Maureen re-lives it all: The good and the bad

Book Facts: A Many Coloured Life, by Maureen Seneviratne. Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara. Price: Rs 1,000.

It was with happy anticipation that I opened my friend Maureen’s latest book, “A Many Coloured Life” which might be seen as a sequel to an earlier book of hers published in 1993, called “The Sound of Echoes”.

This latest work too is not a conventional autobiography. Maureen gives us selected accounts of her family and clan, her childhood and growing up years, the people who had an impact on her life, the variety of jobs she has held, her ongoing love-affair with writing, her travels worldwide, and finally her enduring concern for abused children which led to her founding the pioneering organization called P.E.A.C.E (Protecting Children & Environment Everywhere).

This in turn resulted in her long involvement with the Bangkok-based ECPAT (Eliminating Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism). Maureen writes with remarkable candour of her personal life.

She is also outspoken in airing her views on people and politics, the modern trend in mores and manners and high fashion, and the steady deterioration of our country since Independence. Her strongest censure focuses on the hideous crime of sexual abuse of children and she has authored several books giving her first-hand experience of the situation in Sri Lanka, raising public awareness of nasty practices which she dragged out from under the carpet when P.E.A.C.E began to expose publicly the vulnerability of our children to paedophiles.

I knew Maureen primarily as a journalist and an award-winning author. In this book I learnt of her forays into the garment industry (Personnel Manager of Hentley Garments), then into the world of big department stores when she was appointed Manager of the Haberdashery & Textile Dept. of Cargills in its heyday; into Grants Advertising in the early days, with the incomparable Reggie Candappa at its head, along with the versatile Ananda Tissa de Alwis, an irrepressible raconteur ; even into a stint of teaching at her old school, Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya.

During her first marriage, Maureen adapted herself to estate life as a planter’s wife and in that section she tells us, among many other interesting facts, of an eerie psychic experience she had in one estate bungalow and of a “mystical monthly ceremonial” regularly held on an estate below the Peak Wilderness to appease Yama, the god of death in the Hindu pantheon and for which the designated `Swamy’ was always the current Assistant Superintendent or Sinna Dorai of the estate, in this instance Maureen’s husband.

Maureen Seneviratne

She herself had to view the strange, solemn ceremony from a distance because women were not included. Maureen has recorded how she, an apolitical person, came to write the biography of the world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was willing to talk to Maureen about her life before and after she was catapulted into politics on the death of her husband . The book, fully vetted and approved by “Madam’, was officially launched at Temple Trees on April 17, 1975, Madam’s birthday.
In 1968 Maureen had the distinction of being the first writer from “Ceylon” to have a short story broadcast over the “World Short Story” programme of the BBC which went on to feature other stories written by her.
A stupendous stroke of luck that came the way of one who had yearned to travel overseas, was in being chosen (unsolicited by herself), by the Foreign Ministry to attend the opening of the Women’s Decade at an international conference to be held in Mexico in May 1975.

It took Maureen’s breath away. Her retelling of that occasion, where she rubbed shoulders with many world-famous women of the day and met others less known but equally memorable, is fascinating.
As is the account of her time in Beijing twenty years later when she was a member of the large delegation of Sri Lankan women from all walks of life, to the United Nations “Grand Finale to the Two Decades For Women.”

Maureen’s has indeed been a “many-coloured ‘ (I almost wrote “many splendoured’) life, but as she quotes at the beginning, “The web of our life is a tangled yarn, Good and ill together” (from Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well”).

Maureen may have flinched at some of the blows life dealt her, but she never succumbed to self-pity or a feeling of helplessness. A prolific writer, when the breakdown of her first marriage left her on her own with two little boys, she struggled valiantly to make a good life for them.

Later, in 1964, she became an “Air-wife” when she married again, this time an officer of the SLAF, Mark Seneviratne. Mark was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and the dark period in which he became terminally ill and suffered hideous pain is touched on in the book, but has been poignantly covered in full by Maureen in an essay published elsewhere, entitled “A Companion of Pain”.

There are two very revealing glimpses that Maureen gives us of herself. Of her father, who was not the easiest of men to contend with, she writes: “There were many things for which I could not forgive my father but I certainly would not hold anything against him on the issues of my two marriages, both of which he most stoutly opposed.”

She also confesses that work has been the abiding passion of her life and persons came second. “And of those, the love I’ve ever truly felt was for my two children and my parents and above them the Unseen God I believe in, whose presence, whose care and concern, unworthy as I am, I have often experienced.”

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