Late October last year, I was woken up early in the morning by my mother in a state of panic. I had returned to Sri Lanka a few days before to pursue my doctoral fieldwork. Responding to my mother’s cries, I found my father unconscious on the floor. The significant brain trauma and internal haemorrhaging resulting from the fall, or because of a sudden stroke that led to loss of consciousness (we can never be sure), required immediate hospitalisation and surgery. My father died on Christmas Eve and was cremated the day after, on Boxing Day.
He was 82.
Since October, I have tried to give expression to or somehow define – for my own sanity – the vacuum his physical absence has created through death, even as he lives on, in a very real way, in memory. I’m often angry at how monumentally unsuccessful all and any attempts have been to reconcile his passing. I’ve succumbed to the debilitating violence of grief at strange times and places. When boarding my flight back to New Zealand, at a time I would usually message him. When driving in Colombo, suddenly realising I was in his car and road trips to Kataragama from decades ago. Seeing puhul dosi at Keells, which he loved. Every single morning since his death, looking out my bedroom window, when I used to spot him, silhouetted against sunrise, returning from a brisk walk – an adorably comical sight of loose fit shirt and trouser, hat, unwieldy stick and sometimes, freshly-made maalu paan or hot ross-paan he had picked up for me. Writing this. The grief is paralytic but instead of numbing over time, at least in my case, sharpens and amplifies its impact with every episode of an overpowering memory. I am envious of my elder sister in this regard, who takes recourse to and clearly finds great comfort in the dhamma to deal with Thaththa’s death. I just have memories.
The earliest are from the times we used to go down South as a family. My father believed in and later on studied astrology. It was for him a way to make sense of the world, and his place in it. For the rest of us, it meant that whenever we left home, we had to leave at an anointed time that was always a tad strange – say 4.11, 10.23 or 9.47. There was a direction he stepped out facing, always with the right foot placed first. And before the journey, he circled the steering wheel thrice, whispering a silent prayer for our safety and a good journey, whether around the corner or Kandy. I remember how from 4.50 to 5.20 am, every weekday till I did my O/L’s, my father and I used to pray at home, seated on a padura. I was often too sleepy for piety but had memorised enough pali to repeat by rote. Thaththa was far more conscientious, and ended every day by blessing me, stroking my head repeatedly. It was my favourite part of the morning. I remember going to the old Lake House and Peoples Publishing House near Nippon Hotel with him, as well as the Caves bookshop in Fort. None of these places exist anymore. Growing up with very little money, I learnt – like my sister – to never ask our parents for things we intuitively knew they couldn’t afford. But with books, I made an exception, knowing my father would always oblige. I am terrible at math. My father – a Chartered Accountant – was very good at it. I have this nagging suspicion that he was sad his only son turned out to be someone who was a slave to calculators, Siri or Google to figure out what he could, often faster, compute with his mind. Thaththa was happiest when I did well in school or at University, which is understandable for someone who taught himself English and was the first to go to Peradeniya University from Pitabaddara, a remote village deep in the South. Unlike how I am with my own son, Thaththa never cuddled, kissed or hugged me – physical expressions of love just wasn’t his thing. But he was present, always. And within the parameters of his own limitations, a supportive, loving father.
Without and before social media’s ubiquity and persistent reminders, my father’s life will be what those around him remember it to be. My mother, married to him for 50 years, has lost more than I – for her, Thaththa was an anchor in a world she is only now learning to navigate and negotiate alone, without help. Ironically, days before his fall, I was driving my parents to my sister’s house when they erupted in a fight anchored to bananas. My father bought several kilos worth of them every week to feed squirrels and birds at home, and my mother’s valid point was that he was growing too old to lift the bags filled to the brim with over-ripe bananas. This was, true to form, vociferously denied by my father, who with a final flourish, asked my mother to choose between starving animals or leaving him to manage bananas by himself. Chuckling silently, I continued to drive. I grew up with these flare-ups pegged to the most random of things. There was, however, nothing more serious. My father was a teetotaller, and at the time of his death, had no known health condition that impaired movement, sight, hearing or dietary intake, which in a sense was the hardest blow – to see him alive and well one day, and the next, to be lost in a spaghetti of tubes and wires at the ICU.
