The Sunday TimesPlus

13th October 1996



The lessons of a father:

Dr. Wimala de Silva's childhood

By Roshan Peiris

She grew up with her father to guide her, in an old world house in Negombo. Her mother had died when she was five years old. Her father, a practising Buddhist, sent his only daughter (there was also a son) to a little village Buddhist school which he helped to build and manage.

In the village school, her best friends were the vegetable amme's daughter and the labourer's daughter with whom she sat on the school bench together.

Dr. Wimala de Silva Chancellor of the Sri Jayewardenapura University and the first and only woman Chancellor in Sri Lanka says it was her father's influence that taught her one must not look down on people because they were deprived.

Dr. de Silva recalls, "Ours was a traditional Sinhala home where even my aunts did not sit at table with my father. It was also a hospitable home where all were welcome to stay or have a meal. To me as a young child I valued tradition, for it gave me a sense of belonging and security and a tranquil home.

"My father was Eastern oriented and my aunts who attended Newstead, Negombo were Western oriented and so early in my life I came under the influence of two different cultures.

"I read Sinhala books since my father did so and English books and Latin because of my aunts. I think my father was a very tactful person and in a way a good psychologist. He once found me trying to fix a piece of lace for my underskirt and asked why I was doing this. Why do you want this? Who will notice it and how much does it cost? I replied that it cost fifty cents a yard. He told me rice was five cents a measure and one can buy 10 measures of rice for that money.

"He thus taught me relative values at an early age. It was done tactfully and gently with no scolding."

On another occasion while at Newstead, Dr. de Silva recalled the visit of Tagore's troupe.

"Our dancing teacher Gem Paulickpulle had told us about oriental dancing and we were going to be taken for the performance. But when I told my father he reminded me a teacher from my first village school was getting married on the same day and she would feel very hurt if I did not attend the wedding. I was very unhappy about it but now in retrospect I am glad that as a teenager I was given two lessons in life. One not to hurt people and second to get one's priorities straight. These lessons have stood me in good stead.

"At school as a bright student I was chosen to do Western classics. All very well, said my father as long as you do not forget or neglect the value of your mother tongue. So, I always kept up with my Sinhala which has undoubtedly helped me.'

'I did well in my Cambridge Senior and when my aunts and I were jubilant wanting to celebrate, my father said, don't be boastful and invite envy- another good lesson. On his death bed he told a fellow ayurvedic physician Mudaliyar S. B. A. Samarasinghe to please look after his pupils, particularly the youngest of them. He said he was happy to die, having built a free ayurvedic dispensary for everyone irrespective of race or caste. Until his end he taught me the salutary lesson of selflessness.

"I learnt at school, the ideals of simplicity, responsibility and concern for others. The Methodist Missionary school is very firm about instilling these values .I still recall and cherish Miss Dixon the principal, who in one of her prize day speeches said we are sending from Newstead girls who find happiness in simple things, dependable girls who put their conscience into their work and girls who can take responsibility. This is something that has stayed with me.

"My husband Dr. S.L. de Silva always told me whatever we buy for the house must be functional. We must not buy to keep up with the Joneses. He also wanted to build a house in a rural setting so that we could live a quiet life with no pretences.

"He also asked me not to wear ostentatious jewellery for he felt it was in bad taste. These are the influences he had on me."

At the University Mrs. Silva sat for English honours and while there inculcated a measure of independence.

Today our first woman Chancellor lives in her beautiful house with a large garden and says humbly it was all because of the influences in her early life which set her values.

Oh! so beautiful and tragic land

by Jane Russell

Recollections of Jaffna - 1973

It was cool enough in the mornings, the monsoon months. By Christmas, the normally tepid water in the well was even cold and, not being brackish like it was along the coast, it was drinkable without having to drink half a dozen half-limes in it to drown out the fish oil taste.

It stayed cool too almost till ten o'clock despite the warm breeze that followed the frequent showers. My wet face, shoulders and thighs would be fanned dry within a mile or two as I cycled, cycled, cycled along the empty roads that snaked across the bare, scrubby land of the interior of the peninsula. Completely naked children from villages where schools and clinics were deemed taboo would chase alongside me for hundred yards, screaming with perfect delight. At night I added a thin cotton blanket to the sheet to ward off pre dawn chills.

At dawn the shadows of the plamyrahs were thick black stripes across the red sand road that led from the compound to the village street.

The compound was always quiet early morning. Behind my small house, a man and some women had been at work in the tobacco plantation since seven. Occasionally they called to each other across the clearing. ln the stillness, the rattle of the old fridge was enough to make me jump until all of a sudden All lndia radio's Tamil service, relayed from Madras, would blare out from the main house, thirty yards away obliterating the calm silence.

