“It can never be goodbye”

By Anne Abayasekara
“God gives all men all earth to love, But since man’s heart is small, Ordains for each one spot shall prove Beloved over all.”

Almost every week, you still hear of Sri Lankans (many of them from the majority community), emigrating to far countries. When I went to Australia and the USA in 2008, one question I was invariably asked was: “Surely you don’t want to go back to Sri Lanka? Wouldn’t you rather remain here?” My questioners were puzzled by my quiet “No!” I didn’t try to analyse why I was so sure of my response, then, but recently I have been thinking of the ties that bind me to my homeland forever.

If you have survived for over eight decades as I have, your roots, your associations, your memories, are all irrevocably planted here. Nearly all the folk who played a significant role in my life and have now gone on - parents, uncles and aunts, friends and contemporaries, and my beloved spouse – are all buried here. So here is where I would like to bury my own ashes when the time comes, not in some alien land.

The associations in my mind go back a long way. First, the village in which I was born and spent my early years and all the people connected with that time. The local church where I attended Sunday School as a toddler and later on the church in Colombo to which my family transferred and which has been an integral part of my life ever since, leading to my own children becoming a part of that church family.

My school – surely among the happiest days of my life, when friendships that have endured the test of time were formed with girls of all communities – Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher, Moor and Malay, Borah, Parsee. The teachers who left an indelible impact, starting with my unforgettable Principal. Studies, classroom fun, games, outings, talk and laughter – the sense of camaraderie is with me still.
For those who were fortunate enough to proceed to university, a fresh load of happy memories of bonding with batch-mates and discovering together the richness of university life. For others, like myself, the learning almost unconsciously imbibed in an office or workplace, not only of work routine, but of the variety of human beings – and the forming of new friendships, sometimes with the most unlikely people. If you’re happy with what you are doing, it too can be a broadening and an enriching experience..

For me personally, Lake House as I knew it 60 years ago, will always be close to my heart.
It’s all the memories gathered over the years, that are most binding. I hadn’t seen much of our bewitching island before I married, but then my husband took me far and wide to explore its incredible beauty and ancient history. I catch my breath even now as my mind fastens on the tea-carpeted slopes upcountry, the misty mountains, the breath-taking beauty everywhere, particularly in places like the pass of Haputale, the Ella Gap, Horton Plains and World’s End, the view from the top of Pidurutalagala.

Then, by way of contrast, the sand and sea and sky in Beruwela, Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Hambantota. I’m looking back on a vanished era when our beaches were not crowded. At Hambantota, the sea beckoned my husband who, having grown up in Mount Lavinia and STC, was a swimmer, while I was a land-lubber who had never worn a swimsuit. On that lonely beach, I was persuaded to wrap a sarong round me like a “diya-redda” and wade into the shallows and there was no-one to stare. Also Galle, my husband’s “gama”, where I rambled on the ramparts for the first time. We went back there years later with our children who loved it and who had a great time in the sea below.

A trip to Jaffna in 1947 and taking Herbert Keuneman’s little boat called “The Sunfish” out to the rock fortress of Hammenheil built by the Portuguese, to which our admirable hosts, Herbert and his wife, Doreen, had invited a congenial company of friends for a memorable holiday. The rustling of the leaves of the big Bo Tree in the courtyard, the dark dungeons that still lay below our sleeping quarters, the animated conversations among us all who felt we were in another world. We had three days on Delft and saw the wild ponies, but what drew us irresistibly was the unbelievably calm and clear sea around the island. Here, I donned my first swimsuit, a decorous garment which fully covered my bosom and sported a modest skirt that covered me from the waist down. What fun we had! Today, I am only too keenly aware that at least seven of that number, including my husband and the Keunemans, are no more.

