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Monday, February 27, 2017

Some enduring and endearing memories of my family (II)

By Dr. Nihal D. Amerasekera

I am an  ‘only child’, a rare breed when several kids per family was the norm. One doesn’t miss what ones doesn’t have. The parental bonds became strong and and its intensity seemed endless.  To me my mother was closer to me than anyone else in my life.

My maternal grandparents belonged to different religions and grew up in different regions of the country. They met at Deltota hospital in 1918 where they worked. It was love that brought these two contrasting but emancipated personalities together.  Their marriage lasted a lifetime. They brought up their children during horrendously difficult times of World War II. There were food shortages. The healthcare was rudimentary and one of their daughters died of meningitis aged 13. In those dark days a sense of apocalypse dominated the lives of people. This uncertainty pervaded every aspect of society. During the colonial period people had fewer rights. They were crushed by the weight of rules and regulations. The Crown was God and always right!! Travel by road or rail was expensive, time consuming and often treacherous.

My maternal grandpa was an Apothecary. He was a softly spoken, quiet, noble man from Kandy. From the time I can remember he had grey hair. He took life easy but worked diligently. He was a sage, a philosopher, a raconteur and an expert in country lore. Grandpa was an amateur astrologer too. Such old characters were fast disappearing and becoming an endangered “species”. He was not interested in money except the bare minimum to sustain his family. My grandma was a qualified nurse. She was a firebrand from Kurunegala with lots of courage and foresight. She was a sprightly, intelligent woman whose passion for crosswords won her numerous prizes. She helped to drive the family forward through uncertain times.

My grandfather endured the nomadic life of government transfers every four years. My mother was born at Watawala, a small town on the Avissawella–Hatton Road. Surrounded by tea estates it is sandwiched between the torrents of the Mahaweli  and the busy Kandy- Colombo Railway line. As their children grew up my grandfather  got  a transfer to Kandy. Mother had her entire schooling at Girl’s High School in Kandy. She always spoke most warmly of her friends and life at school. My mother retained her friendships and the loyalty for her school attending many reunions well into her old age.

Like many girls of her generation she married at 18. I recall with great nostalgia the wedding photo that hung in the lounge. I remember her slim figure draped in a white Kandyan saree carrying a bouquet of flowers. With jewellery in her hair she looked a princess. My father had a dapper crème suit and a handkerchief in the jacket pocket. Their happy smiling faces said it all. Thus began their voyage of hope for a better future.

I was born in Kandy that splendid city nestling in the central hills. In 1942 the World War was raging and peace seemed far away. I was told the doctor severed my umbilical chord and slapped my back to help me breathe. And so I saw the light of an unsettled world. My grandma was eagerly waiting with her watch to time the birth to cast my horoscope. With the febrile atmosphere and the confusion of the delivery room grandma forgot to record the time. Despite its magic and charm Kandy was never to be my home. Even after all these years when I visit this idyllic city my past connections remain a magnet for my soul.

 As old age came to my grandparents they had the respect and love of the extended family. Their eyesight and the hearing gradually failed. They became mostly confined to home. I visited them from time to time and saw the decline. Whenever we met there was always much to relive and reminisce. They loved to retell old family stories and recollect some delightfully amusing ones. Grandma kept touching mementoes of our family like photographs and paper cuttings, which she cherished immensely. To her every photo spoke volumes. Grandpa died in 1983 aged 89. I was then in London and felt the loss deeply. After his death, for grandma life became an ordeal. She lead a quiet life and remained fit but frail. I have often seen her sitting alone wrapped in her own thoughts. Memories of the past stared at her from every room, photographs and family occasions. The great void in her life could never be filled. Thankfully she remained in good health to the very end. Grandma passed away in 1986 at the age of 86. I will always remember grandma’s diligence, energy and enthusiasm and grandpa’s calm reflective kindness. To me it was an end of an era.

My parents lived in an era when responsibilities were more important than personal rights. They gave their all to their children and took it upon themselves to look after their siblings and also their parents. We now live in an age when much is said about our rights and less about our responsibilities. I regret deeply not being with my parents in their time of need. We make important decisions in our youth which we cannot undo. We have to live with the consequences. I was deluged with advice which was lost in my quest for progress and personal glory. On looking back, we have disagreed on many occasions but in the fullness of time my parents have always been proved right. This admission is little consolation after all these years. Writing about these events is a cathartic experience.

Memories of my mother come easily to mind. The image of her kind face, deep brown eyes  and curly hair are always with me. From way back I can still recall the lullabies she sang to me as I fell asleep. Her bedtime stories of Kings and Queens and fairies are still fresh in my mind. Her love and care for me knew no bounds.  I saw her shed a tear as she left me in the school boarding. Mother took my teenage tantrums in her stride, with a knowing smile. I remember her joy when I received the letter for entry into medical school. My mother was such a wonderful cook. Her Christmas cake was so very special. Mother loved music.  She often got me to play “Till we meet again” and “Let the rest of the world go by” both classics made famous at the turn of the 20th century. They both have such poignant and haunting lyrics.  I still keep a collection of her favourite music which I play as a tribute to someone very special.   She was visibly upset when I left for the UK in 1974. On my many trips back home I saw her age. It was indeed a privilege to have her in the UK for sometime. She was happy in herself at home in Sri Lanka cooking, knitting and sharing her life with friends and family.

