Lemon ice cream in Sri Lanka

Well-known poet Anne Ranasinghe talks to Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe about some of her life’s choices

“I am not sure it is such a bad idea at all,” says Anne Ranasinghe to me.“You know I have benefited so much from camps like these when I was a young girl in Germany, and belonged to a Jewish children’s group that was hoping to escape Nazism by emigrating to then Palestine, later Israel. The camps were a toughening experience in preparation for hardships to follow,” she continues sounding more and more convinced that the bad ‘idea’, may be a very good idea after all.

We are talking about the recent uproar that has been making the headlines in the media and which has been the subject of much controversy: the university students’ leadership training programme that is being conducted by the Sri Lanka Army.

“I have been following this very carefully,” she tells me. “When I was about 10 or 11, I went to a camp like this. We travelled by train to a house in the Rheine Valley. It was winter. January. Bitterly cold. We had to get off the train and march for about an hour to the house where we slept in rooms without any heating – it was freezing - and we had to get up at the crack of dawn, wash in ice cold water and then go out for exercises and games. I still remember it: the moon was up, there was snow on the ground, and then we went in for breakfast at 6. Goodness knows what they fed us,” she laughs.

“So your parents didn’t file a fundamental rights case against them?” I ask her. “Of course not! They approved. I was an only child -- needed toughening up!” And I ask her what she believes she gained from it, and for that matter, what she thinks these university students would gain from the training they are currently getting in the army camps. “It’s a difficult world you know. This type of thing helps with self-respect, the way you carry yourself. The way you look at the world.”

She then goes on to tell me about a television interview she had on ITN in the late seventies where she had suggested that the government should run a programme like the one that is currently being conducted by the Army. “I have been reading Brigadier Wanigasooriya’s comments very carefully today, and I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. You know the way Sri Lankan children are brought up, the cult of the boy child and all that; this will make a difference.” She adds that this is a massive undertaking but may well be successful in the long run!

A few years after her time in the youth camps, the Second World War broke out, and at the age of 13 Anne travelled alone to England. An aunt sponsored her to escape being killed because she was a Jew. “If I hadn’t had that hard time in those camps I wouldn’t have been able to survive everything that came later. I went to school to study in a strange language, and topped the Oxford Matriculation. My principal wasn’t pleased, I think it was quite a blow to her,” she laughs, “to have this German girl taking all the prizes. But the English children weren’t used to working as hard as we had in Germany. And then I became a nurse at Charing Cross Hospital because of the War.

That was the hospital that Florence Nightingale had worked in, and little had changed. We had to wear long striped dresses and black stockings and scrub the floors because each bed had been donated and there was a brass plaque with the donor’s name on the floor which had to be polished. We had to wash the bed-pans in our first year, and work our way up, doing three months of night-duty and then going for lectures in the morning. All this for four years!” As we chat about her life as a nurse, she tells me about the discovery of penicillin. “Remember we had nothing like that before, and this was the middle of the 2nd World War. What a difference it made to the soldiers, when Fleming discovered the drug! We had to wear sterile gowns, a mask, a cap and gloves to administer the injection; it was so precious!”

Anne came to Ceylon as the wife of a Ceylonese physician who would later go on to become one of Sri Lanka’s most eminent gynaecologists, holding the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Colombo which had been held before him by Sir Nicholas Attygalle. She was 23 years old when she married in September, 1949, and had already had an ample tasting of life in Germany and in Britain, during times of immense hardship and conflict – the 2nd World War. She arrived in Ceylon in 1951 when the only way of getting here was by ship. “Our son, Ananda, who was born in England was just four months old at the time and he screamed all the way from Southampton to Colombo.” In Sri Lanka she brought up seven children; three children by her husband’s first marriage and four by her own. In The Stepmother, a short story written by Anne, in her collection Desire and Other Stories, an eleven -year-old boy (Lakshman) breaks his baby stepbrother’s almirah to spite his stepmother: He waited for a moment to see whether anyone would come to investigate. But he wasn’t particularly worried. They – the servants—couldn’t stop him. Wasn’t he the punchi mahatamaya, the little master?
Yet the stepmother in the story, a foreign woman, doesn’t react to the boy’s misdeed the way he expects her to. Instead, she tells the boy:

“Punish you? Oh no. There’s no point in that. Because that is what you want isn’t it? She looked him straight in the eye. “No Lakshman I am not going to punish you.... Only, about the repairs. You are going to pay for them, Lakshman. Out of your bicycle money. That’s quite fair don’t you think?”

