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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 Shadrach 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)
Shadrach found shelter in the kind maternal presence of his aunt and was happy in the home in Kotahena. Barely into 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 of the blessing scrawled in Tamil script.
“Tell me about Singapore,” I said. “During the war. When you were a child.”
Dad set his fork down, a rush of memories spilling into his eyes.
“My father was a radio communications officer. He worked for the British government in Singapore …”
“He was a highly intelligent man, but he had a volatile temper! He was my hero, though it was frightening to live with someone like that.
He flew into a rage one day and struck me with the radio wires he was working with. My mother had to apply a hot fomentation on my back for days until the marks subsided.
I don’t remember my mother ever cuddling or kissing me. But there was plenty of food. A laden table. She was a good cook. My father was a hospitable man. The house was always filled with people and she fed them gladly.
“We lived in a sprawling home on Mount Rosie, surrounded by a large compound. I remember climbing fruit trees and playing for hours outside.”
“The Japanese considered their monarch a god. They worshipped him as such.
The West was distracted by Hitler and Stalin. It was the perfect time for the Japanese to leap in with their own agenda. They worked their way through the East, carving out an empire …”
“When the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour, the Americans got involved. This was the beginning of the Pacific War.”
“The tanks rolled into Singapore.
It was one of the worst defeats in British military history …
“Pretty much everyone was labelled a traitor. They shipped them off to POW camps. By the thousands.”
“So how did Grandpa survive, Dad?” I asked.
Dad’s tone was matter-of-fact. “My father worked for the Japanese,” he said.
My jaw dropped.
“After the surrender of Singapore, the Japanese generals stood at our doorstep with drawn swords. They threatened to cut off his head if he didn’t work for them. There was no other option.”
“On our way to school, we’d see rows of traitors’ heads impaled on the walls.”
“The Japs began losing ground after America entered the war with a powerful fleet of fighter planes and bombers. I remember them. There were the B-27s, B-23s, B-24s and B-26s.”
The Chinese and Japanese were hostile to each other. If the Chinese had been for the Japanese, the Americans would never have won the war.”
“I remember watching the Japanese bombers flying overhead in formation with anti-aircraft units hot in pursuit.”
“The air raid sirens could go off at any time of day and you were supposed to seek shelter immediately in the bunker, under a staircase, or under furniture. Our bunker was in the basement of the house.”
“I remember the dog fights in the air, when the Japanese bombers came in V-formation and the American fighter planes went after them.”
“I stood outside one day and watched as a Japanese plane got shot down. It caught fire and made a nose-dive to the ground. It crashed into our compound, its tail pointing upwards. There was a huge crater in the ground.
After the flames burned out, the gardener ran up. He was an eccentric Indian man. We were all convinced he was mad. He dragged the dead airman out, pulled off his boots and pillaged the corpse. He pocketed the wrist watch and searched for gold fillings in the teeth. Then I saw the allied planes pass overhead – massive aircraft, gleaming in the sun. You could hear them from miles away.”
“One day my father was shaving upstairs, when a shell came flying in through the bathroom window and rolled down the staircase. Thank God it didn’t explode.
Our home was like a refugee camp for the Ceylon Tamil community – injured boys and girls were brought there. Providentially, Mount Rosie was never bombed.”
“We attended an Anglo-Chinese school. There was a Tamil priest on the teaching staff. The Singaporean teachers were compelled to learn Japanese and then teach it to their students.”
“Our formal schooling was sporadic through the war years. English was forbidden.
My father taught us in the basement bunker at night. We had to memorize poetry and I was able to read far beyond my years.
I remember reciting The boy stood on the burning deck …
The Japanese soldiers had funny uniforms – long, long khaki shorts and hats with elongations at the back from the brims, covering their necks.”
“The officers wore white shirt, khaki jacket and leather boots.
I remember coming down the hill, one particular day, where the school was situated. There were steps going up the hill to the school building. The students were all lined up on either side of the road to greet and wave flags at visiting Japanese army dignitaries. They came in a convoy of lorries and military vehicles. A boy standing across the street called out to me. Without thinking, I dashed across the road to reach him, cutting through the oncoming parade. A lorry hit me and I was knocked unconscious. They drove on. They didn’t stop. The entire convoy passed over me.
When the parade was done, the Tamil priest — the teacher from my school – picked me up and took me to the government hospital. Miraculously, there was no serious injury and I recovered.”
