My dad has dementia — I went to Sri Lanka to recreate the memories he’s lost

Dressed in beige shorts with his baggy black T-shirt tucked in, my dad stands in the shadow of a palm tree by a lily pond, with rich greenery all around him and whitewashed villas on the other side of the water. You can feel Sri Lanka’s heat and humidity radiating through the photo.

It’s a picture of him from 1995, when he took my English mother to the island for their honeymoon. He was born in Colombo in 1964, but when he was four his parents left to pursue a different life in London. Over the years he made an effort to return to the country regularly, exploring the crevices of his family history, his Burgher culture and the island itself — the Cultural Triangle, the hills, tea country and the coast.

I went with him and Mum once, when I was 12 — just as my dad’s dementia began to take hold, at the cruelly young age of 52. His memory was beginning to fray — still working, but Mum had to remind him of his relatives’ names and the complicated web of our Sri Lankan family tree. “I thought he was being lazy,” she told me. “But it was a worry that I knew more about his cousins than he did.”

Finally, at the age of 58, my dad was diagnosed with early onset dementia. Since then he has deteriorated into forgetfulness and confusion. He can’t read or string together a sentence, and any memory of Sri Lanka has gone.

Ten years since my last visit, I wanted to follow in his footsteps and explore our shared heritage for myself. Because Dad couldn’t give me any pointers, I ransacked the family photo albums: old snaps featured his cheeky grin at different tourist spots around the island. But I needed help turning those photos into a trip and the Sri Lanka expert Thushni de Silva, at the tour operator Experience Travel Group, was brilliant. She knows the country inside out and spent hours painstakingly examining the pictures until we were able to match every palm tree, brick and river to its location and a trip came together. I’d spend a few days in Colombo getting used to the heat and catching up with family before touring the island: ancient Polonnaruwa; sacred Kandy; and lush, tea-planted Nuwara Eliya. All cities on the tourist trail, but with much deeper personal meaning for me beyond the sightseeing.

I felt nervous about meeting my Colombo family again — I hadn’t seen them in more than a decade. But as soon as my uncle Michael pulled up outside my hotel I felt immediately at home.

“You look just like your father,” he said as I got into his car. “I wasn’t sure I’d recognise you, but one look and I thought, there’s Tony . . . you have his smile.”

Weaving in and out of the heavy traffic, Michael drove with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the horn and said: “Your father used to say, ‘Michael, how do you drive on these roads?’ I would tell him to close his eyes and ignore the tuk-tuks swerving ahead of us.”

After a few fabulous days visiting dozens of my relatives, my grandfather’s old school and the church where he and my grandma got married, I met Sudarshan Jayasinghe, one of Sri Lanka’s wonderful multitasking chauffeur/guides. Together we’d spend the next ten days journeying around the island, searching for lost memories.

We started with the photo that should be easiest to match. Dad took Mum to the 12th-century garden city of Polonnaruwa on their honeymoon, and he clearly felt the memory deserved to be preserved — he stopped to pose at the top of some stone steps, in a baseball cap and Ray-Ban Wayfarers — his staple accessories.

It was a four-hour drive to Polonnaruwa from Colombo; on the way we saw lazy elephants grazing on roadside milla trees, purple-faced langurs picking at scraps of banana and kingfishers with cerulean backs and golden tummies, while peacocks squawked in the distance. The lush greenery and bright blue and pink flowers felt a long way from the sandy bricks and mortar of my parents’ Bath home.

Sudarshan gave me a bit of a history lesson en route too, telling me about the Tamil Chola dynasty, centuries of war and technological advances dating back to the 10th century, and about the 1215 invasion of Polonnaruwa by the Kalinga Magha, who forced the Sinhalese people to flee south.

We wandered through Polonnaruwa under the baking sun, past stone columns, excavations of stupas and macaque families guarding their territory — the city has been theirs since the Sinhalese abandoned it — and endless sets of stone steps.

If it weren’t for Sudarshan , who has been bringing tourists here for more than 20 years, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. But he found the spot and added to his multitasking by turning photographer. Perching myself on the same slab of rock brought me that little bit closer to my dad. But I couldn’t help thinking about all the other memories made and forgotten by visitors in the same place.

Sasha and her dad in the same spot in Polonnaruwa

It was a three-hour drive from here to Kandy, but we made a pitstop en route. Thushni was sure that the trees, pond and lodges in the background of one of Dad’s photos were at the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana hotel, so Sudarshan and I dropped in to investigate.

Dragonflies darted around the man-made ponds and monitor lizards slipped in and out of the shadows. Mum and Dad would have stayed here in the Cultural Triangle on their honeymoon so they could easily get to Sigiriya Rock and Pollonaruwa. When I showed him the photo of my dad, the general manager said he knew the exact spot and, sure enough, ducking under low branches, we found the same two palms, arching into each other.

The grass looked a little more unkempt than it did in the 1995 photo and the pond was fit to burst with fuzzy bulrushes and lily pads, but you could still see the familiar outlines of the lodges peeking through the leaves. Dad was a keen runner and would pack his trainers every time he went away. I could picture him racing off around the marshland pre-dinner, dodging branches and serpent eagles as they swooped for snacks. Next to the lily pond, I tried to stand the same way he had, turned slightly to the right with a cool expression — although he pulled it off better.

Sasha recreates her dad’s photo at a botanical garden in Kandy

Most visitors come to Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings’ era, to visit the Temple of the Tooth, with its Buddhist relic. But we were more interested in the botanical gardens — we were following a bamboo-and-fig-tree lead. Sudarshan had a particular spot in mind that would match a photo of my dad in his twenties, dwarfed by bamboo canes. And he got it right again — his work meant he’d lost count of the times he had set foot in this park, but even so I was left in awe at his pinpoint accuracy.

I stood amid the 100ft-tall bamboo stems, in the same way Dad once had. I had no idea of the context of the photo or the exact date, and being here did not herald any epiphany or tie up loose ends. But the serene energy of the gardens, empty now it was low season with birdsong echoing between the branches, brought me calm, and I felt closer to Dad than I had in ages.

Nuwara Eliya was our last stop. Another bumpy three hours cross-country took us towards the velvet green hill country, where tea plantations ripple along the surface. It’s known as Little England: the climate is much cooler than the rest of the island, and the hills are dotted with little white colonial-era bungalows with picket fences and inviting porches. We were certainly in the right place — the final photo in my collection showed a little beige house with a huge porch — but it turned out to be trickier to locate than expected. We saw dozens of bungalows that looked eerily similar, but there was no sign of an exact match for ours.


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