Anne had brought with her, as she set up home in Ceylon, a sense of fairness and an instinctive understanding that it was best to level things to an equal ground for everyone at home, “We decided when our first child was born that all our children would be raised as Buddhists,” she tells me, describing how she and her husband, Prof. D. A. Ranasinghe, decided that all their seven children would live in a household that was not “split” on religion.

She adds, “In 1956, my husband had to go on a sabbatical to London and by then SWRD had come into power. My husband knew SWRD and we were invited to a dinner hosted for him at the Guildhall, London, as Prime Minister. But we didn’t know what would happen with all the political changes, so my husband told me we should all be on an equal footing and I decided to become a Sri Lankan citizen and give up my British passport. So I became a Sri Lankan citizen in 1956.”

She describes the reaction of the officer at the Home Office in Britain, when she requested that her passport be revoked. “I will never forget him telling me to reconsider my decision – “Mrs Ranasinghe, are you quite sure? Have you thought this through? Would you like more time to think this through?”- he asked me, over and over again.”

A Jewish woman who had escaped the Holocaust as a child by taking refuge in England, whose entire family had been murdered in Chelmno, Poland, had finally found a home in Sri Lanka. Yet, an outsider or the member of a minority ethnic group may never feel absolutely safe, anywhere. Always, the hatred seeps in, whether it is in the form of racism, anti-Semitism, or more recently almost everywhere in the world, in the form of xenophobia.

In her essay, “A Question of Identity,” she describes an encounter over tea with a French woman living in Sri Lanka. The woman had been making pocket money selling home-made egg noodles to local shops. Anne writes:

“And she started telling me about her business problems – how one shop had ordered a hundred packets.... And she was saying that she can’t be running after these people to collect money, after all, who do they think she is – some dirty little Jew?

There was a dreadful silence.... For me those three words sheared off the lethargy of thirty years without anti-Semitism [in Sri Lanka]. I was suddenly back, walking down the street of my home town in Germany, trying to hold myself stiff just as if I couldn’t care less while the kids were screaming abuse.”
Yet Anne has been in Sri Lanka for 60 years now. She had only spent the first 13 years of her life in Germany. She had spent the next 12 years in the UK as a holocaust survivor whose family had been murdered in a concentration camp in Chelmno, Poland. We have been chatting in her home in Colombo. As we talk, she hands me a bowl of ice cream, “I have finally managed to get just the right flavour,” she says. I find that each spoonful of ice cream is the perfect balance of sweet-lemon tartness and soft-cold creaminess. “It took many years to recreate the lemon ice cream we used to have in Germany. We are now experts at it,” she says, knowing that she had a very appreciative taster sitting in front of her.

Her words are drowned by her dog Jeremy running along the parapet wall in her garden, barking in a mad frenzy at a passer-by on the road. “You know,” she says to me, looking out of the window, “that man goes down this road everyday and Jeremy starts barking as soon as he appears at the top of the road,” she chuckles to herself. Jeremy is clearly being quite unfair to a complete stranger, but she continues, “We never kept expensive dogs in this house. It’s a policy that we have always had. To take in only strays.”

Listening to her, I think to myself that the lemon ice cream and Jeremy are both two ends of one metaphor for the remarkable life and the world that Anne has created for herself in Sri Lanka. Over the last 60 years she has juggled what has been, initially an extremely conservative Sinhalese family, seven children, and life as an insider and outsider. She has been able to step into this society and become part of it without losing her ability to assess a situation dispassionately, without letting her personal ties cloud her judgement.

She possesses a perception that enables her to judge people and situations with amazing astuteness. She also possesses a perspective that comes from having lived in several countries that she has called home, while at the same time living in those countries at times of horrendous tumult during which her life could have also been very easily lost. Because of this, Anne Ranasinghe lives with the constant awareness that security, personal safety and freedom can never be taken for granted wherever you are. Anne calls herself a “Koffer Woman” – a suitcase woman – always at the ready to flee.

In her most recent book of poems, On the Fifth Day there is a poem titled Somewhere in my house in which she writes:

I am sharing my house with a snake
And while I went searching for a stick
It curled under the silent tendrils
Slithered over the cloud-shadowed roof tiles
Leaving no trace.

But I know it is there, all the tensile strength
Of its smooth-coiled body
And the venomous stare
Of those lidless

Somewhere in my house
A snake
Is waiting.

Desire and Other Stories won the State Literary Award for short stories in 1999. The collection has been called a “triumph” by Laura Sheridan, Editor, Pennine Ink Magazine, UK

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