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SRI LANKA Nostalgic essays and stories.............

Chandrika and I | Erik Solheim & I | My Part in the Census | Census Again! | Not Cricket! | I Crossed The Line | My Part in my Funeral | The Gamarala and the Temple | Gamarala and the Puhul | Two men and the bear | Nari Bena (GM and the Jackal) | Fasting & Feasting | My Father & The Devil

A nostalgic series of essays and stories on growing up in the grim shadow of the Church. ...mostly humour but with an occasional dash of Vitriol..
"Nostalgia (n) regretful or wistful memory of an earlier time…" Oxford Dictionary.
On my last visit to the old Peoples Republic in January 2001, my pleasant conversations with my sister Babs as usual drifted towards the old days. I wouldn't necessarily call them good days but they were not too bad either. Babs and myself have of course always been "as thick as two thieves", to use a rather old fashioned expression, and we agree on almost everything. (She always knew about my activities or at least had an idea as to what I was up to!) On this occasion our conversation drifted towards our childhood, the church and church services and she agreed with me that the main reason that we liked to attend church in those days was because we had no other form of entertainment! This of course set me thinking.

At that time we lived in an old decrepit rented house at 56/2 Hill Street owned by a Muslim shyster. There was father, mother, myself and my three younger sisters and a succession of "servant women". Grandma had died in the late Fifties in that house. We had an old Murphy radio of course (or the "wireless" as it was sometimes called) but we had no Gramophone. We had heard about TV but had never seen one. Radio Ceylon was the only radio station in Srilanka in those days and transmitted on short wave. Although it could pick up Morse Code transmissions from obscure sources, The Murphy required a lot of patience to tune into Radio Ceylon (or for that matter to any other station) and was rather temperamental. This might have been because Murphy originally worked on a 12-volt car battery but was later converted to 230 volts. Poor Murphy probably never got used to this change. Frequently he would blow a valve.
When this happened father would usually blame one of us for overusing the radio. We would in turn blame each other and would then be without a radio for months until father got around to calling one of his old pupils to fix it.

The church which was only about four hundred yards from our house (but pleasantly seemed like a mile away) provided us with a lot of entertainment. In fact it probably dominated our lives. Walking to church and back was in itself an adventure and good fun. This was in the fifties and sixties and there were a few colonial leftovers still around, notably fat well-fed European nuns and a European female teacher (pink, middle-aged, large and rather stout, stocking-ed and single), who's real name I have forgotten but was generally known in our household by the nickname of Miss Epemetheus. If my memory serves me right it was my father's youngest half-brother Uncle Melvin who first thought of this nickname. He used to live with us at that time and was another good source of entertainment. Other remnants of our colonial past included The O'Brien Family, The de Zylva Family and The Wallace Family including old "Aunty" Sousa.

Then there was Mr. Kirkowen an elegantly dressed Burgher single gentleman, in a spotless suit, complete with a grey felt hat and a walking stick. He would always tip his hat in a courtly manner and in a high-pitched effeminate voice would greet my sisters: "Good Morning, ladies!" They were then not even in their teens and this of course caused a lot of merriment among my sisters, particularly being addressed as "ladies", and Babs could never stop giggling. Babs used to suck her thumb all the time but had the knack of giggling or even talking with her thumb still firmly in her mouth!

We all attended church of course and not just only on Sundays. The church of the Holy Cross was a sort of a social club for us! We didn't need much persuasion to attend church. The church bell would ring at least three times a day to ring out the Angelus and quite often more times than that. The bell was huge. A particularly enduring memory is when; on a church feast day the Sacristan got his rhythm wrong ringing the big bell and nearly hanged himself on the bell rope!
Those were the days when the mass was "sung" entirely in Latin, a language that none of us really understood but which added to the mysticism of the whole business of church services. The bees-wax candles were the lighting; the old Harmonium (together with the bell) produced musical backing. The incense and the smell of burning beeswax catered to the olfactory senses. There was then the playacting and the glittery costumes.
Even the standard Sunday "low" mass was a source of entertainment! "People watching" was the game. You needed to get to your seats in good time. Our family had a vantage point because we always sat in the last pew on the right hand side, which was "our pew"! Father, Mother, myself, Shira, Babs and baby sister Chuti sat in that order except when Father or Mother thought that I was being disruptive. The order would then change to Father, myself, Mother, etc.