My mother fell ill in 2008.  I was immensely fortunate to have Harsha Samarajiwa care for her until the very end. He made her comfortable and free of pain. All this was done before I arrived on the scene from the UK. That is true friendship. He spoke to me in detail about her illness and kept me informed as nothing further could be done. I valued his skill, care and compassion and respected his opinion. The kindness and the deep concern that he showed  during those difficult months is a tribute to his professional expertise and etiquette. I have the greatest respect for Harsha for being so helpful during my darkest hour.

Indeed, time did fly. The ebb and flow of my fortunes brought happiness and despair in equal measure. I had stepped on the treadmill to carve myself a career and raise a family. The stress of exams, tiring work routines and the inevitable pleasures and heartaches of family life are all behind me now. During those years I was seduced by the bright lights and the material world. Thankfully, now with retirement, calmness prevails.

With my egotistical narrative I recalled the part my parents and their parents played in my life. Being an only child I was always at the forefront of their thoughts. Nothing was ever done to hinder my progress through life. My mother has always been by my side through thick and thin. Mothers love for a child is ever so special and no words can describe it adequately. Although she lived 5000 miles away in Sri Lanka I could always feel her presence by my side. It is a wonderful feeling of love. I owe them everything.  Both my mother and father have now passed on. I dedicate these notes to my parents for their infinite love which sadly I could never fully reciprocate.


  1. Many threads run through your narrative. The historical aspects of early Sri Lanka or Ceylon as we knew it, the deep admiration for your grandparents, the genuine love you had for your mother, and concersely, she had for you, maybe just a tinge of regret countered by a sense of realism. How your grandparents got married was itself fascinating in an era dominated by arranged marriage. ND, I am sure you put this down to your faithful companion, the ever present AFOD! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Mahen
    Thank you for the comment. I have bared my life on this blog. It is a wealth of memories of a time now long gone. There are many who have contributed to make it such a rich collection of digital memorabilia. I do hope the contents of the blog can find a place in an archive or library as it is a part of the rich heritage of the Faculty of Medicine and also of the many who entered its portals in 1962.

  3. ND, Thank you for this lovely tribute to your parents and grand parents, especially the tender description of your mother and the relationship you shared. Being a parent is so different nowadays. There is so much rushing around, whether it be Sri Lanka, USA or Germany, which are the places where I can make my observations. You were very lucky to have had such a close relationship with your grandparents. My maternal grandfather died young, many years before I was born, and my paternal grandfather died shortly after I was born. Being the father of five sons, I was told that he was delighted at my birth, his second grand daughter! Although I remember my grandmothers well, I was still quite young when they passed away. I enjoy a close relationship with my grand children in Germany, in spite of the miles separating us, but it is so different from what you described in your narrative. Thank you for taking us back to a simpler quieter time. Your grandmother sounds like a very progressive, interesting woman. It was uncommon for women to have careers during those days. Perhaps you could write more stories about her. Do you have any of the mementoes that she saved?
    Thank you also for your acknowledgement of Harsha Samarajeeva. He is a very special doctor, who takes care of several of my family members. I'm not sure what we will do when he decides to retire! Keep writing, Nihal.

  4. Srianee
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and own personal experiences. I couldn't help but write with such great tenderness and love about my mum and grandparents. It is comments like yours that encourages me to write to the blog and I am certain other contributors must feel the same. Despite your busy schedule your commitment to your children and grandchildren wouldn't have been any less.
    I have written a special piece about Harsha on this blog to say thank you for his services. He is indeed very special.
    My grandma was a tough emancipated lady in the mould of the suffragettes. During the ethnic troubles she kept her Tamil friends in her home and refused to let them leave until the danger had passed. I must write more about her. She had a strong sense of right and wrong in an era when women were treated as 2nd class.
    Thanks again Srianee

    1. Yes, I would really like to read a few more stories about your grandmother. Thanks

  5. Nihal,
    Such an endearingly beautiful and moving narrative of your young days with your mum and grandparents.
    Thanks immensely for sharing it all with us.Rohini

    1. Rohini
      Thank you. Your comments have been a great inspiration. I hope you too will find the time and the incentive to write your memoirs. Believe me it is cathartic and also a piece of family history for the future generations of your own rich heritage.

  6. on computer classes with Speedy and Bunter with Owlie as a student, Enjoy your stories. We have a lot in common, your wife and my wife share a common heritage being chinese

  7. Patas.
    Great to hear from you. We last met at the Cinnamon Grand in 2012. Still miss your humourous one liners and the loud laughter.