Sunday, August 19, 2018

Enduring lessons in love, life and happiness...

On the occasion of the 99th birth anniversary of Mrs Sessy Paulis of Sirimal Uyana Ratmalana

When I met my adorable mother in law Mrs Sessy Paulis, she was about 70 and I was 19 so actually more than a mother-in-law, she seemed like a grandma to me too which was wonderful since I didn't have one of my own close-by. She was a very graceful and elegant figure, usually in light blue sarees with a string of pearls which she wore when visiting. What stood out at the first impression was one of a very loving, compassionate, and genuinely caring lady of class and standing, who also knew to bond with any strata of people. Since I was a very young daughter-in-law I’m very happy to say that I learned a lot of things from her, and I'm very sure that her lessons of kindness and tolerance live on through me as much as they do through her own children and grandchildren. I was comparatively impressionable and vulnerable at that age, so I do believe she adopted me at once as another happy addition to her large family of 8 children, 6 in laws and what would become about three dozen grandchildren. My earliest memories are of me sitting in her front lawn as she had captured me after a bath and her gently trying to  get some order out of my hair, which those days was much like the curly haired character in Brave. She would patiently oil it and scrunch it, which made it remotely manageable, to my surprise.
There were so  many valuable lessons she taught us including;
  • Mettha to all, and so much love for her familyNow I look back on the wonderful relationship we had, and though we went through lot of changes and challenges in life, I cannot remember her having spoken one harsh word, or hurt my feelings ever, and how many people, even from loving families, can one say this about? Aunty was a true Buddhist gentlewoman in every meaning of the word. Aunty would love to meet all her relations, who themselves were very loving and genuine people from down south (Dondra people from Pinkanda) and if we ever went travelling down south or to Kandy or to Anuradhapura we had to meet a blur of dear humble people who loved her and spoke of her as a kind of legend. My own family was a western-educated, nuclear family with all manner of grudges against its various relations, but she always advised me that family is precious and her favourite motto ever was “forgive and forget”. Aunty always without fail remembered the good people did, and made sure to forget any wrongs she may have noticed. From her I learned to always seek the good in any human, and to give people chances.
  • Karuna and true humility she told me not to call our workers “servants” but to call them helpers. There is a lot of meaning in this. She has always spoken with kindness and respect to anyone, including those working in our homes, be it a gardner, plumber or attendant. This is a trend modern people do follow, but you will agree it was not common in her generation.
  • Muditha Aunty was genuinely happy at the good fortune of other people, and would brag on their behalf. This was the same if it was family, relatives, friends or neighbours. You always heard the nice updates! And all of this before the words “positive thinking” became buzz words!
  • Genuine upeksha in all she did. Aunty exemplified non attachment, balance and tolerance in all her relationships and dealings. I learned from her not to judge people simply because they were going against social expectations. Not to judge based on class or rank or financial status, but to be tolerant of peoples failings and search for the good in them. And as to material things, she clung to nothing ever, with another motto being “ we will all be letting go of this and going one day” (api mey siyalla ataralla yanawa ne kawadahari). I knew her always as a simple smiling lady happy with a few pastel colored sarees, one pearl necklace, one beige handbag, a pair of spectacles, and a couple of pairs of usually beige slippers. She hung on to no possessions whatsoever. She also stoically and cheerfully bore any pain, hardships and even significant calamities, such as the complete loss of the family fortune with the Kantalai Dam disaster of 1986, which sounded like merely a passing phase from how calmly she described it. 
  • A love of babies. Aunty had quite a few of them herself,(eight!) without any hangups at all,and only had happy and fun filled stories about each experience, and then she also had a huge boat load of grandchildren (I think about 27 at the last count) and loved each and every one of them that she could get her hands on (and the diaspora ones too!). None of our new-fangled family planning there, each little human was treated as a blessing and an amazing new wonder to be mollycoddled and pampered until she reluctantly had to let go of them to their parents. Of course it may not be practical in this day and age, but she lived in a time when this was possible and she basked in the sheer delight of each addition to her brood, and then grand-brood and after some years, the great-grand-brood too!  Aunty was a truly happy and lucky matriarch indeed!
