There was excitement at the fine brick residence on Forest Office Lane in Chundikuli. Shadrach Samuel was expected in town as the guest of his relatives, the Newtons of Old Park View.
Mrs Charles Newton (nee Anne Rose Perinpanaygam), his mother’s first cousin, was also Aunt Rebecca’s sister-in-law. Anne Rose was famed for her culinary expertise and Charles — her husband — was a hospitable man who needed no excuse to turn an occasion into a party.
Their two daughters — Grace Nesaratnam and Mercy Sugirtharatnam — were young women now. Petite Grace, a studious bookworm, was married to Mutuvelu Fred Aiyadore in 1924. Fred Aiyadore was attached to the Civil Service of the British Government, in the employ of Ceylon Railways.
Old Park View was part of the substantial dowry Anne Rose had received from her father, the wealthy landowner, Joshua Perinpanayagam. The property was signed over to Grace as her dowry when she married.
Mercy, four years younger than her sister, was a student at Chundikuli Girls’ College, steps away from her home, Old Park View. She, like her sister, had acquired the skills required of a genteel lady of her time. She played the piano, was a proficient dressmaker and had learned the finer points of cookery from her mother. She was also a gifted artist.
The infant Shadrach once held in his arms, was now sixteen. She was tall, slim with a distinctive beauty spot above her upper lip. She scaled the fruit trees in the orchard surrounding her home and roamed the grounds of Old Park View barefoot, engaging with gusto in the boisterous pastimes of Victor and Arthur, her young brothers. She still found time for her dolls. Life was lovely and uncomplicated. There was no hurry to grow up.
There was something about the marriage-market game that brought sparkle to the humdrum of day-to-day duties. Rose Newton’s spirits rose as she oversaw the dusting and sweeping of the home and issued orders to yard and kitchen staff.
Her husband and she were to accompany the young man, Shadrach on his visit to the home of the prospective bride. Rose had picked a suitable saree for the occasion.
The rice boiling on the wood stove was from her paddy fields, delivered yesterday by bullock cart and piled up in gunny (burlap) bags on the kitchen floor. There was fresh Seer fish which she would spice and cook to practised perfection. Oorukai prepared with limes from the kitchen garden, dried on the back porch and pickled last week, would be the tangy accompaniment to the afternoon meal, along with several side-dishes of curried vegetables simmering in clay chatty pots. Water was drawn from the well in the yard outside — northern water that was famously known to tinge Jaffna cuisine with a distinct flavour which would make the two-hundred-mile train journey from the south well worthwhile.
A feast of special things awaited the guest.
Shadrach didn’t seem inclined to rise from his seat at the Newtons’ table. Though gravy-stains spattered the white tablecloth and lunch was long consumed, he chatted about inconsequentialities while his gaze strayed through the open window to linger on the slender form of a boisterous girl, a pretty tomboy blooming into womanhood. Her braided hair askew, Mercy clambered up a tree in pursuit of a mischievous brother whose bare legs dangled from the branch above her.
The buggy waited outside, the driver at the ready.
The wall clock chimed the hour.
Charles Newton glanced at his wife and cleared his throat. “We have to leave in a little while. They’ll be waiting.”
“I changed my mind. I’m not going,” Shadrach announced flatly. He eyed his host and declared, “I want to marry Mercy!”
Husband and wife succumbed to seconds of stunned silence.
“Mercy?” Charles rasped. “She’s sixteen. Still at school!”
Shrewd Rose gathered her wits to take stock of the situation. Young Samuel was an up-and-coming entrepreneur, they said. He hadn’t made a fortune, of course — not yet — but his prospects were good, she’d heard.
The busy northern grapevine was rarely wrong.
There was discussion around the table in the course of which the surprised pair agreed that a union between their younger daughter and Shadrach Samuel was something to be desired. Despite the fact that she was a teenager and he sixteen years older.
Rose stepped onto the front porch and called to her daughter. “Mercy, come inside. We have to talk to you!”
One can’t help but feel bad for that young woman who would have been attired in her best and put on display, coached on the etiquette of serving tea to the visitors and speaking only when spoken to. Some unfortunate individual would have had the unenviable task of informing her parents that the eligible bachelor from the city of Colombo would not be visiting their home as arranged.
For the first time in her life, Mercy had a saree draped around her frame. A formal engagement ceremony took place the next day, with an exchange of gold rings and an Anglican minister officiating. A guest at the occasion later reported that she looked tall and grown up in her unaccustomed attire.
