4th June 2000
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Part 1 of a short story 'Juliet of our times' by Janath Tillekeratne

The burning fire of sorrow

The sealed coffin with my father's mutilated body, lay in the middle of our drawing room. Two large oil lamps lit beside the top of the coffin, where his head should have lain for everyone to see under normal circumstances, threw an eerie glow onto my mother's swollen, tear streaked face resting on the side of the coffin where my father's feet should have been duly encased in new white socks, giving the wrong impression to any watcher that she is quite at peace with herself. Little will anyone ever know the fire of sorrow burning within her. As my parents were extremely close to one another, in spite of being married to each other for 30 years. 

The noise of the table fan, running constantly to keep flies away from the sealed coffin, sounded like the wail of a bereaved widow, as if trying to catch up from where my mother left off due to exhaustion. 

My sister, having no more tears left, is sitting two feet away from the coffin that is supposed to contain her father's mortal remains, staring into thin air, as if trying to comprehend what really happened, while her husband had his arm around her comfortingly, fighting hard to keep off the sleep that has become heavy on his eyelids. 

All in all, my father's funeral did not lack anything from the point of a traditional funeral due to people of his generation, except the way he died and the unusual way his coffin is kept sealed. 

I could not bear the gloom within any longer and walked outside to see if I could keep myself occupied and so suppress the tears welling up within me. 

Watching the depths of despair my father's death has brought upon my normally very happy family, suddenly became too much, and I felt a couple of tears streaking down my cheeks while on my way out. Outside, the scene was entirely different. People were playing cards and carrom to while away the time, while some others were busy preparing the necessary decorations which would adorn the road to the cemetery. A couple of people I immediately noted, were quite drunk and had a tough time pretending to be sober when they saw me. 

Someone pressed a cup of coffee into my hands and I suddenly realized that the time was 5.00 am: it was the day my father was to go out of our lives for ever. I also realized that I had to see the morning newspapers to check the death notice of my father, and so decided to walk to the nearby junction. 

In 1974 my father, who was an Asst. Station Master until then, got his first posting as a fully fledged Station Master at the Madawa-chchiya Railway station, which is in the heart of the dry zone about 30 miles from Anuradhapura, northwards.

Being the eldest in my family of two brothers and one sister, I had to do a lot of work in packing our stuff, which I did while grumbling all the time, being just 10 years of age. When we got off at the station at Madawachchiya, there was a group of people, mainly employees of the Railways Dept. and their families, gathered on the platform. My father was welcomed with a traditional garland by his deputy to be, Mr. Nadarajah, who became my favourite 'Uncle' and whom I later affectionately referred to as 'Uncle Nada.' Among the gathering, I noticed a little girl clad in the traditional Tamil dress of long skirt and blouse made of shiny material and her hair covered with lovely white flowers, staring at us with her wide black eyes while hiding behind her mother's sari. That was the first time I saw Revathie.

Revathie was the eldest daughter of Uncle Nadarajah and Aunty Kamala, and she had an elder brother called Balendran and a younger sister called Shashikala. Revathie was the most outstanding of them, though we always fought with one another, for even the pettiest of things.

I found the massive black birthmark right on the tip of her nose rather ugly and always tormented her about it, and she fought back very hard, being the spirited soul she was. However, she became the best friend of my younger brother Ranil, who simply worshipped the very ground she walked on. The first thing he did when both of us returned home from the Medawachchiya Central School, was to see if Revathie had returned from the Tamil Girl's School and if she had, he got her to come and feed him his lunch. My mother too simply adored Revathie and all of them were furious with me for being the only person who fought with her. 

"Who is that ugly skinny boy with the New Station Master? Is he and his son and going to be my neighbour? His nose is too long and his body is also too skinny, and how can anyone ever like him?"

That is precisely how I felt about Sunil when I saw him for the first time - from behind my mother at the Medawachchiya station, unconsciously making an effort to cover up my nose with it's ugly birthmark with her sari. Uncle Dinga, as I began to fondly call Sunil's father who was really called Dingiri Banda, looked every inch the sweet man he was from day one and so was aunt Seela. But the best of their family was little Ranil, who looked like Lord Krishna in his childhood with curly hair falling over his shiny little curious eyes with their drooping lids. I immediately latched onto him and we became friends right away. 

Time flew, with Uncle Dingha teaching us English when he had time, and my father, being the devoted Hindu he is, told us a whole heap of mythological stories Hinduism is full of. However, little Ranil was a very poor listener and for the first time Sunil and I found something in common in my father's narratives and we started talking about them - when we were not fighting with one another on thousands of other things. He always made fun of the mole at the tip of my nose and called me a 'Mongoose' when our parents were not around, I found it very annoying. But Ranil, he was a real darling and couldn't spend a moment without his darling Revathie Akki. 

