This is my Uncle on the left. Or should I say, this was my Uncle. He died in Sri Lanka while I was away for on holiday. So it was weird returning to the UK. Well, I will be blunt, it was awful. This I might add could be one of the last photos of him alive, taken as he left his holiday in the UK to go back home in November.
Let me go back to the beginning. The first time I went to Sri Lanka was in 1989. My dad wanted to take my mum, my sister and myself to see his homeland. It would be his first return there in twenty years and a lot had passed since then. When he left for England, he was bright eyed, cocky and young. Of course, I never knew this side of him, after all, he was my father and was a loving man who I would not dare to mess with! Interestingly, now looking back, it was my mother who was the disciplinarian in the household, but for some reason, it was my dad who I had the awe and respect for, while I always tried (and still do) to push my mum’s temper.
Anyway, let me get back to the story. My dad had taken us to see his homeland in 1989. Back then Sri Lanka was in a pretty bad state. Curfews, road blocks and random security checks. We were lucky, we were staying in a nice hotel, we were not Sri Lankan as far as our passports were concerned and he had organised a tour of the island, so we could see the temples, the tea estates and wonderful countryside. He had also arranged it so that we could meet his family.
My dad was rebellious, and he did not keep contact with his family for much of those twenty years. A lot had happened in the intervening years, but he was not going to let that stand in the way and introduced us to virtually all of his family in Sri Lanka. Most importantly, I got to meet his brothers and sisters. My dad was the baby in the family, so they all made a point to come and visit us in the capital. All but one had to cross the war zones to see us, but I got to meet the all surviving siblings of my dad. My Uncle Victor (who died the following year in 1990), my Aunt Grace (passed away in 2005), my Aunt Agnes (who passed away in 2008) and my Uncle Joseph (who died on February 1st).
It was this first trip to Sri Lanka that began the relationship I have with all my cousins, nephews and nieces from my dad’s side of the family. It also began the relationship that I had with my dad’s siblings. My dad took us back again in 1991 and 1994. He then passed away in 1997, a huge shock to us. But my mother kept in contact with her In-Laws and in 2000, armed with her airmails, I headed back to Sri Lanka to see the island myself. At this time I was young, fresh faced and cocky. Similar to my dad in temperament, more fearless than I am now and completely clueless about the ways of travelling. My knowledge of Sri Lanka’s geography was utterly awful, and I did not do an ounce of research into the island. Compare this to the amount of reading I did for going to Poland this month, and this was an astounding amount of arrogance on my part. Still, the main reason for me to go there was to see my family, in particular my dad’s (surviving) sisters and brother. It was also to be my first visit to Jaffna, my father’s hometown, something that was bittersweet as it broke my dad’s heart that he was never able to take us there to see his old home when he was alive.
Now, being the kind of guy I was, I decided to surprise my family, and told my mum not to tell them I was going to Sri Lanka. I wanted to establish a relationship with them on my own terms, as their nephew, not as the son of my dad. Plus, I liked the fact that I was going to surprise them! And this was a pain in the butt. The year 2000 was crap in Sri Lanka. Guns, more war and the fact that I no longer had an in-built guide in he guise of my dad meant that I could not have picked a more difficult time to head to this country. But, go I did, and I got to see all my family. There were many tears, a lot of shocks and a hell of a lot of fun. I was able to chat with my family, tell them about my life and what had happened in the past six years since I had saw them last. It was emotional seeing them all after that time. For me, they were a direct link to my dad, for them, I was a direct link to the little brother who they had grown up with. I remember my Aunt Agnes insisting that I come into her house and eat even though it was late at night when I knocked on her door. I remember my Aunt Grace showing me the spot where my dad was born, an event she witnessed. And I remember my Uncle Joseph rushing back from work on the farms when the gossip spread through Mannar that his nephew had arrived to look for him.
I remember seeing how he wept when he saw me sitting in his house, saying that I reminded him of his brother. We chatted, we laughed, we ate. He took me to see his in-laws and his friends in Mannar. It surprised them all that I (a Westerner) had made the journey to this small island off the shore of Sri Lanka, but it surprised them even more that I had made that journey to see my Uncle. To them, British people lived a life of glitz and glamour but had little time for family But they had underestimated the influence of my parents’ decision to take me to Sri Lanka as a child. Those experiences influenced me far more decisively than even I could imagine.