“How old were you, Dad?” I queried.
“I must have been about 7 or 8.”
“That was nothing short of divine providence,” I commented.
Dad nodded. “Yes,” he said. “And I used to collect all the shells and metal fragments I found lying around. That was my hobby.”
“My mother carried her jewellery in a pouch tied around her waist, under her saree. She finally buried it all outside in the garden. When the war was over she wasn’t able to find the spot to dig it back up.”
“You mean she lost all her jewellery?” I asked.
Dad shrugged. “Many people buried their valuables and never found them again.”
“The Americans bombed Singapore before the Japs surrendered. I remember Singapore harbour up in flames.”
D-Day came and the Germans surrendered, but the Japanese hung on until the American bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That was when they finally gave in.
” Japan would never had surrendered if not for the atom bomb. America was the only nuclear power in the world at the time. The bombs were dropped two days apart.”
My father had a radio hidden in the basement. He tuned in at night to listen to the BBC news. There was no other way of knowing how the war was progressing. Suddenly one day, the war was over. Everything fell silent. The Japanese forces vanished.
“A Ceylonese Burgher gentleman who was a friend of my father’s – his name was Mr. Garth, an educated man, slightly brownish in complexion — ended up in a Japanese POW camp. After we knew for sure that the war was over, my father took me with him to the POW camp. I remember sitting in the car as we drove there.
The camp was a place of the living dead. Men, women and children had been starved and made to do hard labour. We found Mr. Garth. He had been a prisoner for four years. He was plain skin and bones. We brought him back home. My mother had cooked a good meal and set it on the table. Mr. Garth sat and stared at the food for quite awhile. Then he ate slowly, savouring every mouthful. He saved the boiled egg for the last.”
The war ended in September 1945.
“The British returned.
Many Ceylon Tamils who lived in Burma had walked to South India to escape the invasion. They were found and rescued.
Everything was in a mess. A new administrative system had to be set up. All residents of Singapore had to get their British citizenship renewed. Those who were not originally from Singapore were given the option of staying or receiving a free passage back to the country of their birth.
Mother wanted to stay, but Father had no choice. He had worked for the Japanese during the war years and was declared a traitor to the British Empire.
His name was on a formal list of Traitors To The Empire that appeared in the newspapers directly after the war ended.
The British arranged for our repatriation. We travelled in a massive ship which had been used as a troop carrier during the war. It was called the SS Arundel Castle.”
Our passage was paid and they provided us with clothing and food. With a load of over one thousand passengers – all Ceylon Tamils – the vessel set sail soon after the war was over. The voyage lasted five to six days before we docked at Colombo harbour. I remember being loaded onto a boat and coming ashore, where there was a big reception committee awaiting the home-comers.
My mother’s sister’s daughter — my cousin, Mabel — came to meet us at the dock. We slept the night at her home in Maradana and caught the train to Batticoloa the next day.”
At breakfast the next morning, a heavy-eyed Dad informed me that he hadn’t had much sleep the previous night. “The horrible scenes kept playing in my head,” he said.
I picked another subject for that evening’s conversation.
A year and a half in later, after the birth of his youngest child — a son — Grandpa James returned to Singapore. He approached the British authorities in anticipation of being reinstated into his former civil service post. Representatives of His Majesty’s government grimly reminded my grandfather that his name was etched on the infamous traitor list. They concurred that Grandpa’s only other choice would have led to the instant annihilation of himself and his young family. They graciously granted him a pension for his service to the British Empire. Then they showed him the door.
Grandpa sailed back to his native Ceylon. He disembarked at the port of Colombo and rode the railway back to Batticoloa in the east, where his wife had inherited extensive acreages of profitable paddy land.
The new baby symbolized the end of an era in their lives.
Old dreams dead and buried, life commenced anew and in earnest. The three youngsters, foreigners in the land of their parents’ birth, were constrained to learn a fifth language. English, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and now … Tamil.
If Grandpa was granted his pardon, if Granny obtained her heart’s desire, Dad wouldn’t have met Mum and allied himself with a new country and people.
And I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.
An interesting thought which strengthens my conviction in the knowledge that life is directed by an unseen hand. A hand that masterfully orchestrates circumstances in such a manner as to bring an undeniable destiny to pass. With one hundred percent accuracy.
