HEMA Childhood: Born in a poor coastal neighbourhood called Unawatuna in Galle, Sri Lanka to a family of 7 kids ( 6 boys and 1 girl), Dandeniya Hema de Silva begins his life on 5/11/32. His father’s work during his childhood is unclear but he eventually became a bus driver. His mum worked in the kohu (coir) industry making ropes from coconut shells in mud pits for 16 hours to bring home some food. His character was formed by enduring and experiencing the true sense of poverty, an experience which is hard for anyone to comprehend unless one was born in a two-room dwelling with no toilets in the 1930s. Sharing a loaf of bread among the family or going to market to get some rotten fruits became a childhood normality. Searching for a piece of potato in a bowl of gravy must have been a luxury. Silently but painfully watching their siblings hungry faces is enough for Kalu Aiyya (black brother), as he was fondly named in his neighbourhood, to build a true passion for kindness and sensitivity that never left him till his death.
Hungry days became a norm of DH’s childhood. Survival precedes petty family fights. Through hardship the siblings built true closeness that lasted till their deaths. The resilience to fight hunger becomes a daily routine and probably through this comes the natural instinct to survive. His mother’s hardships are deeply rooted in DH’ soul. His soul is formed by watching his mum’s work ethic and commitment to whatever she did. This soul absorbs the mother’s physical struggles and emotional pain with silence and never lets it go to the very last. He privately and secretly endures his mother’s pain till on one heart-breaking day he just let it out by writing poems on the walls. He protects his mother with uncompromising passion.
Schooling: Mahinda College becomes his house of worship. Even with one pair of white shorts and white shirt going to school every day becomes a luxury. Later on he recalled with a sense of humour that the toilets were better at Mahinda College. That was more than a joke. I will not go more into it. He understood the importance of education and the power of education to overcome poverty. Teachers became clerics guiding his life. The desire to learn and hunger for knowledge built up his humbleness and down to earth attitude. He never forgot his teachers at Mahinda College. Late in life, suffering from dementia and delirium, he still recalled his teachers with extreme tenderness.
Through school, unassumingly the values of Buddhism took root in young DH, but he hardly ever stepped inside a temple. Maybe he saw Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion. We would never find out because he never spoke about Buddhism; rather sports became his religion. Love, respect and honouring the law become fundamental pillars of his upbringing. He worshipped his school; it becomes the true temple for him. He found peace and sanity within the school premises: his love for the school was uncompromising. He named his first born Mahinda.
He quickly realised that he is not born to understand E=mc^2 , but that he was gifted at hitting a ball. Cricket became the love of his life. The concepts of team, mateship and leadership grew in him through cricket. Any space became a cricket pitch. Backyard cricket matches became battlegrounds. Some matches ended with scuffles and bleeding. Young DH at mere age of 10-12 learnt to be a street fighter on the makeshift pitches of Unawatuna. Most likely, in a future day, these childhood cricket battles honed his fighting courage and as readiness to take on the hierarchy of Sri Lankan cricket.
Front foot drives, back foot defence, late or square cut shots were practiced with a hanging ball from a solid branch of a tree near Galle esplanade. To learn to hook or to pull the ball, he got his brothers to chuck stones at his face, Of course without helmets. This would have come handy when facing Wesley Hall and Garfield Sorbers at Sara stadium. It was not just practising cricket, he was living cricket from morning to night. Nothing became more important than training.
No wonder that in 1961 the West Indian batsman Rohan Kanhai said “That man who got 100 he is good, but another batsman who didn’t not get a big score impressed me more, He was the man who scratched and scraped yet survived Garry Sobers . Garry bowled 2 overs which were as good as I have ever seen him bowled anywhere. I don’t know how he got through them. Batsman I refer is DH who was out for 7. He has great potential and showed admirable temperament which if developed could rate him with the many stars today”…. So said Rohan Kanhai.