But in death too, there was laughter – just as we shared so much of it when he was alive, and in response to pithy comments he made, or in response to Amma’s complaints of his mercurial requests, like a quarter cup of milk tea. Not a full cup or half. A quarter. With the sister of one of my closest friends, I spent Christmas last year doing the paperwork required to get my father out of the morgue. Upon walking into Kalubowila Hospital, a nurse who we stopped to ask directions misheard me and excitedly congratulated us on the birth of a baby we were told we had arrived just in time to see. When I repeated my question on how to get to the morgue, the poor woman turned beetroot red and refused to speak or even look up at us. Finalising the paperwork at the hospital, I was nonchalantly asked if my friend was my wife, in a room where all the nurses took turns to look at her, then me, and giggle. Looking at them quizzically only amplified the komale. Maybe it was some inside joke, but strangely, even as unwitting subject of their mirth, I was happy to see their faces and hear laughter. Another Sanjana – removed from the person in the room – I remember smiling at them. I then proceeded to identify, with assured confidence, another corpse for my father. I have absolutely no explanation for it. When presented with a body, I looked at it and saw my father. I was thus completely confused when another woman howled ‘Aney ape Thaththe’ and lurched towards it. Looking several times in quick succession at the corpse and this strange woman in distress, I recall distinctly wondering how on earth my father could be her father too. At this point of total chaos and tragi-comic confusion, attendants at the morgue, clearly used to this sort of madness, stepped in and shouting at each other and also no one in particular, said that my father was in fact still in another freezer.
Placed (actually more like dumped) on the floor on a cold steel stretcher, I felt no connection whatsoever to my father’s body, and could only focus on the creases of his sarong and the complicated knot used in the bandage holding up his jaw. The other woman continued to wail loudly. I felt awkward and hurriedly nodded that it was ok to release my father, subconsciously registering a heavy smell, viscerally pungent, like rotting durians. I had learnt to associate my father with ambient smells in the last two months of his life. Hospital disinfectant. The smell of whatever was administered to him intravenously. The musty smell inside an ambulance. The stale odour of lifts, and fresh medicinal cocktails at pharmacies. The smell of fresh sheets. The Baby Cheramy cologne Amma liberally sprinkled on Thaththa, first as patient to keep him fresh, and lastly, as corpse, to render him more alive.
Alive is how I remember him the most, even as I saw more of him in stages of death than other members of the family. In our conversations on politics, for example, I remember Thaththa as someone grounded in a Sinhala-Buddhist identity, and enduringly sceptical of federalism which he associated with separatism and the LTTE. On these and other fronts, related to faith, relationships, and other life choices, I felt the most distant from him. But he never failed to surprise me. A couple of years ago, already in his late 70s, Thaththa braved a severe, sudden tropical downpour in Colombo to cast his vote at an election at the Institute of Chartered Accountants for a man he didn’t know, had never met, but believed was completely deserving of the post he was vying for. This random man, Thaththa told me, was a Tamil and had been the subject of what I understood to be some racist commentary prior to the election. My father felt compelled to vote because he didn’t want this commentary and its authors to shape the outcome of the election. Meritocracy ran deep in my father’s veins. Growing up with no safety net of influence networks or security of large inheritance, his greatest lesson was in allowing me to first fail and fall to realise the importance of perseverance, hard work and honesty – qualities he embodied to the fullest. He was a self-made man and expected the same of his children. The smallest of things mattered the most for him. Punctuality. Cleanliness. To do well whatever one undertook to do. The dignity of labour. The value of education, beyond school or university. Happiness in and from small things. The importance of living simply, but not in austerity. The love of nature. Of music, from Shankar to Chopin. Of judging others based on what they did and said, and not how they were talked about in absentia. Of having faith, but never imposing it on others or shunning pragmatism. Of having an opinion but being open to others and, occasionally, informed revision.
From my first reluctant forays to a pola, to memories of my hand completely embraced by his warm, firm grip as we walked across a road, from the silky smooth well-water of his ancestral home as we bathed together, to my love of curd, dhal and rice, learnt by seeing him savour it from childhood, flag posts of this persistent dreamscape of grief are vivid memories of my father that randomly surface. It is a terrain, I suspect, he would have been very upset I have to negotiate alone. Akka tells me, with great fervour, that she feels his samsaric journey has come to an end. Obviously, for Thaththa’s sake, I hope she’s right. But every time I run my hands through one of Thaththa’s sarongs beside my pillow, seeking fleeting emotional refuge, I also selfishly hope that he is not entirely beyond knowing, seeing or hearing – somehow – how much I miss him.
And how much he is, and will remain, loved.