Until next time,
P.S. Dad meets his bride in Matchmaker, Matchaker! (click here)
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
She chuckled. “Okay. How much information do you have already?”
“Bits and pieces. There’s a newspaper clipping …”
“What does it say?”
“According to Rev. Donald Kanagaratnam who wrote an article which was published in the Morning Star, a young man named Kadirgamar Danvers from Tellipalai was baptized into the Christian faith in 1835. The villagers, angered by the conversion, burned the local church down. Danvers fled to the village of Panditherruppu, where he met and married Anna Saveriyal.”
“There was a lot of missionary activity in Panditherruppu at the time. They were more tolerant towards the converts,” she explained.
“According to Rev. Canagaratnam, Kadirgamar Danvers and Anna had seven children. One of them was Solomon Danvers,who trained as a medical practitioner under the famous Dr. Green of Manipay. An old Bible geneology that came into my possession recently, makes mention of only four offspring.”
The children of Kadirgamar and Anna Danvers (as recorded in the Bible of Solomon Samuel, their great grandson) –
David Danvers (married Harriet Theivanei)
Solomon Danvers (married Thangam Vethanayagam)
Jane Elizabeth Danvers (married Joshua Perinpanayagam)
Gabriel Danvers (married Mary Santiago)
David Danvers (son of Kadirgamar and Anna) married Harriet Theivanei.
The children of David and Harriet Danvers –
Mary Chellammah Danvers (married Vethanayagam Samuel)
Elizabeth Annamma Danvers (married Jacob Arumainayagam)
Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers (married Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam)
“Mary Chellammah married Vethanayagam Samuel, who was your great grandfather,” she said. “Her sister, Rebecca Ponnamma, married Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam. Samuel Alfred’s father was Joshua Perinpanayagam, who married Jane Elizabeth Danvers, (the daughter of Kadirgamar and Anna), David Danvers’ sister.”
My head begins to swim in a muddle of recurring last names …
“Ah … so that’s the Perinpanayagam connection. And Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers and Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam were first cousins,” I commented. “There’s a connection to the Newtons, too, I noticed …”
“There have been Danvers/Perinpanayagam/ Newton marriages over a few generations,” she replied. “My mother told me the old stories. Now I can pass them on to you and they won’t die with me. I’m so happy you are doing this.”
Her eyes grew misty.
I’m visiting the Colombo home of Aunty Paranidhi, Mum’s cousin. We’ve just met for the first time. She responds with ease to my barrage of questions …
My journey of inquiry commenced shortly after Mum’s funeral in 2015, when I came across a battered copy of a formal family portrait from the 1930’s.
Faded photos on relatives’ Facebook pages – fascinating pictures of men and women from generations gone by – fanned curiosity to a compelling flame.
The search began.
I embarked on a voyage of e-mails, long distance calls and some stamped, addressed pieces of snail mail. Pictures, obituary notices, genealogies and newspaper clippings poured in from all corners of the globe. Through Facebook introductions, Whats App texts and hand-written letters, relatives contacted each other on my behalf, and people I’d only heard of by name leapt onto the ancestry bandwagon.
An inundation of images and information descended on me. Tantalizing clues, fascinating glimpses into a bygone colonial culture and whispers of a skeleton or two in the ancestral cupboards. Riveting. The stuff bestselling novels are made of.
The first stop on the trail led me to Wellawatte (Colombo, Sri Lanka) and Aunty Paranidhi. Her eyesight is almost non-existent, but her mind is razor-sharp, her recollection flawless. I see pieces of my mother in the facial features. The family resemblance is evident.
My pen flies across the pages of the notebook I balance on my lap …
“So Mary Chellammah – David and Harriet Danvers’ daughter – was given in marriage to Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel. He was a farmer who owned land in Urumbrai –
Vethanayagam Samuel and Mary Chellammah had six children –
Sarah Chinnamah (married David Sinniah Kanagaratnam)
Subramaniam Vethanayagam Chelliah (married Annam)
Shadrack Chinniah Samuel (married Mercy Sugirtharatnam Newton)
Elizabeth Thangamma (married Godwin Wesley Sittampalam)
Anna Chinnathangam (married Albert Kanthapoo)
Solomon Chinnatamby Samuel (married Mercy Atputhanayagam Gnanaratnam)
“Aunty Renee found handwritten notes in her father’s Bible – that’s the Bible I mentioned. She sent me scanned copies of the geneologies recorded on the fly leaf. My heart almost stopped when I saw how the entries confirm the details set out in Uncle Donald’s article. Just imagine, how information from a source in Australia confirms the data acquired from another source in Western Canada! Within weeks of each other. It has to be providence!”
