In 1916, the year my father D.T.Devendra’s youngest brother was born,  World War I was raging in Europe and Colonial Ceylon  was shakily recovering from the riots and Martial Law of 1915.  He saw the light of day in the family home in Kalegana, a little village on the outskirts of Galle. He was the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Never short of tales; from war days to car days

Tissa Devendra writes about his uncle Dr. D.W. Devendra who turns 100 this month

Well played! Edward Devendra and wife Swarnapali

In 1916, the year my father D.T.Devendra’s youngest brother was born,  World War I was raging in Europe and Colonial Ceylon  was shakily recovering from the riots and Martial Law of 1915.  He saw the light of day in the family home in Kalegana, a little village on the outskirts of Galle. He was the youngest son  of  the five sons and four daughters of D.A.Devendra, a self-employed jewellery craftsman.

In the prevalent practice among Sinhalese of the ‘low country’ all the sons had ‘Don’ as their first name followed by more personal names. As such the older Devendra brothers were given ‘English’ names, then a popular practice. These were  Abraham, Titus (our father), Denister and Lionel. As was customary, they were never addressed by these ‘proper’ names but by the ‘pet names’ Andy, Freddy, Danny and Loly. The youngest son, however, was born after the Olcott/Anagarika Buddhist revival and therefore named Don Wepulla – after a legendary  peak in Dambadiva. His family ‘pet name’ was Edward – by which he has been known for a hundred years.

His father was an “original” who pursued his own eccentric path. An interesting story, told by my father, is how Edward showed his affection by posting him a piece of ‘roti’ to Balapitiya where DTD  was a young teacher. Once the older sons became employed, their father abandoned the ancestral village of Kalegana, as well as the traditional occupation of jewellery, to embark on an odyssey of sorts, with his young family. His great interest was the Buddha Dharma and he seems to have decided to pursue  its  path instead of  earning ‘filthy lucre’. He seems to have had the most cavalier attitude to the welfare of his young family.  In a rather gypsy fashion he lived in Pilimatalawa, Lunawa and Katukelle. In Pilimatalawa he struck up a friendship with a blind hermit with whom he discussed Buddhist philosophy. The  hermit’s guide and messenger was the boy  Edward.

But the wanderlust yet bugged his father. In Lunawa he decided to enrol young Edward in the village school. But, he insisted that Edward  wore a hat to display  social superiority to his ‘goday’ schoolmates. Edward knew better than to become the laughing stock of his schoolmates and always hid the offending hat in the undergrowth before entering the school.

Some time later the family went back to Galle. Here Edward now spent a few years at  St. Aloysius College  – and Uncle Edward is  probably, the oldest Aloysian yet around – though undocumented.

Back in Colombo, Edward now came to live with my parents and began schooling  at Nalanda Vidyalaya where his brother DTD was a founding teacher. After schooling he trained and was duly appointed as a Government Apothecary, following the career path of Loly, his immediately older brother.

A few years later, World War II broke out and our bold young uncle joined the Ceylon Medical Corps as a volunteer. This was a period of great adventure and comradeship for this young man in uniform. He was billeted in many camps to attend to sick servicemen – Potuhera, Boossa and Trincomalee. In Boossa he interacted with the many hundred Italian prisoners-of-war happy to have escaped the fighting. The Italians were great singers and Uncle Ed often sang Tino Rossi’s “Santa Lucia” that he had picked up from them. He enjoyed his stay in Trinco and even adopted a baby monkey, he named Trinco, as a pet  (Interestingly he was the pioneer Devendra in Trinco where, many years later, he was followed by four nephews and his son.)

In the middle 1940s our family lived in Tiriwanaketiya, not far from Ratnapura, in a rambling old house overlooking a vista of paddy fields. Uncle visited us whenever he could, and we tramped the byways and footpaths of ‘our’ village. In the evenings we gathered on the verandah, facing the twinkling  lights beyond the paddy fields, while Uncle led us in song.