During the Sinhala New Year festival in 1976, my father asked uncle Nada if we could take Revathie and little Shashikala with us to our village in Matara. Uncle Nada consented without any hesitation. Both of them had very good rapport with each other, and were best of friends. 

At that time it never occurred to us that we belonged to two different communities. I was beginning to grow up and was in a stage where a girl was considered an anathema, and thus did not welcome this member of the much hated species being with us for a whole month, and that too in our village. However, both girls spoke very good Sinhala, though with a slight accent and could converse easily with everybody back at home. Gradually I learnt to accept them and even volunteered to take them on beach expeditions, where we went to collect sea shells, which Revathie and Shashikala did with much glee. On Sundays when my father came home for weekends, he took us for sea baths, and I still recall him carrying Revathie on his shoulder into the deep waters, while she cried in mortal fear amidst my mother's desperate pleas to bring her back, shouting loudly that she would not be able to compensate to Uncle Nada if the unspeakable happened to his daughter because of my father's frolics. 

One day, Revathie, (who was ten years at that time, I was 12,) was playing marbles with some of the village boys when she had a streak of luck and started winning continuously. I considered myself above marbles at that time and was watching the game, when one of the boys who lost all his precious marbles, especially to a girl, hit Revathie's hands causing all the marbles to spill over. In anger Revathie caught the little boy by his hair and hit him with her free hand. Suddenly all the others around her started abusing her calling her 'Demalichchi' - that hit her very hard. 

She suddenly lost the spirit to fight back, covered her face with her hands and started crying. At that moment something happened to me. I saw Revathie, who I never liked - until then - , as Sitha in the Ramayana story narrated to us by Uncle Nada and all the village boys as stooges of the bad King Ravana, harassing the good Queen of Rama. I don't know if I compared myself to Rama at that time, but I simply started whipping all the boys who were making fun of her. Ignoring the fact that they had been my best friends since childhood. After a while all of them disappeared, leaving Revathie and me alone. She slowly took her hands from her face and looked at me. 

I could never explain what passed between us at that time! There was a new glow in her face and a strange twinkle in her eyes, which also spoke of some deep commitment which was unfathomable. Neither of us spoke a word, but we kept on staring at each other for a long time. Finally I could not bear it up any more and turned to go back home; she followed me meekly. From that day onwards, I was never the same.

"Lord Shiva, why do I feel this way? I can't sleep, I can't eat and I can't concentrate on my studies. My heart is beating all the time and there does not seem to be any room in it for anything or anyone else but Sunil. I tried to convince myself that he is ugly and too tall and too thin to be handsome, but he still manages to emerge above all. Is this what they call love? Is this how my mother feels towards my father? But Lord Shiva, he belongs to a different community and a different religion, so how can we ever get married? I must try and forget him. No I can't do that. Life without him would be so empty, and I cannot even think about it. Please forgive me. Right now I love him even more than my parents."

Things have changed at home. It is not my younger brother who is looking for Revathie now but myself - the great King Rama. I will never let any harm come to my beautiful Queen Sita - alias Revathie. However, there were times I felt kind of creepish for considering the ancient Sri Lankan King Ravana as a villainous figure and it also must have been pricking my yet undeveloped mind that Revathie was Tamil, but all these misgivings disappeared whenever I saw her smiling face, full of endless love and admiration for her hero. Though we had not spoken even a word about love to one another, every action, every look and every move, spoke volumes of it. There were days I found half eaten toffees on my window sill, sometimes covered with ants, and I knew that my Princess could not eat it without giving me my share. I of course, had a very big sweet tooth and never thought of her when I ate them.

One day after coming home from school, I used my rather unannounced methods to find out where Revathie was, but she had not come to see him that day. In the afternoon, when I could not bear it any longer, I asked my mother rather offhandishly where Revathie was, and she explained that Revathie will hence be considered as a grownup. By then I also knew what she meant by it, and the love I had for her in my heart simply increased in leaps and bounds, though since lately this had been happening quite frequently without needing an excuse. 

"Lord Shiva, this confinement is killing me. I am dying to see Sunil, but my mother says I have to stay like this for three more days. How can I ever explain to her the anguish I am going through? All I have is this stupid book of his with his name written on the first page and now I have read it more than a hundred times."

I will never forget the day her attainment ceremony was held. Dressed in all regalia that adorns a Hindu bride and made to stand inside a stage which very much resembled the stage used in Sinhala weddings called the 'Poruwa', my Rewathie really looked like the Princess Sita. Even the mole at the tip of her nose, which I found so repulsive earlier, looked like a piece of diamond jewelery placed there by the gods that increased her beauty a thousandfold.

Her occasional glances full of shyness, spoke volumes about how she felt towards me and I was right on top of the world. Even my father, who was usually receptive to my moods, noted the change in me and being the wise old man he was, would have probably realized the reason but never spoke about it. 

