By Ranee Mohamed
He is 67 years old. He has no savings, no home and nothing to call his own. This is because P. Hettiwatte, with a BA from the then Vidyalankara University has never been able to get a desk job.
“I believe this was largely due to the fact that I have little or no knowledge of English. At every interview they asked me how fluent I was in the English language,” said this frail and soft spoken gentleman who hails from Handessa.
Hettiwatte says that the only permanent job he did was as a writer in a Sinhala political newspaper. “It was in the year 1977. I was earning Rs.250 a month. Then the ‘politics’ changed and the newspaper became defunct. I didn’t get a job under the UNP regime because I worked at a SLFP newspaper and vice versa. What people did not understand was that I was doing a job because I needed the money,” said Hettiwatte.
In his desperate search for a job, Hettiwatte said that he accepted a not-so-managerial position in a home for elders. What he did not know what that the multitude of duties that this job entailed also included washing of the bathrooms everyday.
“But I was desperate for I had to pay for the classes that my daughter went for. It was not a time to think of my ego and my qualifications. My daughter needed books and other essentials. I tried to get her a scholarship through different NGOs but failed. I went to a certain NGO, they got a signature from me on a blank piece of paper and gave me approximately Rs.300,” said Hettiwatte.
It is but his good fortune that the Buddha Dhamma that he believes in and follows has protected and helped him – and helped him to keep his sanity too.
Hettiwatte has a close association with Buddhism and temples. “I remember in late 2007, times were harder than ever before. I had only Rs.8 to spend per day. I would buy a tea bun from Salgado Bakery and walk to the Dalada Maligawa. I would sit down and look around as I quietly enjoyed every bite of the tea bun. The only companion I had was a pregnant cat who came upto me every morning. I would break some pieces and feed her too. Together we would complete this ‘hearty’ meal and go our separate ways — she to sleep and me to gaze at the peace around the busy town,” recalled Hettiwatte.
But as the day turned to night, the gnawing in his stomach had begun again. As others around him partied, for Hettiwatte, there had not been a cat in sight. “As night time fell down like a dark blanket and the peaceful scenery was blacked out I would stealthily walk across to the bus halts and look for apples and bananas that have been thrown away or kept aside. I would gather them and break off the good portions and eat them all,” he said. “It is not that I like fruits. I longed for a hearty meal of rice and curry. But as this was only a dream, I was content to sleep after my diet of fruits,” said Hettiwatte.
Hettiwatte is not invited to parties. This is because he does not have a social life. “One needs money to socialise and when one is plagued with the abject poverty that envelopes me and my life, then it is difficult to even attempt to make friends. Few people want to know you,” said this man alone.
Dressed in an off-white shirt and trouser that has well loosened at the waist, Hettiwatte today works in a hostel for Buddhist monks. “The monks are very kind to me and it is because of them that I have managed to live this long. Everyone treats me with respect at this hostel for Bhikkus. I wash the robes of the bhikkhus with great reverence and mop the floors too. The Chief Priest has ensured that my family is well too. The Chief Priest requested his sister to give my daughter and wife some clothes,” said Hettiwatte with appreciation in his eyes.
“We live in a place for which we have to pay Rs.3,500 a month. On selected days my wife goes to work in a house nearby. She looks after their child. We need this money because our rent must be paid. This place has no kitchen, but we manage to cook two vegetables and some rice. Our comfort is not our concern: Our focus is on our daughter,” said Hettiwatte.
“My life has been one of worry and want. The greatest sadness in my life is that my only child was unable to sit for her G.C.E. Advanced Level Examinations because we had no home. It has always been a case of moving from the house of one relative to another. Soon we ran out of people to visit and live with. There have been several days and nights the three of us have spent in railways stations,” said Hettiwatte.
Hettiwatte recalled the way the three of them huddled together and slept in the railway stations of Polgahawela, Kurunegala and Kandy. “We kept our young daughter between us. There were other people sleeping in the railway station, but I had sleepless nights there due to fear that some harm will come to my family,” said Hettiwatte in tears.
Soft-spoken and sober, this teetotaler says that his search has not ended. It has been a long search for Hettiwatte who is now in the evening of his life. However the agony of living in want has still not ended and this agony has partnered with desperation to give this deprived trio a harder life. Hettiwatte has tried every means to give his only daughter a better life, to give her the education she deserves and the security and comfort of a home. But his pot of gold seems to be farthest away from him.
“All I want and all I am asking for is for help to educate my only child. She has to do her Advanced Levels and then pursue a higher education for that is what she is crying for. Hettiwatte says that he has approached every authority in search of a ‘scholarship’ for his daughter. “But I was unsuccessful. I see my daugther reading her books and there is anxiety, sadness and fear. I am frightened that she may realise that I cannot make her only dream come true — I am frightened that my daughter will cry,” cried Hettiwatte.
“I really don’t know what will become of us, and I don’t care – for as long as my child achieves her dreams….” said Hettiwatte, the tears threatening to roll down his cheeks.