The story of an aththamma and an aththa

Dane Street. Somerville. Cambrige. Massachusetts. The United States of America. It was in the Spring of 1991. There were several Sri Lankans living in that apartment. None of us were very good at cooking. It was trial and error, but sometimes things turned out well, more by accident than design. When this happened, we called all our Sri Lankan friends for dinner. On this occasion, however, it was a planned dinner and the invitees had to chance it.

Among them were two Liyanages from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Udaya Kumara and Nilanga, from Gampola and Galle respectively. Both were brilliant students. Udaya later entered Harvard Medical School and is a surgeon. Nilanga went on to complete his PhD at MIT and now teaches experimental nuclear and particle physics at the University of Virginia.

I remember that night because tonight I am thinking of a grandmother, an archchi, archchi amma, kiriamma or aththamma as per your preferred form of address. I remembered Nilaga because of a grandfather story. Yes, seeya, aththa or kiriaththa, if you will.

Let me first relate Nilanga’s story. He had written an essay for an English class and wanted me to go through it. In the first paragraph there was a reference to ‘a grandfather.’ I suggested that he change it to ‘an old man.’ My contention was that the English equivalent of the Sinhala phrase ‘seeya kenek’ sounds odd because it is rarely if ever used.

Nilanga was adamant. He chided me for not understanding Sinhala culture. His argument, which seemed to make sense but which I didn’t have enough time to digest then, was that the word ‘seeya’ in Sinhala and for a Sinhalese meant something more than ‘an old man.’ The use of the kinship term implied proximity, strength and meaning of the relationship which of course ‘an old man’ cannot capture or convey. The moment the term is used the responsibilities and respect associated with the term get scripted into the encounter.

Think of aiya, malli, nangi, akka, maama, nanda, amma or thaaththa, i.e. the terms for older brother, younger brother, younger sister, older sister, uncle, aunt, mother and father respectively. We use these terms when we speak with or refer to people who are not related to us in any way. The moment we use it, we break through what barriers there could be and create a sense of familiarity. ‘A mother,’ or ‘a father’ just wouldn’t translate amma kenek or thaththa kenek.

So let’s move to the story of ‘A’ grandmother. It did and is still doing the rounds on social media. Dr Sameera Janaka Jayasinghe described her beautifully. In Sinhala. Here’s the translation:

‘She, who was a grandmother of around 90 years, possessed excellent clarity of mind. There was wrinkled skin, uncertainty of step, cheeks hollowed by the lack of teeth and a spine bent with age. None of these things had the power to dissolve the sense of dignity and the spirit of life that consistently thought of others congealed in her blood, bones and sinews.’

A Bikkhu, along with some young men, had arrived at her humble house to offer some rations. Her first response was ‘So much? I don’t need so much apey Hamuduruwane. Leave a little and take the rest away.’

Then she had a question: ‘how am I to pay for this?’ Essentially an inquiry of price. She wasn’t rich, obviously and yet she wanted nothing free. And it got better. She insisted that they take the 100 rupee note she offered them even though they explained that they were there to help.

The good doctor observes: ‘how wonderful it would be if people had Aththamma’s clam resolve not to be perturbed by the eternal verities, the ata lo dahama! This incident demonstrates the difference between the core and the bark. It tells us of the gap between the statue hewn from rock and that which is hollow. The gal pilimaya and bol pilimaya. What wafted from the wasted body of the aththamma is the noble quality of determination not to be swayed by the vicissitudes of life.’

Was she ‘an old woman’ or ‘an aththamma’? When she addressed the young men, if she said ‘boys’ and not ‘puthaala’ would it make a difference?

This aththamma in that encounter said a lot about herself and about who we are as a people. So too, I’m sure, the seeya in Nilanga’s essay, written almost three decades ago. It simply resists translation. We are blessed, I feel, to be a nation of relatives as opposed to an aggregate of people.



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