I constantly wonder if everybody I know has had the fortune of having a really happy and vividly colourful childhood like mine. When I look back I don’t remember a single dark moment that I want to erase from my past. This is a wonderful feeling. No skeletons in the cupboards, no shameful episodes I want to shun away from. Only fun, happiness and laughter lingers with memories entwined with vivid characters that added a delightful dimension to our lives in Panadura. A small town with a big attitude. A religious and cultural hotbed. An unimaginable trail of ‘caricatures’ that influenced my love for mingling with people of all walks of life. All this and more helped shape my destiny to be who I am today.
I come from a family of four, with three younger siblings. My brother has been my partner in crime, in all my pranks. My two sisters were much younger to us to be considered important enough then. My parents were both busy working to make our lives comfortable. They were simple, down to earth and principled people in their outlook to life. They were understanding and caring, but were second class citizens in our household as archchi reigned supreme.
Archchi was the centre of our universe. She was everything a child could ask for. Warm, full of fun, cool, loving, giving and most of all, wise with age and life. I, my brother and sisters were most fortunate to have had our childhood spent in her company in a sprawling old house with a large garden, visited by the most diverse personalities who were mostly neighbours, friends or relatives of ours. They brought in news, views, laughter and mostly warmth to our lives which made us who we are today.
We were not rich. But content with all what we had. Because archchi made sure that we were always happy. She showered us with affection and smothered us with care. Archchi didn’t only love us. She loved life. She loved people. As a result, our home was always filled with ‘people’. People who made an impression in our lives in one way or another. These people are now only a memory. But a very vivid one as much as archchi’s memory is to me.
Each one of these visitors to our home had a story attached to them. At least that’s how we would relate to them. They were undoubtedly a source of great entertainment. In an era where there were no TV’s to dish out soppy soap operas, these characters provided us with unlimited and unedited, real life entertainment.
Be it a paid worker, a meal seeker or a no reason passerby, they all had a special place in our home. Dropping in for ‘no reason’ – nikan aawa was common place. Though they always said nikan aawa, there was always a reason for their visits. We knew that. But it didn’t matter as long as they kept coming. Nobody made appointments to visit another’s home. Time was of no significance. The reason was unimportant. What mattered was only that people visited each other as often as they could. If a regular visitor stopped coming by there would be concern as to whether there has been any unconscious misunderstanding.
Thus the stream of visitors kept flowing in…
Maggie archchi was a star. She was our sweet- meat maker who would visit us mostly closer to the New Year. I always remembered her as an unclean old lady. Very fair in complexion and may have been quite a looker in her day. But from the time I remember her, she was fat and bucksome and always carried a dirty pan malla soiled with oil. Her characteristic ‘peeping boobs’ fascinated us kids as we had never seen old, hanging boobs before! Her not so clean kabakuruththuwa never shielded them, ever. She would sway from side to side and so would her boobs under her blouse. She would make the best kevum, kokis and kaludodol in the world. And we would sit in the black, sooty kitchen of ours and watch her artistry; picking up piping hot kevums as they landed on the kiri gotta to drain the oil. My brother always played pranks on her while she would complain about him to archchi who shooed my brother away pretending to be angry, while sporting an amused look she could never hide.
He used to watch Maggie archchi’s gestures intently, waiting for the boobs to peep each time she raised her hands to share a story about someone in ‘confidence’ with archchi. He would pull a coconut leaf from the hearth and tickle her hanging boobs and derive great pleasure. I believe my brother’s obsessions with breasts as an artist began here.
Our garden stretched from the Galle Road to the ‘up stair’ house creating a long drive way which parted at the lawn that stood in the middle of the stretch. We would all sit on the door steps and watch the Galle Road and its passersby on most evenings. A familiar figure was sure to turn into our drive way and this would either make us happy or annoyed depending on the visitor. There were those who came by almost daily. And that annoyed us. Like Percy Seeya.
Percy Seeya was one of the most handsome old men I had ever seen. He was supposed to be a cousin and a close friend of our grandfather’s, who was dead and gone before we were born. Though my grandmother was sure he was older to her, he continued to call her ‘Sessy akka’ as she was ‘Harry aiya’s wife. Percy Seeya’s obsession was finding a husband for her daughter who was fast passing her marriageable age. For some reason, a lot of archchi’s friends consulted archchi for their horoscope comparisons. We were sure archchi had no clue about horoscopes, but she would always take the two horoscopes brought for comparison and give the initial verdict of their compatibility. It was only if archchi gave the nod of approval would these horoscopes go to the next step of a professional horoscope reader. This intrigued us no end. But it continued to happen until Archchi passed away.
