In December 2014, Tharindu Kaushal left from his 100-year-old ancestral home to make his Test debut in New Zealand. When he returned from tour a month later, there was nothing left of it. The young off-spinner had no home to come back to. There was only rubble.
The disintegration of the already-dilapidated house started with the roof caving in one night. Kaushal’s parents, father PH Dhanapala and mother Deepti Hemalatha were asleep inside the house at the time, but they escaped without any injury.
Next morning, they had no choice but to shift their stuff along with Kaushal’s away. Luckily Dhanapala’s sister, Induvati, lived just 100 yards away—at Rathgama’s highest point—in a slightly more opulent house. In a day or two, Dhanapala’s home had completely crumbled. When Kaushal heard the news, he was understandably upset but not too surprised.
“Tharindu had asked us to move to my sister’s house before he left. I wanted to fix the house but never had the money,” says Dhanapala, dressed in a purple shirt and trousers.
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So the first thing the 22-year-old, who spun India to a massive defeat in Galle, did upon his return was buy a tiny plot in the neighbouring town of Seenigama — which was badly affected by the tsunami — and start building a house for his parents, both 50 now. For now, even Kaushal still sleeps in the aunt’s house when in town.
Unlike most his age, Kaushal, who has two married elder sisters, wasn’t interested in buying himself a set of fancy wheels or even a motorbike. He still travels to Colombo by bus when not part of the national team. And he instead bought his father a trishaw (tuk-tuk), just so that Dhanapala has his own ride when he travels the 10.1 km to Seenigama to supervise the construction of their new home, which started three months ago. It’s the same trishaw that Dhanapala rides around town on hire — like an autowallah — which is the family’s only other income apart from Kaushal’s cricket.
It’s outside their soon-to-be-new home that you first meet Kaushal’s parents. It’s the mother who greets you first. She’s dressed in a green top and a colourful sarong—typical of the area—and flashes a wide smile. The father is shy and approaches from behind, almost reluctantly introducing himself as the father of the country’s newest mystery spin talent.
The house is a simple three-room arrangement, with a living-room, a bedroom and a kitchen with a tiny backyard. And it’s situated right across the road from the Foundation of Goodness cricket academy, where Kaushal learnt a lot of his cricket.
You then follow them, with Dhanpala at the wheel of the trishaw, to Rathgama to see whatever remains of their erstwhile home and also their temporary accommodation.
Dhanpala, the last of seven children inherited the ancestral home like is the case with all youngest members of a Sri Lankan family, and started his career working in the timber market. He then went on to selling vegetables locally, before spending many years selling fish on a hand-cart.
Those were tough times, he admits, and he barely made enough to make end meets, as well as keep saving for his daughters’ dowry.
“We could hardly do enough for Tharindu. We never could afford to buy him stuff. I started making and selling sweets like seenaku and traditional Sri Lankan savouries like string-hoppers and pitu to ensure that we bought some cricket gear for him,” says Hemalatha. She had also taken loans from the village’s rural bank when her son left for Colombo as a 13-year-old to pursue his cricket, all of which have been paid off now by Kaushal.
Kaushal can’t be credited with putting Rathgama on the cricket map. An enigmatic fast bowler with one of the most unique bowling actions the world has seen—and yes of course that bleached afro—had done that almost a decade ago. Yes, this is Lasith Malinga country. Malinga is a distant relative of Kaushal’s parents but they insist that he has played little influence on their son’s career, except suggesting that he shift school. But Kaushal is known to have remained steadfast in his decision to stick with his alma mater, Devapathiraja College, where he started his cricket.
Rathgama is like any of the many coastal towns you cross on the old Colombo-Galle highway with the Indian Ocean. It’s lined with tiny houses with sloping roofs—to combat the wild monsoons of the south—and very narrow lanes. Like with most of them, there’s little that separates the houses from the railway station and the tracks.
And once you pass the railway crossing, Dhanapala guides you through a tapering gully with your legs rubbing against the wild plants growing on either side. You cross a couple of modest houses before Dhanapala suddenly stops in front of a bald spot, which is covered with overgrown grass and weed. But through it you can see what is left—a foundation stone and maybe a couple of worn-out bricks—of their original abode.
His eyes narrow a tad as he describes its step-by-step capitulation. As they do, you realize that Kaushal’s got his father’s eyes, even if they widen dramatically much like Murali’s used to at the point of delivery.
Next to the rubble stands a miniscule wooden hut. While they managed to shift all their clothes and some furniture to the aunt’s house, they still needed space to preserve their son’s cricketing awards and accomplishments. And it’s for this singular purpose that Dhanapala built the one-room hut, which also does have a TV for when Kaushal will be away playing cricket on foreign soil. From his ‘schoolboy cricketer of the year’ trophy to the many certificates that have come his way, this is a mini-shrine dedicated to the son.
The living-room of the aunt’s house— which is 100 yards away, near the lake and has a newly-polished verandah—is a pictorial shrine to her nephew. You see Kaushal celebrating a wicket against Pakistan during his maiden five-wicket haul last month and also one of him in the ODI jersey. Over here, you were welcomed with lemon-cream biscuits, bananas and a hot cup of flavoursome tea, as Dhanapala and his wife start narrating the story of their son’s fledgling rags-to-riches cricketing journey.
“He was a fast bowler first, then a wicket-keeper but it was his school coach Ranjana Lasantha who spotted the talent in him to be a spinner. They used to call him ‘Murali’ wherever he went because they saw the resemblance,” says Hemalatha.
At 13, he was sent to Colombo as part of a spinners’ programme—only three were selected from the whole of south—and once there he caught the eye of the historic Nondescripts Cricket Club (NCC), for whom he still plies his trade. He also received great help from Kushil Gunasekara’s Foundation of Goodness scholarship.
He was soon playing U-19 cricket for Sri Lanka, even touring India for a quadrangular in 2011, pictures of which have been stored carefully by aunt Induvati, who acts as the official chronicler of Kaushal’s career.
“He literally grew up with me, playing with his cousin who is in the Navy now. And I am the only one who can get away by calling him Chitu (which is the common nickname for the youngest kids of the house),” says Induvati.
Induvati also travels along with Dhanapala and Hemalatha whenever Kaushal is playing cricket within Sri Lanka. While they were present in Galle during Sri Lanka’s dramatic win last week, it is difficult for them to catch him in action when the match is in Colombo, but that doesn’t deter them.
“We take the bus early in the morning. It’s a three-hour ride. We see the match, take the bus back home and repeat the process the next day because we can’t afford to stay back in Colombo,” says Dhanapala.
While the money that has come into their lives has made it a lot more stable, Dhanapala and Hemalatha are more thrilled about the recognition they have received within the village.
“Even those who never spoke to us want to be seen talking to us. The whole village screams and claps whenever Tharindu takes a wicket. We are not worried about how it will affect him. He had one girlfriend but he’s broken up with her now. He’s a level-headed boy,” says the mother.
Dhanapala interjects and says, “In fact, often a customer in my trishaw will suddenly look at me and say you are Kaushal’s father. What are you doing riding this? I just smile.”
Last month, a majority of the Sri Lankan Test team—sans Kumar Sangakkara and a couple of others—landed up at Induvati’s house after a Test match against Pakistan in Galle. The whole town is learnt to have surrounded the area to catch a glimpse of their stars, including their own home-grown hero. Dhanapala can’t hide his excitement when he talks about how Marvan Atapattu and Angelo Mathews walked through the doors. And he’s already preparing for when they visit next, though this time in his new home in Seenigama.