Eldest Brother: His elder brother was Abaya. To give you a true picture of his love and respect for his brother is beyond my capabilities. It is for a writer like Dostoevsky to explore. Kalu Ayya was an introvert with emotions. I think he believed his struggles and hardships were for him to endure but not for others to know. One thing he was open to, however, was his emotions towards his brother. When he was playing cricket at Mahinda College, it was his elder brother who brought his gear. When he was at university his elder brother was the one who gave him money. He was proud to say how his brother earned 100 rupees and gave 90 to his family and lived with 10 rupees. There were many other incidents I can recall where his brother played a pivotal role in his life; but the most vital moment was when DH was in very dark place while in university and walking along train tracks with grieving heart and totally lost; there then his brother appeared and rescued him. Till the end of his life, he was in debt to his brother. No wonder he named his first son not just Mahinda, but Abaya Mahinda.
Suji (his wife/ my mum): At Peradeniya University, a place filled with rich boys from pedigree schools with cars, Suji sees a shy man with unique pants, she calls him “shortylong”. Of course Suji sees more than that, she sees a man with an inbuilt respect for girls. He is shy, tender and unpretentious but Suji sees something no other girl would notice in him, it is his ability lto ove, specially love silently. Naturally Suji falls in love. Here, then, was a girl from Colombo falling for a boy from Unawatuna, It says a lot about you Suji. Of course Suji had a sixth sense to know that DH, with no predispositions to show off, had a big heart. No wonder they lasted 55 years together, 50 of them married.
It was a special 55 years. Outdoors he was a competitive man, but at home with Suji he was a soft soul. He would iron for her, he would make her morning tea. He did simple things for her, most of all he would never raise his voice to her. He knew there was no point arguing with Suji, He was never going to win. Whenever mum went through hardship, they were tough ones too, he was beside her. Suji was a lucky lady and she sure did more than her best for him. When she was holding his hand next to his bed and he couldn’t utter words, but kept squeezing her hand, looking into her eyes, he must have said “thank you Suji , so hard to leave you but ‘shorty/longs’ time has come.”
Kids: DH never had lot of money, but he had time for his 4 kids. He spared no money for food and books. Our roof was always great and unique. The theme within the home was training and more training. His guidance came on the cricket grounds or tennis courts. He expected his kids to live and learn off the bats and racquets. Academic knowledge was for kids to sort out with teachers and his children didn’t let him down. He expected ethics and values would get rooted in them through schooling and sports. He never lectured his kids about what is right or wrong; but if it was wrong he would make them know it in his own way. Childhood was a beautiful place and home was a sweet home with intense fighting at times.
DH demanded a lot from his kids. Commitment was the core of everything. 100% was the least, anything less was trash. This nature within him tended to create tension at home. Hence words were exchanged, tempos were raised. BUT the goal posts never changed. He judged his kids by their commitment to studies, sports, work and relationships. Any lack of commitment on the part of his children was judged harshly.
The eldest Mahinda personally spent his whole childhood with him. It was perfect. It was unique and it was special. He witnessed his dad’s competitiveness more than anyone else. He was lucky to have that experience. When moments were tough, they would see eye to eye in silence. Mahinda was blessed to inherit DHs talent in sports.
The second son Bindu saw the calmer side of DH. Bindu absorbed the calm sensitive side of DH. DH admired Bindu’s resilience against adversaries. There are undeniable parallels between DH and Bindu in their work ethic and commitment to tasks in hand. Bindu’s inheritance was DH’s ethics for work.
The third Son, Nalaka was the most committed to DH. He put DH before anything else. Nalaka’s impact to DH’s last 30 years has been phenomenal, He never forgot Nalaka’s scream of “thaathi,(dad) bend” — a cry that that saved his life. That scream was enough for DH to dodge the bullet and fight the gunman. Nalaka’s effort to fight the gunmen and his accessory was/is not an act that not many kids of 13 would dare to think of, or attempt. His screams to save DH, must have reached the heavens — because only divine intervention could have arrested that last bullet from being fired. And Bindu, in my mind, has e was inherited the goodness within DH in the full.
To repeat, DH never lectured to us. He taught through passing comments. So he hardly ever spoke about the shooting incident, but one day over a glass of beer he said “sometimes you have to put your life on line to save another.” Of course he was thinking of Nalaka.
