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.
Summer still clings to my head in spite of the skeletal trees brooding outside my window.
Okay, so returning to warmer times in sunny climes …
We are now in Jaffna, Judy. Part Two of our virtual travels together, you and I —
Click here to readGood Morning (Again) Colombo! (Dear Judy, Part 1) …
We drove into Tellippalai where Dad’s parents settled on their return to Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s pre-republic name) from the British colony of Malaya, shortly after World War II. Grandpa, a communications officer under the British government, took up the post of Airport Controller in the neighbouring town of Palaly.
Ghosts of war-time devastation lined our route. Cringing skeletons of bombed out buildings still haunt this once-upon-a-time ghost town.
A trickle of former war regugees are returning after decades of absence. Several unclaimed properties are now in government hands …
Desolate brick-and-motar wraiths of buildings steadfastly guard their ground –
So on day three of our odyssey, Husband and I found ourselves at the entrance of the graveyard attached to the Church of the American Ceylon Mission.
The rubble of shattered gravestones poked their way through tall vegetation, thorny underbrush and rope-like vines. A tangled tatch of tropical jungle.
Yikes! How trustworthy is the church caretaker who said there were no snakes?
But I have to tell you first about the journey leading up to this moment, Judy.
So this is how it came about …
Husband and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit our ancestral homelands in the Jaffna Peninsula, a war zone for decades and only recently open to tourists.
How to figure out the details in such a short space of time?
— and presented my wish list to Mariesz, her assistant. A demanding cut-and-paste itinerary, a combination of every location in the area associated with family history and lore. Neither lady turned a hair.
Mariesz: No. So sorry, we are still in the process of setting up our site for online payments.
Me: (wailing) But I don’t have time to go to the bank!
Yamindra and Mariesz showed up at Dad’s condo the next afternoon, with Accountant Lady and credit card machine in tow.
Impressive service or what?
All booked and paid up by the time Husband flew in from Toronto.
Still pitch-dark. Growling clouds burped and released a deluge as we drove away.
Rest stop and a scalding pot of Ceylon tea in the ancient city of Anuradhapura –
And it’s well past the hottest time of year …
Landscape grows arid, parched and thirsty.
A paradox-panorama of war and peace as we fly by –
Crossed Elephant Pass, a sliver of strait connecting the northern province to the rest of the island, sandwiched on either side by shallow stretches sea.
Welcome to Jaffna, the traditional homeland of the Tamil people …
Zipped through Vavuniyya, then Chavakacheheri —
— and on to Jaffna town.
A different ambiance manifests beyond Elephant pass. It’s unique, distinct.
Ladies on bicycles –
— scooters and motorbikes –
Neatly draped sarees and all …
Scooters/ motorbikes are the new, affordable middle class family vehicles –
A plethora of Hindu temples at every corner –
Temple architecture is typically South Indian …
Ancient deities –
– worshipped in nooks and under spreading trees –
Sages and ascetics, some long dead ..
… and some still very much alive —
A distinct, bright South Indian flavour in the traditional women’s fashions –
One-of-a-kind cuisine –
‘Holy’ cows roam the streets unchallenged —
Ubiquitous stray dogs-
A conservative culture still –
Check out the sign, Judy. Chuckling with you …
Discreet couples sneak into quiet corners away from the prying eyes …
A certain demureness about the young women. Untainted grace and elegance.
Long tresses, often worn in a single braid, still the order of the day –
(1) Shopping malls boasting …
… beauty parlours and bright billboards
(2) Supermarkets –
Shopping in airconditioned comfort versus haggling over prices at the local market …
(3) Upscale tourist hotels –
(4) Mobile phones –
(5) … and Tom Cruise!
Niranjan slowed down to point out the ruins of the old Kachcheri –
The bombed remains of the Kachecheri (district secretariat), a maginificent Dutch-era seat of administration. It’s modern replacement sits across the street ..
Lingered awhile in the amazingly well- preserved home of King Sangilian’s minister.
