Looking back with serenity

One of the pioneers of Navajeevanam, a well known rehabilitation centre for boys, she spent most of her lifetime in the north, through joyous times and not so joyous. More recently she lived as an IDP, before moving to Colombo. Anne Abayasekera meets the quietly courageous , Arulammah Louisa Thambyrajah, who turns 100 today

It was hard to believe that the smiling, serene, mentally alert lady I had come to see would be a hundred years old on February 6. Or that she had been caught up in the war and had found herself in an IDP camp in Vavuniya. Or that everything she had accomplished – along with her late husband, Rev. A.C. Thambyrajah, and the remarkable Sister Elizabeth Baker - was now dust and ashes. “Arul Aunty”, as she is called by her kith and kin, is not given to repining or recounting her woes. No wonder that at 100, her hair is still more black than white!.

Arul is Jaffna-born and bred.. Chavakachcheri was her ancestral village and she attended the well-known Uduvil Girls’ School where she was a boarder and which she mentions with affection and pride in her voice. Her father, Rev. S.R. Hitchcock, was a highly-respected Minister of the SIUC (later to become CSI) church and there is a road in Chavakachcheri which is called Hitchcock Road.

Brave spirit: Arulammah Thambyrajah Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

Arul was one but the youngest in a family of five girls and three boys, all of whom have predeceased her. She had a very happy and peaceful girlhood in a Jaffna that is now no more. Arul’s elder sister, Nesammah, married Rev. J.W.A. Kadirgamar, a Methodist minister, and their sons, Rajan, Alagan and Silan, have the liveliest memories of this favourite aunt. It was in the company of Arul’s second son, Methodist Minister Rev. Sathy Thambyrajah and two of his Kadirgamar cousins, Alagan and Silan, that I went to visit her in Kalubowila where she now resides.

Arul Aunty had been a frequent and very welcome visitor to their home in Colombo and they considered her great fun. They said she loved a good sing-song, as did her their mother, and their Sinhala and Burgher neighbours would also join in lustily in singing songs of long ago, like “When it’s springtime in the Rockies”, (a love-song that was still very popular even when I was a child). In a tribute written to Arul on her 95th birthday five years ago, Rajan tells how a handsome young minister, the Rev. A.C. Thambyrajah, appeared on the scene in 1936. He used to call at the Hitchcock home to have a chat with Arul’s father and it appears that the young pastor was smitten by the “pretty damsel” in the house, and she herself was not indifferent to him.

This became evident, Rajan avers, in that her “sarees became more fashionable and the powdering of her face more frequent and visible.” The youngsters were delighted but not surprised, when they were told they would soon have a new uncle.

Alagan remembers his aunt’s wedding in 1937 as ‘a most exciting occasion’ and he chuckled as he told me that a young cousin and he were permitted to ride the short distance to the church, on the footboard of the Model-T Ford car which carried the bride, holding on precariously to the car on either side! Arul smiled serenely as he spoke.

Rev. A.C. Thambyrajah served in different parishes in Jaffna and his wife was always a staunch ally and support to him. She told me that, on visits to Batticaloa, they became friendly with Sister Elizabeth Baker, a Methodist deaconess, and how at some time she had discussed with the two of them the possibility of a way of being of greater service to the community.

They hit upon the idea of starting an institution to help boys who had no income-generating skills and also orphans and those from troubled backgrounds. They prayed about this, asking for God’s guidance. They found some suitable land, mostly snake-infested jungle, near Paranthan, raised funds through local donations and further financial help from Sr. Baker’s friends in England, and in April 1959 the three stout-hearted pioneers moved there and lived in a shack at the start of their venture of faith.
Gradually, they saw their dream take shape, assisted in their endeavours by a few like-minded friends. It developed into a Christian inter-denominational rehabilitation centre for boys, called “Navajeevanam” (New Life), that eventually became known throughout the region and beyond as a training centre that welcomed not only Tamil boys, but Sinhala and Burgher children too.

By the time of its tenth anniversary, Navajeevanam had developed into a community of 70, composed of a racial and religious mix whose ages ranged from 6 to 60. They were a close-knit family. Arul gives Sister Elizabeth Baker who worked indefatigably, due credit for the success of Navajeevanam. She smiled as she spoke of the saree-clad figure of this Englishwoman astride the bicycle which she unconcernedly rode, to find out the needs of the villagers around.

