Travels of a journalist [2013 Series # 10] Hobnobbing with kith and kin in Kurunegala and Colombo
Posted on July 19th, 2013

By Shelton Gunaratne, author of Village Life in the Forties: Memories of a Lankan Expatriate (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse); and From Village Boy to Global Citizen Vol. 1& Vol.2 (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris).

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ As I write this essay, the 10th installment on my latest excursion to Sri Lanka (March 27 to April 16, 2013), I am saddened by the news about the death of S. S. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-SirimeghaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Wijeratne, 75, a contemporary of mine at Jayatilaka Hall during the halcyon days of the Peradeniya University. His death, yet again got me to think about BuddhaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s veritable assertion that the three universal signs (ti-lakkhana) of existence in the samsara are anicca (impermanence), anatta (no self/asoulity) and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness).

My Buddhist background helps me to understand that sorrow/unsatisfactoriness derives from our misconception of self/soul as an enduring ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-entityƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ and our failure to comprehend the impermanence of everythingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚both animate and inanimate. Suffering arises because of the animatesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ avijja (ignorance), which engenders their craving to hold on to things that are impermanent. Every sentient being is a composite of the ever-changing nama-rupa (five aggregates/kandhas). Thus, from the Buddhist point of view, WijeratneƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ (or any other nama-rupa) was never an enduring self but a constantly changing composite of form/matter (rupa), feeling/sensation (vedana), perception/cognition (sanna), mental formations/impulses (sankhara), and consciousness/discernment (vinnana).

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ At death, a sentient being merely sheds the rupa, but the process of change in the nama components continues to go on until the attainment of non-existence. Thus, the term death shouldnƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢t evoke sadness among the Buddhists who understand the phenomenology of Dhamma.

Wijeratne was privileged to hold the position of chairman of Legal Aid. Peradeniya undergraduates once elected him the president of their student body. He was one of the four co-editors of Pratibha, the literary journal, together with T.P.G.N. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-NandasiriƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Leelaratne, H.G. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-GayaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Gunawardena, and me. We were the products of three reputed Buddhist high schoolsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚Dharmaraja, Mahinda, and Ananda.

In my opinion, the nama-rupa composite of Wijeratne went through radical changes after graduating from university. He embraced the Colombo elite through matrimony and presumably failed to comprehend the concept of anatta (asoulity).ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Although I considered him a close pal from our Peradeniya days, he and I never got together during my breaks in Sri Lanka since I left the country in 1966.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Once, when I saw him at the Katunayake Airport, he waved at me from a distance but failed to stop for a chat.

This year, I asked ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Gaya,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ a retired police high up, to arrange a reunion of the four Pratibha co-editors at my book launching at Kelaniya on March 28. Neither ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Gaya,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ who has sought solace in free-lance journalism in his dotage, nor ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Nandasiri,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ a retired high up in the administrative service now turned a Buddhist upasaka, was able to fulfill my wish. When I made courtesy calls on the last two, they told me that Wijeratne has heavily turned into practicing meditation. Now that Wijeratne has completed one more cycle of his bhavacakra (wheel of becoming), I regret not having gone to see him before the closure of his presumed ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-self.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ May he attain Nibbana!

After our 10-day tour of Sri Lanka, my spouse and I relaxed for five days at my older sister RaniƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s home in Kurunegala (pop. 30,315). I found the old coupleƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚Rani, 76, and her husband, 82ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚wading in a quagmire of dukkha. Rani complained that the daily doses of medication to control her worsening condition of diabetes cost her much more than the pension she received as a retired teacher. Happawana Aiya, her husband, mentioned that he had to pay a tuk-tuk driver Rs. 100 for each of his daily trips to the clinic to get his sore legs treated. Somehow they managed to make their ends meet because their son, Niraj, now domiciled in Australia, sent them an allowance. They offered flowers and alms to Buddha three times daily in a makeshift shrine in the lounge.

Exif_JPEG_420A view of the Kurunegala Lake from the top of Ethagala (Elephant Rock).[Photo by Anura Wijeratne ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚© 2013]

A couple from a Kurunegala neighborhood, Anura and Nilmini Wijeratne, helped my sister with her weekly grocery shopping. Their kidsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚Lochana and MaleenƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚were planning to study in the United States in the fall.

