11 November 2011

Celebrating grandparents

My late mother, crowned by my daughter before the little one
fell asleep in the softest bed she could find.
[These are family days.  This is a family week. That's what it has turned out to be.  The following was written many years ago and appeared in 'The Island' of May 5, 2002, when my older daughter was just over a year old and the younger was yet unborn.  The two aththammas or grandmothers, mine and hers, are no more, but I do wonder sometimes if this is true.]

Whenever my fourteen month old daughter feels she is not going to get her own way, she goes all over the house, tearfully asking, "Aththamma ko?" My family lives in Anuradhapura. My child’s Aththamma, grandmother, is in Colombo. She is still too young to understand geographical dislocation. 

She probably knows instinctively, however, that nothing denies love. Maybe someday she will understand also that barricades and prisons are only obstacles of a kind and cannot hold back everything.

Parents bring up kids. They worry about issues of discipline. They are scared that too much love would spoil the child. Grandparents, on the other hand, are not burdened by these concerns. Perhaps they know that "too much love" is a ridiculous construct.

I spent a significant part of my early childhood in Kurunegala, in the spacious house of my maternal grandparents. My mother, being the eldest in a family of six, was Akka to everyone. And in those initial, formative, imitative years, confusing maternity, I too had called her Akka. Her mother, naturally, became Amma.

I remember holidays in Kurunegala. There were mornings where we consumed for breakfast a world created anew. Fresh discoveries awaited us, ready to pour magic into our sensibilities. There were raw mangoes with chillie and salt, the daily ritual of combing the ground underneath the Veralu tree, whittling Albesia sticks for wickets or as the basic building material for play houses, catching and releasing Lady Bird beetles and grasshoppers, roasted Jak seeds, smashing Kottamba to get at the delicious kernal, hastily eaten lunches and afternoon "naps" where sleep would be resolutely resisted, cricket, the Mihira Paththaraya, watching the rain and the kakkuttas (small crabs) it called forth, highly decorated paper boats, fireflies and night sounds. And surrounding all this, our grandparents showering love.

My maternal grandparents.  Aththamma
is carrying my sister, my older brother
standing (taller) next to me.
My grandfather, even at the age of eighty, would get up early and listen to pirith. I remember listening to the recorded chanting, anticipating the deshabhimani songs that followed. Aththa would take off with a mammoty around 6.30 collecting cowdung from wherever the cattle were tied for the night, diligently fertilizing his coconut trees. He insisted that even at that age, he had to earn his meals.

Evenings arrived with the Lama Sangrahaya of the SLBC and that childhood-defining song which went like this: "Manakal hada vil kalambana pipi nivahal mal; ratata pipunu mal api vemu punchi kekulu mal" (translatable as 'we are the flowers that grace the nation'). What my grandfather enjoyed most was the skit put together by Samuel, Annesley and Bertie.

There were nights when we put together "concerts", made up of poetry recitals, songs and plays. We drew up colourful souvenirs and tickets (perforated with a pin so that we could actually tear off the tabs) for the show. How they must have suffered, I have often thought. And yet, as they sat through the entire performance, wildly applauding us, they never betrayed the boredom that must have consumed them.

Aththa would chant from the Maha Piritha every night and sometimes we read along with him. He was a story-teller. He was also losing his sight and would pour over the Daily News with a magnifying glass. Later, he got us to read the headlines of each news story and if he found it interesting, would make us read the entire piece. That exercise must have helped us acquire a fascination for the written word, not to mention events happening all over the world.

Aththamma, every now and then, speaks of her ancestors, their nobility and their courage. There was a time when "armed" with the now obviously inadequate instruments of materialistic propositions, I dismissed out of hand history, heritage and cultural concerns. I remember sometimes in the late eighties writing a nisadesa for her. I sent it to my father and he wrote back, "this is unfair".

It was, however, a time when violent death was the name of the birth certificate life had given us, It was a time of abduction, torture and brutal killings. Events had turned our childhood landscapes into a battlefield. A cemetery, in fact. My generation were willing or unwilling soldiers, conscripted to "fight" an unarmed battle. Maybe it was just the arrogance of youthfulness. Maybe it was a complaint against the older generation for creating these monsters that now tormented us. In any event, I shouldn’t have directed those frustrations at that sweet and dignified lady. So when I wrote that it was not the time to talk about the pelapatha, I was wrong. And cruel. I didn’t send her that poem and today I am relieved.

"Lineage" is not just about bragging rights. To her, the pelapatha was a proxy for a different time. It was an entry point to examine, celebrate and learn from a history. like all grandmothers, she was a teacher. She taught tenderness, love, compassion and the will to survive adversity.

The years passed and now she is my only surviving grandparent. She’s eighty eight years old. Whenever I visit her, I tell her the most outrageous stories to make her laugh. And each time I take her leave by worshipping her, her voice breaks and tears well in those soft eyes that watched over me as I learned to see. I don’t have to ask her why. I just say the most preposterous thing that comes to mind, put a smile on her face and leave. When the age of recollection comes, when memories become your best friends, the tomorrows often arrive into that rich thought-world accompanied by sadness. Not everyone manages inevitability with fortitude.

We visited her last week. Time, naturally has carved its signature of decay on Aththamma’s beautiful face. Time has failed to erase one fragment of her sense of dignity. Her charm and her most winsome of smiles, as always, softly took me back to that time when poetry first came to me. That is, as a celebration of the fully lived day.

She told my wife for probably the hundredth time, this story:

"You know Duwa, when this fellow was small, one night he got up suddenly, woken by the croaking of frogs, and said, ‘Amma, eka mokada Amma? Eka Yakada?’ ('Who was that? Was it the devil?')and broke into peals of laughter. The affection in her heart spilled out of her kind eyes without control. We smiled.

She was sitting with her great grandchild on her lap. She said suddenly, "Come, I want to tell you something." I sat beside her and she sang this song:

"When you played the organ, and I sang the Rosary,

Life was even sweeter, than the mellow melody;
Although your lips were silent, your eyes said you love me,
when you played the organ and I sang the Rosary."

I love teasing her, so I asked, "Did you sing that to Aththa ('Grandfather')?" "Palayang kolla yanna," she rebuked me and started laughing.

All of us have grandfather stories. Grandmother stories too. I remember, a few months before my paternal grandmother died, my father giving me a piece of advice. "The greatest gift you can give your parents is to help them look after their parents," he said.

"Looking after" them, I have realised, is not just about helping them get around, making sure they take their medication on time, that they eat well and have enough rest. Caring is also about helping them recollect, re-live and rejoice; taking their hand and letting them help take you to places, events, times and people they cherish. It is about helping them convince themselves that mornings are endless whenever they suffer the delusion that they are in the twilight of their lives. It involves a resolve to wipe away the tears that such journeys bring to their eyes, not with a handkerchief, but with the things they’ve nurtured in you over the years: love and a sensitivity to the human condition.



Chathuri Alwis said...

Nice article Mr. Seneviratne.
Life should be guided through our loved ones, specially our parents and grandparents. The love rendered by them should be rewarded. There are numerous ways that we can contribute to their lives in a positive way. Keep it up your good work by evoking our childhood memories and our loved ones.