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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


  1. Interesting as well as touching. Well written as usual.

  2. Nihal, what a lovely gesture- a tribute to Podihamy !
    It was also so nice that you arranged to meet her in later years- it must have filled her with such joy.
    We were fortunate to have been in SL at a time when our parents had the luxury of reliable long term live-in help, which doesn't seem to be the case any more.
    Besides, there was a certain loyalty by those employees of a bygone era,were they cooks,house-maids,ayahs, gardeners or chauffeurs, to their employers.
    They not only did their utmost to keep the work running smoothly, but also
    had great respect and affection for us all which was palpable.
    Thinking back - my parents cared for our house-staff very well too, and taught us to do the same, but we could do this for them out of our abundance, while out of their poverty they summoned up all that love to make us feel so special.
    It was also heartrending when in later years, those who left to embark on their own family lives, returned during various festivals and family occasions, with sweet meats and the like,made with their own hands in spite of their own problems. This also distressed my parents enormously,but they would not be persuaded otherwise.
    Life as you said has not been fair.
    However, the memories of those wonderful people who made my young days so special will remain with me for life.
    May they all- including Podihamy have found eternal bliss.
    An admirable tribute Nihal - thank you.

  3. Rohini
    Thank you so much for the encouragement you give all of us bloggers. They really do make a difference. A special thanks for the kind comments to my simple tribute to Podihamy.

  4. Wonderful story related so well as we are so now used to from you. She was obviously a very special person but it also shows how kind and considerate your parents were. I notice that you quite correctly used the term "Maid" and Rohini, "long term live in help", which are far more appropriate than the traditional term "servant" used by a lot of Sri Lankans, usually the older generation. I was always a bit of a revolutionary at home and questioned my mother why our faithful Alice has to eat in the kitchen and not at the table and why mother, the most kind-hearted soul you could ever find. was spoken to in a slightly different sinhala. When I suggested to Alice that she should sit with us, she told me most indignantly,"baby mahathaya pissu kathakaranawane! Api kohomada mahaththayalak ekka wadi wenney!. But my mother educated her, helped her family. tried to get her married (but she refused and satyed with us till my mother died - some 50 years with us).

    I think ND has given me an idea for the blog. Watch this space! In haste and have not previewed.

  5. Mahen
    Thank you for the comment. It is so important to point out the language used when speaking to maids, where they slept and ate. I cringe thinking about the injustice but that was the way it was then, 50+ years ago. Non of us will do this now to those who help us and non of the maids would tolerate this either. The new maids are "Fly by Nights" and leave the job after the days work. The maids of old did so due to poverty. Now a new affluence has reached most corners of our little island. Education has given the villagers new skills to compete for jobs. Everyone seems to know their rights. Now that is real progress although we have much further to go.
    Viva Sri Lanka

  6. Nihal, I enjoyed reading all about Podihamy, and felt nostalgic, for it brought back lovely memories of those "ladies" who looked after us so lovingly when we were children. I was fortunate to have such a domestic who came to look after my daughter when she was 3 months old, and stayed on till my daughter got married. She flirted with every male in the neighbourhood, but no one married her. She married soon after my daughter married, and that was when she was in her late 50s. Unfortunately, her husband died a few years later, and she kept on asking me whether she could come back and work for me. She is back with me now, but is quite different to the Podihamys that we were used to. I am lucky to have a "female chef" from an estate in Lindula, who has been with me for 25 years! Both of them are TV addicts, and as they have been given their own TV and freedom to watch TV to their heart's content, I am assured of good service! They watch all the beauty programmes, and keep applying every imaginable cream advertised on TV hoping to get a few shades fairer!!! Can "Fair and Lovely" alter the complexion of a woman who is close to "dark tan"?
    These modern day domestics think that I have stumbled out of the Ark, and keep telling me that my saree jackets are very old fashioned, and that no one in Rajangana or Lindula will wear necklines as old fashioned as mine !!!
    Please do keep writing and entertaining us.
    Sriani Basnayake

  7. Sriani
    Thank you so much for your kind comments and taking the trouble to do so. You are indeed so fortunate to have live-in domestics when "Fly by nights" are the norm nowadays. It just shows the kindness of the employer. No wonder they return to you to have the luxury of free TV entertainment every evening and 3 square meals everyday, on the house.
    As for the stumble, you were one of the best dressed in our batch always so glamorous and elegant. I just can't imagine you in any other way.
    Lovely to see you on the blog and do entertain us again with your special brand of laconic humour.

