Widow’s Dilemma: Our Present Past (2)

Click here to read Our Present Past (1)

Life changed with the grisly demise of her husband, Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel. In ways Mary Chellamma never imagined. The breadwinner struck down in his prime, she was left alone to raise month-old twins amongst six young children. There was neither time, nor expertise to tend the land which was the family’s only source of income.

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Rice farmers in Ceylon in the early 1900s, clad in loin cloths and driving buffalo yoked to hand-crafted ploughs.  Similar scenes are still to be seen in rural parts of the island (now Sri Lanka) (Google images)

Mary turned in desperation to her brother-in-law, her husband’s brother, who cultivated rice and raised cattle on the adjoining property.   He agreed to take on the management of her farm. Mary was relieved to be rid of the burden.

Blood is thicker than water, after all, and they were neighbours …

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Rice (paddy) cultivation in the early 1900s – back-breaking manual labour.  The same primitive methods are still in  practice in certain rural areas of the island. (Google images)
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Woman of faith: Grandma Harriet Danvers, wife of David Danvers (who was the son of Kathirgamar Danvers, the first convert to Christianity in the family line)

Harriet (Theivanei) Danvers – Mary’s mother, the children’s maternal grandmother – a widow herself, lived in her own home, a stone’s throw away. This pious woman was a bottomless reservoir of strength.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw evangelical activity at its height in northern Ceylon.  The numerous schools and hospitals in the region bore witness to the presence and commitment of the American and British missionaries. Mary Chellammah, a young woman still, found employment with the CMS Missionaries in the area, who offered her a position as nurse’s aide at the local missions hospital.

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The Misses Leitch ( AMSmissionaries) with Tamil converts in Jaffna.  Foreign missionaries did not venture into the untamed Vavuniya area (wary of both inhabitants and jungle animals). Mary would have been assisted by native Christians, who were sent to serve in this region (courtesy, Google images) American missionaries in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, where the Samuel family originally hailed from (courtesy Tishan Mills, ceylontamils.com)
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Northern provinces of Ceylon (highlighted) Vethanayagam Samuel relocated from the Jaffna province (shaded pink) to Vavuniya in the Vanni region (shaded brown)
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Bullock carts, a bull trussed up for branding,and  a young boy with branding iron in hand. (circa 1900’s, Google images)

Disaster struck again.   Neighbour-brother-in-law turned perfidious predator and assumed ownership of the widow’s property.  By unscrupulous means he had changes were made to the the title deeds and the cattle were re-branded accordingly.

Grandma Harriet – Paatti to the little ones – was a woman of prayer and unshakeable faith.  She was known to sit in her house for hours by herself, lost in prayer. Her hands one upon the other, palms facing heavenwards, she pleaded with tears for heaven’s favour. 

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Aunty Paranidhy (Anna Chinnathangam’s daughter) recalls the stories her mother told her. She shows me how her great grandmother Harriet’s hands reached heavenwards in prayer.

Subramaniam Vethanayagam (S.V.) Chelliah, her oldest grandson, looked in through an open window one day, and heard the old lady praying out loud in Tamil: “Heavenly Father, what am I to do about these children?  Open the windows of heaven and bless them, I pray.” (“Aandavaney, intha sinna kulanthaihalodu naan enne seivan?  Vaananthin palahanhelai thiranthu intha chiruvarhalai aasirwathiyum.”)

Irreverently tickled by the pious woman’s fervour, Chelliah summoned his brothers and sisters to witness the peep-show. The amused youngsters gawked at their grandmother while she made her petition to the unseen Almighty.

“Look at how her hands are open and reaching upwards,” he snorted with  laughter.  “She’s waiting for heaven to open and blessings to fall into them.”

The yield from the land continued to be purloined by the greedy uncle. Mary and her little ones lived in a home, which, according to the doctored deeds, was theirs no more.

Life was a struggle. 

The stuff that ugly fairy tales are made of …

When the twins – Solomon and Anna – were six years old, Mary Chellammah took ill and was confined to her bed. Grandma Harriet, who carried on as best she could, was out of earshot when young Chelliah complained, “The food is not good (chaapadu chari illai).”