I ate my breakfast of boiled egg and yesterday evening's bread spread with margarine and slowly savoured the one locally available luxury, Indian Nescafe care of the smuggler mudalali whose fortress of a house towered over the palmyrah fences at the junction. Eight o'clock the sea breeze would be starting to sweep across the top of the peninsula. I hurriedly locked the house and balancing my foolscap notebook on the handle bars of the bike I had sent by train from Kandy, began the ten mile cycle over the flat - as - Holland landscape of Vaddukoddai which didn't quite rhyme with "never say die".

Why "never say die"? Well for one thing, besides myself the only other members of the female sex who cycled in Jaffna was the wife of the Japanese missionary. Once two teenage boys had leapt on me from behind the gate posts of Tellipallai Maha Vidyalayam, pulling me off the cycle into the ditch. Recognising them as brahmins by their fair fat faces and long oiled hair tied in buns, I dusted my knees and pulled myself up to my full diminutive height to deliver a fluent lecture on the moral superiority of Gandhian "passive resistance" over all other tried methods of physical dissent. Then having retrieved my ditched bike, I resumed my journey inwardly seething. And for another thing, girls, bicycles were not available in Sri Lanka at the time the sedate ladies cycle, complete with basket and baby seat which the missionary's wife rode, had been imported from Japan - so the crossbar on my boys' sports bike posed an ever present threat: one mistake at speed on a pot holed road could bring tears to my eyes.

The first mile was a maze of turnings, left and right. Then emerging out of this cloistered pocket of palmyrah fenced suburbia, I was suddenly in the relatively wide open space of the main road, passing Myliddy Cooper active and the house close to the Cooperative where the albino boy cowered in the shade at the rear of the verandah. His skin was white as beach sand and leeched by poya moonlight. His hair was as bleach blonde as a western pop star's. Every day he stared at me going past. Every day his pink eyes crinkled against the early rays of sunshine and his cracked, blistered lips parted in a half smile. I didn't think he smiled too often but ours was a mutual sympathy freak to freak.

Now I was on the metalled and tarred Palaly Tellipallai road, cambered from the centre. I hugged the left side to avoid the buses and bullock carts, passing a stream of pedestrians mainly gnarled, wizened women.

Their exposed breasts sagging, faded cloths pulled so tight round their waists, the loose folds of skin formed a runnel for the sweat to roll down their spines. Most were landless labourers on their way to chillie plantations or the paddy field whose half grown, waving sheaves shimmered like emerald oases between dense black patches of palmyrah forest. A few carried baskets of fish or vegetables on their heads. The die hard "topless" women of Jaffna wore their caste status with dogged pride. But what kind of irony was it that these gritty old women should share the same badge of seminudity as the young, nubile spoilt gadflies of modern western culture?

There close-face men, in weathered pyjama sarongs, could be seen seated on bus floors with sacks of rice, onions or chillies hugged to their bare ribs. They could wear no shirt, no towel, no banian. "High" caste men, claiming their right to the bus seats or cycling alongside, shirts flapping, towel thrown casually about the neck, or wrapped turban style round the head, seemed to carry their sartorial privileges with equable self esteem. Cycling home in the evenings, I would see vellala men in their flimsy hiphugging silk vertis, white kurtas billowing, going in to the cavernous interior of a kovil, an orthodox brahmin hindu temple, whose outer walls, painted with fat, cherry red stripes, seemed to me to belong more to a gigantic ice cream parlour than a religious edifice, especially one that took itself and its "rights" so seriously. From behind high walls came the hysterical whine of the nadaswaram accompanied by a frenzy of drumming. Sometimes this exotic cacophony would be overlaid by the wonderfully fluid staccato of a duet of female temple singers.

Carnatic singing my introduction to that esoteric musical form had come the first Sunday I spent in Jaffna. From a house hidden somewhere behind a palmyrah grove, the sleepy afternoon silence had been split by a long sinuous phrase barely interpolated by breaths, from a man a tenor in a mellifluous roll of sound eliding from one note to another at great speed. After the barest of pauses, this was followed by the voice of his girl pupil, but her light contralto, while imitating precisely his phrasing, had produced a string of notes as lightly fluttering as the strings of butterflies that coursed through Kandy town during the Sri Pada season.

The palmyrah creaks through those Sunday afternoons like the masts of old sailing barques.

Weeks later the rains had almost ceased and it was Thai Pongal harvest home. At six in the morning, on the cement slab that served as rice drier by day and patio by night, a magical design was being created by my young neighbour from the main house. Half bending half squatting her gold bangles jingling, she poured perfectly executed spirals from slender bamboo pipettes. Beside her were ranged little containers of coloured rice flours, turquoise, orange, scarlet, yellow, white and royal blue from which she drew her ever more intricate "yantra" a mystic ground of pentangles and circles within an endlessly connected, whorled symmetry: the eternal knot. In the centre of the "yantra" was a small fire made of a few sticks of wood contained within a tripod of bricks. Over it an aluminium pot bubbled with Pongal "cunjee" sticky mess of rice, cadju treacle, sultanas, milk and ghee the original, enriched version of my favourite childhood tinned pudding "Ambrosia Creamed Rice".

