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The booming voice and laughter are no more but I know you are watching over us

Nihal Jayasooriya

I am not sure if I have ever come across anyone who loved S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa as much as Nihal Jayasooriya. Hailing from the proud South – the vibrant town of Ambalangoda, Uncle Nihal was the youngest of four siblings: Nelson, Samson and Freeda and the only one from the family to receive a Sinhala name, perhaps to celebrate the post-independence revival of the nationalist movement. Known to challenge norms with cheeky impertinence, he held a healthy curiosity to discover and explore all life had to offer. A trait that was nurtured when he trotted off to STC Gurutalawa and learned under the stern but loving care of Dr. and Mrs. R.L. Hayman.

The stories he would regale us with, not once, twice, but over and over and over again were of a childhood filled with wonder and excitement. Those were times when students followed lessons according to ability, not age; a time when education included hikes, nature trails, horse riding and picnics. In his stories we were told how fresh everything tasted; for the food they were served was from their own farm. One special story was dedicated to Mrs. Hayman, who personally checked if the boys enjoyed their meals. Uncle Nihal got bread pudding especially made for him when she realised he didn’t like the designated dessert for the day.  His voice would boom louder, his eyes would twinkle and a smile would beam from end to end.

He went on to be a planter, serving many companies and estates. Perhaps his childhood love for nature and the experiences he had at STC Gurutalawa inspired him to a life of developing and nurturing our fertile land. His garden in Wijerama is a colourful display of his green thumb, despite the fact that there is an ongoing debate on whether or not the true recipient of such an accolade should be his much loved wife, Jamila.

Jamila and Nihal’s love story is one for the movies. As the first son-in-law of the family, his role was not limited to his young wife, but to also watch out and care for her two younger sisters and brother. His duties included waking up at 3 a.m. to reserve a seat on the Colombo bus from Ambalangoda for my mother-in-law, Ajantha; act as mediator for Shanthi – the suitor of his sister-in-law Prabha and enable the purchase of exotic birds for his younger brother-in-law Anura. Two score years and a decade later, he would laughingly remind them of the role he played in each of their lives. He was the King of the Humble Brag.

Together with Aunty Jamila, Uncle Nihal traversed across estates, bringing in his expertise and knowledge.  The side bonus of this meant that all extended family members had a destination to enjoy their holidays. Be it Nuwara Eliya, Badulla or the numerous other locations,  their bungalows were always open to a steady supply of visitors, where some of the best memories were made when cousins met, frolicked, picked strawberries and gallivanted over hedges, bushes and ponds.

Uncle Nihal would then preside over the lot. His booming voice commanding attention, giving orders for more food from the kitchens, and dictating the daily agenda. To date, my husband and the cousins would laugh and speak about the vacations spent with their Big Daddy A.K.A. Loku Thaththa.

His daughter is his carbon copy; Manique Jayasooriya is fiercely independent, sassy and generous (to a fault). It takes a special kind of father to raise a girl child who has drive, talent and personality without opting to clip her wings. It is something I personally admire and wish to emulate. Uncle Nihal paved the way for her to stand strong, and she, in turn, inspires all of us. She is our ‘Boss’, and I know he relished knowing that.

Still, for all the laughter his wicked sense of humour brought to all around him, Uncle Nihal was a complicated man. He delivered compliments and criticism in equal turn – he didn’t suffer fools, and had a spectacular, turbulent temper. He didn’t mince his words; fiercely loyal, he would not hesitate to fight for justice and what he felt was right. It was something his friends and colleagues both admired and… dreaded.

He fell sick for the first time on the day my mother-in-law passed away. His diagnosis meant immediate surgery; his outlook on his own mortality was oddly refreshing. When others were falling apart, he was positive. For someone who either didn’t know any gathas or simply chose not to say them, he had a very Buddhist way of thinking – he faced death as he faced life: without fear, like meeting an old friend. He questioned and analysed the Dhamma for better understanding from priests and was a strong believer in discussion.

I am only his nephew’s wife and I have known him only for two decades. He and I have had long chats about people, life and parenting. I have teased him and he has teased me back. We have had ‘kusu kusus’ about mutual acquaintances and how we, meaning I, should work with them. He taught me a lot and I hope in return I gave him a few chuckles and some form of entertainment.

Long years ago I studied a poem called ‘Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter’ by John Crowe Ransom. It was about the ‘brown study’ of a little girl whose energetic life came to an abrupt end. While I have always seen the imagery in my mental eye, the only time I truly felt it was when we visited him right before he was taken from home.

‘But now go the bells, and we are ready,  

In one house we are sternly stopped

To say we are vexed at her brown study,  

Lying so primly propped.’

No longer is  the voice ringing in our ears, no longer the laughter heard loud, no longer the idiosyncrasies that baffled us, to say we are vexed at his brown study is perhaps apt.

