Seeya died as he lived – with dignity. He was 96.
We never talked politics. For 20 years, as I was growing up, he was just there. To drive me to College and back. To teach me, though not as much as he would have liked, carpentry. He was proud to own tools that many professional carpenters did not have, and always said to use the proper tool for the task at hand. He taught me to alight from a ladder I had scaled and was too scared to get off of. He was over 70 at the time, but had great powers of scaling walls and clamber on to roofs. I followed him when small, but suddenly aware of the great height, could neither alight nor descend. It was his firm hand that grasped me, and helped me up. I should have looked out for him amidst loose tiles, wires, and slippery leaves – he instead took care of me. He scorned at our concern and love. He lived long enough to be lovingly tortured by three great-grandchildren. They found him curious – something out of Blyton in the flesh, or latterly, a character from Hogwarts. Through Seeya, I learnt before 10, my first Latin. Ex nihilo nihil fit, randomly, when he thought I should apply myself more to studies. And when I went looking for Ratmalana’s own Faraway Tree in overgrown parts of the garden, he bellowed latet anguis in herba. Largely peripheral to my young adventures, those words and his voice are indelibly imprinted in memory. He read voraciously till his death – books of all sorts, collected throughout his life, and arranged around his study in his bedroom. He never read to us as children, but it was access to his small but rich library that led to me study English literature.
I don’t think Seeya fully understood what I do. It’s the hardest thing to explain new media curation to someone who had never typed or texted in his life. With long flowing script, he wrote aerogrammes when I was abroad studying. I gave him his first mobile phone last year, which he took to with surprising aplomb. Once when I was in New York, the SOS feature on the phone was activated around 2am, leading to a frantic call back to the mobile which went unanswered. Asked later why he pressed it, he said he was just playing around with it. And that was Seeya for you – ever curious, always interested in learning. But he was also violently stubborn – giving Archchi hell for doing things she thought fit and against his wishes. They were married for 65 years, longer than I expect to live.
Throughout these decades, he kept meticulous records of his life including details of his many road trips, to Jaffna and elsewhere around Sri Lanka. His study is filled to ceiling with carefully tagged, docketed files – some he instructed to be destroyed after his death, others I look forward to reading. From what he shared when alive, they are of a country utterly alien to me – travelogues not of a simpler or better time, but a country before war, and its impact on polity and society.
Seeya was a proud public servant, and at the time of his death, the country’s oldest living postmaster. We never spoke of what he thought of public officials today. He was happy with the pittance of a pension he received after decades of government service. He was openly proud of his life work. At his funeral, colleagues younger to him, now also long retired, referred to him as guru and master, and of the values beyond professional service he imparted.
He was as generous with his grandchildren and great grand children as he was stingy with self – keeping unused in the vast recesses of his almirah clothes and electronics lovingly gifted to him by family and friends, yet gifting me when I was small LEGO, toys and books. He chain smoked suruttu for many years before giving up – and had in his last decades a penchant for beer. He was a young man in 1942, when on Easter Sunday, the Japanese flew over Sri Lanka to attack the British. Part of the propeller of the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero shot over S. Thomas’ College Mutwal, he had run and picked up, adorned a shelf in his bedroom and was a prized possession. Seeya was, in fact, living history. What one read in history books, he actually lived and worked through, and often had a perspective not recorded by anyone else.
Seeya’s last words to me were Putha, what can I do for you. That was Tuesday afternoon, when I went to see him out of a sixth sense. He passed away, after his morning tea, on Wednesday.
I miss him sorely.
Published in The Nation newspaper, 30 September 2012.