  • A love of this planet. Aunty was one of the first environmentalists I knew even before that word became fashionable. She loved working in the garden for hours, and this is probably one of the secrets of her living to 97 in a hale and hearty physical state She would potter in plants, grow flowers of all hues, and carry huge kalugal around making various esthetic arrangements. All coconuts we ever ate over the last 3 decades were from trees she had planted and tended. She would stop and look at a green bean in earnest when we were cleaning them to cook, and appreciate the farmers of our country by commenting on how much effort it took to make even a few beans which we just go out and buy. She would not allow us to waste even a few grains of dhal or rice washed away, not because of the cost of it, but in appreciation of the labour that went into growing food, and also the many who went without. She always conserved water and made sure to recycle even old clothes to take the maximum use out of them. She made thrift and food management a virtue and also from around 7 or 8 years old since she heard a sermon of Ven Narada, avoided meat, fish, and eggs and most dairy products, (except for during a childhood illness when she was compelled by family members to eat fish to “get her strength back”). Unlike the egotistical vegans of today she never imposed her diet on anyone else, or lectured or boasted about it, except for a gentle bit of advice if she felt that someone would take it. It's only becoming clear to us, now, with all the modern hype about the health benefits of veganism, that this too must have been one of the secrets of such a long and healthy life. She was one of those dear old ladies who took a tiny bit of sugar onto their palm with tea, instead of stirring in heaps of sugar, and anyway she always preferred hakuru if there was any. She also stoutly defended her right to be allowed to cook with coconut oil and refused to have anything to do with palm oil and all the other synthetic stuff that commercials were trying to force on us in the 90s, because, in her opinion, “we used to eat baskets full of kavum and kokis at weddings those days and all of us ate coconut oil and nothing bad happened to anyone! “ (referring to village weddings) and, what do you know, she was right after all! She woke daily around five a.m and kept herself busy and active into her 90s, always finding at least some bit of light housework that she could do even if it was washing and sorting the tupperwear or drying pepper seeds in the sun, or helping make some of that awesome billin achcharu . So busy did she insists on being, in fact that she fell one day, and cracked a hip around 94, but as graceful as ever, fully healed and walked around fine for years after that too. At 73 one lovely memory was climbing Sigiriya with her in the lead, and my adventurous daughter dangling between us like a swinging baby monkey at the age of two...I like to think that my daughter has inherited from her, the love of adventure, travel and meeting people.
  • A love of life itself. There is no denying that there was family strife in her life in her latter years, as always there will be some external factors to break the peace in any home….but that never kept her angry or downcast. I can only remember a quiet happy humming as she pottered in the garden and greeted each new day with the same wonder and delight with which she danced on the beach, climbed mountains, or ran nimbly after toddling grandchildren. And yet, Aunty was never afraid to leave this life either, and prepared serenely to let go of life with the utmost grace too. A few months before she died she had a rather uncomfortable bout of gastritis and was briefly hospitalised (which actually had happened only about two or three times in all the 26 years i knew her), and the doctors ran every known test they could on her and came up with about 100 pages of reports, all absolutely clear, and with a completely clean bill of health. No diabetes, no cholesterol, perfect heart function.... With the gastritis incident we had all started visiting her because we instinctively felt worried that she was in pain and that she may depart this world soon, but even then she made the usual jokes, and was very cheerful. Some months later, shortly before her 98th birthday she died unexpectedly, quietly and peacefully in her sleep. The last words she said to us were a cheerful blessing as we visited and left.
We treasure that blessing always, and in my heart I fervently  hope that I  will meet her again, in another incarnation, that she will guide me in future too. The fragrance of her loving presence will always linger with us, as a brave, beautiful and inspiring person we were truly blessed to have known.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Shot Gun Funeral

