I was probably the last to leave the cemetery. The funeral pier was wildly ablaze against the waning light of the evening sky. The silence of the dead was occasionally interrupted by the crackle of the burning cinders. Unable to shift my gaze from the fire, I kept seeing the pensive, expectant face of her in the inferno.
Mrs. Harriet Gamlath, the retired head mistress of the village school, affectionately known by the villagers as 'Guru Meniyo', was no more. Born in the village, and having served the district as a teacher, all her life, her ashes have now come to rest in her own soil.
Earlier in the afternoon, I joined the funeral procession that snaked through the narrow lanes leading to the cemetery located in the outskirts of the village. A high pitched melancholic tune of a flute complementing a dull repetitive beat of drums wrapped in white cloth, led the way, setting the emotional tone of the mourners. The villagers had worked hard to celebrate the life of their senior educationist: white flags, and arches made of tender coconut leaves adorned the way; banners with bold letters expressed their collective grief and their wish that she attains 'nirvana'; and white sand sprinkled on the route to the cemetery softened her path to her final destination. Her past pupils had insisted on carrying her coffin on their shoulders, taking on the task in turn, in groups.
The funeral procession reached its destination swelling the crowd that had already gathered around the pier. The majority were dressed in white, many carrying black umbrellas in anticipation of a downpour. Amongst them were many dignitaries - former colleagues, her former pupils who have reached great heights in their chosen professions and a few local politicians. Almost the whole village had turned up for the occasion. There was also a large contingent of Buddhist monks clad in yellow and ochre robes headed by the prelate of the local temple. They all gathered in quiet dignity, some engaged in a soft whisper. They exchanged memories about their association with the beloved teacher and lamented the irreplaceable loss to the community, or simply commented on the modest design of the funeral pier, which aptly reflected the humility and dignity of Mrs. Gamlath.
The monks sat in a crescent of chairs arranged in front of the funeral pier. The closest relatives sat on a mat beside the monks. Amongst them was Lakdas, her son, who cut a lonely figure, distinct by his clean- cut attire and mannerisms. He was noticeably uncomfortable in his posture. Sitting cross-legged and holding his head down, he was pulling on a blade of grass, trying to remove it from its stem. Deep in thought he was trying to hold back his grief rather unsuccessfully; a tear breaking its bounds and running down his cheek. But is sadness the only emotion he was experiencing at that moment? I wondered.
By tapping on the microphone in front of him and clearing his throat, the head priest signaled the start of the funeral orations. The whispering in the crowd subsided.
"Today we are gathered to pay our last respects to one of the most esteemed teachers this district has produced", he said. A cool evening breeze swept across the deadly silence interrupted only by the call of a raven and the flapping of its wings. "This was a natural end to a very fortunate and productive life of eighty-six years", continued the priest in his dignified manner."This should be a happy celebration of a wonderful life rather than a day of grieving". He narrated in detail, her commitment to her profession, her family, and her active role in the past, in various charitable and welfare activities in the village. He revealed that Mrs. Gamlath had confided in him about several requests by her son to join him and his family overseas but that she had refused to do so wishing to live and die in her own village. Many eyes turned to Lakdas at this stage; he was still keeping his head down, deep in contemplation. "She was part of this land - her soul firmly bound to the gravel path, the village school, the paddy field and the village temple". He added that she led her life according to Buddhist principles. "As the Buddha preached, everything is impermanent....and that is reality.....and she was more fortunate than most of us would be having passed away in her sleep. In keeping with our spiritual beliefs she may have accumulated sufficient merit, in this life to shorten her journey towards Nirvana....and let us all pray that she will attain that ultimate goal".
A senior educationist who was a colleague of Mrs. Gamlath and her late husband spoke next. "As a teacher she was without peer. She made teaching an art form that most of our contemporary teachers could emulate. In her professional life she was a guiding light to many of her junior colleagues who came to her for advice. I know many of them are here today to pay their respects. She knew the background of each and every child in her class, and she considered it her personal responsibility to raise the educational standard of the more deprived children, especially when she was appointed as headmistress. It was because of her motherly nature that she came to be affectionately known as 'guru meniyo' by successive generations of her pupils". With a change of pace, he remarked, "I remember she was particularly skillful in reciting poems, vividly dramatizing their content and deeply engaging her pupils", drawing an approving response in the form of a controlled laughter from a section of the crowd.
At the conclusion of this eulogy a local politician who offered to say "a few words" was politely dissuaded by a family elder stating that it was the expressed wish of Mrs. Gamlath to keep her funeral proceedings to a minimum. Following a brief 'thank you speech' by the elder, the coffin was placed in the pier and was ignited in accordance with tradition, by two nephews of the diseased clad in white, carrying torches, after they performed the ritual of circling the pier three times in opposite directions.
As custom demanded, the closest friends and relatives of the deceased were expected to gather at the 'funeral house' in the wake of the cremation. A simple meal of rice and curry, prepared by volunteers from the village awaited them. Preparations of dried fish and pumpkin were invariably included in the menu. The atmosphere at the house was much more relaxed. The gathering provided the opportunity for many to 'catch up' with long lost friends and relatives and to renew their relationships. Some reminisced about their school days and their association with the teacher they loved, reminding each other of little incidents, yarns and even romances between fellow students to spice up the conversation triggering an occasional laughter. A few were engaged in deep conversation about their work and issues relating to their employment while others indulged in conversations about politics or just light-hearted natter. Many were gathered around Lakdas to express their condolences and to inquire about his future plans. He regretted that his wife and children were unable to attend due to work and study commitments respectively. He added that he had to return to Australia soon as several of his research projects had reached their final stage. Turning to me, he said he was eager to meet me and thank me for the support I had given his mother. "You were mentioned in almost every letter she sent me over the last couple of years", he said. I felt honoured.