  8. Oh Sriani, what I'd give to have a live-in chef !
    The question "How did I end up in the kitchen" surfaces in my mind now and then, specially when I get a bit overwhelmed, even though the answer is staring me in my face ! You are a lucky girl !
    The Bradby Shield winners are scheduled to be in NZ in Sept, and the 'old Royalists' are busy organizing events. An entourage of about 40 are expected
    And I wondered whether 'old Aunt' might be one of them , but ruled it out when I didn't hear - let me know if Iam wrong- cheers

    1. Rohini, "old Aunt" won't be coming to NZ this year with the RC 1stXV.I keep telling Ralph that we must make it to NZ soon, since we travel to Australia once a year. I am a supporter of the All Blacks, and was thrilled when they thrashed the Wallabies last Saturday.
      I have just got up from the lunch table where my chef had prepared a fantastic crab curry feed for my daughter, sil and the two of us. It was lovely to be able to eat with both hands, and suck the claws making all kinds of sounds that can't be made when eating crabs in public. My son in law remarked that she(the chef)had got a bit fairer(!!!) and told her that if she continues watching TV every day, that she would soon reach my complexion!!! It sure did make her day!.

    2. Speaking of Rugby, there was the Womens Rugby World Cup Final last week between England and NZ. Naturally I supported the old Blighty and was gutted and nearly slit my wrists when they lost. Being rather old fashioned I was flabbergasted by the swearing and the near fisticuffs. It was indeed an enthralling game played hard and fast. No, it wasn't the hormones that made me watch it. There was hardly any flesh to be seen!! I wish there was but that's another matter. The word 'hooker' was a derogatory term never to be used on a lady. But all that has changed now!!
      Women's cricket is as good as the men's game nowadays with closer games and thrilling finishes. Lords has final decided to allow ladies to their long room and to host women's games in their hallowed grounds. WG Grace will take a bow in appreciation.

    3. Sriani, You certainly know the art of enjoying a crab curry, and your sil just knows how to keep them coming!
      "Vanity thy name is woman"!

  9. Nihal, It was on the Silver Ferns' return to NZ that the flesh was bared
    as they strutted the catwalk in their undies, taking part in NZ fashion week!
    Pity you missed it !

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Sorry- was the Black Ferns ( not the Silver Ferns). They were promoting
    'Jockeys' their sponsors.

  12. Thank you ND for a another fascinating article.Your writings evoke nostalgia for an era ,we were privileged to have been part of even briefly.We were also lucky to have had amazing parents,relatives and not the least loyal domestics who were an integral part of our childhood and youth.
    An early memory is going to the local temple hand in hand with our maid Alice a plump young girl from my father's village.A priest assuming her to be my mother asked me to be given to the Sasana (the priesthood),She hugged me tightly and yelled NO,NO,NO we will never give our Podi Ralahamy (Little Chief).That was her pet name for me.Loku Ralahamy (Big Chief) was my father's elder brothers formidable character.
    The memory of her warmth and love still lingers.She was very fond of my brother too.She was the cook as well.Whenever mother wasn't around we would would sneak into the kitchen and be fed tasty titbits.Occasionally she would get into a trance ,probably hysterical.On one occasion my brother reprimanded her sternly. ."Alice aren't you ashamed to behave like this in front of people "She woke up and grinned sheepishly at him!!!
    Her understudy was Jane an even younger girl, who took part in all our games.I remember her for her shaven head (maybe because of nits) and the gift of storytelling.Whenever I was ill she would she would crouch on the floor and relate the most interesting tales.My favourite was the account of our pilgrimage to Seruvila,a jungle shrine which had to be reached by ferry and bullock cart.Her account was even more interesting than the actual trip.!!.
    Another of our favourites was Samuel a constant companion.Although only a few years older than us he would help us with our meals at school,and also attend to our bathing and dressing..He would then put on our shoes and tie the laces What decadence.At our cricket matches too he was willing fielder who rarely got to bat.!
    Being from Matara he was as tough as they come.At STC a boy was harrasing my brother.Samuel walked upto this bully and warned him "do not touch my master'I will thrash you"Even as a child I was amazed that he had the guts to confront a "social superior "Such was their loyalty.
    ND like your Podihamy all of them gave us their affection unconditionally,
    My profound regret is that I never met them after they left our home.But they will live forever in my heart.

    1. Kumar, great story again. We were so lucky to have such devoted and loyal people "serving" us. It was definitely a two way thing and i am sure they enjoyed being with us too.