My Uncle Joseph was affectionately known as J-Uncle. He was unable to have children, so he was the grand patriarch of my dad’s side of the family. As the last of the elders, he always dispensed his advise with a sense of humour and strictness. He was a pillar of wisdom, a quiet man who disliked conflict and always found a middle ground. He had to negotiate war and pestilence (telling me how he lived off stagnant water during the dark times of the civil war) as well as ill health. Having a heart bypass in his fifties, he was not given long to live. But he transformed his life, carefully regulating his food, he stopped drinking and began to exercise more. The fact that he lived for nearly twenty years after the operation (in a country not known for great health care) shows that it is never too late to turn around your life.
My Uncle Joseph was a remarkable man. He was inspirational in so many ways. I appreciated him for his company, and even though I was never a great talker on the phone, I always stuck like glue next to him whenever I visited him. And, based on a promise I made to him in 2006, I brought him to the UK for a holiday in November last year. No one thought I would do it, but never underestimate my tenacity for stupid ideas. Originally I wanted to bring him in 2009, but in that year I was in no financial state to do it. But better late than never and so I managed it a few months ago. It was the first time my Uncle had left Sri Lanka and it took me the best part of a year to organise and fund. I managed to jump the hoops of UK immigration (thank you Oli!), his flying phobia and it was the primary reason for my visit to Sri Lanka in 2010, to pick him up and introduce him to the UK.
It was not long enough that he spent here. My Aunt’s sickness meant that he had to accompany her back to Sri Lanka far earlier than planned (they were meant to spend Xmas here). But he saw a lot of the family based in the UK, got to hold my nephew in his arms and got to see the life that his brother, my father had built for himself and his family. He was the last survivor of that branch of the family, something that he keenly felt when he saw my dad’s grave. But he was happy to have been here. He told me that even his own children (had he been able to father them) would not have treated him as well as I did. But he does not realise how much more he did for me.
As a child he spoilt me. My Uncle fussed with me and also looked through disapproving eyes when I was naughty. As an adult Uncle Joseph sheltered me in an unfamiliar land, protected me in a war zone and revealed to me a history of my father that I barely knew. I discovered a hidden island off the Sri Lankan mainland, was able to converse with great people due to him, saw the harsher side of life, a life that I was lucky not to have ended up in. We heard the bombs go off together and sweated in the heat while riding bicycles in the desert. My Uncle was a fun man to be with, and despite his age, also had a mischievous edge to him.
I am really going to miss my Uncle Joseph, like I miss the rest of my Aunts. Under their gaze I grew up from an imbecilic child to an even more idiotic adult. But despite the distance, the love was always there. Family is a strange thing to behold. Sometimes you have many similarities, often nothing in common. But it is an amalgamation of individuals. Depending on these individuals, family can be great, or they can be sour. I was lucky and blessed to have such a great family on my dad’s side. I was privileged to have known as well as I could, despite distance, linguistic and cultural barriers. The relationship I had with my Aunts and with my Uncle Joseph shows that love really does know no bounds. It is with tears in my eye that I look back on the time I knew them, especially in the last decade when I as a man was able to know them on my own terms.
At the best of times, I am an unemotional man. So my family will never know the influence they had on my life. It was probably a lot more that they will ever realise. My Uncle, like my Aunts, I am going to miss. I am saddened that my children (should I ever have any) will never get to know him. It will only be through the stories that I will tell, will they know who he was. They will not feel the same connection that I had with him. But despite all of that, I am glad about many things, and I am grateful that I was able to fulfill his dream of bringing him to the UK for a holiday. And he had a good death. In the morning he was cycling as normal to market, went tutoring the kids, as was his job in Mannar. My Uncle was no slob! Only in the evening did he complain of chest pains. He was taken to the hospital and refused for anyone to hold him or help him. Less than three hours after admission, he was dead. It was a good way to go, and a blessing for such a remarkable man. A man who I will truly miss, as my life continues along its unknown path…
Joseph Alfred Sellathurai. Born March 11th 1939, Jaffna. Died February 1st 2011, Mannar. May God Bless you and grant you eternal life. RIP.