26 December 2019

The Eldest: a story written on face and in eyes

The eldest in a family, traditionally and in the case of large families, is like a second father or a mother, as the case may be. If they so choose, one should add. The ‘Loku Duwa’ (Elder Daughter) or ‘Loku Putha’ (Eldest Son) has all kinds of responsibilities placed on her or his shoulders. It’s not a law. It’s a custom. If the eldest does his ‘bit’ or a ‘bit of the bit’ it would earn him or her a pass mark, if you want to put it that way. If he or she chooses to nothing, that’s fine too. 

Ananda Thilak Bandara Herath was the eldest of five boys in a farming family in Madadombe, a village around two kilometers off Gallewa, on the Galgamuwa-Moragollagama Road. That’s ‘tank-land’. Their house was downstream from two reservoirs, Mahawewa (as the name suggests, the bigger of the two) and Kudawewa (Small Talk). Thilak, like his brothers, attended the village school and later the school in Ehetuwewa. They walked to school and back through shrub jungle. They helped their parents in the paddy fields and in the chenas. 

Education was important to their father whose siblings included a teacher and a bank employee. The banking uncle supported Thilak. In due course he entered the University of Peradeniya. From Day One, Thilak was single-minded in one thing: educating his bothers. That was the Loku Aiya Way.  

The banking uncle couldn’t support two nephews, especially since he had got married around the time Thilak entered university. So Thilak tried to find a job for the eldest of the mallis, Upali. And he did. Upali found employment in Kotmale, where a dam was being built at the time. And things went sour. 

Upali fell in love with a local girl and their love began to grow on its own, as in the Kenny Roger’s song — ‘The long arm of the law’. The result was that the third in the family didn’t have the support he needed. Wickrama should have become a doctor but he ended up as a nurse. By the time the next boy was sitting his ALs, Thilak had the social capital to help out. Wasantha entered the Medical Faculty at Ragama and graduated as a doctor. The three brothers, still single, helped the youngest, Vipula, who would graduate from Peradeniya and join the Army thereafter.  Then they all found life-partners and settled down. Except Thilak. 

The Eldest, whose English knowledge was limited to being able to recite the alphabet at the time he entered university, became a teacher. It took time for him to put all his brothers on their feet. His ‘moment’ if there is such a thing, passed or rather passed him by. Partly on account of circumstances and partly by choice, the matter of taking care of aging parents fell on his shoulders. 

All this took time and in the passing of time, their father died. Upali, the much-loved principal in their village school died a few years ago. He was just 48. Wasantha died in a tragic accident. Vipula survived the war. Thilak, by then a senior teacher in charge of English Medium education at the Ambanpola Central College, even at the time of Upali’s death, was helping his brother educate his two sons. He would travel to Kurunegala to conduct tuition classes. The money he earned went to pay the tuition fees the boys had to pay for extra classes.   

Through all these years, The Eldest held on to the one passion in his life. Music. Endowed with a wonderful voice, Thilak obtained a Visharad degree (vocal) from the Bhatkande Sangeet Vidya Peet, Lucknow. He wrote songs. He asked lyricists to write for him. He sought out exceptional musicians to compose melodies. He saved what money he could. He recorded these songs. He was occasionally invited for musical programs on Rupavahini.

‘I just do it because I like music. These songs are for my friends. And for myself,’ he says whenever his friends urge him to put together an album.  

One of the first songs he recorded was a duet with the late Malani Bulathsinhala, ‘sirimedura kiyaalaa.’  It’s about marriage, of a couple building tenderly their dream castle, only to discover they’ve in fact constructed a prison, and when they try to flee upon this discovery find their children guarding the ‘prison doors’.

We are all prisoners of one kind or another. Thilak is married to his music and to the notion of duty. He is his own jailor, just like any one of us. He wakes up early, cooks breakfast and lunch, feeds his ailing and bedridden mother, waits for a caregiver to arrive, then goes to work. He never leaves her alone. He supports his nephews’ education. He sings, most to himself. He calls his friends. 

Our lives get written on our faces. Few stories are better engraved on countenance and eyes than those pertaining to duty. The narratives of The Eldest are rarely written. Few, if ever, get recited. Years have passed. Decades too. Personal targets were postponed, year after year after year and were repeated with less and less conviction until they became inaudible. Non-existent, now. 

‘This house is for Wickrama. I have found a home for the elderly to which I will retire eventually,’ The Eldest doesn’t intrude or inconvenience. 

He is conscious of what time does. ‘Don’t take my picture — you always take it at the wrong angle or the light is all wrong; I am beautiful!’ He laughs as he says this for he does not have a grain of vanity in him. 

‘I will write about you!’ I told him.

‘I’ll give you a nice photograph to go with the story,’ he suggested.

‘No, you’ll give me one that was taken years ago!’ 

Banter between friends.  

Ananda Thilak Bandara Herath. An eldest. THE Eldest of all the eldest sons and daughters that I know in my generation. And for many reasons, the most beautiful. Few would disagree. 

This article was first published in the Daily News (December 25, 2019). 

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com

Other articles in the series titled 'In Passing...' :
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer