My eyes open early in the morning to the sound of singing. The singer is my father, Martin Wickramasinghe. Even as I turn my head to look at the wall clock on my right, I know that the time was half an hour past five in the morning. From as far back in my childhood [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Childhood memories of my father

As the nation marked Martin Wickramasinghe’s 125th birth anniversary on May 29, Ranga Wickramasinghe remembers his life at home

My eyes open early in the morning to the sound of singing. The singer is my father, Martin Wickramasinghe. Even as I turn my head to look at the wall clock on my right, I know that the time was half an hour past five in the morning. From as far back in my childhood as I can recall, it was not bird song, but the sound of my father’s voice raised in song that woke me at the crack of dawn.

Koggala: The ancestral home of Martin Wickramasinghe

His routine started around five in the morning; even on days he worked late hours into the night at Lake House, where he had been the editor of the morning daily newspaper the “Dinamina” and the Sunday newspaper, the “Silumina” since 1932. Often when he returned from Lake House, although my mother remained awake, all six of us children would be asleep.

Singing whilst walking round his study and up and down the verandah was part of his daily morning routine. The daily repertoire of songs I heard him sing was limited to three. The song “Oh my darling Chandara” composed by a friend of my father working in Lake House, was an adaptation of “Oh my darling Clementine”. Another of the songs I have heard him sing was a composition by Munidasa Kumaranatunga, “Ha, ha hari hava”. The third was “Danno Budunge” from the dramatist John Silva’s play “Sirisangabo”.

Listening to my father, I could never identify which of these songs he was singing. He sang in a tuneless monotone, the only variation being a sudden change in pitch to high falsetto, which we found hilariously funny, much to his chagrin. When we pointed out to father that his singing was tuneless he never agreed.

I got him to listen to a gramophone record of “Danno Budunge” by a famous singer of the time, Hubert Rajapakse. But father insisted quite seriously that his rendition was no different from Hubert Rajapakse’s. His refusal to acknowledge that he sang tunelessly in spite of this empirical evidence puzzled me. Although he was stubborn by nature, father was ready to accept verifiable evidence, when it was presented to him. On reflection, I now wonder whether it was not just stubbornness. Father was colour blind. There were occasions when my mother received a bright red blouse material where she had requested him to bring a green material, or vice versa. Two of his grandsons have inherited this genetic trait. I now wonder whether in addition to colour blindness my father also suffered from tone deafness.

Portrait of the author

Father’s routine when he returned from work late in the evening, was to wash his face and change into a sarong and a loose shirt before sitting to dinner with mother, who had meanwhile laid the table. Thereafter he would retire to his study which opened into his bedroom as well as out to the verandah. In his study, he would sit at his writing table and work till late, reading and referring books, and writing. I sometimes woke to hear my mother’s voice saying “It’s past midnight. It is time you slept”. It was not always that my father paid heed. Despite the late hours he kept he was up early the following morning to start his day.

His study was a room about 12 feet by 14 feet. The wall behind his writing table as well as the walls on the left and right was lined by shelves bearing rows of books. Some of the books had been there on the shelves for many years before. Others had been added a few days before. The caretaker of his large collection of books numbering several thousand volumes was father himself. Each morning my father would get up from time to time from his writing table and walk to a shelf holding a whisk made of jute fibres in his left hand. He would wander round his library, humming tunelessly, dusting the book-laden shelves with the whisk, picking out a book at random, turning the pages and refreshing his memory of a passage he had recalled. He would sometimes sideline a passage in pencil and make an annotation.

Before returning the book to its place he would wipe and dust off the books and the shelf with the hand-whisk. His books and the book shelves were always spotlessly clean and devoid of any dust or cob-webs, and free of silver-fish. It was his disciplined routine of handling the books with care and respect that enabled him to preserve these books in such good condition, some over a period of nearly fifty years, all by himself. In an autobiographical essay, he refers to books as amongst his most affectionate and trustworthy friends and companions.

I believe that it was this routine, performed daily over a period of many decades that contributed to a unique ability my father had, that many have observed and admired. My father had never classified his books nor arranged them on the shelves according to any known cataloguing code. Despite that he could unerringly locate a book he wished to refer from among some 5000 books in his personal reference library, and find the pages he wished to refer, within a matter of minutes. I attribute this remarkable feat to reinforcement and retention in his memory of what he read in his library, in his daily routine of turning over pages, reading and re-reading passages, sidelining and making annotations, and wiping and dusting the books, handling them with care and affection, daily for many decades. It was as if the relevant references from his collection of books had created a highly personalized data base in his biological memory.

