The Indelible | Sunday Observer

The Indelible

20 September, 2020

Making a sincere attempt to bring an unimagined and unexplored treasure trove of modern Sinhala literature to the English reading community, Montage is bringing Mahinda Prasad Masimbula’s award winning novel Senkottan translated by Malinda Seneviratne, veteran journalist, writer and poet. Senkottan (The Indelible), a remarkable creation of literature by Mahinda Prasad Masimbula was his debut effort in his literary career for which he won the State Literary Award in 2013 and short-listed in Swarna Pusthaka Literary Awards and many other Literary Award Festivals in the same year. The book has been published by Santhawa Publishers and Senkottan has blazed the trail in the self-publishing industry as one of the best-selling books in Sinhala literature.


Twenty five thousand four hundred and thirty two days later…

It was around six o’clock in the morning when the splendid triangular shadow of Sri Pada, placed between the rising sun and his eighty year old eyes became visible in a corner of the sky. It was thus visible above the myriad buildings from the balcony of the plush residence on the sixth floor of the shopping complex Liberty Plaza where Victor Suratissa lived.

There was no doubt that this scene was of special significance to Victor Suratissa at this moment. He had found himself retracing his steps back to his childhood on account of numerous questions put to him by his granddaughter, young Federica, and the discussion they had the previous day. Federica was his son’s only daughter. She was attending Oxford University in England and was writing a research paper on ‘ancient caste systems in Asian countries.’ Victor Suratissa had promised to obtain relevant information for his granddaughter.

With that he began to remember that society in which he had grown up as a child. He had a strange and unique history where he would go from village to village with his aathaa carrying bundles of cloth. It was like a series of images which emerged and receded, now blurred and now full of clarity. The incident related to Sri Pada, however, was clear.

He remembered how Sri Pada became visible, as blue as ever, during one of his journeys with his aathaa, Veerappuli Henaya, how they stopped and worshipped the sacred mountain, and how on another day some of the tens of thousands of butterflies on their way to worship Sri Pada, brushed against him.

He had promised to take Federica on a long journey today. It was to Rideevita, the village which was his home as a child. Today, that is, August 6, 2006, was a Sunday and, therefore, a day when Victor was relatively free.

Victor, having informed his employees through a phone call to get the car ready, began to have his breakfast. It was his custom to have his morning meal around 6.30. Having filled himself with two buttered slices of bread and ten stringhoppers, he enjoyed his customary glass of king coconut. After Jane, the cook, had left, he began to get ready.

He wore his light grey trousers and white long sleeved shirt which were his favourite and then wore his pale grey coat. He checked the time.

It was just after seven o’clock. They had planned to leave around 7.45. He went back to the balcony which opened to the East. He had been compelled to go back to a story that was seventy years old, a narrative that education and later business activities had pushed to the back of his mind. And yet, whenever something bothered him or he felt some kind of regret those unforgettable characters resurfaced in his mind. And then Victor Suratissa felt a need to see something he had cast his eyes on the previous day.

He went into his luxurious bedroom, opened his almirah and took out a box, and opened it. It was as it had always been. He picked it up and kissed it once. It was the one memento he had brought with him when he left home, the jacket his mother had worn. He caressed the cloth slowly, tenderly. He remembered but vaguely his mother, that beautiful woman.

He decided that he would look for the place his mother had died and was buried during this trip. With much veneration did he replace the jacket which he had shown Federica the previous day in the box and returned it to its usual place in the almirah.

He was one of the busiest businessman in the island. Victor Suratissa, who in addition to his mining operations also owned a business that imported machinery, which he had handed over to his son Gihan Suratissa four years before, retaining control of only the luxury shopping centre named ‘Highway Plaza.’ Although eighty years of age, he managed the business meticulously. There were more than eight-hundred employees under him, including those involved in mining operations. He realised how his life had changed from the time he had spent ten years in a life that was his own along with those he considered he belonged to and who belonged to him. Both were full and unique existences.

He couldn’t remember very well that exceptional man he called aathaa, but there was in his memory a thin, innocent individual. Even in that air-conditioned high-rise housing complex in Colombo he felt the amazingly kind, honest and innocent humanity that flowed from that thin man as well as the fragrance of boiled clothes that wafted from his body. That noble man’s final source of succor…the bo sapling… Had it died? Had the invading jungle obliterated it? He felt an urgent need to find answers to these questions.

