remained calm and serene. It was such a great pleasure to see her. We reminisced and spoke and laughed for a long time. I saw her eyes well up with tears as those memories came flooding back. Then she bade goodbye. I recall giving her some money. As she left and disappeared into the street my mind was crowded with memories of those happy years at home. I never saw her again.
I still think of her often. She lead a virtuous life according to the principles of Buddhism. I cannot think of a more honest and kind person. Her extraordinary compassion extended well beyond the human race to the many birds and animals that visited our garden. She brought up a cat at home and showered it with much love and affection. It was treated like one of her own. Despite her lowly upbringing and poverty, she was never envious and inspired so much love, joy and warm-heartedness. She had the inner strength and happiness that we all search for today. Podihamy was literate and an intelligent woman. We often give too much credence to education as a prerequisite to lead a noble and useful life.
As I look back now she was closer to the ultimate bliss of Nirvana than anyone else I know. We have had all the opportunities to better our lives. For Podihamy life was an ordeal to endure. Her life seemed doomed right from the start. She made the best use of a bad bargain. Life is so unfair to so many. We live in such an iniquitous world.
May she attain the Ultimate Bliss of Nirvana