05 October 2015

The Happy Prince Sunil Dikwella

It was the year 1994.  The end of March if I remember right.  I had just been interdicted from the Agrarian Research and Training Institute (ARTI).  I received a letter from a campus friend, D.B. Sunil alias Sunil Dikwella, better known to us as ‘Tyre Sunil’.  

I have written about Tyre Sunil before [Remembering Tyre Sunil: May his tribe increase].  Right now I am trying to think of words that would describe him.  Here’s an incomplete list: honest, persevering, well-read, endowed with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, an excellent teacher.  

It was never easy for him.  It was always easy for me, in contrast.  Sunil wrote a letter unlike any I’ve received.  It wasn’t a long letter, but before we get there, let me give some context.  

He was tall.  Dark.  Thin.  And that doesn’t mean ‘slim’.  He was skin-n-bones and it was for this reason that his features were prominent. He was soft spoken.  In low light or in darkness in certain surroundings and circumstances he could be taken for a ghost.  

There’s an anecdote he once related that might explain his quiet ways.  When he was a kid back in Ambalangoda he had go to the jungle.  That was ‘toilet’ back then.  He had a favorite spot.  A low branch on a handsome tree.  The boy squatted and then he saw something that made his forget why he was up there — a cobra and a mongoose.  They were staring at each other, these two janmaanthara vairakkaarayas.  The boy knew the story.  He knew they would fight to the death, the mongoose darting this way and that, the cobra swaying its hood keeping watch, the cobra attempting to sting and the mongoose darting just out of reach.  He waited.  The ‘dance’ had not really begun.  The boy became impatient.  He picked up a stone, took aim and threw.  It fell between the two.  

‘The inevitable happened,’ Sunil said with a smile.   ‘The timeless enmity was put aside in the face of a newly perceived threat.  The mongoose ran away and the cobra slithered away in the opposite direction.’ 

So yes, he didn’t speak much. Outside of class that is, for he is a teacher.  He didn’t force things.  He measured the weight of his words in the manner of a man who would rather be silent than utter anything too light.  But he could smile and he did.   He smiled and there was more smile in eyes than lips when he did.  

Sunil had it tough from Day One, but as he was to tell the students of a small school in Hasalaka where he got his first teaching appointment and when the Principal insisted that he address the assembly (before he had even stepped into a class), he never cursed the darkness but lit lamps whenever he could.  All his life, I should add.

At the time he wrote that letter he was working for the ARTI’s Market Information Division.  He was one of several who would go to key market places to gather price information which would then be forwarded to the Division.  The Division had a vacancy and I suggested that he be interviewed for the job.  He got it.  It was not a well-paying job.  It was ‘casual employment’ I believe.  He was attached to the Agriculture Department, Peradeniya, which is where he met his future wife, Kumari, but that’s another story.  

He wrote to me because he was upset about my predicament.  More upset than I, that should also be mentioned here.  He got it off his chest in the following way.  

Sunil was well-read, as I said.  He loved literature.  He shared a story which he obviously thought I was ignorant of: Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’.  He had scrawled the letter on a few pages taken from an exercise book.  He condensed the story into a few paragraphs.  And he said that my plight reminded him of the prince in the story.  I was flattered, I remember, but I knew even then that his letter said more about him than about me.  

It’s been more than twenty years since that day.  Sunil built a house.  He wrote a book.  He planted a tree.  He fathered a son.  In certain assessments he would be called a successful man.  He never complained and maybe he was happy enough.  His was honest struggle.  He gathered the fruits of his labor as right but never bragged about it.  He did the had-to-do-things.  

But last week he had to do a had-to-do thing that no father wishes to do.  He lost his only daughter who was just four and a half years old and had to cremate her.  

It was around 10 pm the day before the funeral when I got to his place.  A modest house by a paddy field off something too wide to be called a dirt track, good enough for a motorcycle but hard for a car, a road off a road off the Daulagala Road not too far from Pilimatalawa.  

It was a typical funeral scene.  A ‘hut’ outside the house.  Lots of people.  The village kept vigil with the young men playing cards and carrom.  A steady flow of tea or coffee.  All organized by the community.  His friends from university and work were all there.  Sunil wasn’t to be seen.  There was no hurry, after all, all that had to be said and done had been said and done.  

Kumari was there to greet us.  No words were spoken.  The child looked like a doll, that’s all I can say.  Sunil made an appearance an hour later.  

He was tall.  Dark.  Thin.  Still.  He was skin-n-bones.  He looked as young as he had when I first met him 25 years ago and that’s because even then he looked ancient, as old as he is now.  It was dark and it was not a happy time or place.  I knew he was no ghost.  

He was soft-spoken and softly he said, ‘විග්රහ කිරීම පස්සට දාමු නේද මචං’ [let’s postpone the analysis for later, shall we?].  There was no point of asking what had happened, we both knew.  

So we took a walk, Sunil and I.  No analysis but a discussion drawn from our philosophical and cultural commonalities.  He wanted conversation but didn’t want to talk.  So I spoke.

‘Throughout Sansara we’ve been born to so many millions of mothers and we’ve fathered millions of children and yet we know nothing about them.  This child you may or may not encounter but you will not know if the person you meet was your child once, just like you don’t know if any of us was once a child, a father, a friend.  For now she lives within you as memory and in terms of what her life has inscribed on your ways of being.’  

‘She has done no wrong in this lifetime.  Her pin gave her parents like you and Kumari.  Your pau made you lose her.  She had karmic debts to pay and she paid those.  She couldn’t have but gone to a better place.  As parents we all think or try to think of what’s best for our children.  In death, we think of our loss, when we should as parents think of what’s best for the child.  This was what was best for her.  It’s easy to say but then it’s what has to be done — don’t dwell on her passing and yet don’t forget it either.  She’s left so many traces behind, you will no doubt see her in all things.  Don’t cling to those shadows and yet don’t ignore them.  Caress and be caressed.’

He listened and said ‘About 75% of what you said, I’ve already reflected on.  I figured out the folly of clinging to her memory, but hadn’t worked out the equal error of forgetting her completely.  I now feel that it was a good thing she left us.’  

Sunil insisted that I talk to Kumari.  So I went to her with another of our friends, Dayananda.  He affirmed everything I said and then offered an example to help lessen her grief.

‘ඔය එළියේ ඉන්න බල්ලාට මේ බලු ආත්මෙන් මිදෙන්න පින තියෙනවා කියල හිතමු. එත් ඌ බලු ආත්මෙන් මිදෙන්න මැරෙන්න ඕන.’  [Let’s assume that the dog outside has acquired enough merit or has expiated his sins to the point that it can leave behind its canine life and aspire to a human form.  But for that to happen the dog has to die].  

The following afternoon Ven Sarananda Thero, Sunil’s batchmate and a close friend for over twenty years, spoke at length on life and death, the eternal verities and how one should engage with these.  Far more eloquent and erudite than either Dayananda or I were or could ever be.   

Kumari and Sunil stood away from the coffin at the crematorium.  There were others ready to perform the final rites.  Kumari and Sunil were silent. Calm.  Unlike some of us who couldn’t hold back our tears.  

I left the Happy Prince there, left with nothing but his heart and that too broken.  And a swallow that had flown with heartbreak.  Both to paradisal afterlives.