Uncle Ed was promoted a Warrant Officer and after the War ended, was billeted at Echelon Barracks at Galle Face. By this time I had left Ratnapura for a school in Colombo. It was good fun spending weekends with Uncle at the Barracks listening to his yarns, enjoying huge meals from the Mess and watching the passing scene at Galle Face Green from the breezy balcony.

Our family now moved to Colombo, and the just demobilized Uncle Ed moved in with us. He was great fun and an amusingly argumentative  opponent at our badminton matches. He was ‘Uncle Ed’ to all our friends and neighbours – Malalasekeras, Thiedemans, Soyzas, Seneviratnes. Gardening was/is his great hobby puttering about bare-chested. Once, to the great embarrassment of my friend Hilary, and the amusement of our gardening Uncle, he was addressed as ‘kolla’. He was a great foe of mosquitoes and revelled in squashing them against the wall of his room and drawing a circle round each ‘kill’. Father soon put an end to this blood sport. We remember his ‘pathola kotuwa’ – not for its products –but for the ingenious traps, made from Tek tooth brush containers, to entrap marauding ‘pathola messas’. Evening sing-songs, enriched with visiting talent, were a wonderful part of our life in that halcyon period in Torrington Avenue.

As an expendable bachelor not tied to domestic life,Uncle was now appointed to supervise, and stand-in for his colleagues in Government Dispensaries all over the countryside. He had to have a motor bike to carry out his duties. Here he was helped by Uncle Lionel, Mother’s brother, an aficionado of motor cars and bikes. On his advice Uncle Ed invested in a streamlined  maroon Czech Jawa motor bike which had just entered the market, Riding  this, he toured the length and breadth of the country and garnered a harvest of yarns he regaled us with on his return to base.

As time marched on and the family ‘nest’ began to empty the role of ‘bachelor uncle’ held little or no attraction. His older brothers began dropping heavy hints and suggesting various ‘misses’. Meanwhile, on the sidelines, was Swarnapali who had carried a torch for him ever since she met him at the wedding of her cousin Tudor to Edward’s younger sister Lakshmi. Inevitably, they married. After a few months at my parents’ home the young couple set off on a merry-go-round of transfers, and many homes, attached to dispensaries and hospitals in various places.

No account of Uncle Ed would be complete without speaking of his love/hate relationship with the cars he came to own – Ford, Standard, Vauxhall and Hillman. They had all been  ‘pre-owned’ (in today’s sales-speak). After a few years of satisfaction they succumbed to his diagnosis of “pulling to a side” and were replaced by another – fated to ‘pull’ the same way. Many were the dramatic wayside stops that occurred on long trips whenever he heard (or said he heard) odd clanks or rattles  -invariably   dismissed as imaginary by the wayside ‘baas’.

In the fullness of time Uncle and Swarna became parents of two daughters and a son who became inseparable companions of our son and daughter when Uncle took over their care while Indrani and I spent a year in Cambridge. Their son Sirimevan (retired Commander SLNavy) ,  daughter Nilmini, and their famiiies, are now in America and Canada and thanks to Skype, remain very much in touch.

Apart from gardening, Uncle’s great interests are cricket commentaries, dogs, cats and books. Unhappily, fading hearing and eyesight have now almost deprived him of listening and reading. He remains devoted to his dogs and cats. A violent supporter of the national and Nalanda cricket teams he is indignant when they lose. His reading ranged from P.G.Wodehouse  to the William books, detective novels and science fiction. He was so fascinated by the latter, that some months ago he wrote a short story about a lost planet that was published in the newspapers.

Swarna and Uncle now spend their days in Boralesgamuwa, cared for by their firstborn daughter Dayadari, and surrounded by his carefully tended flowering plants, his beloved dogs and cats.

This year our beloved Uncle Edward, head of our clan, has scored a century in a life of quiet happiness with his Swarna, son, daughters, grandchildren, nephews,  nieces and their own children. His has been a wonderful life and we have been blessed to share in it.

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