“Your interest is inspiring,” she commented. “No one seems to care about these things these days. Renee is Solomon Chinnathamby’s daughter. He had ten children. She is my first cousin.”
“Yes, I know. I remember great uncle Solomon Samuel and the annual Christmas visits to his home in Mutwal. ”
“Anna and Solomon were twins,” she continued. “Shadrack Chinniah was your grandfather. Anna Chinnathangam was my mother. And Rebecca Chinnammah was the mother of Rev. Donald Kanagaratnam who wrote the article you told me about. He was my cousin and your mother’s.”
“According to the genealogy in the Bible, Anna Saveriyal – Kadirgamar Danvers’ wife – was a Bible Woman,” I noted.
“Bible women worked among the women in the village. They visited the homes, shared the gospel of their faith and cared for them,” she explained.
“I remember your mother,” I said. “We called her Asai Granny. She came to stay with us once when I was about seven years old. I remember the glasses and the white hair knotted at the back of her head. She taught me how to make a rag rug with strips of leftover material and a hairpin. I never forgot that.”
Aunty picks up the threads of her narrative …
“Vethanayagam Samuel, a successful farmer, wanted more land. After the birth of his two oldest children, he relocated his family to Vavuniya in the undeveloped Vanni region of the northern province of Jaffna. In those days, people of the Vanni were considered wild and uncouth, even the British avoided the area, so land was dirt cheap. Samuel disposed of his property in Urumbirai, and with the proceeds from the sale, invested in several acres in Vavuniya. He built a house for his growing family and began to cultivate the land.
Once established and beginning to prosper, Samuel encouraged his brother and family move to Vavuniya and make a new life for themselves. The brother sold his land in Urumbrai and purchased the stretch of property adjoining Samuel’s fields. The families became neighbours.
Vethanayagam Samuel distinguished himself as a prominent citizen and earned the respect of his peers. He was appointed chairman of the village council, which was a position of authority and responsibility.
The were no proper roads in the region. Daily journeys on foot could involve traversing stretches of jungle inhabited by snakes and wild animals. Legend has it that Samuel was skilled in the art of herbal medicine and would venture into the jungle in search of plants for his potions.
The farming life called for disciplined manual labour. The older children, still all under ten, had to wake up at dawn each day to perform assigned chores.
Sarah Chinnammah had the unenviable job of cleaning out the cattle shed. One morning she pretended to be asleep and refused to be roused. Her father, whose task it was to wake her up, finally declared, “If my child is really asleep, her feet will move.”
Rebecca reacted as expected and wiggled her toes. She received a spanking for her naughtiness and was shooed out of bed to complete her daily task.
The twins – Anna and Solomon – were born in Vavuniya. During the pregnancy, an astrologer made a grim proclamation. He declared that the birth would not be a good omen and would bring about the untimely demise of both parents (Samuel and Mary).
Solomon showed no signs of life when he was born. The midwife placed the tiny body on a banana leaf outside on the open verandah of the home and rushed back inside to attend to the mother who had gone into labour with a second baby – a twin – whose appearance was an unexpected surprise. Rebecca, the oldest child, sat beside the lifeless form of her new little brother, shedding tears over the loss. Providence intervened when a fly settled on the infant, who shuddered in response and began to bawl loudly as if nothing had been the matter.
Custom dictated that on the thirty-first day after the delivery of a chid, a traditional ceremony of cleansing (thudakku kaliththal in Tamil) must be carried out. The woman who had given birth would take a ritual herbal bath and the house had to be washed and cleaned from top to bottom.
Vethanayagam Samuel and his wife were about to begin the task of house-cleansing when a message came from the village counsel. Samuel was needed to arbitrate on a matter involving a dispute. Samuel sent word asking to be excused. He requested that the vice chairman to act on his behalf.
A second summons came. The matter was urgent, they said. His presence was mandatory.
Samuel left home on the mission of mediation, assuring his wife he would return in an hour. He conferred with both parties and reached a verdict. The disgruntled man who hadn’t been favoured by the decision, reached for a weapon concealed in his clothing and struck a heavy blow. Samuel’s head split open. Never pausing to retaliate, Samuel re-tied his turban and headed home. Blood gushed down from the wound in his head.