How it survived the war is a mystery …
– The teaching hospital
– And ever-present phantoms of the past
Remains of once-magnificent Dutch-era architecture –
(Click here to take a haunting walk through the shattered ruins of an old Dutch-period mansion.)
Carefully slid camera under barbed wire fence to get this one. No one could identify the sprawling ruins, probably a palace, across the street from our hotel. The damage is definitely pre-war, from ceturies of neglect. Thick tree trunks grow out of remnants of walls.
No fanfare or signage for many ancient abandoned Hindu worship-places squatting by the roadside –
A sense of unhurried uncomplexity about life in this region. As if it’s just awakening from a long sleep.
Fluorescent lights, after-sundown markets and shops groaning with made-in-China and other items in varying violent shades of neon –
The three-storey Rio Ice Cream parlour with its wide variety of modestly-priced sundaes, is the place to visit these days.
A constant stream of tourists spill out of loaded buses …
The place is popular with couples anxious to hide from nosey parkers.
In a culture of arranged marriages, young women have to be cautious about ‘spoiling’ their names and ruining future ‘chances’ …
Popped in at Aunty Sothy’s old house, occupied for years by the LTTE and then the military. Street numbers and names have changed. It took some locating.
Then on to some vanishing landmarks of the LTTE –
– The unmarked site of the slain Tamil Tiger leader, Prabhakaran’s home –
– and the remains of a Tamil Tiger war-themed children’s playground –
Built for children raised to hate and kill. Sent unpleasant chills up my back …
He shrugged when I enquired enthusiastically if there were plans for restoration and renovations in the near future.
“Who has the money?”
Framed family photos still adorn the walls, dusty books distintegrate on cupboard shelves, clothing and kichen untensils scattered on the floor while a rusty parrot cage languishes in the yard outside –
Signs of hasty retreat …
Me: Is there any bitterness in your heart, Nirangan?
Niranjan: No. The people of the north accept that war is a political machine. Soldiers are paid to do a job and follow orders. Without acceptance and forgiveness, there is no way of moving on. Besides, we are tired of war and the stagnation it brings.”
Niranjan was born into war, a child of the horrendous ethnic conflict that saw a death toll of over one hundred thousand civilians. His eyes clouded over when he described the growing up years without electricity or leisure activities, when he had to do his homework by the light of a kerosene-fuelled hurricane lamp. When there were no sounds of boys playing cricket in the dirt lanes outside the garden gates. When no one dared step into the dusty streets after sundown. When schools ceased to operate, childhood ceased to exist and young people disappeared, never to be seen again. When every young man was suspected of being a terrorist and subjected to unspeakable horrors, or seen as a potential recruit for the Tamil Tiger cause and expected to perpetrate such horrors.
He talked of the time he was conscripted into the LTTE, months before the end of the war –
Against his will …
– and when the militants surrendered and the army closed in. The memories grew ugly and burdensome. He changed the subject.
Sometimes the eyes speak what the lips cannot utter. There’s a heaviness in the air …
Nirangan: No more tears.Why dwell on the past? Sinhalese is spoken on the streets as much as the Tamil language now.
I asked if I could write his story and he agreed to sit down and talk the next time I visited Sri Lanka.
I purchased a hurricane lamp –
A souvenir to remember the many years determined young people of Niranjan’s generation excelled academically despite deprivations and hindrances …
And now I should return to the beginning and the jungle-graveyard in Tellipalai, shouldn’t I? But I’m all out of time, Judy. I’m so sorry. In the next post, I promise. Probably not until after the New Year though.
Tons of Christmas stuff still to get done . I’m really behind this year …
If you should happen to know anyone who’s thinking of exploring Sri Lanka in an off-the-beaten-track sort of way, I would recommend Jungle Fowl. The service is personal and prompt. The team is with it, knowledgeable and passionate. An exciting, different kind of travel service, to be sure.
Stay warm, my friend. Loving this country as I do, the tropics still run in my veins. I’d be happy to remain indoors from December all the way to March, if I had the choice.
So thankful for the freedom we take so much for granted in this wonderful country of my adoption.