Posted on November 14th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

BRISBANE, Australia, 8 Nov. 2009: I arrived in Brisbane a few days ago to see my mother lying on a bed “living” her last [?] days at the Mater Hospital. The five khandhas (aggregates)””‚material form  (rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formations (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana)””‚constituting my mother (in the Buddhist sense) are preparing to move onto a new namarupa discarding her worn-out old body (matter). She is on life support. She can hardly open her eyes or move her lips. But we could feel that she recognized our voices and tried her best to respond with whatever energy she still has. The doctor and his team of assistants did not want to give us any sense of optimism.

Our family understands the truth of existence: anatta (no-self), anicca (impermanence) and dukhkha (suffering). Yet we are faced with a massive ethical dilemma: Should we agree to disconnect her life support, or should we let her hang on to life until the very end? This is where the rational answer (to terminate life support) may not be the best. The very first of the five basic precepts of Buddhism seems to prohibit the removal of life support because it amounts to intentional “killing.”

While the family members are mulling over this dilemma, it occurred to me that this is the most appropriate time to recall the golden years of our lives in which she played an exemplary and dominant role. She was proof of the gender-neutral apothegm “Like father, like daughter.”

The lullaby she used to sing when I was a toddler still rings in my ears:

Doi doi doi doiya putha

Bai bai bai baiya puttha

Umbe amma kirata giya                     Your mother went looking for milk
Kiri dogena enne giya                         And bring you some [drawn from the cow]
Kiri muttiya gange giya                       But her pot of milk fell into the river
Ganga degoding gala giya                  And [the milk] spilled over both banks


Puthe numbe loku amma                    Son, your older aunt

Athe walallak demma                          Put a bangle on your wrist

Nethe agaya ehi nimma                      Limitless in value [was that bangle]

Nadan puthu nadan ma                      Please stop crying, my son

 My mother was wont to sing this melodious nursery rhyme while I lay snugly on her lap almost 70 years ago in our ancestral home in Pathegama. She lulled me into sleep many times over as she tried to stop my disgruntled crying by weaving into the lullaby a supplementary line exhorting me to pipe down and go to sleep: Nada nidiyanna  putha. I have heard people say that as a toddler I cried much because of pain from sores appearing on my body. My mother extraordinaire empathized with my dukhkha and tried her level best to mollify me.

Grandma_NEWPHOTO: My mother, K. V. Ariyawathie “Irene” Gunaratne (a.k.a. “Punchi Hamine”), in the verandah of our Rockhampton, Qld, home.  (Picture by Jayantha Wijesoma©1986)

Born on 13 July 1913, she beat the birth of two famous people””‚Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, by one day; and Red Skelton, the American comedian, by five days. But she outlasted both. Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, won the Nobel Prize for Literature the same year my mother was born. Although she failed to attain fame during her lifetime in the conventional sense, little did she or anyone else realize that she was the creative genius behind my “Village Sketches,” which I wrote for the Saturday  Magazine of the Ceylon Daily News in the mid-“ƒ”¹…”60s. She was the raconteur par excellence of the narratives I expatiated on the multitude of village characters chosen for the sketches””‚some hilarious, some pathetic, some straddling a mixture of genres. I was the transcriber who arrogated her creative talent and gave it a tad of Dickensian veneer. I embedded both fact and fiction into these sketches.

Villagers called her “Punchi Hamine” (Little Madam) although she had inherited my grandfather’s root name Keliduwa Vidanagamage appended to her given name Ariyawathie. To her relatives in Colombo, she was “Irene.”  Everyone in the village was known to all others by his or her nickname, not by the legal name. My grandmother answered to the nickname “Kelaniya Hamine” because her birthplace was Kelaniya. 

Because my imperious grandfather, the Maha Ralahamy (Village Headman le Grande), had unilaterally determined that females had no need for formal schooling, he prevented my mother from proceeding beyond grade school. However, although she was often prone to blame her father for her educational deficiency, she never thought of him as a male chauvinist. She did not see eye-to-eye with the women’s liberation movement. In her view, the kitchen belonged to the domain of women. Men need not interfere in women’s domain.