“Be patient, my son,” his ailing mother urged. “I’ll be up and about to cook tasty meals for my children (porungo rasa, naan elumbitu wanthu, nalai chamaichchu kudukiren pillaihalukku)

Mary was unable to keep her promise.  Fate struck another foul blow when she succumbed to her illness and died a short while later. The six fatherless offspring of Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel  were now orphans.

Grandma Harriet – was left to raise the children on her own.

The children became unofficial wards of the Anglican Church.              

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The Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit, Vavuniya, where the family would probably have worshipped.

Elizabeth Thangamma, who showed no particular interest in academic learning, was constrained to give up her schooling in order to remain at home and help cook and care for her siblings.

The boys were fostered out to benevolent families in Jaffna, sixty miles north of Vavuniya. The providential intervention of the church enabled them to continue their education at the reputed CMS Missions boys’ school, St. John’s College , Chundikuli (Jaffna).

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St. John’s College, Jaffna, as it stands at present, renovated and reconstructed after the civil war.
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Jaffna town is approxiamtely 60 miles north of Vavuniya

 

On Shadrack Chinniah’s twelfth birthday he received a letter from his grandmother (who remained in Vavuniya with his sisters), mailed to his new address in Jaffna.  The single sheet of notepaper was laced with weighty words of blessing written  in the Tamil language. 

Granny wrote: May you, little one, go from strength to strength, and become a millionaire (Chinnavan aigiramum siriyavan palaththa seemanum aavaan).

This birthday proved to be a milestone marking the end of Shadrack’s formal schooling.  He bade farewell to Saint John’s College where he learned to read, write and speak with the polish and ability of a highly educated individual.    His dreams lay beyond the confines of the arid northern province, far away in the colonial metropolis of Colombo.

The landscape shifted from dusty-dry to lush-verdant as the tracks snaked inland and the train rattled on its way, two hundred miles down to the capital city in the south of Ceylon.

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A steam train speeds along the British-built coastal railway lines of early 1900s Ceylon (courtesy Google images)

In his shirt pocket, pressed to his heart, was the precious birthday letter.

The memory of his mother grazed his thoughts. The grim ghost of his uncle’s unthinkable actions haunted these quiet moments.  

Shadrak pressed his face to the train window.  Coconut-thatch huts and green fields flew by.                                                                                         

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Mary Chellamma (Danvers) Samuel, young mother of Sarah Chinnamma, S.V. Chelliah, Shadrack Chinnathamby, Elizabeth Thangamma, Anna Chinnathangam and Solomon Chinniah

                The new life beckoned.                                         

                 World War I was still to come.

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the wide, wide world.  Dam Street, Colombo, circa 1900 ((Google images)

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Geneology of the Danvers and Samuel lines

Danvers family line
 * Kanthar married Thangam and had 4 children – 2 sons and 2 daughters (Circa 1790)
 * Their son, Kathirgamar Danvers (born 1809) married Anna Saveriyal.
*  Kathirgamar and Anna Danvers had 7 (8 ?) children – only 1 daughter
           David, Jane, Daniel, Gabriel, Samuel, Solomon & Joseph.
* David Danvers married Harriet Theivanai
* David and Harriet Danvers had 3 children, all daughters.
      Mary Chellammah, Elizabeth Annamma & Rebecca Ponnamma
* Mary Chellammah Danvers married Subramanium Vethanayagam Samuel
* Mary Chellammah Danvers and Subramaniam Vethanayagam Samuel had 3        sons and 3 daughters –
  Sarah Chinnamah, Subramaniam Vethanayagam Chelliah, Shadrack         Chinniah, Elizabeth Thangammah, Solomon Chinniah and Anna Chinnathangam
*Rebecca Ponnama married Samuel Alfred Chelladurai Perinpanayagam

Samuel family line –

Illanganayagar Udaiyar of Kaithady – Vethanayagam married: Seeniachi of Urumpirai
They had 6 daughters and 3 sons which included
* Subramanium Vethanayagam Samuel who married Mary Chellammah Danvers
&
  Thangam Vethanayagam who married Solomon Danvers
(From the archives of the late S.E.R. Perinpanayagam, courtesy Eric and Tim Perinpanayagam)

(Click here to read Our Present Past 3: Anna Goes To School)

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