image aptly titled "our packages" from 

I didn't know till recently how much a coffin costs in Sri Lanka, it hasn't been that high in my "need to know" list. But this year I found out that it can be anything from 20,000 to 400,000 LKR.,and at each end of the spectrum the damn things look the same! They are shiny polished OBLONG WOODEN BOXES with handles! They have some shiny white material inside. The 400,000 one doesn't look 20 times as posh as the other one, it just looks the same but a bit heavier. I was told that monks get the high quality send off. Of course that makes sense, burning a box that costs enough to make a small home for a destitute family, just because they are a Buddhist monk. Just what the Buddha ordered!

As each year starts we look into it and wonder with new hope, if finally this will be the year we waited for, if this year we will find what we were looking for. None of us imagine that this may be the year in which we die.

My own 2017 started with rescuing a cow of all things under Gods sun. and of course it wasn't the usual rescue from the slaughterhouse, no this was me and this is Sri Lanka so this had to involve more drama and fright and bribery, corruption, violence and skullduggery and a predictably feisty hellcat cow that finally ran away into the sunset of Hanwella- that is a completely different story. But someone told me at the start that I would be blessed, that the universe would reward me. I waited with bated breath all year.

Then 2017 was the year when my father fell ill, mysteriously and irreversibly becoming bedridden in a series of events designed to test the limits of our endurance and of our belief. For various reasons I have written about in other places, I have no sentimentality about my father, and merely considered him sympathetically as an unwell elderly person in need of care.

My mother had taken care of him for many years now waiting on him hand and foot and we had watched as he played the merry devil with antibiotics, randomly self medicating according to his warped medical knowledge, and also binging on eye popping amounts of sugar, in spite of the fact that he was a diabetic and had a continuously suppurating foot wound. On the pretext that he needed sugar because he felt as if he had low sugar, which he did not. The difference between minors and criminally negligent adults is that of course you can't force elders to do anything, even if you can see that they are gradually killing themselves in front of you. My brother and I, his only children, were used to this self destructive behaviour after watching him chain smoke for 30 years, and then completely speculate his wealth away for another 20 years, we had given up expecting him to take any advice from us. Our mother had given up arguing around 50 years ago and instead lived in an alternate reality, based on her knowledge of astrology. Father was supposed to die in 2020. So we braced ourselves for a long and interesting relationship with elderly care institutions in Sri Lanka.

The extent of the care needed by this heavy tall bedridden and incontinent patient, was such that after no less than 23 calls to elderly care homes in Sri Lanka only four agreed to undertake his care. Two were unregulated budget homes for poor villagers, in Homagama and Padukka, salubrious areas of the country, but conditions within them were reminiscent of concentration camps with softer bedding and better ventilation. One was a budget home which looked like a hotel and charged a higher amount and one was a decently registered nursing home in Colombo run by doctors, where his expenditure would add up to more than our combined monthly incomes. We went through three of these different experiences in traumatic sequence.

In the first budget priced home in a rural area called Pitipana, we left our father only one night and returned to find that he had been threatened, starved, and traumatised and his catheter had been tied so he could not urinate. He was actually crying for water and did not let go of his plastic water bottle for many days afterwards. He began to speak only in Sinhala, and he would not recount what had been told to him to make him so terrified. We withdrew him from this pretty place and later my husband paid them a visit with about ten of his friends and indulged in a little summary justice, because we didn't have time or evidence to report them to the authorities. Proper revenge was taken Im happy to say, Sri Lankan style, because frankly we were in a state of emergency and really did not have the patience anymore to be classy and genteel about things.

Its difficult to concentrate, when you are holding up a very heavy and large man who has completely lost the use of his arms and legs, and is continuously incontinent. You try keeping your job, keeping your head and doing this. Adult Diaper bills for the month came to about half my salary, medication bandages and catheter changing added to that exceeded the combined income of my brother and myself.

I asked my husband what rural people with lower than middle incomes did. He said they would take turns. But he admitted he had never seen such a case. Occasionally a frail old lady might get paralysed but still she was the size that could be safely hauled to the loo for cleaning. My neighbour an elderly lady in her late 70s said that she had looked after her husband for eight years, by keeping him locked up at home, without clothes. He would crawl around the house soiling the corridors as he went. My father could not even crawl. It took two people to lift his torso high enough for him to be able to eat something.

Then a relatively expensive interlude in Colombo brought us physical relief, although at the expense of our financial and psychological stability. Cheerful, chubby nurses took care of everything, we could visit him and cheer him up, his long lost relations were allowed access, he seemed to be accepting his pitiable fate at last. But we were steadily notching up debts that we could not have dreamed of, and against our principles, sending pleas around to family members and to people we didn't know, to help father as we wanted to keep him in comfort, till we could sell the family home and finance the rest of his medical and palliative care. Life was disintegrating into a nightmare before our disbelieving eyes. True to Sri Lankan human nature one of our cousins threw it crudely in our faces that we had asked for help, although he had not contributed a cent towards helping us.

In the middle of this all, father himself had a small amount of stashed away money, which could pay for about two months of the nursing home, but he was being typically tight fisted about it. He could not walk, or stand or even sit up unless two strong people placed him upright, but he was stubbornly hanging onto his cash, saying that he would release it if we took him to the bank. To take him to the bank would need a stretcher, two strong men and an ambulance and was completely unnecessary as the bank has confirmed that he only had to sign a form and they would release it to us. There was a deadlock here which was difficult to believe. We could not afford to keep him indefinitely in the Colombo nursing home.