We had a different theory about Percy Seeya’s daily visits. We were convinced that Percy Seeya had the ‘hots’ for our archchi and we would tease her all the time about it. She always looked angry at this naughty matchmaking gig, but we were sure she enjoyed the innocent teasing we did, nonetheless. Percy Seeya always was immaculately dressed in a pair of soft coloured cotton pants and a matching jacket over his well starched white shirt. A pair of sun glasses and a derby hat completed his smart ensemble. He was a heart patient and panted no end after taking his daily walk to our house. He would walk in requesting for a glass of water or ‘thembili’ depending on the time of day and Archchi was sure he would drop dead at our house one day and was paranoid about this. He often lit a cigar when he started his senseless conversations with archich. Somedays he drove his old Bently which was beautifully maintained. He always looked smashing in his green old crock. Amazingly handsome he was and we admired the complete package he represented.
When we were tired of his visits, we would send our little sister to the door and ask her to lie about archchi not being at home. She would innocently say that “archchi wanted her to tell Percy Seeya that archchi was not in”. This would make archchi really awkward and would come out pretending to be angry with “these children” who always “made up stories”. This was a frequent occurrence but made no difference to Percy Seeya’s daily visits.
Brassier Archchi was another unforgettable character. Yet another poor woman who’s daughter made a living stitching and selling ‘bras’. She had a noticeable limp which was caused due to a beating by her good for nothing son in law with whom her daughter had eloped. She would hold her saree with one hand to avoid tripping. She would limp slowly along our drive way. Brassier Archchi claimed to be a Mudliar’s daughter who unfortunately ended up a poor woman due to her daughter’s follies. She was toothless and spoke in a strange manner. We would get her to dance on one leg and give her money for the entertainment. She would sing ‘oh my darling clementine’ and other old songs on request. Long before Angelina’s and Triumphs triumphed the world of lingerie, Brassier Archchi’s daughter promoted her home made version, selling it door to door. We were bemused with this product as her visits were classified as adults only as she promoted ‘brassiers’ to potential buyers. I have no recollection of archchi ever buying any, except my brother making fun of these strange strappy things. But Brassier Archchi’s visits continued. Her salesmanship was par excellence. If my memory serves me right, the ‘brassieres’ were in white and pink and were neatly packed in cellophane bags.
I also remember that most of the old ladies who visited us either didn’t wear a ‘bra’ or if they did, they mostly had their cotton, discoloured ‘bra straps’ falling off the shoulder and they would keep adjusting them all the while they would be talking. I believe this breed of bra manufacturer and wearer is now extinct. However Brassier Archchi will never be a faded memory to me.
Arranged marriages was the order of the day and most parents were obsessed with finding the right partner for their marriageable son or daughter. First the family background was discussed and then the horoscopes were matched before the couple was introduced to each other. Archchi was known to be a great matchmaker amongst the family circles and hence the regular visits of some special guests. We knew that these people came mostly with a selfish motive, but made sure they made it look like a regular social call.
Norma archchi came in a big grand Holden car driven by a well groomed chauffer. She was also a regular to our home, again as a desperate mother who tried to find partners for her many sons and daughter. She was always elegantly dressed in a silk saree and wore a big bold brooch as the saree pin that held the pota together. We always wondered how archchi’s friends had jet balck hair when archchi was all grey. In the good old days not too many old people tinted their hair. But Norma archchi had her tint up to her forehead like a skull cap. This was our point of amusement. She was a proud woman and I don’t think we liked her too much, especially because she didn’t pay any attention to us.
Leena Archchi was another colourful character who was also in search of partners for her two daughters and her mentally challenged son! She was the biggest snob and cast conscious lady who visited our home those days. She would always come with her domestic help who would sit on a small chair designated for people of lower social class like domestics or ‘low class’ people like the washer woman. We had such entertainment simply looking at her facial expressions and strange mannerisms. She would mix Sinhala and English in the most bizarre fashion which we listened to intently and often be aghast. A phrase that has stuck in my mind all these years is ‘water easy, darath found, so mokadda problem’ when describing the life of her domestics. We loved listening to Leena Archchi as she was so full of character and of course provided more than enough fodder for laughter after she left.
Later in life Leena Archchci migrated to New Zealand and had started working part time in a factory to earn some pocket money to buy her Sri Lankan friends presents when visiting them. She would always bring Gipeo Lace for archchi and request archchi to give her the ‘block’ in order to cut the smallest piece she would need for a saree blouse. Amidst all her Idiosyncrasies she genuinely cared for archchi and we knew that.