Childhood was now officially behind her.
The Newtons made it perfectly clear that their younger daughter would not be given a dowry, their unusual reasoning being that the bridegroom-to-be was a businessman and should well be able to make his way in the world unassisted. This was an unprecedented decision at a time when it was expected that a father would bestow property and jewellery on his daughter. Still on the precarious cusp of acquiring financial stability, he had fallen so much in love that it never occurred to Shadrach to protest or argue the matter.
Why the wealthy Newtons decided to act in this manner is a mystery.
Shadrach returned to Colombo with a band of gold on his finger, excited to share his news with his youngest siblings– Anna and Solomon — who were living in his home at the time.
He was caught off guard by the twins’ unexpected reaction.
To be continued …
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click here for part 4 – the newtons of old park view
The orphans spent their childhood shuttling between foster-homes and boarding school. It would be years before some of the six siblings set eyes on each other again.
Early one morning in 1905 Shadrach Samuel, aged twelve, stepped off the platform at the Fort Railway station in Colombo and into the open arms of his mother’s youngest sister, Rebecca (Danvers) Perinpanayagam.
Aunt Rebecca’s husband, Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam, was an accountant in the employ of Bousted Brothers, the agents for Colombo Electric Tramways and Lighting Company. Their residence in Messenger Street, Kotahena became home for the next several years and Shadrach was the unofficial eldest child of the newly weds. He called his aunt Amma (Mum) and thrived in her care. His siblings later followed suit and accorded her the same honour when they addressed her as they would their mother.
The family grew when the babies came. Cousin Stephen Edgar Rasasingham arrived when Shadrach was fifteen then baby Donald Edwin Balasingham who died before his first birthday, and finally George Walter Kulasingham.
Aunt and Uncle also adopted a little girl they christened Anna Mae Gnanmonie, who didn’t survive her teens.
As he grew into manhood the twelfth birthday letter from his grandmother remained Shadrach’s most treasured possession. He found quiet moments to feast his eyes on the elaborate handwritten curlicues of the Tamil script. The notepaper was fragile from frequent handling, the stamped, addressed envelope frayed and falling apart. He could recite the words off by heart —
May you, little one, go from strength to strength, and become a millionaire (Chinnavan aigiramum siriyavan palaththa seemanum aavaan) …
The passage of time ushered Granny Harriet Danvers into eternity, but the prophetic power of her written words lingered to become a compelling, guiding force in her young grandson’s life.
The years in Aunt Rebecca’s home were happy ones, but the memory of his paternal uncle’s betrayal was an unrelenting, plaguing presence . As soon as he reached the age of legal majority, Shadrach filed action against his father’s brother, the man who robbed his widowed mother of her home and property in Vavuniya. He laid claim to the house and the surrounding property, but was – perhaps unwisely – uninterested in taking on the burden of farming the extensive acreage of paddy fields extending beyond.
The court ruled in his favour. Shadrach had the land divided equally, earmarking a sixth for himself and his five siblings. These parcels of property would later be passed on to the oldest son of each Samuel brother or sister.
In 1918 bereavement came to the home in Messenger Street with the death of Uncle Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam. Aunt Rebecca was prematurely widowed after fourteen years of marriage. Shadrach slipped into the role of surrogate father-figure to his two young cousins.
His fascination with scrap-metal (which he salvaged and sold for pocket money during the boyhood years of World War I) and the years in the service of his employer, made him an authority in the hardware business. He rose from the ranks at the British firm of Hoar and Company — from apprentice errand boy and general dogsbody — to the position of Store Manager.
Shadrach learned to speak Sinhalese, the language of the south, with the flawless accent of the native. With wisdom unprecedented for a man of Tamil heritage, he taught himself to read and write the language as well. The latter was an unusual move which would stand in his favour in a nation that would experience ethnic unrest and bitter division in the troubled post-colonial decades to come.
As Shadrach approached his thirties, his unerring business acumen guided him to purchase a home on Messenger Street in close proximity to his beloved Amma. Shortly thereafter, when Hoar & Company wound up their business, he took a massive leap of faith to invest in the firm’s unsold stock — steel and miscellaneous hardware — which was delivered to his address and piled up in the yard around the house.
And so commenced the era of the entrepreneur and the birth of a business that was first named Ceylon Hardware Stores.
