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Pink streaks of dawn stained the sky when the overnight train from Jaffna ground to a halt at the Fort railway station in Colombo. Clutching his small bag of belongings, the boy stepped out of his carriage, overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of the waking metropolis.
Aunt Rebecca Ponnamma was waiting on the platform, her husband — Uncle Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam — at her side. She waved to catch her nephew’s eye. Rebecca Ponnamma wrapped her arms around her dead sister’s boy and Shadrak heaved a quiet sigh of relief. This was his mother’s flesh and blood. His own.
He was home.
Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was an intelligent young woman, as beautiful as she was bright. She conversed fluently in English, a bright star at Uduvil Girls’ College where she was awarded a Queen’s Scholarship in 1901 when she obtained her Calcutta University Matriculation Certificate.
School teacher, evangelist, lifelong friend and ally of Dr. Mary Rutnam, Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was a woman beyond her time.
In 1904 Rebecca married Samuel Alfred Chellathurai Perinpanayagam who was a first cousin. They were both grandchildren of Kadirgamar and Harriet (Theivenei) Danvers. (Kadirgamar Danvers was the first in the family line to convert to Christianity). The couple moved to Colombo where Samuel Alfred was employed by the British firm, Messrs Boustead Brothers. They settled in the then fashionable suburb of Kotahena, where they purchased a home in Silversmith Street (now Bandaranaike Mawatha)
Shadrak found shelter in the kind maternal presence of his aunt and was happy in the home in Kotahena. Barely approaching his teens, the boy was apprenticed to the British firm, Hoare and Company. Here he was initiated into the hardware business. The job called for hard manual labour and his duties often included heaving heavy bags around on his back.
Young though he was, and now a cog in the wheel of big city life, Shadrak never gave up the daily discipline of a quiet early morning time alone in prayer and scripture-reading.
He clung with steadfast determination to the early discipline of his grandmother’s teaching,
From time to time he paused to open the twelfth-birthday letter from his granny to refresh his memory and savour the words in of the blessing scrawled in Tamil script.
Little Anna felt forlorn. She missed Solomon, her twin and boon companion.
Young Solomon, along with his two older brothers, was sent away to the northern city of Jaffna, to be taken in by foster families and educated at St John’s College, a reputed missions school for boys. The twins, perhaps due to the traumatic circumstances surrounding their birth, had been inseparable. It would be many years before she would set eyes on her beloved twin brother again.
Sara Chinnamma (the oldest of the three sisters) and Anna Chinnathangam (the youngest) attended the local missions school in Vavuniya.
Elizabeth Thangamma, the middle sister, who had no particular desire or inclination for book learning wasn’t unhpappy when her schooling was discontinued prematurely. She stayed home and assisted Grandma with the household chores.
Vavuniya in the Vanni region, where the girls lived with their widowed grandmother, was still wild, undeveloped territory. Foreigners hesitated to set foot in the area and all missionary work was relegated to the native converts to Christianity. The local centres of leaning were staffed by native teachers and the level of education offered at these schools was basic.
Anna was a student at such a school, which was a short walk away from her grandmother’s home. She shone like a star.
One unforgettable day, an unexpected visitor was directed to this modest seat of education in Vavuniya. The Reverend S.S. Somasundaram from Saint John the Baptist Anglican Church, Chundikuli, Jaffna, was on a tour of inspection. Wearing a long, flowing beard and unusually short cassock, the famous bicycle-riding priest cut a striking figure when he stepped into Anna’s classroom. The child eyed the stranger with fascination.
The clergyman conducted a spur-of-the-moment quiz, utilizing a large map of Ceylon, which hung on the wall. He pointed and encouraged the young scholars to identify various locations on the the island. Burning with enthusiasm, Anna was the one student who eagerly raised her hand and stood up every time to deliver a correct response.
Intrigued by bearded the stranger, she lingered during lunch recess and observed curiously as the august visitor partook of his meal. She noticed that the accompaniments surrounding the plate of rice were bland and wondered why there were no spice-hot curries in the mix. Something didn’t seem right.
As she watched, she saw the visitor’s hand go his stomach and gathered from the way he winced and the grimace contorting his face, that he was suffering great pain.
Boldly she stepped forward and enquired in Tamil, “Rasam kondu varalama?” (“Could I bring you some rasam?”) (Rasam is a spicy soup, a northern speciality, tasty eaten with rice and curries and an excellent remedy for digestive ills.)
Taken aback the Reverend replied, “Where would you get the rasam from, little girl?”
“My granny will make it,” Anna answered with unhesitating conviction and darted away.
She returned a short while later carefully holding a jar of the promised liquid, still hot from Granny’s cooking pot.
With grateful gulps, the gentleman availed himself of the thoughtful offering, pleased and taken aback by the child’s unexpected action. Touched by the concern she showed, he told her he felt much better.
“You’re a clever little girl,” Reverend Somasundaram declared, smiling at the bright-eyed child. “Would you like to study in Jaffna?”
“I’ll have to ask my grandmother,” Anna responded.
“Then I want to meet your granny,” the priest replied.
Anna ran back home again.
The bewildered grandmother was ushered into Rev. Somasundaram’s presence and almost collapsed from shock when she heard him say, “May I have your permission to take this child back with me to Chundikuli? The Church will be responsible for her education.”
Grandma Harriet Danvers gladly gave her consent and little Anna Chinnathangam was whisked away to her new life by the timely intervention of fate. She was enrolled as a boarder at Chundikuli Girls’ College, an Anglican missions school in Jaffna, where she adapted well to the dazzling overnight change in her circumstances.
Anna excelled in her studies, successfully completed the Senior Cambridge examination and embarked on her chosen career as a trained teacher.
Big brother, Shadrak, in the meanwhile, domiciled in Colombo, impressed his employers with his intelligence, disciplined work ethic and quiet wisdom. He rose to the position of store manager at Hoar and Company.
Shadrak referred to his Aunt Rebecca’s sons – his cousins, Stephen Edgar Rasasingham and George Walter Kulasingham Perinpanayagam (later known to his children as Rasa Unca and Geo Unca) – as his brothers. The affection was mutual and the closeness remained till the end of their lives.
Faith was the glue that held the community together. Sunday was a day of rest and socializing when immediate and extended family met to worship at morning service at Saint Thomas’ Anglican Church, Ginthupitya, and spent the rest of the day visiting each other’s homes. This tradition was maintained for several years as a steady trickle of migration brought relatives from the north, to the island’s capital and they all settled in Kotahena, within visiting distance of each other.
Always uppermost on Shadrak’s mind were his siblings, two hundred miles away in the arid northern province of Sri Lanka.
To be continued …
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