I was fortunate enough to grow up in a tropical paradise. The island of Borneo is an exotic island and I always thought of my childhood in that way. My mind drifts back and forth to memories that are triggered as I focus on the old black and white photograph in my hand. My father was instrumental in my life, and I felt so proud of him. The photograph was taken while he was in England in the 1950’s, when he had won a 5-year scholarship to study law. It was unusual at that time for an Asian man to be included in the prestigious college he attended. My father was a well-dressed, tall, dark man with a broad smile. He had curly hair, from his Sri Lankan roots, which he slicked back with a sticky gel, like they did at that time. He lit up any room and was a real gentleman. In the photo my father is posing crouched down, wearing a suit and tie, and a boyish smile that draws you in. He had his whole life in front of him. In the background there’s a park with people and in the distance part of an old stone building with a spire.
My father was in his 20’s at the time the photograph was taken, when Britain still colonized much of the world including Borneo. The Japanese arrived in Borneo in 1946 and plundered the land. I remember my father telling me that one day, at age 16, there was no more school. The war ravaged on for some years. Then came the day the Japanese soldiers came to his house to take his father away. They had falsely suspected he was a spy. That would be the last time he saw him.
I put my glasses on to really inspect my father’s face in the photograph. His face did not reflect any of the burdens of the war in the 5 years prior, nor the grief of losing both his parents and a brother. What I see instead is the kindness in his heart and the compassion he felt for all people. I feel his sense of adventure and having a purpose in life. He knew how fortunate he was to have the opportunity presented to him. He approached it with courage and fearlessness.
As I glance again, I wonder who took the picture. I am most fortunate to be able to still ask him that question. Now at age 93, my father still has that same boyish smile.