A book to mark, learn, inwardly digest and act on

Book facts: Remembering Bernadeen, edited by Selvy Thiruchandran, Deepika Udugama, Suriya Wickremasinghe (Women’s Education & Research Centre). Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara. Price: Rs. 500

As I take a look at this book, I recall the endearing personality of Bernadeen with whom I had only a nodding acquaintance. I knew her as a dynamic Asst. Director of the Centre for Society & Religion and a committed activist on behalf of women’s issues, but had no idea of the extent of her involvement with so many organisations of crucial importance to the community and the country.

Nor was I familiar with the numerous, wide-ranging articles and papers she had contributed over the years to different fora, giving her own unique insights and perceptions on matters of public interest.
There is every reason to be grateful to the editors of this volume and to WERC for giving us a true-to-life detailed portrait of the exceptional, unforgettable person who was Bernadeen.

The book is in two parts, the first of which contains informative and moving tributes written by women who have made their own impact on our society - Suriya Wickremasinghe, Kumari Jayawardena, Selvy Thiruchandran, Deepika Udugama and Jezima Ismail.

Each of them gives some facet of her personality and some aspect of her activities and it all adds up like the brush strokes of different artists working on a large canvas to put together a complete and compelling picture, clear and distinct.

The heading of each article indicates how Bernardeen was seen by each of these friends: “Bernadeen Silva: Christian, Patriot, Internationalist”, says Suriya W. “Bernadeen Silva: From Action to Theory to Action” is the title of Kumari’s J’s article; “Bernadeen Lives On in the Movements She Worked For” declares Selvy T; Deepika U. strikes a personal note in “The Bernardeen I Knew”; and Jezima Ismail rounds it off with : “The Inimitable Bernadeen Silva: An Epitome of Social Justice and Equity.”

Part 2 is invaluable in that it illuminates what the first part of the book says about Bernadeen: her ongoing concern for the poor and the oppressed, her stand against perceived injustice anywhere, her inquiring mind and independent research into conditions peculiar to rural life as well as to the urban realities under which the mass of people existed, her forays into fields far from her own habitat.

As, for example, an article she has written on the “mere pittance” for which women workers on coconut and rubber estates work, (the CSR’s “Social Justice”, February 1988.) Most of these women, interviewed by a Kantha Handa research team, had no school education to speak of and the wages they received were hardly sufficient to provide a proper meal for the family.

Although official figures available show that there is more coconut land under cultivation than either tea or rubber, the coconut worker was the least paid. “It is imperative that trade unions, wages boards and the State Plantation sector should not only be concerned with the physical output of the produce, but also of the wages and living conditions of the workers.”

A comprehensive paper by Bernardeen is called “Justice In The City”. It contains facts about the population of our capital city of Colombo to which few of us have probably given more than a fleeting thought (with, perhaps, an accompanying and even more fleeting twinge of conscience), includes “a statistical analysis” of Colombo and also provides `The Stark Facts’ of how the poor of Colombo exist – housing, malnutrition, education, economic conditions. It also gives a statistical survey of shanties and slums within the Colombo Municipality.

Bernardeen points out “the mistaken notion of progress being equated with consumer goods: goods and not the human person are regarded as important.”

But Bernardeen doesn’t just write off the city as a blot on the landscape. Her concluding paragraph encapsulates her own insights and vision. She writes: “So our task must be to save the city, not merely to catalogue its defects, its injustices, saying it sponges on the village, but place it in the context of the total set-up in our country, within the vision of what one wants for one’s country in terms of justice and liberation of all people.

It is within such a complex background and conflicting values, that one must evaluate and enumerate a comprehensive urban plan within the context of a national policy.”

It is not possible to do more than indicate, in a review, the range of Bernardeen’s passionate concern for all humanity. She has raised her voice on behalf of the unrecognized contribution to the work force made by the wives of farmers; on the causes of youth unrest and violence in society; on the importance of voices of dissent; on the significance of Feminist Theology; on discrimination against women; on her own experience and impressions of the desolation and devastation wrought by war, on a visit to the North & East in 1987; on the misery unspeakable she saw for herself in refugee camps in Puttalam and Vavuniya (1991).

“I have never witnessed such suffering by any of our people, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Why and what for? Do we who live in Colombo know all this?..”

There is much more. This is not a book to be reviewed, it is a book to read right through, to mark, to learn and to inwardly digest. Bernardeen would add to the above the vital corollary – TO ACT!

In his Introduction, Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda observes that “on any issue of urgent attention and action, Bernardeen’s familiar response was, `We must do something about it.’ And she did many things in the domain of civil society.” Just how much she did, is incredible.

Suffice to mention here that she was a founding member of the Civil Rights Movement, of the Peter Pillai Social Institute, of the Nadesan Centre for Human Rights Through Law, of the Social Scientists’ Association, of PAFFREL (People’s Action For Fair and Free Elections, of the National Peace Council, of Voice of Women (or Kantha Handa), of Women’s Education Centre (later WERC), and of a Half-way House for discharged psychiatric patients.

She espoused many other causes besides these. There was no incongruence between the creed she professed and the life she lived. Deepika Udugama describes Bernardine as – “So full of life; passionate about social justice; sharing the pain of others; so involved; always questioning and critiquing authority and dogma, and, above all, so full of integrity.”

Suriya Wickremasinghe writes: “She was a good person through and through., the like of which we sorely need but I fear we may not see again.” Kumari Jayawardena: “Wherever there was action, Bernardeen was always there.”

Jezima Ismail comments that “She contributed to both the national and international arena, not in an extremist bigoted fashion, but as a person sincere in her efforts to minimize negatives in any situation – be it in the ethnic strife, violence and war in Sri Lanka, or in the liberation movement in South Africa.”
Is it any wonder, then, to find Selvy Thirchandran tell us that “One question that came to all our minds, when I announced her passing away – will we ever again have anyone like Bernardeen? The loss is irreparable.”

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