But I know he is out there, monitoring and watching over us. I for one feel the gentle nudge here and there. May his journey through samsara be a short one. May he be blessed with people who love and care for him, may those lifetimes be meaningful in his journey to find rest in the truest sense of peace.

We miss you Uncle Nihal. Until we meet again…

 -Suramya Hettiarachchi

(At the passing of Nihal Jayasooriya, 6th April 2024)

Though his lamp is out, its warmth remains

Vasantha Kulatunga

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy – Rabindranath Tagore

The above quotation aptly describes the footprints of Vasantha Kulatunga’s journey in life. The main characteristics of a selfless person is keeping oneself at the lowest level of priority and giving preference to others’ needs.  His life embodied that. Some may achieve prominence and fame but there are many unsung heroes who silently and persistently work for the betterment of humanity. Vasantha Kulatunga was one such hero.

Three months have passed since the demise of this gentle soft-spoken personality. He was born on July 14, 1941 in Kandy to Mr. and Mrs. K. B. Kulatunga of Napana, Gunnepana. He had an elder sister. He received his primary education at Amunagama Maha Vidyalya, now known as Tennakoon Wimalananda Vidyalaya, before joining St. Anthony’s College.

It was the ’56-’57 era when nationalistic feelings were running high. A group of students had decided they would do something sensational. However when the day dawned he was the only one in national dress!  The Rector of St. Anthony’s, Fr. Rosati, a great educationist took a dim view of the matter but did not take serious action. He requested his parents to come and advise Vasantha. In later years Vasantha reflected on how far thinking Fr. Rosati had been.

Then he came down to Ananda College where he was a hosteller. At Ananda too his rebellious nature came to light when he and a few other hostellers wore the national dress to school for the first time during Principal L.H. Mettananda’s period.

Vasantha entered the Peradeniya University in June 1960. University life at Peradeniya in the early sixties was enriched by the wide ranging experiences of undergraduates. Vasantha was involved in weight lifting and boxing and won the ‘Mr. Campus’ title. He was the very popular but ‘innocent muscle man’ and his presence always allayed the fears of newcomers as he was like a protective big brother!

He was also an energetic campaigner in all socialist activities. When the university authorities in June 1961 took a decision not to provide accommodation in the halls of residence to second year undergrads whose permanent residence was within 10 miles radius of the campus, it was thought to be discrimination. Action was needed and action was taken by Vasantha who led a very small band of those affected. They met the then Trade Minister T.B. Illangaratne and he took them to the Prime Minister, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The V.C. Sir Nicholas Attygalle was requested to reverse the decision the next day.

Vasantha joined the Ceylon Communist Party and then moved to Mr. Shanmuganathan’s Communist Party (Peking wing). He attended a youth conference in China as a Sri Lankan delegate.

Another passion was mountaineering and he led his campus group on an expedition to Knuckles and hoisted the UOP flag at the top of the peak  (described in the book “Hanthane Kandu Muduna Sisara” written by Percy Thenuwara his batchmate).

After leaving the University in 1963 he chose teaching as a vocation and his first station was off Bibila in a school situated in a ravine where only a footpath was available to climb up and down. Even when he was transferred to Colombo he selected a school in a slum area in Kolonnawa and spent a large part of his salary buying school materials for the needy students.

He retired at the age of 55 and came back to live in his village where he did a yeoman service to the youth, acting as a mentor and coach encouraging them to participate in sports activities — football, athletics, volleyball, mountaineering and marathon running. He took the children to circuit meets spending his own money for transport and even on special food to increase their stamina for athletics. He was instrumental in establishing sports clubs such as the Dumbara sports club to enhance their skills.

He also established several libraries in the village, among them one affiliated to the Dhamma School at the village temple to inculcate the habit of reading. He edited and published a paper called ‘Purahanda’ to enhance their interest in poetry.

He was a serious reader and collector of books and articles. He had authored a novel called “Pinna Mal’ and a book of poetry called “Ambalame Kathwa”.

Another passion he indulged in the latter part of his life was running marathons for veterans in London and Europe.

Vasantha was my cousin. In February 2001 after learning about the demise of my father, he sent me a monumental letter of 21 half sheets written on both sides. It was a veritable book of personal anecdotes of my father, interactions he had with him, explanation of life based on true Buddhist doctrine plus Greek philosophy; about its founding fathers starting from Anaxagoras, Plato, Epicurus to Aristotle (a contemporary of the Buddha); ancient Hindu writings all to give a great insight into life as a whole.

Vasantha suddenly fell ill in August 2023  and during the short period of illness his loving wife did everything possible to keep him comfortable.

To even think that he is no more with us is heartbreaking. We will remember him – kind, generous, brilliant, and so full of love. He touched so many lives with his kind and compassionate ways and though his lamp is out, its warmth remains. Fond memories of times gone by will forever be etched in our hearts.

Hemal Kulatunga


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