In a world where competition and jealousy are rife, where the rat race gives us little time for our neighbours, the life of Mrs. Sita Rajasuriya stands out like a beacon of light, encouraging us to hold true to time-honoured principles despite all obstacles.
Mrs. Rajasuriya led a simple life, and believed in a simple philosophy of service. For well over 50 years, she played the roles of mother, sister, advisor and friend to all who knew her. She championed the cause of women through the two great movements she dedicated her life to: the Sri Lanka Girl Guides’ Association and the Sarvodaya Movement.
She held numerous posts with the Girl Guides’ Association, serving finally as Chief Commissioner for nine years and then as President for five years.
On a trip to Sri Lanka, Lady Baden-Powell, World Chief Guide and wife of the founder of the guiding and scouting movements, expressed a desire to see Adam’s Peak. Mr. and Mrs. Rajasuriya arranged for Lady Baden-Powell to be flown to Adam’s Peak to view the sacred mountain from the air. The plane journey gave the World Chief Guide the opportunity to persuade Mrs. Rajasuriya to serve the movement as Chief Commissioner, a post Mrs. Rajasuriya had previously shied away from.
Mrs. Rajasuriya was the first Asian to chair a world conference of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). She was also the first chairperson of the Asia Pacific Committee, and the first Sri Lankan to be on the World Committee of WAGGGS.
Within the Sarvodaya Movement too, Mrs Rajasuriya proved a formidable force. She was vice-president of the Sarvodaya Sharamadana Sangamaya; president of the Sarvodaya Women’s Movement, and honorary president of the Sarvodaya Suwasetha Society. She gave of herself untiringly to both movements.
Despite the glamour and status that went with the many positions she held, Mrs. Rajasuriya remained her simple self. With her charming smile and neat way of dressing, she was grace and dignity personified on all occasions. She had a word for everyone, whatever their position in life and whatever their age.
Ranjini Dissanayake, a director of the Sri Lanka Girl Guides’ Association, remembers as a young Guide how Mrs. Rajasuriya would check on her state of health when she (Ranjini) fell ill on the morning of a drill display at the Police Park grounds. Another director of the Association, Mangala Peiris, remembers Mrs. Rajasuriya, as Chief Commissioner, climbing a rope ladder made by Guides at Devi Balika Vidyalaya. She did this purely to make the children happy.
Mrs. Rajasuriya was also very supportive of young leaders, and went out of her way to encourage, commend and thank them for their efforts. The present Chief Commissioner, Kanthi Fernando, remembers as a young Guide Leader being presented with a bouquet of red anthuriums cut from Mrs. Rajasuriya’s own garden, on the occasion of her first Guide Leaders’ meeting, when she was made Colombo District Commissioner.
The philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote, “Whatever fate befalls you, do not give way to great rejoicing or great lamentation – partly because all things are full of change and your fate may change at any moment; partly because men are apt to be deceived in their judgement as to what is good or bad for them.”
With her wisdom and foresight, Mrs. Rajasuriya must have had these words close to her heart, for whatever challenge she faced she remained unruffled, accepting all difficulties with equanimity. This held true in both her official life and personal life. Perhaps the fact that she too experienced the thorns that life and destiny throw at us, she could accept good and bad alike. This gave her an aura of greatness. Her personal “thorns” also helped her empathise with others at “crisis times” of their own. Her schedule was never too busy for her to find time to share the sorrows of others, and to be there for them.
Sita Rajasuriya opened a new chapter for the Sri Lanka Girl Guides’ Association by introducing Guiding to rural areas and starting a branch for differently abled children. She recognised human rights, and pioneered the association’s community development projects, starting Guide companies for street girls. One was the Gangodawila Home for Young Offenders, where she worked with girls who had been raped and had become pregnant. She also worked in Rodiya villages, such as Kantholuwa.
Her funeral, at Girl Guide Headquarters on September 26 was attended by Girl Guides, past and present. They had travelled from all over the island to pay their respects to the legend that was Sita Rajasuriya.
Many had worked closely with her, and several of the Association’s current office bearers had been Guides under Mrs. Rajasuriya; others had known her only briefly but considered themselves blessed for their chance encounters with her; still others knew only of her. But one and all held her in the highest esteem.
Mrs. Rajasuriya’s niece spoke a few words on behalf of her family. She said the fact that the last rites were being held at Girl Guide Headquarters spoke volumes for the respect the Association had for Mrs. Rajasuriya.
It is all too easy to blame circumstances or others for one’s misfortunes. Mrs. Rajasuriya never apportioned blame or criticised those around her. She dealt with unpleasant situations herself, gently guiding and advising those around her.
“Children need models more than they need critics,” wrote the French moralist Joseph Joubert.
What better model then than Sita Rajasuriya?