13th February 2000
"Have you anything to declare?" The author professes to have dreamed that he arrived at the borders of the next world and was there confronted by a stern guardian with the demand, "Have you anything to declare?" The question was not about wine or tobacco or lace or diamonds or bank balances, but about moral and intellectual worth. What have you in heart and mind that will qualify you for admission to the more abundant life?"
Flying across the Atlantic on November 13, there he was seated comfortably on a British Airways flight, with a book in hand as usual, going through these lines of a short essay titled "Have you anything to declare" by Dr. W.E. Mcneill, quite oblivious (I guess) that he himself was going to enter the "more abundant life" in a few hours. His moral and intellectual worth was far greater than that of any other human being I have ever known, and therefore, no matter how hard a test he had to face at the entrance of the next world, I have no doubt he would have gained admission with as little trouble as one could ever imagine.
My first memories of him are those of a little girl of three or four refusing to eat. He never forced me, and he used to tell my mother not to force food on me either. He was not one bit overbearing, and he even respected the wishes of a four- year- old. I still remember how I used to wait for him to come home after work in the evening, in great anticipation- to eat the goodies he brought us. He never disappointed us even once, and there he was with a bag of goodies every evening.
One such evening, he told us about an overseas job offer he had got. I could not believe my ears, I was heartbroken and started weeping inconsolably at the idea of him leaving us. He was so moved, that he dropped the idea of taking up the offer immediately. That's how sacrificial he was. The job overseas was important, but for him it was of greater importance not to break a four year- old's heart.
As I was growing up, he used to silently delight over my grades in school, always helping me with my studies and giving me good advice. I still remember how I had to face a school exam once, totally unprepared and terribly nervous. The night before the exam, he came up to me and said, "No matter how unprepared you are, I assure you that you won't come last in your class." Those words of encouragement helped me live up to his expectations.
He managed to steer us in the right direction with his gentle words of wisdom. He had this amazing quality of caring for people's feelings. Never in my whole life have I ever seen him hurt a person's feelings. He had no malice in him, only pure love and compassion.
This was my Thaththi. A remarkable figure who was always there for us in good times and in bad. It is now three months since you went away, but the pain Ammi feels of losing a husband in a million and the pain Aiya and I feel of losing a jewel of a father is irrepressible. Thaththi, you will live in our hearts as long as we live, for it is your spirit that keeps us alive.
Nirvana is the ultimate goal of all Buddhists and my wish right now should be for you to attain that supreme bliss. But like the four- year- old who refused to let you go overseas, I still refuse to let go of you. As I cling to your memories, I pray every night that we would meet again and again, as father and daughter, in our journey through samsara.
'It was a burning desire'
Down Memory Lane
By Roshan Peiris
Punyakante Wijenaike with an imposing number of publications, twelve in all to her credit, is one of Sri Lanka's best known writers. More than a hundred of her short stories have been published in the newspapers alone.
Her novel Giraya was adapted by Dr. Lester James Peiris into a popular teledrama. Another, " The Waiting Earth" was selected as a supplementary reader for the university of Stirling, Scotland, and now is a recommended text for Advanced Level students in Sri Lanka. Her writings have been translated into Sinhala, Russian and Tamil.
Despite her fame Punyakante is simple and unassuming and incidentally never wears jewellery.
"I think when one has to wear jewellery - it is a necessary evil," she said.
She recalls that as a child she often felt lonely as her brother and sister were around six years younger than her.
"We lived in a huge, rambling house in Ward Place full of balconies, verandahs and corridors. In my case this accentuated my loneliness."
Many people from the provinces visited and lived in this house. But this, Punyakante said, did not alleviate that sense of loneliness.
"So my imagination became very active and I created situations in my mind, such as converting a large tree into a ship or creating real personalities out of my dolls.
"I was never naughty. If I was, it was in my imagination. I hardly spoke to my mother Millicent or my father Justin. I used to write notes to them stating what I wanted or asking for permission to visit some place and leave them on the dressing table in their room, so that they could find them easily."
She was thoroughly introverted and even as a young person very, very shy, she says.
"At Bishop's College I did make a few friends and we helped each other. My favourite teacher was Pauline Hensman, who taught literature, one of my favourite subjects, the other being essay writing.
"Pauline Hensman, I still recall with gratitude, was a very understanding teacher and often read out and discussed my essays with the class. I was hopeless at Maths.
"I was never a bright student, so I did not go in for higher studies. I took part though, in plays at school such as the Persian Market and acted at home with my brother, sister and cousins in Vessantara plays, to the delight of my parents, aunts and uncles."
"My father and mother were strict disciplinarians, but otherwise very pleasant. I spent a lot of time with my mother's father and mother. I was always on their side of the house and often slept with my grandmother."
"My grandmother was very upset to find me lying on a couch reading a book. She said reading was not a habit a girl should cultivate. Upto now I have been baffled as to what she wanted me to do. I was not even good at sewing or cooking. My mother however, bought me books to read which was a great consolation."
Punyakante remembers her uncle Sir John Kotelawela, her father's brother and his open house birthday parties on April 15. "He used to laugh loud at his own jokes about his lady friends and drown everybody's voice while talking," she remembers.
She remembers him giving her a much treasured baby doll from the Laxapana Carnival. "It was dressed in woollen clothes including, believe it or not, woollen boots on its feet."
She began wearing sarees at the age of thirteen. "I hated it, but mother insisted. She and the ayah had to drape it on me each time. How I envy the casual clothes of girls today - so simple and comfortable.
"I consider wearing jewellery a necessary evil. I however, spent my pocket money on trinkets and most of all chocolates which I still love to eat.
"My favourite meal is rice and curry, with stringhoppers a close second. I did not care for "essara kame" - western type food. I am an earthy sort!"
Punyakante married when she was nineteen Ananda Wijenaike.'
"We were introduced and then our parents left us to find out for ourselves whether we suited each other."
"I treasure the memory of my wedding day, which was celebrated in our large house, with a crowd of relatives and friends."
She began writing after marriage and her husband, an engineer, encouraged her. "We had fortunately, a meeting of minds and love and respect for each other," she said.
"My husband died of a lung disease when my eldest daughter was twenty-one, my second sixteen and my youngest fourteen.
"I gave them a great deal of freedom considering those days and they respected this. They are all married well. It was difficult at the start when I had to be both mother and father to them.
Punyakante confesses that she met many people from different strata of society after she began writing. They read her books, enjoyed them and sought her out to discuss them with her.
"I was most thrilled when my first book 'The Third Woman' was launched at Saman Publications. It is a memory I treasure," she says.
There were a few people Punyakante says who influenced and encouraged her. Among them was Denzil Peiris, who encouraged her to publish her stories in the newspapers, being the Editor of the Sunday and Daily Observer. Also Dr. J.L.C Rodrigo and O. de Alwis, the Lake House Publicity Manager and Stanley Weerasooriya, a lawyer on her husband's side.
"I am half Buddhist and half Christian and throughout my life I have gained consolation from both religions.
"I am at peace with myself having accomplished what I set out to do. It was a burning desire for me to indulge in creative work. I have done it, and now I am content to lead a quiet life with occasional writing," she adds.
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