Shadrach operated a shop out of a shed at his residence and hired Cousin Stephen Edgar Perinpanayagam, a teen-aged student at St Benedict’s College, to walk over from school and mind the store. On weekdays, clad in school uniform, Stephen Edgar held the reins during his lunch interval while Shadrach took a break to eat and attend to other matters.
There were advantages to living in the vicinity of the Colombo harbour. When commercial vessels sailed into port, Shadrach scoured the ships’ cargo for bargain merchandise for his store shelves. He also kept a sharp eye out for unique items he would acquire as gifts for his family. An elderly niece remembers the German clock which, for decades, took pride of place in the home his sister, Anna Chinnathangam.
When Shadrach purchased his house on Messenger Street, his brothers and sisters had an official family home in Colombo. One by one, they found their way to the capital city and took up temporary residence at the bachelor abode. Anna Chinnathangam, now a young schoolmistress who lived in a boarding house in Jaffna during term-time, looked forward to the school holidays and the train-ride south. This thrice-yearly exposure to city life influenced her style and sense of fashion in a way that made her stand out amongst her provincial contemporaries up north.
The business began to grow and Shadrach got his older brother, S.V. Chelliah on board as manager of Ceylon Hardware Stores.
Graduates of the American Missions schools of northern Ceylon were highly sought after in Colombo and in the British colonies of Singapore, Malaya and Burma. Young Tamil men in search of employment flocked to Colombo or sailed off to Far Eastern ports to enlist in the service of the colonial government. One such ambitious hopeful was David Sinniah Kanagaratnam, who journeyed south from Jaffna to the capital city. He obtained an introduction to Shadrach Samuel, who, in the northern circles, was making a name for himself as an up-and-coming businessman.
Shadrach, in the absence of a father, had assumed the responsibility of procuring husbands for his three sisters. When the tall, good-looking young Kanagaratnam presented himself, Shadrach hired him to fill a position in the bourgeoning business. The offer, however, was conditional.
“If you became a Christian,” Shadrach suggested, “and married my sister …”
David Sinniah raised no objection. The bride in question was pleasant, petite and pretty. He agreed to give up the Hindu faith to marry his future employer’s older sister. The couple exchanged their vows in church under the auspices of an Anglican minister, and Sarah Chinnamma Samuel, the oldest child of Samuel Vethanayagam Subramaniam and Mary Chellamma Danvers, became Mrs. David Kanagaratnam.
The steam engine rattled northward along the coastal tracks leaving plumes of smoke in its wake. The passenger grew drowsy as he peered out at the dark forms of swaying coconut palms and flying pin-pricks of light dotting the shadowed landscape. He was stocky and slightly short of average height, with a thick shock of jet-black hair and dark line of neatly trimmed moustache grazing his upper lip.
Shadrach Samuel was riding the rails all the way up to the northern tip of Ceylon. He’d been summoned home by the relatives who’d located a suitable candidate on the local marriage market. It was time, they said, to marry and settle down. Thirty-two years old, a self-made man of modest means, Shadrach had no reason to object. After a flurry of letters and telegrams he packed a suitcase and boarded the overnight train to Jaffna.
He was going to stay at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Newton of Old Park View, Chundikuli.
Rush hour traffic is in full swing and Dad’s just waking up when we get home.
Everything’s spick and span, crisp linen in the guest room, a fresh breeze and the sun streaming in through the open balcony doors.
A resounding emptiness, though. A sort of hollow ache as the eye alights on an empty rocking chair, the laptop idling under a dustcloth and the vacant seat beside Dad’s easy chair in front of the living room TV.
Dad drove us to Independent Square in the evening to catch some fresh air. I struggled to keep awake.
This is my Dad, Judy.
He was a strikingly handsome man in his day.
Independence Square is a great place for people-watching. I got unobtrusively busy with my camera.
A change of scene the next evening, when Dad headed for Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park). An imposing statue of Queen Victoria appears to have materialized out of nowhere.
There’s a different ambiance in this space, besides the gnarly, mammoth trees, probably planted in Victorian times —
… it’s the lovers cuddling beneath the colossal branches!
For as far as the eye can see …
Maybe because someone forgot to put up a sign like this one —
Tongue in cheek, of course …
Around six o’clock, dusk begins to fall and uniformed decency police appear to guard the morals of the nation. The amorous pairs are shooed out of the park.
Don’t laugh, Judy. I’m not fibbing – honest!
Three-wheeler tuk tuks swarm all over the city like a plague of locusts. They are the quickest and most precarious mode of transport in this traffic-choked city. The captions adorning the bodywork often had me chuckling —
So why is this one stuffed into the open doorway of an empty showroom?
