Thursday, May 17, 2007


And so, since all stories must have a beginning, my life story probably starts with a wonderful ancestor, grandma Isabelle.
Now if that name makes you think of sweet, genteel colonial ladies with delicate fans, parasols and elbow length white gloves, partaking of “Tiffin” or groping tremulously for their smelling salts, let me bust the bubble because Grandma Isabelle was, well – different. *
I remember her looking sternly at me over her thick spectacles and saying “are you wearing decent knickers, child? Otherwise if the skirt goes up people will laugh- big shame, no”
I remember looking back at her blinking speechlessly and nodding humbly “yes, nana” ; I dare say your own grandma probably told you stuff like this too, when you were a kid, but the difference here was probably that I was 30 at the time, and had come to visit her, riding a small Indian Yamaha, without a valid license. …(gulp!)
And she boasted of language that could out-swear the hairiest drunkest Pettah naatami and was not afraid to use it. Words like thoe, yakoe, and bung, and rolled off her tongue with as much dubious ease as the lyrics of Shakespearean verse, Edelweiss and old Nat King Cole numbers…She conscientiously objected to the Dickmans road cripple who made oodles of money just by hobbling around the posh Prados passing through that junction, so she would spend mornings dutifully insulting him from her baloney for being such a low down parasite…
Grandma Isabelle was maybe a tad over five foot high and as light as a thistle but ate like a marine, and knew how to enjoy life to the fullest. I remember she loved anything packaged in England (peaches, tarts, wheetabix) for the same reason that children do, that its bright , flavorful and generally not locally available, and she would cheerfully guzzle chocolates, fig biscuits and apple tarts with a devil may care “to hell with the diabetes” attitude.(Blood sugar, predictably, didn’t dare to rear its ugly head and try cramping her style, because I suspect she would have told it to go take a hike)
My art, writing and sense of esthetics I believe I owe to her side of the family and she taught me, I remember, how to paint ostriches in the African Savannah. I can still mix the exact color of an ostriches butt feathers which are a “bluish greenish black with a slight touch of yellow in it for depth”.
It was later on that I actually learned that Colombo’s“Morotuwa” people are somewhat famous for the arts, (art, music, sculpting and writing ) and that “down south” people sometimes don’t really value this much because they are way more practical in useful talents like cooking and making broods of exemplary offspring…intermarry these two and there will always be gentle disdain from both sides about what the other cant do.
Grandma Isabelle’s favorite movie was “Colamba Sanniya”(Coming Sweet) which although I have never seen in my life, I have listened with delight to detailed accounts of, since I was 7 and thus can actually picture clearly in my minds eye, right down to the white scratch marks on the movie.
The hero was (played by?) Freddie or Eddie Someone who won a lottery as the story was repeated to me on torpid tropical Ceylon afternoons, which along with my love for ambul bananas, large Marie biscuits(no longer produced) and good Ceylon tea, makes me now realize how ancient I must be…it is classic 1950s style comedy about some village godeyaars** who win a luxury house in Colombo that they don’t know what to do with. Around the point where they start doing their laundry in the water closet, grandma falls into numerous staged microsleeps and I have to start prodding her for the balance.

Its tough when you have not much control over your life, and have to listen to “good” advice from people 40 years younger than you. So by 90 and definitely as part of a complex counter plan, Grandma Isabelle developed a Strategic Wheeze which she could produce when things weren’t going to her liking, such as when anyone suggested a healthful after dinner walk or any such physical exercise…or a visit to the dentist…monthly checkups… etc
She also had a distinctly selective and very volatile memory, something computer junkies would have called “Need Only Memory” because she remembered things only if they suited her, and otherwise resorted to a an extremely blank and innocent expression of pleasant non recognition which she had perfected down the years.
So questions like “ would you like another piece of angel cake ?” would be met by a carefully worded “ what angel cake ? did I just eat a piece?” which meant of course but don’t tell anyone I ll be having two. That face was also used when reminded of old correspondence she should be replying to.

I don’t believe Nana worried about death at all, even thought she was past 90 when it got her. Although she sometimes discussed passing concerns like globalisation, deforestation and whether young Tushi was having an unsuitable affair in her office , she accepted inevitable eventualities like illness and mortality with the calm don’t care attitude of a tattooed underworld thug.
In fact quite predictably, she went down singing and joking all the way and her last recorded words where actually a cracked old baila very loosely translated as “shall I tell you of the love I have for you? In the afternoon come to the bathing pipe-and ill tell you”.
Nana was a happy rebel in her age, like I am in mine. My mother is comparatively a very normal, mainstream and ladylike character and so is my daughter, so I guess this weirdness skips generations.
They say that each person will somewhere be duplicated in her ancestry or among her descendents, and if so I do wonder if I will someday have a pixie faced, happy go lucky tomboy of a grand or great grand daughter, who will write about me.
If so she’s forgiven in advance….

* This sort of explains me, but not fully
** Pardon the haughty colonial expression


Dili said...

Kolamba Sanniya as far as I know means "Troubles in Colombo" and is one of the funniest and all time greatest SL movie classics. Hope you watched it when it was telecast on a local tv channel recently. I can see why grandma Isabelle loved it. It's right up her alley based on what you say.

I'm sure you miss her, but i'm sure you're also happy you had such a unique and wonderful influence on you

al juhara said...

thanks for the comment,nice to know people are still rading my blog :-)
and yes, I do miss her..

al juhara said...

and finally this totally describes her
The Sniffle by Ogden Nash

In spite of her sniffle
Isabel's chiffle.
Some girls with a sniffle
Would be weepy and tiffle;
They would look awful,
Like a rained-on waffle,
But Isabel's chiffle
In spite of her sniffle.
Her nose is more red
With a cold in her head,
But then, to be sure,
Her eyes are bluer.
Some girls with a snuffle,
Their tempers are uffle.
But when Isabel's snivelly
She's snivelly civilly,
And when she's snuffly
She's perfectly luffly.