One morning, the Wijeratnes treated us for breakfast and took us on a tour of Kurunegala. They drove us around the large man-made lake to the top of Ethagala (Elephant Rock), now the site of a 27-meter Buddha statue that dominates the city. Seven other major rock outcrops surround the city noted for its clock tower as well.

On the Alut Avurudda (New YearƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s) Day, we ate breakfast at the auspicious time of 7.05 a.m. and exchanged gifts with one another as custom required. The young knelt before the old to offer sheaves of betel seeking their forgiveness.

NirajƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s mother-in-law and her progeny, who had agreed to cook the sumptuous New YearƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s meal, brought the food soon after noon. But one member of this close circle of relatives, Punchi MaamaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s widow, failed to join us for lunch. Presumably, she had felt miffed that my spouse and I failed to visit her home in Kuliyapitiya! She could have escaped her dukkha by contextualizing it in terms of the ti-lakkhana. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

After lunch, we thanked our hosts and took leave of everyone to go on the final leg of our Sri Lanka tour. Our driver, Amal Chandrakumara, was back on duty to transport us to Battaramulla, 100 km south west of Kurunegala to attend a get together of relatives.

My ubiquitous cousin NandaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚the older sister of Kalu Mahattaya (Francis) and Sudu Mahattaya (Richard)ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚also wanted to join us because we were heading to her deceased brotherƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s family home. Nanda had come to see me at Kurunegala a couple days before.

Our first stop was Yakkala, where Darshanee (younger sister of my cousin Douglas Gunasekera of Matara) and her husband Asoka Ruberu ran a Litro Gas agency on Gampaha Road. AsokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s mother, whom we called Aunty Ruberu when she was living in Kandy, was now living here wheel chair bound. She could hardly speak though she kept on a happy smile.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Next, we were at the Battaramulla family home of the late Francis Gunaratne, attorney at law. His daughter, Nadee, had arranged this get together because members of FrancisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ nuclear family had never seen my spouse or me.


At the get together of the Gunaratne clan in Battaramulla on April 15, 2013. Seated in the second row with the writer and his spouse are Grace Gunaratne (left) and cousin Alahakoon and her daughter Dr. Rohini Nanayakkara (right).[Courtesy of Nadee Gunaratne ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚© 2013]


The party comprised 14 people, including Yoke-Sim and me: Somalatha, FrancisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ widow; Nadee, FrancisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ daughter; Shyamal, FrancisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ son; Lakimini Ambepitiya, ShyamalƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s wife; Madhu Prabashi, FrancisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ grand daughter; Nanda, FrancisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ sister; Ranjani, our cousin from Uruwitiya; Lahiru, RanjaniƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s son; Grace, our cousin from Mederikoratuwa; (Mrs.) Alahakoon, our cousin from Walahanduwa; (Dr.) Rohini Nanayakkara, daughter of Alahakoon; and Lilani, mother of Mahesh Rajapakse who had visited us in Moorhead. Except for Grace, Nanda and Lilani, I had no memory of any others. The live wire behind the party was Nadee, who relentlessly contacted me through Facebook and e-mail. Nadee confided that Francis had exhorted her to get in touch me after his death.

However, I didnƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢t meet two of FrancisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ offspring, who have now settled down in Australia, where I taught in Central Queensland for almost 10 years beginning in the mid-ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”70s. Coincidentally, one of the offspring has found a job in the same area where they have run into the folks of the Genrich family, who lived next door to us in Frenchville, North Rockhampton. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

I ruminated over my short visit to Sri Lanka in terms of Buddhist phenomenology. All my hobnobbing with kith and kin in short spurts of time and the commotions I engendered over visiting or skipping them were a reflection of the interplay of the ti-lakkhana. Should I worry about what I did or didnƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢t accomplish on this sojourn having understood the nature of samsaric existence?

After the get-together, Amal brought Yoke-Sim and me to Negombo, 43 km north of Battaramulla, to spend the night at Athula JayamanneƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s home. We departed Sri Lanka the next day (April 16) at night.

The tinge of sadness that I experienced when I heard the news about WijeratneƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s demise, as I began this essay, no longer bothers me.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  For thatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s the reality of samsara.


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