When I asked Uncle Nada why they had to make her dress like a bride, he told me that it was an old custom among his people, which permits the parents to see their daughter as a bride and keep it in their memories if she happened to pass away before she was betrothed. I found this explanation a little hard to comprehend. (without realizing that it actually benefited me in a sense more than anyone else.)

When it was time for her to greet everybody, immediately after greeting her parents in the traditional Hindu style of touching their feet, Revathie directly came to my father and my mother and to the surprise of everyone and to the pleasure of my parents, took a bunch of beetle leaves lying on the table and she offered it to them, and with palms together, greeted them in the traditional Sinhala way. This brought tears to my mother's eyes, and she immediately hugged her, and started mumbling a lengthy statement of adoration quite loudly, which no one could comprehend. Without knowing it, Revathie walked into our hearts as an adult, just as easily and effortlessly as she did as a child.

My Sunil looks smart in his new long pants, but I just can't look into his eyes for a long time any longer, because they just seem to burn into mine. Goddess Parvathie, did you feel the same way when you looked at Lord Shiva in your adolescence?

It was 1976 April and my father accepted an invitation from Uncle Nada to join them for a threeday visit to Jaffna. We all boarded the Jaffna bound Yaldevi Express from Medawachchiya, and since my father was also the Station Master and Uncle Nada his Deputy we managed to get a large 2nd class compartment all for ourselves. Within half an hour every adult of our family was fast asleep, while the younger children were gathered around the two windows, staring at the wayside with the glee that only children are capable of. 

I was sitting in one corner while Revathie was seated in the other, and my brother was sitting on her lap while her sister was sitting on mine. Her left hand was resting on the window sill below the little portion of the open shutter and was not visible to those within the cabin and suddenly without realizing it my hand, generating a motion ofs it's own, touched her fingers. Bolts of lightning struck as our fingers sought out each others and bonded in one solid lock. How can I ever explain, or live down, those few moments we had together? 

To be contd. 

Poetry of a truly, whole person

  • Emptiness

  • Does the Doctor Sing - Selected works of Hilary Crusz, Vol I: Love Poetry. Posthumously published by his son Robert, to mark the 80th birthday of Hilary's wife, Decima.

    Hilary Crusz left us in May 1989, leaving us the memory and model of a warm, wise and sometimes whimsical personality. A leading sprit of the University of Ceylon, he was deeply honoured as a teacher, research scientist and University Administrator.

    He was at the same time the epitome of the civilized University man. 

    A quiet collector of original Sri Lankan paintings, with exquisite early Gabriels on the walls, a bibliophile, who once told me he couldn't do without his little monthly package of books from Blackwells, well versed in philosophy and theology and at the same time a fine human being with great zest for life, including the occasional sip of brandy from the little cask by the staircase, Hilary was a truly whole person.

    It must be added, that the appetite for theology was rooted in a deep faith, and reasoned adherence to the religion of his fathers. A poem like "Baptism" only makes explicit the Christian confidence that is implicit in many other poems.

    With his command of French, German and Latin, he had a catholic yet personalized taste in Literature. 

    With enthusiasm that was often expressed with an upbeat ''tchah!" and a roll of the eyes. And I owe to it my introduction to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

    We got to know Hilary and Decima rather well after they moved to Peradeniya, building on the few chance meetings at Melbourne Avenue when I was visiting Decima's brother "Quincy" Rabot or our friend Tony Don Michael next door. While we grew to appreciate the special aroma of their personal charm, perhaps we tended to take Hilary's learning and culture for granted.

    Still, I was not really surprised when he left a few poems with me with, as he modestly said, the hope that I might find them interesting. I was more than interested. 

    They were deeply touching poems, written when abroad.

    The hallmark of those as of this volume is that he had "the courage of his tenderness". Hilary's writing issued from a glad fulfilment of his personal life and love. This lies underneath, even in the poems of separation.

    This resource and quality did not call for a wrestle with words and images, and did not constitute a provocation to stylistic experiment. In his verse, Hilary has been content to stay within the formal structures and urbane rhetoric, internalized during a standard education. 

    There is a cultured adquacy of lexis and syntax and an easy movement of rhyme and verse-form.

    One looks through these to the vibrant expression of a generous sensibility, deeply responsive to the blessings of his personal life.

    - Ashley Halpe -


    I have lost all skill of words,
    Images by which
    to plumb thee.
    I am empty of meaning Empty - Like a fruit tree Where thou wert fruits
    From Crimson-petalled flowers
    Ecstatic bleeding. I have lost 
    Images, words, skills
    By which to sing my
    I am empty - like a carcass,
    Throbbing life, driven out of me,
    Hollow sounding bell,
    Not an atom doing
    Its merry round within or
    about me. Stark void
    inside of me, where thou,
    Wert the substance.
    Empty of meaning,
    Where thou, wert the meaning.
    Empty, of thee,

    *epithalamion = a song or poem in celebration of a wedding-O.E.D.]

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