His connection to daughter Gayani is beyond my ability to explain. His relationship with her was unique, touching and sentimental. He knew there was so much of him in her. One person on earth who DH would listen is to Gayani. That was what he did when he was having a heart attack at home. No one could convince him to go to the hospital, it was only Gayani. Of all the people, Gayani is the one that saw the true DH. I have no doubt that his daughter Gayani has inherited most of his soul.
Nomads cricket: Oh what a place, this was his real home. Other places we lived were mere venues to sleep. He was there before dawn and got home after dark. Every training session was focused and planned. One batting at the middle, one batting at the nets while others doing catches or fielding practice, bowlers had to bowl at a handkerchief with single stump. It was intense and electrifying. Public after work got to the club, just to watch the boys on the ground. Matches were filled with people of less fortune, because this was their club. There was no politics but only a goal. Make Nomads the greatest cricket club in the land. Uncompromising in vision with incredible passion, persistence pays off in less than 3 years — Premiers of Sri Lankan cricket at last. Battle has just begun. Next day DH is back to work, in search of talented lads from poor schools. Commitment to dominate cricket is the only focus. Makes Nomads par with SSC and NCC. For 15 years he runs his show with unbending zeal, until politics creeps to cricket and he is removed. His heart is bleeding but the soul is strong. Wakes up next day and the passion is back. Now he lies in front of us: humbly says to all at cricket, thank you all and I love you all.
Work: He loved being a teacher at Nalanda College. This was enough for the man from Unawatuna, but the chance to work as Charity Commissioner was not just a job it was career in heaven, he got a job that connect him with his roots. He was the man, the poor could dream. He didn’t let them down. He started the change with small steps; to put all what he did in few lines is a total injustice for him and his vision. I will give brief summary of what he did. First to give dignity to the charity recipients, he changed the system so that they could get their pay without waiting in queues. Then he tried to increase their pay, but it never got the go-ahead from the government.
He wasn’t going to give up on his dream to make the lives of the poorest better. He began a scheme to find employment for the children of charity recipients. He started with catering and opened canteens for the council workers with all profits going to the poor families. Then he expanded it to book binding and the Colombo Library jumped on to his wagon. More jobs were created. There was no stopping him: he sees the opportunity to fix chairs (cane), and Colombo municipality now jumps into this wagon. He starts sawing machine work. Gets 30 machines and gets the all the clothes for fire brigade and other council workers clothes stitched at his office. He increases the employment to 100 plus. All employees were recruited from shanties of Colombo. The profits were directed only to them and the rest had to work volunteer. It was the buzz of the town, he got incredible support and this was in 1976. He says it is his idea, maybe the Chinese would disagree. His vision was to make Sri Lanka a mini China. He wanted one thing eradicated — charity dependence in Sri Lanka.
No greatness is achieved without creating enemies and he surely did. His “community development plan” faced incredible resistance, as usual from politicians. DH was taken off and the project was dismantled.
He just wanted to give a chance to others who were born in poverty just like him …. but his dreams were shattered. He was broken for the first time in life. With pain unbearable he left his job for another with a better status and higher pay. As a 12 year old boy I could feel his pain but we refused to talk about it. Just one day he said “a beast can never be cruel as some human beings.” Yet never in life did he criticize any individual.
Mateship: DH was a true friend. He didn’t follow, he didn’t lead, and he was a mate beside you. He shared your pain and touched your wounds with a warm and tender hand. This is who he was to his mate with 4 kids even when the latter lost his job and had no dwelling to live. He shared his pay for one and a half years till this man found a job to feed his kids. DH wouldn’t boast about this. In fact, he never talked once about this. His charity only came to light light was when this man Mr Prema, who use to love his drink and was once consumed by alcohol, sadly told us “this is what your father did to me and my kids. “ That was DH’s norm: if you were in need and if you were in pain, one man who would connect with you was DH.