No visitor was sent away by archchi without offering something to eat or drink. There was something to eat at our home all the time. Bottles of Orange Barley, Necto and Lanka Lime were always in store, mostly hidden from us. Archchi always made yummy food that I long for, to date. Our home was an open house to all and sundry, irrespective of their class or creed.
Having said that, I recall that different kinds of welcomes awaited different classes of people. Those who came to help in the household mostly spoke standing under the porch. The next level of person sat on the steps of the house while archchi would be seated on a chair facing them. There would be another class of people who were not invited into the drawing room, but would be requested to sit in the ‘pila’, the verandah of the house,The ‘drawing room’ was for special and distinguished guests. Plates and glasses at home also had a subtle class distinction attached to it as I recall. The small chair was permanently classified as the ‘servants’ chair. There was an underlying class system that prevailed in the welcoming of guests those days which we didn’t make a big deal about, but accepted silently. We were too young to understand the social nuances to challenge it at the time. In retrospect this seems so inhuman, snobbish and anti social, but during our small days it seemed so normal.
More visitors flowed into our home…
There was Annie Archchi , who supposedly was a distant relative who was also an orphan. She was a midget who was no more than three feet tall. If I remember right, she too had no teeth and slurped her food at the table. I remember feeling squeamish to sit with her at the table at meal time. Annie Archchi, a spinster, had a monkey phobia. She constantly thought that monkeys were chasing her and gave us a run around with her wild imagination of make belief monkeys peeping at her from windows or sneering at her at night. We didn’t interpret the Freudian theory of her behavior then, but enjoyed the drama around Annie Archchi and her monkey fantasies.
Fraizer Seeya, clad in a clean white sarong and a white shirt tucked in, held together with a black cloth belt, cycled frequently to chat to archchi and share some family gossip. He had a black mole on his chin and stammered a little. He was then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s right hand man and always had interesting stories to tell us about ‘Dudley’, his friend. When Mr Senanayake died, Frizer Seeya did a ‘skip the line’ version of not standing in queues and took us straight up to the casket to pay our last respects to one of the most popular politicians of our time. Fraizer Seeya was a lovable character and we enjoyed his company in a kind of strange way.
Some visitors made a difference to our lives with new inventions.
Isakokis Archchi introduced a special sweet meat named Isakokis to our family. Never figured how it got its name though. It was a crisp, sweet roll, like a big cigar, packed in cellophane. This was a novelty when it was introduced to our house hold for the first time. After that she would frequently visit us as a saleswoman of this irresistible sweet. Her name was Chandrawathie. But she was automatically christened as Isakokis Archchci because of her specialty. Today this tasty sweet meat is called Vanilla Snacks and is available for sale at sweet meat shops in Panadura.
When we were little, unlike today, handy men and jacks of all trade galore. Beeta Baas and Sirisena Baas, a mason and a carpenter respectively, were two such men who were mostly drunk and abusive rather than doing the job they were hired for. Amidst this weakness they were constantly called for odd jobs by archchi, swearing each time never to call again. They were faithful and humble yet always nasty when drunk. Whenever they were out of work, which was most often, archchi was their source of income.
It was always an athamaaruwa for these poor folk. Archchi could never say no to anybody. Especially to the poor in the neighbourhood. She was the most large hearted lady I can think of.
The temples in Panadura played a significant role in our lives. We had no choice but visit these temples with our parents at the drop of a hat. There were three temples we visited depending upon the need. The head priest was an extremely influential person in our lives. Nothing significant will be done without the advice and the blessings of the priests of these temples. They knew all about our families and goings on like a family friend would. I must confess that this was not the most sought after place for us as it was boring and considered a chore by me and my brother and sisters.
Apparently my brother’s horoscope indicated that he should be ordained as a priest as he was born on Vesak Day. I used to dread this thought of losing my brother to the temple. It is also believed that the parents would accrue lots of merit if a son is sacrificed to the Sanga. Sanity prevailed in the end and he was denied of priesthood, thankfully.
Archchi was a member of the temple’s lady’s association-the Kulangana Samithiya which my brother and I had christened as Marangana Samithiya to the displeasure and great annoyance of my mother. A select group of ladies met at different houses to discuss ways and means of collecting funds for the upkeep of the temples. That was the scope of Kulangana Samithi members. One car will pick up this group and go from house to house collecting funds. Meetings will be held to discuss the future plans. A bevy of ‘archchis’ will gather in our home frequently for this purpose. I don’t think we enjoyed these gatherings, as there was not much fun for us watching these meetings.