The pretty hotel like home in Homagama agreed to take him in for about ⅔ of the monthly fee. For the third time in three months we arranged to take him away. This was not before sending out another plea this time to the professional institute of which he had been a course director in his proud heyday. They did vaguely commit to sending some money but only a small amount actually materialised and this was enough for one month in the new place. Transporting him took an expense for two strong men to lift him and an ambulance to cart him to the new location. You may not have noticed it in the heat of an emergency, but ambulances are bloody expensive.

Two days later he was dead.

And the new elders home owner panicked, and placed an entry in the police station she claimed covered her jurisdiction, which was a place 30 km away called Horana; the police stampeded over clearly intent on finding some fault with her, 1 for not being properly registered 2 for not having a doctor in attendance and 3 for him having died just two days after arriving. There you had a entrepreneur lady living a horror story. She had just opened an elders home where lots of quiet little old ladies could be bullied into behaving themselves and giving her solid cash, and here she had accepted this bedridden old man and he had gone and died on her. She had the look of someone in a bad nightmare who just wanted to wake up. And it was Christmas day.

Our van transport on the day of the post mortem was no less than 300 km, which is the distance from Colombo to Trincomalee, - this is the amount of zigzagging from pillar to post that we had to go through, the vehicle being with us for no less than 36 hours. We went to the police station, waited for two hours for a constable to join us (there were no other people at the station) went on a detour because the constable wanted to have a look at his three wheel which had been given to a garage to repair,(this is how we spent the first few hours when we should have been quietly grieving for our dead father) then went to the Horana hospital where we waited standing for an hour till the JP came in and told everyone that he was doing us a massive favour by officially releasing the dead bodies of their loved ones, (he lectured us that not his job but he was doing social service)and we had to humbly and worshipfully listen to this (without screaming at him to sign the damn papers because our honoured beloved father was starting to disintegrate in the tropical heat in the mortuary van) then we had to wait another twenty minutes till a half witted nurse found the keys to his room, because they had forgotten the keys, then he took our statements (all three of us, mine, my brothers and the elders home owners) and tried to insist that my mother join the fray,("the spouse should claim the body") and became abusive when i said that she was mentally retarded, and hinted that he could issue a warrant and force her to come here. To this I shrugged, because by now i was ok with anything they did, I was just numb. This was just the beginning of the bureaucratic abuse and obstacles hurled at the family of newly bereaved.

More worshipful humility required of us as we stood near the mortuary for 4 hours, (stood because the Government of Sri Lanka wont afford seats for grieving family whose members are being dismembered) and waited experiencing various abattoir noises and nauseating smells, until at long last the doors opened and a misshapen bundle on a stretcher was exposed and the attendants asked us, rudely of course, where the polythene was. Which polythene you may ask? No one had said anything about polythene, not even our funeral house van drivers. So if you see Hollywood films where the deceased is neatly stitched up in a Y shape and handed back in a body bag, that's not how it's done in Sri Lanka due to our poverty or insensitivity or both. According to the embalming boys, my father's body had been sliced downwards on both sides of all four limbs, his skull sawn off and held in place with a long rag, and his innards emptied and flushed with so much water that the cadaver kept dripping continuously until it was cremated. Furthermore the main arteries had been torn out of their positions and lost, so the embalmers had no way of injecting formaldehyde. Gleefully, and so as to get some more money for their alchohlic bribe, the funeral boys showed me the photos. Morbidly curious as we humans sometimes are, I made the mistake of going through his smartphone file on our father.

Through this haze of insanity only one rational voice spoke to us reasonably, humanely and kindly and that was the JMO, Dr Prasan who first questioned the constable on the suitability of mangling the body of a 78 year old heart patient who had not one but at least four conditions which could kill him of natural causes at any instant, and told him in no uncertain terms of what he thought of his time being wasted in this manner. Constable 80100 did everything he could to obstruct and cause distress to us, including pointing out that the elders home was not registered, (it was under probation for one year which is reasonable in the circumstances) and that my mother had not arrived to claim her spouses body (to which the JMO replied that the children were here and that was quite enough) however the police entry meant that the body would have to be subjected to post mortem, it was beyond his power to stop this procedure at this point.

End of Part one

Part two- the horrors of old folks homes in Sri Lanka.