27 April 2023

To be an island like the Roberts...

The Roberts: neighbors, friends, family

By the time I was 9, I knew only a handful of people who had what could be called English names. Well, there were many in my parents’ and grandparents' generations, but they were maamas, naenads, kudammas, loku appachchis, aththas and aththammas; their respective parents naming offspring after a fashion.  

So there was Tony Maama (Tony Muller), Eustace Maama (Eustace Fonseka), Maurice Maama (Maurice Perera), his wife Aunty Jean, Richard Maama (Richard Lewis) and his wife Aunty Hazel.

Then we moved to a small lane in Pamankada, at the Southern edge of the Colombo metropolitan area and I encountered lots of ‘English names’ all living in the same house. The Roberts.

Doughie Robert, I learned, was a former Mister Ceylon (1959, 1960 and 1961) and his wife Jeannette Schuilling runner up to Sushila Gunasekera in the Miss Ceylon contest, 1960. Uncle Dougie with his signature cowboy hat was a muscled presence down the lane and remained that way until he passed away at the age of 72 in 2000. Aunty Jeanne, as we called her, a mother of seven, was strikingly beautiful at the time we arrived. Still is at the age of 84.

What I remember most, however, was that they were kind, friendly and had an open-door policy for one and all, although not all neighbours chose to walk in and out as if it was their own house. I did.

Ok, the names. Davinia (Davi), Rudy (Sonna), Franciene (Bucky), Dolloraise (Dollo), Doughie, Soji and Travis (Rocky). Colourful characters, all of them, each in his or her own way. Aunty Jeanne has 19 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Too many names to remember. Except Davi’s husband, Robert Ephraums. As much a Robert as any of my friends and not because his christian name happened to be ‘Robert.’


This is not about names that sounded, let’s say, not really ‘Sri Lankan,’ but which nevertheless became as familiar as any Sinhala or Tamil name.  It is about the Roberts.

Davi, who had been runner up to Rosy Ramanayake in the Miss Sri Lanka contest in 1980, was older. The girls were roughly around my sister’s age. Sonna was my age. Doughie and Soji were small but old enough to play cricket down the lane. Rocky was a baby.  

They were neighbours. They were friends. They were family. In and out of our house as we were in and out of their house. They were our first friends down that lane and remained so, long after many of them had moved on with their lives and relocated themselves elsewhere just as we had. Didn’t have to meet or communicate. Run into them randomly and it’s like meeting cousins distant on account of residence but not in terms of the relationship.

Roberts. No frills. No filters. Judged but steadfastly non judgmental. Not even of those who may have passed around whispers or smirked at misfortunes or did the oohs and aah and did-you-knows of the gossip guilds that invariably exist.

Whenever I think of the Roberts, I am reminded of virtues recommended by the Buddha: loving kindness, equanimity, compassion, rejoicing in someone else’s joys; qualities that I don’t always see in ‘Buddhist’ families or Buddhists. They live. They let live. Their annoyances at each other pour out of windows and doors and float into the neighbourhood now and then. Just as their love spills out for anyone to see. No frills. No filters.

There was a time when the entire country was sequestered due to Covid-19 and some people found it hard to attend to the needs of loved ones who were old or sickly. In my case, partly because neighbours who we grew up with have moved out of the lane and some out of the country, but mostly because the Roberts were to us more family than neighbours, it was an easy call to make.

‘Uncle eats like a bird, don’t worry about it,’ Davi said when I called and asked her to check on my father. Robert would walk up the lane and spend time with him. For months.

That’s how this island has worked for centuries. Being there for one another when it matters. Stopping to say hello and talking for a long time to catch up with each other's lives. Inquiring after the children. Talking to children about what they are up to and offering any advice if it was felt that you could be of some help.

I watched my friends grow up. I watched their children grow up. There were so many that I still don’t know whose children they are. They are all Roberts. That much was certain. That much was enough.

The Roberts. They coloured the lane. They coloured our childhood. They were real, remained real and reminded everyone else that being real was easy, made sense and a proposition that ought to be embraced. They didn’t prescribe. They just lived. Well. And taught me, among other things, the true meaning of the words that Jesus of Nazareth spoke to the Pharisees: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbour as yourself."'

There are Roberts all over this island. There are Roberts in all communities. They are the islands that make this island called Sri Lanka so very blessed. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart


Arjuna Seneviratne said...

Fond fond memories malli.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Mr Roberts happened To Be My Father's Best Friend ,Indeed A Wonderful Family .

Anonymous said...