His friends were from all corners, some were poor and some were rich, others had powers and links. Mr Raja Mahendran had all of it. At last DH had met a man who dreamt like him. The connection was instant and from the heart. Friendships can’t be truer than this. Both had only one passion and one vision: it was cricket. However, no mateship sails smooth for ever. So it came to pass with Mr. Mahendran and DH. They parted ways over an issue that is not worth mentioning. Such is life. They both never kept in touch for a good decade. Until DH was shot and with 4 bullets in his body close to death, then Raja Mahendran came back to his life. He was a true brother for DH. Whenever the call or need arose, Raja Mahendran was next to him.
Brothers and Sisters: He had an intense connection with his siblings and relatives. He thought it was his moral responsibility to help others, especially all his relatives. It was so painful to watch his face when he couldn’t help his family and relatives.
His love for his sister was very touching. Each time the topic of his sister came up, he had a big glowing smile in his face. DH was extremely proud of his bothers: DR, DG, DS and DP. DS and DP were his team mates at Nomads. They may have left Nomads for other clubs, but it was there at Nomads that they got the chance to play top level cricket. The intense training they had at Nomads would have one day come handy enabling both of them to play for Sri Lanka. He was very proud to see DS captaining the Sri Lankan tour of NZ in 1983.
Kandy: Politics in cricket and work was too much for some people to keep him in Colombo. They gave him a so called promotion to move him to the city of Kandy. Kandy was a great change for him. I reckon it was a blessing from heaven too. As always he got back to his work with usual enthusiasm. Now his passion to compete in highest level cricket was diminishing with his age but not the desire to coach. He wanted to find the next Clarrie Grimmett or Bill O’Reilly in Kandy. He would go to the poorest schools and start coaching from under 11s. Finding the next great leg spinner to change the world of cricket was his mission. Sadly he couldn’t find him in his beloved Sri Lanka but his dream of a leg-spinner dominating cricket did come through from Shane Warne.
While in Kandy he built a passion for Tennis. Now he wanted a real tennis champion who would reach te top of the world rankings. He knew he has to follow the Chinese saying “let 1000 flowers blossom” and he gave everyone a chance. One day while coaching 10 -15 kids, he gets a visitor in the name of Mr. Sangakkara. Sanga doesn’t take too long to realize that DH is the man who can deliver in sports and brings his little 7 year old son Kumar to DH. Kumar and DH spend lot of time playing tennis and cricket. Kumar was a like son to him. One day when Kumar Sangakkara making a speech at Lords, he expressed his gratitude to DH.
Australia: Coming to Australia was never his dream, but why live in a place where people get shot on tennis courts. Once again with a broken heart he left his beloved land and family to move toAustralia, just to live in peace. As always when DH needed help, there were people, who took care of him. This time it was his brother in law Kirithie, who gave him a place to live and food to eat till his family moved to Australia. When he was lonely in Australia he found solitude in talking to Saman. He was silently grateful to both of them.
Even though he was a very proud Sri Lankan, he loved this country. He thought this was the best place on earth for sports. From the day he landed in Australia, Tennis became his life. Playing tennis at Flemington Courts, watching his son Nalaka practising tennis or taking him Sydney and Adelaide for tournaments became his life. He was happy. He now wanted to take on the tennis world, but he only had one to work with, it was his son Nalaka. Nalaka did his best. He came became part of the top 10 juniors in Victoria and almost made it to Australian Open Juniors.
DH called Australia a “Heaven for Tennis.” He was born to compete and now he only had his grand-kids Dima, Channa, Pramuk , Savani , Adam and Lucas to work with him. He gave them time and heart. Most of all he gave love. They become his passion and silently he watched them growing.
At 81, his passion to compete is still burning within him. He starts with Adam, throws the ball at him, plays sets with him and goes to watch him play with others. Until 2 months before he passed away he was still involved with Adam’s tennis. He calls Adam: “Tiger on the court.” That line sums up DH, true fighter.
Thank you DH. You made this world a better place by teaching others how to care and how to love. Simple man from Unawatuna, you raised the bar so high that only God knows who can come close to you.