At a fairly early age I decided to get on the "stage" and joined up as an altar boy. All good fun and games. After mass the altar boys called each other names and fought behind the church just outside the Sacristy until separated by the Sacristan. Occasional battles took place in the Sacristy itself, before mass but were soon settled either by the Head Altar Boy or The Sacristan. Very occasionally such disputes spilled over into the Sanctuary itself and during Mass, but were conducted in a furtive manner and took the form of making faces at each other, miscuing or subtly trying to trip-up your "enemies".
A simple way of tripping up was to step on the overflowing cassock of your enemy at a critical moment in the proceedings.

Eventually I graduated to become the Head Altar Boy and continued as such until at least 1966 and very definitely 'till I was taller than Fr Theodore Pieris himself and my cassock was well above the waterline. This of course caused considerable embarrassment to both parties and at the age of seventeen, by mutual unspoken agreement, I stepped down from the stage…with some regret I must add, because it is not easy to step down from anything that you have been the head of!

Fr Theodore of course was of the old school type, English-educated and could deliver his sermons only in English. This went above the heads of some members of the congregation and in any case his sermons were totally boring. Most of the men who stood at the back of the church would surreptitiously walk out of the church at this stage (to read the Sunday papers). The rest were trapped and would drift into slumber. Fr.Theodore droned on and on with a very occasional metaphorical flash of lightning and a low rumble of thunder. Bored altar boys, depending on their ages, would either scratch themselves and yawn or try to make eye-contact with the girl "Boarders" from the convent school who were forced to sit in the first row.

The cue for the end of the sermon came when Fr.Theodore invoked the Almighty in the words "In the name of The Father, The Son etc". The congregation would heave a sigh of relief, yawn and stretch their legs and stand up for the next part. Occasionally, and I think deliberately, Fr.Theodore would miscue the congregation by incorporating these words halfway through his sermon! This would have the effect of galvanising the congregation into action and end in a bit of embarrassment and confusion. At the magical words of "The Father..etc" somebody would respond "Amen" and that would have the effect of dragging the rest of the congregation out of their reverie. Some would immediately rise up from their pews, realise their mistake and would then sit down or be pulled down by their spouses. Herd instinct would then come into play and some others would get up. Those who had already got up and sat down, now totally confused, would get up again! Babs would giggle and my father would say "Shhh!" I now have the firm conviction that old Theodore Pieris did that on purpose!

The church was of course a fashion parade in one way or the other. Those who wanted to proclaim that they were closer to God and holier than most of us would walk in late when everybody else in the congregation had sat down and when there was that expectant air about… sort of just before the curtain goes up. These individuals would then go through an elaborate attention-grabbing ritual of genuflecting first on the right knee, then the left and then on both. Considerable bowing of the head and repeated "Signs of the Cross" would follow. All this was to attract attention.
Young girls of a certain age went through a different ritual. They would either dress in something unusual for those parts such as the Shalwar Kameez or wear rather flashy dresses thus causing elderly men to peer over their glasses in a disapproving manner (with hindsight I think the old boys actually approved of what they saw!). Nalini Jayasuriya was an expert in this "catwalk" game. She would dress in a Shalwar Kameez and every Sunday, would walk in very slightly late (long after the rest of her family had sat down) and then make her dramatic entrance just a millisecond or so before the Sacristan rang the hand bell to announce the entrance of the priest and his entourage. She had perfect timing! She would then shimmy up the aisle in a manner, which even in those days clearly and invitingly said "come-and-get-me-boys"!

There were allsorts of other entertaining characters. One character that my sisters and myself still remember was the "Dirty Proctor". He was an elderly retired lawyer and wore a rather faded but typical lawyer's outfit consisting of grey pinstriped trousers, black jacket and a tatty old tie. It was obvious that he, his Missus and his suit had all seen better days. They sat a few pews in front of us and on the same side of the church as us.
What really attracted our attention to this guy was something, which I can only describe as a "tic" or an involuntary facial movement. He had the habit of silently opening and closing his mouth, very rapidly and continuously in the manner of an asphyxiating goldfish and with a slight but noticeable lateral movement of his mandible. Since he clearly was not attired in gold scales had no fins nor gills and therefore unlikely to be a goldfish, that theory was dismissed very quickly. We spent many happy hours in church observing this fascinating phenomenon whilst the priest droned on overhead. My sisters and myself communicated with each other by subtle nudges and winks (and in the case of Babs with a pull of her thumb out of her mouth accompanied by a very subtle "pop" and a barely audible giggle).
Eventually my sisters and myself formed the opinion that he was actually trying to say something and it was Babs, who in a moment of brilliance, worked out what it was. It was "Paaaarp! Paaaarp"!..declared Babs firmly one day, taking her thumb right out of her mouth. That was her way of emphasising a statement. "Paaaarp! Paaaarp"!..said Babs, and stuck her thumb firmly back in her mouth. Having made her point she then continued to suck her thumb silently in her usual placid manner. This of course set the seal! We then started referring to the "Dirty Proctor" as the "Parp! Parp! Man" and that was yet another reason to go to church!

