“She must be over a hundred by now”
“Don’t be ridiculous – she’s about 93 I think”
“No… I don’t think I’m so old… I must be about 85”
So followed an amusing snippet of the conversation regarding Dolly Achchi’s age – between her granddaughter, daughter and herself. Nobody agreed on the other’s guess, and so Dolly’s age remains a mystery.
Despite having given birth to 9 children, the Dolly Achchi of the present is sickly, bent with age and confined to sitting on the ground after she fell down years ago and was never able to get up again. Day in and day out, her granddaughter, who lives in the house opposite hers, lifts her by the arms and settles her at the doorway. From this vantage point, Dolly watches life on her little street going on around her through eyes glazed over with cataract. Her mind drifts with the ebb and flow of her memory, and she was prone to mood shifts – grumpily telling us to go away when she grew too tired to talk. But each time we came back, she would try to get to know us again and to answer our questions with a voice that was surprisingly clear and strong for one so frail.
Even despite her fading memory, there is a time in her life that she keeps going back to, where her thoughts and words never fail her. That is, to the time when the United National Party’s D.S. Senanayake was in power and she – much younger and stronger then – was a community advocate for the UNP. Tellingly, her small house, which is devoid of her own wedding picture, has a ceramic miniature of the former President hanging on the wall beside her sleeping place.
Dolly graduated from being called Akka (Sister) by everyone who knew her to Achchi (Grandmother), as she grew older. She is something of a minor celebrity in the locality – not only as the oldest living resident of Slave Island but also as the resident chandiya, which loosely translates to ‘tough guy’. Everybody we met would greet her name with an odd combination of respectful amusement. Often, when asked to describe her, people would use the same adjective: Nirbheethai or ‘fearless’. Hearing tales of her speaking out at political meetings and of putting an end to local disputes with nothing but a few sharp, challenging words and a brandished wooden stick, we realized where that the description of ‘fearless’ had come from.And even at her guessed age of 93, this word didn’t strike us as any less appropriate now as it would have been then.