Still good old tuk tuks are the go-to mode of emergency transport, I’ve often resorted to myself. A wild ride. Kids find it a hoot.
Uber is the latest trend, though, and so much cheaper with heavenly airconditioned vehicles …
I was up all night for the first ten days, Jet lag kills me. It gets worse with the passage of time.
The early walks with Aunty Rom were my day’s highlight.
In spite of these urgings –
and the necessary tools left lying around —
… and these willing workers
— the streets looked uncared for, garbage piled up in corners, picked over by crows and stray dogs.
A disappointing regression since the government changed hands.
The supervised disposal of crow’s nests has been abadondoned, Aunty Rom tells me.
Animal rights activists or government cutbacks. Don’t recall …
The morning walks energized me, Judy. I began each day embracing the essence of the city with all its quirks and complexities.
I remember this woman from last year —
The homeless slumber on –
… and the dogs —
Vigorously cleaning business premises —
At the bus stop. To school and work –
And so the day begins –
Early morning moments –
Some of my favourite moments, captured just for you, Judy –
The streets at peace half an hour before morning mayhem breaks out –
Business is brisk at the food truck –
Aunty Rom and I pass these two every morning –
Aunty Rom pauses to pick up her newspaper –
From time to time she suprised me with a detour. Like the time we popped in at Uncle Chandi and Aunty Christine’s home and sat for a while chatting.
I acquired a new aunty when I took this picture last year.
Found out later that the smiling woman was the employee of Aunty Rom’s friend, Sharmini.
Only in Sri Lanka …
Newest aunt, Sharmini,invited us both over for breakfast one Tuesday morning. Aunty Rom and I walked over. We’d been Facebook friends since the photo incident, and met face to face for the first time today.
Warm, generous Sri Lankan hospitality …
Welai had prepared a delicious meal of pol roti, chicken curryand spicy, accompaniments. Fresh bananas for dessert.
So good …
She was all dressed up to meet us and quite overwhelmed to encounter the camera lady once again!
New aunty has a lovely Secret Garden.
The sun rode high in the sky. Too sticky to walk. Aunty Rom and I took a tuk tuk back home.
The next week, Aunty Rom, New Aunty and I went to breakfast at the Commons Coffee House, steps away from new auntySharmini’s home.
Scrumptious cheese toast with good friends, all because I made a random click on my I Pad …
Some mornings Aunty Rom surprised me with a different route (to feed my appetite for photography), pointing out stately homes. Many of them are commercial buildings now.
The remaining single unit homes lurk behind high fortress-type fortification walls and iron gates.
A handful old mansions still remain private residences –
… a couple of them in varying stages of disrepair.
Love how flowers and foliage create waterfalls of colour along walls and from balconies —
Destructive love language along the sidewalk …
Architecture and construction accommodate behemoth trees –
The iconic Cricket Club Café has changed locations. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the old location is for sale —
… or not!
Paradise Road Galleries on Dad’s street has been torn down –
to make way for yet another highrise.
Found time to browse at Dean the Bookman’s secondhand store –
This is the old colonial cemetery where we buried Mum two and a half years ago, Judy.
I’ve just discovered the beauty of the old memorial monuments. Wonder why I’ve never noticed before. I was almost tempted to stand in the sunshine and recite Victorian elegies, surrounded by discoloured Italian marble gravestones. Some of the sculptures are really quite exquisite.
China is pumping money into this country. Thousands of Chinese construction workers are swarming all over the city of Colombo.
This is the future Port City, a Chinese enterprise –
The ocean at Galle Face, where generations of Colombo dwellers came to relax and enjoy the fresh, salt air is gone. The Galle Face Green where you could fly kites, buy a cone from the Alerics ice cream van and have a ride on a sad, mangy pony, barely exists anymore. What’s left of it is all withered and brown.
Not sure how smart an idea this Port City is, politically speaking …
Slave Island is the dizziest hub of construction in the city –
The sights and sounds of Sri Lanka, Judy, are very much like India, with a lot less people, of course, and not as colourful. And less dirt, I suppose.
The varied face of Colombo fascinates me –
The flexibilty of the Sri Lankan woman is pretty amazing …
Umbrellas, come rain or sun —
Tried my hand at rainy day photography. Quite pleased with the outcome –
The street of my childhood grows less recognizable each time I go back.