* * * * *

It was close to eleven o’clock when they reached Rideevita, having passed Ratnapura, Pelmadulla and Kahawatte. The surroundings were unfamiliar. There had been much road development.

Frederica had lots of questions for her grandfather. She learned a lot from him during the journey. By this time Victor Surasena had related his story in its entirety. Frederica found certain parts of the story humorous. Then there were times she listened intently, amazed. Victor saw that there were moments when her eyes filled with tears. She was most amused by the name given to her grandfather, Baba Henaya. She repeated that name again and again and laughed.

‘I am so amazed by your story, Grandpa. People really worked for others without getting paid?’

‘That is how it was at that time Frederica. People just wanted to fulfill their basic needs and live without being bothered.’

‘Why were those people so stupid?’

‘It isn’t stupidity. It was innocence.’

‘I don’t believe that!’

‘But I do.’

There were inter-generational arguments between the two throughout the journey. However, Frederica had obtained a treasure trove of information. Although she had gathered a lot of information during her research in India, she was enjoying in particular what she had learned here and the compelling story her grandfather had related.

Having made inquiries along the way, they finally reached a temple. Victor felt some strange familiarity in the breeze that wafted through the leaves of a majestic bo tree in the temple premises. That breeze and the adjacent tract of paddy land took him back to a long time ago, and yet, there was some jarring unfamiliarity in the rest of the environment, the well developed temple, the houses and the various shops. Nevertheless, it was the bo tree that captured his attention.

‘That is the bo tree I told you about.’

Frederica looked upon it with awe. There was an image house by the tree. There was a bana shalaawa of considerable size on the left for the bikkhus to deliver sermons and by it the aavasa where they resided.

A small chaitya was in the process of being built. A formidable wall had been built below the bo tree this side of the stream and the intervening area filled with earth. Even at that time there were some devotees who had brought alms and were sweeping the bo maluwa.

Victor Suratissa spent quite some time just gazing upon the bo tree. He knew the story that the breeze which swept across the paddy fields was struggling to relate in conjunction with the bo leaves.

Once again he remembered Veerappuli Henaya that thin and innocent man who was so full of humanity. Frederica saw him remove his spectacles and wipe his eyes with a handkerchief he had taken from his pocket.

They met the chief incumbent of the temple and spoke with him. Having arranged low seats for them, the loku haamuduruwo began to speak.

‘I am not from these parts. I’m from Kimbolketiya. That would be Embilipitiya. It’s been about fifteen years since I arrived. I am the third in this temple. After my loku haamuduruwo passed away, it fell upon me to attend to all matters. Now you wanted to know about this temple, didn’t you? Well, when I took over, this place was quite poorly, but I was able to develop it and bring it to this level. Now we conduct religious ceremonies for Poson in a grand manner. We even have a daham pasala. The villagers are quite united with the temple. People come from faraway places to make offerings to the bo tree. We even had a perahera last Poson with two tuskers.

‘It’s the Sudu Appo of the Nagolle Walawwa who functions as the Diyavadana Nilame. Sudu Appo’s family is closely related to the temple. As for this bodhiya, in fact it’s an ancestor appo of this Sudu Appo who had brought it as a sapling in an impressive perahera all the way from Anuradhapura.’

These words just floated away into the empty air and did not register in Victor Suratissa’s ear. Since it was all in Sinhala Frederica didn’t understand any of it. Victor felt like asking something from the hamuduruwo, quite casually: Haamuduruwane, has anyone ever said anything about a man called Veerappuli Henaya who was associated with this temple?’

‘Hmm…I’ve never heard anything of the sort.’ Victor was considerably shaken. It was at this moment that he comprehended best the strange ways of the world. He did not venture to say anything. He believed that even if no one who lives on the earth knows the truth, the truth must reside and was alive in some corner of the universe. This is how it is. It did not matter that no one knew. This he thought to himself. A lie is most definitely a lie.

It was not the scent of incense, flowers or burning oil lamps that he felt, but the indelible fragrance of this truth, the fragrance of boiled clothes mixed with washing soda.