My father commenced his formal education in Buonavista, perhaps the only English medium school in the area in the 1890’s. It was situated near the town of Galle, about six miles from father’s village, Koggala. With his father’s death, his mother had to find the means to bring up nine daughters and her only son. He left Buonavista in the fifth grade and went back to the village school, because his mother could not afford to pay his school fees in the lean times that followed his father’s death. Thereafter he studied in the village school. The rural hinterland with its fauna and flora, and the teeming marine life of the sea and the coral reefs that bordered the village, prompted an intense innate curiosity to explore knowledge by reading books in both English and Sinhala in a wide range of subjects. He started to collect books at an unusually early age, with the help of relatives. His formal education came to an end when he was compelled to find employment in Colombo in 1906, at the age of sixteen, to give financial support to his mother and unmarried sisters.

Whilst he was employed in Colombo, he started to buy books from book-shops in Colombo after each pay-day. One of the book-shops was H.W. Caves. It was his habit to spend an hour or more in the book-shop, leafing through books, before finally buying a couple of books. One day, the Englishman who was the manager of the book-shop, had accosted him and remarked that he had observed that father regularly spent hours referring books although he did not always buy books. He had said he did not mind that. But he requested father to desist from the habit of wetting his finger with the tongue before turning a page!

Father’s library was a treasure trove of books that fascinated and enthralled. Soon after his death the entire collection that had grown to become his personal reference library of over six thousand volumes collected over a lifetime of scholarship and writings was donated to the Sri Lanka National Library and Documentation Centre in Independence Square. It is housed there in the Martin Wickramasinghe Hall of Literature. The books in his collection include a wide range of well known writings in world literature, including translations into English of the novels of British, French, Russian, American, Japanese, Indian and Chinese writers, as well as authoritative writings on Indian and European Philosophy, Comparative Religion, Anthropology, Natural Selection and biological evolution, and many other subjects. A 1950 reprint of the first edition of The Origin of Species from his collection has been sought after because most available reprints are of the later edition in which Darwin revised the final chapter following criticisms by the Church at that time.

Although economic hardship deprived him of a formal school education beyond the fifth grade, Martin Wickramasinghe’s personal reference library is testimony to the background of knowledge and intellectual growth that was the background to his diverse creative writings over a period of nearly 60 years.

Father did not try to duplicate the school curriculum at home to educate us. Instead, he disciplined us to learn by ourselves by fostering and encouraging the reading habit in all of us. He educated us by provoking us by challenging beliefs that we took for granted. 1 recall an occasion from childhood, when my maternal grandmother who was visiting us, overheard a heated argument at the dinner table, and upbraided us for arguing with father. My mother intervened and told my grandmother that it was father who kept provoking us into argument.

Reward for good performance in school in studies or sports was a book, which we were allowed to select ourselves, at a book shop in Colombo. He introduced us to books such as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and R.M. Ballantyne’s “Coral Island”, two books that I yet recall with joy. My children and my grandchildren, and many generations of children in Sri Lanka as well as internationally have found as much joy in his famous novel “Madol Doowa” which has been translated from the original Sinhala into Tamil, English, Chinese, Japanese, German, Russian, and Dutch, and Italian.

Father depended entirely on his salary from Lake House. His writings did not bring him a significant income until much later in his life. The book salesman, who carried a stack of second hand books on his head, was a regular visitor to our home in Mount Lavinia on Sundays, the only day of the week that father was at home for the whole day.

In April each year, father and mother took us by train to my maternal grandmother’s home in Kataluwa, the village adjoining my father’s village Koggala, and left us there for the entire Sinhalese and Hindu New Year school vacation. There, with our cousins, we got to experience some of the joys father had known as a boy exploring the village hinterland, sea-shore, the reef, and boating in the Koggala River, so vividly described in his novels and short stories.

It was only when we were in our early teens that his income permitted father to own a second-hand car. He took us on explorations of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigirya, and many other places of interest. It is these journeys that formed the background to a remarkable book on diverse places in Sri Lanka that he had visited. The book bears the title “Kalunika Seveema” which translates into “In Search of Panace”. I believe he found his panace in the house where he was born and its surroundings in Koggala.

The Martin Wickramasinghe Trust has restored the house in Koggala where he was born, now over 250 years old, and the surrounding parkland. Father longed to establish a museum of folk culture. The Martin Wickramasinghe Trust has brought this to fruition by establishing the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture, in close proximity to the house of his birth and surrounding eight acres of village hinterland. The Museum houses over a thousand rare as well as familiar artefacts of folk life and folk technology in seven exhibition halls.

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