A holiday in Trinco with my best friend from kindergarten days. Her husband was GA at the time. We had four children then, the youngest of whom was a baby, but they welcomed the six of us plus two ayahs and gave us all a very happy time. Going down to the sea by means of a perilous short-cut down a steep slope that led from the Residency which was on an eminence, being taken by boat to circle tiny islands off the coast, bathing in the hot springs of Keerimalai, standing on the big Swami Rock that juts out to sea.

Believe it or not, I had never seen the gorgeous spectacle of the Kandy Perahera, although I had been to Kandy several times as a schoolgirl to spend long weekends with the same best friend mentioned above. Her father was a civil servant of the old school and when he was appointed Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya, he occupied a fine, spacious new house built in the Gardens. His daughter was quick to invite her three bosom pals there and we roamed the Gardens, soaking in its beauty, and having fun. My friend used to arrange for our lunch to be brought to us at an elevated spot where stood a white dome called the Temple of Love. In memory, I see myself skipping down an avenue overhung with the mauve Petria in bloom. Since Pam studied Botany, she would name the plants and flowers for us.

But to come to the Perahera, I was an adult when I first saw it and it was my husband, as usual, who was responsible for giving me another peep into our history and culture. The glittering procession, the dancers, the tom-toms beaters, the `kasakaraya’ expertly cracking his whip, the colourfully caparisoned elephants and the majestic Temple Tusker which carried the casket containing the revered Tooth, the Kandyan Chieftans moving sedately in their imposing attire, all fascinated me.

My first visit to the Ruined Cities! The majesty of sheer Sigiriya which, at that time, had not been fully excavated as it is today. Stopping for a moment at the Lion’s Paw before going up to the gallery which held the celebrated frescoes, then climbing to the top of the Rock and surveying the region around, while recalling what I had learnt in school about Kassappa who made this an impregnable fortress in his day.
Climbing all those steps at Mihintale in the company of pilgrims and feeling awestruck by the sense of history that pervaded it. Anuradhapura, with the historic Ruwanwelisaya, the remains of King Dutu Gemunu’s Brazen Palace, and much else. When we went with our troop of seven, Husband walked with a guide book in hand, explaining to the children the grandeur that once was.

Polonnaruwa with its bygone glory entranced me. Husband carried his camera and tripod and we were also burdened with our water bottles as we trudged from one historic spot to another. We walked in search of the exquisite little pond (empty now) cut out of a rock in the shape of a lotus. As Keble wrote in his book, “Off the Beaten Track”, “It’s not a thing to be described, but a reward for those who venture out to see..” The highlight, for me, came when we broke out of the jungle that still surrounded it 40 years ago, to be brought up short, spellbound by my first sight of the incomparable Gal Vihara. I gazed at the three figures, two of them of a seated and a recumbent Lord Buddha, and a third figure standing upright, which some said was Ananda, the favourite disciple. “Sublime” is the only word that describes this wonder of ancient Ceylon.

When I think of the variety in climate and scenery in our tiny island, and of its ancient history dating back 2500 years, I am reminded that Marco Polo (I think), described Ceylon as “the finest island of its size in all the world.”

Living alone now in a big, rambling house that once held the nine of us and my parents plus domestic staff, the memories of well over 50 years of living here crowd in on me. It is a scented store that I sometimes unpack. The children, one or two of them grandparents themselves now, all look forward to visiting me here. It was always a happy house. A son who is now 61 and lives abroad, was here on a 12-day visit last month. On his return, he wrote these words: “Thank you for the special environment at No.10, that we love to `breathe in’ each time we visit.”

This is where my life is inextricably bound. Home to me can be no other place. The sorry state of things in present day Sri Lanka cannot erase the memories of another time and the country in which I grew up and which my own children too were blest to know. I would echo the words of Rev. W.S. Senior, an Englishman who loved Ceylon and who, when ill health compelled him to return to his native England, asked that his ashes be buried here on his death ( a request honoured by his family). In a poignant poem in which he recalls the perennial enchantment of this land, he ends with the lines:

“My soul, you will break with longing,
It can never be goodbye.”

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