13 October 2017

My mother in the long ago...

She had been ‘Akka’ to me because everyone called her Akka (or ‘Older Sister) since she was the eldest in the family.  Her mother had been ‘Amma’ (‘Mother’) to me because that’s what everyone in the household, including her husband called her.  Later she became Ammi (‘Mother) and her mother became ‘Aththamma’ (‘Grandmother’) probably due to change of residence, the ingraining of term-propriety and growing up.

I do not recall the infancy of address-confusion, but the stories of that confusion were told and re-told with much mirth by the particular story-teller on numerous occasions over several decades that it comes close to ‘first memory’.  

Aunty Joyce’s Montessori.  I attended it when it was located on Charles Circus and then at the intersection of Charles Drive and Alfred Place.  On one occasion, on the way home, I had a fight with her.  ‘Her’ as in my mother, Indrani Seneviratne, then as now ‘Ammi’ to me.   I can’t remember what it was all about.  It happened near a house which had a hedge of ගඳපාන (Lantana Camara).  I loved that hedge.  I remember picking flowers on many occasions. Her aunt, Daisy Dondanwala, who had been married to her uncle Dr Jayampathy Yatawara and was either  divorced or separated, lived in a small flat on the opposite side of the road. For some reason, we went to visit her.  I was upset and Naya Aththamma (because she baked all kinds of things and these included strips of bread shaped like snakes with red or green eyes) as we called, her noticed.  She tried to calm me down but failed.  I left.  But in my anger, I left my school bag on the side of the road as protest.  The ‘school bag’ was a suitcase, a tiny one that had only enough room to hold a few sandwiches.  Ammi found out later and went looking for it.  It was gone.  I was upset, I remember.  She did not chide me.  I remember.  

I remember the last day at Aunty Joye’s Montessori.  She came with a camera and took pictures.  One picture with two of my teachers and one with my friends, among whom I remember Bradley Umamboowe (we called him Mahinda) and Sheran Wanigasekera, who lived next door.  She wanted me to have memories, I realize now.

I remember mornings in the early years at Royal Junior School.  She had all the clothes washed, ironed and neatly arranged on the bed.  The shoes were always polished. She washed her three children and dressed us up.  She took us to school and then took the 109 to Wattala (she taught at Wattala Convent before getting a transfer to Royal College in 1971, after my brother and I had been enrolled at Royal Junior School.  

She carried me.  When I was almost eight and had a few bones broken in my right foot, she carried me to the hospital.  A year later when I was down with Hepatitis, she carried me for blood tests and to see Dr. Dharmawansa at Durdans Hospital.  She put me down outside his consultation room and went to the Record Room to collect the family card, B 32.  She carried me back.  She carried me throughout her life.  She carried many people.  She carried every single person who came to her for help or who she felt needed her help.  

She complained in later years, when I was at Royal College, that it was embarrassing to go to the staff room because teachers would complain about me.  I was glad she was there.  She forgot on certain occasions that I was a student as well her her son.  When I was a prefect she once blasted me in front of a bunch of younger students.  I remember telling her that I think it was wrong of her to do so because I had a role in disciplining errant students and that she had compromised my ability to do so.  I remember calling her ‘madam’ on that occasion.  She just said ‘I am sorry.’  I am sorry too, now.

She confused son and student or maybe she did not, for all her students at Royal were ‘sons’ to her.  They would agree.  She was after all ‘The Grand Old Lady of Royal College’ as her student and my batchmate Mohammed Adamally said at her funeral. 

She was there for me. Quietly.  She rejoiced in the various triumphs of her children but didn’t always show it.  Such sentiments she apparently shared with her favorite student, Arjuna Parakrama.  That’s what he said at her funeral.  

She was there for me even when I was a rascal.  I remember deciding I had had enough of Mrs Lakshmi Jeganathan’s Speech and Drama Class. This was when I was in Grade 10.  Aunty Lakshmi was one of the biggest influences in my life, but she was a tough teacher and I couldn’t take that toughness.  I didn’t have the courage to tell Ammi.  So on Saturdays I would leave the house pretending to be going for her class but in reality going over to my aunt’s house and staying there until it was time to come home (after the class, which I didn’t attend).   Aunty Lakshmi and Ammi were great friends.  Looking back I am sure there would have been a telephone conversation about my absence.  Looking back, Ammi would have made some excuse.  She never asked me though.  Maybe she didn’t want to embarrass me.  She was like that.  Quiet in certain ways, even though she could be loud and unforgiving in others.

She feared for her children.  She gave us all the freedom we needed and did her best to protect us from all the storms we invited into our lives.  In February 1992, when I was arrested and held at the Wadduwa Police Station, she would visit with food and smiles.  She gave a thumbs up sign to all my political associates arrested with me.  One night, months later, when I observed there was too many dishes to go with the rice, my father said ‘You wouldn’t say that if you knew that during the three weeks you were in jail we didn’t cook food in this house — Ammi came home from Wadduwa one day and just fell on the floor and wept.’  I remember now.  And it makes me cry.

In later years, she and I didn’t get along too well.  She was stubborn and so was I.  She had taught me (as she had taught her students) to stand up for what I believed.  During one argument she said ‘Malinda, never ever have you taken my side!’  I responded, I remember, ‘I’ve always taken the side I believed was right.’  She didn’t say anything, but later she had told my wife Samadanie, ‘whatever said and done, Malinda stands for what he believes.’  She was proud, I feel, but didn’t show it much.  

She was hard on herself and soft on others.  She collected things.  My sister was amazed to find that Ammi had saved every little piece of paper she had come across where she, Nangi, had written something. She had all our various certificates in separate files.  She had kept my prefect’s badge safe.  She took the petals of a bouquet of roses that were given to me upon graduation from Harvard University, dried them, and made a beautiful heart out of them.  She did things like that.  Things of the heart.  For all her sons.  And all her daughters.  

It’s eight years since she passed away at the Jayawardenapura Hospital.  I remember that evening.  Her friend and former colleague at Ladies’ College, Chula, called me and said that Ammi had collapsed in her car.  They were going to her place in Thalawatugoda.  I later learned that a few moments before that she was on Chula’s phone talking to someone and trying to sort out a problem.  I told Chula to take her to hospital and rushed there.

She was on a bed.  I touched her forehead and arranged her hair.  She looked at me.  Then she closed her eyes.  She never opened them again.  

It’s quiet here.  Sooriya Village.  It’s late evening.  Eight years ago, around this time, I had my last conversation with her.  I don’t know what I said and I don’t know what she said.  We talked with gaze.  I saw the eyes that had watched over me and looked through me.  

A year after she passed away, on the way back from Kataragama, my older daughter threw a tantrum.  She was seven then.  She was impossible.  In desperation, I stopped the vehicle and told her, ‘either you stop this or else you drive!’  She went quiet.  Then she said ‘I want my Aththammi.’  I cried then.  And I cry now.  

She's taller now:
too tall to hold
to cuddle too old; 
queen you were
and she princess
then as now, 
and you
are as you were
in your distance and proximity
words and words not said;
your children, all of them,
are safe
in a cradling that endures
the mortality of passing.

*On behalf of all her children



Chathu said...

Sooo touching..broke into tears

Manjari Peiris said...

I love to read what you write - the style.

Tharuwa said...