He passed a pond (kulam) as he walked, and saw the family dhoby (washerman) scrubbing his way through a pile of villgers’ clothing.
Samuel stepped in to cool off and dipped his head in the water. The dhoby, concerned to see how the water turned crimson from the blood, reached for some fresh-washed clothing spread out on the ground to dry. Samuel shed his blood-stained linen, donning the clean sarong (veshti) and turban offered by the dhoby. He walked into the house to his waiting wife, stepped over the threshold and announced that he was ready to start cleaning. Then, barely pausing for breath, Vethanayagam Samuel collapsed at her feet and died.
In an instant Mary Chellammah Samuel found herself a widow with six young children on her hands. Rebecca – the oldest – was 10, the twins – Solomon and Anna – were barely a month old.
Rebecca Chinnammah, a child herself, had to take charge of a brood of fatherless siblings while her mother attempted to salvage the pieces of their shattered lives.
“There was a crash. The knife came down, barely missed my eye. Blood everywhere…”
I can almost hear Mum’s voice. Wish I’d paid more attention to details.
Her tales often commenced with all six of us.
Pearl, Ruby, Peter, Dan, Beatrice, Elizabeth …
Mum: So all six of us climbed into Babby’s cot with the cake Alice baked. We found it on the kitchen table. Just as Petes lifted the bread knife and said, ‘Let’s have a piece’, the cot collapsed. The knife came down on my forehead. It narrowly missed my eye.”
Alice, the family retainer who helped cook and keep house, the hapless victim of boyish pranks.
Peter and Dan – Petes and Danma to us nieces and nephews – youthful villains.
Baby Elizabeth was Baba. Babby to the next generation.
Me: (doing mental calculation) But Mum, if Babby was say … five, and you … eight, the others would have ranged in age from eighteen and under. How could all six of you have squeezed into a baby’s bed – with a cake and knife?
Mum’s a storyteller, not a mathematician. It’s how she remembers …
Mum: On Sunday evenings we had family prayers. On our knees. They went on forever.
Her eyes are brimming with memories …
Mum: We quietly slipped away into the kitchen to have a feast.
Me: All six of you …
Mum: Poor Alice.No one listened to her protests. The patties were for the visitors. She made lovely patties. We ate everything we could find and crept back to the living room, knelt down and folded our hands.
Me: And No one noticed?
Mum: No. And E.T.S Aunty was so impressed by our piety, we all got toffees. She said we were good children!
E.T.S Granny (always known by her initials), Grandpa’s widowed sister, frequent visitor, devout, determined lady, given to eloquent, lengthy prayers.
Mum: One Sunday evening, Geo Uncle came to visit.
Me: At prayer time?
She’s chuckling …
Mum: Petes used a coat hanger to start Uncle’s car. We all climbed in.
Me: All six of you …
Mum: He drove to Geo Uncle and Malar Aunty’s house. We ate all the goodies Malar Aunty fed us and drove back home again.
Me: And their eyes were closed, they were still praying?
I’m laughing with her …
Mum: He never knew!
Me: And Malar Aunty?
Mum: I don’t think she ever told him.
Shadrach Samuel Esquire, aspiring businessman aged 32, won the hand of Miss. Mercy Newton of Chundikuli, Jaffna. As legend has it, the friends of the sixteen-year-old bride called out over the fence as she walked past the schoolyard of the local girls’ school, on her way to church to be married.
Shadrach and Mercy set up home in Colombo, sleepy metropolis of colonial Ceylon.
He founded the iconic engineering firm, Samuel Sons.
The union produced six children.
A seventh, Mum remembers as Bertie, succumbs to an untimely demise as an infant …
Grandma Mercy died in her sleep at age 33. Cause of death unknown.
Mum recalls asthma and a family history of heart disease …
Rajes Aunty, seventeen-year-old bride, moved in with new husband, Thurai Perinpanayagam (Grandma Mercy’s cousin) to help take care of a brood of children, some of them almost her age.
To this day, Rajes Aunty occupies a special place in all our hearts.
The siblings grew closer to one another.
All six of us …
Grandpa Shadrack never recovered from his loss. Well meaning aunties and clucking grannies suggested umpteen prospective brides to grace his hearth and mother the children.
