04 April 2020

Happy birthday Raj Amirthiah!

Today, as I write, the 4th day of April, 2020, Raj Amirthiah turned 85. Now I have never met the gentleman. And yet, I have. This I realized reading a post from his son Ranil, my friend, former colleague at Phoenix O&M and in my view one of the foremost entertainers of my generation.

Ranil Amirthiah posted the following on Facebook: ‘Happy birthday to my dear Papa - the head of the Amirthiah clan. The only real life Iron Man I’ve known and someday if I can be half of who he is - I’m a better man !! This is where my music comes from, this is where my adventurous spirit comes from and this is where my “never give up” attitude comes from. Thank you for everything papa!!’

Ranil is all that. He’s music. He is an explorer. He takes hits and bounces back. And he is always smiling. This is probably not the first time he’s saying ‘thanks papa.’ Sometimes when you can’t thank enough you say it, again and again. There’s another option. You don’t say it. You do it. I’m sure Ranil knows and practices this kind of thanking. Sometimes you don’t have to say or do. Fathers get it. They can often hear the words not said and don’t mind the deeds not done.

My papa now, Appachchi to me, will turn 82 on the 14th of April. The only ‘papa’ I associate with him is the song ‘Oh, my papa.’ He could whistle better than he could sing, but sing he did. Better than I could, anyway. ‘Oh, my papa’ was one of the two songs I remember him singing to me when I was very small. The other was Perry Como’s ‘Little man you’ve had a busy day.’

I remember struggling to understand why he sang that song. His father had died before I was born. By the time I was old enough to know he had, I naturally wondered if he missed his father, the seeya I had never seen. 

He spoke about him fondly. ‘If Seeya had been around, he would have got you toys and played with you,’ he would say. His papa, my seeya, must have been fun, I remember thinking. Later, speaking with older cousins and the younger of my aunts and uncles, i.e. his nieces and nephews, I figured that my father’s papa must have loved children.

My father sang ‘Oh my papa’ often enough for me to remember the words. I remember the Perry Como song in particular because that was his go-to song when he wanted to comfort me. 

Years passed and not being a music-man like Ranil, my parents or siblings, I had to make do for the most part with the songs my father sang to me. ‘Little man’ wouldn’t have worked since it was daughters that I had. ‘Oh my papa,’ more for melody than substance, was soothing. At least it calmed my younger daughter. A tiny slice of her little days was made of ‘o my papa kiyanna’ (sing ‘Oh my papa’). She later observed, ‘You only sang it so I will repeat it to my children. Nice song though!’

That’s not the truth. I sang it because I didn’t know too many songs. I sang it because it had lulled me in moments of anxiety. And probably because of insecurity, for I sometimes wondered if I was loved or would be remembered.

I don’t need to know why my father sang that song. I just wanted to say ‘happy birthday’ to an 85 year old man I’ve never seen and say ‘I heard you,’ to my father.

Ranil’s post reminded me of a song I had heard many times before one particular rendition of  which made me think of my father. ‘Wind beneath my wings,’ written by Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley in 1982 and first recorded by Kandiah Kamalesvaran, who, interestingly will turn 85 on the 13th of November.  The song was never commercially released by Kandiah, who went by the stage name Kamahl. The rendition by Bette Midler for the soundtrack of the film ‘Beaches’ was what became a hit.

Naturally, it’s the film-context that framed the song for me. Until I heard some male singer on television. And from that day it was, for me, a papa-song. Those lyrics are for my father. They are for Ranil’s father and all fathers who given wings, watched children fly and were proud to the point of tears.  Iron men all. Tender hearted too.

So here’s to you, Uncle Raj. Happy birthday. And here’s to you, Appachchi — an early birthday present.

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']
Let's not stop singing in the lifeboats
When the Welikada Prison was razed to the ground

Looking for the idyllic in dismal times   
Water the gardens with the liquid magic of simple ideas, right now  
There's canvas and brush to paint the portraits of love  
We might as well arrest the house!
The 'village' in the 'city' has more heart than concrete
Vo, Italy: the village that stopped the Coronavirus
We need 'no-charge' humanity

Heroes of our times Let's start with the credits, shall we?   
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 

 'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing? 

 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds
Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter 
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo? 
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Angeles
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody  
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays   
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry
Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop 
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?
Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
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