This he inhaled and filled his lungs with. It was not just truth, it was the perfume of that noble man who had toiled to give him life, the fragrance of a man who wanted to collect merit for him, who went after the high and mighty to genuflect before them just so he could learn letters. This bodhiya knew the story of that truth very well. And yet, the shameless sycophancy of people remained, now as it did then.

They did not require a conscience to live. Resident in falsity and illusion they convince themselves that this is the truth, they live this way and die this way.

‘The truth you know, keep it with you, always…’ he told himself, as he looked upon the bodhiya. A smile materialised itself on his countenance. It came to his mind how those who had many years ago oppressed him and his kind sweated to earn money as traders. The Laundromat in Highway Plaza, the shopping complex that he owned, was run by a businessman named Suranga Madduma Bandara.

He had named it ‘Suranga Wash & Dry Professionals,’ from which he earned seven to eight hundred thousand rupees a month and lived a highly luxurious life. Victor Suratissa remembered his aathaa once again. He never had the opportunity to live a life of happiness. And yet Suratissa believed that if on this earth there was an order that conferred merit, merit would indeed accrue to such a man, moment to moment.

Apart from entertaining such thoughts he had no desire to explain anything to the haamuduruwo. He thought to himself that one of the greatest victories he had obtained was to be able to note with a mild smile the wonder of them living a life devoid of truth. This weakness of theirs would one day be defeated. When this happens, no one on this earth would be as helpless as they.

He remembered that sad day when he went with his aathaa to plant the bo sapling which he had brought from Anuradhapura, travelling the entire distance on foot. He remembered how they had collected white sand from the stream and had made a small bo maluwa. He remembered how his aathaa had taken him to the bo tree and made him worship it just before he left the village. What had he said that day? Wasn’t it something about a better future, a better society? An immense sense of veneration about that noble man filled Victor Suratissa’s heart.

They learned a few things from some of the elders in the village. On the very day that his daughter’s only son had left the village, the old man named Veerappuli Henaya had hanged himself on the Indian tamarind tree they grew above their house, they said but didn’t remember where he had been buried.

It was close to late evening when the vehicle carrying Victor Suratissa and Frederica turned to the Werahera road. It was a fine road now. He remembered a day when he had travelled on that road on foot with his mother. The next time he walked on that road was to witness his mother’s tragic end.

‘Grandpa where are we going?’ Frederica asked.

‘Remember I told you? We are going to see my mother.’ Frederica fell into deep thought. This was an extremely unfamiliar experience to her.

There was a part of her that made her think that these incidents were of no importance to her. And then again, she felt that each incident had in some way coded itself into her genes.

How very different was the beginning of this endless tale at one end of which she stood? How sad! She too felt a heaviness. She was beginning to realise that life was not a solitary thing which decayed with time, but a hard to believe phenomenon which, even as the future pulled it forward, was supported by a past that pushed.

All that Victor Suratissa remembered was that rocky hillside he had visited just twice in his life. Although they had arrived there after making inquiries from people, all they found was a hardware store and a retail shop.

The jungle which existed above and beyond was gone and instead there were many houses. Suratissa felt a deep hurt. He remembered that evening when he had screamed and run up the hill to where his dead mother lay and how he had wept as they returned after her remains were interred. ‘This used to be a huge jungle at that time. And it was here that my mother lay dead,’ he told his granddaughter.

They remained in silence for a while, looking up the hill.

The sun went over the distant hills, colouring the vicinity with a light yellow hue. It brought one less joy than it did sorrow. Victor Suratissa and Frederica were still looking at the houses that stretched endlessly.

Finally, they took a path that lay between the houses and reached a point at the top of the hill. At one point Victor Suratissa bent down and scooped out a handful of soil. He brought it close to his face and smelled it. He felt the essence of the entire world captured in that fragrance. Frederica, in silence, stood watching this amazing connectivity of life.

At this moment a breeze descended from the far away hills caressing them. Victor Suratissa, as though fulfilling a great need, captured and held within his being this breeze. As he released the soil in his hand back on to the earth, he murmured something.

‘I feel that fragrance once again…the smell of boiled clothes mixed with washing soda. I will feel this, always. Yes…I will inhale it again and again and its trace will be there in the very last breath that I take….’