My neighbour's classic "Nefertiti" profile exposed by her tightly drawn, oiled hair never ceased to amaze me. But this morning gold glinted from every part of her neck, ears, nose, fingers, wrists, ankles, toes. Golden threads woven into the crimson of her sari flashed in the first apricot rays of the sun. In the clear lawn of light she seemed to have fallen from another planet. I sat on the back step, clutching my knees, to admire her dexterity. The culture gap yawned between us but I could discern this much: she was giving of her religion and her culture to me the outsider, the alien and in so doing was bringing merit to her house hold and honour to herself. The web of an ancient tradition momentarily enfolded us both, host and guest: traditional whose nuances were as delicate and yet immutable as skeins, of spider's silk.

But there was something else at work as well plain old gratitude. And why should she be grateful to me? Because for one hour each weekday evening I had listened nodding intermittently usually to cover my embarrassment at being totally non plussed but occasionally with genuine sympathy as she had poured out her troubles to me in Tamil. I had scarcely understood a phrase but the spirit of her woes had come as a great wave of words, as soaked in sorrow as sea in brine, drenching me and filling my dreams at night with obscure fears and jagged images. Her huge black eyes would burn into mine or else she would stare at the red cement floor, twisting her slender brown fingers, before starting on another torrent of misery and regret. I sipped the Nescafe unobtrusively. She had carried it in both hands across the compound, great bars of shadow falling from the surrounding palmyrahs. Her bare feet had made no sound; she did not wear anklets, and as the sun had died blood red behind the giant fan shaped parchment leaves, I would hear a faint knock at my door.

There she was, cup and saucer in both hands, smiling I would invite her in. Ask her to sit. The coffee was always too milky, too sweet and too cool. I drank it dutifully, listening to the rise and fall of her voice; taut with misery at first and then softening with nostalgia amidst the gathering dusk. Cataracts of Tamil phrases, loaded with painful emotion, rained around me. Every now and then I would recognise a word I could translate: I would linger on it wonderingly. After an hour, I was trying in vain to piece together these assorted clues as more and more words spun past me into oblivion.

There was no comfort I could give. An hour would pass. I was growing weary with keeping so still. The backs of my knees were pasted to the rough plastic of the arm chair. I had studied small yellowing news-print in Jaffna College archives all day, making notes until my wrist and fingers had turned to jelly. And then cycled the ten miles back to Kurumpacciddy in 90 degree heat. I would find myself with wishing that she would be quickly purged of her sorrow and would leave me in peace. But I hadn't the heart to cut her off in mid flow and send her away. She was so very sad. And so very beautiful. And to whom else could she say these things? So we would sit on in the almost dark: she endlessly talking and I steeled by politeness, surreptitiously scratching my mosquito bites: not daring to turn on the light for although it would break the spell and I would be released, she would have to face my uncomprehending stare and in the knowledge of her utter isolation, would have to return across the compound to her fountain of sadness and drink of it again.

For this woman, my age or a year younger twenty one perhaps with a three year old son and a baby girl still suckling at her breast had made a gesture the enormity of whose consequences I could only dimly imagine. She had bowed before Kama, the God of desire: she had broken every rule in this society bound by the iron hoops of cast "distinction" (and note how that cunningly chosen word avoids the opprobrium associated with "discrimination" or "prejudice") by running away, by marrying "beneath" her and if she hadn't been burnt or stoned to death (for this was nearly the last quarter of the 20th century and these were the highly educated and cultured Jaffnese) she was being driven inch by inch, like nail by the sledgehammer of intolerance, into a wall of suicidal despair. How could I join the side of the glittering eyes bigots and turn on the light? No, I couldn't. Nor couId I take any solace from the glare of the electric light for wasn't all this "modern" science yet another falsehood, yet another and maybe even more insidious form of cultural totalitarianism?

But part of me was longing for silence and when she left finally, passing on her bare soles the well, its long boom lit by a swinging bulb, I could go to the back door and sit on the step and listen to the palmyrahs creak and the tobacco leaves swish in the small plantation and gaze at the limpid stars, pink, green, orange, blue, as rich and bright as lamps, hanging there in the great vault of the sky and feel some kind of peace come down at least not just on me but on all the desperate inhabitants of this fractured, tortured society in this oh, so beautiful and oh, so tragic land.

Continue to Plus page 3 - "My son was not a fool to take his life" * Mystery: Plantation Homes *

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