Mum: He always said, “There was only one woman for me. God who took her away from me will take care of my children.”
Me: Do you remember her, Mum?
Mum: Of course! She was slim and pretty, darling, gentle, soft-spoken, a lady through and though. Always simply and tastefully attired. She was an artist, she painted beautifully. I remember whenever she baked a cake, she let me stir the batter and lick the spoon. I got a new dress every year, for my birthday. She cut it out herself and made me turn the wheel of the sewing machine for her. She used to call me Pambaram.
Mum: Because I was a tomboy. I could never sit still. It means spinning top in Tamil. She played the piano. On Sundays, all six of us would stand ‘round and sing hymns.
Me: It must have been awful after she died.
Mum: We had Daddy. We loved him. He was strict, of course, but such a kind, generous man. He helped everyone. Babby and I secretly called him Dixie Daddy from a song on the radio hit parade. We giggled every time we said it.
Me: Did you miss having a mother, Mum?
Mum: Of course, darling.On the day she died,I asked God why he took my mummy away. I was six. Babby was only three. I made up my mind to eat all my vegetables and grow strong, so I would be fit and well and never die and leave my children all alone. But we had each other, it was a happy home.
All six of us …
Church was an important part of family life.
As cousins, we have childhood memories of our mothers and aunts talking for ages on the phone. Cousin Dileeni and I often recreated these conversations – to loud applause and gales of laughter – at family-gathering kid-concerts,
“How are you, dear?” ” Did Alice come today?” “Can you believe the price of sugar these days?”
They couldn’t do without each other.
Time marched on.
Pearl and Ruby married their doctors.
Peter and Dan sailed off to the United Kingdom to pursue engineering degrees.
Mum kept house for Grandpa and played doting aunty to a growing circle of adoring nieces and nephews.
They called her Bety …
Tragedy struck again. Grandpa Shadrach died unexpectedly, after routine surgery. He was only 63. Mum was 19 years old, Babby just 16.
Shadrach and Mercy united in death, buried side by side ….
Mum and Babby clung to each other –
Peter took over the headship of the firm.
Elizabeth attended medical school.
Mum ran the family home for Uncle Peter, wrote wonderfully imaginative short stories that were published in the newspapers, taught Sunday School and created exquisite cakes for nieces and nephews, an abundance of relatives and friends.
The artistic, thespian, writing/storytelling genes run strong in this family line …
Grandpa was a man of faith, a praying man.
His example rubbed off. Mum was a staunch believer in the power of prayer.
I remember Sunday evenings with Mum at the old piano of her girlhood (now situated in her own home), singing the same beloved hymns she sang as a child.
I remember us as little girls – Sister and I – kneeling by our beds as Mum taught us to pray. I remember Mum reading from a book of devotionals, holding hands with Dad, Sister and Me (in our tiny school uniforms) and sending us off for the day with a prayer.
Sister and I often made fun, called her Saint Beatrice.
Mum learned from Grandpa Shadrach.
They prayed, things happened …
I learned from Mum.
Much older now, I’m an ardent believer in the mountain-moving power of prayer.
Faith we follow …
Just dialed long distance to talk to Babby – godmother and second mum — in Bethesda, Maryland.
The pain of missing Mum is less when she and I talk …
Babby is the only one left. She feels it badly.
Asked about the size of the cot. Says she slept in it till she was around eight years old.
All six of us?
It must have been a humongous piece of baby furniture!
Called Rajes Aunty some months back, posed questions about the family tree. She snail-mailed handwritten details from New York –
Excited, more curious than ever!
Saw a picture of an ancestor on Facebook recently.
The Perinpanayagam connection, circa 1834 …
Fascinated. Impelled to dig deeper into the family tree.
Mum’s second cousin, Thavo (Geo Uncle’s nephew), e-mailed more puzzle pieces from New Zealand –
Cousin Thavo remembers the Noddy cake Mum made: ” For my sixth birthday in 1959. It had Noddy’s car and house and even had 2 milk bottles outside the house” …
Discovered that Grandpa Shadrach and Grandma Mercy were distant relatives.
An exhilarating peep into the past.
It was misty this morning in Toronto.
Much brighter/warmer in the land of our birth.
Alas for ugly politics, economics: the clans are scattered worldwide.
Appetite whetted. Must know more.
These roots go deep.
Stay tuned.More stories to come as more dots are joined.
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