Uncle Gerry and Aunty Doreen’s home is one of the few original houses in the old neighbourhood.
A highrise is under construction on the premises of #13 where my old home used to be located —
I’m embarrassed to admit that lunch become another highlight of my day. Latha excelled herself –
I miss the leisured simplicity of life as it used to be when I was growing up.
Change is inevitable of course. It just took longer coming to Sri Lanka …
Judy, have I mentioned the research I’ve been doing towards writing a book on Mum’s ancestry? I chased clues all over the city.
Felt like a character in The Da Vinci Code –
I spent fascinating hours with Mum’s cousins and some distant relatives I’d never met before –
Heard some incredible stories from the family archives, gathered a goldmine of information and tons of old photos. A mountain of notes to be transcribed. Almost wore my hand out writing in longhand as fast as it would move!
So when Daughters enquired (during a Whats App phone conversation) if I was bored, I answered: “No, I create my own adventures. There’s a new one every day and I can barely keep up with them all!”
The plan was for Husband to fly out from Toronto and join me after two weeks. While talking on the phone before he arrived, we decided, on the spur of the moment, to visit the Jaffna peninsula together. This area, a war zone for decades, is where our ancestors hail from.
With only days to go and a specific cut-and-paste tour in mind, I had to figure out how to make it happen.
Until then, take care, my friend. I intentionally recorded every detail of this trip just for you, so you were sort of travelling along with me, you know.
I’m thankful for you, Judy. You inspire me to keep living out joy, because joy doesn’t depend upon external circumstances. It comes from within.
Love always and thinking of you, my friend,
p.s Woke up to our first snowfall this morning. Oh Canada …
Just got a text from Aunty Rom. She wrote: A few days ago, I met the dog lady. She said the puppy had been run over. I was happy for her, so she didn’t have to find food for another mouth. This morning, she had another, carried in a box!
On the first family trip to England, Mum had us pose in front of Buckingham Palace while she attempted to take a picture of Dad, Sister and me against the backdrop of the Changing of the Guards.
The guards had changed and gone their wayby the time the picture focused to satisfaction. Sister and I teased her about it for years to come.
Smile please …
Everyone was using pocket cameras.Sis and I were embarrassed by the ghastly contraption Mum still wielded with pride!
We flew on to Singapore where Dad bought us girls a Kodak Instamatic with disposable flash bulbs.
Colour pictures … yay, finally!
Shudder to think of the environmental impact from all the used flash bulbs we gleefully dumped in the trash can.
Mum discovered the joys of photography around age 12 when she got a gift of a Brownie camera.
She still had it when Sis and I were kids …
Mum’s crisp black-and-white photos display an instinct for capturing the ‘moment’ and an unerring eye for placing and composition.
When sister and I were little, Mum acquired the Yashica, also sort of box-camera-ish.
Sleeker, less ‘primitive’, more sophisticated …
It took ages to focus with Mum staring into the open Yashica ‘box’ in her hands, at an upside down image.
She’d murmur, “Smile, smile” through fixed grin and puckered brow, our features remaining in frozen limbo until we heard the click and a cheerful ‘thank you’!
Felt like forever!
Mum often said she wanted to get an ‘unawares’ shot.
Sister and I heard … underwears!
We hadn’t the foggiest notion what she meant.
She caught us unawares all right. The delightful album-memories bear testimony to the fact.
Mum’s was the era of stay-at-home mothers. Those who were in the professions were nevertheless the proud masters of the housewifely arts. They cooked, sewed, hung for hours on the telephone with other women, shared recipes, discussed the current price of important commodities like sugar, rice and eggs, wrote lengthy, polite letters and never forgot birthdays and anniversaries.
At family concerts we kids ‘did’ Mum and aunties talking on the phone …
When Sister and I got married, we each received a special gift from Mum. An album of photographs – mostly black and white photos and some washed out Kodak and Polariod colour pictures – each one tailored to document our lives from birth to early adulthood.
All meticulously labelled …
With Mum’s unexpected passing two years ago, I lost my best friend and discovered a treasure trove of old pictures while cleaning out cupboards and putting things in order for Dad.
Eyes popped out of my head as a pictorial record of family history unfolded …
Entered a new realm. Memories of bygone days surfaced from boxes, dusty files and disintegrating albums.
Mum’s voice recounting fragments of family legends echoing in the recesses of my mind …
The past came alive in a way that didn’t seem possible. Moments in time frozen on faded bits of glossy paper, pictures worth thousands of words.