My mother was a tall, well built, dark and very attractive woman with an air of authority. For all I know, she was content with her role as an exemplary housewife after she married my father, the “Thepal Mahattaya” (Postmaster), a very handsome man who was five years older than she. Educated at Mahinda College, Galle, my father was a dedicated government servant who was proficient in English and mathematics. During my childhood, he worked in Weligama, Matara and Colombo (General Post Office). During his GPO years, he would visit us in Pathegama only at weekends. For all purposes, my mother was the effective head of the household. She was a good financial manager and a generous host to all and sundry who visited us.

When my grandfather was absent from the village, she took it upon herself to act as the unofficial Ralahamy. On those occasions, she would demand the same degree of respect that the villagers accorded her father for performing the duties associated with the office of Ralahamy.

My mother was 26 when she gave birth to me, “Weligama Podda” of yore. After she gave birth to my sister Rani two years earlier, she and my father had attempted to balance their progeny with a male. Their first attempt failed with the stillbirth of a male. They were amply rewarded with my arrival a year later. But, as I have already mentioned, I went through much pain because of sores on my body. On the authority of my mother’s memory, when my pain reached a crescendo, I used to cry out in toddler patois:

Hori ridoh                   [Sores are hurting me]

ThƒÆ’-¾ththa ƒÆ’†’¤ndoh           [Put me on dad’s bed]

Somehow, in the absence of my father, his bed had a calming effect on my pain. So my mother took me there and sang lullabies to put me to sleep.

She gave birth to three other kids: my brother Asoka seven years after me; my younger sister Kanthi a year later; and my youngest sister Nayana in 1955, the year that China’s Prime Minister Zhou En-lai visited Ceylon. 

I can remember the night when my mother suffered several fits of severe pain before giving birth to Kanthi. Grandfather dispatched me, then a scared 8-year-old, to Gederawatte to fetch Weligama Hamine, who had experience in midwifery.

Nayana could have passed on for a fair Chinese baby that we nicknamed her “Zhou En-lai,” a name that stuck to her for a while.

My mother’s primary school education was at the Baptist Missionary school BMS] in Colombo.  However, my grandfather was of the firm belief that girls did not require higher education and brought her back to Pathegama only to be educated by a tutor and seamstress who visited her at our home in the village.  My mother compensated for her lack of formal education with her expertise in embroidery, which her father encouraged her to acquire. She dispensed that expertise to any village woman who showed a desire to learn the skill.

Late in her life, despite her little knowledge of geography, she became a world traveler. Her first visit outside Sri Lanka was to Malaysia in 1974, when she and my father came to Penang on my invitation. That trip enabled my parents to get acquainted with the well-known Buddhist temples in Bangkok, Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, my father passed away the very next year.

In 1980, she came to Australia to live with my family, and she became an Australian citizen. When my sister Kanthi and her family came to settle down in Australia in 1986, the same year that my family immigrated to the United States, I transferred the responsibility of caring for mother to Kanthi.

 However, my mother and my older sister Rani visited me in Minnesota in 1989 and joined my family to explore the tourist attractions in Washington state during my internship with the (Longview, WA) Daily News.

She spent her happiest years overseas when she acquired her own residential unit in Upper Mount Gravatt for independent living. She also lived with my youngest sister Nayana in London several times. She enjoyed her visits to the Buddhist temple in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, during her London stopovers. She visited my brother in Germany but did not stay with him for any length of time.

She relished recounting her pilgrimage to India to worship at the many sacred sites associated with the Buddha.

I will never forget the thrashing she gave me when her detective instincts traced me smoking a beedi hiding under the writing table in the front room of the verandah of my ancestral home. It deterred me from smoking ever after.

She was known for her hospitality and generosity in the Buddhist tradition. I have it on good authority that when we were living on Terrence Avenue, Mount Lavinia, in the “ƒ”¹…”70s, she took packets of meals to the Dehiwela Junction on a regular basis to feed the needy and the hungry.

My mother was not perfect. Despite her professed adherence to Buddhist principles, she was overbearing, egotistic, caste-conscious and tight-fisted while at the same time she engaged in actions that showed the opposite traits. She was a composite of the ongoing interaction of a multitude of yin and yang elements.

I was privileged to be my mother’s older son.

Thank you and farewell, sweet mother. Your enchanting lullaby will haunt me for years to come.

 (The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.)



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