This was another eccentric and he also happened to be a lawyer. A younger man than the Dirty Proctor he appeared to be single. He would walk down the aisle checking out a few pews, dusting them with his handkerchief, actually sitting in one briefly only to get up and find another one. The fact that he did this with the air of a lawyer cross-examining a rather recalcitrant witness for the defence was what made the whole performance interesting to us kids. Babs nicknamed him "Banku Balana Mahattaya" (The Inspector of Pews)

Another character we remember well was the guy whom we nicknamed "The Head Altar Boy". He was a short rather old decrepit looking guy with a traditional knot of hair at the back of his head (but thin on top), dressed in sarong and coat and barefooted. He was one of the holier-than-thou types and went through a complicated ritual of genuflecting, kissing the ground and beating his brow. His main performance was at communion time when he would walk down the aisle long after everybody else and would manoeuvre into position so as to be the very last to receive communion. He would then slowly and majestically shuffle back, on his own, eyes shut and hands firmly clamped together. He often kept the priest waiting.
This performance sadly came to an end one day when Fr.Theodore lost his cool and snapped at him!

The only person who probably genuinely believed in what she was doing was Rose Amma. She was a poor and rather emaciated Tamil woman always dressed in a white Indian sari and always barefooted. She never sat in a pew. She would kneel on the floor at the very back of the church under the belfry and would go through the usual ritual of brow beating and fingering the Rosary. She only came into her own at "The Elevation" when the host was elevated, the altar boys vigorously rang the bells and the church bell pealed. She would then go into a sort of a trance, make unintelligible sounds, repeatedly stretch her arms out, kiss the ground and beat her breast! This performance interested us more than what was happening at the altar.
This was long before Pope JP the Second went around the world kissing airport tarmacs in a similar performance but in a highly publicised and in a stage-managed fashion. JP the Second had a lot to gain from his playacting and manipulation of World Politics in the name of Christ but not poor old Rose Amma. She must be dead by now. I hope the local Catholic Church gave her a decent funeral.

Assistant priests always were a good source of amusement. One of the first ones my sisters and I can remember was Fr. Matthaias. He was a rather small bird-like and shifty looking character and very soon the schoolboys nicknamed him "Attikukula" (after a rather elusive and furtive snail-eating Srilankan bird with a big beak). He did not have Fr.Theodore's charisma and he couldn't sing well either. We always hoped his voice would slip an octave or so at a dramatic moment. He regularly drifted slightly in and out of key (especially in the "Glo-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohOH-OH-O-O-O-OOORIA-AAH!" part) but he never actually lost it completely.
Suddenly one day he was gone! We later heard that he had been summoned by the Archbishop to be informed that he had been transferred. This came as no surprise to us as we knew that he had had a guilty liaison with a girl from the parish. Sadly we lost a source of amusement.
Then there was Fr.Brian a crook if ever there was one. Although a Sinhalese his Sinhala was fractured. He managed to get-by by delivering his sermons in English but there were some announcements that he had to deliver in the vernacular. We would await this moment with considerable anticipation! He never failed us and could be depended upon to drop a clanger or two every Sunday! Later, I believe he had had a guilty liaison with the wife of the owner of a local tavern, the Carlton Café on Station Road. By this time I had left school and had my own liaisons to worry about.
Very much later there was Fr.Pius, a lanky awkward looking young man who was promptly nicknamed "Ottuwa" (camel). Apart from being lanky he had a facial resemblance to a camel as a result of his protruding lower lip. He later eloped with a nun from the local Convent of The Holy Family to set up his own family. By this stage I was in Medical School and have no first hand experience of his shenanigans.

Priests, or for that matter anybody else, never get ex-communicated for that sort of thing. You only got "ex-commed" for questioning the teachings of the church like Gallileo did. Remember the bit about the Earth going around the Sun and not the other way around? The Pope who is of course infallible insisted that the Sun went around the Earth. Poor Gallileo!

© Gyan Fernando. First written on the 12th of May 2001.
{short description of image} The Church of The Holy Cross at Kalutara, SriLanka, and a few well-known local characters in 1966...
Chandrika and I | Erik Solheim & I | My Part in the Census | Census Again! | Not Cricket! | I Crossed The Line | My Part in my Funeral | The Gamarala and the Temple | Gamarala and the Puhul | Two men and the bear | Incense and Candlewax | Fasting & Feasting | My Father & The Devil

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