Offering alms to the temple was a regular ritual in our household. There were more than three temples of which archchi was a leading dayikaawa and had fixed dates called Mura Daana to provide alms to each temple on a monthly basis. As a result, Daniel alias Dan Aratchchi was a regular apparition at home. He was the temple abiththiya and like most of this kind, was considered ‘foolish’. My brother had a field day each time Daniel came to fetch alms. He would give him so much grief that he would shout to my grandmother and threaten to complain to the head priest. All his complaints always fell on deaf ears and my brother continued to revel in his pranks on Dan Aarachchi. His favourite couplet of harassment was daval Miguel – re Daniel hoo hoo!
More faces dance before me as I reminisce the days gone by…
Jinadasa Seeya, archchi’s beloved cousin was the patron of ‘elephant house’. A Lawyer by profession, he was the size of a baby elephant, married to another elephant, packed three daughters of equal shape and size into a voxwagon and drove around. A family of five elephants automatically got their branding with the jumbo reference. He was the most kind hearted man around, but we were mortally scared of him because of his size and his loud speech and manner. The shriek of ‘Onna Jinadasa Seeya Enawo’ by my brother still echoes in my ears as I picture him running for his dear life. He would hide himself in the kitchen as Jinadasa Seeya’s car turns into our drive way and would stay in hiding until he left. Archchi always sought sound advice from Jinadasa Seeya about family matters and random issues.
When relatives visited us, most often there would be juicy gossip that did the rounds. We were glued to the chairs and listened intently. Most often we were chased away from the gossip sessions when our parents and archchi realized that the conversations bordered on confidential and ‘adult’ matters. But we would hide behind the doors and continue to listen to the complete story and thereby was up to date with most family gossip.
Podi Anty was our irresistible neighbor. Married to Podi Uncle, son of loku anty and loku uncle, was an urbanite who came to live in Panadura after her marriage. She was the fshion icon and trend setter of sorts. Being the drama queen she was never stopped entertaining us and feeding us with neighbourhood gossip. Every evening when our family came out to the garden, Podi Anty would get drawn to our home like a magnet. She would always shout across the fencw through her window to ours to check if we were in. The houses were never walled like now. It was fenced off so that we could walk through one garden to the next. We shared each other’s lives through thick and thin. Needless to say, these neighbourly relationships had a sprinking of jealousy and competition, especially because us kids were of similar ages.
The story goes that Podi Anti was shy or scared of sex and thus the reason for her only daughter whom she conceived on their honeymoon and since put a stop to any sexual relations with her husband. The story also goes that her her only daughter who is much married now has no children due to the same phobia as her mother!
As neighbours we shared resources as well. Handy men, gardeners, cooks were shared at times of need.
Junda was our coconut plucker who was akin to a burnt piece of fire wood. Black, scraggy and frail. I have never seen him dressed in any other attire than an amude – a piece of loin cloth strung to a chord. He was so poor; he may never have owned any other piece of clothing. If ever he needed money, he would offer to climb a coconut tree at least to clean the tree if nothing else. He had a characteristic odor which I can smell even now when I picture him. This was referred to as gas ganda which we were quite accustomed to and never felt squirmish about then. That was how we accepted junda.
Akmon our fish monger was a daily visitor and if my memory serves me right, we bought fish from him every single day. Akmon, though big and hefty seemed a soft spoken and humble man. But we treated him with utmost contempt. There was a secret about him that we all knew. The secret was that he had once murdered a man in cold blood wielding his fish knife and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The story goes that Archchi’s brother who was a Supreme Court judge at the time, had shortened his prison sentence. For that, Akmon was grateful. We were severely warned that we should never annoy him as his temper could be uncontrollable, going by his past experiences.
Though we had a car, most of our short trips were made in a buggy cart. Especially when the trip involved Archchci, minus our parents.
I never could fathom why I was carted to school in a buggy cart when we lived less than five minutes away from school. I believe it’s another social norm. Walking may have given a class signal. Funnily, my mother who was a teacher in the same school walked or drove to school, while I swayed myself in a buggy cart to school and back morning and noon. Paelis was our carter. A gentle man, who kept a spotlessly clean buggy cart, pulled by a fawn coloured bull. Paelis hardly ever spoke to anybody except when he had to order the bull to speed up. Paelis also carted archchi and me to the town often. My rides with archchi to the town was like weekly Christmas shopping sprees as I would be able to ask for goodies at free will. Needless to say archchi would always oblige much to the annoyance of my parents who thought she was always spoiling us.