I first met Mrs. Gamlath at her gate, nearly two years ago. Propped by her walking stick, she held on to the shaky gate post-a scene that became familiar to me over a period. She appeared at the gate more often than not at mid morning on Thursdays as she has come to realize that overseas post was delivered on that day. She waited with anticipation for the postman to arrive, often stating that she came out just to stretch her legs. The day she received a letter from overseas she would rush back to her home with less reliance on her walking stick; her equally enthusiastic dog following her.
On other days Mrs. Gamlath was given to sitting in her armchair in the front verandah of her home, watching the occasional passer-by on the gravel path to the village bazaar a mile away. Old and frail she rested her legs on a stool comforted by the cool breeze that swept through the coconut grove that surrounded her home. Her companion, the dog Sunaka sat beside her curled up and panting with its tongue out as if it had run a mile getting up occasionally to chase its tail and returning to its comfortable position.
"You must be Senarath Dissanayake's son?" she asked me one day, as she stood by the gate. I stopped and respectfully nodded in acknowledgement. "You look very much like your father. He was a colleague of mine... a member of my staff for many years", she said in a commanding voice. "His death was a big loss...you don't find good teachers like him anymore". I was both saddened and flattered to hear about my father from this grand old lady. After holding me to a lengthy conversation regarding my family and the welfare of its members she released me to hurry my way to my lectures at the university.
Meeting Mrs. Gamlath at her gate on most Thursdays became a regular event for me. She would engage me in a conversation regarding my studies and my teachers. I began to appreciate and feel benefited by my acquaintance with this lady whom I came to realize was of great 'social worth'. She encouraged me in my studies, inquiring about my progress and the grades I have achieved, always emphasizing the need to serve the village I was born to, after my graduation. I noticed a covert pressure for me to take up teaching as a profession.
On one such meeting, Mrs. Gamlath invited me to her home. I felt privileged to have been given access to this grand old home, respectfully known by the villagers as 'guru gedara' - the teachers' residence-and held in awe by them as the 'home of the learned'. As our relationship grew I became a regular visitor to be greeted initially by Sunaka who rushed out wagging his tail. I was often led to the 'drawing room' where a set of ageing ebony furniture surrounded a worn out Afghan carpet. A pair of mounted elephant tusks arched over a couch and framed the fading photograph of her late husband. A grandfather clock -with its arms stuck in the past-stood against the opposite wall. In the dining area two antique cupboards stored crockery of a bygone era. And in the so called office room, on one end of the corridor, a large collection of time-worn books and bundles of paper were gathering dust. Soon after we sat for a chat we were served with tea by Laisa, the ageing maid, who came in limping, with cups and saucers shaking on a silver tray.
On one such visit, Mrs. Gamlath was eager to show me recent photographs of her two grand children-both in their school uniform. "This is Sudesh: he looks very much like his father....he too wants to be a research scientist like his father!" she said with a chuckle. "They say my granddaughter, Priya, is very much like me. This is her. I hope she will take up teaching...to continue with the family tradition".
"When did you last see them?" I asked.
"I have not seen them since they were over here for a wedding three years ago. I haven't even spoken to them since they left. You see, we don't have a telephone service to this part of the village. It is a major handicap for me. But even if I have a telephone connection, I can't communicate with them because I do not speak English, and they don't speak their mother tongue...how sad". She pulled out the drape of her saree to wipe a tear. "There is a lot they are missing out on. There are so many good things about our culture. There is so much I could contribute to in their upbringing....I only hope they will come back".
My visits to Guru Gedara became more frequent as I felt more comfortable and relaxed in the presence of Mrs. Gamlath. I was inspired by her wealth of experience and the wisdom that came with age. She too appeared to be benefited by my company, and spoke freely about anything - her childhood and youth; her marriage, which was idolized; her commitment to her profession; her past pupils; and her teaching strategies. She also confided in me about her son, his family, and her regret regarding their recent decision not to return to their country of birth to live.
As months passed by, Mrs. Gamlath was seen less often at the gate. It appeared that, gradually, her spirit was breaking. She found it an effort to raise a smile. She was less steady on her feet. Her flower plants in pots in the verandah were starting to droop. From time to time she appeared preoccupied and non-attentive. The 'bana potha' that she often read stayed open on the same page. One day Laisa whispered in my ear that 'madam' hardly ate what was brought to the table. When asked about her absence at the gate she muttered, with her head turned down: "I waited for his letters, I waited for 'him 'and his family....now there is only one thing for me to wait for".
Almost a year had passed since the death of Mrs. Gamlath. Having graduated from University I found employment in the capital city. But whenever I returned to my village, I stopped at the gate of guru gedara and gazed at the grand old home of guru meniyo with a heavy heart. Weeds have started to invade the foot-path that led to the house. The flower pots have disappeared. The roof was cluttered with decaying leaves. Stray cattle have crossed the fallen boundary fences, and were seen feasting on the overgrown grass in the coconut grove.
Rumour has it that Lakdas had not returned home since the death of his mother, and that he had removed all the valuables from the house. He is said to have appointed a caretaker, and the property would soon be put up for sale. Laisa had gone back to her own village. The story goes that Sunaka disappeared the day after the funeral and its whereabouts was not known; but some village folk swore by seeing a dog in the front verandah, on certain nights, waiting, and had heard him howl.
By Dr. Siri Galhenage - sundayobserver.lk