ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 01, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 44

The scent of a blossomed friendship

Lalitha Werapitiya

It was in the 1960s when I was writing a regular column in the ‘old’ Sunday Times about “Life with the Seven”, that I had an appreciative letter from an unknown reader in Udugama, who was herself the mother of nine children. We started a correspondence, comparing notes and sharing experiences.

She was married to a planter, Chitral Rodrigo, and they lived on a rubber estate called Stokesland Group.

One fine day, my pen-friend, Lalitha Rodrigo as she then was, arrived unannounced on my doorstep in Wellawatte, encompassing me with her brilliant smile and placing a lovely bouquet in my hand.

Our friendship flourished – it couldn’t do otherwise with a person as warm and loving as Lalitha. On my 25th wedding anniversary in 1971, she again descended on us in the estate jeep which was filled with flowers and foliage for us. At her invitation, we once spent a delightful weekend in the rambling old estate bungalow in Stokesland, where Lalitha and Chitral made us feel most welcome. (Only last week, my youngest daughter, in an e-mail sent from Adelaide, said she can still remember “thedelicious chocolate gateaux Auntie Lalitha gave us for dessert!”)

There was an exuberance about Lalitha, a zest for life and an open friendliness that endeared her, not only to our whole family, but to practically everyone who met her in our home, and that included my domestic aides too. Her lifestyle changed when Chitral died prematurely, but her spirit remained strong. And then, 9 months after Chitral’s death, her beloved eldest son, Devaka, was drowned in floods in Ratnapura in 1982. Shock and grief nearly overwhelmed her then. Recovery from this cruel blow took time, but eventually her naturally buoyant nature came to the fore again.

During the last 20 years, Lali’s visits to our home became more frequent and her company invariably gave us delight. I could always coax her to stay a day or two, unless she had some pressing business – which she often did, mostly with the Land Reform Office to which she went tirelessly over a long period in her largely successful efforts to reclaim for her children some of the lands that had been their father’s birthright.

In 1985, Lalitha married again, someone she had known for much of her life, Artie (M.B.) Werapitiya whose own wife had died several years earlier. My husband felt honoured when Lalitha asked him to sign as a witness at this marriage.

The couple settled down in Hantane, Kandy. The word “settle” can’t really be applied to Lalitha.

Despite her keen appreciation of the beauty of the hill country, she hankered for Colombo which gave easier access to her children and where her friends and her interests were.

She’s the only woman I know who would go alone (when she couldn’t find anyone to accompany her) to plays at the Wendt. She had a passionate love for the music of the human voice and she would go to any concert where a choir or group were giving a public performance.

When she was with anyone who could sing well, she would entreat that person to sing for her. My children smile at the recollection of Auntie Lalitha’s persistent requests to them to sing when she was around.

So many memories take over. Like her saying one morning, “Let’s go to the Coffee Shop at the Inter-Continental for a lark” and my acquiescing and our feeling like schoolgirls on a spree…… It so happened that we were both in the USA at the same time in 1989 – Lali with her son and wife in LA and my husband and I in New Jersey with our daughter and son-in-law. Lali called me and was overjoyed when I said we planned to fly out to LA in order to visit my husband’s sister in Corona, about 60 miles away. “I’ll meet you at the airport with my son,” she enthused, and the arrangement was made. Meet us she did, with the inevitable bouquet of flowers for me. We had a wonderful day together in Disney Land before we left LA and I found Lalitha’s excitement and her desire to take in everything, infectious, while Earle smiled at our childlike enthusiasm to which not even he was really immune. I have snapshots to remind me of that day. Lalitha and I often spoke of going to have a Pap Smear done for early detection of cancer. How I wish we had! Last year, my friend was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

I will never forget how she seemed to sail through it, undaunted. She even told me that the radiation therapy was “a breeze – so nice lying in that air-conditioned room!” Her spirits never faltered and we were all amazed. She seemed to be clear after the treatment and resumed her jaunts and her happy way of life. She never came empty-handed – always brought too many things that she thought I would like.

Her generosity knew no bounds.

In December last year, she mentioned severe pain in her spine and also in her chest. She was advised to have an MRI scan, but postponed it. She went to Kandy, asking me to buy tickets for some play by Indu Dharmasena at the Wendt, that she would be back for it and that we would have fun together. That never happened. She was suddenly overtaken by sickness. My son and I were privileged to bring her, sick and in pain, to her daughter’s place in Colombo on December 18. She entered a private hospital on December 22. When I went to see her, along with Truda, her friend from their days together at the Kundasale Girls’ Farm School in the 1940s, she was delighted. She couldn’t move without pain, so she lay on one side, smiling as always and looking charming in a pink nightdress and lipstick to match.

The next time that Truda and I went, she was much weaker, but insisted that we open the locker by her bed and rummage in it for a slab of chocolate hidden there – a big Toblerone. “I know you like Toblerone – let’s have a chocolate party.” She requested the nurse to give me a plate and knife and asked me to cut it up and pass it round to everyone in the room – her husband was there, and two nuns from the Galle Convent that Lalitha’s daughters had attended and two nurses. She beamed as we ate the chocolate.

But she was doomed. The MRI scan showed that the cancer had spread to her bones. Yet she gave no hint of her awareness of coming death, although she had told me much earlier on, “I am prepared – I have had my good times and good friends.”
She had a large coloured picture of Sai Baba above her bed.

That last time we saw `her, she even asked Truda to bring her the recipe for the chocolate chip cookies they had made all those years ago at Kundasale! All my children abroad called her on her bedside ‘phone and my son & family in Kandy sang to her in harmony. When my son Dilip who has a voice she greatly admired, telephoned her from Pennsylvania, she asked him whether he would tape some songs and send her. Dilip hurried to meet that last request and sent the parcel to me posthaste, but it arrived just too late for her to listen to it.

He had taped a farewell message when he concluded singing: “Dearest Auntie Lalitha, we wish we could fly there in person to see you, but since we can’t, we send you this tape. I want to thank you for your love, your support, and the joy you have given Amma & Thatha and all of us. You are a very special lady. We love you. We will never forget you.”

Lalitha so loved to hear voices raised in song, I like to think that flights of angels sang her to her rest.

By Anne

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.