Cast played a key role in most people’s lives. Though it was not openly discussed, it was a strong underlying differentiator.
I cannot forget Hunu Seeya, the man who repaired our tiled roof and painted our house with a chunam mix. Hence his name Hunu Seeya. Apparently Hunu is a cast he is not from and was angry when referred to as such. He had a squint hat resembled an owl and thus got his nick name Bakamoona. That was how we referred to him in his absence or when we wanted to be nasty.
Abeysuriya Uncle was one of a kind. He was a cast fanatic and the ultimate snob. He would look down upon anybody who didn’t belong to his cast. Who didn’t speak in English was not worth his salt. The irony was that his wife was a simple, village lady who couldn’t string two words of English together. But her name was Margeret Rose! He brought his cute little son to be tutored in English by my mother. He was one who believed that he was a straight descendent from the British, as nothing ‘Ceylonese’ appealed to him. ‘Ceylon’ it was for him, as the British called it. British rule was unquestionable. He lived in the past. Trying to live like an Englishman, he was always clad in a jacket and derby hat, eating with fork and spoon. He was after an eye operation and therefore wore thick glasses which for some reason looked unclean all the time. He would constantly speak of Mr White, Brown or Black – his imaginary English bosses who treated him so well. We detested this nature of Abeysuriya Uncle even as kids, as we understood how snooty this man was. We tolerated him nonetheless as we had no other choice, as his son was my brother’s play mate and they were really fond of each other.
He relocated to a new home away from our neighbourhood and selected a house amidst the so called ‘low cast people’ – the drumming community. He wanted to be superior amongst these people. He reveled in this neighbourhood, but ironically his son’s playmates became the sons of tom tom beaters as he referred to by him!
I cannot but ignore the string of ever faithful domestics we grew up with. Daya, Prema, Karuna, Chandra, Hemalatha, Kusuma… the list is endless. Most of these women were children or very young girls when handed over to us to be treated as domestic aids. They slaved for us with no future prospects in store. Their lives were retained in our parents’ hands. Marriage was only a distant dream. Most of them were either orphans or single parent children. When they are handed over to a home, it is understood that their future will be taken care of.
Prema had come to us as a little girl. Child abuse was not a consideration then. Prema grew up with archchi in our household and began to look after us when we were children. She managed to escape from her bondage by starting a romance with a carpenter next door. Though our elders were sure she would fall into dire misery after marriage, she was insistent. She was given away in marriage by archchi much against archchi’s wishes with dowry and all. As predicted Prema fell from the frying pan to the fire as she couldn’t adjust to a poor life style after living in our home. To date, we help her family as they still look up to us as their guardians.
Daya was also desperate to get married when she was the right age. Archchi had the difficult task of shielding them from unsuitable suitors who were constantly trying to get them interested. Daya was involved with a married man, again a carpenter from the neighbouring saw mill, but archchi somehow managed to put a stop to it. To date Daya is unmarried and remains in her brother’s home as a bitter spinster.
Karuna was luckier. She was given to my mother’s sister as a part of her ‘dowry’, to make a life at my aunt’s home. Karuna looked after my cousins and was like their second mother. She later found her own partner in life and was given in marriage with the blessings of my aunt and uncle as her husband to be was a good man, a driver of a friend and approved by our family.
Karuna is no more now, but has left two lovely twin daughters, Upeksha and Maithree who are also married and treat my aunt like their god mother.
Unlike today, domestics were definitely treated differently in our household. They ate cheaper rice. Different curries were cooked for them for consumption, like small fish and cheaper vegetables. This was nothing unique or bad those days. It was the accepted norm! I cringe when I reminisce the days we ordered our domestics and treated them as lesser mortals than us.
Life and lifestyles have changed drastically with changed social norms. We cannot regret our past, as that was how life was those days.Our household was no different. May be just a little more eventful because of archchi and her string of friends and well-wishers.
Gush of memories don’t seem to leave me and the faces from the past keep parading in front of my eyes endlessly…
However, when reminiscing, I am saddened to note that this colourful life was never experienced by my children for whom heroes and idols are inanimate cartoon characters or the likes of Barbie, Spiderman and Superman. Exposure to different social groups, fascinating personalities is what has made us who we are today. We met, touched, laughed and cried with real people then. Though today they are only a memory, they are still so vivid and oh so colourful.