“She never wore anything else but a saree from morning till night. She came to Ceylon (as it was called then), in 1931 and she served our people devotedly until she died in 1987.” Arul rejoiced that Queen Elizabeth had seen fit to award the MBE to this gallant Yorkshire-woman for her services to our country and that the British High Commissioner of the time had done them the honour of coming all the way to Navajeevanam to confer the award on the Queen’s behalf.

Rev. Thambyrajah died in 1982 after a happy and fulfilling partnership of 45 years. The two women carried on the good work. Sr. Elizabeth’s death, five years later, would have left an equally painful void, but it had never occurred to Arul to quit. This was her home and her life revolved around it. Many visitors from the south came to Navajeevanam and one such whom she considered a special friend, was the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe who once stayed for a whole month in order to learn to speak in Tamil.

It was a great comfort to her that she saw him one last time, shortly before he died, when he visited Jaffna, stricken by the tragic happenings of July 1983.

Arul still remembers many of her “boys”. There was, for instance, the son of a Sinhala family in Colombo, who was sent to Navajeevanam as a last resort, to wean him away from drugs. His family have never forgotten that. A few Burgher boys too had come at different times, some of them from broken homes. It gives Arul the greatest satisfaction now to think of all the boys who went out of Navajeevanam to become useful citizens.

The Thambyrajahs had eight sons. The pain in her voice was unmistakeable when Arul told me that her third son had died at the age of 18. Equally painful to her was the death, by snake bite, of a Navajeevanam lad who happened to tread on a serpent. She told me sorrowfully of the futile efforts made to save his life. But Arul is not one to dwell on the shadows that fell across her path or to talk about her losses. The war came, and although no bombs or shells exploded in the vicinity of Navajeevanam, she said that the constant sound and fury was deafening and frightening.

0nce, an armed group of LTTE members had come to Navajeevanam and taken away the Land Rover which had given them good service. “There was nothing we could do.” In 1996, the Army had advised all of them to evacuate the premises. Happily, by this time they had acquired some land elsewhere, again through the generosity of friends, where they set up a branch of Navajeevanam which was named Caanan. So they had moved there.

In 2006, they had come back to the original site and were relieved to find their buildings, if not their equipment, intact. Then in 2009, they had to bid goodbye permanently to the place she loved the most. They were moved to the Omanthai army camp in Vavuniya. Arul had no complaints to make, but admitted that food was scarce..

“Once, when we were very hungry, the army brought us something that tasted like coriander water and we drank it gratefully.” They slept on mats on the ground – “I found that difficult, so I placed a couple of suitcases together and slept on them,” she said matter-of-factly.

Fortunately, seniors in the camp were given permission to move into the homes of relatives who would have them and a granddaughter who resided in Vavuniya received her 98-year-old Apamma with open arms.

Arul has 11 grand-children and six great-grandchildren. Later that year, her sons obtained permission from the army to bring her to Colombo. I asked this centenarian whether she was on any medication (thinking of all the pills I have to swallow daily). She looked a little surprised - “I take a Panadol now and then if I don’t feel too well”!

She has lost the sight of one eye, but can read with the other. She had no problem hearing me and she spoke in a firm voice. She did say that she isn’t very steady on her legs and holds someone’s hand to move about the house.

To the question “How do you spend your time?” she replied, “Sometimes a granddaughter brings me books to read, but a lot of the time, I pray for people I know.” She admitted to the sorrow of having had to say farewell to all her siblings and nearly all of her friends and contemporaries. I looked at her and marvelled.

Here was someone to whom Kipling’s line, “If you can bear to see the things you gave your life to, broken…………” might be truly said to apply, and yet she doesn’t sit and mourn what’s gone.
I asked her about the Thanksgiving Eucharist planned by her children for Sunday evening at St. Paul’s Church, Milagiriya.

She said, “I really don’t want all this fuss, but my sons who reside abroad” (four are in Canada), “have come and they want to do this. As for me, I give thanks every day to God who has sustained me all throughout my life.”

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